Taste the meat or taste the heat?
After a long, cold and wet winter that seems to have lasted right through where we would usually imagine spring to be, finally the last couple of weeks have brought us days of glorious sunshine. Like any other pasty skinned, hayfever ridden Englishman I take this unusual break in the weather as an opportunity to get outside as much as possible, well aware that this brief moment of summer could be snatched away as quickly as it came. Naturally, this desire stretches to dinner time, so this week we’re talking barbecues.
I love barbecues, but face a certain level of challenge enacting them given that we live in a second floor flat. In this picture you can see Professor Plum demonstrating the full extent of the outside space on offer to us at home. You can just about stand up relatively easily in the 2 feet space that passes for a balcony outside our window, but sitting would be a little trickier and some people sitting and another cooking over a barbecue essentially impossible. What that means is that, although the cooking can be done outside (albeit, at that height and with few surrounding buildings, it’s a little exposed to the wind), eating has to be done inside. Given that sitting out in the sun as you enjoy your outdoor cooked food is much of the pleasure of a barbecue event, is there much point to this arrangement? Do the flavour elements of barbecue cooking make it worthwhile? We decided to experiment.
In essence, barbecuing is something that’s always been done ever since mankind discovered that food (amongst other things) could be improved by the judicious application of fire, but the decision to cook outside over a fire, when there are perfectly good, significantly more high-tech options indoors is a different one. In fact, the “barbecue” as a concept as opposed to just seeing cooking on a fire as “cooking” is something we get from the Americans, although in a different way than the current transatlantic relationship. The word “barbacoa” comes from the taino, the first native American people discovered by Europeans in the modern colonial era when Columbus landed on Hispaniola, and was brought back to Europe as a term for the barbecue equipment rather than the act or style of cooking. It was this concept of “barbecue” that Europeans brought back with them when they introduced the idea back into America as they colonised the modern US. Since then there has been a certain divergence in terminology, leaving what we Brits call “barbecuing” known as “grilling” in much of America, while “barbecue” can mean a much slower cooking process (and what we call “grilling” is known there by the hugely unappetising term of “broiling”).
It’s not just a difference in terminology either, because of our truly unreliable summers Britain has always had a slightly different relationship with barbecue to that experienced in sunnier locales like Australia and the Southern states of America. Here it’s the excitement of novelty rather than simply the norm of cooking. Each summer, at the first sign of a few sunny days, the British media becomes thrilled by the concept of a “barbecue summer” and fills up with outdoor cooking advice.
And yet the British barbecue is filled with associations of hiding under umbrellas with changing weather and blackened on the outside-pink on the inside sausages, not to mention the image of the British barbecue bloke as a man with no real idea how to cook, failing in his attempts to show off his fire wrangling skills. In this sense, the barbecue represents a conflict of interests in terms of stereotypical masculine bragging bores, at one end of the spectrum there’s the primal cave man attraction of a naked flame, at the other all the bells and whistles of a piece of high-tech gadgetry with names preposterous names and serial numbers.
Aside from making our wobbly little rustbucket perched on its windy balcony look painfully inadequate, these top of the range gas powered barbecues are essentially no different from cooking indoors. The whole thing is kind of reminiscent of Mike Judge’s brilliant and warm-hearted satire of small town Republican Texans in King of the Hill. Hill family patriarch, propane (and propane accessories) salesman Hank, insists on the use of natural gas in barbecues with his favourite refrain “taste the meat, not the heat”, but one memorable episode has wife and son Peggy and Bobby discovering the illicit joys of charcoal cooked meat.
Most of the articles I’ve linked to are convinced that Brits can’t do barbecue (or “grilling”) like Americans can, so I determined to have a go with some burgers, the food that turns Bobby and Peggy Hill on to charcoal, along with coating them in some American style barbecue sauce. Obviously I made burgers in a different way last month, so my recipe hasn’t really changed much, only this time I used beef mince rather than horse! I wasn’t interested in the recipe so much as to see whether charcoal cooking really would release more smoky flavour than simply cooking indoors using the grill (in the British sense of the word).
I invited my old housemates, known on these pages from now as Reverend Green and Captain Brown (in the Lounge) – he was in Super Cluedo Challenge, apparently – and served them, and Professor Plum, burgers from two plates, the barbecue cooked and the oven cooked, and gave them a blind taste test. All three tasters both noticed a difference in the smoky charcoal cooked burgers and preferred them to the ones cooked indoors, suggesting that there is a point to barbecuing even on the smallest outdoor space you can possibly find.
The other challenge was to make an American style barbecue sauce to go on the burgers. As I was coming up with a recipe of my own, Professor Plum suggested she knew a much simpler way of making her own barbecue sauce. Naturally, this sounded like a challenge to me, so we decided to pit our respective sauces against each other and get our guests to judge between them.
A good sauce has a base of tomato with sweet and spicy elements added to it. While Professor Plum was only planning on using three simple ingredients in hers, I was looking for a more complex set of flavours in my sauce. I find some of these sauces a little too sweet to go with meat, so my version had a little less sugar and focused a little more on the hot and spicy elements. In particular, I wanted something that could match the smoky feel of the barbecue cooked meat. For this I used pimenton.
I mentioned this stuff a couple of weeks ago when I was making masses of tapas, it’s a real mainstay of Spanish cooking and a favourite flavour of mine. Pimenton is a hot paprika that’s been smoked to give it extra interesting flavour and it comes in these really cool looking tins.
Both of our barbecue sauce recipes will appear as Sunday’s Light Bite this week so you can judge for yourself which you’d rather try, but what did our guests think?
Well, there was some positive feeling directed toward both, Captain Brown expressed a liking for the honey taste in Professor Plum’s sauce, but I was relieved to find that both preferred the flavour of mine in the end. For Professor Plum herself, however, the spicy hot sensation of the pimenton (and my namesake mustard, which I also felt I had to use) made my sauce a little much for her, so it was perhaps for the best that she’d made her own version!
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: Oh come on, like this wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Cooking under the grill did seem to help with the texture, probably because it’s a more even heat (though in our oven, who knows?) but the charcoal definitely made them tastier.