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Our Wood-Fired Oven Cooking + Gardening piece for okra. magazine, fall 2020 » The Chubby Vegetarian

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“All Fired Up: A Vegetarian Feast from a Wood-Fired Oven” by Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence

Past the curbside raised bed garden, up the driveway between the two varieties of fig trees, around the herb bed, on the other side of the well-worn barn wood and iron gate that usually serves to keep our dogs from roaming, rises a structure about the size of a two-car garage. Inside is the warm glow of a wood-fired oven, a home cook’s dream come true.

Inside the oven, mushrooms, onions, hot peppers, flatbread with figs, and sweet potatoes sizzle and pop as the smoke mixes with thyme and chive blossoms from the garden. It’s safe to say that our favorite room in the house is outside the house.

For the past seven years, we’ve gathered here with friends and family to celebrate birthdays, new jobs, old friendships, and raised a glass to our health.

Now, in this strange time, we gather with the spirits and the memories, just the two of us, until we all can be together safely once again. We gather vegetables from the garden and old records from the shelf. We gather our grandmothers’ recipes from the drawer where they intermingle, and we go ahead and open that bottle of good whiskey we’d been saving for a special occasion. We light a fire in honor of all that has been and in hopes for the future.

Our four old, rusted white metal barstools stood so stark in their emptiness way back in March when we all began to realize that quarantine was actually going to happen and there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. But the first time we decided to cook in the kitchen out in the backyard this spring, it still felt all right. With one of us cutting blossoming peach branches from the tree in the corner of the backyard, and the other clearing out the last leaves from the floor and dust from the concrete countertops, with every light blazing at dusk, the first nice-weather night in the backyard was an exercise in still doing the things that make us feel relaxed and happy.

We’ll all be able to gather again for real someday, so let’s just say we’ve been practicing for it in the meantime. As Southerners raised in Memphis, Tennessee, we don’t know any better way to spend time than inviting people over for pizza in the backyard or having a friend try to just drop something by and end up hanging out with us with a glass of sparkling rosé in hand and a flax cracker, sharp cheddar cheese, and pepper jelly plate on the table.

As vegetarian cookbook authors, obsessive gardeners, and avid home cooks, we focus on creating new dishes that highlight our harvest each season. And we sure had the time and inclination to grow quite a lot this year. Some of it we donated to the Memphis Union Mission, much of it was dropped off at Sweet Grass restaurant for Chef Ryan Trimm and his crew to transform, and the figs from our trees found their way onto Feast & Graze cheese boards and friends’ doorsteps.

We paired the challenge of using the produce that we kept for ourselves with a desire to be outside using the wood-fired oven in the backyard, even if it was just the two of us enjoying it. Could we plan an entire meal around our harvest? Of course we could.

This is the harvest meal we’ll come back to again next year, but the silver lining is that we get to share it with y’all first. The grilled green onions matched with tart lemon juice and piquant capers all blend into a dip that’ll make any vegetable sing. Our way of making grits, with a fire-roasted sweet potato in the mix, adds a hint of sweet smoke that’s complemented by the roasted mushrooms and hot peppers on top. The flatbread is polka-dotted with the last of our Sweet 100 tomatoes and our first round of figs. And the butternut squash pie celebrates the endless row of squash that it’s now a tradition for Steve Lawrence to plant for us every summer. It’s vegan and gluten-free so that all of your future guests may partake.

We know that soon we’ll pick up where we left off and be able to gather together. It won’t be too much longer. Until then, for now, here’s to gratitude, the garden, and some stellar fire-roasted food.

This piece by us originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of okra. magazine.

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