One of the first sunny, if somewhat chilly, early spring days got me out of the house to have a potter around my hometown, and while walking I was delighted to be assailed by the unmistakeable scent of barbecue smoke wafting on the nippy breeze. Now that, I thought, is a sign of spring! Okay, it was a darned early one and beat the cuckoos out of the traps, but I was very nearly turned into something like a Bisto kid (one for our more mature members there), lured unerringly to the side of the coals by the aroma! The minute the sun had come out and with frost still glistening in some sheltered pockets, the good burghers of Smallsville, Hertfordshire defrosted more good burgers of Hertfordshire and set fire to the charcoal. It filled me with a sense of optimism somehow. Spring was (sort of) here, and this was another of, ahem, nature's ways of letting us know.
I do love a barbecue. Whether it's charred chicken and blackened bangers or gourmet marinades and butterflied lamb legs, the thought of a barbie gets me salivating. Over the years we've had a few alfresco fires in our garden, and during that time I've cooked my fair share of marinated meats and fish and slather more than a bucket or two of barbecue sauce lavishly over anything that sizzled. Increasingly the sizzly things have been vegetarian as we've got to know more and more people who eschew meat and as we ourselves have looked for alternatives.
Now I am a meat eater, there is no question of that. But, like many, I now eat much more vegetarian food than ever before and have been discovering many, many new ways to enjoy them. Griddling and barbecuing is right up there for me, enhancing the texture, sweetness and flavour of many a veg. Here I offer up a couple of very simple ideas (I mean, who wants complicated barbecue recipes?) to try. One is a 'compound' butter flavoured with spicy harissa paste to slathered on whole cobs of corn cooked on the barbie (or anything else you want to slather it on); and the other a pile of spring onions fresh from the coals and served with a Spanish-inspired romesco sauce.
Both are, to paraphrase the larger- than-life American chef Guy Fieri, so good you could smear them on a flip-flop and it would taste great. The spring onions may sound a strange thing to barbecue but the fiery heat makes them sweeter and milder, and the smoky flavour with the garlicky, nutty, red-pepper hit of the sauce with them harks back to the Catalan festival of Calçotada every January when huge spring-onion-like calçots are cooked until blackened and the soft, hot flesh eaten with the sauce. I've tried them at one of London's marvellous street food markets at that time of year and it was brilliant, and I wouldn't mind betting some hardy Brit had a barbie on the go in their garden then too!
Barbecued sweetcorn with harissa and rosemary butter
- 6 whole fresh corn-on-the-cob, husk removed
- 200g salted butter, softened (ie. not straight from the fridge)
- 3 tbsp rose harissa (easily available from all supermarkets)
- 20g rosemary, finely chopped
- 1 tsp minced or grated garlic
- Cracked black pepper (optional)
- Except for the sweetcorn, put all the ingredients for the recipe into a bowl. Mix well so that everything is thoroughly amalgamated and put into the fridge for an hour or so to let the flavours get to know each other better. Remember to take it out of the fridge well before you want to use it so it can soften again.
- Take some tin foil and make 6 squares of it big enough to wrap a corn cob each loosely.
- Smear the cobs with half the butter and lay each cob on a square of foil and wrap so that there is room for a little steam to expand while the cobs cook. Seal the parcels by folding or scrunching the foil when you close it up so that the steam can't escape.
- Lay the parcels on to the barbecue and cook for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Remove the foil and return the unwrapped cobs to the barbecue for a few minutes more, turning them a few times, until they have a little colour to them.
- Serve smeared with the remaining harissa butter, and a little cracked black pepper if liked, and get stuck in.
Flavoured butters like this are a doddle to make and can be used on all kinds of veg, barbecued or otherwise, not to mention meats, fish and shellfish too. If you'd like to avoid the spice of harissa paste you can add smoked paprika or cumin powder instead. It's worth experimenting.
Other butters that work beautifully with the sweetcorn et al. – Dijon and grain mustards and chopped capers; wild garlic butter (or just honest-to-goodness garlic); chipotle chilli; smoked paprika; mixed chopped herbs; lemon and tarragon, just use your imagination to come up with even more combinations.
Barbecued salad onions with romesco sauce
- 18-24 of the largest, fattest spring onions (or baby leeks) trimmed of any dry outer leaves
- Extra virgin olive oil for brushing on the vegetables and then for a light dress at the end
- 150g blanched almonds
- 2 plump garlic cloves, grated (use less if this is too big a hit of garlic, or roast the cloves in their skins until sweet and then peel and squish before adding)
- 400g red peppers, roasted and skinned (you can buy ready-prepared jarred peppers for this in supermarkets)
- 1 thick slice of stale or day-old white bread (preferably sourdough), just softened in a splash of water
- 100ml extra virgin olive oil, for the romesco sauce
- 1 tsp hot smoked paprika (use the milder sweet smoked paprika if you don't want the spicy note of the hot)
- 2 tsp red wine vinegar
- 2 tsp sherry vinegar
- Salt and pepper
- Lemon wedges to serve
- In a hot pan toast the almonds until just beginning to brown on each side.
- To make the romesco sauce put the almonds, garlic, red peppers, bread, olive oil, smoked paprika and the vinegars into a food processer and blitz until you have a spoonable coarse sauce, not a smooth purée. If you want a runnier sauce add more oil as you process the mixture. Season to taste, and scrape into a serving bowl.
- Once the coals are white, brush the trimmed salad onions or baby leeks with just a little of the oil and lay on the barbecue for a few minutes on each side, depending on how screaming hot the barbecue coals are, until they begin to char. Watch them carefully as they can dry out and become a little papery if you let them go too far. The outside should be just beginning to colour or scorch while the inside steams to tender sweetness.
- Once they have reached the desired level of char, but before they dry out, take them off the barbecue and toss them in a little of the olive oil. I like to use a little lemon-infused olive oil for this but that's just me.
- Serve the spring onions/baby leeks with the romesco sauce and a lemon wedge.
The sauce is wonderfully tasty with almost anything, especially from the barbecue. It's wonderful with meaty fish, and particularly with grilled salmon, but I've enjoyed it with chicken and other meats too. I have yet to try the flip-flops I mentioned above though. If you can't get hold of big spring onions or baby leeks, the sauce works beautifully with banana shallots or red onions roasted in their skins until tender and with the flesh popped out of the charred outer skin. Indeed, all kinds of roasted veg will luxuriate in romesco sauce.
Both of these dishes will work with red, white or rosé in your glass. These suggestions are all vegetarian-friendly too. The sweetcorn with its spicy butter will particularly suit the Bogle Vineyard Californian Chardonnay 2019 buttery notes and spice, while the ripe and characterful Viognier Grès du Trias, Coteaux de l'Ardèche, Vignerons Ardéchois 2019 will embrace the sweet corn and harissa spice, as will the aromatics tone-fruit of Pecorino Abruzzo, Contesa 2020, the Riesling, Mosel, Dr Loosen 2019 with its touch of sweetness, and the honeyed notes of the Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc, Guigal 2019. For whites to match the spring onions with romesco sauce, the Viognier Grès du Trias and Pecorino will be excellent, as will the lovely riesling. The sweetcorn will need a fruity red like the Viña Zorzal Garnacha, Navarra 2019, the vibrant Valpolicella Valpantena Torre del Falasco 2020, and the delicious Kompsos Liatiko Karavitakis 2020. The spring onions will happily accept the three reds mentioned, and can accompany the Fitou, Domaine Jones 2018 too.