Produce At Your Doorstep

With all the rain we’ve had recently, and now that the summer sun is shining down upon the abundant fields in our area, fabulous fruits and vegetables are sprouting up all over Western New York. Make sure you take full advantage of all of the reasonably priced and wonderfully flavorful produce being grown at your doorstep. There is simply nothing better tasting, or better for you, than eating locally grown produce.

While there’s nothing wrong with eating fresh fruits and vegetables straight from the garden, and there’s certainly nothing easier, you may also want to use that fresh produce in a tasty recipe. Many of us, once it gets too hot in our kitchens, start using outdoor grills. Grilling can be a fun, economical and delicious way to cook and, thankfully, there are loads of great grilling recipes that include vegetables and fruit.

When grilling vegetables and fruit, the first thing that comes to mind for many people is kabobs loaded with vegetables, fruit and meat; like chicken, green pepper and pineapple kabobs. They’re great, but kabobs don’t have to include meat. In fact, if you are grilling vegetables or fruit you may want to thread them on a kabob separate from your meat because you’ll find the meat and produce often require different cooking times. Even different kinds of vegetables can require different cooking times, depending on their density and moisture content. That’s also why you’ll need to watch them closely so they don’t overcook or burn.

You may also need to experiment with settings on your grill, if you have that type of equipment, or just learn to read your charcoal. Charcoal is usually ready when it has a light coating of grey ash on it, but it will help if you remember that vegetables and fruits generally require less heat than is needed to grill meat. Plus, the smaller the pieces of produce you place on the grill, the faster they will cook.

When heading out to purchase items to grill, it’s important to note that some produce simply does better than others on a grill. Vegetables with high water contents, like onions, peppers, mushrooms, corn-on-the-cob, asparagus, eggplant, summer squash, okra and tomatoes, hold up real well on the grill. Other vegetables, like carrots and sweet potatoes, need to be softened before you put them on your grill or they’ll burn on the outside before they’re fully cooked on the inside. You can help the cooking process along by starting them in a microwave or by boiling them first.

The easiest way to grill vegetables is to use large high water content vegetables. Simply brush them lightly with oil and place them directly on your grill grate. Large portabella mushrooms are especially tasty when cooked on a grill like this. They’re so hearty that many people are using them as a meat replacement these days. Just lightly score your portabella mushroom cap so moisture can escape, drizzle the other side with a little oil, sprinkle with herbs and then grill them cap side down on foil for about 10 minutes.

When grilling large vegetables, the light coating of oil seals in moisture, provides flavor, and will prevent them from sticking. This is especially important with vegetables like carrots, squash and asparagus because they are low water content produce.

Grilling is a good way to get your family to try new vegetables or veggies they tried before and didn’t like. Vegetables like peppers, onion, eggplant and zucchini take on new flavors on a grill. The flavor change could be enough to make even the pickiest of eaters change their minds. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar might make them taste even better. Who knows? Grilling might just make a vegetable people wouldn’t touch before into a new favorite.

You can also marinade your vegetables before cooking them to make them more flavorful. There are loads of great marinade recipes out there. Most are very simple and won’t cost you much cash or prep time.

One very easy marinade can be made simply by blending one-half cup of olive oil with cup of red wine vinegar. Brush it directly on vegetables about 15 minutes before setting them on the grill.

Just remember that if you choose to use a marinade with added sugar, it may cause your vegetables and fruit to blacken or burn, especially if you don’t watch them closely.

Vegetables usually take around 15-20 minutes to cook on the grill over medium heat. Most need to be turned only once. You can tell when they’re done by simply checking to see if they’re tender. Just don’t leave them on so long that they get mushy, burn or dry out.

It’s also important to keep everyone you feed safe, so you need to make sure your grill is sparkling clean before you start cooking anything on it. Then scrub your vegetables well before cutting into them. Cut your vegetables into uniformly sized pieces, making sure those pieces are large enough so they won’t fall through the grill grates. You want the vegetable pieces to be approximately the same size so they take the same amount of time to cook and each piece cooks evenly.

Once your vegetables are prepared and you’re ready to head out to your grill, make sure you have all the tools you’ll need handy. For instance, you’ll need a spatula or tongs to turn your produce on the grill. Just be sure you use different tools and plates with vegetables than you use with meat. You really don’t want to make anybody sick. Turning raw or partially cooked meat with the same tool you’re using to turn produce on your grill can lead to cross-contamination and much misery.

If you plan to grill smaller fruit or vegetable pieces you can purchase a grill basket at a reasonable price to make sure the pieces don’t fall through the grate into the fire below or, as mentioned before, just skewer the pieces together. Lots of people make a small investment in metal skewers they can reuse while others prefer to use something like disposable bamboo or wood skewers. It’s really up to you. However, you do have to remember to soak the disposable skewers before using them if you don’t want them to go up in flames.

However, probably the easiest and cheapest way to grill smaller vegetable pieces would be to encase them in an easy to make aluminum foil grill packet. Simply lay out a large sheet of aluminum foil and spray it lightly with cooking spray. Spread your vegetables on it, fold it over and crimp the edges together to form a packet. When placed on the grill, the vegetables will steam in that packet. Just make sure to flip it halfway through the cooking time so they cook evenly. If you want your kids to eat more vegetables, this is one great way to make that happen. Let them choose the vegetables they want to put into their very own personalized foil packet. Chunks of corn on the cob and baby potatoes mixed with big slices of onion and carrot or sweet potato and would make a delightful first packet, especially if sprinkled with some fresh herbs before being sealed up. Then let them mark their packet in some way and you can bet they’ll be anxious to eat the concoction they designed.

Leftover grilled veggies keep well for up to three days when wrapped and refrigerated. Use them up in green salads, sandwiches or casseroles, or simply stir them into cooked grains or a pasta salad.

Once you enjoy grilled vegetables, it’s time to start thinking about the mouthwatering fruit dishes you can make on a grill. Grilled fruit makes fabulous fruit salsas. Grilled fruit can also act as a side to meat dishes. However, because grilling caramelizes the natural sugar in fruit, grilled fruit also makes wonderful dessert. Served with a sprinkling of cinnamon or a little low fat yogurt or ice cream, or a dollop of whipped cream, grilled fruit can transport you to heaven.

Pineapple, pears, apples and other firm fruits require less monitoring on the grill than do soft fruits like bananas, plums and peaches. Those fruits cook very quickly. Fruits with stones or seeds should be cut in half, cored and brushed with oil to prevent sticking. Grill fruit only until they’re golden and heated throughout. Then sit back and relish the delightful fruits of your labor.

Look for great new ideas for including more fruits and vegetables in your diet at Choosemyplate.gov or by using the recipe finder tool on the USDA website and remember, if you’re struggling to make ends meet, you may be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program. SNAP helps low-income people buy nutritious food and beverages. The U.S. Department of Agriculture knows that a healthy diet will likely reduce health care costs, so it’s putting healthy food within everyone’s reach. To find out more about SNAP benefit eligibility call 1-800-342-3009, apply online for SNAP benefits at www.mybenefits.ny.gov/, or contact your local social services office.

And if you’re looking for more ideas to improve your health, check out Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Eat Smart New York program. You’ll find fun new ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your day, reduce your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, get at least the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each and every day, all while also saving money. Sessions are held at convenient times and locations throughout Chautauqua County. Bilingual education is available. For more information call 664-9502, ext. 217.

So cool off and head outside to try:

Grilled Vegetable Packets

Ingredients:

2 zucchinis, small (sliced)

2 yellow squash, small (sliced)

4 red potatoes, small (scrubbed well and sliced)

1/2 red onion (sliced)

1/2 bell pepper (red or green, seeded and sliced)

1/4 cupItalian salad dressing, light

salt and pepper (optional, to taste)

Instructions

Heat coals or grill to medium heat, or 350 degrees.

Wash vegetables and slice.

Toss in a large bowl. Add dressing and toss until all vegetables are coated.

Tear two large squares of aluminum foil and place half of the vegetable mixture on each piece. Place an equal piece of foil over the top of vegetable mixture and fold bottom piece with top sheet to form a packet.

Place on heated grill for 20-30 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. If you don’t have a grill, bake veggie packets in the oven at 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes.

Before you open the packets, poke holes in the foil with a fork. Be very careful opening the foil as the steam will be very hot and could burn you.

Empty vegetables onto serving plate or serve from foil packets.

Variations: Don’t be afraid to try different vegetables. Tomatoes, green beans, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, corn or other favorites can all work great. You can also use herbs or spices like chili powder, Italian or oriental seasoning, basil, oregano, curry powder in place of the dressing, be creative.

Yield: 5 servings

Cost: per recipe: $2.91 per serving: $0.58

Nutrition Facts: Serving Size 3/4 cup (316 g), 160 Calories, 25 Calories from Fat, 3g Total Fat, 5 percent Calories from Fat, 0g Saturated Fat, 0g Trans Fat, 0mg Cholesterol, 130mg Sodium, 30g Total Carbohydrate, 4g Dietary Fiber, 5g Sugars, 5g Protein, 30 percent Vitamin A, 4 percent Calcium, 120 percent Vitamin C, 10 percent Iron

Source: Connecticut Food Policy Council

Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County. Her column is published on the first Sunday of each month in The Observer and on the second Sunday of each month in The Post Journal.