Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking
When we eat outdoors, it often involves a barbecue, which can be great fun, but many people struggle to get the thing going when it’s a proper charcoal-fired one. Gas is easy, but charcoal? It’s a bit of an art.
Actually, it’s an art the same as making boiled rice is an art, which is to say it’s not difficult at all. You’ve just got to understand a couple of things.
First, you need a bag of charcoal, preferably fresh and dry.
Secondly you need a packet of firelighters.
And matches – preferably big ones.
COWBOY TIP 1
Start early. Half an hour before you need to start cooking, your first coals should be smouldering.
So, break a firelighter brick out of the block and put it in the middle of the barbecue. Then start making a pyramid of charcoal over it, but leave a bit of room for it to catch. Fire needs air. Try to build yourself a little access hole or tunnel. A dozen pieces of charcoal should be enough to start with – enough for the flame to get to work on, but not too much, or you’ll suffocate it.
The idea is to get something going and build on it once it’s lit.
So, light a match and poke it through the hole you’ve left so the firelighter catches. It should lick up around the closest coals and in a minute or two they will start to burn a bit.
COWBOY TIP 2
If you don’t have any firelighters, soak a piece of paper kitchen towel in cooking oil and use that in the same way. It won’t burn for as long, but if you use several you should get it going.
Charcoal doesn’t burn like crazy: once it gets going it just smoulders, and that’s what you want. If there is a lot of smoke and flame, it’s not ready. You have to let the gases burn off, because they smell – not like wood but like petrol, and you don’t want that permeating your food. It may flare up briefly when fat drips onto the coals, but that’s different.
If you have a larger barbecue you can build two or three pyramids and gradually they will spread into each other so you have one whole hot mass.
The charcoal should be white when you start cooking: that doesn’t mean it’s nearly spent (finished), it’s just the surface, but it means the gases are not horrible like they were at the start. When the coals look peaceful and old, like Meryl Streep and Sidney Poitier playing grandparents, that’s when they’re ready.
Now, the food. And please note: this is not for the perfectionist.
POLITICAL CORRECTNESS ALERT
I think part of the reason women who normally do the bulk of the cooking hand this over to their man is because it’s not the smooth, orderly process they are accustomed to. It’s a bit more like pirates cooking on a beach or cowboys around a camp fire. If that analogy doesn’t reflect the dynamics in your relationship, forgive me, but it’s how the situation often is in my experience. If in your household the man is the one who likes to take things slow and easy, and the woman is the one more likely to do it off the cuff, on a wing and a prayer, that’s just how it is. Similarly, if you are same-sex partners, you will do it how you do it.
Can we carry on now? Thank you.
The cooking instructions for barbecues are the very essence of Bloke in the Kitchen: approximate. You don’t know exactly how hot the coals are or the distance between them and the metal grill the food is on, so you have to keep having a look. Get a good pair of metal tongs and remember, you can’t turn the heat down on a charcoal barbie: if something is cooking too fast, all you can do is move it out of the centre, to the less scorching area around the edges. And the pieces that start round the edge will probably have to go nearer the middle at some point. You have to keep picking things up, turning them over, and moving them around.
If you’re barbecuing in the dark, or if you start in the daylight but you’re still going when the light has gone, you need to have some source of illumination so you can assess the food. Crucially, you need to be able to see how pink the meat is, because chicken and pork particularly need to be cooked through and you only know that if the blood has gone.
If you can’t rig up an electric light or a camping gas lantern, use a nice big torch.
As for the stuff you use, sausages and chicken wings work well; steaks can be hit-and-miss, tough and yet raw, or burnt, dry and unappetizing.
It’s better to sacrifice your Michelin stars for the evening and just knock out something basic and tasty, if unsophisticated. Burgers rather than entrecote.
But that’s enough for now. Whack a few sausages on the barbie and keep it simple.
We’ll look at the food in more detail next Saturday.