The barbecue has become a universal symbol of summer and an emblem of the classic American lifestyle. In the UK, Australia, and much of Europe too, barbecuing of some kind is a popular communal activity. The shortest spell of sun and smells of smoke and sizzling meat waft from back gardens and linger in the air at parks across Britain.
From leafy suburban England, the barbecue has very distant origins. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the origins of the word ‘barbecue’ to Haiti, where in 1492, Christopher Columbus reportedly encountered indigenous people roasting meat on wood-framed grills, resting on sticks over a fire. The word eventually entered English through its Spanish equivalent—barbacoa.
For centuries, the barbecue was given savage connotations by white Europeans who associated the cooking method with the ‘uncivilised’ native populations of the Americas. Racialised tales of island cannibalism are dotted with descriptions of open-fire grilling, or ‘smoke cookery’, as one author calls it. Present-day conceptions of the barbecue could hardly be more different. Cold lager, roaring fire, sheets of metal, slabs of meat—the modern barbecue has become a shrine to all things modern, masculine, and meaty.
But barbecues today need not be just for carnivores. Indeed, a vegetable-free barbecue is arguably a barbecue half done. Everyone will enjoy a few charred courgettes with their chipolatas, and there’s a wonderful world of barbecued veg out there, if only you know where to look.
Knowing roughly where to look, a couple of weeks ago I opened a copy of the Guardian Weekend Magazine (22 July). Yotam Ottolenghi, the Rightful King of all things ‘vegetarian-because-they’re-nice-not-because-they’re-vegetarian’, had written a brilliant article on the magic that happens when you take ordinary vegetables and grill them over hot coals. Perfectly timed for the not-so-glorious British summer, the recipes grabbed my attention, and I decided to give some of them a go.
With a £2.50 disposable barbecue successfully set up on a friend’s Bristol balcony, the first dish we made was the grilled cucumber salad with chilli and ginger (second from top). Ottolenghi writes that grilled cucumbers take on a “gorgeous smoky oomph” when barbecued, yet retain their freshness. Admittedly I was dubious but after giving it a go, I am now a committed fan. Incredible.
The second thing we made was the grilled baby peppers dish (top). I couldn’t find baby peppers or afford harissa but used ordinary bell peppers and made a makeshift ‘harissa’ from oil, molasses, and spices, but the recipe was another triumph. Served on a wooden board, dotted with grilled bread then drizzled with a herby salsa verde, I’ll definitely be making it again.
I made the third recipe—grilled apricot with ginger nut biscuits (bottom)—the day before, again adapting it a bit to suit my wallet, using ingredients already in my friends’ cupboard (thanks guys). Eschewing the cream, blackberries, and bay leaves, I combined the yoghurt with a trickle of pomegranate molasses, and then topped with the grilled apricots, ginger nuts, a few mint leaves and some rose petals. Usually not one for sweet food, I actually loved this; a great dessert idea for a dinner party.
Thankfully, it’s not just Ottolenghi who can do it – vegetarian barbecuing is for everyone! My friend Katie (a recent Thyme & Plaice guest writer) makes delicious barbecued mushroom skewers, smothered in a mix of crème fraîche and curry paste. Asparagus spears, baby carrots, wedges of lettuce, even avocados cut lengthways are all transformed by a couple of minutes over the coals. Even vegetable skewers, the standard vegetarian accompaniment to any barbecue, need not be bland chunks of courgette and half-raw red onion: trial different vegetables, even fruit; experiment with textures and tastes; cut things differently; add chunks of cheese and bread; smother with sauces, marinades, oils, and spices. The world is your oyster (mushroom)!
***More photos will follow on our Facebook page later***