Today the sun is high in the sky and even through the glass I know that these are the kind of afternoons we hankered after on those far too many dismal, overcast days of spring. It feels like it’s been a long time coming and I just hope that when you are reading this the weather has settled into a warm and sunny pattern and we are experiencing a proper June, rather than some strange hot weather aberration that lasted for a fleeting moment and then disappeared taking the summer of 2013 with it. That big bright yellow sun has the remarkable effect of instantly turning our thoughts to cooking and eating in the great outdoors. I think the entire country has moved outside in the past couple of days. Barbecues have been extracted from the back of the shed, dusted down and polished up and there has been a noticeable run on meat for grilling. Barbecuing also gets most men cooking. Even those who wouldn’t step foot in the kitchen from one end of the year to the next, will happily pull out their long tongs and take their place at the great grilling altar of steel and charcoal that is the barbecue. Of course with the advent of the gas cooking apparatus all the hard work of heating it up and stoking the coals is no longer as necessary. Indeed much of the danger, the main reason given as to why men like grilling in the first place, has been largely removed from the process. Just for fun, I came across the following recently which I thought I’d share.
A typical barbecue routine for the average Couple
1) Couple decides to have a barbecue for some friends.
2) The woman goes out and buys the food and the drink, loads it up and lugs it home.
3) The woman makes the salads, prepares the vegetables, and makes dessert.
4) The woman prepares the meat for cooking, places it on a tray along with the necessary cooking utensils and sauces and takes it to the man who is lounging beside the grill with a beer in his hand, enjoying the early evening sunshine.
5) THE MAN PLACES THE MEAT ON THE GRILL.
6) The woman goes back inside to organise the plates and cutlery.
7) The woman greets the guests is busy inside getting everyone a drink.
8) The woman comes out to tell the man that the meat is burning. He thanks her and asks if she will bring another beer while he deals with the situation.
9) THE MAN TAKES THE MEAT OFF THE GRILL AND HANDS IT TO THE WOMAN.
10) The woman prepares the plates, bread, utensils, napkins, sauces, and brings them to the table and then serves the meat.
11) After eating, the woman clears the table and does the dishes.
12) Everyone PRAISES and THANKS THE MAN for his cooking efforts. He then announces, “We should do it again soon”!
13) The man asks the woman how she enjoyed ‘her night off from the kitchen.’ Upon sensing a slightly annoyed reaction, he concludes that there’s just no pleasing some women….
Of course the above is a humorous generalisation and hopefully nothing like this ever takes place in your home. On a more serious note though, the main thing with eating outside and barbecuing is getting the right cuts of meat to begin with and sticking to some simple rules. While you don’t want people eating charred lumps of meat, you must be sure that the meat is cooked for health and safety reasons. We have no problem buying fancy, extra long utensils to help us so why on earth won’t we purchase a simple and cheap meat thermometer to go with them? I admit a meat thermometer isn’t half as sexy as an extra long fork to spear that steak, but a meat thermometer is the safest and best way to tell if meat is cooked. You’ll use it all year round indoors and outdoors so consider it a must have piece of kitchen equipment.
Marinades are another big point of grilling debate. Some weeks ago in this column we discussed the merits of such saucy soaking and science has now revealed that from a taste point of view if it’s an impromptu do, then marinating for an hour before cooking is fine, while from a clean up and convenience stand the night before is preferable.
Sides and salads will also be something to consider. My own personal take on this is that sometimes it is better value to leave this to the experts. You can drop into our store or several others who create wonderful fuss free, sides and salads that are literally ready to go. When you consider the shopping, chopping and assembly needed to make several different dishes from scratch it just isn’t cost effective. There is also a tendency to over shop, leaving you with a fridge full of salad veg that can often, regardless of the best of intentions, end up in the bin several days later.
Just like the sides, while you can of if you wish spend time threading skewers, making burgers from scratch or marinating chicken, sometimes it is much easier to employ the skills of your butcher. Most butchers will have great deals and specials on for the barbecue the minute the sun shines. You can check out our special offers on line 24/7 at Jameswhelanbutchers.com. When the time and effort is taken into consideration it will be hard to beat a good butcher for value.
So is there a trick to great barbecues? While gas barbecues are easy to fire up I would still give it time to heat up, just like you wouldn’t put meat in a cold oven, don’t do it on a barbecue. Also allow plenty of time for the food to cook. Traditionally barbecuing is not meant to be as fast as grilling, it is a slower, more leisurely process although gas barbecues are faster than conventional ones. When executed properly this is what gives it that great, unique taste. It is also quite a healthy option as most of the fat drips off and into the flames during cooking. If you think about it barbecues are the original health grills as little is added to create the flavour. Finally I would say that always, always, always go for the best ingredients you can afford. Top quality burgers will always taste better than cheap, poor quality steak. Buy the best you can afford, forget the barbecue snobbery that abounds and just enjoy having your family and friends around for a night of fun. At the end of the day it really is one of life’s simplest but greatest pleasures.