Accomodating vegetarians this Fourth of July

Pooneh Momeni

For vegetarians, Independence Day weekend and ubiquitous backyard barbecues can be a dietary challenge. Among burgers and franks, what is a herbivore to eat?

It’s just as challenging for accommodating hosts, who are often forced to grill bland tofu dogs or frozen Boca burgers. With this challenge comes an opportunity for adventurous cooks to create unique, flavorful vegetarian dishes.

A tip for those meat eaters or vegetarians hosting a barbecue for the Fourth of July: Vegetarian food doesn’t have to be imitation meat to be delicious. Herbivore-friendly dishes can taste like the vegetables they’re composed of because, after all, as any meat eater will tell you, if you want to eat meat, there’s no substitute for the real thing.

Luckily, most side dishes are vegetarian. Corn, cole slaw, potato salad, macaroni salad and classic chips are all acceptable options.

The real challenge for hosts and vegetarians rests in the main course. At best, considerate chefs will skewer slices of bell peppers and onions as the vegetarian option. At worst — as if being vegetarian was an obligation and vegetarians secretly long to eat meat — some hosts choose to offer tofu hotdogs or some other meat substitute. Those have an acceptable flavor, but the rubbery texture and appearance are anything but.

Hosts should instead embrace the vegetarian obstacle, because vegetarian cooking can be more affordable and faster to prepare than meat options in addition to the culinary challenge it presents.

Indeed, vegetarian dishes could prove highly economical. In May, the USDA released a report that forecasted a 7- to 8-percent rise in beef prices this year, whereas fruits and vegetables are only expected to go up by 3.5 to 4 percent.

At $4.99 a pound (about four caps) Portobello mushroom burgers offer the heartiness and moisture found in a traditional burger but at a fraction of the cost. Try dressing the mushrooms with some chipotle sauce and grilling them for about six minutes until they are slightly soft. Place the mushroom between some hamburger buns.

Black bean burgers are another popular option for non-meat-eaters, but they can be trickier to grill — they can fall apart if they aren’t prepared with enough bread crumbs. Try mashing some black beans in a bowl and incorporating corn, chopped green bell peppers, bread crumbs, garlic powder, salt and pepper into the mixture. To make the mashed black beans into a moist burger, coat the patties with guacamole or ketchup. Grill until the beans are tender.

Grilling vegetables presents a challenge to those accustomed to preparing meat and grilling amateurs. The grill must be preheated properly. For gas grills, this means about 20 minutes and approximately 40 for charcoal. To keep cooking times equal, make sure vegetables are cut to the same size.

Finally, it’s essential to let the vegetables rest on the grill for a few minutes before you begin turning them. Not only does this ensure they don’t stick to the grate, but it also leaves attractive grill marks.

If done properly, barbecuing vegetables can add a whole new dimension of flavor and variety to your Fourth of July barbecue. Caramelized vegetables absorb the smokiness from the grill and release their natural sweetness for vegetarian-friendly options that will have both vegetarians and meat-eaters rejoicing