People often ask me who my favourite chef or cookbook writer is, and I never hesitate to answer Nigel Slater. His Kitchen Diaries transformed the way I thought about cookbooks – here for the first time was somebody who cooked exactly the way I aspired to – and took aspirational photos to boot! I love Nigel. Which makes it all the more peculiar that I am about to tell you to disregard what he recently wrote in the Guardian.
In a recent article about barbecue food, Nigel explains that his first rule of the barbecue is never to cook anything thicker than your middle finger. I say poppycock. In fact, I think this is precisely the attitude that relegates most British barbecues to the murky waters of bangers and burgers on the grill!
Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I have already posted recipes for stuffed whole beef fillet on the braai (the South African word for a barbecue – it rhymes with fry) and a whole chicken with curried stuffing on the braai – and unless you have seriously malformed hands, both of these are considerably thicker than your middle finger :) In fact, if you own a kettle braai and never cook anything thicker than your finger, you are missing out on one of the great attributes of a kettle braai – its lid means that it is eminently suitable for roasting large pieces of meat slowly. Provided that you keep in mind a few tips and tricks, cooking large pieces of meat or whole fish on the braai should present no problem at all.
- Start with the right kind of fuel. Lumpwood charcoal commonly sold in supermarkets is NOT the right kind – it burns hot and super fast and provides no sustained heat, so you will have meat that's blackened on the outside and raw on the inside. Nice. What you need is charcoal briquettes – the compacted, rounded type – as these will provide a long, slow burn – ideal for slow cooking. You will need 25-35 briquettes on each pile.
- Position your coals correctly. Ideally, you should have wire baskets or rails to keep your coals on two opposite sides of the lower grid in your kettle braai – Weber makes these to fit all their barbecues, but I'm sure other manufacturers do the same. If you don't have rails/baskets, this is not the end of the world – just make two piles of coals at opposite ends of the lower grid so that there is an empty space in the centre of the grill. You may have to move some of the coals back into their piles before cooking as they may shift a little.
- Make sure you only start cooking at the correct temperature. Light your two piles of charcoal using firelighters. Make sure that all the lower vents of your barbecue are open and that the lid is off – fires need airflow to get started. There will be flames initially but after about 30-40 minutes the coals will take on a gray appearance as they are completely ashed over – this is when you want to start cooking – before is too hot, and after is too cool!
- Position a large foil drip tray directly below the meat. This is the point at which you may have to move some of the coals back into their piles using your tongs – there has to be clear space for the foil drip tray to sit squarely on the lower grid, directly between the two piles of coals and below the meat. The function of the drip trays is to catch the fat, basting sauce or other drippings from the meat so that they do not fall on the coals and create flame-ups. To ensure that the meat stays moist, you can pour a little beer or water into each drip tray.
- Cook with the lid on and resist the urge to peep! Once your meat is on the grid, you need to get the lid closed as soon a possible and LEAVE IT CLOSED! Remember – you are now using your barbecue like an oven and every time you open the lid you lose heat, and there is no way to bring the heat back up other than laboriously making more charcoal. All vents should be open though, to provide airflow to keep the coals burning.
If you follow these simple rules, you should achieve good results every time, even with large pieces of meat – like the chunky leg of lamb a friend brought round to a braai at our house recently. Although I was a bit dubious at first, (as it was rather large and still had the bone in) Nick assured me that it would cook beautifully – and he was right! Nick also lightly smoked it by adding smoked hickory chips to the coals just before cooking. We kept the seasoning simple and served the lamb Greek style, sliced in pita bread with tzatziki, as a starter, and I don't think I have ever had a more flavourful or tender piece of lamb.
So next time you are trying to decide what to barbecue, walk past the sausage aisle and try something a little more substantial – you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.
WHOLE LEG OF LAMB ON THE BRAAI/BBQ (serves 8) Printable recipe
1 large leg of lamb (bone in) weighing about 2.2kg
5 cloves of garlic cut into slivers
FOR THE MARINADE:
1/4 cup olive oil
3 TBsp fresh lemon juice
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp dried oregano
1 Tbsp dried rosemary plus 2 or 3 fresh rosemary branches
1/2 tsp coarse salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
FOR THE RUB:
1 Tbsp seasoned salt (I used Old Bay seasoning)
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
Using a sharp knife, make slits across one surface of the lamb and insert the garlic slivers at regular intervals.
Whisk together the oil, lemon juice and garlic together with the remaining marinade ingredients. Pour the marinade over the lamb and rub into the sufrace of the meat. Using 2-3 pieces of string, tie the rosemary branches to the meat. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
When you are ready to cook (see above), remove the lamb from the fridge and bring to room temperature. Mix the ingredients for the rub in a small bowl. Sprinkle it on all sides of the meat and pat or rub it in to make sure it adheres to the meat. Cook on the kettle barbecue with the lid closed for 90-120 minutes, depending on desired degree of doneness.
When the meat is done, remove from the barbecue, cover lightly with foil and allow to rest for ten minutes before carving. As I said, we served ours in pita breads with tzatziki, but you could just as easily serve the lamb as part of a traditional Sunday roast.
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy my whole fillet stuffed with smoked oysters on the braai, venison loin wrapped in bacon on the braai, or whole smoked chicken with curried stuffing on the braai.