5 Ways to Turn a Cookout Vegetarian

by Katherine Sacks


When you really think about it, a summer cookout is often almost vegetarian. Favorites like potato salad, deviled eggs and pasta salad are already meat-free. But many times, the stars of the show are the hot dogs and hamburgers. We know that Homer Simpson said, “You don’t win friends with salad,” but we boldly disagree. Summer is peak produce season, and veggies like heirloom tomatoes, summer squash, eggplant and mushrooms are packed with fresh flavors that can really stand up on their own.

Which means meat-free cookouts don’t have to mean boring veggie patties or bland slabs of tofu. Instead, think flavorful recipes that are similar to the traditional, meatier barbecue and won’t leave your guests longing for the beef. Swap in a fun replacement for the hot dog and hamburger, don’t forget the toppings — including coleslaw, sauerkraut, chili and relish — and fill the table with lots of filling sides. Meat has an outsized environmental impact, so cutting even a little out of your cookout will really make a big difference. An added bonus: It will free up some cash to spend on higher quality, sustainably-raised meat for the folks who’ll want it.

Need some inspiration? Here are five ways to turn your cookout dishes vegetarian that will satisfy carnivores and vegetarians alike.

Grilled Pineapple Tofu Skewers. Photo courtesy of Snixy Kitchen.

Turn Up the Smoke

The easiest way to add some of the hearty, umami flavor of a traditional barbecue into your vegetarian dishes is by using the cookout’s main attraction: the grill. Of course there are the obvious approaches: grilling whole vegetables, shish kebabs and corn-on-the-cob. Adding haloumi or marinated wedges of firm tofu adds bulk to shish kebabs. Cut cauliflower into thick slices to serve it as “steak.” Give corn more flavor and heft with Mexican flavor inspiration. But there are also tons of ways to think outside the box when it comes to grilling. Toss some potatoes on the grates for a grilled potato salad, grill that wedge salad or use grilled eggplant to create vegetable roulades.

Swap Veggies for the Hot Dogs

When it comes to the mains, a cookout isn’t complete without hotdogs. But instead of fake veggie dogs, why not use real vegetables? Swap out the meat for marinated portobello mushrooms, carrots or zucchini. Using liquid smoke in the marinade is a common way to give the vegetables a “meatier” flavor, but it isn’t necessary. Ingredients like soy sauce, balsamic and apple cider vinegar work well to add some hearty notes into the mix. Grilling vegetables also adds a smoky flavor and topping them with coleslaw adds texture.

Mix-Up Those Burgers

Instead of frozen veggie patties, how about making your own veggie burgers? It’s easy to make a big batch ahead of time, freeze them (which makes them easier to grill) and then have them ready for the cookout. Look for a recipe specifically meant for the grill because homemade vegetarian burgers can often be on the wet side, making grilling difficult. This combo of brown rice, black beans and barbecue sauce is delicious and protein-packed, plus it cooks-up great on the grill.

If you aren’t ready to go full vegetarian, you can also make blended burgers, subbing in a portion of the meat for chopped mushrooms. Not only does this reduce your meat consumption, it’s a way to add even more delicious flavor into your patty. Try using at least 25 percent mushrooms in the mixture.

BBQ Jackfruit. Photo courtesy of Minimalist Baker.

Jack Up the Flavor

The latest meat-substitute du jour is jackfruit, thanks to its high protein content and dense texture, which is often compared to shredded meat. This also makes it a common substitute for pulled pork, another cookout favorite. This recipe combines the classic barbecue sauce plus “meat” combo with a creamy avocado mash and cashews.

Bulk Up the Sides

While cookouts are often focused on what’s in between the buns, don’t sleep on the side dishes. Providing a variety of flavor and texture is key to a successful menu. Macaroni and potato salad are classic, but for something fresh and flavorful, while still being filling, think an herby grain salad like tabbouleh or a mix of farro, olives and plenty of greens. It’s also good to have a variety of texture. Provide a good mix of options for your guests, while still keeping it veggie friendly. Add bright and tangy pickled vegetables — a good way to use up produce odd and ends. Serve crunchy crudité and homemade dip, which is a great way to use up the dredges of condiment bottles and other items lurking in the fridge.

A version of this post was originally published in May 2016.

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