Staring out of the window, it’s not exactly hot and sunny. In fact, rather depressingly, the sky is grey and it has been raining….all day…. So it’s not exactly BBQ weather. But, in anticipation of summer, I close my eyes and feel the warm sun on my skin as I sit in a garden sipping a nice cool drink with the vivid scent of grilled meats skimming my nostrils, I can almost taste the succulent saliva-inducing tender mouthfuls of grilled meats with exotic marinades. I challenge you to deny that this very thought didn’t make your mouth water, even if just a little…? Alas, day dreaming isn’t nearly as good as the real thing, but inspiration has struck and so I begin to think of all the wonderful things I want to try on the BBQ this year.
I must admit that the Brits are not known for their “Grilling skills”… Perhaps it’s a distinct lack of sunshine that casts a grey cloud over their ability to be creative. As a nation, when the majority of Brits brave the great (yet cold) outdoors in order to BBQ, they seem to prefer a selection of previously frozen, grey meat… usually in sausage or burger form, with the obligatory slice of processed cheese and if you are very (un)lucky perhaps the odd undercooked chicken drumstick also makes its way onto the buffet. Overall it’s pretty unappetising and I fail to understand why we follow the same tradition year after year. Now I have nothing against a good burger or some top-notch bangers (Brit slang for sausage) but there is no excuse for poor quality produce. Perhaps it’s cost-related, I hear you ask? Well, perhaps, but with supermarket price-wars at their peak and great deals available everywhere these days, there is no excuse for not putting together a great tasting, good value meal for your BBQ feast.
One of the most endearing things for me personally, when it comes to BBQ’ing, is when suddenly the men get all territorial and caveman-ish about the grilling. It’s absolutely hilarious to watch… Sometimes if there are several men present, it becomes a competitive sport and it makes great entertainment… “Me man…me cook food, me feed family” I’m not exaggerating, this is a direct quote from a friend of mine who undergoes a strange character transformation the second the BBQ is lit. Personally, I’m all for letting the men folk do the grilling, as my talents tend to lie more in the food preparation and table-laying. I’m quite girly in this sense and the idea of standing over a hot grill prodding hunks of meat prompts all kinds of thoughts like “What if I burn myself?” or “God I just know I’m going to wreak of smoke after this!” and my personal favourite “ A sweaty-faced hostess with make-up running down face… Not a good look for me” So over to you Gentlemen… The grill is all yours! The only downside being that despite your 6 hour prep session, they do sometimes claim to have “Done all the work!” Men…. Can’t live with them, can’t grill without them!
Now, the Americans are definitely the world-champions of BBQ’ing, I’m sure they’ll have even awarded themselves that accolade somewhere down the line and perhaps deservedly so, as they definitely know a thing or two about grilling. I will admit that I do love a good Texas / Arkansas BBQ…. Juicy sweet, back-back ribs, pulled pork and burnt ends, yes Ma’am, sign me up! But apart from the odd steak and a few cobs of corn thrown in for good measure, this concludes their repertoire really.
My question is why does BBQ food have to be so damn heavy? It’s not about calories or fat, it’s just about the human capacity for consumption! We all like to chow down when we BBQ, there is no denying it. In fact, over-eating is a very common side effect of BBQ’ing. But what happens when you get bored of the usual suspects and crave something different? Maybe you aren’t hosting a massive party and instead it’s just you and a friend. You don’t have to have a house full of people as an excuse to use your BBQ, grilled food is absolutely delicious any time. So thinking outside the box, what else is there to grill? How about fish? Or vegetables? What about some nice kebabs? And so we cross the pond back to Europe and the Mediterranean. Now THESE are the people who really know a thing or two about grilling with diversity. The Mediterranean is where I shall anchor and tell you about the wonderfully delicate alternatives to the gut-busting, Alka Seltzer requiring, BBQ feasts.
The most well known countries who’s shorelines are lapped by the Mediterranean sea are Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, to name a few. Their diets are rich in olive oil, fresh fish and meat, cheese, locally sourced produce and lots and lots of carbohydrates. They haven’t quite sold their souls to the fast food devil, quite the way the Americans and British have. The warm sun allows them to grow and harvest vast arrays of fruit, vegetables and olives as well as make fantastic cheeses and excellent wine (with the exception of Turkey, who are obviously Muslim). They even all seem to have some type of skewered kebab that they are fiercely proud of, which are all unique and perfectly native to their own regions.
Fish is also hugely popular on the grill, but sometimes people are put off by how fiddly and fragile fish can be and my tip to cure this fear is to grill the fish whole! One of my favourite fishes to grill are fresh sardines as well as fresh mackerel. Both extremely underrated fish, in a world where so many different types of fish (such as Cod and Haddock etc) are close to extinction, sardines and mackerel are in sustainable and plentiful supply. They are typically very popular in the south of Italy and Sicily where they are brushed with a little olive oil, sprinkled with salt and simply grilled. No BBQ is complete without them. The nature of oily fish makes them a sturdy and ideal candidate for grilling. Protected by their skins, they can handle the searing heat and the skin crisps up nicely to add a smoky flavour to the fish.
Now for the show-offs amongst you, there are some great ways to impress your guests by making some extra special dishes bound for your BBQ. One of my favourite is a fish dish using ‘Pandan’ leaves, which are giant banana leaves, commonly sold in Asian / Oriental speciality stores as well as some supermarkets. Start by brushing the leaves with oil to protect them and make them more flexible and place a piece of fish of your choice in the centre and season well with salt and pepper. Then pour over a mixture of coconut cream, chopped red chillis, chopped cilantro, zest and juice of half a lime and ½ a teaspoon of palm sugar (from Oriental stores) or just brown sugar if you cant find palm sugar. Then wrap the fish with the Pandan leaf, ensuring not to break any part of it, just as you would wrap a Christmas present. Secure with a toothpick that has been soaked in water (so it doesn’t burn) and if you have any leakages, just wrap another leaf around it and again secure with another toothpick. Place the parcel on the least hot part of your grill for about 8 minutes and voila! Thai fish parcels ready for your guests to unravel on their plates… It’s a real talking point of any BBQ.
I also love taking a huge cut of rump steak (sometimes 1kg) and marinating it in soya sauce, sesame oil, a little honey, chopped spring onions, a little crushed ginger and garlic. Then throw the whole beast onto a searingly hot BBQ and char it on both sides, whilst ensuring the inside remains quiveringly rare. Allow it to rest on a wooden board, before carving thin slivers and placing a few slivers onto some tortilla flat bread with some chopped spring onions and either a good teriyaki sauce or just as they are. Truly delicious… !! Using the same type of tortilla flat bread you can make excellent Fajitas too by simply grilling some chicken, slicing it along with some sliced grilled peppers and onions and placing in onto the tortilla bread with a little sour cream / crème fraiche, some salsa and a little guacamole or freshly chopped avocado and a squeeze of lime. Again, absolutely fantastic!!
What about some dessert ideas? Why not char-grill some pineapple? It’s absolutely fantastic. Sweet, juicy pineapples seared with black lines from the grill, served with either a squeeze of lime or a little melted chocolate sauce on the side, is just heavenly! You can also make little aluminium foil parcels of chopped banana and halved strawberries, dotted with squares of dark chocolate and seal the package and place on the BBQ for a few minutes. The end result is a devilishly unctuous mixture of sweet strawberries and soft bananas enveloped in molten chocolatey goodness. It’s a real naughty one and it’s virtually impossible to resist seconds!!!!
You can cook almost anything on your BBQ. You can create parcels of things, vary temperatures and create starters, main courses and desserts. With so much variety beckoning, don’t leave your BBQ in the garage this summer. You don’t need sunshine to BBQ, all you need is good ingredients, a willing griller and someone to share the end result with. Burnt sausages, raw chicken and frazzled burger patties are a thing of the past! This summer I encourage you all to venture beyond your comfort zones and experiment with something new, simple and deliciously different! If you aren’t to make it to the Mediterranean shores this summer, you should certainly be able to bring a slice of the Mediterranean to your own back yard… Happy grilling!