There is a lot to be said for barbecues, including smell, taste, poignant memories of summers past, licensed overeating and the ubiquity of coleslaw, but I have noticed one thing: the chef never gets any credit. It is a bit of reverse sexism: men usually take over, in what we can call “manflipping” or “pyromannia”, so if you praise the chef, you are shoring up the patriarchy, even if a woman did all the marinating or, for once, the chef is actually a woman. It is mainly the sense that he or she does jack-all, beyond opening some packets. Which is fundamentally unfair, since knowing what is what on an open flame that you use twice a year is far more technically demanding than using an oven. Maybe you don’t care about credit. But if you do, here are a few suggestions.
Try interesting cuts of meat. Classic barbecue fare tends towards the banal (chicken breasts) or at best workaday (the sausage). What you want is meat round a complicated bone, to give it some structure and slow-release flavour against the suddenness of the heat, and what you get is a load of steaks that have very few defences. I would never barbecue steaks again, having discovered that you can cook them in an air fryer, which locks in flavour without leeching out moisture. The best barbie cut, meanwhile, flash-fried, perfect unadorned, is the Barnsley chop. The nubbly central bone that gives it that butterfly shape makes it unusually juicy, while the fat turns to lamb crackling, which you almost never see in domestic life.
Better still, try an unusual meat. In an unassuming yet peerless book, My Bombay Kitchen, Niloufer Ichaporia King has a recipe for shoulder of kid, in which you poach it first, marinate it for two hours in a marsala mix that includes chilli, cumin, hoisin, ginger and garlic, then stick it on coals for a quarter of an hour until it has a reddish crust that could charm a hyena out of a rage. You can use the poaching liquor for some rice on the side, and if anybody doesn’t congratulate you on this, it will be because they’re vegetarian and they hate you for it.
Arguably, a sweet-fleshed piece of fish is even more of a showstopper, since it has a curious alchemy with the charcoal that underlines rather than obliterates its delicacy. It is fragile, though: unless it’s mackerel, big clumps can go through the bars, and the better it tastes, the more you resent the waste. Plus it is expensive: at the weekend I was so resistant to barbecuing a turbot – it was 24 quid; it would have been like feeding pound coins into a grabber at the arcade – that Mr Z made it a cage out of coat hangers. You can only do one side this way; you have to put a lid on the barbecue and let the other side cook by convection. Also, do not make the mistake of thinking the handles won’t be red hot, even when they are not red. Otherwise, it is a brilliant fish fix, and also works for a skate wing.
Or else, cook regular meat in an unusual fashion. Get a can of cider, open it, put it on the grill. Get a chicken – you’ll need to poach it for 20 minutes beforehand if you don’t like to live life on the wild side – and wedge it, by its butt cavity, over the can. This works best on a barbecue that is already cooling a little, because the chicken will be here a while. Put the lid down; cook for 40 minutes. Basically what happens is that the can heats up insanely and cooks the bird from the inside, while the outside cooks on the grill. The cider evaporates into the meat and keeps it moist (you can try it with lager, too), and the whole thing looks quite tickling, like a tiny gangster being taught a lesson.
Mr Z does a few things for vegetarians, including chalcots, a cross between a spring onion and a leek, which you char, then wrap in newspaper. The scorched outer skin slips effortlessly off, leaving them beautifully silky inside. And deconstructed ratatouille: grill aubergine, courgette, tomato and garlic; chop or mash them as they come off, then season very liberally in the bowl, as if you are making the French classic backwards, and much faster. If I’m honest, if someone asked what you were eating, you wouldn’t immediately say “ratatouille”. But you would say: “This is an innovative and delightful gesture towards the typically uncatered-to vegetarian in these circumstances.”
If you think people praising you doesn’t actually matter alfresco then, of course, don’t bother with any of this and go ahead with your burgers. But I sometimes think the reason everyone eats so much off a grill is that you don’t savour things unless you can taste the effort. What I want from food is the taking of infinite pains.