Bloke in the Kitchen. Getting a charcoal barbecue going


Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking


barbie 1
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.

barbie 3
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.

barbie 2
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. Hot dogs (decent ones)


Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

Last week someone decided we should have hot dogs as a special treat. You know how warped that idea can be: “Well, you don’t do it every day, but once in a while, why not?”

I didn’t say anything because they seemed serious about it and I didn’t want to spoil their fun. But really, hot dogs? A treat?

hot dogs 1
Gimme a c. Gimme an r. Gimme an a. Gimme a p. What’s that spell?

We went to the supermarket to buy the raw ingredients, but my expert friends weren’t happy with what was available. I picked up a pack of white rolls, so flimsy they almost floated off the shelf, and said, “This is the sort of crap, isn’t it?”

They were offended. The hot dog connoisseur apparently knows good crap from bad. We went to another supermarket. Same story. They bought the best they could find and I smuggled a small pack of crusty wholemeal rolls into the basket.

They bought a packet of the sort of sausages that have “hot dog sausages” printed on the wrapper to stop the shelf-fillers from putting them in the hardware department with the rawlplugs and tubes of filler. We went home.

hot dogs 3
Very pretty. Like a $30 whore in a darkened car park

Half an hour later I was presented with two hot dogs, grudgingly served in my fancy wholemeal whatevers, laden with chopped carrot, raw onions and arty squiggles of mayonnaise, sweet American mustard and ketchup.

Looked interesting, tasted okay and didn’t trouble the digestive system along the way, because there was nothing to report. No real fibre, a bit of protein, a smudge of concealed fat. My stomach waved it through, just as my taste buds had.

It got me thinking, though. Are the sort of hot dogs that are peddled at sporting events etc. like they are just because it’s the cheapest way of doing them? Did they start off that way or have they been dumbed down and progressively humiliated to their current status as the cheapest, blandest fast food known to man?

How about taking the basic idea – a sausage in a bun – and giving it a bit of style, class, flavor, texture – self respect?

hot dogs 4
Hang on a minute: One of these might actually have some flavour


Long buns (rolls). The world is full of decent rolls. They can be soft or crusty, wholemeal or white. They may have seeds inside or on the outside. You could even use French bread: a baguette cut into six-inch pieces would do very well.

Sausages. Again, the world is full of good ones. If you want to be “traditional”, get the best frankfurters you can find. But if you value flavor over sentiment, just use your favourite sausages. Toulouse sausages have a pungent, leeky, garlicy edge – recipes vary, but they all tend to be robust in flavor. Every country in the world produces sausages, so just find one you like and use that.

Condiments. Mustard (Dijon, grainy Dijon, hot English, honeyed stuff if you must). Ketchup. Relish – tomato-based, chunkier than ketchup and also spicier and livelier. Or you might find another kind of relish that’s fruity, vegetably and interesting, possibly with a bit of a kick but not a deadly one. If heat is what you want, use a chilli sauce such as Tabasco (that’s just the brand name of the most famous one, by the way).

Vegetables. Chopped onions, chopped sweet pepper, corn. As another way of adding a kick, you could also slice up some pickled banana peppers.


Cook the sausages (or warm them up if they’re already cooked, like frankfurters). Warm the bread.
Place a sausage in a piece of bread and add the toppings.

It’s entirely up to you. Just give it a bit of something, make it worth having. Give it a posh name: Bayswater hot dogs, Monte Carlo dogs. Princess Diana dogs. James Bond’s donger dogs.

For what it’s worth, my ideal combination is this:
Soft wholemeal rolls, Toulouse sausages, Dijon mustard, chopped onions, medium-hot tomato relish and a good sprinkling of coarsely ground black pepper.

hot dogs 2
Fun for all the family. They can design their own if you’ve got the patience