Summer is now upon us so The Season Of The Barbecque is here. For the next few months most of us will be spending at least one evening each weekend outdoors, eyes streaming from the smoke, clutching unpleasantly warm beverages as we await what is all too often a confused and potentially indigestible meal.
Disappointing barbecques are somehow more of a let down than any other kind of disappointing dinner party. Perhaps that’s because -at least here in the UK- the weather is so fickle as to make any opportunity for a summer outdoor meal that much more golden. Or perhaps it’s because a bad home made burger is somehow much worse than a fast food burger. But it’s also possible that it’s because while we think of barbecques as being essentially so simple and a throwback to the most basic, pre-historic form of cookery, they actually require as much if not more planning and thought than an indoor dinner party.
After all, there’s so much more that can go wrong. Leaving aside the threat of a sudden summer shower, there’s the possibility of hideously over cooked or perilously undercooked meat. The inability to taste anything due to the choking smoke streaming from an over-heated, over-charcoaled Hibachi. And the unpleasant cross-contamination of flavours brought about by a host who either believes that the mix of shop-bought and home made can be completely scattershot, or who seems to want to cook the world. Or the lack of ice or refrigeration, leading to drinks that are almost as hot as the food.
Now of course we’ve all had or attended those last minute barbecques that follow a group’s afternoon in the park, those sweetly rag-tag events provisioned by a quick relay through the supermarket and the purchase of far more beer and wine than actual food. These are not the barbies I speak of. They never disappoint because in fact that party has already started.
No it’s the pre-invitational, “Come In Your Best Summer Tucker”, barbecques that concern me here. So I’m setting down a few rules to follow that should hopefully help anybody planning one of these events to ensure that it comes off perfectly, with no stress on the day and a delicious meal for everyone concerned. However, I can make no promises about the weather.
1. Know Your Barbecqeuing Equipment And Use It Accordingly.
Firstly, when you’ve bought your char-grilling device, be it a little portable Hibachi or one of those spectacular monster grills so beloved of Americans and Australians, read the manufacturer’s instructions and follow them. Don’t assume that you know better than they how to safely operate/set fire to said equipment. They’re in far more danger of being sued than you, so know better how to operate and maintain what they’ve sold you. The instructions will tell you how to maintain the heat of your device, and how to properly cook different proteins safely, either apart or at the same time. Don’t be surprised if they advise less of an inferno in your device than you might suppose. Many people have their barbie set too high rather than too low and this is what causes the burnt on the outside/raw on the inside effect. That’s fine if you’re doing back and blue steaks, but actually dangerous if you’re cooking sausages or chicken.
Secondly, make sure the bars on which you will be cooking the food are completely clean. Not only is there the threat of infection from rotted protein still stuck on the bars from a previous barbie, there’s also the unpleasant taste. Nobody likes a burger that tastes suspiciously like last week’s grilled mackerel. To prevent food sticking to your grill lightly brush anything you’re grilling with oil before your lay it on the grill. Alternatively, wipe the bars of the grill down with a flavourless high smoking-point vegetable oil before you start grilling.
Thirdly, take a good look at the actual cooking space on your grill and number your invites accordingly. You wouldn’t cook a 15lb turkey in a toaster oven so don’t invite 20 people for dinner when you’re cooking on something that only grills four burgers at a time. To do so would mean you’d be sweating over the grill throughout the entire event, and some guests would be left waiting for their food, which can all too easily lead to irritation and over-inebriation.
2. Plan Your Menu And Stick To It
Having decided to thow a barbecque this Saturday, decide what you’re planning to grill and shop far enough in advance to stick to your plan. If you’re planning on burgers and hot dogs, make sure you’ve bought not only the meats but also the buns by Wednesday. Trust me, if the weather’s stayed good all week, there’ll be none in the shops by Friday. You may think that buns will have gone stale by Saturday, but in fact pre-packaged burger and hot dog buns stay fresh for longer than you’d think as long as they stay in their packaging, and anyway, a light toasting on the grill next to the burgers and dogs will perk them right back up again.
Just as importantly, if you’ve decided that for your barbecque you’ll be grilling a butterflied leg of lamb and sliced courgettes and aubergines (zuchinni and eggplants, y’all) with perhaps a couscous salad and tzatziki on the side, don’t panic the day before and add burgers and dogs because you think people will expect them. It’s your party and your menu. If you were planning an indoor dinner party this worry wouldn’t even cross your mind. Trust to the fact that you know your guests, and that they’ll appreciate what they may even consider to be extra effort on your part. As an adjunct to this, don’t panic and add fancy kebabs or tuna steaks because you’ve decided burgers and dogs aren’t effort enough. Your guests are far more likely to enjoy and appreciate food of a consistent theme and consistent quality than what will probably turn out to be a confusing array of tastes that don’t mix well. Also, you simply won’t wind up with enough of either the high or low end options to satisfy everybody.
3. Get Everything Ready In Advance
First and foremost, this means getting the barbie fired up and at cooking temperature before your guests arrive. Doing this will ensure that your guests will be spared the smokiest stage of firing up your grill. It’s also much easier to maintain the heat on your grill by feeding it charcoal than it is to get the dang thing started in front of a usually highly opinionated audience.
This also means clearing all fruit and veg out of your fridge to make room for all the beer and wine that will need to be kept icy cold. Either buy loads of ice, or make loads of ice in advance, so there will be plenty to put in drinks, or in buckets to keep extra cans or bottles icy cold. Any salads or vegetables should be at room temperature anyway. I’m not suggesting you leave them out in the sun for hours beforehand, but they’ll be just fine left covered on the kitchen counter. Even potato or rice salads ( and even coleslaw) have enough acitidity in their dressings to prevent spoilage in that short period of time. Some veg-such as tomatoes and sliced onions- are actually improved by being left in the sun for an hour or so. Just cover them lightly with cling film or a net cloche to keep flies out. The kitchen counter rule also applies to condiments. Mustard and ketchup both have enough acid in them not to ever require refrigeration (Saharan conditions aside) and anyway shouldn’t still be chilly when dollopped onto a burger. A jar of mayo will also be fine on the kitchen counter for an hour or two.
The only exception to this rule applies to leafy salads. They’ll be fine on the counter for that hour or two, but only undressed. Leave them out once they’ve been dressed and they’ll quickly start to wilt. So leave them out, but dress them at the last minute. You can make the dressing in advance and keep it in a jar -again on the counter, or even store the shop-bought dressing on the counter. Again the high levels of acid from either lemon or vinegar in the dressing will prevent bacterial infection. More on salad dressing next.
4. Don’t Over-Dress
I’m not talking about clothing here (though linen clothing and greasy burger do not a happy pair make), but rather about layering on too many flavours when they’re simply not necessary. We’re constantly being told about ways to add flavour to a meal, but the true meaning of that is the enhancement of flavours that are already there, rather than adding another flavour on top of that. All too often the extra flavours aren’t even appropriate to the spirit of your menu. A generous seasoning of salt and pepper will make for a tastier burger than the addition of obscure spices or blending the barbecque sauce into the actual burger. The basic rule I follow is to let the deliver system foods stay simple and appropriate so that the big flavour foods can really shine. To whit:
If you’re buying/making chips and dips to serve alongside or before the main meal, keep the chips plain and let the dips do the talking. I find most shop-bought flavoured chips rather unpleasant anyway, but a nacho flavoured corn chip simply does not taste good when paired with hummus or even guacamole. In fact, for a burgers and hot dogs event I would probably serve plain salted potato chips, plain torilla chips with salsa and guacamole at a pinch. For the leg of lamb kind of barbie, I’d serve toasted pitta strips and hummus.
Same goes for burger and hot dog buns. Keep them simple and traditional. You may eat only wholewheat, seed-packed bread the rest of the week, but on a burger or a hot dog that extra wheaty nuttiness interferes with rather than adds to the flavour and old fashioned experience of the burger. If you’re exprimenting with less traditional burgers, say tuna burgers or pork burgers, then feel free to experiment with the bread as well. But don’t mix your culinary metaphors, so to speak.
Go really easy on the salad dressing. Barbecques mostly happen in summer, when fresh fruits and vegetables are at their best anyway, and so need the least assistance. I promise you that fresh tomatoes that have never seen the inside of a refridgerator and have been sliced and left in the sun for an hour or two need no more than perhaps a light sprinkling of salt and a drizzle of olive oil. If you are going to dress salads, switch to lemon juice for your acidity, or if you must use vinegar, opt for the tangily sweet balsamic. Vinegar-based salad dressings fight horribly on the palate with wine and even beer, and remember that if you’re serving these salads alongside any meats that you’ve marinated before grilling, those meats will also have acidity in their flavour. If you’re not careful you’ll wind up with an unpleasantly sour meal. This rule includes anything served with either a yogurt marinade or dressing, and even a mayo-dressed potato salad. There’s vinegar in that mayo.
On the subject of salads, there’s no need to have any more than three vegetable or salad options at any barbecque, be it high or low brow. I’m not suggesting that you stint, but rather that you provide ample helpings of three core alternatives. It’s a meal for friends, not an all-you-can-eat Las Vegas buffet. For a burgers and hot dogs barbie I’d suggest a green leaf salad, fresh sliced tomatoes, and a potato salad or coleslaw. Remember that with burger and hot dog buns your guests are already getting the carb-based portion of their meal. For that lamb or lobster barbie I’d suggest again the tomatoes and the green leaf salad, then either a rice or couscous salad. If you’re grilling steaks and chicken breasts you can go either way with the starchy salads.
Let condiments be condiments and keep them appropriate. I’ve known people to include barbecque sauce into their burgers, and I then don’t get the pure burger taste I’m after. People in general are quite particular about how they like to dress their burgers so leave it up to them. Have ketchup, that barbecque sauce, mustard (a choice of American and dijon by my reckonning), mayonnaise, and sliced tomatoes, onions and lettuce on the table, and let people dress their burgers themselves. Conversely, keep those condiments off the table when you’re serving that butterflied leg of lamb or those grilled lobsters. With the possible exception of the mayonnaise, they just don’t belong there. An addendum to this rule is that you need only go to the trouble of making your own mayonnaise when you’re serving that lobster. Homemade mayonnaise tastes entirely different to the shop-bought variety and so while it partners the grilled lobster perfectly (and here the shop-bought variety just won’t do), it clashes with the burger horribly.
Dessert. The sheer splendour of summer fruits at their very best means that dessert at a barbecque need be nothing more than fresh summer berries served with cream, or even ice cream if there’s room in your freezer alongside all that extra ice. If you want to serve a baked dessert by all means go ahead, but make sure it can sit on your kitchen counter all day until needed. On barbecque day that fridge wil be full of cold drinks.
A final note on over-dressing: It’s become popular to tigs of rosemary and thyme and other herbs amongst the charcoal to perfume your grilled meats and scent the air. beware of following this practise; not only is it simply not appropriate unless the foods you’re grilling contain those herbs, but they can actually be completely overpowering. You want the air to smell of the food you’ll be eating, not be redolent of an ancient pagan ceremony. Think Oysters On The Beach, not the Oracle of Delphi.
5. Don’t Go Travelling Around The World
By which I mean, if you’re going to serve teriyaki-marinated steaks, don’t partner them with a curried potato salad or Mexican rice. Similarly, don’t go pairing Masala grilled chicken breast with guacamole. I’m all for new regional flavours in barbecque cuisine, but too often mixing them unduly leads less to fusion than confusion on the palate. So if you’re going far east Asian with your meats, keep to that theme with your accompaniments. Try a broccoli soy and honey noodle salad with that teriyaki steak, and a curried potato salad (sag aloo) with those Masala chicken breasts. You’ve got more room to manouver with Mediterranean flavours, but then all those cultural flavours clashed and melded long long ago. I’m not suggesting that you be utterly rigid in your choice of culturally appropriate accompaniments and condiments, just that you be sensitive to which world flavours match and which don’t.
So there you have my rules for successful grilling al fresco. I hope they will be of use to anyone planning to barbecque this summer, and most of all, I hope we get the weather…