Summer brings with it many distinct pleasures. But along with hay fever comes another object of distaste - the barbecue.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say I hate the barbecue, because I
actually like the slow cooked, smoky, barbecued food of America’s Mid
West and southern states, but I do intensely dislike the coarse,
one-dimensional flavours that come with pieces of meat and fish
casually thrown on an open fire. To me this just isn’t cooking.
Before discussing flavour let me deal with a philosophical point
that seems to me to underpin the folly of the barbecue. Why, when it is
hot enough for a barbecue, do barbecue enthusiasts want to make it even
hotter by lighting an open fire? Hot days now come as no surprise given
the frequency of weather reports in the media and the accuracy of
internet weather sites, so isn’t it so much more sensible and more
comfortable to use the cool of the morning to cook lunch or dinner in
the kitchen and then enjoy every hot minute of the rest of the weekend?
And I am a great fan of the long-established, communal barbecue
where tradition and experience combine. It is hard, even after a dozen
years, to forget the fun and the flavours imparted into salmon cooked
over an open pit in Oregon where, as the indigenous Americans used to
do, the fish are halved lengthways and then hooked on to large poles
which support each other way above the fire.
But as far as I am concerned, nothing that comes straight of the
grill can match the flavours of a piece of meat or fish that has been
marinated and cooked with equal amounts of care, herbs and the most
appropriate liquid, red wine or white wine or olive oil. Not even the
most ardent red meat eater could be disappointed by the flavours
offered by the grilled fillet of beef recipe in Rose Grey and Ruth
Rogers’ River Café Easy Cook Book (Random House, £20 ). No
need for raging fires, tongs or special equipment ( although cool beers
or wine are always welcome). Just marinate the meat as directed, slice
it, then grill on both sides it for a matter of minutes on the top of
your cooker and stay cool.
The keys to adding flavour, whether as a marinade or a sauce, are
the crucial foundations for any meal but are invariably in my opinion
neglected by the amateur barbecue chef. When I was a restaurateur the
only occasion on which I came close to a confrontation with my
extremely patient Head Chef (who managed to put up with me six days a
week for over eight years) was when, as our food gross profit slipped
one month, we looked to make cuts. “I’ll do whatever I can, “ he
replied, “but just don’t touch what I spend each week on herbs. That’s
one of the major differences between a professional and an amateur
Amateur barbecues are invariably a reverse of this process, a return
to a too- obvious use of power over subtlety accentuated today by the
fact that modern cooking means - gas, electricity and briquettes - make
the heat even more fierce and the comparison with how our ancestors
used to cook even more far fetched. Surely they would have had to wait
until the flames had died down considerably before adding their
And I am afraid I don’t go for the sauces that usually on offer
either. Too coarse mustard, one-dimensional commercial tomato ketchup
and hot, mouth-puckering barbecue sauces only add to the rather hollow
flavours of the barbecue. Instead, for something that will work equally
well with fish or meat that has been marinated for 12 to 24 hours, pick
the leaves off a large bunch of coriander and put them into a food
processor with sea salt, pine nuts and a couple of cloves of peeled,
diced garlic. Process and then start adding an inexpensive olive oil
until you have a green sauce of biting freshness. For those with a cast
iron palate, add a diced red chilli.
A garlic puree packs as much intense but not overpowering flavour
and I am delighted to say that my recipe was even requested by a highly
respected British chef for his weekly cookery column. Like so many of
the best recipes it is very simple. Peel two to three heads of garlic.
Place the cloves in a pan and cover with cold, salted water. Bring to
the boil and simmer for about 10 minutes until tender. Drain and place
the cloves in a food processor with plenty of freshly ground black
pepper. Process and then add single or double cream or crème fraiche
until you have a thick, creamy sauce. Chill and serve with any kind of
roast or grilled meat and, if there is any left at the end of the meal,
finish with a piece of crusty bread.
My contention is that if the main ingredients are correctly
marinated and what accompanies them is as thoughtfully prepared, then
we amateurs can abandon our barbecues, saving money and making a small
contribution to the onset of global warming, and stick to our
well-tried grills and ovens.
But I don’t want anybody to think I have reached this conclusion
without personal experience of all that a barbecue can involve. What
follows is in my opinion the most successful recipe for marinated duck
breasts from Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of South West France
(originally published by Dorling Kindersley, currently out of print but
due to be reprinted by John Wiley & Sons Inc in 2005). Once,
holidaying in that part of the world, I decided to barbecue the ducks
and spent at least two hours collecting the souches, the roots of the
old vines, making and lighting the barbecue and waiting for the flames
to die down. By which time the skies had darkened and the rain came
lashing down. I struggled on, as any stubborn Northerner would, with
tongs in one hand and an umbrella in the other. Ever since, however, I
have cooked this dish in the oven with, I would modestly add, even
2 large whole, boned duck breasts.
1 and a half teaspoons coarse salt,
1 and a half teaspoons finely chopped shallots,
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley,
Half a teaspoon crumbled bay leaf,
A quarter teaspoon crumbled thyme leaves,
12 black peppercorns, lightly crushed,
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
Freshly ground pepper.
1. The day before serving, trim off all excess fat from the duck
breasts. In a non-corrodible bowl combine the salt, shallots, parsley,
bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns and garlic.
2. Roll the duck breasts in the mixture and stack them skin side
down in the bowl. Cover bowl with cling film and let stand,
refrigerated, 12- 24 hours, turning breasts over once.
3. 30 minutes before serving, wipe or rinse the duck breasts to
remove excess seasonings and any liquid that may have exuded. Discard
marinade and allow breasts to come to room temperature. Pat ducks dry
and score the skin.
5. Here I depart from the original recipe and saute the breasts on
both sides in a hot pan for 2/3 minutes until brown (which generates
useful duck fat) and then cook in a hot oven for another 15/20 minutes
depending on how rare you like your duck.
6. Allow meat to rest 1-2 minutes, then slice the meat thinly
crosswise. Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper and serve immediately.