A barbecue need not consist of just steaks, burgers and sausages. Two inventive Scandinavian chefs show how to rustle up a smorgasbord of scrumptious summer fare, without too much effort
On the workbench in front of me is a riot of colour. Fresh lemons, leafy basil plants, heaps of fresh herbs, a glistening pink side of salmon, bottles of orange juice, high grade olive oil and bright red peppers jostle for space - a mountain of raw ingredients waiting to be transformed into a simple but scrumptious meal.
I am at the Top Chef Cooking Studio on Jumeirah Beach Road, in a kitchen that looks like it belongs on the pages of a glossy interior design magazine. I have been invited here to take part in an exclusive cooking masterclass by the US-headquartered barbecue specialist, Weber.
Two top Weber chefs are visiting from Denmark and have been tasked with showing me that there's more to barbecuing than burgers and sausages; that, in fact, your trusty barbecue can easily be used to put together an impressive three-course meal - yummy dessert and all.
On the menu is a herb-crusted smoked salmon starter, a main of chicken with ricotta and basil, accompanied by grilled vegetables, potatoes and mojo, and, to round things off, a chocolate fondant. In fact, as the morning proceeds, the chefs whip up a number of additional, unexpected elements: softer-than-soft scallops on a tangy bed of finely diced apples, peppers and onions; a simple tartare that combines the leftover salmon with lemon juice, oil, salt and lemon rind; a rustic bruschetta; and circles of bread topped with goat's cheese and smothered in a delicious blueberry marmalade. Everything, and I mean everything, from the toast to the marmalade to the fondant, is cooked on the barbecue.
I introduce myself to chefs Anders Jensen and Martin Stobbelaers with an apologetic "I'm not a terribly good cook, I'm afraid". My general approach to barbecuing is to sit back and let someone else sort it out. Truth be told, I'm better suited to the washing up part of proceedings than the actual grilling. Jensen and Stobbelaers are the manager and head chef, respectively, of Weber's Grilleriet Grill Academy in Copenhagen and are both members of The Danish National BBQ team - but are kind enough to pretend that my below-average cooking skills aren't an issue. "Everybody can do this," Jensen says. A few hours later and I know this to be true.
Over the course of the morning, Jensen and Stobbelaers give me a step-by-step introduction to the art of barbecuing. The kitchen is a hive of activity as cake mixtures are prepared and refrigerated, salmon is sliced, scallops are cleaned, chicken breasts are stuffed and peppers are charred, bagged and skinned. We flit between the kitchen and the Top Chef garden, where two Weber barbecues - one gas and one charcoal - have been set up. Jensen is quick to debunk one long-standing myth. "It doesn't make a difference to the taste of the food whether you use gas or charcoal. It just makes a difference to the way you cook, to the process. Many people in Denmark will have two or three barbecues, both gas and charcoal. Which one they use depends on their mood."
Using charcoal is obviously a longer, more drawn out process, and involves a certain amount of patience, particularly when lighting the coals. Jensen stresses the importance of choosing a high quality lighter fuel that won't leave your food with a petrol-tinged aftertaste.
"It is important that you use something that is good and stable, like lighter cubes. Don't use any liquids. You have to use good fuel if you want to make good food. There are no shortcuts when it comes to this. It is also good to use a chimney starter because it gets the charcoal lit very fast and safely. Then you need to just leave it for around half an hour. Men have a tendency to walk around the barbecue, covering it in lighter fluid, like cavemen. It's difficult for them to just let the fire be and go into the kitchen and help with the clearing up. A lot of people start barbecuing too soon. There shouldn't be any dark smoke as this will make the food taste bad. Take the time to wait."
Once ready, Jensen tips the coals into two separate containers, which are placed on opposite ends of the barbecue. This allows him to cook using the indirect method, where food is placed in between the coals rather than directly above them and the lid is firmly shut. Direct heat is generally recommended for relatively small, tender pieces of food that cook quickly, such as hamburgers, steaks, chops, boneless chicken pieces, fish fillets, shellfish and sliced vegetables, as it sears the surfaces of those foods and cooks them all the way to the centre. Indirect heat is best for larger, tougher foods that require longer cooking times, such as roasts, whole chickens and ribs.
With any type of meat, avoid the temptation to overcook it and make sure to let it rest once you are done. "As a general rule, you should let the meat rest for half of the cooking time. If you cook a piece of steak for thirty minutes, then let it rest for 15 minutes," Stobbelaers advises.
"People don't do that," Jensen adds. "People just take the meat inside, cut it up and all the juices run out. You have to let it rest. Don't cover it with tin foil - just a clean tea towel. When it comes to the core temperature, you need to find out what is the taste of the family, whether it is raw or medium or whatever, but always let it rest."
Stobbelaers also recommends seasoning vegetables after they have been cooked, to ensure that the flavour isn't lost. There's no point dousing your veg in expensive olive oil, only to have it all burnt off as soon as it goes on the grill. Instead, wait until your vegetables are cooked before you turn them in oil and add your seasoning.
The lesson of the day? When it comes to grilling, the key to success is getting to know your barbecue and learning how it behaves. And, oddly enough, resisting the urge to clean it too thoroughly.
"When you clean your barbecue, just do it with a brush," says Jensen. "In fact, if it's a little dirty, that's good. It seals it. Make sure you clean the grates properly, of course, but generally a new barbecue is a bad barbecue. It's like a car - you have to run it.
"I have a barbecue that's about 15 years old and I don't want to change it. You know how to control the heat. You have a relationship with it. It's just like your favourite pair of shoes. You wear them in and then they fit you perfectly."
For more information on Weber and its range of products, visit www.weber.com.
Top Chef is currently hosting a weekly barbecue class. Visit www.topchefdubai.com for more information.