I’m an optimist. My glass is generally half full, although it was recently pointed out to me that this really should depend on whether the glass in question is being filled or emptied at the time. I go into almost every football game thinking my team can take the points. Whenever I play golf (which is infrequent) I line up every shot believing it can go exactly where I want it to, although experience should tell me otherwise. Despite my mathematical aptitude, I occasionally play the lottery. And, for some reason, every Spring I survey the Summer to come and believe this year will be the hot one we’ve now lacked for too long.
The last very hot summer is etched in my memory as it was the year my eldest was born, which meant lots of effort expended trying to keep him cool. 2006 was blisteringly hot, by moderate English standards: every day for what seemed like two months peaked at over 30°C, which is way outside of my comfort zone. Since then it’s been a string of disappointments, with the Met Office’s famous embarrassing declaration that 2009 would be a “barbecue summer” just emphasising the distinct lack of appropriate weather in which to get the tongs out.
This year has been no different. Looking forward to our first holiday as a family in the middle of August, Mr Optimism here was expecting a week of t-shirt and shorts while we went picnicking and tramping across the Northumberland hills. The reality, inevitably, was a steady stream of that British peculiarity, the sort of rain that only just qualifies as rain but is more like a clumpy mist. Six days into our holiday we damply called time on the excursion, realising that, however fun it was to spend a week ten-pin bowling, eating out, swimming and watching endless DVDs, none of this would have been any different had we remained at home, and we would not have had to contend with the minor tribulations that accompany living temporarily in a house that isn’t your own.
To add to this year’s frustration, early on the omens were encouraging. We had a scorching couple of weeks in mid-Spring, hot enough to give me a mild sunburn. This year, I thought; this year, surely, we are finally going to get a warm one. Little did I know that “warm one” would turn out to be just that: one solitary hot day of note, which inevitably was during the week and on a day I was on the road to HQ, thus able to enjoy precisely none of it.
Of course, hot days are far from a prerequisite for getting the barbie out. Used to such continual disappointments, we in the UK are very good at squeezing an opportunity to cook outside from the smallest patch of mildly not-unpleasant weather. In fact we don’t even need that: as my son’s school proved in June, as long as you have some sort of outdoor cover to protect you from the rain, the cooking can commence. True, it doesn’t quite feel the same devouring a slightly burned sausage in a slightly stale bun sat on tiny chairs in Year Two’s classroom, but you can’t fault the British for effort.
For a vegetarian, barbecues are not generally quite as enjoyable as for carnivores, as traditionally barbies are an orgy of various processed meats: sausages, burgers, spicy chicken wings, with veggie dishes being limited to salads – “normal” leafy salads, but also those like potato, couscous, rice or pasta salads. Regular readers will know my feelings on vegetarian burgers, and sausages are little better: I am not a fan of pretend meat of any sort, and prefer to use ingredients not masquerading as something they are not. Not through any sort of vegetarian snobbery, but because pretend meats do not have anything like the flavour of the products they are impersonating. So vegetarians at barbecues are often a bit like the designated driver in a pub – slightly missing the point.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Loading a variety of veggie ingredients onto a skewer makes an instant tasty alternative to a sausage, particularly if you balance the flavours right – one of our favourites being peppers, onion and halloumi. Many other cheeses in fact toast rather than melting, such as the Indian paneer; try dusting paneer in either Indian spices or similar sorts of coating to your spicy chicken wings. The cheese itself, like chicken, doesn’t have a huge amount of flavour, but carries other flavours very well. Similarly tuber vegetables can work well on a barbecue, although you are wise to parboil* or microwave them first: continuing the Indian theme, try spice-coated wedges of cassava, or of course jacket potatoes, with a suitable topping, are always popular.
The salads I mentioned are often unfortunately the sort you get in little pots from the deli counter or the ready-made meal aisle at the supermarket. This is a great pity as salads are surely some of the least-effort meals around, and can be extremely effective if done well. A simple but delightful potato salad can be made by boiling halved baby new potatoes in their skins, and allowing to cool slightly once drained before adding to lashings of light mayonnaise, a handful of chopped chives and a good amount of seasoning. Leafy salads can of course be used to bring some life to a burger, but also with a good dressing can be great as the star rather than supporting actor, if not just dumped out of a cellophane bag pre-mixed: try pea shoots, rocket, toasted pine nuts and avocado with a simple dressing made from balsamic vinegar, honey, sesame oil and Tabasco sauce.
If none of that inspires you, you can always use a barbecue with the sort of foil containers you get from takeaways to cook food that you couldn’t just throw directly on the griddle, which opens the arena up to easily-veggiefied dishes like chillis. My fat foodie friend made a veggie chilli for a party we attended recently, and it is tasty indeed; I trust he will forgive me for reproducing the recipe here, having referenced his own excellent, but recently abandoned, blog by way of thanks.
Veg chilli (serves 2, or 3 with rice or jacket spud)
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 red pepper, diced
- 1 green chilli, sliced
- 1 small courgette
- 1 tsp chilli powder (or powdered chilli if you can find it, but I couldn’t)
- 1 tsp oregano
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp marjoram
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon (or more to your preference)
- 1 tin/box chopped tomatoes
- 2 tbsp sherry vinegar
- 1 large pinch brown sugar
- 1 tin mixed pulses (you can vary the beans to your preference but I like the mixture)
Fry onion and garlic until golden. Add sugar and let it melt before adding the vinegar, stirring in until it evaporates. Add the pepper and courgette and fry until these are softened, then add spices, herbs and the remaining ingredients. Cover and cook until cooked – I would suggest minimum 45 minutes on a low heat to allow the beans to soften.
*Parboiling feels like cheating at a barbecue but it’s a sensible person who parboils his sausages, using the barbie just to crisp round the outsides, to avoid the unfortunate consequence of undercooking them.