I am cooking a meal for a smallish group of people (23) in December but it’s not Christmas-focused. I am pitching it as a relaxed barbecue meal (late lunch/early dinner) but want to surprise them by making it special. Any thoughts on what I could cook as a centrepiece to show these guys I really do care? Kelly
Oh, the eternal barbecue question. I think the best way to approach the barbie is simply to view it as a large frying pan, but one that gives some lovely extra flavours to the food. I have a friend who is terrified of cooking on the barbecue as she feels like everything will be a disaster, everything will burn or be charred beyond edible. The reality is that if you have a gas barbecue you simply lower the heat as you would the stove, and if it’s a charcoal one, just make sure the coals are pale red and glowing and not burning with flames. If they get too hot, sprinkle with cold water (or use one of those water sprays you have for ironing) to put out the flames and lower the temperature.
As to what to cook — how about you focus on great vegetables and then a simple meat or fish with a tasty sauce and plenty of relishes and such like? Asparagus barbecues well. Snap the ends off and discard (or use for vege stock later for an asparagus risotto), toss with very little olive oil and flaky salt and grill to barely colour. A "finger" thickness asparagus will need around 90 seconds cooking. Place on a platter and drizzle with balsamic vinegar and leave to cool. The balsamic discolours the asparagus but the flavour is worth it.
You can grill corn several ways — either in the husk on a low temperature for 20-30 minutes, which will make them slightly smoky, or boil peeled cobs for 4 minutes, then brush with oil and grill on all sides until darkened. I like to mix up room temperature butter with lime zest and juice and chopped green chillies and slather this on the hot cobs.
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Kumara barbecues well too. The smaller ones I cut in half lengthways, brush with oil and cook until done over a medium heat. For larger ones, I slice unpeeled kumara crossways 2cm thick, boil or steam for 5 minutes, then carefully drain so they don’t mash up too much. Brush with oil, chopped rosemary, salt and pepper and grill until cooked and coloured on both sides. I like to spoon on tahini yoghurt, which I make by mixing 3 tablespoons tahini first with 4 tablespoons cold water, then I mix in 1 cup Greek yoghurt, a handful of shredded mint and coriander, and the zest and juice of 1 lemon. You can also wrap unpeeled kumara in oiled foil and cook in the embers of the barbecue. To test if they’re done, poke a skewer through the foil into the centre — you’ll know when they’re ready.
Cut the stalks off eggplant and cut lengthways 1cm thick. Brush both sides with sesame oil, grill until golden on both sides and lay on a platter. Sit a frying pan on the barbecue and fry 12 sliced cloves of garlic in 4 tablespoons olive oil until beginning to go golden and crisp. Add 2 handfuls cherry tomatoes and 1 tablespoon fresh torn oregano or sage leaves, and cook so the tomato skins pop and then burst a little into the garlicky oil. Mix in the juice of 1 lemon or 1 orange and simmer 1 minute. Spoon this over the cooked eggplant and dollop on creme fraiche or plain yoghurt, then scatter with coarsely chopped dill.
I’m pretty sure if you were to serve all these vegetables alongside a lovely boned leg of lamb, a side of salmon, or marinated boned chicken thighs, your friends would feel very well looked after. And for dessert, once everyone is sitting down and eating, lay halved plums, nectarines or peaches on the barbecue, lightly oiled. I like to serve these with vanilla ice cream drizzled with runny honey and topped with toasted walnuts, hazelnuts or almonds.