From the grill to the food to the tablesettings, here's how to make sure your next al fresco party gets people talking for all the right reasons.
Ten steps to hosting the perfect barbecue
It's the time of year we've all been waiting for. Cooler days and balmy evenings mean one thing: barbecue time. Whether you're cooking up a couple of burgers for dinner, planning a picnic in the park or having friends over for a full-day fiesta, Selina Denman has 10 tips to ensure that your next al fresco party gets people talking - for all the right reasons
Charcoal, electric or gas?
Before you can even think about hosting a cookout, you'll have to find a barbecue that suits your needs. The big question, of course, is charcoal, electric or gas?
If you're going for the authentic experience of cooking over an open fire, and are happy to spend a bit of extra time and energy on your food, then charcoal is your best bet. The classic Weber Kettle barbecue comes in a range of shapes and sizes, and is available from Ace, Dubai Garden Centre, Spinneys and Waitrose.
Gas barbecues are easier to use - and are less hassle when it comes to cleaning and clearing away - but do they deliver the same results? Barbecue purists will answer with a resounding "no", but we'll leave it to you to argue it out.
There's no better excuse than a barbecue to spruce up your outdoor areas. Invest in some new garden furniture, even if it's just a wooden bench to put at the end of the garden or a couple of oversized bean bags by Fatboy, available at www.filini.com. We love the Fatboy Jeans model, which is made from high quality organic denim.
Ace Hardware and the Dubai Garden Centre both offer affordable outdoor furniture made from a range of sturdy materials, while Ikea's colourful, stackable Reidar chairs are a good option because you can take them out of the sun and store them indoors when they are not in use.
If you can't buy new furniture, brighten up what you do have with new cushion covers - the more summery, the better. Try Pottery Barn's Accents outdoor cushion range, with its painterly floral motifs.
Decking can also transform a space and is a relatively inexpensive way of making a big impact. Try Ikea's Platta floor decking, Dh125 for 30cmx30cm.
On the day of your barbecue, why not hang up some bunting or fairy lights to add some party atmosphere to your space. Ace sells solar fairy lights from just Dh35, and you can buy personalised bunting from www.buntingqueen.co.uk. Better yet, try making your own.
Meat and greet
Plan your menu in advance and invest in good quality ingredients. A marinade will not only give your meat oodles of flavour, but will also tenderise it. There are hundreds of marinades to choose from but we'd recommend keeping it as simple as possible. There's no point masking the taste of a perfectly good piece of meat with an unnecessarily elaborate marinade.
For steaks, Jamie Oliver recommends chopping up some fresh rosemary and adding black pepper, olive oil, crushed garlic and a sprinkle of paprika. You may be tempted to marinade your meat for as long as possible, but remember, meat shouldn't be left in a marinade that features salt, lemon or lime juices for longer than two hours because these ingredients will toughen the flesh.
Lighting a barbecue means pouring in a pile of charcoal briquettes, dousing them in lighter fluid and tossing in a match, right? Not necessarily. The use of lighter fluid can result in a meal that tastes of petroleum by-products - not the kind of flavouring you're aiming for. If you do use lighter fluid to get your barbecue going, make sure the fire burns for at least 45 minutes before you put your meat anywhere near it.
Alternatively, light your fire with a chimney starter. Fill the bottom part of this simple cylindrical contraption with a couple of pieces of newspaper, then pile coals into the top. Once you light the newspaper, the heat will ignite the bottom of the coals, allowing the fire to build up relatively quickly. Weber offers a chimney starter for Dh100.
If you want to go entirely au naturel, bunch up a couple of pieces of newspaper and plant them among your coals. It might take longer for the fire to take, but at least there won't be any unwanted odours in your dinner.
You may also want to reconsider using charcoal briquettes because they can contain products such as sodium nitrates and coal dust, and may also contribute to deforestation. Lump charcoal sourced from sustainable forests is the more natural - and ethical - choice.
Scents of place
Why not light the barbecue before your guests arrive and throw on some rosemary or bay leaves? The resulting aroma will create a nice welcoming touch.
Easy does it
There's an art to cooking meat and it mainly involves doing as little to it as possible. Firstly, don't rush. Most barbecues fail because meat is put on to the grill too soon. Give your coals time to smoulder or you'll end up with burgers that are charred on the outside and raw in the middle.
Once your meat is on the grill, don't move it around too much or turn it over too often. And once it's done, don't cut it up too soon. You'll need to give the juices time to settle. Patience will be rewarded.
There's no limit to the number of fun barbecue-related accessories that you can acquire. Weber does a range of accessories, including a stainless steel salt and pepper shaker set for Dh200, and stainless steel tea light holders in various colours.
Invest in some quirky tongs or, at the very least, have a good supply of brightly coloured tea towels close at hand. You'll need them.
Dress it up
Keep your food simple but make sure your table is dressed to impress. Invest in a good quality tablecloth. Crate & Barrel's Marimekko tablecloths are bold, beautifully patterned and bound to make a statement. Or grab a couple of metres of Ikea's wipe-clean, polka dot oil cloth - perfect for outdoor use.
Unusual bowls are another great way to draw attention. Look for the handmade porcelain ones by Element Clay Studio, available on Boxed Online, which are shaped like sea urchins, coral and scallops. We also love Joseph Joseph's salad bowl and servers, available from Bloomingdale's and Tavola in Dubai, which are made from polypropylene and come in a range of vibrant colours.
Don't get so distracted by the food that you forget about the drinks. Keep your guests refreshed with tasty mocktails. Shatter-proof plastic glasses are the wisest option, of course. Lakeland has a great range of reusable ones in super touch polycarbonate. It also sells some very handy hands-free glass holders so your guests can enjoy their food without spilling their drinks. Also make sure that you have a good supply of ice. Many a good barbecue has been ruined by dwindling ice stocks.
Lastly, make sure to clean up properly at the end of the day. Your barbecue grill, in particular, needs to be properly cleaned to prevent it from becoming a greasy, rusty nightmare. Rinse it through with dishwashing liquid mixed with warm water, and scrub with a stiff-bristled brush. Then cut a lemon in half and run it over the grills - the juice will get rid of any remaining grease.