Taming the flame

Taming the flame

By
Ben Tish
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
978 1 84949 715 2
Photographer
Kris Kirkham

Setting out on this project was very exciting for us at Ember Yard, and we were determined to make it different (hopefully) from other barbecue books out there, and to show you how versatile barbecuing can be. Venturing beyond the ubiquitous pulled pork, brisket and wings – yes, these are there too – we’ve favoured lighter dishes, with more fish, vegetables and even desserts, all making the most of the barbecue’s magic.

My own passion for grilling over charcoal and wood is deep-seated, but it began in a typically British fashion. When I was growing up, the annual dusting down of the family barbecue and its utensils at the beginning of summer may have been predictable, but it was still full of expectation. Back then it was more about the ceremony of lighting the fire and the anticipation, rather than the actual results: dubious sausages and 70%-meat-content(!) burgers; perhaps some very well-done, leathery steak; and a nod to the vegetarians, with some corn-on-the-cob.

Fast forward to the present. The ceremony is still as exciting as ever – something to do with our primal instinct to light a fire for cooking, the smell of smoke and the lick of flame almost hypnotizing. But now it’s all about the flavour: the smoky, rich taste of food cooked over an open fire is one of life’s true pleasures, and there’s really nothing like it.

Whether you’re cooking herb-stuffed sea bream, a rare-breed Dexter rib steak, a whole chicken, or an anchovy-spiked leg of lamb, the charcoal and wood work their magic.

Having travelled through many parts of Spain and Italy – including the Basque Country, Rioja, Tuscany and Piedmont – I’ve witnessed first-hand the true art of grilling. In these regions, cooking over an open flame is second nature, and many houses and restaurants have a grilling contraption out the back, or indeed in the actual kitchen.

One of the best pieces of beef I’ve ever eaten was a Chianina T-bone grilled over the simplest of fires in Florence’s Trattoria Sostanza, the meat expertly blackened and gently perfumed with smoke from hazel-wood charcoal. The two guys running the grill were captivating in their deftness and skill (not to mention their ability to hang a fag from their lips throughout), and completely in tune with the natural rhythm of the fire and smoke.

Traditional Basque grills especially fascinate me, with their distinctive operating wheel that precisely raises or lowers the grilling racks to allow food to be cooked quickly, slowly, or anything in between. Chef Victor Arguinzoniz of Asador Etxebarri, in the rolling hills of the Basque countryside, has turned grilling into a true artform. He is in control of the entire process, from chopping down the various trees for the wood, drying the logs and then burning them in a furnace to make the charcoal. Victor even designed his own custom Basque grill to meet his exacting requirements. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the food from Etxebarri is some of the best I’ve had. It’s incredibly simple, just one or two elements on the plate, and that’s it – but these elements all have a controlled, balanced and relevant smokiness to them that could only come from Victor’s intuitive cooking and years of practice.

Etxebarri is a unique experience, and one that can’t really be replicated, not least because of its location – a backdrop of a grassy mountainside dotted with Basque sheep makes it an ethereal experience! However, much can be learnt from this approach, even by a novice: the importance of sourcing the best ingredients you can find, along with natural (chemical-free) charcoal and a fundamental understanding of how fire and smoke work…

Nowadays, excellent produce is available from artisan butchers, fishmongers, grocers and even some supermarkets, so there’s no need to go down the dodgy sausage route any more – unless you really feel compelled to. And there’s plenty of wonderful, slow-burning charcoal out there – we like to use single-species varieties of charcoal, such as oak, silver birch, hazel and apple. Their subtle flavours permeate the food without any overpowering acridity, and you can experiment by matching specific woods with different foods. Great fun.

So, what to cook on? Times have changed, and the choice of barbecues is staggering! The masses have embraced the Weber, kettle-style barbecue and all the accessories that go with it, right down to the gloves and tongs. And very good they are too: the chimney starter is a genius idea, speeding up the whole lighting process and enabling you to top up the coals as you go. Then there’s the Big Green Egg, which is very special but also very expensive, thanks to its NASA-designed insulation that lets you crank up the heat to ridiculously high temperatures. At Ember Yard – our grill restaurant in Berwick Street, Soho – we use a pimped-up Robata-style grill, as favoured by the Japanese. Our new one is a beast, with a wheel and hoist to raise it up and lower it down for different cooking styles, and it really is the business. But actually all you need is a sturdy, robust barbecue with a large surface area, and a lid so you can smoke food. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the gas barbecue, but if you have one, by all means use it for these recipes; you’ll just end up with different flavours.

We want to encourage you to think of barbecuing and grilling as a year-round method of cooking – just an extension of the way you cook in your kitchen, using what’s best and in season. Don’t be afraid to light the coals on a cold winter’s afternoon.

Yes, it may be chilly, but wrap up warm and get cooking – you can always eat inside. Besides, the British summer is usually way too short to miss out on the fantastic smoky flavours and ceremony of cooking over charcoal and wood at other times of the year.

Of course, stereotypically, barbecuing is seen as a male-dominated pastime, but we think otherwise. We hope the contents of this book will make the whole experience easy and fun for everyone to try. It’s time to embrace the barbecue and grill! Move on from the ubiquitous summer barbecues and take it up a gear, whatever the weather.

A practical note on using this book

Nearly all these recipes involve using the barbecue one way or another. Some dishes, such as the larger sharing plates, are cooked entirely on the barbecue, while for others, just one or two elements might be barbecued.

Of course, it’s not really practical to wheel out the barbecue, light and set it just to grill some strawberries for dessert (although I’ve been guilty of that before!), so I encourage you to use the barbecue for a full meal, or a few dishes, perhaps cooking something else in advance, to make the most of the effort involved.

Some of the recipes are quick to prepare and cook, while others require more time for smoking, marinating or brining, followed by a longer cooking time. It’s best to read a recipe through first and find out what suits the timeframe you have in mind. Personally, I love getting stuck into a couple of recipes over the weekend that require time and prep and make a fun project of it.

While you can make many of these dishes using a stovetop chargrill pan in the kitchen, their soul comes from cooking them over the open flame – with charcoal, wood and smoke.

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