Get Thee to the Grill on Meatless Monday

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Summertime is in full swing and along with it come cookouts, not to mention drunk people on boats, Ed Hardy swim trunks, entirely too many children everywhere, the need for those stinky citronella candles and sky-high utility bills from all that damned air conditioning.

I relish the opportunity to get the hell out of the kitchen -- there's nothing worse than being posted up at the stove for an hour when it's 100 degrees outside -- and into the backyard (or rooftop, balcony or public park), armed with a pair of tongs and a red Solo cup filled with my favorite icy refreshment.

Sure, it's easy enough to slap some meat on the grill, give it a few turns, and nestle it in a tasteless bun with a squirt of yellow mustard, but the whole burger, hot dog and brat routine gets a little tired, and it's nice to consider some less animal-centric options for the benefit of yourself and your veggie friends.

Understandably, it can be a little difficult to get excited about vegetarian options on the grill when those choices so often consist solely of frozen veggie burgers and snooze-worthy zucchini and squash kebabs. Portabellas are always a tasty meat sub, but why not think outside the Gardenburger box a bit and explore some less played-out options?

Skip the veggie burgers and try grilling falafel patties instead. I've had good luck using this recipe, but there's also a widely available boxed mix; just make sure your grill grate is clean and well-oiled so they don't stick. Stuff them in a pita pocket, or on a bun accessorized with some garlic sauce or tzatziki (Sunflower makes a tasty version), tomato, greens and red onion for a flavorful, protein and fiber-laden main course that even a meat-lover could enjoy.

While you're waiting for the grill to reach its optimal temperature, halve an eggplant, brush it with a little oil and leave it on the heat until slightly charred around the edges and tender. Let cool slightly, squeeze the innards into a bowl and mash with a squeeze of lemon juice, a couple spoonfuls of tahini, a garlic clove and a little olive oil -- just like making hummus -- for perfectly smoky baba ghanoush. Lightly char some pita to serve alongside, and it's the perfect appetizer to distract that one drunk friend who always tries to co-opt the tongs.

Polenta that's been cooked, chilled and cut into squares (you can also buy it ready made in a long breakfast sausage-ish roll, just slice and grill) makes a tasty grill-able vessel for any number of toppings; maybe a slice of perfect summer tomato and a little mozzarella (smoked would be nice), or whip up a simple salsa of roasted red peppers and briny Kalamata olives with chopped herbs.

If you're not striving for vegan (or especially virtuous), try the cedar plank method typically used for salmon on a round of brie; by the time the insides have reached molten lava status, it'll have picked up some of that quintessential summertime grill flavor. Serve with crusty bread and fresh fruit. (Your finger is also an appropriate utensil if no one's looking.)

The requisite grilled veggies like bell peppers, squash and zucchini all too often come off the grill overcooked and spongy, but they can be perked up with a bright lemon and herb vinaigrette. Give 'em a little drizzle as they come off the grill so they can soak up the flavo, and devour them solo or chopped and tossed with some cooked couscous.

You can even foil-wrap sturdy greens like Swiss chard (give them the standard olive oil, salt and pepper treatment first) and cook them over the fire to impart some of that irresistible smokiness.

Apparently, grilled meat gives you cancer, but feel free to put a good sear on your veg -- they lack most of those pesky carcinogens found in red and other meats. So get out there and experiment with some inventive meatless dishes this summer -- there's only oh, 80 or so hundred-plus degree days in our imminent future, and those glowing coals are calling your name.

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