August 20, 2019
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Smoke Your Vegetables
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For tender summer-squash carpaccio, shockingly concentrated tomato vinaigrettes, and superior hot sauces, just add smoke.

After almost 20 years living in old Brooklyn apartments, cooking with smoke has always been a bit of a blind spot. Most recipes left me confused, wondering about wood chips—which ones to buy and if they should be soaked; about creating just smoke and not fire (huh?); and whether this process is about cooking the food, or just infusing it with smoke flavor. It all seemed very elemental, but not intuitive. Plus, smoking had always seemed to be the domain of diehard carnivores, and I’ve long been more drawn in the vegetable direction.

But a few years ago, my dad got a pellet grill—one with an on-off switch and a temperature dial—for our family’s cabin, and this, being the lowest entry point possible for smoking, I knew I could grasp. Over the course of a few years, I experimented with adding smoke to some of the summer’s produce bounty, and it unlocked a whole portfolio of flavors and textures that’d been unavailable from my galley kitchen at home. Tomatoes became meaty. A pot of beans took on new and beguiling characteristics. Raw-looking zucchini ribbons had a surprising new smoky-sweet dimension, a perfect foil to bright, juicy, rich pairings in seasonal vegetable salads. It convinced me to pursue this technique more seriously.

Generally speaking, I found it to be more a method for flavoring than for cooking vegetables—no plant has the density (or fattiness) of a pork shoulder, and therefore it’s easy to overwhelm with smoke. Yes, some really take to the flavor—like tomatoes and carrots—and can stand up to a long, smoky sauna. But many others, like summer squash and mushrooms, need little more than a smoky lick, lest the results have all the nuance of an ashtray. One way to control the smoky flavor is to cook only partially in smoke—to finish cooking smoked mushrooms in a skillet over an open grill or on the stovetop, or to parboil potatoes or dense root vegetables before placing them in the smoker. And because of this relative delicacy of vegetables, some wood chips (mesquite, for example) are too strong—mild-flavored woods like alder, apple, maple, and oak are the way to go.

Of course, the most time-honored way to smoke food is to add soaked wood chips to the smoldering coals inside a grill. But I came to understand that smoking foods is just a process of generating smoke inside a closed space—like hotboxing!—and applying indirect, dry heat. For my apartment, I bought a basic stovetop smoker, a simple contraption where a deep, rectangular roasting pan is fitted with two inserts and a snugly fitting lid. You can easily DIY one using cooking equipment you probably already own, like a roasting pan or even a pot, fitted with some kind of perforated insert and a few layers of foil.

Sprinkle the wood chips (soaked if they’re large—but these superfine indoor smoking chips can be added dry) in the bottom. Directly on top, place a drip tray that’s smaller in perimeter than the primary pan—this can be a double layer of foil or a small baking sheet. Above that, place a small rack or a perforated broiling pan, which will hold the food. Seal under a secure lid or a few pieces of foil wrapped tightly; place the whole thing over a heat source, which ignites the wood chips; and start watching for little wisps of smoke, which is your cue to set the timer.

The amount of smoke generated hasn’t been enough to set off my smoke alarm (yet), but I also make a point of keeping the exhaust hood on high and a window cracked open. For a few days afterward, my home smells as if a wintry wood fire (rather than the punishing humidity and high-summer sun) has been heating it up. But it’s a small price to pay—maybe even a bonus to the method. And it’s definitely a welcome reminder that vegetables have always got a few new tricks up their sleeves.

CARROTS

Rub a bunch of scrubbed (and peeled, if desired) medium-size carrots with olive oil and sprinkle them with salt, then arrange on a piece of foil. Carrots can handle a long smoke, and medium-size ones will need anywhere from an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and 45 minutes over a medium heat (around 350° F) to get tender. If you use a stovetop grill, smoke for the first 10 minutes over a burner, then transfer the whole contraption to a preheated 350° F oven to finish cooking. Or cook them entirely on the grill.

Chopped into chunks, you can add these to a pot of black beans or treat them as a vegetarian main dish or a side: Whisk together three parts plain yogurt to one part tahini and season with salt. Smear the mixture over a platter, and pile the smoked carrots on top. Zest a lemon over everything, spritz with some of the juice, and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Just before serving, drizzle with olive oil.

TOMATOES

Smoked tomatoes belong on the short list of vegetarian umami bombs, next to miso paste and Bragg liquid aminos. Ripe and sturdy tomatoes are best, like Early Girls or Romas—use “sauce tomatoes” from the farmers market if you can. Split them in half through the stem, arrange on an aluminum baking sheet cut side up, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. For a tomato that’s still quite juicy, you can smoke them for just 20 or 25 minutes over medium heat, or about an hour longer for a drier, more concentrated result. For a long smoke, an outdoor smoker works best. If working indoors, transfer the smoker contraption to a preheated 275° F oven after the initial stovetop smoking of 20 minutes.

A few of these go a long way in a mixed-tomato salad or a short-simmer tomato sauce. For a grain salad, mince a few smoked tomatoes and combine with sherry or white balsamic vinegar for an assertive vinaigrette.

JALAPEÑOS

Trim off the stems of the peppers, then arrange them on a rack. These require just about 12 minutes on the smoker, either an outdoor grill or an indoor stovetop one, set over medium heat. The idea isn’t so much to soften and cook the flesh (although they’ll darken a bit) as it is for them to soak up the smoke flavor.

I like these best in an easy hot sauce: In a blender, combine 5 smoked jalapeños with ⅓ cup apple cider vinegar, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon honey, and the juice of half a lime. Blend until smooth. Adjust the salt, sweetness, and acid to taste. Add a few smoked garlic cloves (see below) if you want. Seeded and diced, smoked jalapeños also make a nice accent in fresh corn salads and even cornbread.

RADISHES

For vegetables like radishes that have a fresh, crunchy texture that you want to preserve, a layer of ice in your smoker will prevent them from cooking and softening. Fill a small aluminum dish with ice and place a second, similarly sized dish on top (both can be made from double layers of foil, crimped a bit around the edges to create rims). In the top dish, arrange cleaned and trimmed radishes. Prepare your smoker with wood chips of choice, and place the radishes stacked over the ice tray into the smoker. Close the smoker contraption and set to low heat. Once smoke wisps begin leaking, set the timer for 4 minutes. Then transfer the smoked radishes to the refrigerator or a bowl of ice to chill thoroughly.

Serve them as a snack smeared with barely softened butter (or a compound butter, using miso, herbs, honey, or whatever you please) and a little bowl of coarse salt for sprinkling.

MUSHROOMS

Cut or tear mushrooms—button, crimini, shiitake, oyster, king trumpet—into bite-size pieces. Toss with a bit of olive oil, then arrange them on the smoking rack. Smoke for 15 minutes in either an outdoor smoker or a stovetop one, until tender, then sprinkle with salt. If, after 15 minutes, the mushrooms are sufficiently smoky but not tender enough, finish cooking them in a 350°F oven or in a skillet—you don’t want to overwhelm them with smoke.

Smoked mushrooms make an excellent taco filling: Fill a griddled tortilla with mushrooms, pickled onion, and a creamy element, such as smashed avocado, crema, or hot-sauce-spiked yogurt, and a few spritzes of lime.

SUMMER SQUASH

Lightly smoking summer squash ribbons makes for an unexpectedly good “carpaccio”—the fibrous crunch of the vegetable will soften thanks to salting and a short application of heat, but the texture will still be just a bit dried out, more raw than cooked. Make sure to use a mild wood here, like apple or maple. With a mandoline, slice 1 or 2 summer squash into long, thin slabs—about ⅛ inch thick. Line them up on a clean towel, sprinkle them lightly with salt, let them stand for about 10 minutes until they glisten, and then blot them dry. For either an outdoor smoker grill or an indoor stovetop one, arrange the squash strips on the smoking rack in a single layer (you may need to do this in 2 batches), and smoke over medium heat for 4 minutes.

In a salad, the smoked squash needs to be paired with high-contrast partners in order to balance out the smoke: cool but rich cheese, like ricotta or burrata; juicy cherry tomatoes; soft herbs, like basil or mint; fresh lemon or lime juice; or zippy vinegar. I like to gently combine the smoked squash ribbons with a handful of halved cherry tomatoes and torn basil leaves, then dress with a bit of olive oil, a splash of red wine vinegar, and plenty of black pepper.

GARLIC

Trim off the top(s) of the garlic heads so that most of the cloves are exposed, then rub all over with olive oil. Smoke over low or medium heat until the innermost cloves are tender (test with a paring knife or a skewer). In an electric smoker with temperature control, you can do a really long, low-and-slow smoke for 1½ to 2 hours, setting the temperature around 275°F. In a stovetop smoker, smoke for 15 minutes over a medium flame, then transfer to a preheated 275°F oven for the remaining hour and a half or so.

Use the smoked garlic anywhere you’d use roasted garlic: Mince and mash it with salt until you have a paste, and add it to vinaigrettes and marinades, or use it to flavor a quick yogurt sauce. Add it to bean spreads and hummus. Place the smoked cloves and a handful of sturdy herbs or aromatics (thyme, rosemary, dried chile) in a jar and cover with olive oil to save for serving alongside grilled bread.

Lukas Volger

Lukas Volger is the author of the forthcoming cookbook Start Simple and three other cookbooks, and the editorial director of the queer food journal Jarry. He lives in Brooklyn.

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