Men in the kitchen, and out of it
You might wonder what marmalade and barbecues have in common. When I first started writing about food, then as now about seasonal ingredients and recipes, it only slowly dawned on me, every January when I would write about Seville oranges and other citrus fruit, that I was writing for a nation of marmalade experts and that a mere cookery writer would do well not to tangle with the national obsession.
I received more correspondence about marmalade than any other topic, and each chiding letter was accompanied by the ‘best’, the ‘only’, the ‘perfect’, the ‘infallible’ recipe, and quite often with samples to back up those claims.
And at least half of those letters were written by male correspondents. I wish I had kept some to quote to you, but often they would run to several pages. Where did they get the time? I would wonder. Then the penny dropped.
I had visions of a shopping list being drawn up, preserving sugar, lemons, kilos of Seville oranges, of a shopping trip – or two, because the first shop had run out of preserving sugar.
Back home, there was the painstaking thinly slicing of the oranges, collection of the seeds in a little muslin bag, hunting out the jam pan, the extra-long wooden spoon so that the tender wrist would not be splashed with boiling syrup, not to mention gathering together all the jars, matching up the lids or going out to buy cellophane covers, sterilising the jars, and all this before the master sets about making his marmalade.
For you do not, surely, think that he did all the preparatory work, do you? And as for the cleaning up, I imagine some of you are still cleaning off the sticky splashes.
The same thing happens, I rather think, when it comes to barbecuing. If you want confirmation, there are many jokes about men and their barbecues on the internet. The barbecue is usually an occasion for family and friends so there will be plenty of milling about, but, lesson one in the art of barbecuing, I have learned, is to have one person in charge, otherwise you have someone putting foil on the grill, and then the one who believes he is in charge taking it off.
And by the way, it seems a sine quae non that the someone will be a chap. I have read somewhere that a three-metre exclusion zone is about right to avoid tantrums. It is a good plan too to have a table nearby holding all the equipment you, sorry, he might need – thick oven gloves, tongs, spatula, fish grills, something for brushing on the marinade, and platters to hold the cooked food.
But on a more serious note, the good thing about barbecues is the variety of equipment now available, tailored to every need. If you happen to own a meadow, you can dig a pit for a stylish Bedouin-style‘lamb mechoui’.
For a city balcony, a disposable barbecue is the answer. I know people who use their elaborate barbecue/smoker all year round, and have it strategically placed on the deck outside their kitchen door as an extra oven. You can build your own barbecue with bricks and grills. Gas or electric high speed, manoeuvrable barbecues are also available, which can be stored in the garage when not in use.
Good skewers are a worthwhile investment. They should be flat to prevent food swivelling, and long enough to avoid burns. Long chefs’ tongs, for turning food without piercing it are useful, as are oven gloves.
Add to these a plastic box or two for first marinating your ingredients and then carrying them out to the barbecue. Or consider putting your marinade in a large zip-lock bag. You add your pieces of fish or meat, zip up the bag, massage for a couple of minutes and then leave to marinate for 30 minutes or so.
Citronella candles are a good idea for clearing the area clear of midges, flies and other insects. You can find ones to stick in flower pots, or elegant ones for the table. Small weighted clips to secure the table cloth from gusts of wind are useful, inexpensive gadgets. Having equipped yourself with all the above and a sturdy apron, what about the food?
Gone, thank goodness, are the days of grilling everything in sight from aubergines to sardines. And anyone who barbecues chicken, other than split and flattened breasts, or boned portions, needs their heads looking at.
If you cook thighs and drumsticks until ‘the juices run clear’, you will have a charred, dried-up piece of meat. And if you don’t cook it long enough, you risk food poisoning, especially if the meat has been frozen and not properly thawed out.
To supplement the delights of sticky, succulent, subtly charred barbecue flavours, what to top and tail the main event? A vegetable tart, a selection of charcuterie and chewy bread, smoked fish and brown bread, or crudities with mayonnaise are ideal for a first course, and can be prepared in advance.
For the main course, you might like to present a selection of food appropriately marinated, and let everyone make up their own skewers for barbecuing. Quartered chicken breasts, lamb neck fillet in cubes, diced rump steak, lambs kidneys and squares of liver are all suitable, as are veal chops, duck breasts and quail.
If you barbecue fish often, a worthwhile investment will be a hinged heavy wire grill to hold the fish without the tender flesh falling onto the coals. Remember, too, to brush or spray with oil to stop meat or fish sticking to the grill.
If you plan to cook fish or shellfish on the barbecue, it is worth remembering how delicate it is. Barbecue prawns well because they have their own protective coat, but scallops and oysters, for example, if cooked out of their shell, need some protection; a piece of onion, a rasher of bacon, a piece of foil or a crust of some sort. Chunks of fish, too, are good with a crust, as they stay moist without the need for continual basting. Try a crisp, spicy, cornmeal coating with dentiċi, tuna or swordfish.
As an alternative to the smaller cuts, choose just one item to char-grill, for example a leg of lamb, a fillet of beef, or a cured loin of pork. If choosing lamb, have the leg boned and the flesh opened out like a book, but keep the shank bone in as this provides a useful handle when carving.
Baste from time to time during cooking. Pork loin is a good cut for barbecuing but also needs basting periodically. The chine bone should be removed and the thickest part of the meat and fat can be slashed between the ribs. A mustard and honey glaze, if liked, can be spread in the cuts. Remember in all cases to bring the meat to room temperature before cooking.
To drink, a plentiful supply of chilled beer and bubbly goes without saying, but I would probably also indulge my juvenile taste for silly drinks. While not going as far as paper parasols stuck in the glass, I do like something with plenty of fruit juice as well as spirits, and a few sprigs of mint or borage, so I highly recommend ‘slush’, described as a ‘summery backyardsy kind of drink’ by the lady who introduced the drink to us some years ago at a barbecue on a hot summer’s day in America’s mid-west.
I think it is the same as the drink referred to as Long Island tea. We drank it from one-pint paper cups. One is quite enough. More might leave you legless for the rest of the barbecue. I have also included an unusual recipe for iced tea, together with a few of my favourite barbecue recipes.
(Makes about 4 litres; well, why not? if it’s worth making, it’s worth making plenty)
• 350 ml concentrated frozen orange juice
• Squeezed juice of 4 lemons
• 600 ml strong tea
• 1 x 75 cl bottle vodka, gin or white rum
• 2 litres water
• Sugar or sugar syrup to taste
Mix all the ingredients. Pour into a large plastic bowl, or container, with a tight-fitting lid, and freeze. It should freeze to a slush, the alcohol preventing total freezing. Serve in tall, chilled glasses, with or without a thick straw, and whatever garnish appeals, such as slices of orange, lemon or lime, a sprig of borage, or mint.
This recipe requires a hot sunny day, and a terrace, patio, or windowsill.
Put your favourite loose tea in a small muslin bundle, or staple it in a coffee filter paper, or use tea bags. Place in a large glass jug, or jar, and fill with water. Stand it in the hot sun for several hours, and when infused to a rich golden brown, sweeten, if you like, and serve in ice-filled glasses with fresh mint leaves, sliced orange, lime or lemon, or enjoy the sharp, refreshing flavour on its own.
Fish kebabs with Cajun cornmeal crust
(Serves 8 to 10)
• 1kg firm fish fillet, cut into large chunks
• 300ml juice – tomato, vegetable, or orange
• 250g fine or medium cornmeal, well-mixed with
• 2 tablespoons Cajun spice mixture, or your own hot spice mixture
Use soaked wooden skewers, or flat metal skewers, and oil them. Dip the pieces of fish first in the juice, and then roll them in the spiced cornmeal mixture before threading the fish onto skewers.
If you push food too tightly onto the skewers in an attempt to be generous, it will ensure that the food will be undercooked in parts; heat must be able to circulate round the pieces of food. Place the kebabs on an oiled grill, and cook, turning gently for eight to 10 minutes, more if you like your fish well done.
I prefer not to combine other ingredients, since there is little which cooks as quickly as fish. Skewers of vegetables can be put on to cook much earlier.
Grilled chicken with oriental aromatics
(serves 16 to 20)
To cook ‘thick’ food, such as chicken thighs, butterflied leg of lamb or whole fish, you need to make cuts through the thickest part. You lose some juice, but it allows for more even cooking. Alternatively bone the chicken and flatten it out before grilling.
• 6 boneless chicken breasts
• 6 thighs
• 6 drumsticks
• 6 wings, with pinion joint removed
• 600ml pineapple juice
• 6 tablespoons soy sauce
• 6 tablespoons groundnut oil
• Juice of a lime or lemon
• 3 or 4 tablespoons light or dark muscovado sugar
• 4 to 6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
• 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
Bone the thighs and drumsticks, and cut in half if large. The wings will cook evenly enough without being boned. Mix the marinade ingredients, and put the chicken in it, leaving to marinade for 24 hours.
Remove from the marinade, and place the meat on an oiled grill, skin side to the heat. Cook until juices run clear. Baste the meat from time to time with the marinade as it grills. This marinade is also excellent with pork. Pineapple contains an enzyme which, amongst other things tenderises meat. Pork and chicken today scarcely need that, but do benefit from the good flavour of the marinade.
A dessert from the barbecue? Why not? Fruit such as chunks of mango, pineapple and bananas, interspersed with marshmallows and cubes of bread dipped in beaten egg and sugar can be threaded on wooden skewers and grilled for a sweet course, or you might have time to make a strawberry shortcake.
This simple, scone-like cake is also very good with thinly sliced peaches, apricots or nectarines.
Variations on a fruit salad theme would also be welcome, such as strawberries in sparkling wine, peaches in elderflower syrup, sliced nectarines in a mixture of orange and lemon juice.
A fruit tart or a trifle will end a barbecue perfectly, as will a trio of good ice-creams or sorbets.