Rain or shine, because the clock tells us it’s the summer, we can’t help but pull out and dust down our dreams of country picnics, lazy days at the beach, eating in the garden and barbecuing all round us until the end of August. Needless to remark the sun shines high in the cloudless sky throughout those dreams. Admittedly it only happens perfectly in our heads, and the reality is that many different factors prevent us from manifesting these lovely thoughts. We are held to ransom by the elements day to day throughout the season. Then of course the lovely shiny haired, polite and well behaved children who attend the perfect barbecue in your might just be a small rampaging mob with an appetite for destruction akin to Genghis Khan. The garden in your fantasy with the manicured lawns and the furniture filled patio might not match up with the actual view from your kitchen window and that magnificent out door cooking grill station with the control knobs of the Star Ship Enterprise might in fact be a disposable charcoal filled foil tray from Dunnes. But don’t despair, because we do have control over the most important element of the event and that’s the food. Using a little culinary skill we can elevate our parties and gatherings via our taste buds and even the most cynical will go home in the knowledge they were at a great event.
Over the next few weeks I have no doubt that the subject of barbecuing will come up a few times. I would also direct you to the James Whelan Butchers website for great tips about this whole area of summer cooking. However as a starter today I want to talk about marinades. Allowing the meat you are cooking to soak, even for a very short while, in a little sauce can make all the difference. When you experiment you will eventually hit on a recipe that quickly becomes your own. In fact some people are quite covetous of their secret ingredients. It is usually just some small condiment tweak here and there from a standard recipe, but it creates a signature all the same that with time can be thrown together in a few minutes to create a luscious, moist and tender feast. My only advice, however, is to write down what you do for the first few times you do it. I say this from experience, I have stumbled across some really good marinades, many times by just necessary ingredient substitution and not by design, but then later while basking in the adoration from the sated crowd, I forgot what I had done and it was never to be repeated.
So let’s talk about marinating and marinades as there is a great deal of myth around the subject. Go on the hunt for good marinade recipe and you will find anything from 2 hours to 24 hours needed for similar cuts of meat. It can be very confusing. The thing is that not all marinades were or are created equal and neither is meat. Marinades supposedly serve two functions one is to tenderise the meat and the other is to flavour it. Now here’s the thing, more than likely if you are throwing some meat on the grill you will have bought a suitable cut recommended by your butcher. If bought from a reputable source, it should be pretty tender to start off with so the real function of your marinade is flavour. There is the assumption that the marinade penetrates deeper into the meat depending on the length of time it sits in it. Let’s put that to bed straight away – it doesn’t. After the first while it is as deep as it is going to go and after that, the changes are minimal. Now just to be clear, I’m discussing marinades from the point of view of a common barbecue, this is not about marinating for brining or pickling which is another day’s work entirely. When it comes to simple grilling, greater minds than me have carried out controlled scientific studies on this flavour penetrating aspect of marinades. A study carried out in 2007 showed that after eight days a slightly salty marinade gave meat a somewhat mushy surface but penetrated less than 1/8 inch into the flesh. This would suggest that a mildly acidic mixture would have practically next to no effect at all. So while a marinade certainly ups the flavour of our cooked meat, leaving it to sit in the marinade for hours and hours isn’t as necessary as we think.
The reason I enjoy the long marinating process for barbecue is that I can make all the mess of preparation in advance and have everything sorted and organised in the fridge ready to go. But here’s the thing, if you have people coming over you can still prepare a marinade quickly and not have to worry about leaving it to sit around for hours and hours on end to get the best results.
So what kinds of marinades give good flavour? Well there seems to be as many marinade recipes out there as there are people who like to marinate. I have a few recipes of my own that I have come to over the years. Sometimes I’ll have to tweak and substitute purely because I won’t have the right ingredient to hand, but the base is usually the same. I learned this one from a South African friend. It is based on a good chutney so use a good dollop of that, another good dollop ketchup, a dollop of mayonnaise, a few tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, the same of balsamic vinegar or apple cider vinegar, 2 sliced red onions, a little white vinegar and some salt and pepper. (I usually do this one the night before for convenience.) Leave the steaks to marinade in this and then while they are grilling I like to heat the remaining thick sauce, simmer it down and use it as a pouring sauce for the meat. A marinade can be livened up with some fresh chillies if you like a little fire. I’ve also tried this recipe with chicken and it works just as well.
Another variation of a steak marinade is one based on red wine. This is light and very quick and needs only a few minutes steeping. Take some red wine,a little Worcestershire sauce (just a few drops), a clove or two of garlic chopped, some chopped parsley and chopped coriander, a crushed bay leaf, a pinch of sugar and some salt and pepper. I always taste the mixture just to make sure it’s got a nice balance and correct it if it doesn’t. Now if I have the time to leave it steep for at least an hour and I want a slightly more oriental flavour I will often add some soy sauce, cinnamon bark and a star anise. You can continue to baste the meat with this juice while cooking.
Marinades are all about enhancing flavour but we should keep in mind the meaning of that word. Hopefully you are trying to enhance the natural flavour of the meat and not give it flavour to start with. Marinades shouldn’t overwhelm or mask as this is not their job. Enjoy the experimenting and don’t forget that even if it pours out of the heavens a nice marinated piece of meat or poultry will cook just as well indoors.