Bloke in the Kitchen. Barbecuing meat

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

Here’s a question for you: what is barbecue sauce? And more importantly, what is it for?

Is it like barbecue-flavored snacks, in that it gives the flavor of  barbecued food?

Well if it is, why put it on food that actually has been barbecued on a proper charcoal unit?

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The source of the magic: smouldering charcoal is the king of cooking fuels

There seems to be some confusion about this, and because Bloke in the Kitchen is all about keeping things simple, let’s start with a basic point of view: when you cook food on a barbecue, you don’t need to then smother it with something to make it taste like it has been barbecued. That’s like going on a beach holiday and basking in the sun but using fake tan on your skin too. If you’re going to do that, you can save the air fare and just bronze yourself out of a bottle in the privacy of your chilly northern bathroom.

If you’re having a barbecue, by all means have a sauce or two available for those who want one, because burger joints have taught many people that no meal is complete without ketchup. If they want to engage in that practice, that’s up to them.

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Shop-bought or homemade, who really needs it?

We had a teenager staying with us recently and I made Spaghetti Bolognese for us. She immediately stood up, went to the fridge, took out the ketchup and slathered it all over.

Well I’m sorry, but I didn’t take that very well. Okay, the Bolognese possibly didn’t merit words like “exquisite”, but it was pretty tasty, rich and juicy and it certainly didn’t need a squeeze of red colouring and sugar to make it edible.

But that’s another story. With a barbecue, anything goes, really, so there’s no harm in providing some gunge for those who automatically reach for it.

Make your own if you like: mix some tomato ketchup (yes, that) with mustard, Worcestershire sauce, honey and whatever else takes your fancy, and let those who are that way inclined gorge themselves on it.

Some people smear the meat with it before they cook it, but they are confusing it with a marinade, which we will come to in a minute. But if you do cover the food in sauce and then place it over the heat, you’re boiling and burning it. If you’re in a household where such sauces are seen as essential and you will be lynched if you don’t do it, try to get away with giving it a quick coating when it is almost cooked and ready to serve. That way everybody is happy.

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That’s a pretty civilised plate of food: chops, vegetables, potatoes, and not a plastic bottle in sight

However, if you are indisputably  in charge (or if you can get away with it), just cook it as nature intended.

A marinade can help get some flavor deep inside a piece of meat, but that means a liquid, which can penetrate the stuff, not a slimy substance that stays on top.

For chicken, squeeze a couple of limes or lemons into a bowl and crush some garlic into it. If you have some lemongrass, you can add that and let it infuse (give up its flavor to the liquid), before removing the strands and steeping the chicken in it.

Even then, though, bear in mind that you will have given the chicken a new flavor, when it has a perfectly good one of its own, so unless you’re convinced it is better, maybe you should do half with the marinade and half without.

With sausages, marinades do not work. They have a plastic skin that will keep the flavor out. You need to buy tasty sausages, and there are plenty around, from the local butcher’s own creations to some fancy ones in the supermarket.

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The barbie chef’s friend, the humble sausage

Burgers: well, they’re a piece of cake, aren’t they? And they really can benefit from some sauce.

Now, the serious meat. As mentioned last week, it might be tempting to add a touch of class to the meal by including some steaks, i.e. beef, but in fact it’s asking for trouble. Unless you get some pretty expensive stuff and you’re skilled at cooking it, it could well end up tough and dry. If you insist, however, you could use a marinade, but a better option is to rub it with some spices. Sprinkle on some paprika and a little chilli pepper, perhaps, and rub it in so it’s not just on the surface. And a knob of butter is always well received by a steak.

A better idea, though, is to use pork or lamb chops. They are far more cooperative, more forgiving. Make sure the pork ones are cooked through, because undercooked pork can be dangerous. Having taken care of that, you’ll find that chops do the trick of making it seem more like a proper meal than just a barbie, and they’re no problem. Throw them on, make sure they’re done, singe them a bit around the edges and Robert is your mother’s brother.

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And just to show you’re not a complete moron: some pieces of meat

Next Saturday: fish, seafood and side dishes for barbecues

 

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.