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Hail seitan!



Ah, the swelter of August: how perfectly designed for the minions of the flame. Unfortunately for us vegetarians, long ago the grill was taken over by the Stubborn Men and their processed meat. The coals were put to work by hot dog and hamburger taskmasters. Driven mad by desire and urged on by endless Applebee's commercials, the Stubborn Men experimented with spareribs and shrimp-on-the-barbie, but in the end it was all just grilled flesh. Enter veggie barbecue.

Long derided by the Stubborn Men as nothing more than the art of heating up Morningstar patties, veggie barbecue has undergone a growth spurt in recent years as more and more backyard gourmets and roof-deck partiers see hot dogs and hamburgers for what they are: processed dead stuff. So, friends, I bring you secrets handed down from one master of the fiery cuisine to another; these are the dark arts of veggies and seitan. Beware their power.

The first item any veggie barbecue master must bring to the grill is a great veggie burger. In a blender, mix three cups of cooked lentils and four large eggs. Add two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, a teaspoon of sea salt, a half-teaspoon of Old Bay and a teaspoon of fresh minced garlic. Spin it into a gooey tan mixture. Add a cup of whole-wheat breadcrumbs and stir. Check for consistency by forming a bit into a ball; if it doesn't hold its form reasonably well, add some more breadcrumbs. Once the mixture is ready, form six patties by hand. These aren't supposed to look like flat, lifeless Boca burgers. They should be bumpy and full of character. You are going to grill these over medium-high heat on a sheet of tinfoil made slick with either olive oil or clarified butter. Watch them carefully and flip with spatula and tongs to keep them from separating on the first turn. Baste often with balsamic vinaigrette or very lightly with your favorite barbecue sauce. I serve mine on a bun with a light cucumber-and-yogurt sauce and a dash of cayenne pepper.

The Stubborn Men are always making fun of tofu, but tofu kebabs are the simplest and most rewarding dish in the veggie-barbecue trade. I suggest using firm tofu for kebabs because it tends to absorb flavors better, but the real trick is choosing the correct vegetables. Zucchini and tomatoes are excellent choices because they can handle a lot of heat, and so you can basically ignore them on the grill. Add yellow squash and red and orange peppers for color. Baste with balsamic vinaigrette and attract hordes of new friends.

I stay away from mushrooms on the kebab. It's just not the best way to cook 'em. Here's the proper way to cook white mushrooms on the grill: Form two sheets of tinfoil into a bowl shape. Use a fork to poke a couple of small holes in the wall of the inside sheet, then hide a few pieces of wet mesquite in the "hull" between the two. Slice eight ounces of white mushrooms and place them in the tinfoil bowl with a quarter-teaspoon of chopped garlic, a pinch of sea salt, a turn or two of fresh pepper from a grinder, a pinch of coriander and just a dusting of cayenne pepper. Generously dress the 'shrooms in extra-virgin olive oil and close up the tinfoil package into the shape of a slightly deflated football. Use a fork to poke maybe a dozen holes through the top of the package (going all the way through both sheets) and leave the whole thing right on the coals for 10 minutes. These mushrooms make the perfect fixin' for lentil burgers.

For the adventurous, there is no greater feat than successfully grilling wheat gluten (aka seitan). Success depends on one simple rule: marinate, marinate, marinate! Because seitan is so dense, it requires a great amount of care to keep the surface from charring and drying out while still getting the center hot enough to get the flavor juices going. I suggest cutting the gluten into small fillets and marinating it for at least a few hours in a Buffalo-style dressing of hot sauce and margarine. Poke holes in the seitan and thoroughly drench it to make sure the sauce gets inside. When it's grilling time, set the fillets out on slicked tinfoil. It's gonna take several flips of the fillets and Zen-like concentration to get this right, but here's a trick: Slice a cucumber in half lengthwise and slather the broad side with olive oil. Sprinkle on a little crushed red pepper and place it on the grill. You'll know when the cucumber is done, and that's also about how long it should take to cook the seitan. No more, no less.

The best thing about veggie barbecue is the conversation it yields around the grill. There's only so much that hasn't been said before about grilling a hamburger, but enter seitan, and it's a whole 'nother story.

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