"Come on over for dinner and we'll fire up the grill!" is the happiest invitation I know. Among the many reasons I love cooking over a live fire is that it suggests a delicious and laid back evening. Back porch casual; no fancy dinner party expectations required. Grilling also provides a bit of theater — the sensual pleasure of a fire and wafting aroma of sizzling meat inevitably draws friends around the heat with a cold beverage in hand.
It's fun to finish the main event with an audience — say flipping steaks while swapping one-liners. But because process does require some attention (moving things around the heat, for instance, and controlling flare-ups) I like to have a few appetizers ready for folks to nibble on while I finish up the main event.
Grilled bread (rubbed with garlic, drizzled with your best extra virgin olive oil, and finished with flaky salt) and flatbreads are a perennial favorite (particularly alongside, grilled tender alliums like spring onions, scallions, ramps, or garlic scapes), but I love focusing on fresh vegetable appetizers because they're easy to prepare, beautiful on the table, they're not as filling, and many of them improve when made in advance and have time to marinate in a flavorful dressing.
One of my favorite options (for an appetizer or a side dish) is to grill young, locally-grown carrots. Their thin skins don't need to be peeled, and the intense heat of the grill intensifies their natural candy-like sweetness while a char adds complex, caramelized flavors. Leave a half inch or so of their stems on, because they're pretty and tasty (you can scrub with a vegetable brush to remove any grit). Simply place the carrots in a large mixing bowl, drizzle them with enough olive oil to lightly coat, generously season with salt and pepper, and then grill over direct heat, turning and rotating around as needed for even cooking, until they're charred on both sides. While they're still warm, you can toss them with a pickled mustard seed dressing, and scatter them over a bed of arugula.
Grilled fava beans
Another favorite is a big platter of grilled fresh fava beans, because they're fun to eat with your fingers and incredibly delicious. Simply toss the pod with olive oil, grill until they're charred on both sides (this only takes 2 to 4 minutes total), and then sprinkle them with flaky salt (or your favorite seasoned salt).
Eating them is an interactive affair (read: a brilliant way to keep guests busy), and feels like a treasure hunt. While the beans are still warm, guests peel away the velvety green pods and the beans' thicker outer shell to find the tender green beans feels a treasure hunt. The olive oil and salt on your fingers handily season the beans as you eat them.
You can also take this approach (toss with olive oil and salt, char briefly on grill, serve on a pretty platter) with shishito peppers or pole beans (a mix of purple, yellow wax, and green beans make a striking platter). They're delicious on their own, and addictive served with spicy mayo (kicked up with sambal, sriracha, or chipotle puree).
Grilled cheesy, tangy mushrooms
A grill also provides ways to step up a cheese platter. Consider pairing a big wedge of ripe cheese like Camembert alongside a heap of grilled wild mushrooms (chanterelle, shiitake, oyster, hen of the woods, and enoki are good options). You'll want to use a grill basket to minimize mushroom casualties. To enhance their umami flavor, brush the mushrooms with melted butter flavored with a generous splash of fish sauce. Or grill the cheese — slices of halloumi or another firm, fresh cheese (e.g. panela or aged provolone) and serve them with green olives tossed with olive oil, lemon zest, fennel seeds, and fresh thyme.
The only other necessity: plenty of cold beer. Snacks and a delicious beverage to pair them with will keep your guests busy and happy while you focus on the important stuff — like not overcooking the steak and enjoying their company.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: The impressive grilled appetizers to serve at your next cookout.