I tend to avoid any social event that proudly announces it will include a barbecue. It’s a common phobia for the food snob, I reckon: the communal barbecue organised and presided over by people for whom the ethical sourcing of meat is not an issue, for whom a mass-produced supermarket bap does not induce a shudder of disgust, for whom cheese comes in a square plastic wrapper. ‘Barbecue’ is often sadly synonymous with ‘a load of pre-prepared low quality meat items from the supermarket that we will prod and poke while pretending to be cavemen and leave raw in the centre and carcinogenic on the outside’. I just can’t bring myself to participate in that sort of occasion. What a waste of an opportunity, when the lighting of coals offers such potential for an enticing variety of foodstuffs.
I think, perhaps, the real reason I despise the low-quality, thrown-together social barbecue is that it deprives me of a chance to cook. Barbecues aren’t just a lazy cook’s chance to throw things on fire and let the flames do the work for you; they’re an excuse to whip up exciting marinades, to tenderise and infuse meat and fish and vegetables, to pair the primal, alluring charred edge of animal protein with a contrasting array of colours and textures in the form of side salads, condiments and dips. Why you’d want to let Tesco’s range of pallid, flabby lamb kebabs or burgers take away this glorious opportunity, I just don’t know.
It’s easy to be unimaginative with barbecues, largely because the British summer means we only get to experience them approximately twice a year. We tend to stick to meat, perhaps fish if we’re feeling really daring, and all too often the barbecue is fired up just for the sake of a few burgers or sausages. Vegetarians may get an unappetising veggie burger or sausage, and the fun ends there. Yet barbecues are fantastic opportunities to experiment with new ways of cooking vegetables, cheese and even fruit – don’t let the meat have all the fun. Better still, maximise and exploit the potential proffered by those glowing coals, and use them to cook a variety of different ingredients that can be transformed into a mezze-style feast.
The other night, on the hottest day of the year so far, I dusted off the barbecue because quite frankly I couldn’t face turning on the oven, or even being in the kitchen. However, nor could I face the prospect of cycling all the way into town to go to the butcher, and it was a bit late to give anything enough time to marinate. I decided to go for an entirely vegetarian barbecue, to exploit the opportunities presented by hot coals for the humble vegetable. It was probably one of the best barbecues I’ve ever had.
I put three plump aubergines on the rack while the flames were still dying down (and it was therefore too hot to cook anything else), and let them scorch on the outside and become molten, smoky and silky within. The aubergine flesh, mashed with tahini, garlic, lemon juice and pomegranate molasses, became moutabal, that addictively creamy, nutty, smoky Middle Eastern dip, scattered with pomegranate seeds and peppered with chunks of crisp cucumber. Smoky, burnt aubergine is the absolute essence of this dish, and there is no better way to achieve that flavour than by using a barbecue. You could also make baba ganoush, which is quite similar. Next, skewers of pepper and cubed halloumi, which I had marinated in a mixture of olive oil and herbs from the garden: rosemary, oregano, thyme. These grilled until the peppers were lightly charred and the halloumi golden and crispy at its edges, and if there’s a better thing in the world than crispy, grilled halloumi, I have yet to encounter it. Finally, corn on the cob marinated in the same herby mixture and grilled until caramelised and lightly blackened in patches, with a delicious aromatic hint from the herbs.
To go alongside all this, I made flatbreads. We were going to have homemade pitta, but since that requires turning the oven up as high as it will go (and mine goes to 290C), it was absolutely not an option on a day when I was about to melt into my shoes. These flatbreads are almost a barbecue essential. They’re ideal for scooping up luscious dips (whether homemade or shop-bought – I won’t judge you for buying Value hummus if you make your own flatbreads), lightly fluffy and chewy, irresistibly moreish wrapped around whatever charred delights you’ve grabbed off the grill. The dough takes minutes to make, doesn’t need hours to rest, and the breads are super-easy to cook, requiring no more effort than rolling out and flipping in a hot pan like pancakes. I like to add a mixture of seeds to the dough for texture and crunch, and at the moment I’m really enjoying this Seasoned Pioneers ‘Knead the Seed’ mix, which features eight different nutty, nubbly seeds, all with their own individual flavours, adding peppery punches to the pillowy flatbreads. If you just use one type of seed, make it nigella (black onion) seeds: they give that characteristic musky, naan bread-esque flavour and work beautifully with dips and smoky meat. You can make these breads in advance – keep them covered with a tea towel or in a Tupperware box to keep them moist and pliable – and they also freeze well and defrost in minutes. You can reheat them in a warm pan, oven, or even over the barbecue.
Don’t confine your barbecue adventures to the odd piece of meat here and there. Vegetables cook beautifully on coals, and you can turn them into a glorious array of sides. Here are some more ideas for vegetarian barbecue inspiration (and the flatbread recipe is below):
- Grill whole Portobello mushrooms, basting them occasionally with herb butter, until soft and juicy, then stuff them inside burger buns (brioche if you can) with grilled halloumi (also from the barbecue) for an excellent vegetarian main
- Marinate cubes of paneer cheese and pieces of pepper in a mixture of tandoori or tikka curry paste, yoghurt and lemon juice, then thread onto skewers and grill over a medium heat. Serve with flatbreads and raita or coriander chutney
- Parboil new potatoes, then finish them off on the barbecue, threaded onto skewers. Baste them with butter and herbs as they cook. Great as a side for nearly anything
- Stuff pitted medjool dates with feta, goat’s cheese or blue cheese. Wrap eat date in a sage leaf, then thread them onto a skewer and grill for a couple of minutes, until the cheese is soft
- Asparagus spears grill very well on the barbecue, brushed with a little oil. Serve with parmesan shavings and a soft-boiled egg
- Spring onions and halved red onions char well on the barbecue, and go well with most main courses
- When the heat has died down, wrap stone fruit (peaches, apricots, plums) in foil with a knob of butter, a drizzle of honey, a cinnamon stick or vanilla pod, and a splash of white wine, and cook these parcels directly over the coals for twenty minutes or so, for a luscious dessert (serve with ice cream)
- The above method can also be used for thinly sliced fennel, but omit the honey and swap the cinnamon/vanilla for a star anise. Good served alongside feta, halloumi or goat’s cheese, or grilled fish
Multiseed flatbreads (makes 8):
- 500g strong white flour
- 2 tbsp mixed seeds (I use Seasoned Pioneers Knead the Seed mix)
- 2 tsp salt
- 7g sachet instant yeast
- 2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
- 300ml water
Put the flour and seeds into a large bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. Put the salt on one side of the bowl and the yeast on the other. Make a well in the centre of the flour and add the oil and water.
Bring the dough together using your hands or the dough hook and knead for 5 minutes or so, until smooth and silky. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave the dough to rest for 30-60 minutes.
After this time, divide the dough into 8 equal portions. Roll each out on a floured surface, as thinly as possible (around 5mm thick).
Heat a large frying pan over a medium heat. When it is hot, put one circle of dough in the pan and cook for 2-3 minutes, until lightly browned in patches. Flip the bread over and cook for another 2-3 minutes, then remove from the pan and set aside.
Repeat with the remaining flatbreads. It’s best to keep the cooked flatbreads in a bowl or Tupperware box with a lid/cloth covering them until you’re ready to eat them, as this keeps them moist and pliable after cooking and stops them drying out.
Eat them hot from the pan if possible, but leftovers are very good warmed up in a frying pan, and they freeze well too.