The days when vegetables had no personality are gone. As Maeve O'Meara's brand-new series Food Safari Earth is set to show, chefs are increasingly turning to different techniques - such as cooking over flame to flavour vegetables, embracing culinary traditions transplanted everywhere from Asia to the Middle East. Be it a flat-top griddle or a freestanding barbecue, here are five tips and tricks to achieving those distinctive smoky flavours when chargrilling vegetables.
1. Don't be afraid to experiment
Executive chef of Rumi Restaurant and Moor's Head, Joseph Abboud, has charcoal ovens at the centrepiece of his kitchens for a reason: he loves how the heat and smoke transforms seasonal ingredients. One of Abboud's signature seasonal dishes is the brussels sprout kebab, which makes this bud of a cabbage beautiful when cooked over hot coals.
"One thing that is special about the brussels sprout kebabs is the beautiful sweetness that comes from the fire and the bitter ash of the char," says Abboud.
"We dress the kebabs with a walnut and pomegranate sauce and it's an all-time favourite," he says.
Abboud believes we are all "in tune" to smoky charred flavours because it's the cooking method favoured by our ancestors. He adds that while cooking food over fire and coals is an age-old technique to give food more depth of flavour, adding that element of smokiness is now enticing more people than ever to embrace the idea of eating less meat.
"Our most successful dinners at Rumi are our vegan dinners and it's not all vegans who are coming along. It's people who like the idea of eating vegetarian and feel satisfied with the beautiful sweetness that comes from chargrilled vegetables," he says.
2. Sometimes less is more
The charcoal oven has become integral to chef Abboud's cooking at Rumi Restaurant, where he says vegetables are never viewed as side dishes. Abboud adds that home cooks must take extra care to tend to vegetables, which need a lot more attention when being char-grilled than a steak.
"Cooking over charcoal or an open flame will improve the flavour of most ingredients. But be careful not to burn the vegetables and take them too far as it will destroy any subtlety of flavour," he says.
"Vegetables flag the seasons and give you colour and vibrancy. You don't need to mess with them too much. Keep it simple and then dress the vegetables with lemon juice, olive oil and herbs after they've become all charred and caramelised," he says.
A great starter idea, this charred Japanese eggplant with garlic and sesame is a smoky winner. Get this recipe here.
3. Treat vegetables with respect
Israeli-born chef Michael Rantissi fills his menu at Kepos Street Kitchen with non-meat-based dishes such as smoky eggplant salad and roasted pumpkin with sage, burnt butter and hazelnuts. Hummus & Co. the recently released cookbook he co-wrote with partner Kristy Frawley, is filled with vegetables that hold their own on the plate.
"If you treat vegetables nicely and with respect they can be extraordinary," says Rantissi, who earlier in 2017 hosted a Spread Hummus Not Hate event at his Redfern restaurant.
"As a society, we grew up eating vegetables with no seasoning. Most Australians have a story about their grandmother over-steaming the green beans until they became brown or boiling the pumpkin to the point of unpleasantness," he says.
Rantissi says one of the benefits of being part of a multicultural society in Australia is that we have - in the past decade or so - embraced different food cultures and traditions such as the age-old custom of cooking vegetables over an open fire. "Asian cultures and Middle Eastern cultures love their vegetables al dente and this influence has added a dimension of crunch and texture to our vegetables and the fire and char has made them more palatable," he says.
4. Make vegetables the centrepiece
Rantissi encourages home cooks to experiment with cooking vegetables over an open flame. At Kepos Street Kitchen, when he has finished cooking proteins such as lamb, he uses the wood-fired oven to roast vegetables such as eggplant, an ingredient he regards as completely underrated.
"Add spices and herbs and charcoals to the mix when you are cooking vegetables and it takes the ingredient to the next dimension," says Rantissi.
"I like to put a couple of eggplants on the barbecue whole until the skin blackens and they are dark, charred and crisp. You then get this gorgeous internal part that is soft and creamy and full of smoky delicious flavour," he says. Rantissi also likes to blanch broccolini before cooking it over an open flame, which he says gives it a nice texture. When the broccolini is charred to perfection, he adds grated haloumi and lemon zest.
Blanching vegetables until bright green has the benefit of popping with colour and cracking with crispness once you dig in. This charcoal-grilled broccolini with shallot oil and lemon does just that.
5. Choose vegetables with a high sugar content
Rantissi describes himself as 'vegetable-obsessed'. He says scorched onions cooked on a barbecue work really well and he describes them as a childhood favourite.
"Onions have a higher content of sugar than most other vegetables. Onions work particularly well because it's all about the caramelisation of those sugars, which makes the onions much sweeter. I like to add pomegranate molasses and curls of shaved haloumi to the halves of the charred onions which gives it an element of freshness," says Rantissi. He explains that the more charred the onions, the more flavour you will get out of them. But he does say you can take your onions too far, so recommends finishing them in a 220°C oven. Abboud agrees that some ingredients are better on the barbecue - "Brussels sprouts, onions, asparagus, broccolini, capsicum, zucchini and eggplant are all made better with smoke and fire" - while Rantissi says he would avoid things like "kohlrabi and radishes" which are less suitable for chargrilling.
Acharu is a traditional Sri Lankan pickle of vegetables, typically carrot and onion. This is my take on acharu – it’s a very simple version using only pineapple. The sweet fruit stands up perfectly to being pickled with spicy black pepper and chilli. It can be eaten as a snack on its own and is also good served with barbecued meats, particularly pork.
This classic Jordanian dip, made from roasted eggplant seasoned with tahini, garlic and lemon, is usually served as an appetiser with flatbread.
This is a simple side dish with very few ingredients, the aim being to show the versatility of cabbage. We get to taste it being robust, charred and crunchy balanced with its creamy, soft and gentle side.
"Always popular and so easy to make, vegetable kebabs are perfect for entertaining. You can whip them up in any combination and make them as colourful as you like. Try a few fruit pieces (pineapple, peach and pear work wonders) amongst the vegetables if you're in the mood. Add this tangy peanut sauce to really give them a wow factor. They're guaranteed to be a hit at your next summer barbecue." Rebecca Weller, Vegan Sparkles