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Credit: Anna Jones: Matt Russel; Paula Disbrowe: Jessica Pages

Smoke & Magic: Anna Jones & Paula Disbrowe on Why Modern Cooks Need the Grill

updated Jun 14, 2019
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Sizzling hunks of meat. A dude manning the grill. Cans of PBR littering the table. These are the clichés that bubble up in advertisements and popular culture when the season turns to grilling. But come on: Crude ideas of cooking outdoors are outdated and deserve a swift kick to death. Grilling is the modern cook’s glory: plant-first, sophisticated, driven by the family table. It’s Grilling Week at Kitchn, and we want you to reimagine what cooking with fire looks like right now — as a modern cook chasing the sweet summer simplicity of food in sunshine, garden vegetables charred into silk, eggplants roasted to bursting.

We invited two women we admire so much — grill masters, cookbook authors, and modern vegetable-lovers Paula Disbrowe and Anna Jones — to have a conversation, with an ocean between them and smoke to connect them, on owning the grill and making magic with a vegetable-first approach to fire.

Credit: Anna Jones: Matt Russel; Paula Disbrowe: Jessica Pages
L: Anna, grilling in her London garden. R: Paula grilling at home in Austin, Texas.

Paula and Anna come from opposite ends of the world, with different yet complementary perspectives and experiences on grilling and modern cooking. Paula, a journalist and food writer, cooked for years on a hill ranch in Texas and now lives with her family in Austin. Anna cooked with Jamie Oliver and lives in London with her young family. Paula is an omnivore; Anna is a vegetarian. Paula’s recent cookbook, Thank You for Smoking, goes deep into smoke as seasoning for everyday recipes, while Anna’s new cookbook, The Modern Cook’s Year, tracks a year of eating in the tradition of English farm- and garden-driven cooking.

But together they agree on what grilling and cooking over fire can be to the modern, plant-first cook. They agree that vegetables on the grill are too often overlooked, and that grilling shouldn’t be reserved for weekend parties.

Credit: Johnny Autry / Matt Russell

Two Grilling Menus from Anna Jones & Paula Disbrowe

Credit: Matt Russell/Kitchn; Food & Prop Stylist: Emily Ezekiel/Kitchn

Paula Disbrowe: Anna, I just got my hands on a copy of The Modern Cook’s Year. It’s gorgeous — congratulations! What’s your favorite thing to throw on the grill this month?

Anna Jones: One of the most memorable meals of last summer was some celeriac steaks I cooked with some friends at the Do Lectures, (a life-affirming weekend of lectures and good people) on a farm in Wales. Now I take any chance I can to recreate it. I’ll blanch it before searing and then serve it with a fresh salsa verde.

Paula: OMG, totally making that (celery root remoulade one of my all-time faves).

Anna: What about you?

Paula: Artichokes, parboiled, finished on grill and tossed with a charred lemon aioli; young carrots from a great urban farmer (I never peel them); spring onions; and sweet corn (I shave off the blistered kernels to make nachos or Mexican street corn salad).

Credit: Jessica Pages/Kitchn

Paula: In your new book you cook through a year. What inspired your calendar approach?

Anna: I started my career as a young chef spending every Saturday at the market smelling, tasting, and connecting with what was around. This is still what I love to do, and how I connect with nature when I am in the city. Seasonality is always the first thing I think about when I’m considering what to cook and eat, so it made complete sense to me to write a book centered around a year, and what is at its best each season. TMCY guides you through the months, from the coldest winter days to the long light summer evenings. It’s really about celebrating my favorite ingredients when they’re at their peak.

Paula: Obviously vegetables are the stars here — when are you inspired to take them to the grill?

Anna: I really think we’ve overlooked how much a bit of char and smoke can complement a beloved vegetable, or even boost a neutral cheese, such as halloumi or feta. Grilling veg should no longer be the domain of Saturday afternoon barbecues. Cooking veg over wood and coals or even on a griddle/grill pan if that’s what you rely on — intentionally charring and burning — has become quite a trend. Bearded chefs in waxed aprons fill every Nordic restaurant worth its salt, although the grill masters of London’s Turkish ocakbasi restaurants will tell you it’s nothing new.

Credit: Matt Russell/Kitchn; Food & Prop Stylist: Emily Ezekiel/Kitchn

Paula: Ha! Can I steal the phrase “bearded chefs in waxed aprons?” Are there any particular vegetables well-suited to grilling, in your opinion?

Anna: An aubergine is an obvious pairing with a bit of smoke; babaganoush is a friendly blend of vegetables and smoke, as is a halved aubergine grilled and basted in white miso on every turn. Onions also work well grilled slowly and tossed through plump pearl barley grains. Even halved Little Gem [lettuce heads] are transformed when quickly charred and simply dressed in oil, vinegar, and chopped herbs.

More delicate veg like asparagus sits well on the grill too, tossed in citrus zest and oil and then grilled until tender. It brings out an incredible woodsy character to the asparagus.

Credit: Jessica Pages/Kitchn

Paula: As you know, I live in Austin, Texas, where it’s hard to not smell the wafting aroma of barbecue several times a day (there’s even a place next door to my yoga studio — a strange thing to smell after vinyasa class). Even though many of my female friends are great cooks, several are still intimidated by “manning” the grill. Do many of your gal friends grill? Curious what your perspective is in London.

Anna: There is still some sense that the BBQ is a man’s domain, but I think that’s wildly outdated. I think this perspective is a hangover from the days when women used to do most of the day-to-day cooking, and the BBQs would come out for the “show” cooking at the weekend that the man of the house wanted to get involved in. It couldn’t be more different in our house; my husband John cooks as much as I do, and we both love to cook on our grill and in our wood oven. It’s the same for most of the families I know, and lots of young female cooks here in the U.K. are making a name cooking with fire.

Read about another young chef and her story of cooking with fire: Call Me Asadora: The Radical Choice of Grilling as a Girl in Chile

Credit: Anna Jones: Matt Russel; Paula Disbrowe: Jessica Pages

Paula: I so appreciate that the good folks at Kitchn want to avoid the cliché, “women can grill too!” approach for this piece. We should be beyond that conversation, right? From my perspective, grilling is simply a “modern,” time-efficient way to create big flavors fast, and it’s so much fun.

Anna: I agree, and think hopefully it’s become outdated to talk about any type of cooking as being a male or female domain. I don’t think it’s helpful, but we have to be realists that there are places where there are more men involved like Michelin star cooking, and then it’s our job as people with a voice in food to talk about how this needs to be leveled out. I think grilled vegetables brings a unique depth of flavor that does feel modern and exciting, no matter who is doing the grilling.

Credit: Jessica Pages/Kitchn

Paula: What’s a typical backyard BBQ look like in East London?

Anna: We generally have fewer days than you might in sunnier climates (like Texas) to grill, so when summer comes we make the most of it. I think there is still work to be done here on getting people to understand how easy it is to grill veg, but there are a wealth of recipes from people like Ottolenghi and restaurants like Brat and Kiln showing people that fire can be used more delicately. These days, I think my friends would make a few easy salads with a barbecued element — perhaps aubergines, Little Gems with some barbecued veg, or halloumi and some veggie burgers (maybe my smoked pimento burgers) with all the trimmings of course! For others there might be a meat element as well, but I think that’s been covered before.

Credit: Matt Russell/Kitchn; Food & Prop Stylist: Emily Ezekiel/Kitchn

Paula: FYI, during my photo shoot with Kitchn, my dog Schnitzel stole an entire round of Mt. Tam (gorgeous cheese from Cowgirl Creamery) off the table. This sort of nonsense has happened before (Easter brunch comes to mind). The photos in your book are so lovely and everything looks perfect — do you secretly have similar versions of unexpected chaos when entertaining?

Anna: There is a lot of chaos in my life with a 3-year-old boy running around. His new favorite game is kicking a soccer ball in the kitchen, usually into my shelves of ceramics! We’re working on making a soccer ball an outside game!

I constantly have kitchen disasters. I once cooked on a radio show for some of the country’s best-loved chefs and that tart I made stayed in the oven so long waiting for my segment is was totally dried out and tasted terrible. I was mortified but the other guests were very accommodating and only said nice things about it — while taking big glugs of water. Devastating.

Credit: Matt Russell/Kitchn; Food & Prop Stylist: Emily Ezekiel/Kitchn

Paula: Your book is already earmarked with several things I want to make. To streamline my excitable nature, I’d love for you to suggest the first three recipes I should make that totally reflect your style.

Anna: It’s spring, so I think we’ll have to stick to spring/summer recipes, as this book is all about seasonal cooking. I’d suggest the charred courgettes with lovage, a very simple recipe but one that’s all about restraint — working with a couple of great ingredients and making them shine. I’d ask you to make the turmeric and coconut baked aloo gobi, it’s a sheet pan bake and my modern twist on an Indian classic (with a whole cauliflower basted in spiced coconut milk with lots of lemon, and a layer of potatoes to soak up all the excess goodness).

Lastly, I would suggest that you make the asparagus and coconut soup. This takes 15 mins to throw together, and I think it’s important to have quick, great recipes up your sleeve for a Wednesday night as well as more impressive things that take a bit longer.

My most-cooked recipes are these quick, easy ones. If it was autumn/winter I’d put my carrot dahl in there too.

Credit: Matt Russell/Kitchn; Food & Prop Stylist: Emily Ezekiel/Kitchn

Paula: The soundtrack for our back-porch dinners is either KUTX (excellent Austin music program — our neighbor is a DJ!) or a time capsule mix from our iPod that’s a mix of Texas troubadours, The Allman Brothers, Bill Evans-era jazz, Wilco, Johnny Cash, and some awkward wild cards (like David’s collection of Swedish folk songs). What’s on your London barbecue playlist?

Anna: We listen to all sorts; there has been a lot of Rolling Stones recently, as my son, Dylan, who is 3, has decided they are his favorite band. I love them, so it’s a good thing! My husband is into James Blake, Caribou, and Mount Kimbie — more of an electro playlist, so that’s sometimes playing. Or we listen to ethereal calming music with haunting vocals from Agnes Obel.

Credit: Anna Jones: Matt Russel; Paula Disbrowe: Jessica Pages

Paula: Thanks for pulling me out of my musical time-warp, and giving me something to Google when I’m procrastinating. Great chatting with you, Anna. I hope we get the opportunity to actually cook and eat together some day.

Thank you Paula and Anna! Be sure to follow them both on Instagram (here and here, respectively) for even more glorious modern grilling inspiration.