“Dry”-Grilled Vegetable Tacos with Tomatillo Salsa & Cilantro-Lime Crema
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A few days ago, I asked my Instagram friends how they grilled vegetables: Oiled and seasoned? or dry and unseasoned?
Most people answered oiled and seasoned, which didn’t surprise me. This is how I grilled vegetables, too, before working at Fork, where the chef at the time, Thien Ngo, grilled all vegetables without a lick of oil or a pinch of salt. Once the vegetables were grilled, he seasoned them with salt and pepper, and dressed them in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and often some chopped rosemary. When he grilled vegetables with the intention of making tacos, he chopped the vegetables (post grilling) into small pieces before dressing and seasoning them.
Thien’s method kept the vegetables from becoming oil-laden and soggy, so often the bane of grilled eggplant, zucchini, asparagus, mushrooms, and others. But there’s another compelling reason, I recently learned while flipping through Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons, to “dry grill”: no burnt-oil taste. A tip box included with a recipe for grilled carrots notes: “Don’t oil your vegetables before you grill them, because the oil burns and tastes acrid. Instead, grill them dry to get a lovely char, and then dress with oil afterwards.”
Interesting, right? What do you think? Will you give dry-grilling a go? I’m a fan.
Below is a recipe for grilled vegetable tacos with tomatillos salsa, cilantro-lime crema, and a number of other fixin’s: pickled radishes, jalapeños and onions, queso fresco, grated cheddar, and fresh limes. You, of course, do not need to prepare so many toppings, but I find a few to be essential: some sort of pickle, some sort of cheese, and some sort of salsa. While the tomatoes are still ripening away, tomatillo salsa is a great option and, if you have a food processor, so easy to whip up. (Video guidance for the grilled vegetable tacos and tomatillo salsa on Instagram stories).
Happy grilling, Friends!
Here’s a play-by-play: Gather your vegetables:
Cut them into slices and pieces, but keep them relatively large and thick.
Once the coals are ready, which usually takes about 30 minutes, dump them into the grill, and return the grate to heat for at least 5 minutes.
Spread your vegetables into a single layer, and grill until…
they are nicely charred.
Chop them up.
To make the tomatillo salsa, clean about a pound of tomatillos:
Add them to a food processor…
along with garlic, jalapenos, cilantro, salt, and a small onion or a few scallions:
Purée until smooth.
Fill warm tortillas with your chopped grilled vegetables.
Top as desired.
Notes: This is really more of a method than a recipe. The keys are:
- Keep the vegetables in large pieces when you grill them so that they don’t fall through the grates. I cut zucchini and eggplant lengthwise, peppers into quarters, asparagus whole, etc.
- Cut vegetables like zucchini and eggplant on the thicker side, at least 1/4 inch thick. The vegetables may not appear to be completely cooked when you take them off the grill, but if you pile them into a bowl as you remove them from the grill, the heat of all of the vegetables packed together, will continue to cook the vegetables off the grill.
- If you are using chimney starters, be sure to let your grill grate heat for at least five minutes once you’ve added the coals to the grill barrel. And be sure to give those grates a good scrub with a wire brush or something similar.
- Once you add your vegetables to the grate, be patient. I like to wait till I see some sweat/condensation forming on the side facing up, then I flip. Peek every so often to be sure the vegetables aren’t turning completely black, but don’t be a “watch pot” either.
If you have the time, I recommend grilling a ton of vegetables. I love chopping them into small pieces, as shown in this post, because they are so nice to have on hand for omelets, wraps, sandwiches, nachos, etc. I can eat them cold straight from the fridge, but when I am making tacos or nachos, I’ll reheat them in the oven at 350ºF for about 10 minutes or dump them into a little sauté pan and heat them gently until they are warmed.
Make ahead: This is a great recipe to make ahead of time. The chopped grilled veg reheat beautifully in the oven or stovetop in a sauté pan.
an assortment of vegetables, such as:
- 2 to 3 bell peppers, any color, stemmed, seeded and quartered
- 1 to 2 zucchini or summer squash, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick slices
- 1 to 2 onions, red or white, peeled, ends trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch thick rounds
- 1/2 to 1 lb. asparagus, thick bottom end trimmed
- eggplant, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick slices
- any other vegetables you like grilled: mushrooms, scallions, endive, Treviso, snap peas, etc.
- extra-virgin olive oil
- kosher salt to taste
- fresh lemon or vinegar if you wish
for the tomatillo salsa:
- 1 lb. tomatillos (8–10 small), papery sheath removed, washed and quartered
- 1 to 2 jalapeños, stem removed, seeded or partially seeded if sensitive to heat
- 4 to 5 cloves garlic
- 1/2 small onion or 2 to 3 scallions (whites and most of the greens)
- a small bunch cilantro, about a cup
- kosher salt to taste
for the cilantro-lime crema:
- 1 cup (heaping) cilantro, about 1 ounce
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus more to taste
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- flour or corn tortillas
- pickled vegetables such as radishes, turnips, jalapeños, onions
- grated cheese such as queso fresco, cotija, cheddar, Monterey Jack
- fresh lime wedges
- Grill the vegetables: For charcoal grilling, I fill two chimney starters with coals and let them burn for about 30 minutes. Then I dump the coals into grill, replace the grate and let it heat for at least 5 minutes before placing the vegetables (or meat or fish, etc.) on top. I grill vegetables uncovered when using charcoal, but covered when using a gas grill. There is no recipe here: simply, spread the vegetables on the grill grates in a single layer, grill until you see condensation forming on the exposed side, flip vegetables and grill until lightly charred on the underside. Transfer vegetables to a large bowl—pile the vegetables on top of one another as they emerge from the grill. The heat from the vegetables will help the vegetables continue to cook.
- Chop the vegetables into smallish pieces (reference the photos for guidance). Dress with olive oil and salt. Toss. Taste. Add more salt and oil until the veg tastes good. Add a squeeze of lemon of vinegar if desired. If serving immediately, keep warm in a 250ºF oven. Otherwise, store in fridge.
- Meanwhile, make the tomatillo salsa: Place all ingredients in a food processor, and purée until smooth. Taste. Add more salt to taste.
- Make the cilantro-lime crema: In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the cilantro with the lime juice until fine. Add the sour cream, sugar, and salt, and purée until smooth. Taste, adjusting seasoning with more salt or lime juice. Alternatively, mince the cilantro by hand, then add the remaining ingredients and whisk until smooth.
- Prepare the tortillas: Warm tortillas as your like. (I sometimes throw them on the grill; sometimes I fold them in half and tuck them into a toaster, sometimes I heat them in a sauté pan with a little bit of oil. Whatever method I choose, I ultimately wrap the warmed tortillas in foil and either serve immediately or keep them warm in a low-temp oven).
- Serve: Scoop the warm grilled vegetables into warm tortillas, spoon over the crema, salsa, and any other fixin’s you like.