Thursday 19 September 2019

Ten tips for cooking outdoors - River Cottage chef Gill Meller is an expert

River Cottage chef and cookery teacher Gill Meller is an expert in the art of the cookout. Here, he gives Katy McGuinness his hot tips for beginners on getting started with a fire bowl or barbecue, then shares sizzling recipes from his brand-new book

Gill Meller
Gill Meller
Outdoor Cooking: River Cottage Handbook No. 17 by Gill Meller is published by Bloomsbury on 2 May.
Fire-roast mackerel with aubergine and tomatoes
Simple flatbreads
Barbecued courgettes with dill, goat's cheese, mint and yoghurt

Gill Meller is a chef, award-winning author and cookery teacher, who has worked with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and River Cottage for over 15 years. In the latest book in the River Cottage Handbook series, Outdoor Cooking, Gill explains every aspect of cooking out in the open, starting with a guide to building the perfect fire and moving on to reinvigorating your summer barbecue by grilling Indian-style kebabs, smoking fish, roasting succulent joints of meat and even using it to cook bread. He also gives the low-down on wood ovens and Kamado-style clay barbecues, and, if you're feeling particularly adventurous, there are comprehensive instructions for spit-roasting larger pieces of meat or making a smouldering earth oven. We asked him for his top tips on cooking outdoors...

I've never cooked outdoors before - help! I live in the suburbs and have a relatively small garden. What piece of kit should I start with?

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I'd suggest tracking down a medium-sized fire bowl designed to cook over. Kadai do relatively inexpensive traditional Indian fire bowls [available from wilsonsyard.com] which come with grills and tripod. They burn solid fuel so you can use charcoal or wood or a combination of the two. They are lovely to look at, easy and fun to use, and you'll be able to cook a wide variety of dishes on them.

How do you light a barbecue fire without using chemicals?

Tinder, kindling and dry wood or charcoal are all you need to build a fire. I prefer not to use firelighters because I find that starting fires in the most natural way possible makes for more rewarding results. The secret is to ensure the kindling that you use to get the fire going is nice and dry. If it's damp, you'll struggle to get the flames to take. [Or buy the excellent Waxies natural firelighters made from recycled church candles, waxies.ie. Order Irish lumpwood charcoal from irishcharcoal.ie.]

What's a good dish to serve a group of 10/12 people that would be within my limited capabilities?

I have a really great recipe for homemade lamb kofta in the book. They are full of flavour and cook relatively quickly. Usually I serve them in flatbreads (see recipe overleaf), which your guests can roll out and cook over the fire themselves.

Should I pre-cook chicken so I don't poison my guests?

Cooking poultry involves care because you need to ensure that it's cooked through. There's no harm in part-cooking it in the oven inside and bringing it out to finish off the cooking over the fire. Alternatively, it can be done from scratch outside. A digital temperature probe can come in handy here and, obviously, for managing the heat.

Is marinating essential?

Marinades can help tenderise and moisten meat to some extent, particularly if they are based on something acidic, such as wine, vinegar or yoghurt, which will slightly weaken muscle fibres. But I don't rely on marinades for this - they won't miraculously make tough meat meltingly tender. I do like marinades from a flavour perspective, though - there are lots of recipes for them in the book.

Any great ideas for catering for vegetarians and vegans when I'm having a barbecue?

Cooking vegetables and fruit over an open fire can do extraordinarily good things to them, and I think every outdoor cook should give it a try. If you're organised, try getting some vegetables cooking in the embers of a fire several hours before you plan to eat. Squash, onion and celeriac all bake so well like this and can be made into wonderful warm salads with some good cheese, nuts, seeds and herbs.

If I cook fish on the barbecue, how do I stop it sticking to the grill?

Fish is nowhere near as robust as meat. It won't stand for being chucked around the place, or repeatedly flipped on a grill. It must be handled with care from beginning to end - with an emphasis on end, because that's when it's really prone to breaking up. Whether you're cooking whole fish (both flat and round) or fillets (either big or small), it's worth oiling the grill, as well as the skin of the fish, before starting. This should, in theory, stop the fish from sticking to the bars. In practice, it doesn't always work - but it's worth doing nonetheless. I use an old Aga bread toaster to cook my fish in, but if you don't have one of those, the purpose-made fish-grilling baskets for whole fish are worth buying.

I know that cooking over fire is very trendy, and I went to a restaurant where they served a whole turbot that was delicious. Would I be able to do something like that at home?

Yes, absolutely. Cooking over wood or charcoal is about heat management - that's all. Get the heat right and everything falls into place. A large turbot would be best cooked gently and turned carefully. This is when a fish grilling basket really would pay off.

Do you think that it's worth investing in an outdoor kitchen?

I'm not really sure it is necessary. The lovely thing about cooking outside is to step away from the more conventional indoor kitchen, and everything that represents, and find a more traditional, simpler way to cook. A campfire on the ground is sometimes all you need.

I fancy one of those Green Egg things, but they are quite expensive. Do you think that you need to be quite a good cook to justify the expenditure?

You need to like cooking and, once you have it, practice makes perfect. They are very versatile and last forever if you look after them. [Find The Big Green Egg at thegardenhouse.ie and allalfresco.ie.]

I was thinking of building a wood-burning oven in my garden - is that something I can do from scratch, and is it difficult?

Yes, a homemade wood oven is absolutely possible; I love mine to bits. There is a guide in the book on how to make your own at home. It takes a bit of time but it's well worth it. Once it's done, the variety of delicious possibilities are endless.

'Outdoor Cooking: River Cottage Handbook No. 17' by Gill Meller will published by Bloomsbury on May 2

 

Grilling with Gill

 

Fire-roast mackerel with aubergine and tomatoes

2019-04-27_lif_49296804_I1.JPG
Fire-roast mackerel with aubergine and tomatoes
 

Quick to make, tear-and-share flatbreads are perfect for cooking over an open fire. I have a cast-iron pan that I keep especially for this purpose. It's a robust old thing, which I sit directly in the embers. When it's smoking hot, I lay the flatbreads down in the pan and they cook very quickly. You could use a large, flat stone instead; just make sure it's really hot.

Makes 8

Ingredients

250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

1 tsp fine sea salt

150ml warm water

4 tbsp extra-virgin olive or rapeseed oil, plus extra to serve

Flaky sea salt, to finish

Method

1. Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the salt. Measure the water in a jug, stir in the oil and pour this into the flour in a thin stream, stirring well with a wooden spoon or your hands to form a slightly sticky dough.

2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes, until it feels smooth and plump, sprinkling on a little more flour only if the dough feels very sticky. Let the dough rest while you light the fire.

3. Prepare your fire. It wants to be hot for this recipe - you need a good bed of glowing embers, and a little flame is fine.

4. When you're ready to cook and eat the flatbreads, roll the dough into a sausage shape and divide it into 8 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball. Flour your work surface or board and a rolling pin, then roll out each ball into a circle, 2-3mm thick, using plenty of flour, as the dough is liable to stick.

5. Set a heavy-based cast-iron pan over the fire and wait until it's very hot; you should be able to hover your hand above it for a maximum of 2 seconds.

6. Shake off any excess flour from one of the flatbreads and lay it in the hot pan. Let it sit for a minute or two, until the dough looks 'set' on top and is starting to lift away from the pan. Carefully look at the underside and, if you can see dark brown patches forming, flip the flatbread over and cook the other side for 30-45 seconds. If the flatbread appears to be colouring too quickly, move the pan to a cooler part of the fire.

7. Wrap the cooked flatbread in a cloth while you cook the others. To serve the flatbreads, trickle with extra-virgin oil, then sprinkle over a pinch of flaky salt.

 

Simple flatbreads

2019-04-27_lif_49296974_I1.JPG
Simple flatbreads
 

Quick to make, tear-and-share flatbreads are perfect for cooking over an open fire. I have a cast-iron pan that I keep especially for this purpose. It's a robust old thing, which I sit directly in the embers. When it's smoking hot, I lay the flatbreads down in the pan and they cook very quickly. You could use a large, flat stone instead; just make sure it's really hot.

Makes 8

Ingredients

250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

1 tsp fine sea salt

150ml warm water

4 tbsp extra-virgin olive or rapeseed oil, plus extra to serve

Flaky sea salt, to finish

Method

1. Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the salt. Measure the water in a jug, stir in the oil and pour this into the flour in a thin stream, stirring well with a wooden spoon or your hands to form a slightly sticky dough.

2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes, until it feels smooth and plump, sprinkling on a little more flour only if the dough feels very sticky. Let the dough rest while you light the fire.

3. Prepare your fire. It wants to be hot for this recipe - you need a good bed of glowing embers, and a little flame is fine.

4. When you're ready to cook and eat the flatbreads, roll the dough into a sausage shape and divide it into 8 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball. Flour your work surface or board and a rolling pin, then roll out each ball into a circle, 2-3mm thick, using plenty of flour, as the dough is liable to stick.

5. Set a heavy-based cast-iron pan over the fire and wait until it's very hot; you should be able to hover your hand above it for a maximum of 2 seconds.

6. Shake off any excess flour from one of the flatbreads and lay it in the hot pan. Let it sit for a minute or two, until the dough looks 'set' on top and is starting to lift away from the pan. Carefully look at the underside and, if you can see dark brown patches forming, flip the flatbread over and cook the other side for 30-45 seconds. If the flatbread appears to be colouring too quickly, move the pan to a cooler part of the fire.

7. Wrap the cooked flatbread in a cloth while you cook the others. To serve the flatbreads, trickle with extra-virgin oil, then sprinkle over a pinch of flaky salt.

 

Barbecued courgettes with dill, goat's cheese, mint and yoghurt

2019-04-27_lif_49296979_I1.JPG
Barbecued courgettes with dill, goat's cheese, mint and yoghurt
 

Courgettes cook beautifully over fire. The high heat chars their surfaces and the smoke gives them a wonderful savoury depth. Here I'm pairing them with two of my favourite courgette accompaniments: goat's cheese and dill.

Serves 4 as a starter

Ingredients

4-6 medium courgettes

4 tbsp olive oil

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

½ tsp dried chilli flakes

2 tsp fennel seeds, toasted and crushed

3 tbsp natural yoghurt

150g soft goat's or ewe's cheese

½ small garlic clove, peeled and grated

A small bunch of chives, thinly sliced

6-8 sprigs of dill, chopped, plus extra to garnish

2 tbsp chopped mint, plus whole leaves to garnish

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

1. Prepare your fire. You want a glowing bed of embers with no real flames to speak of.

2. Set a grill over the fire; it will have reached the right temperature when you can hover your hand above it for no more than 3 seconds.

3. Top and tail the courgettes and slice them lengthways into strips, 3-4mm thick. Place in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Add 2 tbsp olive oil along with the lemon zest, chilli flakes and fennel seeds, and tumble together.

4. Lay the courgettes across the grill. Cook for 8-12 minutes on each side, or until they are lightly and evenly charred, with some caramelisation.

5. Meanwhile, combine the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil with the yoghurt and crumble in the goat's cheese. Add the garlic and half of each of the herbs. Season with salt and pepper, and mix well to combine.

6. Arrange the grilled courgettes over a large platter and squeeze over the lemon juice. Spoon on the goat's cheese dressing and scatter over the remaining herbs to serve.

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