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Expand your barbecue repertoire beyond meat

BEIRUT: Summer in Lebanon brings with it a plethora of delicious fresh local produce, from earthy eggplant and firm zucchini to juicy peppers in traffic-light colors. Those with big enough balconies have plenty of balmy evenings ahead during which to perfect the art of barbecuing, the perfect way to prepare a summer meal away from a humid kitchen, in the company of friends.

While barbecuing is always good fun, it can sometimes be hard to think of fresh ideas to help you break away from the simple safety of grilling pre-prepared burgers or skewers of ready-marinated meat like store-bought shish taouk.

Lebanese chef Kamal Mouzawak -– creator of farmers market Souk el-Tayeb and locally sourced restaurant Tawlet – and London-based chef and cookbook author Anissa Helou share some tips on how to extract the full potential from your barbecue.

Helou emphasizes that marinating your own meat at home can make all the difference.

“There are many different marinades people can use apart from the classic Lebanese one,” she says. “The Turks, for instance, use tomato paste and fresh thyme in their marinade together with garlic and olive oil and various spices, while the Moroccans use a completely dry marinade made of fresh herbs and spices.”

Helou selects the Moroccan method as her preferred barbecuing technique.

“I think the way Moroccans barbecue their meat is great,” she says. “No oil or lemon juice, just finely chopped fresh parsley mixed with crushed garlic, chili flakes, cumin and paprika – and salt of course. Used with fish or meat, it flavors the meat without adding any moisture, resulting in a flavorful crisp exterior and a moist interior. Pretty perfect.”

While it’s easy to associate grilling with meat, Mouzawak emphasizes that vegetables or fish can make the perfect barbecue food.

“We often forget a veggie addition,” he says, “or to cater for nonmeat eaters. I always like to add vegetables to a barbecue. I’ll look at what’s available in the season – corn on a barbecue is great, green onions are just perfect. [Try] whole heads of garlic or even veggie skewers.”

To make delicious vegetable skewers Mouzawak stresses that the produce should be cut into medium-sized cubes, large enough to prevent the pieces from coming off the skewer and falling between the bars of the grill. He recommends mixing florets of cauliflower, thick slices of zucchini, chunks of onion and cherry tomatoes together in a simple marinade.

“I season well,” he says. “Salt gives color and taste and helps the vegetables to caramelize. Add a bit of chili flakes, cracked pepper, olive oil and chopped coriander, mix well and fill skewers with alternating vegetables.”

Corn on the cob, which makes a perfect accompaniment to meat or fish dishes, is another simple, healthy option. Try marinating in a simple mix of salt, pepper, paprika and olive oil, grilling until slightly charred all over and serving with butter. If you’re feeling adventurous add some grated orange zest to the marinade for a summery twist. Alternatively, try wrapping potatoes in tin foil and roasted them among the coals.

When it comes to cooking fish, Mouzawak says, it’s best when barbecued. He emphasizes that no matter what type of fish you prefer it pays to choose a big specimen, weighing no less than 2 kilos. Loukos (sea bass) is particularly good, he says.

To grill, take the fish and cut it open long ways from head to tail, allowing you to gut it before cooking the flat halves. There’s no need for a complicated marinade or spice mix when it comes to fish. Mouzawak recommends adding only salt to avoid masking the flavor of the fish itself, while a traditional Lebanese marinade can be made by mixing lemon juice, salt and pepper, bay leaves and onion juice and adding herbs such a basil, marjoram, sage, rosemary and thyme to taste.

When grilling your fish it’s important to make sure it doesn’t stick to the grill, as it will become flaky when cooked and may fall apart. Try lightly oiling either the grill or the fish to prevent sticking. While your fish is cooking you can drizzle fresh lemon juice over it to keep it moist and create an impressive sizzling sound. Another option, for juicy fish with a slightly smoky flavor, is to wrap it in aluminum foil before cooking.

For traditionalists, steak is always a great barbecuing option. The cut of the meat is important – choose steaks that are thick and well-marbled, as the fat will ensure the meat stays juicy. Season with salt and pepper and bring the meat up to room temperature before cooking. Thin steaks should be grilled over intense heat for a short period. Thicker cuts will need to be barbecued for a longer period over less heat, to prevent the outside from burning before the middle is ready.

When it comes to the fire itself, Helou shares her expertise.

“The fire has to be carefully prepared and burn down to glowing embers,” she says. “The distance between the embers and the meats needs to be right, not too far and not too close, and finally the heat should be right, so that you get a fairly charred surface but over enough time to cook your meat or fish to your liking. I like my barbecues rare, so I would use a higher heat than others.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 03, 2013, on page 2.

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