It was about this time last year that I found myself lugging huge trays of heirloom pork shoulders up Cuba St in Wellington. There was a distinct whiff of panic in the air, as the pork in hand needed a barbecue and not just your average Kiwi "fire up the barbie" kind of barbecue. What we needed was a traditional American barbecue - the kind you find in the American South that will coax sweet, smoky succulence out of a big pork butt or shoulder over many, many hours of slow cooking.

The barbecue pork project was part of the Culinary Diplomacy role I undertook for the US State Department last year, hosting talented chef William Dissen while he was out here for a series of workshops on cooking and sustainability.

His famous Carolina barbecue pork was to be on the menu for 200 people the next day and needed a good 10-12 hours of slow cooking before it could be diced, tossed with a tangy dressing and then piled into a jalapeno-layered scone-like bun, with crisp bread-and-butter pickles and a vibrant horseradish and blue cheese slaw.

Near the end of the phone list of every restaurant in the city, the Matador restaurant in Cuba St confirmed they had some kind of hot-smoke barbecue that we could use if we wanted. And so there we were, hauling pork shoulders up the mall, wishing with every wish that we would find the right bit of kit to cook this beautiful pork. Suffice to say, through a combination of Kiwi ingenuity and American barbecue know-how, we managed that pork into the sweet spot of melting, smoky tenderness.

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In New Zealand a barbecue isn't something we want to wait for 12 or 14 hours to eat. For us, it's all about making the most of summer and spending as much time as we possibly can outdoors. As soon as you smell the smoky, sweet aroma of meat and vegetables cooking over a barbecue you feel like you're on holiday, and Labour Weekend is - unofficially, at least - the start of the barbecue season.

I'm a great fan of cooking over the embers of a fire rather than a gas barbecue. It takes an extra hour or so to get the fire to a state of deep, glowing coals, but the taste is incomparable. Prunings from fruit trees and vines make the best cooking wood, but manuka is also excellent. Just don't use anything poisonous like bay wood or oleander.

Kick off the barbecue season with this simple menu. If you've suffered dry, tough pork chops in the past, try my brining technique, which keeps them juicy, flavoursome and tender. Partner them with a lively quinoa salad featuring new-season asparagus, which is making a welcome appearance in the shops right now, and for dessert try a simple icecream sandwich that you can assemble at the last minute.

Pork Chops with Pineapple

Ready in 15 mins + brining
Serves 4-6

4-6 pork chops
Sprigs of rosemary
4-6 slices fresh pineapple or 4-6 peaches, halved and pitted
Tenderising brine
¼ cup boiling water
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
2 cups cold water

To make the tenderising brine, add boiling water to sugar and salt and stir until dissolved, then add cold water and allow to cool. When brine is cool, place chops and rosemary in a non-corrosive dish or clean plastic bag and add brine, pressing chops into the liquid so they are covered. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour or up to 12 hours. When ready to cook, discard brine and pat chops dry with a paper towel. Barbecue over a medium-high heat until golden brown and cooked through (about 5-6 minutes each side). Transfer to a board, cover with tinfoil and a clean cloth and rest for 5 minutes. While chops are resting, grill pineapple or peaches on the barbecue (about 1-2 minutes each side). Serve immediately with the chops.

Annabel says: Brining is the key to these tender, juicy chops. It's something I do all the time now as it makes such a difference - not just to pork but also duck, chicken and turkey.

Quinoa Salad with Asparagus

Quinoa Salad with Asparagus. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Quinoa Salad with Asparagus. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

Ready in 30 mins
Serves 4-6

3 cups quinoa
2 cups broad beans, skins on
8 stalks asparagus or 12 green beans, cut into
3cm pieces
Flesh of 2 just-ripe avocados, cut into chunks
¼ cup boutique extra virgin olive oil
Juice of ½ a lemon
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
½ cup slivered or flaked almonds, toasted

Toast dry quinoa in a pan until it starts to smell nutty (about 2-3 minutes). Place in a sieve and rinse under cold water until water runs clear. Drain and place in a pot with 6 cups water. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until all the water is absorbed, the grains are transparent and the spiral-like germ has separated (about 15 minutes). Allow to cool. Drop broad beans and asparagus or green beans into a pot of lightly salted boiling water and cook until just tender (about 3 minutes). Drain, refresh under cold water and drain again. Pop broad beans out of their skins and add to quinoa along with asparagus or green beans and avocado. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss gently to combine then sprinkle with almonds to serve.

Annabel says: Quinoa is the new darling of the kitchen, and for good reason - it's easy to cook and incredibly good for you. White quinoa cooks much more quickly than brown or black. Here you can use brown rice or couscous instead.

IceCream Sandwiches

Icecream Sandwiches. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Icecream Sandwiches. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

Ready in 5 mins
Serves 8

16 large, thin biscuits such as gingernuts, wafers, chocolate chip cookies, shortbread or digestives
1 litre vanilla icecream

Place 8 biscuits upside-down on a serving platter. Place a slice or scoop of icecream on each, then top with another biscuit of similar size. Serve immediately.

Annabel says: This fun idea is the perfect solution for an impromptu barbecue dessert - the kids will be happy as Larry and you won't have to wash up any bowls! Here I've used homemade gingernuts, but you can also use any kind of crisp, thin biscuit, even biscotti.

Essential Annabel Langbein (Annabel Langbein Media, $65) is a beautiful compendium of Annabel's best-ever savoury recipes and cooking tips and it's on sale now at Paper Plus, Whitcoulls, The Warehouse and all good bookstores. Find out more at annabel-langbein.com or follow Annabel on Facebook or Instagram.