We’re living in a sort of golden age of fake meat products. Meat-free foods that are shaped like meat have flooded the market, making it easier than ever to find soyrizo at the grocery store, or an Impossible Burger at Burger King. These products give vegetarians and vegans something that’s easy to grill at a BBQ, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon vegetables entirely.
Leaning heavily on these mass-produced meat substitutes won’t “save the environment,” no matter what the fake meat food giants might tell you—check out Alicia Kennedy’s op-ed for In These Times on the green washing trend—but more importantly: Vegetables are good and, just like meat or eggs, they taste great when prepared properly, but not so great when cooked without the care and thought they deserve.
The words “carrot dog” may send your average BBQ Dad into a frenzy, but a smoked, grilled carrot that’s been finished with a little fat isn’t just a whimsical hot dog replacement, it’s an intensely flavorful way to enjoy a carrot. (I love a grilled carrot, and I love whimsy, so I do not mind the term “carrot dog.” I draw the line at “bread steak,” however.)
And while a certain Michelin-starred restaurant received tons of fawning press for removing meat, fish, and dairy from its menu, Chef Amanda Cohen has been cooking and serving vegetables in mind-blowingly creative and delicious ways at her restaurant, Dirt Candy, since 2008. Her broccoli dog is one of her most iconic dishes, but other vegetables (such as the carrot, the beet, and the mushroom) have gotten the dog treatment, as well as the pastrami treatment and the decidedly fine dining mousse treatment.
In short—Chef Cohen has been thinking about veggie dogs (and vegetables in general) much longer, and much more intently, than I have, which is why I reached out to see if she had any tips on how to make smoked vegetables, be they carrots, broccoli, or cabbage, taste amazing. (Spoiler: It comes down to fat and surface area.)
“The thing with smoking a vegetable versus smoking a piece of animal protein is vegetables don’t come with their own source of fat,” Chef Cohen explained to me over email. “When you smoke animal protein, it absorbs the smoke and it mixes with the fat, and you get this really delicious, intoxicating product. When you smoke a vegetable, it’s not porous. It’s not going to soak in the smoke. And the smoke itself is basically just attaching itself to the outside. You want to have a great big surface, so that you get the flavor in as many places as possible. But you also have to finish cooking it in a fat. You have to add fat into the vegetable—like you already have existing in a piece of animal protein—to make it that delicious.”
A smoked carrot may require a few more steps than a pork butt, but they are easy steps that even a novice home cook is capable of accomplishing. Cohen’s Nashville hot carrot dogs are cooked using several methods to achieve the desired, delicious effect.
“We boil them just so that they are a little bit soft and they’re easier to shape,” she explained. “It’s no fun eating a carrot dog in a bun if there’s a pointy end. We want the whole thing to be the same size and you have to be able to shape it. And we know because of what we’re doing with it, that it’s not going to cook enough when it’s getting smoked, and it’s going to have to fry too long as a whole carrot. So I have to start that process and move it along. So we’re going to boil it so it’s just tender enough to shape, and then we smoke it, and then we dip it into a batter and deep fry it, and we finish it with the hot oil because it’s a Nashville hot carrot dog.”
If smoking and deep frying sounds a bit too labor intensive for a backyard barbecue, don’t fret. Cohen’s broccoli dog recipe is a bit more accessible for the average home cook, but you can also apply these principles to all of your vegetarian grilling and smoking pursuits.
Cut big vegetables into pieces to increase their surface area, par-cook sturdier produce like carrots, and develop flavors through multiple cooking methods, such as smoking and then grilling to get that extra bit of char. And—perhaps most importantly—always finish your veggies with a little fat by giving them a quick sauté, dip, or drizzle with butter or some other flavorful oil. It may not be as easy as throwing an Impossible Burger on the grill, but thinking about and preparing vegetables in this way will make you a better cook, no matter your diet.
It’s worth noting, however, that Chef Cohen is not against the occasional Impossible or Beyond product, especially if it leads them down a veggie-heavy path. “They’re eating less meat because they’re trying these different kinds of products, which hopefully brings then over to the dark side of eating more vegetables, which is what I’m all about.”