I’ve always loved the smoky intensity of wood-fired foods. So at Reynard, the Brooklyn restaurant where I’m the chef, we cook lots of dishes over burning oak. While we do most of the grilling on stainless-steel grates, sometimes it’s fun to get our hands dirty, intensifying the caramelization and char on vegetables by tossing them directly on the coals. The technique, of course, isn’t new. In cultures the world over, sweet potatoes are cooked in the embers; Mexican chefs have long roasted chiles this way for salsa; and some cooks in the Middle East do the same with eggplants for their baba ganoush. We think the method works particularly well for vegetables that have hardy peels or skins. Coated in a little olive oil, for instance, whole onions, shallots, and garlic roast beautifully, melting and mellowing in their papery sheaths, and gaining a pleasant bitterness that complements any dish to which they’re added. Sometimes we bury a whole butternut squash in the embers and cook it until it yields easily to a knife. Then we scoop out the flesh, mash it up with salt, butter, and maple syrup or honey, and top it with shaved pecorino, black pepper, and sage. Sweet, smoky, and salty all at once, the combination is dynamite. To protect smaller, more delicate vegetables, we place them in a wire mesh basket. Potatoes—par-boiled in salted water first to minimize the risk of burning—develop a delicious char when crushed and laid in the basket on the coals. And carrots’ natural sugars caramelize, accentuating and deepening their sweetness. Sure, there’s lots to be said for a juicy hunk of meat cooked to perfection atop a grill, but when we want to maximize the flavors of vegetables, we’re not afraid to go beyond the grate.
For intense, unforgettable flavors, toss your vegetables right on the coals