Bloke in the Kitchen. Getting a charcoal barbecue going


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.


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.


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.


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.


Bloke in the Kitchen. Pork chow mein


Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

It’s easy and it’s flexible. And once the marinade is made in advance, it’s a 20-minute job.

This is a very simple dish that only sounds daunting because it has a foreign name. But all chow mein means is fried noodles, and in fact you don’t even have to fry them.

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We’re going to make it with the kind of noodles you just have to expose to hot water for a while. You can even buy them ready, moist and sealed in a bag. We’re going to stir fry some chunks of pork, quickly cook some vegetables and a few mushrooms and that’s it.

For your dish to qualify as chow mein, it needs to contain noodles, that’s all. That’s the carbohydrate, instead of pasta, potatoes or rice.

For the vegetables we’re using pak choi (also known as bok choi). Again it might sound fancy but it’s just a kind of cabbage.

Equipment is important for this. If you don’t have a wok but do have a big frying pan, that will do. A wok makes it easier to toss the stuff as it’s cooking, whereas with a pan it just sits there at the bottom, but if you make this quickly there shouldn’t be a problem.


Chunks of pork (ideally tenderloin, or cut up some chops or steaks)

Soy sauce


Spices (just get some ginger root and cinnamon – if you buy a jar of five-spice you’ll probably have it in the cupboard for the rest of your life)

Mushrooms (whatever)


Pak choi

Red or green pepper


In advance (if you can), take a plastic storage box and pour in a large splash of soy sauce. Grate a piece of ginger about the size of a thumbnail and add that, then some crushed garlic and a couple of shakes of cinnamon powder. Mix it up and load the box with the chunks of pork. Put the lid on and give it a good shake so all the meat is coated. Leave it in the fridge to marinate for as long as you can – a few hours would be good but 10 minutes is better than nothing.

Slice the mushrooms thinly and chop the pak choi. You can use the stalks as well as the leaves – they’re not tough.

Peel another chunk of ginger and chop it into tiny sticks like grains of rice.

Slice a pepper.


Why not grate the ginger this time?


Because a little piece of ginger in your mouthful of food is a lovely burst of flavor, whereas grated or powdered it blends into the whole dish.


Cook the noodles according to the instructions. It should only take a couple of minutes. Put some chicken stock in the water for extra flavor.

Heat a little oil in the wok or pan.

Take the pork out of the box and keep the rest of the marinade. Quickly fry the pork (but make sure it’s cooked) and add the mushrooms and ginger, then the sliced peppers. Keep it moving. The slivers of mushroom will be done in a minute or two.

Throw in the pak choi and let it wilt. Put the noodles on top – this is like adding a lid, which will ensure the pak choi is done and the pork is thoroughly cooked.

Once the pak choi has collapsed, pour on the rest of the marinade, make sure the whole meal is hot and serve.

As usual, this recipe is only a guide. You could use chicken instead of pork. You could just use the mushrooms, so it’s suitable for vegetarians. You could chop up some carrots (small, because they won’t get as much cooking time as normal) or celery. Sugar snap peas would work very well.