Presiding over a brazier the size of a cocoa tin was a tall woman of storybook splendor. Everything about her billowed, from her startlingly white lace blouse and bright print skirts to her big, beautiful smile. Mini kebabs were her business and she cooked them on a shady corner of a square in one of the world’s enchanted places – Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.
It was the great size of the woman and her tiny toy stove that made the picture so memorable, but the economy of her enterprise is interesting too. Wherever fuel is in short supply people cut food into small pieces so that it cooks quickly using a minimum of heat.
Contrast that frugality with the expenditure on fuel and paraphernalia that barbecuing seems to demand in this country.
Somewhere along the line the idea of simplicity in alfresco cooking seems to have been lost, and with it, if we are not careful, much of its charm. I want something closer in taste and spirit to the freshly caught fish cooked over a riverbank fire than to a hellzapoppin’ poolside cook-out furnished with barbecue everything from aprons to steel bands and nothing better to eat than a charred hamburger.
With ingenuity and a large roll of kitchen foil you can cook almost anything on a barbecue. What I question is whether there is any point in trying to.
The most successful open-air cooking is invariably the least contrived – grilled steaks, chops, fish, poultry or vegetables accompanied by new bread and lavishly dressed salads. In every case the unbeatable combination is of good raw materials with interesting marinades to prevent drying and add extra taste. Flavored butters and mayonnaise sauces show off plain grills much better than strong, colorful barbecue unguents from the supermarket shelf.
Tarragon is the crucial flavor in a classic bearnaise sauce served with steak or thick slices of rare roast beef. Take the first steps of the traditional recipe, then make a simpler bearnaise butter to serve in chilled dabs on lamb chops or grilled chicken as well as with steaks or hamburgers.
Put the vinegar in a small pan with the wine, shallots, tarragon and chervil or parsley. Bring to the boil and cook until the liquid has reduced to about two tablespoons. Allow to cool then strain the liquid, discarding the herby residue.
Beat the liquid into the softened butter and season it well with salt and pepper. Refrigerate the butter to firm it up then form into a cylinder approximately 4cm (1 1/2 in) diameter. Wrap and chill it thoroughly. Keep chilled until needed then cut in fairly thick slices which melt when they come in contact with the hot meat.
Even easier herb butters, made by beating chopped herbs into softened butter and adding a little fresh lemon juice, are chilled and served in the same way. My dill plant has been felled by London sparrows, so feathery, aniseed flavored fennel leaves will have to do in butters for fish and poultry until a replacement has been planted.
If no herbs are available there is always garlic to fall back on or cupboard flavors like anchovies, olives, and capers.
Cholesterol watchers may prefer mayonnaise sauces to butters. The idea of accompanying meat with mayonnaise has been a successful fondue formula for years and it is better with barbecues. A mild mayonnaise crammed with chopped dill is superb with fish steaks or with chicken. Sage goes well with chicken too, as does tarragon.
Experiment with mustard too and horseradish. Try adding quite large quantities of either to mayonnaise based sauces to serve with steaks or beef kebabs.
There are very few foods which will not benefit from spending an hour or two in an appropriate marinade before being committed to the fire, and basting with the same mixture during cooking.
Note that the marinade does not contain salt because it would simply draw moisture out of meat and fish instead of helping to retain it. For this same reason do add salt to the marinade if it is to be used for vegetables. It will help to draw moisture from the vegetables and start the softening process which cooking will finish.
For those who do not enjoy meat or fish, vegetable kebabs, made up of parboiled new potatoes and chunky pieces of aubergine, red pepper, courgette, mushroom and onion are one of the most popular things i cook over charcoal. Everything is marinated for a couple of hours before cooking. The trick is to cut the vegetables into pieces which all take approximately the same length of time to cook.
Any of the marinades used in Indian tandoor cooking are splendid for barbecues too. In Delhi a couple of years ago I tasted, among numerous dishes normally cooked in an enclosed tandoor and even there, as here, cooked over open charcoal, tikka panir. This consists of cubes of fresh pressed curd cheese which have been flavored with a pungently herbed and spiced marinade – mint, coriander, garlic and ginger figured large – then grilled over charcoal. Delicious, and worth trying with firm tofu.
And still on the subject of cheese, why not a summery outdoor version of raclette, the Swiss speciality of melted cheese scraped onto a plate and eaten with new potatoes? Wrap chunks of cheese in double layers of vine leaves and cook over the charcoal until melted.