Now that summer is finally sticking it’s head above the parapet, you’re probably dusting off your barbecue, heading to the local garage for a bag of quick light charcoal and stripping the shelves of your nearest Sainsbury’s of every meat product they stock. It’s part of our folklore, it’s as British as arguing about milk or tea first, buying a 5kg tin of Quality Street at Christmas, and not moving down inside the bus.
Every summer, Meat Mania grips the UK. Not a back garden or roof terrace is spared the blessing of the barbecue holy trinity – burgers, sausages and chicken drummers (and maybe some halloumi or a portobello mushroom for the token veggie). And don’t forget the coleslaw, more buns than you can shake a stick at, a bag of undressed salad leaves and seven kinds of relish. We spend our summer Sundays waking up with what my sister endearingly refers to as ‘meat guts’, our intestines gripped by the meaty protein overdose of the night before. For a country so taken with veganism and ‘meat free Mondays’, it only takes one whiff of accelerant to make many of us forget our newly acquired veggie-loving ways and return to the dark side (I say this in the fully light hearted tone with which it is intended and mean no disrespect to those with deeply held beliefs around animal welfare and the consumption of meat). But, it doesn’t have to be this way.
I cannot think of a single occasion where turning up for lunch or dinner at a friend’s house to find that they’ve made a shepherd’s pie, a roast chicken (with all the trimmings) and a toad in the hole for a party of 6 people (2 of whom also brought a couple of pasties, ‘just in case’), is ever considered normal. We are a nation of dinner party-throwers, we lovingly lay the table with our best china, buy the fancy tonic and prepare pies, risottos, roasts and Nigella Lawson traybakes. We just don’t serve them all at the same meal, nor should we at barbecues.
First BBQ of the season (like everyone else in the UK!), also the first communal farm dinner of the season. I marinated a butterflied leg of lamb with all the herbs and garlic I could find, a bit of lemon juice and some EVOO. Crisped up the fat over the hot coals and then put the lamb to one side and closed the lid while we drank gin and played Mexican train in the sunshine. Potato salad and broccoli with lemon juice, EVOO and toasted almonds. A cheese board and port. Candlelight. Bob Dylan. All is right with the world. 👊🏻💥😜💕 . #countrylife #devon #devonlife #farmlife #bbq #lamb #roastlamb #broccoli #eatlocal
As a nation, we need to stop thinking of a barbecue as possibly our last opportunity to ever eat meat again, and start thinking of it as a normal meal where you’re cooking some of the constituents on a grill. I most recently hosted a dinner where I cooked a small butterflied leg of lamb on the grill. It had been slashed all over and smothered in a paste of rosemary, garlic, lemon zest and anchovies. We seared it over the hot coals, and then pushed the coals to one end of the barbecue, left the meat at the other and closed the lid to let it cook slowly. We sliced the meat and ate it with potato salad (if you don’t love potato salad then I don’t understand you), tenderstem broccoli dressed with lemon and olive oil and sprinkled with toasted almond flakes and sea salt, and a tomato salad drenched in olive oil and salt and sprinkled with finely chopped red onions. It was bliss. We finished with a couple of cheeses served with rye crackers, toasted almonds and local honey, and a glass of my new obsession, Amaro Montenegro (the Italian ‘cure’ for over eating!). It was bliss.
In warmer climes, where outdoor cooking is more of an everyday occurrence, this is how people cook. A meal like any other, cooked outside. It’s a world away from mountains of processed meat and fluffy bread, and outdoor eating is all the better for it. A favourite in my house is to char a few bunches of spring onions over the scorching hot coals, to be served with romesco sauce and a chilled glass of manzanilla while the meat, whatever it may be, is put on to cook on the more gentle heat.
It’s not just meat that grills well, try blackening whole aubergines and scooping out the smokey sweet flesh to make your own baba ganoush, or cut baby gem lettuces, radicchio or endive into wedges and grill on each side for a few minutes before serving with a citrusy dressing. Fish is just as at home on hot coals; scallops, prawns, squid, tuna, sea bass, salmon, bream, pollock and lobster, mackerel and monkfish are sublime when given the smoky hit a BBQ provides. A quick evening meal for two can easily be cooked on a small barbecue in no time. Light the coals as soon as you get home, then take your time getting things ready, pouring a drink, getting changed etc. The grill will be ready before you know it. Char baby courgettes, asparagus and spring onions. Toast a thick slice of sourdough, brush it with olive oil and rub with a cut clove of garlic, top with burrata or fresh mozzarella, followed by the grilled veggies and a herby dressing. Utterly delicious.
The secret to a great barbecue is to pay as much attention to your sides as you do to the main event. No phoning it in with a bag of salad leaves and some cherry tomatoes. Think about the meal as a whole, rub lamb with shawarma spices and serve with mejaderah (rice with lentils and fried onions), a tomato, cucumber, onion and chilli salad and a big bowl of homemade hummus, slick with olive oil with a stack of warm flatbreads. Slow cook pork that’s been marinated in orange juice & zest, chilli and cumin, and serve with warm corn tortillas, pico de gallo and black beans and rice. Grill spatchcocked poussin and douse with lemon juice and fresh herbs when you remove them from the grill, serve with new potatoes, homemade aioli (it’s really easy, I promise you) and bay gem lettuces cut into wedges and drizzled with a punchy dijon dressing.
Of course, if you want to do burgers, then DO burgers. Make the patties yourself – it really is as simple as buying really good (and fatty, about 20%) minced beef and forming it into a burger. Get glossy brioche buns from a local bakery (or M&S) and toast them, sliced side down, on the grill. Slice up your favourite blue cheese, and juicy beefy tomatoes, slice ripe avocados, red onion, crisp some streaky bacon… you get the idea. Lay all your toppings out on a platter and let guests take wide-eyed delight in building their dream burger. If you want to really push the boat out, make homemade chips and deep fry some fresh herbs at the last minute to sprinkle over the top.
The same goes for sausages. Buy the best sausages you can find, a couple of flavours if you fancy it, serve with a creamy potato salad, a lightly dressed green salad and a big bowl of homemade salsa verde. One of my absolute favourite meals.
If you really want to up your barbecue game, then ditch the quick lighting charcoal and lighter gel and invest in some proper charcoal from The Oxford Charcoal Company. I know I sound like some crazy middle class maniac right now, getting my sweet chestnut and applewood charcoal delivered, but you can honestly taste the difference. There are no chemicals, it’s ready in just 15 minutes and burns like a dream, imparting your food with wonderful natural flavours without the acrid smoke you get from cheaper charcoal. You can also add the charcoal to the barbecue while it’s going, meaning you can keep a low heat ticking over for juicier, slow cooked joints. It’s also sustainable, and you’re supporting an age old British industry at the same time. While you’re at it, get yourself some eco firelighters. Also free from nasty accelerants, these burn cleanly and for long enough to get your charcoal up to speed.
Last, but by no means least, when all is grilled and done, if your coals are still hot enough, chuck on some garlic, shallots, chillis and ginger and make some khao soi paste to go in the freezer, you wont regret it.
So go forth, dear friends, grill with intention and don’t forget the mayo.