The time we all look forward to, when we say ‘goodbye’ to winter stews and ‘hello’ to delicious grilled meats, fish and vegetables on the barbie. The addictive aroma of a well-cooked barbecue can be enjoyed from the comfort of your own garden, or from several gardens away! There is just something about it that is so evocative.
Why is it that men seem to think that the barbecue is their domain, yet they will never set foot in the kitchen, without a satnav to find it? Not so the case of my husband, who seems to have an allergic reaction to all things culinaire, even a piece of toast seems beyond his remit.
For me, with a lifetime as a chef, there are many mistakes to be made when barbecue season is just around the corner. Probably the worst is burnt or dried-up food that does not resemble what it was when it started life. Here is how to get ready for the season, some tips on cooking a great barbecue and some of the worst mistakes to be made:
Charcoal or Gas?
Whether you have a charcoal or a gas barbecue, there are some basic principles to follow. For me, it’s charcoal all the way if you have time and patience, but gas if you want to feed a lot of people in a shorter space of time. But where is the flavour in gas – at least with charcoal you can taste and smell it to get appetites on the go.
It does not matter how much you spend on a gas barbecue, there is no price for flavour. You can make food so much more interesting by using wood chips flavoured with almost anything these days – hickory, rosemary, maple, cherry, oak and beech are tasty versions of wood chips, simple sprinkled over your coals on a charcoal barbecue. A tip here is not to buy a huge bag of only one flavour – go for the multi-packs, smaller in size, so you do not waste too much if you do not like the aroma or the flavour.
I know there are practicalities for using a gas barbecue, but you really don’t get the same depth of ‘smokiness’ that you would with charcoal. You may get the smell, briefly, but you will not get the flavour.
Top Tips for Charcoal Lovers
Remember what the point of having a barbecue is – it’s not just good food, but a whole social occasion, so don’t ‘bite off more than you can chew’! Keep it simple but tasty, a choice of two meats, fish or seafood, some veggies – easy peasy.
Do not forget that tasty, toasted buns off the barbecue are much more relished than a cold bun. You can also toast some oval slices of baguette, coated lightly in olive oil (and garlic!) to offer your guests whilst they are waiting. A salsa topping so they can scoop it on is a great starter, known as a ‘bruschetta’..Flatbreads are another good option.
Some more do’s and don’ts…
- Light your fire in plenty of time, to let the coals go white hot (a pale grey really) but slightly glowing. Test the temperature by putting your hand above the heat, about 2.5cm/6 inches. You should be able to hold it there for around 6 seconds without an ‘ouch’ or a burn. Spread the coals so that they are higher on one side than the other – one side for direct heat (the higher amount of coals) and one with no direct heat. This way you can control the cooking time so that there are no cremations!
- Prepare your equipment before. A meat slice, tongs, fish slice and even a ‘fish basket to put the fish in for turning if needed. Also, easier to get off the grill.
- Alternatively, you can cook the fish with plenty of herbs and citrus in a foil packet (‘en pochette’), wrapped well and then opened just a minute before you serve. Prawns and scallops are great cooked this way, tender and plump. Whole fish are also impressive when slit open and stuffed with herbs, shallots, lemon slices and garlic – is your mouth watering yet?
- Marinade again, again and again! Do your produce the night before, cover and refrigerate. When ready to go, spoon over the marinade several times. Use a brush when cooking to moisten the meat and keep the flavour going.
- Griddle your veggies – place the veggies so that you get those wonderful char marks off the bars of the barbecue. They look so pretty.
- Accompany your barbecue with some equally as tasty salads – totally fresh and a mix of flavours. Tomatoes, cucumber, leafy greens and onions are obvious choices, but jazz them up a bit with thinly sliced fennel, oranges or other fruits (strawberries are amazing in salads). If you do not make a potato salad, wrap some smallish potatoes in foil and cook directly on the coals – the smoky flavour will still permeate!
These are just some tips to help you on your way to great barbecues this season, and no disasters! Enjoy every minute of your summer.