When flesh-eaters discuss food with non-flesh-eaters, they always ask: Do you miss meat? Some say no.
"Come on," goes the taunt. "Not even bacon?" Nope, some say.
"Okay." The stakes go up. "Not even ... barbecues?" Hmm. Well.
Ever since the first Homo Erectus seared the first hippopotamus flank on some windswept savannah, outdoor cooking has been almost exclusively a carnivore-carnival. Yes, hominids roasted tubers too, and the occasional handful of grain. They are also rumored to have done a bit of steaming. But for most of the past million years, when the stones or the coals or the kindling got smoking hot, meat has sprung to mind: the sizzle, that sweet bloody smell. It might even be wired into our DNA.
For hominids, cooking flesh had a biological imperative. It made meat easier to digest, synthesizing its protein better and faster. Prehistoric cookouts, if you buy that evolution dealie, are what made us us.
If herbivores felt scorned around cookfires for millennia, maybe that was our forebears' way of sneering, "Want to stunt the species, idiots? Go starve!" But time has been kind. After far too many nothing-but-corn-on-the-cob July Fourths, our day has arrived. We are invited to the cookout. Heck, grab the briquettes. Maybe we're even hosting it.
Gayle Pirie, executive chef/owner of San Francisco's trendy Foreign Cinema restaurant, is a Berkeley resident and has also enjoyed tenures in the kitchens of Zuni and Chez Panisse. What would she cook at a fleshless fresh-air fete?
Corn on the cob, of course: "But with lime juice." Lime's high acid content provides "a special tang. Start with butter that's sweet and hopefully organic, whip it up with lime juice and sea salt, smear it on your corn," then grill.
"On a grill, the sky's the limit," Pirie exults. "Any vegetable that's appropriately dressed becomes a new innovation. Anything goes — even artichokes." She suggests parboiling large ones for 25 minutes before grilling them. To make the ubiquitous zucchini less predictable, "I dress mine with pine nuts, mint, extra-virgin olive oil, and salt," she said. With a laugh, she adds, "It's got protein, so it's almost like a piece of meat."
Grilled potatoes are a Foreign Cinema staple. Pirie prefers Russian fingerlings, French rose, and Yukon gold, and suggests serving them with "one of the oldest sauces in the world — bagna cauda." This fondue-like Piemontese vegetable dip whose name means "hot bath" traditionally includes olive or walnut oil, butter and/or cream, and garlic, blended and lightly cooked with ... uh, anchovies. For a vegetarian version, Pirie suggests including "orange zest, lemon zest, and a little bit of chili flake. This doesn't replace the anchovy taste, but provides a little background heat.
"Pour it over your grilled potatoes," she advises, or bring the potatoes to the picnic table "on a platter along with a cute little ramekin of sauce."
Just saying no to all animal products? Vegans can belly up to the bonfire with butterless brio, Stuart Reiter says. Having cooked at meatless San Francisco meccas Millennium and Greens, Reiter is now the chef at Tofu Yu, a Berkeley-based organic "soybeanery" currently wholesaling its creations to local stores and set to launch a Ninth Street deli within the next few weeks.
Barbecue sauce suits lots of things that never had hooves. Reiter has devised a sauce especially for tofu: Hickory-flavored, it starts with a blended onion-tomato base, "plus a little molasses for depth and then a sweetener — my preference is agave nectar, a natural alternative to cane sugar — then apple-cider vinegar, cayenne, and soy sauce."
Whoa, pardner — what?
"Soy sauce has many crossover applications," Reiter insists. "Sure, it's Chinese — but it offers so much more depth than salt."
For barbecued tofu — which he says makes great sandwiches — he marinates the curd: "the longer the better, although tofu doesn't take marinades as well as some would hope. So I make the sauce very thick" and brush it on liberally "to create a kind of crust." He suggests prebaking well-coated tofu in a casserole at home before giving it three or four minutes on the grill.
"Make sure you have a nice coating of oil," Reiter warns. "Tofu loves to stick."
At International House, whose lavish buffet meals are open not only to student residents but to the public at large, biweekly central-patio barbecues are a May-to-October favorite. To ensure that these aren't just fleshfests, production manager Warren Clark supervises the behind-the-scenes preparation of veggie burgers, which are prebaked for fifteen minutes in the I-House kitchen before being brought outside to the grill.
The recipe starts with cooked barley, into which is mixed chopped walnuts, cilantro, stock, salt and pepper, four different kinds of mushrooms, and a mirepoix: diced and gently cooked carrots, celery, and onions. Crushed croutons, Clark says, "provide a little cohesion." For easier patty-patting, chill the mixture first to firm it up.
At Napa's farm-focused, self-described "vegetable restaurant" Ubuntu, executive chef Jeremy Fox boldly barbecues Brussels sprouts in his oven. He halves the sprouts, tosses them in grapeseed oil and kosher salt, bakes them on a pan until tender, cools them, returns them to the oven, smokes them for an hour with hickory chips, then sautés and drizzles them with barbecue sauce — and he suggests that you try this at home. Consider pairing it with BBQ black-eyed-pea-collard rolls (like stuffed cabbage, with liquid smoke) and BBQ seitan-slaw sandwiches, as recommended by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero in their hefty new cookbook, Veganomicon.
Grill that gluten. Sear that soy.
Because we aren't hominids anymore.