Bloke in the Kitchen. Barbecued seafood with avocado and palm hearts

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

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Shrimps on the barbie: this lot are pretty small, but see what you can find

Seeing actual fish on a barbecue is relatively rare and there is a reason for that. Food tends to stick to the bars on a barbecue and fish is soft, so it is too easy to tear it, break it, and generally make a mess of it. With a nice big steak from some chunky fish such as salmon you might be okay, but other than that it is quite a challenge.

It helps if the bars are shiny and clean, but that means you have to cook the fish first, and anyway, how many of us have the time or inclination to get the thing back to pristine condition? We’ll clean it, yes, scrub it with a scouring pad and maybe take a nostalgic trip down Brillo Pad Lane, but there are likely to be brown spots where it should be gleaming like a lake in a fairy story.

If you’re a real fish fiend and determined to have a go, the best thing is to buy some of those fish-shaped sort of cages. You put a fish inside and close it, and the flesh doesn’t actually touch the barbecue at all. The cage does, and the fish is right next to it, so it cooks but doesn’t stick.

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Fish holders, cages, baskets, contraptions. Whatever you call them, they keep the delicate flesh from sticking to the bars.

The best I can find as a technical term is “fish holder”, so if you’re trying to explain it to the assistant in the shop that sells this kind of thing, you’re going to be doing some descriptive business with your hands.

Alternatively, you could wrap a piece of fish in aluminium foil and slap that on, just as you put it in the oven. A fish fillet, a slice of lemon or some herbs on top, place it on some foil and wrap it up. It won’t have any of the barbecue flavor, but it will cook.

Remember, too, that fish generally takes less time, so however you choose to do it, make sure you don’t overcook it.

Far easier is to use prawns, or some other kind of seafood such as scallops, and because these are relatively small, they are often done on skewers (permanent steel ones or single-use wooden). This means you get kebabs, and you can either make a whole skewer of, say, shrimps, or mix in pieces of pepper or other roastable vegetables.

If you do that, try to make sure the pieces don’t stick out much further than the shrimps or scallops, or they will get burnt before the shrimps are done.

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Cheap disposable barbecue, wooden skewers, some prawns and rings of squid. Elementary, my dear Watson

Squid does pretty well on a barbecue. If you use baby ones, you will need to clean them to get all the gunge out, but once that is done, sling them on the bars for a couple of minutes and they’re ready. For preparation, check out my recipe for Sea-Flavoured Squid: on the homepage, click on the search tool and type squid.

The most important thing to remember when barbecuing anything is that it’s not the smooth, predictable process you find in a good kitchen. Out there you’re thinking on your feet, making it up as you go along and just getting the job done.

Which brings us to the accompaniments. To go with fish there is a great, easy sauce called Chermoula. Click the search tool on the homepage and type chermoula.

Knock up a potato salad. Cut the spuds into chunks and boil them, then cool and drain them and mix in some mayonnaise plus a sprinkling of chopped parsley (mainly for decoration). Don’t be stingy with the mayo. A little salt and pepper and there’s your bulk, your carbohydrates.

You could do something similar with pasta (fusilli, farfalle, penne etc.): cook it, cool it, drain it, add some mayo or even just olive oil and herbs, maybe some diced tomato or cucumber. Radishes, capers… Do what you like: it’s not governed by the Ten Commandments.

As for vegetable salads etc, it is tempting to knock up a standard-issue lettuce-based number, but we all know people only eat a few forkfuls out of a sense of duty.

But if you want to give your guests something they will actually like, here is a fantastic quick salad dish: avocado with palm hearts. It depends on there being some nice ripe avocados available, but let’s assume there are. Any decent supermarket or deli will have cans of palm hearts. They come in a sort of brine to keep them in good condition, and the hearts look like white candles, not a million miles away from asparagus, but with a flavour all their own.

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Palm hearts: the avocado’s secret love

So, peel and slice the avocados – nice big slices if people are sitting down, or you can cut them up if everybody’s standing up, juggling with wine glasses. Open a can of palm hearts and drain off the brine. Lay one or two over the avocado (again, cut them up if people are going to find it difficult to use a knife and fork).

You will hear one three-part question: “What are these things, where can I get some and why have I never noticed them before?” Then a statement-question: “Aren’t they just perfect with avocados.”

 

 

Bloke in the Kitchen. Getting a charcoal barbecue going

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

 

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Small is beautiful. A barbecue like this doesn’t cost much but if you know what you’re doing, it can bring a lot of fun

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.

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There’s too much flame going on here. The coals need to be sedate and white.

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.

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Looks like there’s some steak involved here. Good luck with that.

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.