The barbecue season has officially begun, but when it comes to cooking alfresco is the recipe for success all in the planning?
It's become something of a Bank Holiday tradition to have a weekend barbecue. At the first hint of sun, we optimistically haul rusting barbecue grills from sheds and garages to be given a good scrub. There's something irresistible about the prospect of food sizzling over smoky charcoal and eating outdoors with friends and family on a warm sunny day.
But as the tantalising smoky aromas waft enticingly from neighbourhood barbecues, can I be the only person who's more than a little anxious at the prospect of chicken oozing pink juices and sausages charred on the outside but unpleasantly raw in the middle? Or kebabs of tough meat and underdone vegetables or conversely, dry overdone steak incinerated until it looks and tastes like a piece of leather? Unfortunately, all too often the great British barbecue in my experience is a disappointing letdown.
There's much more to a successful barbecue than just chucking on frozen burgers and sausages five minutes after it's lit. A slapdash approach is asking for disaster. Planning and forethought are called for - the barbecue needs to be lit well ahead of time - it's not ready until the smoke has cleared and white ash appears on the glowing charcoal. I throw some hickory wood chips or a few sprigs of lavender or rosemary on to the charcoal; it gives off a lovely fragrance and keeps insects away too.
But before heading for the garden, it's a good idea to prepare the food well ahead, so that you can relax and let others do the cooking! For extra flavour I rub cuts of meat and fish with ground spices or fresh herbs. Marinades are also good to liven up the taste and to tenderise meat, fish and poultry and keep it moist as it cooks.
The food doesn't need to be complicated or fancy. I prefer to keep it simple and offer bowls of fresh crisp salad (no limp leaves or pale tasteless tomatoes!) and tasty relishes to accompany the food. Foil is handy for wrapping up chunks of vegetables and can be put on the grill to cook without risk of burning. Wrap tightly and cook on the barbecue until tender. Whole bananas and apples sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and topped with a spoonful of marmalade before wrapping in foil are good cooked like this too.
And if the weather turns out to be a washout, don't despair - you can always cook everything indoors instead!