My 4th of July weekend was a grilling tour de force.

There were more fireworks on my old beat-up kettle grill than in the Macy's light display over New York Harbor. I grilled every land animal, fish and plant I could find. Even my dog Teesha got a little nervous when we ran low on food!

After running through the classics, and after the quail, baby lamb and lobsters came off the grill, I seemed to throw on even more vegetables than protein. A healthy diet is important to me, so I try to eat lots of vegetables -- and it turns out you can grill almost all of them.

You name it: string beans, asparagus, tomatoes, radicchio, Belgian endive, corn and baby leeks were surprisingly great. And of course, the usual suspects, such as red, yellow and green peppers, zucchini, red onions, eggplant and mushrooms delivered like champs, as always.

You see, you could caramelize an old shoe, and it would taste great. Vegetables have sugar in them, just like protein does, and when you convert those sugars into carbon through searing heat, they taste just as delicious as a perfectly charred steak.

There's nothing complicated about it: just prepare a favorite vegetable as you would for a more traditional recipe, and grill it instead of boiling or steaming.

Of course, I added some personal touches and embellishments -- simple things like seasonings, cuts and methods can make a big difference in the final result.

Let the Seasoning Begin

First of all, let's separate grillable vegetables into two groups: big flavors and small flavors.

Think of vegetables as savory, and your goal to make them sweet, using the grill.

However, seasoning these vegetables isn't like marinating meat. Vegetables have lots of personality that come from the sweet, acid and bitter flavors inherent to them.

Simple things like salt, freshly ground pepper and olive oil are perfect foils; sprinkling a bit of sherry wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, chili oil or mustard is also great.

Even try some lemon zest, orange zest and freshly grated ginger -- these seasonings definitely add a flare to your vegetables. And a quick toss in your favorite barbecue sauce (not too much!) is always another option.

Making use of summer's bounty of fresh herbs is also a good idea. Oregano, rosemary, tarragon and summer savory tossed in with the olive oil at the beginning works well.

I found that vegetables such as asparagus, tomatoes, radicchio, endive, peppers and kale taste better if they are seasoned after you grill them.

These hail from the big-flavored bunch, and they will just end up tasting like smoke if they are coated with too much oil -- which causes flare-ups -- before grilling.

But once the grilling is done, you can use all the olive oil you want. As a matter of fact, olive oil and a nice aged vinegar is a simple but sublime way to finish them off the grill. The only other step is salt and pepper -- and then to work in any desired other flavors from there.

In many cases, though, perfectly grilled vegetables won't even need any additional seasoning -- oil, salt and pepper may end up being all you want!

The small-flavored veggies, on the other hand, need some seasoning before grilling -- but not too much.

Vegetables like string beans take to a light marinade very nicely. Even a simple soy-sauce marinade for yellow squash and zucchini will do wonders for their flavor on the grill.

Try a quick coating of your favorite marinade or any combination suggested above, added just before grilling, for these small-flavored vegetables. But again, stay clear of oil-heavy marinades before grilling: you don't want these delicate veggies to taste like flame.

And like the big-flavored vegetables, less seasonings can work to your advantage -- especially when trying to please a large, hungry backyard crowd.

Further Fine Tuning

Beyond the seasonings, the cut of vegetables destined for the grill is equally important.

To keep the whole process simple, cut the vegetables so they will all cook in the same amount of time.

The big-flavored vegetables, with the exception of asparagus and tomatoes, take longer to cook than small-flavored vegetables. So cut these vegetables smaller -- half-moon shapes are great -- to speed up their cooking.

Methods of grilling make a big difference, too. I prefer charcoal or wood fires, which will yield a vastly superior taste, especially with the small-flavored vegetables.

Use the grill baskets I love so much for more delicate picks like asparagus, string beans, mushrooms, artichokes, onions and kale so they'll be easy to flip and won't fall through the grill.

And then? You can serve any of these grilled vegetables as a main course for a light but satisfying lunch, with a bit of mild cheese -- try a creamy goat cheese or slices of fresh mozzarella -- alongside.

Or try your veggies more traditionally, as a perfect side dish for fish or meat. Here is a simple recipe of mine that pairs beautifully with grilled vegetables of any kind and will make for a memorable summer's evening dinner.

Cod Provencal
Serves: 4

1 28-ounce can whole peeled plum tomatoes in puree
1 1/2 pounds cod (a thin piece), cut into 3-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups panko (Japanese) or regular unseasoned bread crumbs
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped

1. Heat oven to 500 degrees.

2. Separate tomatoes from the puree and chop them coarsely; mix back into puree. Spread tomato mixture evenly on a foil-lined baking sheet. Season cod with salt and pepper and place on top of tomatoes.

3. In a small bowl, mix bread crumbs with olive oil, garlic and oregano; season with salt and pepper. Cover cod pieces evenly with breadcrumb mixture and place the baking sheet in the oven.

4. Bake for 3 1/2 minutes, and then turn on broiler. Continue to cook until fish is done and breadcrumbs are golden brown, about 1 to 2 minutes more. Serve with grilled vegetables.


For more info on Rocco DiSpirito, please visit roccodispirito.com or click here to find his cookbooks.

Note: Rocco is shooting his new TV show, and he's looking for people with a dramatic situation in their lives involving food. Worried about that engagement dinner with your picky mother-in-law? Trying to win back that ex-girlfriend who's still mad at you for cheating on her? Trying to bury the hatchet with that outcast uncle at your family reunion cookout? Rocco wants to help you! Please email with your problem and we will contact you!



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Rocco DiSpirito was born and raised in Jamaica, Queens. His culinary experience and love of "the good life" through cooking and dining began at age 11 in his mother Nicolina's kitchen. By the age of 16, DiSpirito entered the Culinary Institute of America, graduating with honors in 1986. DiSpirito's career highlights include opening Union Pacific in New York City's Gramercy Park as chef and owner in 1997, being awarded three stars from the New York Times in a 1998 review, and three more in 2002 from the New York Observer. DiSpirito was also named Food & Wine's Best New Chef in 1999, and "America's Most Exciting Young Chef" by Gourmet magazine in 2000; his show "The Restaurant" first aired on NBC in 2003. DiSpirito is the author of three cookbooks: Flavor, Rocco's Italian American, and Rocco's 5 Minute Flavor.