So the Great British Summer is almost upon us, and with it comes long lazy days in the sunshine and lots of eating outdoors. Sometimes. Maybe. Weather permitting. With possibly the most changeable weather conditions on the planet, Britain and her relationship with said conditions is something of a worldwide joke. Well ha ha, very funny world, but you try enjoying barbecued T-bone in a cagoul. With sand in your mouth.
Yet. The spawn of stoic and stalwart we remain resolute in the face of our mercurial weather. Never mind keep calm and carry on, be prepared is a motto we are indoctrinated with from birth. Girl guide or no.
The key to doing anything in our Mother land is exactly that. Be prepared for snow, rain, wind, or sunshine, whenever you leave the house. Telescopic umbrella. Check. Microscopic mac. Check again. Dressed in layers? Of course. And so it is with cooking outdoors. When the sun does eventually come out, it leaves you with the feeling that it is here to stay. But here's the thing; IT MIGHT NOT BE. So, you have to grab it when you can. And enjoy your garden even when it's not.
Which leads me to BBQ. I love to cook outside and can be found at my grill, tongs in hand, at every available opportunity. Why? Because my BBQ is simply an extension of my kitchen. Not literally, I don't have some fancypants add on to my house or mess kitchen in the garden, I am just ready to BBQ at any given moment. As with everything, the more you partake, the better you get at it. For me, lighting the BBQ is no more bother than making cheese on toast.
Here's how I do it...
Step 1 - Keep a BBQ area
Barbecue grills are made to be weather proof. Or at least they should be. If you have to drag it out of the cobwebby shed each time you wish to use it then chances are that you won't. You don't need a major production, just space for the thing to live, in situ, that is a big enough area to cook in and won't set fire to next door's trees. A few garden shelves are a bonus, not a necessity.
Step 2 - Keep your BBQ clean
Granted, cleaning the grill can be a major pain in the backside but if you do it at the end of the meal (or the next morning) as oppose to at the beginning of the next one, you will find the thing of cooking outdoors far more spontaneous. It need not be sparkly clean, just emptied of coals and dust and with the cooking grill rack cleaned. Ready for action, so to speak.
Step 3 - Stock up on the essentials
Nothing kills the mood quite like traipsing to the shop for a bag of charcoal or realising that you are out of firelighters. Something meant to be pleasurable becomes a chore. You don't need the full Masterchef range of barbecue fripperies to be an ace at the grill, just the bare essentials and the knowledge to bring them to life.
Charcoal briquettes will burn for longer, with a slower burn, than lumpwood charcoal. A steak or burger will be perfectly happy over lumpwood but a spatchcock chicken will need the longer burn of a decent pile of briquettes. Keep both to hand in a cool dry place.
You can light a fire without some kind of chemical aid but there is nothing wrong with the odd short cut, especially if it guarantees success. I prefer to use solid firelighters of the old fashioned variety, rather than squirting a load of liquid over the coals. Keep a box or two to hand.
Some sort of flame is essential. Something with a long handle is helpful but a good old match will do. A cook's blowtorch is fun if you happen to have one.
The only utensil you need is a sturdy, long-handled pair of tongs. A fish slice/spatula will only encourage you to press all of the juice out of the meat; poking it with a fork will also let all the juice run out. Just tongs; to pick up and move.
Step 4 - keep a well stocked cupboard
Again, things become less spontaneous if you need to traipse to the supermarket for the means of flavour. Whether a quick but perfect burger is on the cards, or a fish banquet, life is much easier if you have the things you need to hand. Baseline, for me, has to be my herb garden. Soft herbs like parsley and coriander I buy in bunches, but woody herbs like rosemary, thyme and oregano will thrive anywhere. A small chicken, spatchcocked and then covered with whole cloves of garlic, a handful of fresh woody herbs, a slick of oil and a squeezed lemon, will soak up those flavours in a matter of hours. Even the lowliest of burgers will need some kind of condiment to bring it to life.
Note; garlic burns easily so use it whole for flavour and then discard. Crushed garlic on the grill will ruin your entire meal.
Step 6 - match the meal to the occasion
You need to think ahead, however briefly, about what you plan to cook. Cooking over fire is an art and the coals are an important part. Lumpwood or briquette? How many? For a burger or two you will get away with a few handfuls of lumpwood but for a lazy chicken lunch you will need a large amount of briquettes to keep the heat going. Getting harrassed isn't part of the deal; if time and energy are low then choose the quick easy option like a steak. You can enjoy cooking and eating outdoors without a major production.
Step 6 - Light your fire
My favourite part of BBQ is setting the fire. It is the basis of all outdoor cooking; undercooked sausage or charred lumps of meat are all down to a lack of knowledge about how fire and heat work. Something I will cover in a further post, but getting it going takes a certain knack. You could use a BBQ chimney, or (God forbid) a gas burner, but there is a certain satisfaction to be had in lighting the perfect fire.
Fire needs oxygen to burn, so lots of spaces are essential. Lay a layer of coals on top of the lowest rack in the barbecue and add a few broken pieces of firelighter. Build up, in a rough pyramid, until you have as many coals as you will need. With enough air circulating, the fire will burn when you touch a match to the bottom pieces of firelighter, and will burn for long enough to eventually die down to a pile of glowing coals with a grey dust. You will need to leave it for longer until it becomes hot enough to cook over. More grey dust than black coal; you can move them about now to get an even layer. Now you are good to go.
I hope this has inspired you to get prepared and cook outdoors more often, making the most of the sunshine or even just the warmer days. The more you do it, the more like second nature it becomes. And nothing tastes quite like flame grilled food done right...
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