In this country, it’s summer as soon as the temperature reaches 15 degrees. Clouds, wind, rain and general poor weather are not enough to keep many of our fine countrymen from donning shorts and flip flops and throwing a packet of cheap sausages on to a disposable barbecue that’s still too hot. What could be more British than a charred sausage, still raw in the middle and lashings of rain? Or the sudden call of alarm from the self-assigned ‘pit master’ when he realises that, actually, those drumsticks he dished out definitely aren’t cooked through.
This is not how it has to be. The best BBQs are not just a random collection of strange flavoured sausages, pre-made burgers and a dodgy veggie kebab but simply constructed, wholesome meals. Fine ingredients can often speak for themselves over hot coals and the most simple of marinades plus a couple of sides prepared in the kitchen can transform this essentially primal way of cooking into food that doesn’t have to repeatedly disappoint year on year.
There are a few things to keep in mind to get the most from your afternoon at the grill. First, use good quality coals. The coal is going to flavour the food so fork out a little more and get the really good stuff. Second, cook the food slowly. To much heat will just cook the outside and leave the middle raw which is great with steak but not so great with chicken. A good rule of thumb is that the grill is hot enough when you can hold your hand over it for about three seconds before starts to burn. Next, make sure you oil the hot grill before you put the meat on it. Just wipe it down with a cloth and it should protect your meat from sticking. Finally, remember that if the food is still sticking it’s not ready to be flipped. Just leave it alone until it wants to come up from the grill.
Once you start to understand the principles of a good BBQ you’ll begin to see that less is more. A menu doesn’t have to be any more complicated than some pork marinated with woody herbs, lemon slices, garlic and oil, coal roasted fennel, green salad and crusty bread. Or spicy chicken wings, grilled sweetcorn and coleslaw. Or slightly blackened minced lamb kebabs spiked with mint and cumin, a fresh yoghurt and cucumber dip and red peppers darkened on the bars, torn into strips and marinated in a little oil, lemon juice and dill all with warm, soft pitta to mop everything up. Just let the marinade do it’s job or let any spiced meat to rest for as long as possible and cook, nice and slow on white hot coals.
The recipe below is very simple, cheap to prepare and doesn’t rely on your guests arriving on time (because there’s always one!). It doubles or triples very well and should be served just warm.
Prepare a marinade of 60ml good olive oil and an equal amount of wine vinegar, one sliced red onion (or florence onion if you can get them), a few torn bay leaves, fresh oregano, very thin slices of whole lemon and half a shredded green chilli. Add salt and pepper and allow the flavours to mingle for a little while.
In the meantime, get your coals white hot. Oil the grill and brush two filleted mackerel with oil on both sides. Once the coals are medium hot place the fillets, skin side down, onto the grill. Now, the most important step; leave them alone. Don’t touch them at all for about four minutes. By this point they should be translucent around the edges and come away from the grill easily. The skin should be crispy and black in places. Flip the fish onto the flesh side and cook for one minute longer, just to cook through. Remove the fish from the heat and place in a large, shallow dish. Pour over the marinade and leave for at least ten minutes.
As you have lots of time to spare with this recipe you’ll have plenty of opportunities to sort out sides. The Spanish dish of roasted vegetables, escalivada, basically a charred ratatouille, would be appropriate here and can be prepared while the coals are still quite hot. Tapenade, the black olive and anchovy dip, is also great with this, hunks of bread and some large, floppy lettuce dressed with salt, a scant squeeze lemon juice and black pepper to mop up the warm juices.