A new barbecue era is emerging where vegetables are getting as much airtime as the classic meat staples. Whether you’re vegetarian, flexitarian or an unabashedly old-school carnivore, it’s time to up your veg game
For years, barbecues have been an underwhelming affair for those who avoid eating meat and fish. Other than the odd Mediterranean-vegetable kebab, the offering has usually been limited to ultra-processed alternatives to meat (which taste neither like their meaty doppelgangers or good in their own right) or bland bean burgers that inevitably crumble into the coals.
It’s no surprise then that plant-based barbecue options haven’t won over the meat eaters. However, man (or woman) cannot live on meat alone. A plate overflowing with burgers, bangers, kebabs and chicken thighs accompanied by a token salad garnish might seem like a delicious proposition until lethargy and indigestion provide an uncomfortable reminder of why we don’t eat such protein-heavy meals every day.
There are, however, a small band of firecooks who, while extolling the virtues of cooking great meat and fish over fire, are also getting excited about vegetables.
‘A steak can taste really good cooked in a kitchen, and it will taste even better cooked over fire, but the difference between vegetables cooked in a kitchen and over fire is like night and day,’ says Luke Vandore-Mackay (pictured below), chef, fire-school tutor and founder of High Grange near Axminster, Devon.
The kind of vegetarian barbecue championed by chefs like Luke isn’t about fooling diners with vegetables and legumes masquerading as meat; instead they focus on making quality plant-based produce the star of the show, their flavours enhanced by heat and flame.
‘The main advantage of cooking vegetables over fire is that you don’t need to worry about them burning as you won’t get the acrid bitterness that occurs when meat is burnt.’
It’s not all about “dirty cooking” though; cooking vegetables low and slow – just as you would a piece of brisket – works brilliantly with roots such as jerusalem artichokes, beetroot and potatoes.
‘A long cook will intensify the flavour of the vegetable,’ says Luke. ‘You don’t need to add marinades before cooking either. For example, I’d cook celeriac in a simple sage butter and then season with salt and pepper when it’s done.’
If you do want to play with flavours, smoking vegetables by adding wood chips to the barbecue is a natural way to elevate the flavour. Do a bit of research to find out which smoking woods (there’s a huge variety available) pair best with the produce you plan to cook.
‘Potatoes are one of my favourite vegetables to smoke. I parboil them first, then give them a mash with the palm of my hand so the smoke flavour infuses throughout. Smoking also works well with fruit – I recently smoked a whole pineapple and served it with smoked ice cream and mint syrup.’
Keen to learn more about cooking fruits and veggies over fire? High Grange offers half- and full-day fire courses at its east Devon HQ. Also check out Bristol Fire School where Genevieve Taylor, author of Charred: The Complete Guide to Vegetarian Grilling and Barbecue, runs classes.