How to eat more plants (even when you're grilling), according to Mark Bittman

Eat plants, lots of them — especially when you fire up the grill. Here's how.
by Margaret O'Malley /  / Updated 
Chana Chaat Burgers
Chana Chaat BurgersChristina Holmes/How to Grill Everything
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Cookbook author and healthy eating advocate Mark Bittman's credo is pretty simple: "Eat no junk at all, if you can. Eat more plants, and when I say "plants," I don't mean distillations of plants. I mean things that don't have labels, like fruits and vegetables and nuts and seeds. And eat way fewer animal products. That is the formula."

It sounds about right, except when you're ready to fire up the grill. Then it gets infinitely harder considering that meat is often the star of most American cookouts. Enter Bittman's latest cookbook "How to Grill Everything," which at first glance doesn't seem to be particularly heavy on the aforementioned fruits, vegetables and seeds. But Bittman disagrees saying that, yes, "it's got plenty of meat and it certainly has the basics of meat, chicken and fish, but there are there are a lot of interesting vegetable and even fruit recipes in there. And those are the ones I'm proudest of."

Here, Bittman shares four recipes (with several variations) you can fire up on the grill that go beyond the usual burgers and dogs. From grilled bok choy to bean-based vegetable burgers to an Italian bread salad, the only thing on this menu that isn't vegan is grilled fish. Consider this permission to push yourself out of your meat-centric comfort zone tonight.

The Mains: Chana Chaat Burgers and Fish Fillets with Avocado-Cilantro Salsa

Chana Chaat Burgers
Chana Chaat BurgersChristina Holmes/How to Grill Everything

Chana Chaat Burgers

Makes: 4 to 8 servings

Time: 40 to 45 minutes, plus chilling time

I love the flavors in aloo chana chaat, the saucy Indian appetizer of potatoes and chickpeas, and they happen to make a wonderful burger, too. No need for a bun; serve these with your favorite chutney. These can be a bit crumbly, so if you have a perforated grill pan, use it. Otherwise, just handle them gently. Look for chaat masala in Indian markets; its somewhat tangy taste is distinctive. If you can only find garam masala, go for it; you’ll still be happy.

3½ cups cooked chickpeas, drained

1½ cups mashed potatoes

1 cup minced onion

½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 teaspoons chaat masala

2 teaspoons grated lime zest

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Salt and pepper

  1. Put the chickpeas and potatoes in a large bowl and mash with a potato masher or fork until they come together. Add the onion, cilantro, chaat masala, lime zest, and cumin; work them in by mashing with a wooden spoon or the back of a fork. Taste and add some salt and pepper if needed. With wet hands, shape the mixture into 8 burgers. Put them on a platter without touching, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. (You can make the burgers up to a day or so in advance. Cover tightly and refrigerate.)
  2. Start the coals or heat a gas grill for medium direct cooking. Make sure the grates are clean.
  3. Put the burgers on the grill directly over the fire. Close the lid and cook, turning once, until they develop a crust and release easily from the grates, about 8 minutes per side. Transfer to a platter and serve.

Cheesy Chana Chaat–Sweet Potato Burgers

The addition of the cheese is unconventional but deliciously gooey, and sweet potatoes partner beautifully with the chickpeas: Substitute mashed sweet potatoes for the regular potatoes and add ½ cup shredded mozzarella.

Smoky Black Bean–Sweet Potato Burgers

Substitute black beans for the chickpeas and mashed sweet potatoes for the regular potatoes. Replace the chaat masala with 1 teaspoon smoked paprika (pimentón).

Falafel Burgers

Use either chickpeas or cooked peeled fava beans. Substitute parsley for the cilantro. Replace the chaat masala and lime zest with 2 tablespoons minced garlic, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, and ¼ teaspoon cayenne, or to taste.

Fish Fillets with Avocado-Cilantro Salsa
Fish Fillets with Avocado-Cilantro SalsaChristina Holmes/How to Grill Everything

Fish Fillets with Avocado-Cilantro Salsa

Fish Fillets with Avocado-Cilantro Salsa

Makes: 4 servings

Time: 20 to 25 minutes

Grilled fish and fresh salsa is one of my favorite combinations. The salsas here and in the variations are slightly offbeat, with vibrant flavors and textures that perfectly complement the mild sweetness of the fish. When fillets still have their skin on — the thin kind that’s edible — all the better. The fire will crunch it up for even more contrast. Bass and salmon are both great choices to try. These salsas also pair great with seared sea scallops.

2 ripe avocados, pitted, peeled, and diced

½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

¼ cup chopped red onion

Juice of 1 lime, or more to taste

Salt and pepper

1½ pounds fish fillets (preferably skin-on)

Good-quality olive oil for brushing the fish

  1. Start the coals or heat a gas grill for hot direct cooking. Make sure the grates are clean.
  2. Put the avocados, cilantro, onion, and lime juice in a small bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and gently toss to combine (take care not to mash the avocado). Taste and adjust the seasoning.
  3. Pat the fillets dry with paper towels, then brush them with oil and season with salt and pepper on both sides.
  4. Put the fish on the grill (skin side down, if it has skin), perpendicular to the grate. Close the lid and cook until the bottoms brown and release easily, 3 to 7 minutes. Carefully turn the fillets over, using a second spatula to keep them from breaking apart. Close the lid and cook until a skewer or thin knife inserted at the thickest point of a fillet easily pierces it all the way through, 2 to 4 minutes, depending on the fish and the thickness. Transfer the fish to a platter, top with the salsa, and serve.

Fish Fillets with Mango-Mint Salsa

So incredibly refreshing and still rich: Substitute mint for the cilantro and 1 large or 2 medium-sized ripe mangoes for the avocados. Peel, cut the flesh off the pit, and dice.

Fish Fillets with Papaya-Cilantro Salsa

Substitute 1 firm but ripe 12-to 16-ounce papaya for the avocados. Peel and seed before dicing.

Fish Fillets with Avocado-Tomato Salsa

Substitute basil for the cilantro and 1 fresh medium tomato for one of the avocados. Seed the tomato if you like; chop.

The Sides: Baby Bok Choy and Panzanella

Bok Choy with Miso Lime Vinaigrette
Bok Choy with Miso Lime VinaigretteChristina Holmes/How to Grill Everything

Baby Bok Choy with Lime-Miso Vinaigrette

Makes: 4 servings

Time: 30 to 35 minutes

These bright green heads are a fraction of the heft of full-grown bok choy and have a mellower, sweeter taste. The resulting side dish is lovely with salmon or other full-flavored fatty fish. The size of baby bok choy can vary significantly. To ensure they’re all the same size, leave the smallest whole, quarter the largest lengthwise, and halve the ones in between. You can cut the bok choy and make the vinaigrette several hours ahead; refrigerate until you’re ready to grill.

¼ cup good-quality vegetable oil

Grated zest of 1 lime

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons white or light miso

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

Salt and pepper

1½ pounds baby bok choy

  1. Start the coals or heat a gas grill for medium direct cooking. Make sure the grates are clean.
  2. Whisk the oil, lime zest and juice, miso, and vinegar together in a small bowl until combined and thickened. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  3. Trim the bottoms from the bok choy and cut into halves or quarters as needed. Pour half the vinaigrette into a large baking dish. Add the bok choy and turn in the vinaigrette until completely coated.
  4. Put the bok choy on the grill directly over the fire. Close the lid and cook, turning once, until the leaves brown and you can insert a knife through the core with no resistance, 5 to 10 minutes per side, depending on their size. Transfer to a platter, drizzle with the reserved vinaigrette, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Baby Bok Choy with Sesame-Miso Vinaigrette

Omit the lime zest and add 1 teaspoon each sesame oil and red chile flakes.

Baby Bok Choy with Coconut-Chile Sauce

Omit the vinaigrette. Seed and chop 1 or more small red chiles (like Thai); whisk it together with ¼ cup coconut milk, 1 tablespoon each rice vinegar and fish sauce, the grated zest of 1 lime, and some salt and pepper. Use as directed for the vinaigrette.

Ginger-Garlic Baby Bok Choy with Black Vinegar

Sweet and smoky, Chinese black vinegar is available at most Asian markets; if you can’t find it, balsamic vinegar approximates its flavor though it won’t be the same: For the vinaigrette, whisk together ¼ cup good-quality vegetable oil, 3 tablespoons black vinegar, 1 tablespoon each minced fresh ginger and garlic, and 1 teaspoon soy sauce.

Panzanella
PanzanellaChristina Holmes/How to Grill Everything

Panzanella

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

Time: 45 to 60 minutes

With grilled bread, this salad is the perfect vine-ripened tomato delivery system. The fruit’s juices will soak into the bread, making for a delicious jumble of tastes, fragrance, and textures. Have all the ingredients prepped, then grill the bread before your main course — and the salad will be ready to go when you are.

About 8 ounces baguette, ciabatta, or other crusty bread (preferably a little dry)

¼ cup good-quality olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice

2 large fresh tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 small red onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced into half moons

1 clove garlic, minced or pressed

About ¼ cup roughly chopped fresh basil or parsley

Salt and pepper

  1. Start the coals or heat a gas grill for medium-high direct cooking. Make sure the grates are clean.
  2. Cut the bread into 1-inch-thick slices. Put the oil, vinegar, tomatoes, onion, garlic, and basil in a large salad bowl. Sprinkle with salt and lots of pepper and toss to coat the vegetables.
  3. Put the bread on the grill directly over the fire. Close the lid and cook, turning once, until well toasted, 2 to 3 minutes per side; it’s fine if it gets a little charred in places. Transfer the bread to a cutting board. As soon as it cools enough to handle, cut the slices into bite-sized pieces. Add to the bowl and toss until everything is well combined. Let sit until you are ready to eat, at least 10 minutes; you want to give the bread time to absorb the dressing and tomato juices.

Caprese Panzanella

More of a main dish, especially over a bed of salad greens: When you add the bread to the salad, add 8 ounces bocconcini (small mozzarella balls); if you like, halve or quarter them first.

Panzanella with Kale

The stems here add intermittent crunch: Use 2 tablespoons each red wine vinegar and fresh lemon juice (instead of only vinegar). When you toss the salad, add 8 ounces kale (stems and all), finely chopped.

Fattoush

The Lebanese take on bread salad, loaded with fresh herb flavor: Substitute four 6-inch pitas for the bread and grill as directed; cut each into 8 wedges. In a large salad bowl, whisk together 6 tablespoons good-quality olive oil and 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice with some salt and pepper. Add ½ cup chopped fresh mint or basil, ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley, 1 large fresh tomato, chopped, 1 cucumber, peeled and chopped, and 1 red or yellow bell pepper, chopped. Toss to combine and coat with the dressing, then add the pita.

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