Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Art of the Barbecue...

I have a confession. I am not a fan of the barbecue, per se. The moment the sun comes out the invitations start flooding in to join them for some al fresco fun and my heart sinks a little. Why? What, you may ask, could be nicer than getting back to nature, cooking in the open air?

In theory, nothing whatsoever. In fact, I love the idea. I love it so much that I even dust of my own barbie come May and start concocting elaborate marinades and debating which sort of charcoal to buy. The trouble is, however, that so many people (and I include myself in this) get it terribly, terribly wrong.

To illustrate my point, I'd like to tell you about a truly delicious barbecue I attended on Sunday. The host, an exemplary cook, got it spot on. A couple of nice chickens flattened and cut in half and a decent leg of lamb. Both respectively stuffed with herbs/studded with garlic and rosemary. On the barbecue (a large on, as you'll see above) for a sensible amount of time as we nibbled on smoked salmon on brown bread. Once cooked, the two meats were served simply with a wonderful tomatoey bean stew and/or a fresh-tasting coriander and chilli salsa (coriander, red chilli, olive oil and white wine vinegar). We finished with strawberries and cream.
So - what did this friend do right that so many people do wrong? Firstly, he can cook. Why is it that people who never normally pick up a pan miraculously transform into culinary geniuses once confronted with some hot coals and a set of tongs? What is more, he knows how to cook on a barbecue. Can anyone explain to me what is nice about food which is black and burnt on the outside and raw in the middle?

Secondly, he kept it fairly simple. Just two big bits of meat with lots of herbs. No sign of the usual burger, uncooked chicken leg, sausage medley jostled together on a plate with six different salads, not forgetting the barbecued jacket potatoes, mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise or barbecue sauce. I love a banger in a bun, don't get me wrong, but just not every weekend for the entire summer. This sort of 'everything' barbecue should be saved for the good old British seaside holiday, ideally accompanied by a few spots of rain, when there is nothing so cheering.

Thirdly, there were non barbecued elements to his meal. The starter and pudding were a refreshing contrast to the smoky flavours of the chicken and lamb.

But the key, I think, lies in keeping it simple. The most successful barbecue I have cooked recently consisted of just one meat - a high quality butterflied leg of lamb. I cut slits in it and stuffed it with a whizzed up mix of parma ham, garlic, flat leaf parsley and anchovies. Sounds odd, but it was superb. I then barbecued some corn on the cob which I topped with a chilli and coriander butter, we had a green salad and some baby potatoes on skewers. No burgers. No sausages. No choice. And all so easy - I popped the lamb on and left it. No prodding/guarding required. Though fortunately I had my furry sous-chef to keep an eye on things for me....

The secret of my recent barbecuing success (which followed years of burnt sausage failure) was in purchasing a book entirely dedicated to the subject. And what is more, I have read it. I took notice of how hot the coals should be for the kind of cooking I wanted to do (different depending on the cut of meat, for example) and tips like wiping off excess marinade before placing on the grill to prevent flare-ups and therefore preventing burning. I have been more successful (and more confident) ever since.

The book that I suggest is the following....

'Barbecue', Eric Treuille and Brigit Erath, Dorling Kindersley

Watch this space for tips on barbecue-friendly wines....

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