Gone are the days of charred peppers and dry veggie sausages. Vegetarian BBQs are vibrant, exciting and delicious in their own right. James Hansen talks to Josh Katz, chef-owner at London’s Middle-Eastern grill house, Berber & Q, to get the lowdown on how to make veggies the hero of the barbecue.
Grilling has grown up. The country is tired: tired of dudes burning bangers. Tired of burgers that can only be cooked to regulation grey. Tired, most of all, of sad icebergs and obligatory onions heaped onto sharing tables around the country. There’s a new grilling creed, and it says there’s a better way to barbecue. Fire, fruit, and vegetables.
Barbecues aren’t just blazing fires, burning from impulse-buy charcoal at one (inferno) setting. They’re flexible, sophisticated and capable of producing nuanced, exciting cooking. Restaurateurs have caught on. In London especially, a Japanese robata, a Big Green Egg or some other fire-metal combination are permanent fixtures at the hot new openings.
Yotam Ottolenghi’s new restaurant, ROVI, is dedicated to the art of the robata with talk of hasselback kaffir lime beets and hay-smoked Jersey Royals tempting punters. Tomos Parry’s BRAT cooks Cornish turbot whole, low and slow, until its burnished flesh is flaky in places, melting and gelatinous in others. Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich at Honey & Co and Honey & Smoke offer dishes from smoky aubergine with tahini and grilled peach salad with almond cream and smoked almonds.
Queue Josh Katz…
Another apostle of the modern, smoky church is Josh Katz, chef-owner at Hoxton’s Berber & Q. He’s convinced that while “there will always be a section of UK barbecue culture that will remain committed to focusing mainly on meat”, “barbecue, like any food culture, also needs to evolve and move with the times. And as vegetarianism and veganism become more powerful, the UK barbecue scene has started to shift to recognise this change in consumerism. This is a positive thing, since eating more vegetables is not just good for the diet, but also makes for great food. I think the days of viewing barbecue as meat-heavy ‘dude food’ are now behind us, and there’s a lot more depth and sophistication to the UK barbecue culture as a whole.”
Some might say, easier said than done. Cooking meat over fire can often appear artless, and guests are, for some reason, more forgiving of a cremated sausage or kebab than a cauterised pepper. Of course, this is a mug’s game.
“At Berber & Q we have always viewed vegetables with equal parity to any of our barbecued meats, and see them less as a side note and more of a dish in their own right.” – Josh Katz
Once you’ve got your high-welfare, dry-aged, very delicious meat for the grill, burning it into next summer is unforgivable. The same is true of vegetables, but more importantly, they needn’t play second to even the most perfectly grilled, tender meat.
Reimagine the way you eat vegetables
Cooking vegetables on the barbecue is more freeing than it might first appear. As Josh says, “The limits to what and how you can barbecue vegetables over live fire is bound only by your imagination.” Cauliflower has become popular for its meaty, resilient texture, and deservedly so: marinated and basted in a tahini, garlic and lemon sauce, it’s perfect roasted over coals. But there’s more out there.
The maligned, sliced onion deserves better treatment: its tough skin protects it from fierce heat, so cook it straight on the coals: “the outer layers will burn and provide protection for the inner layers which will soften and sweeten as they steam, absorbing flavours of smoke as they char.” The same can be said of any vegetable with tough skin: sweet potatoes, beetroot, leek, shallots, fennel. Whack on a mix, peel off the charred layers — retaining a few for flavour — and make the best summer salad.
Integrate meat and vegetables more closely: add a slick of beef fat from steaks to potatoes from the coals. Grill peas on the bars to be eaten like edamame. Reimagine the way you eat vegetables.
How to BBQ fruit
Josh suggests caution: “Some fruits respond a lot better to being barbecued then others, and, unlike vegetables, you need to be a little more careful in choosing what you can and cannot grill.” A pineapple, charred and fire-licked, is as good sloshed with a syrup of mint, lime zest and Szechuan pepper as it is hacked into a salsa.
Berries wrapped in foil and briefly acquainted with the fire will pop with flavour; lemons cooked directly on the bars will make smoky lemonade, a burnt lemon tart, or can be squeezed over your meat and vegetables. Roast grapes for a sorbet, grill peaches for another.
Fruits on the barbecue make fine ingredients for later as much as flavour bombs to eat now; your vegetables and your meat can be equals. Go forth and grill. The barbecue truly has grown up.
Hero veg on the BBQ, limit your meat to quality and high-welfare, and pick your coals carefully. Find out more ways to have an ethical BBQ.
Out barbecuing this weekend? Find the London parks you can BBQ in this summer.