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Grill, spit and barbeque, or rather, the cuisine one can prepare outdoors; in a quiet spot in the woods on a camping trip, on the shore of an ocean after a fruitful fishing venture. It is an “ecological” cuisine, provoked by the environment in which one finds oneself and supplied by it, at least in theory, with all the necessary ingredients; the meat or fish, the herbs and spices to enliven the dish and the wood for the fire. It brings one back to the origins. There is little doubt, in fact, that the first instance of a cooked meal was something very close to our modern barbeque. A lightning bolt hits a dry forest, or the rays of the sun pass through a dew-drop at just the right angle and there you have fire. The meat, so often hunted down and always eaten crude, comes, perchance, into contact with the flame. It cooks a little and the hunter tastes it. He finds it tastier and perhaps even comes to realize that it is more easily digested. Once he can make fire at will he begins to repeat the experiment, perfecting skills that over the centuries would become the art of cooking. To this day, if one looks well, it can be seen that the culinary roots of all parts of the world reside in outdoor cooking. Modern man has not done much more than imprison the flames within ovens, chimneys and stoves and then change the fuel from wood to coal to gas, then to electricity and others. Regardless, when one thinks of a great, sumptuous feast, it is not pots of minestrone or pasta that come to mind, but great barbeque pits covered by giant steaks, or better yet, giant spits upon which an entire animal is roasting. It has always been this way. Literature and even more so paintings offer infinite examples. Who could refute the power of Bruegel’s paintings, just to name one? For the festivities that were to celebrate the meeting, in Bologna in 1530, of Carlo V and Clemente VII, the organizers roasted an entire ox, stuffed with aromatic herbs, chickens and pieces of kid and lamb. During about the same time period, during the festivities for St. Joseph’s day, patron of leather-workers, extra long spits were used to roast pork loins that were then passed, still smoking, down the banquet table to the guests and even the occasional passersby. It would be possible to go on forever naming occasions in which the spit, that primordial instrument of cuisine, is employed. Yet we must occupy ourselves with more modern aspects of this cuisine, the present day norms of the grill, the spit and the barbeque.
The word, barbeque, while it seems to have taken American citizenship, is French in its origins. Barbeque means, in loose terms, “cuisine in the open”. It is the phonetic contraction of the French expression “de la barbe à la queue”, which translates to “from the beard [of a goat perhaps] to the tail” to illustrate how the animal is cooked whole, either speared upon a spit or laid in a fire pit. In the case of the fire pit however, which we will go into in more detail later, an isolating layer of leaves is placed between the animal and the fire. It is a general rule that what you are cooking is to be exposed to the heat of the flame, not the flame itself mind you. When preparing anything then, one has to consider the type of food that is being prepared and decide what type of combustible to use for the desired intensity of heat. Things have changed nowadays. No longer is an entire animal barbequed, as the name would imply. Modern-day barbeques aren’t even capable of cooking a whole animal at once and settle for a few steaks at a time. This is convenient for us of course and even more so for those who want only to cook a few steaks in their backyard or on the terrace in the city.
Barbeque: Cooking On the Spit
It is extremely important that your grill is not made of wire (there are many on the market, none are recommendable). It should be made of good, solid wrought iron. It should also be extremely clean and should be well heated prior to placing food on it to cook. The food should be flipped multiple times in order to cook it evenly but it would be a serious error to use a carving fork to do so, especially when cooking meat. One should always use a spatula or, if one is not readily available, a broad-bladed knife used as a spatula. This is because if one punctures the meat then it loses many of those precious juices that were being contained by the light outer crust. Never use a carving fork, or any other sharp object, not even to check if the meat has been sufficiently cooked. For this reason, there are two alternative systems. When pressed with the base of a spoon meat should resist the pressure. Furthermore, when the cooking is, as the French say, “à point”, light reddish drops of juices should have formed on the surface of the meat. When meat is exposed to a source of sufficiently intense heat it forms a light crust; a protective film of sorts that alters the characteristics of the meat’s surface. As a result of the formation of this light crust, a small part of the meat’s juices are lost. Yet the sacrifice of this small part in turn allows for the majority of the meat’s juices to remain trapped inside the meat, gravitating towards its center as the meat is cooked. This is a boon to the quality of the meat, both to its nutritional value and its flavor. It is important that this happens in a uniform manner. If, for example, one cooks a chicken or perhaps a leg of lamb for 10 minutes of one side and 5 on the other, the result is that the meat is cooked unevenly with one side perhaps overcooked and the other almost raw. The spit, revolving constantly and steadily, guarantees that this does not happen and provides a perfectly evenly cooked piece of meat. This is not the only advantage the spit offers however. The fats within the meat melt during cooking and on a spit they are free to drip off of it. It is true that for certain recipes this fat is collected and used either to baste the meat or to flavor the bread or polenta that will accompany the meat, but this is only for certain recipes. The important part is that meat cooked on the spit loses all of its excess fats, which happen to be those fats that are most harmful to humans, and presents itself lean and perfect. It is fair to say then that the spit is by far the best choice for cooking large pieces of meat both from a gastronomic and a nutritional point of view.
Barbeque: Cooking On the Grill
Now, on to the grill. While the spit can be placed in front of, above, or to the side of the fire depending on one’s wishes, the grill can be placed on top of the fire and nowhere else. Or rather, since we have said that meat should never be placed into direct contact with the fire (in which case it will burn and in some instances form carcinogenic substances), the grill must be suspended above hot coals and placed at an appropriate height for the heat desired. While the spit cooks food without it coming into contact with outside matter, the grill, perforce, exposes food to its own bars. These bars collect extra heat and conduct it more readily to the meat with the risk of burning it. As such, cooking time on a grill should be as brief as possible. There is more however. Whereas on a spit fat is free to flow off of the meat, on a grill it must spill onto the coals, where it burns and emits smoke and noxious fumes. It is a good idea, in fact, to keep close track of the meat so as to shift it, where possible, away from points where the fat has hit the coals. This may seem excessive, but when pursuing perfection it is a worthwhile endeavor. Cooking on a grill can seem simple and easy, and can be so, but it requires extreme attentiveness and at least a bit of experience. When experimenting with the various techniques of outdoor cooking, it is very important to consider and evaluate the suitability of different methods to different dishes. When cooking a large piece of meat the spit is without a doubt the best method, whereas smaller items such as steak and sausages are better suited to the grill. This is because a spit exposes the meat to radiations of heat without exposing it directly to its source. In other words, when dealing with a large piece of meat a spit allows the cook to regulate the distance from the flame in such a way as to control the exposure to and intensity of the heat. Furthermore, as it revolves at a constant and steady pace, the spit allows for the meat to be cooked uniformly throughout. This is an advantage of fundamental importance.
Barbeque: Cooking in the Pit
We’ve left for last a barbeque method almost as ancient as the spit and grill. It is perhaps a little less developed and certainly more difficult than either, but much more picturesque and entertaining. It is barbequeing in a pit. An especially interesting example, involving seafood, demonstrates the spontaneity and conviviality of outdoor barbequeing. Along the Atlantic coast of France, specifically in the Charente-Maritime, old friends often come together to have some “éclade de moules” (roasted mussels). A circular layer of red clay, and a few centimeters thick, is prepared on the ground. Then mussels are vertically embedded into the clay (rounded side down) in tightly spaced concentric circles. It is important that they be placed very close together and that the rounded end of their shell is firmly embedded in the ground so that they do not open during barbequeing. The mussels are then covered with pine needles, which are then set alight. In the end, the fire out and the ashes removed, each guest pulls the mussels out one by one, opening them with a knife and eating them as they do so. They are very tasty and create a very friendly, spirited atmosphere, that is helped along perhaps by one of the local wines. It should be noted that for pastoral societies the development of this barbequeing method is not so surprising. Most members of these societies were hired hands, tending to the flocks of their masters. They were accustomed, then, to find nourishment in the products of the flock and of the pastures that they roamed in. The idea of digging a hole and barbequeing an animal in it, protected from the wind, could not have seemed a more complex idea than that of skewering meat to place over the campfire and cook. Some suggest that under these pastoral circumstances what spurred the use of pits for cooking was the need of many poor shepherds to hide the occasional animal pilfered from the flock while cooking it. The hypothesis is certainly risible, yet it has nonetheless been discussed. It makes much more sense to think of the pit as a distant relative of the oven.There are various ways of barbequeing in the pit. One way is to dig a hole to the desired size, usually the size of the animal to be cooked, and to light a large fire in it. The fire is allowed to burn out until only the embers remain; these are then covered with a layer of leaves upon which the animal is placed. The animal is then covered with another layer of leaves and then buried. The opposite, where the heat source is above instead of below, can also be done. Instead of lighting a fire in the pit, the animal is placed in the pit first and covered with the requisite layers of leaves above and below. The pit is then filled with the embers taken from a nearby fire. The third method is perhaps the most refined and probably the closest in nature to an oven. The bottom of the pit is lined with clean stones upon which the animal is then placed. The animal is then covered with a layer of leaves and another layer of stones. Lastly, a bonfire is built on top of the stones and allowed to burn out. With the last embers and top layer of stones out of the way, what you find is a perfectly cooked meal. It goes without saying that, in any case, the animal is seasoned with salt and pepper or locally picked herbs before it is placed in the pit. Oftentimes extra coals from the pit are used apart to bake potatoes or other side dishes. According to some, the Native Americans on the prairies of the western United States developed this method in order to cook entire bison at once. American settlers then came to learn it from them. This could certainly be true, especially considering the American diet and the adoption of the term “barbeque”. It is doubtlessly true however that, just as happened with the grill and the spit, this method of cooking developed autonomously all over the world at different times and in different cultures. How else could one explain the many various instances of it found around the world? Sardinian shepherds have used this method for hundreds of years to cook wild rabbits, lambs and kids. There are analogous uses of the pit in Greece, Spain and along a large part of the Mediterranean coastline.
Barbequeing: The Use of Fats
Marinating is the simplest method used in the kitchen for the purpose of flavoring and tenderizing meats prior to cooking. Nearly all meats, such as steaks and loins (especially when they are very lean) and fish, can be marinated. An excellent generic marinade that can be adapted to nearly any dish is made from olive oil with a bit of lemon juice and finely chopped parsley. Let the meat soak in it for at least an hour, turning it over often, and then dry it and cook it making sure to brush some extra marinade on it while cooking. There are a few general methods to keep in mind; These preparations, as you can see, are executed with utmost ease and happily resolve many of the problems of a barbeque party, notably enriching it at the same time. There is a method, called “steccatura” in Italian, in which one inserts little pieces of lard into a piece of meat or an entire animal. It is done with a special utensil, a needle of sorts, that can be found in any store specializing in kitchenware. The lard is cut into long, thin strips that are then skewered onto the posterior end of the needle. The needle is inserted into the meat, pushed in through one end and pulled out through the other, pulling the lard along behind it. The lard is then cut off from the needle and tied at both ends so that it does not slip through. This method is best suited to use with large, thick pieces of very lean meat. There is another method, called “bardatura” in Italian, that is used a lot for fowl meat, especially that of wildfowl because of its leanness. Using this method the meat is wrapped in wide strips of lard or bacon/pancetta, which are either pinned in with toothpicks or tied down with kitchen twine, before being placed on the spit. This helps it cook and baste evenly at the same time. Before cooking is finished, the fat strips are removed so that the surface of the meat can brown before being served.
Butter Recipes for Barbequeing.
In some cases, especially with red meats, it is preferable to use butter instead of a vegetable-based fat like olive oil. In this method the meat is brushed with melted butter while it is barbequeing and then served with a pat of butter on top, which eventually melts and further bastes and richens the meat. This sort of butter is extremely easy to prepare as in these four recipes;
“Maître d’hôtel” butter: in a small bowl, work 150g of butter with a fork, adding little by little the juice of half a lemon, a spoon of chopped parsley, salt and pepper. Place the resulting compost on a butter dish and place it in the fridge to harden.
Anchovy butter: the same as the above recipe, but add instead add pepper and six anchovy fillets that have been crushed to mush.
Garlic butter: also the same as the above recipes, but add instead just pepper and six cloves or garlic crushed in a pestle.
Curry butter: add about the tip of a spoon of curry powder to the well-worked butter, mix well and place in the fridge to harden.
To get a truly perfect result, it is advisable to pass the anchovy and garlic butter through a strainer. Barbecuing is a low-fat cooking method by nature. It bears repeating that the low fat-content of meats cooked on the spit, grill and skewer is lower than that of meat cooked any other way. It is lean and easy to digest and therefore healthier. Barbequeing is so lean a method of cooking in fact that certain meats will become too dry if they are not basted with some kind of fat. Worse yet, some meats can nearly become dry as toast. So fats are sometimes necessary, but always in moderation. With this in mind, every recipe we publish includes the best of use of fat in its particular case.