Back in April I was sure the summer had arrived until May came along and appeared to plunge us back into winter. Despite the lighter evenings, those wet days, particularly in the latter half of the month, made me feel like putting the barbeque up for sale on ‘Done Deal’ rather than preparing it for use. Thankfully a change is in the air and I think we might be good to go for a little al fresco dining and summery outdoor food.
However in my hankering after the great outdoors, or my back garden to be more accurate, it suddenly struck me that while we always feel that barbecues are weather dependent, all barbecue recipes can be just as easily cooked on an indoor grill, griddle pan or even in the oven if it comes to it. Anyone who has grown up in this country is long past the notion of planning a barbecue. You plan to have some friends around and then let the weather do its own thing; plan A – eat outside, plan B – eat inside. If it does rain you will often find some lone ranger having to stand outside under an umbrella and flip the burgers while the guests wave out from the kitchen. Why do they do this when you can just as easily use your indoor cooking facilities? Of course the overall ambiance is different. Rain or shine it seems quite acceptable to stand in the garden with a can of beer or a glass of wine in one hand and a long handled tool in the other poking the ingredients over a bed of hot coals. Were you to stand in your kitchen in the same pose people would think you were quite strange. There just isn’t the same sense of adventure, or indeed danger from four safe plates on the hob; you don’t even need the long handled tools!
While there is also a taste difference, you won’t notice it as much if you do use an indoor grill or griddle pan. So whether you are cooking indoors or out it can still feel like a summer feast. Barbecue recipes are always a failsafe idea for casual entertaining and they evoke a sense of fun. For some reason a barbecue presents so much less pressure for the host and guests than a formal dinner party.
Marinate, marinate, marinate! When it comes to summer food I can’t stress that enough. Marinades, bought or homemade, are a great way of flavouring your meat or fish and also tenderising it. In my own mind I split marinades into three groups that I call American, Eastern and Mediterranean. This is purely for my own recall and so I see the American group as the more traditional barbecue sauce that seems to be common on ribs, chicken and sausages. While tasty, these are usually mild. The group from the east always involve some chilli or cayenne pepper, giving a little spicy kick to fish or chicken. If I’ve chosen beef or lamb I tend to opt for a more Mediterranean mix of wine and herbs which always calls for some added garlic. It is also an easy way to focus your evening and tailor it to guests. The marinades determine the style of food, and so the food will determine the salads and accompaniments.
If you are serving burgers don’t forget the little extras such as relish, salsa and chutneys. While anyone can cook a burger, these little extras can really make it special. Again there are plenty of good quality artisan versions around but you can of course make your own. Relish is just a chunky cooked vegetable or fruit based condiment that usually has a kick. Salsa is just a Mexican style uncooked fruit or vegetable condiment usually with chillies, while chutneys are made with sugar and sometimes vinegar and cooked to a sticky consistency and can be mild or spicy. A word of caution though if you are fond of hot food and think nothing of eating a raw chilli just remember that not everyone may have worked themselves up to your level of tolerance. Always warn guests about what’s hot and what’s not and perhaps even provide a mild alternative where possible.
Kebabs are another easy way to create a wow factor and all of the hard work and clear up can be done ahead, which leaves you to enjoy the party. Wooden skewers are ideal and at this time of year the jewel bright colours of peppers and little sweet tomatoes make creating interesting kebabs a doddle. Chicken and tender beef or lamb work well on a kebab. Just make sure that all the meat is roughly the same size as this helps it to cook evenly. It’s always good to soak the skewers in water before use to prevent them burning over the heat. Don’t forget to try fish on a kebab as well. I find cod easy to work with. I also like the idea of wrapping the kebab in a meat mixture using lamb, pork or beef mince or all three. These meaty sticks are always a hit and many butchers do their own versions ready to go. Indeed most butchers these days do a good range of barbecue foods at this time of year. They have taken the time to marinate, have taken the time to find the best marinade and have even done up those skewers and meat sticks for you. If it is a local butcher then you can be guaranteed that the meat and any vegetables used are fresh and also usually local, but do check. If you want to be the ultimate cheat I would suggest you don’t give away your secret and let everyone think you’ve been slaving for at least 72 hours preparing the feast! On the other hand you can tell your friends so they can also have great food when it is their turn to throw the party.
Barbecues or grills are largely about the people and the food. Don’t get so hung up about the weather. Invite your friends around and let me assure you that happy taste buds and full bellies really don’t care if they are indoors or out. On the other hand the most beautiful evening can leave a nasty memory if the food is awful or people leave hungry. This summer get your priorities right. Break out the barbecue grub regardless of the elements and if the sun shines see it as a bonus. For more barbecue ideas or ready to go barbecue food drop in to James Whelan Butchers in the Oakville Shopping Centre at any time or check us out online at www.jameswhelanbutchers.com.
We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers