Outdoor cooking is essential to summer celebrations. The flavors and smells of cooking over a barbeque or grill are both sentimental and irresistible. While classically the grill is draped in bratwurst, ribs and chops, this is a short-sighted tradition. Fruits and veggies are tremendous grilled, and worth making room for, in the name of both flavor and health.

The grill is marvelous to vegetables, as it heightens both sweet and meaty flavors. Since you can hardly go wrong, just let the farmers market be your inspiration. You might enjoy grilled tomatoes, onions, romaine lettuce, asparagus, green beans, bok choy, mushrooms, zucchini, corn, carrots and on and on. Pre-soaking in a marinade works well for subtly flavored vegetables such as zucchini and eggplant, but most veggies can stand on their own flavors and textures. Slice vegetables ½-inch thick so that they’ll cook quickly and brush with olive oil before placing on the grill. Afterward dress with a little salt and pepper for simple pleasure.

Grilled fruit is equally rewarding. Pineapple, peaches and plums are commonly put over the fire. But you might also try apple, lemon, mango and watermelon. If you’ve ever bought unripe peaches (probably in a hopeful fit of summer anticipation), grilling is a great way to unlock their sweetness and juiciness. Again, brush with olive oil, place on the grill, and stand by.

Grilling fruits and vegetables is an exercise in observation. Attend your veggies as they cook. Listen to pineapple’s juices simmer, and watch the peppers wiggle and dance in the heat. See how the colors first brighten, and then darken with caramelization. Notice which parts of the grill are hotter and cooler, and rotate the cooking foods to match. Unlike meat, there’s no right or wrong amount of doneness to fruits and veggies. Cook them to the texture that suits you.

Fruits and veggies on the grill are a healthy addition, or alternative, to grilled meats. Meats that are charred or cooked at very high temperatures undergo a chemical reaction, which produces compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Large amounts of HCAs cause cancer in lab animals, and may be related to some cancers in humans: colon, pancreatic and prostate. Smoked meats accumulate a second class of carcinogens, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs, also found in automobile exhaust and cigarette smoke, are known carcinogens.

While researchers are still investigating how these byproducts may contribute to cancer risk, there are a few grilling methods that reduce them. Marinating meats prior to cooking reduces the formation of HCAs. This is especially true of marinades that include rosemary, garlic and onions. Short cooking times and turning meats frequently also help. Avoid excessive flare-ups and smoke to limit PAHs.

Fruits and vegetables are always important on the plate. Grilled, they are eye-catching, meaty and satisfying. Fruits and veggies don’t develop carcinogens on the grill, and instead bring valuable nutrients and fiber to a meal. Devote half of your grill this summer to fruits and vegetables, and see what new flavors and textures you create. 

See recipe for Grilled Pineapple Salad with Jalapeños and Sweet Onion.

— By Liz Diehl, MSN ('16), reviewed by Cristen Harris, PhD, associate professor at Bastyr University.