These Charred Carrots Prove How Versatile Fire Cooking Can Be
The recipe from Pat Martin’s new cookbook has Southern flair thanks to whipped buttermilk.
It’s September 1990 and Pat Martin is a freshman at Freed-Hardeman in Henderson, Tennessee—and he is hungry. The food available around campus hasn’t been cutting it and McDonald’s won’t do; Martin, a true southerner, is after barbecue.
He stumbles into Thomas & Webb, a joint with six tables, a small flickering TV, and a kind man named Mr. Harold, who would eventually become a mentor to Martin. “He asked me if I wanted hot or mild sauce and then literally did not move his feet—just picks up a thick piece of cardboard and there’s a whole hog laying there and he just picks it right off, makes my sandwich, and gives it to me,” Martin reminisces. “It just slapped me in the face, you know? I immediately remember thinking I have got to learn how to do that.”
By the following year, with wisdom from Mr. Harold firmly under his belt, Martin roasted his first hog. It was a team effort between friends featuring a pit built from masonry bricks borrowed from an on-campus construction site and a repurposed road closed sign that doubled as a spatula large enough to flip a whole hog. The success of it left Martin infatuated with whole hog barbecue—enough so that his debut cookbook, Life of Fire, is almost entirely about mastering the art of whole hog cooking 30 years after he first set eyes on a whole-roasted pig.
“I wanted a procedural book that would mentor somebody through this process,” Martin explains. “I did not want to hide from the fact that what we were talking about was very arduous and very hard. This is not a dumbed down book—it’s cooking whole hog pit barbecue.”
Although the heart of this cookbook is about the whole hog—and it’s important to note that there is not a single beef recipe among its 319 pages—Martin also left space for grilling and desserts. The book is broken down by the lifespan of a fire: birth, youth, the golden years, old age, cold smoke, and after the fire.
The book is a family affair—the desserts section features snippets penned by his mom, Pam Martin, with a recipe for fudge pie from his wife Martha and his Maw-maw’s pecan pie. “Pretty much the last chapter is my mom’s book within the book,” he laughs, remarking that the women in his family are as obsessed and meticulous with hand-cranked ice cream as he is with barbecue.
“As a kid, I never thought about what my identity was, but it was very clear that our whole family was Southern and my mom always cooked Southern food,” he says. Summers spent in Mississippi on his grandparents’ farm have seeped their way into his recipes. “The front half of the book are things that I enjoyed and pretty much grew up eating.” This includes grilled okra (“no one likes slimy, boiled okra”), hoecakes, and charred carrots with a sorghum syrup and whipped buttermilk.
“The vegetable part of the book is very important to me because that’s probably my favorite thing to eat in my life right now,” Martin explains, noting he gets enough or barbecue at work running the 10 ten locations of Martin’s BBQ that span Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and South Carolina.
The carrot recipe, in particular, is a nice tribute to the South. The tangy addition of buttermilk complements the caramelized carrots and is a nod to Martin’s grandfather, who used to dunk biscuits into tall glasses of buttermilk. As a kid, Martin found it disgusting—but now, he too enjoys an occasional glass of fresh buttermilk.
Martin wants to show that while cooking with flames may be intimidating, it’s a worthwhile skill to pursue. “I mean, I wouldn’t pile right off into cooking a whole hog,” he laughs. “But fire, it might be harder to control, but we’re not talking about the Tasmanian devil here.” He recommends starting with baby steps: grilling over a fire, or cooking with a cast iron pan heated over a flame. Eventually, once you’re more comfortable with the fire, you can attempt a small 30-pound pig or a rack of ribs on an open pit before graduating to a 150-pound hog.
Although barbecue is precious to Martin, and preserving West Tennessee-style barbecue remains one of his life missions, he also recognizes that it’s just food. “I mean, burn it up, ruin it, try it again—just keep going,” he encourages. “If you screw it up, just go and order a pizza, man. It’s not the end of the world.”
Charred Carrots with Sorghum and Buttermilk Recipe
Yield: 2 to 4 servings
- 1/2 cup whole buttermilk (see Note)
- 1 pound carrots, peeled and left whole
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons golden sorghum syrup
- 2 teaspoons fleur de sel or other flaky salt
1. Measure out the buttermilk and let it sit at room temperature while you prepare a hot grill. Clean and oil the grill grates well.
2. In a large bowl, combine the carrots, olive oil, sorghum, and fleur de sel and toss until the carrots are well coated.
3. Place the carrots on the grill and cook, rotating them a quarter-turn every couple of minutes, until tender and well charred all over; this will take anywhere from 10-30 minutes, depending on the size of the carrots. Transfer to a platter.
4. As soon as the carrots are finished, pour the buttermilk into a bowl and use a whisk or electric mixer to beat the buttermilk until it’s thickened to the texture of soft whipped cream. Drizzle the carrots with the whipped buttermilk and serve warm.
Note: If you can’t find whole buttermilk, add a splash of heavy cream to low-fat (1%) or light (1.5%) buttermilk, or use whole milk yogurt as a substitute.
Reprinted with permission from Life of Fire by Pat Martin copyright © 2022. Photographs by Andrew Thomas Lee. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.