Ember-roasted mashed sweet potatoes with coconut and lemongrass will break you out of your veggie funk in no time. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

By JeanMarie Brownson

Chicago Tribune

By midsummer, my vegetable-recipe repertoire starts to veer toward boredom. Grilled ratatouille, planks of summer squash, skewered tomatoes and mushrooms begin to run their course. Yet the stunning selection at farmers markets and roadside stands tempts, and I stock up.

My quest to discover new (to me, anyway) cooking methods and flavor combinations ensues. Especially when the grill is fired up. Golden flavors with a hint of smoke might just be the surest way to prevent vegetable tedium.

The easiest way to cook many vegetables is to nestle them into the coals. No prep required. Afterward, I can add flavor. Proud of myself, when removing blackened sweet potatoes from the embers, I remarked at this cool, new cooking method. The husband brought the moment back to reality, saying perhaps, cooking in the coals is older than that of fancy grills with shiny tools.

No matter — the ember-cooking method proves worth pursuing. The only tricky part is building a fire so the embers are evenly, steadily glowing hot without flames. Just takes a little time and practice. And the right charcoal — I always employ a natural hardwood charcoal for its clean flavor.

In addition to nestling whole, unwrapped potatoes and onions in the coals, I like to subject large eggplants to the method. You’ll want to turn them a bit more frequently than other vegetables, but once the skin is crusty and blackened, the interior will be moist, smoky and not at all bitter. Scoop out the soft flesh and season it with a bit of garlic and olive oil. Make more than you think you need — leftovers taste terrific seasoned with some balsamic vinegar and a shower of fresh herbs. Or, puree the flesh, and turn it into an eggplant dip with a touch of plain Greek yogurt.

I mash the soft flesh of sweet potatoes with some unsweetened coconut cream instead of butter. A little lemon grass puree and grated lime add exotic flavor and aroma.

Vegetables that require steam to tenderize do well wrapped snug in a foil packet. Add a bit of oil and seasonings, and cook the packet in the embers (or in a hot oven). Kohlrabi, a more common staple at the market these days, benefits from this method. I add a good dose of curry powder and onions for a side dish that is as aromatic as it is easy. Stir in raisins and chives just before serving.

Cauliflower is on a hot streak right now. We can’t get enough of it mashed, riced or served as pseudo-steaks. I like to grill it and have a container of the golden nuggets on hand to toss into leafy greens, nibble on with hummus or use as the “meat” in a meatless main-course pasta entree.

All in all, think outside the box this summer. Change up your cooking methods — take advantage of the grill or the backyard fire pit. Add bold flavors such as vinegar, coconut, ginger, garlic and of course, plenty of fresh herbs. Your vegetables will thank you.

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EMBER-ROASTED MASHED SWEET POTATOES WITH COCONUT AND LEMON GRASS

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 40 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

Coconut cream can be found canned in the Asian section of most large supermarkets. Unsweetened coconut milk also can be used. No charcoal grill? Cook the potatoes indirectly (not over the heat source) of a medium-hot gas grill, turning occasionally until tender, about 50 minutes. You can also steam the sweet potatoes (pierce them with a knife in a couple of spots) in the microwave on full power, turning every few minutes, until they are fork-tender, 10 to 15 minutes.

5 medium-size sweet potatoes, about 2 1/2 pounds total, scrubbed

2 to 3 tablespoons canned unsweetened coconut cream

1 teaspoon refrigerated lemon grass puree

Grated lime rind from 1/2 a lime

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1. Prepare a charcoal fire. and let burn until coals are medium-hot and covered in gray ash. Place potatoes directly on the hot embers. Cover grill and cook, turning potatoes every 10 minutes, until exterior is scorched and flesh yields nicely when a knife is inserted, usually 30 to 40 minutes. Carefully remove to a metal pan, and let cool a few minutes.

2. While potatoes are still warm, slice them lengthwise in half. Use a spoon to scoop the soft flesh out of the charred skin. Place the flesh in a bowl. Use a potato masher to crush the flesh, and mash in the coconut cream, lemon grass puree and lime rind. Season with salt and pepper. Reheat in the microwave on high (100 percent power) if necessary until hot. Serve sprinkled with cilantro.

Nutrition information per serving: 192 calories, 2 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 42 g carbohydrates, 16 g sugar, 4 g protein, 647 mg sodium, 6 g fiber

Curry-steamed kohlrabi with onion and thyme

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

4 medium-size kohlrabi, about 2 pounds total, scrubbed, peeled, cut into 1 inch chunks

2 small yellow onions, total 4 ounces, halved, thinly sliced

2 large cloves garlic, quartered

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 or 4 fresh thyme sprigs

1/3 cup currants or raisins

2 tablespoons chopped chives or green onion tops

1. Prepare a charcoal fire, and let burn until coals are medium-hot and covered in gray ash. Or preheat a gas grill to medium hot.

2. Meanwhile, cut two 2-foot lengths of heavy-duty aluminum foil, and place them on the counter in a cross shape. Put the kohlrabi on the center of the foil, and top with the onion and garlic. Sprinkle with the curry and salt; toss to mix. Drizzle with the oil, and top with the thyme sprigs. Fold the foil over to make a packet that completely encloses the vegetables.

3. Place the foil packet directly on the hot embers. Cook with the grill covered until a knife inserted into the kohlrabi releases easily, about 40 minutes.

4. Open the packet over a serving bowl to catch all the juices. Add raisins and chives. Stir and serve warm or at room temperature.

Nutrition information per serving: 96 calories, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 8 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 2 g protein, 404 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

GRILLED EGGPLANT AND ONIONS WITH GARLIC

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 40 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

You can roast a couple of plum tomatoes directly over the heat source of the grill, then peel, seed and dice, and sprinkle over the cooked eggplant.

1 large (or 2 medium) eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds total

1 large red onion, unpeeled

1 or 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish

1. Prepare a charcoal fire and let burn until coals are medium-hot and covered in gray ash. Place eggplant and onion directly on the embers. Cover grill and cook, turning eggplant and onions every 10 minutes, until eggplant is scorched and feeling quite soft, about 30 minutes. Cook onion until exterior peels are charred and interior feels tender when pierced with a knife, about 10 minutes more.

2. Remove vegetables from grill, and let cool. Peel off and discard their charred skins. Put the eggplant into a serving dish, and crush it up a bit with a fork. Chop the tender onion, and scatter it over the eggplant. Drizzle everything with the oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper. Toss to mix. Let stand up to 1 hour.

3. Serve at room temperature sprinkled with cilantro.

Nutrition information per serving: 81 calories, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 12 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 2 g protein, 295 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

GRILLED CAULIFLOWER AND PASTA

Prep: 25 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

1 medium-size head cauliflower, about 2 pounds, cored

1 medium-size red bell pepper

Olive oil

1/2 pound orecchiette (ear-shaped) or tube-shaped pasta

Salt

2 small cloves garlic, crushed

1 or 2 large pinches saffron threads, optional

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley or chives or a combination

1/3 cup finely shredded Parmesan cheese or crumbled goat cheese

1. Prepare a charcoal fire, and let burn until coals are medium-hot and covered in gray ash. Or preheat a gas grill to medium.

2. Separate cauliflower into large florets. Place cauliflower and red pepper on a well-oiled perforated grill pan or a rack set directly over the heat source. Grill covered 10 minutes. Turn and brush with oil. Continue grilling, turning once or twice and brushing with oil, until cauliflower and red pepper are lightly browned and fork-tender, 15 to 20 minutes more.

3. Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente, about 8 minutes. Put 3 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water into bottom of large bowl; add garlic and saffron threads. Drain pasta, and add to bowl along with 2 tablespoons oil, crushed red pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Toss to coat.

4. Roughly chop the grilled cauliflower florets (don’t use the core), and add to the pasta. Toss to mix. Add parsley and cheese, toss again and serve warm.

Ember-roasted mashed sweet potatoes with coconut and lemon grass

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 40 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

Coconut cream can be found canned in the Asian section of most large supermarkets. Unsweetened coconut milk also can be used. No charcoal grill? Cook the potatoes indirectly (not over the heat source) of a medium-hot gas grill, turning occasionally until tender, about 50 minutes. You can also steam the sweet potatoes (pierce them with a knife in a couple of spots) in the microwave on full power, turning every few minutes, until they are fork-tender, 10 to 15 minutes.

5 medium-size sweet potatoes, about 2 1/2 pounds total, scrubbed

2 to 3 tablespoons canned unsweetened coconut cream

1 teaspoon refrigerated lemon grass puree

Grated lime rind from 1/2 a lime

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1. Prepare a charcoal fire. and let burn until coals are medium-hot and covered in gray ash. Place potatoes directly on the hot embers. Cover grill and cook, turning potatoes every 10 minutes, until exterior is scorched and flesh yields nicely when a knife is inserted, usually 30 to 40 minutes. Carefully remove to a metal pan, and let cool a few minutes.

2. While potatoes are still warm, slice them lengthwise in half. Use a spoon to scoop the soft flesh out of the charred skin. Place the flesh in a bowl. Use a potato masher to crush the flesh, and mash in the coconut cream, lemon grass puree and lime rind. Season with salt and pepper. Reheat in the microwave on high (100 percent power) if necessary until hot. Serve sprinkled with cilantro.

Curry-steamed kohlrabi
with onion and thyme

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

4 medium-size kohlrabi, about 2 pounds total, scrubbed, peeled, cut into 1 inch chunks

2 small yellow onions, total 4 ounces, halved, thinly sliced

2 large cloves garlic, quartered

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 or 4 fresh thyme sprigs

1/3 cup currants or raisins

2 tablespoons chopped chives or green onion tops

1. Prepare a charcoal fire, and let burn until coals are medium-hot and covered in gray ash. Or preheat a gas grill to medium hot.

2. Meanwhile, cut two 2-foot lengths of heavy-duty aluminum foil, and place them on the counter in a cross shape. Put the kohlrabi on the center of the foil, and top with the onion and garlic. Sprinkle with the curry and salt; toss to mix. Drizzle with the oil, and top with the thyme sprigs. Fold the foil over to make a packet that encloses the vegetables.

3. Place the foil packet directly on the hot embers. Cook with the grill covered until a knife inserted into the kohlrabi releases easily, about 40 minutes.

4. Open the packet over a serving bowl to catch all the juices. Add raisins and chives. Stir and serve warm or at room temperature.

Grilled Cauliflower and pasta

Prep: 25 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

1 medium-size head cauliflower, about 2 pounds, cored

1 medium-size red bell pepper

Olive oil

1/2 pound orecchiette (ear-shaped) or tube-shaped pasta

Salt

2 small cloves garlic, crushed

1 or 2 large pinches saffron threads, optional

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley or chives or a combination

1/3 cup finely shredded Parmesan cheese or crumbled goat cheese

1. Prepare a charcoal fire, and let burn until coals are medium-hot and covered in gray ash. Or preheat a gas grill to medium.

2. Separate cauliflower into large florets. Place cauliflower and red pepper on a well-oiled perforated grill pan or a rack set directly over the heat source. Grill covered 10 minutes. Turn and brush with oil. Continue grilling, turning once or twice and brushing with oil, until cauliflower and red pepper are lightly browned and fork-tender, 15 to 20 minutes more.

3. Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente, about 8 minutes. Put 3 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water into bottom of large bowl; add garlic and saffron threads. Drain pasta, and add to bowl along with 2 tablespoons oil, crushed red pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Toss to coat.

4. Roughly chop the grilled cauliflower florets (don’t use the core), and add to the pasta. Toss to mix. Add parsley and cheese, toss again and serve warm.