This summer, the Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann, a legend in live-fire cookery, published Green Fire, a book exploring “extraordinary” ways to grill vegetables. Consider it a significant marker, as the notion of creating stellar dishes around barbecued vegetables becomes more popular.
From London’s Acme Fire Cult to the Moorcock Inn near Halifax, where medieval-looking grills wood-roast greens, broccoli, courgettes and asparagus, the most creative British barbecue is that which celebrates the alchemy of heat, smoke and vegetables on its own terms – rather than as a garnish for meat.
Want to serve vivid veggies from your grill this summer? Take a steer from Britain’s most inventive chefs.
Nina Matsunaga, the chef-owner at Cumbria’s the Black Bull, barbecues corn in its husk: “Hassle. But way better flavour.” Remove the frilly silk beneath the husk, rewrap the cob and – to prevent the husk from burning – soak it in water for 20 minutes, then drain. Grill the cob for 20 minutes, rotating regularly.
To flavour the cob, Matsunaga opens the husk, slathers it in herb butter (30g of butter a cob, blitzed with 10g of wild garlic, dill, lovage, parsley, etc), rewraps it and grills for another three minutes. Finally, she removes the husk and serves with salad and flatbread.
Alternatively, after 10 minutes of grilling, you can season the cob with salt and butter and, after 20 minutes more on the grill, serve it topped with pickled ginger, spring onions and miso mayonnaise (2½ tbsp mayo, ideally Kewpie, mixed with ½ tsp white miso): “For an umami kick, sprinkle over katsuobushi (smoked skipjack tuna).”
The renowned corn “ribs” at London’s Fallow restaurant are usually fried. They won’t curl up as dramatically on the barbecue, but their fresh, smoky taste is delicious, says the co-owner, Will Murray.
Take two corn cobs and, using a large, sharp knife (warning: keep fingers clear and work slowly, with your weight behind the blade), trim the ends flat and cut each cob in two to produce four small cobs.
Take each one, stand it on end and split it in half by cutting down through the core. You now have eight pieces of corn that are flat on the core side. Taking each piece one by one, place them core-side down and cut them in half lengthways, which will eventually produce 16 “ribs”.
In salted boiling water, cook the ribs for four minutes. Drain and grill for four to five minutes over white coals, core up, kernels down.
To season, combine in a bowl: 1½ tbsp Old Bay seasoning, 1½ tsp smoked paprika, 1 tsp smoked chilli flakes, 1½ tbsp sea salt and 50g of butter. Tumble the ribs through the butter-spice mix. Dress with lime and coriander.
“Alex Rushmer, the co-owner of Cambridge’s plant-led Vanderlyle, likes using mushrooms as “a substantial burger stand-in”. He marinades large portobellos (eight in 3 tbsp balsamic vinegar, 2 tsp Marmite and 1 tsp dark miso, whisked with 6 tbsp olive oil, black pepper and the juice of half a lime) for four hours, turning them once.
Rushmer barbecues them (with the lid-down – “keeps them juicy”) over a medium-high heat for four minutes on each side. Stuff two per person into a bun with garnishes. “Mushrooms have a brilliant umami flavour – this amps things up,” he says.
Mushrooms mimicking pulled pork? That works too, says Sam Evans, the co-author of The Hang Fire Cookbook. To feed four people, shred eight king oyster mushrooms along their lengths with a fork, seasoning the shreds with salt, ¾ tsp each of chilli powder and black pepper and a bit more than 1 tbsp of vegetable oil.
Get a cast-iron skillet or metal frying pan (nothing with a nonstick coating or plastic handles) “screaming hot” over your barbecue coals, before adding the mushrooms. Don’t move them. “Hold your nerve,” urges Evans.
Drive off most of the moisture and sear them, before jostling to ensure they’re evenly cooked. Add 3 tbsp barbecue sauce and a few dashes of mushroom ketchup, and mix through. Serve on toasted brioche with coleslaw.
A smoky, garlicky dip and side dish, mirza ghasemi is “last meal on Earth” territory for the chef Leyli Homayoonfar. The barbecue brains at Caerphilly’s Bab Haus, Homayoonfar has created an entirely outdoor, coal-roasted mirza ghasemi, which, while not authentic to her Iranian grandmother’s recipe, still bangs.
To serve two to four people, grill two large aubergines (“pierced to prevent them exploding”) directly on red-hot coals alongside a foil-wrapped garlic bulb. Over 10 to 15 minutes, turn the garlic and aubergines until they char, soften and collapse. Place the aubergines in a clingfilm-covered bowl – “trapped steam will help peel the skin off”.
While the aubergines are cooling, char four tomatoes on the grill. Let the ingredients cool, then scoop out the aubergine flesh and, with the skinned tomatoes and eight garlic cloves, thoroughly mash to a dip-able consistency, adding plenty of olive oil and salt to taste.
The garlic cloves should pop easily from their skins, says Homayoonfar: “I couldn’t believe how much garlic my grandmother put in.” Finally, crush ¼ tsp saffron with salt and add 1 tbsp warm water. Stir the saffron liquid through. Serve with Persian sangak flatbread or pitta.
Low-in-sugar brassicas, says Rushmer, “can take a real charring and taste smoky rather than acridly bitter”.
A quartered broccoli will cook in four to five minutes over white coals (turn regularly), and can be simply dressed with salt and oil. Peter Dantanus, a chef at Brighton’s Burnt Orange, loves how broccoli “is like a sponge, absorbing flavours”. Dress a quartered broccoli by mixing together 100g tahini, 10ml water, 40ml lime juice, and – “slowly, so it doesn’t split” – 100ml olive oil. Season with salt and top the dressed broccoli with spring onion and black sesame seeds.
Forget pan-frying, much less steaming, cabbage. All the cool kids are chargrilling pointy hispi cabbages. To serve four, James Cochran, the chef-owner at London’s 12.51, quarters a hispi, salts it, lightly brushes it with oil and cooks it on all three sides for 10 to 12 minutes. “Go quite dark on the char. The layers create texture, with some parts extra-crispy, others meltingly tender,” he says.
Finish it on the barbecue, dressing the cabbage with 100g soft butter mixed with scotch bonnet jam or mango chutney. Top each plate with crispy shallots, fried garlic and fresh dill or chervil.
If you want to use a cheaper, sturdier white cabbage, the food writer and barbecue expert Melissa Thompson, the author of Motherland: A Jamaican Cookbook, offers a clever tip: immerse it in water briefly. That will trap droplets between the cabbage’s leaves, which will help it steam as it grills.
At London’s Smokestak restaurant, the founder David Carter barbecues seasonal greens – from winter kales and cabbages (“brush with beef fat, turn, grill and repeat, to build beautifully caramelised layers of flavour”) to halved baby gem lettuces done in a few minutes.
Dress barbecue lettuce with salsa rossa. There are numerous recipes online, but Carter’s secret ingredient for his take on the spicy Italian tomato sauce is Lee Kum Kee’s chilli garlic sauce.
When whole-roasting, “always use plain white cauliflowers”, advises Nikos Kontogiannatos, the chef at London’s Firebird. Remove any leaves and drizzle the head with olive oil, season it, wrap it and, using a knife, poke several holes in the foil: “It allows smoke to permeate the cauliflower evenly.”
After your barbecue has died down to a steady heat, place the cauliflower among the coals for 45 minutes, turning every 10 minutes. When done, a knife should slide in easily.
Kontogiannatos then peels back the foil and, for five minutes in the barbecue, glazes the cauliflower with an apple sauce made by bringing 75ml apple juice, 30ml cider vinegar, 60g each of caster and demerara sugar, ½ cinnamon stick, 1 tsp fresh thyme, 1 tsp smoked paprika and ½ tsp black pepper to the boil, then reducing it by half to a honey-like consistency.
Serve the cauliflower, split between three to four people, with a salad of tomatoes, red onion and mint.
You do not need advice on cooking jacket spuds in a fire, but Tomer Amedi, the executive chef at London’s Pascor, has a gamechanging topping. For four potatoes, combine 160g butter, 40g chopped anchovies, 2 tbsp chopped fresh oregano, the zest of one lemon and one orange, black pepper and 50g of toasted, chopped pine nuts.
Cut open your cooked potatoes and crisscross the interiors, applying a teaspoon of the butter mix to each side of that split. Sit the spuds on the grill for three to four minutes, while it sinks in. Serve with the remaining butter, says Amedi: “Allow your guests to choose how much to add. Hint: a lot.”
Acme Fire Cult’s co-owner Daniel Watkins loves dense trombetta courgettes, which “lend themselves well to live flames”. He also works with sweet, seedless grezzina courgettes a lot, but the principle for all courgettes is the same: salt and oil the skin and turn regularly until they soften.
Watkins likes to serve trombetta on a chickpea puree with creme fraiche, dressed in an Indian spiced butter sauce (madras curry powder or your preferred mix, simply cooked in butter).
Chef Sam Grainger, the food director at Liverpool’s Belzan and Madre restaurants, lets courgettes sit for a few moments in his universal summer anchovy dressing [see below]. Meanwhile, using a sieve, toast (to serve four people) 120g walnuts and crush them as they cool. On each plate, place two halves of a courgette, topped with walnuts, 50g crumbled feta and the remaining dressing.
Shaun Hurrell, the chef-owner of Durham’s Barrio Comida, is a fan of “burn-and-peel”. Take any layered vegetable – leek, cabbage, fennel or onion – bury it in hot embers “to form a heavily charred exterior” (smaller items 10 to 15 minutes; larger 30 minutes), take out, wrap in foil “and allow them to steam in their juices until cool enough to handle. Peel back the charred layers and you’ll have a delicately steamed vegetable with a light smoke perfume.” Dress in good olive oil and vinegar or, if using fennel, harissa and natural yoghurt.
Selin Kiazim, a chef at London’s Oklava, intensifies onions’ natural sweetness in a similarly direct way. Quarter and skewer four, then cook over white coals to “colour quickly. Too low a heat and they shrivel before caramelising. They don’t need oil; just grill until blackened on one side and flip [four to five minutes each side]. I like them with some bite.”
To serve four people as a sharing side, spread the onion petals out and season with salt. Whisk together 45ml pomegranate molasses, 15ml red wine vinegar, 75ml extra-virgin olive oil and 60ml Şalgam (fermented Turkish turnip or carrot juice, optional), and generously dress the onions. Scatter over a big handful of parsley and a dusting of sumac.
Barbecuing smaller beets is a cinch. Ollie Templeton, the chef-director at London’s Carousel, tosses a variety of different coloured beets in salt, cider vinegar, olive oil and splash of elderflower cordial to build in subtle layers of flavour, then foil-wraps them and shoves them into the coals for 45 to 60 minutes.
After cooling, they should pop out of their charred skins “tender, like boiled new potatoes”. Templeton serves his beets (one per person) quartered, on a bed of yoghurt seasoned with salt, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice.
Add grilled red onions, sliced and dressed with apple vinegar, elderflower cordial and salt, and scatter with crispy fried capers and fresh herbs: “Dill, mint or parsley work well.”
Sam Grainger’s barbecue tips
To give it a smoke-friendly flavour boost, Grainger spritzes barbecuing veg with a mix of 50ml instant dashi powder (“brilliant stuff”), 25ml olive oil, 20ml white wine vinegar and 5ml lemon juice. That spritz works particularly well when over “super-high heat”.
It is not only large, whole vegetables that can be barbecued. You can use an old metal sieve to cook small or sliced vegetables on a barbecue (peas, mangetout, broccoli, courgette, asparagus): “Essentially, stir-frying over fire.”
For barbecues, Grainger routinely whips up a universal summer anchovy dressing. Blitz 2 banana shallots, the zest and juice of 3 lemons, a small bunch of parsley, thyme from 8 sprigs (pick the leaves off the woody stalks), 3 cloves of garlic, 8 salted anchovies, 3 tbsp white wine vinegar and 1 tbsp of honey with 100ml of hazelnut or olive oil. This will dress food for four to eight people and will put a spring in the step of any barbecued vegetable. Raw garlic in oil can be a botulism hazard, so make fresh batches of the anchovy dressing as you are cooking, and use immediately.