Donal Skehan's top tips for a smashing barbecue
Grill seeker Donal reveals his favourite BBQ recipes and explains how to avoid the pitfalls of outdoor cooking
I have a charcoal barbeque as opposed to a gas one, and I have to say there really is a difference in the taste between the two.
Anyone who is good at operating a charcoal barbeque knows that it takes time to set up. If you're dedicated, you'll want that lovely chargrilled taste throughout your food.
How to know when your coals are ready?
There's a great gadget by Weber that looks like a cylindrical chimney, and you put your charcoals in there and light it underneath. When the charcoals start turning white, they're ready to cook upon. Even without this gadget, that rule still stands – the charcoals should just be turning white, and you shouldn't be able to keep your hand over the grill.
The most common mistake that people make is that the barbeque is too hot and people cook straight on it when there hasn't been a chance for the flames to die down and for the coals to heat all the way through.
Depending on what you're cooking, the wait takes about five minutes or so. You also need to distribute your coals properly – if you have something that takes longer to cook, like a spatchcock chicken, you need to make sure that the coals are pushed up to the side where you will cook it. Sausages cook quicker, so you won't need as many coals. I guess everyone who barbeques has a theory, but if you're planning a big barbeque, that's not really the time for experimentation. Fire up your barbeque a few days in advance and have a good sense of what it can do.
Everyone has had an experience of burning things like sausages, but it's about simply getting the coals underneath right.
The other big tip I would have is to put oil straight onto the meat as opposed to the grill. Most people also start to move meat the instant it goes down (on the grill). With a steak, leave it there for two minutes before you move it. The natural juices start to come out and create a non-stick effect for the meat.
Perhaps the reason men hog barbeques harks back to that old-fashioned way of cooking, when women were in the kitchen.
With barbeques, men get the chance to be outdoors and be all hardcore. A lot of my (male) friends might never step into the kitchen, but once they get their first beers open at a barbeque, they're there, hovering away. Maybe it's to do with the male obsession with fire, a throwback to the caveman days.
The great thing about barbeques is that people tend to be really relaxed about them.
Often, the work has been done. If you're doing things properly, you'll have spent time in advance making the marinades and making the little extras. The last thing you have to do in that instance is put the meat on the barbeque.
Having your marinades pre-mixed is a real life-saver.
I do a few: one is a soy, garlic and honey mix for chicken; a mint and yoghurt one for lamb, and a jerk chicken marinade. For sausages, I make a little mix of balsamic vinegar, wholegrain mustard and honey. You get these gorgeously sticky sausages, and best of all they can be done the night before. With marinades, don't leave things too long: if you have an acidic element in your marinade it starts to break down the meat. Usually, it needs no more than 8 hours.
Make sure you have chunky-cut salads too.
Coleslaw works well, as does a loose leaf salad. Another 'get-ahead' tip is to get the dressing done up into jam jars and pour them over the salads whenever you're ready for them. My go-to side is a homemade coleslaw with red cabbage, carrot, spring onion and a tiny amount of mayonnaise and olive oil. I also make a feta and beetroot salad, and a couscous salad dressed with herbs. I could eat buckets of my carrot and coriander salad: dress it simply with olive oil, a bit of lime juice, coriander and toasted sesame seeds, and you get the nuttiness from the seeds and the sweetness from the carrots.
For the wow-factor, one of the things that gets the greatest reaction is Beercan Chicken.
Basically, you put a half-drunk can of beer up the chicken's bum, and what happens is that the beer bubbles away and creates this great steam that permeates through the chicken meat. If you flatten a spatchcock chicken, that also looks impressive.
I also get my butcher to butterfly lamb.
In Ireland, we think of lamb as a 'spring' meat, but it really comes into its own right about now and becomes a really sweet meat. If I don't serve it with the yoghurt and mint marinade, I use a lovely Asian teriyaki sauce. Delicious.
Pulled pork is another possibility, but only if you're experienced at BBQ.
Take a shoulder of pork, wrap it in tinfoil, and slowly cook it. Make up a spicy tomato sauce, shred the pork into it and serve on a floury bap. It hits the spot every time. My Irish take on a great hot dog is to take some really good sausages, like Jane Russell or Jack McCarthy, get some nice bread or brioche, and build a hot dog with lots of great relish and caramelised red onions.
Ensuring food is cooked properly is the key.
There's no point in having great recipes or ideas if someone is going to get food poisoning. The one thing I always have to hand is a meat thermometer. Google what temperatures are safe for rare, medium and done meats. If you spend money on good quality meat, don't ruin it by not cooking it properly.
The other thing to remember is that if you have all your meats marinated on a plate, you'll need to have a different platter that you'll put the cooked meats on, to avoid cross-contamination.
With steaks and lamb, they will also need a little resting time before serving: generally half the time it's taken to cook.
When it comes to meat, I personally like to stick to the old favourites like beef, lamb and pork.
But if you want something for novelty factor, ostrich meat tends to get a really good reaction, even if it is a little hard to come by.
I have two vegetarian friends who come over every so often.
I do this lovely veggie dish where I slice up courgettes, red onions, peppers, mushrooms, and drizzle them with oil and balsamic vinegar. I put them on before the meat – that's very important to vegetarians – and they come out with a nice griddled style. I also make up a chickpea burger by making a sort of chunky hummus – chickpeas, garlic, tahini, lemon juice, sea salt and black pepper, cumin, paprika, egg yolk and breadcrumbs – and you basically cook them the same way you would a beef burger.
I also love using a fish basket on the barbecue.
Basically, you put the fish on its side in the basket and close over the lid, and you can put it on the barbeque easily and lift it off. That way, it doesn't stick to the grill. My dad comes home loaded with mackerel during the summer and I love to cook that up with something as simple as lemon juice, parsley and butter. My dad also leaves the fish whole, stuffs them with lemon, fennel, garlic, sea salt and black pepper, and wraps them in tinfoil.
When I was a kid I loved corn on the cob, and this is a great thing to serve for kids.
Just chargrill them to get that smoky flavour, and then toss them in a bit of grated cheese with lime zest and a little chilli.
For desserts, fruit is always a good idea if people have been eating heavy meats.
If you want something as simple as possible, mix mint leaves with sugar – the natural oils in the mint brings the sugar together – and serve it atop pineapple rings. I also love to make fruit parcels on the barbeque, and these are really great for kids. Put strawberries, white chocolate and marshmallows into tin foil packages, make sure they're nicely sealed, and place them on the grill for ten minutes. The steam cooks the strawberries and melts the chocolate and marshmallows. They're just incredible.
For more information, see donalskehan.com