Cooking | April 1, 2019 5:00 am

Fired Up: Add Smoky Flavor to Your Favorite Foods and Cocktails

One burnt orange margarita coming right up.

Smoke perfumes meats and more. Johnny Autry)
Smoke perfumes meats and more. Johnny Autry)

Austin-based food author Paula Disbrowe gets as fired up about the cooking method behind backyard grilling as she does about eating the results.

“You go to the trouble and effort of building this gorgeous fire and your steak’s done in nine minutes,” she tells RealClearLife. “I encourage people to make the most of the remaining heat.”

That means using it to give a smoky smooch of flavor to nuts, peppercorns, fruits, veggies, you name it, which can be savored at another meal.

That’s one of the tasty takeaways of her just-released book, Thank You for Smoking, which is designed for people who have a smoker or want to use their grill as one. Packed with recipes for meats, fish, poultry, vegetables, nuts, pantry staples and even cocktails (a recipe for a burnt orange margarita follows), it’s a companion of sorts to her Food52 Any Night Grilling.

Written back-to-back over about two years, the books required hundreds of  hours of grilling in her backyard for research. “The alternative title to the new book was going to be ‘Smoke Gets In Her Eyes,’” says Disbrowe, whose passion for food and all of its infinite nuances was evident more than two decades ago when we were magazine colleagues.

Her latest head-over-heels love is “using smoke as a seasoning,” she says. “I was amazed with the results you could get in as little as 30 minutes.”

And while cooking over a “live fire provides its own smoky nuance,” as she notes, adding wood chips or chunks to hot coals “will generate a steady stream of smoke to perfume anything you’re cooking.”

Elevate pantry items with a hint of smoke. (Johnny Autry)

Distinct heat zones – direct, which is hot, and indirect, which is cooler – are a key to smoking. After grilling your juicy sirloin over direct heat, you can put pinto beans, cashews and quinoa, for instance, in an aluminum pan and smoke them in the cool area for about half an hour.

“Do a little bit of stirring,” says Disbrowe, “and watch for the color to darken a bit as they’re perfumed with smoke.” Store them in the pantry for later use.

The same method works for little pink peppercorns, which she adds to her dough for the crust of a berry galette for a hint of smoke. “In very little time,” she adds, “you have these elevated ingredients.”

Disbrowe’s favorite foods to smoke aren’t the usual suspects. They include:

Lentils – “The subtle smoky flavor takes a salad to a whole new level.”

Olives – Smoked along with their brine, they “will,” she vows, “make your dirty martini dreams come true.”

Nuts – “They’re the things that disappear faster than anything else,” she says.

Onions – They’re the stars of her savory tarts and marmalade.

Carrots – Whipped into a hummus-like spread, they’re “a slather of springtime.”

Actually those carrots are a hit every season – just like grilling. Some 70 percent of adults in the U.S. own a grill or a smoker, according to a 2017 survey. And Disbrowe, who’s married with two kids, ages 9 and 11, understands the wide appeal.

“It sounds corny but with when I started grilling it really changed the nature of our family dinner,” she tells RCL. “Instead of having my back to the kids when facing the stove, we are all outdoors interacting. We appreciate the Texas sky and the pecan trees.”

“Grilling is a very sensual method of cooking,” she adds. “It excites me. It calms me. It makes me happy.”

And she’s not just blowing smoke, as can be seen from her recipes, including one for a smoke-kissed cocktail reprinted from her new book.

Burnt Orange Margarita. (Johnny Autry)
B&O Play H6


Charred blood oranges and a spicy spirit make this margarita a force to be reckoned with. Alba Huerta, one of the South’s most talented mixologists and the owner of Julep in Houston, turned me on to Ancho Reyes, an ancho chile liqueur based on a 1927 recipe from Puebla, Mexico. The unique spirit adds a tingling heat to a traditional margarita (or any other tequila drink).


 2 blood oranges

Border Dust (recipe follows), to rim

1 ounce (30 ml) silver tequila

3⁄4 ounce (20 ml) Ancho Reyes

1 ounce (30 ml) Cointreau

1 ounce (30 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice

 Prepare a charcoal grill for two-zone cooking and build a medium fire, or heat a gas grill to medium-high.

 When the coals are glowing red and covered with a fine gray ash, add your smoke source (chips, chunks, or log). Carefully wipe the preheated grill grates with a lightly oiled paper towel. Using a grill brush, scrape the grill grates clean, then carefully wipe with a lightly oiled towel again.

Halve 1 blood orange horizontally and grill it cut side down over direct heat until dark char marks appear, 2 to 3 minutes. Slice the other blood orange into 1⁄4-inch (6 mm) rounds and grill until charred on one side, about 1 minute. Place the Border Dust on a plate or shallow bowl. Juice the blood orange halves. Moisten the rim of a rocks glass and dip it into the Border Dust to coat. Combine the tequila, Ancho Reyes, Cointreau, 1 ounce (30 ml) juice from the charred blood orange, and the lime juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously. Fill the salt-rimmed glass with ice and strain the margarita into the glass. Garnish with a 1⁄2 round of charred blood orange.


 This blend of chile-tinged salt and sugar provides a kiss of heat for margaritas and palomas. While you can use any pure ground chile powder for this recipe, I prefer the bright, high-noon heat of red chiles (like ancho or arbol) and chipotle (made from dried and smoked jalapeños).

 MAKES 1⁄2 CUP (100 G)

 3 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon ground chipotle chile powder 

1 tablespoon pure ground chile powder (such as ancho or arbol) 

Combine the salt, sugar, and chile powders in a glass jar, cover, and store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 month. To use for a cocktail, place the Border Dust on a plate or shallow bowl. Moisten the glass rim with a lime wedge (or dip it in water), dip the rim in the Border Dust, and add your preferred beverage.

Recipe reprinted with permission from Thank You for Smoking: Fun and Fearless Recipes Cooked with a Whiff of Wood Fire on Your Grill or Smoker by Paula Disbrowe, copyright © 2019. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.” All images Johnny Autry © 2019.