Monday, August 27, 2007
I wasn't born to a braai culture, I married into it. Barbecues in my childhood were a bit of a novelty, juggling English weather and recalcitrant charcoal to produce smoky burgers and sausages. Only when I found the South African I was to marry, did the finer points of cooking over a fire penetrate my consciousness.
Our wedding lunch in an apricot orchard here in South Africa was a braai of exceptional quality. Whole beef fillets encrusted with sea salt and black pepper, carefully cooked over glowing wood embers, tender as butter and rare inside, were the centrepiece of a South African feast. Under the auspices of his family I learned about cooking vegetables in foil parcels straight on the coals to achieve smoky, caramelised succulence - onions, butternut, potatoes. My husband, the braai master, has an unmatchable way with the tongs, turning the meat and foil packets frequently, so that they cook evenly without burning and has now refined his braai technique to use a Le Creuset casserole with a dash of wine in, at the edge of the braai, to finish off the sausages in, which produces a heavenly jus tasting of smoke, wine and sausage spice to be soaked up with plain boiled potatoes.
When we were still living in South London, we braved the neighbours' displeasure and English weather to produce many a varied barbecue, to refute a certain Radio 2 DJ's blasphemous assertion that to make a barbecue edible you have to precook everything in the oven first. In a European city you are handicapped by the smokeless fuel laws. Charcoal is OK but to get a true South African flavour to your braai it must be cooked over wood embers and there are even certain woods that are considered the best for braaiing over, the finer points of which I have yet to grasp. (For a full-on introduction to braai culture here is a site wholly dedicated to the fine art of the South African braai)
August in South Africa is however the off-season for braais, at least here in the Western Cape where we're having the wettest winter in decades. We may have barbecued in the rain in England, intrepid desperation driving us, but here we wait for the weather, assured of several months of summer and then only limited by the strength of the south-easter winds.
The deadline for WTSIM is today, the rain is pelting down outside and on Saturday when I could have braaied in the sunshine we were too busy making daisy chains, photographing flowers and lolling in the sun to set about building fires and photographing food. Such are my excuses! So for the WTSIM meatless barbecue event hosted by Cooksister, I'm having to relive last summer's braais and choose some of our favourite braaied vegetables to share. Looking back through my photo files though I discover a lapse. No photos of the vegetables to prove their existence. We must have gobbled them down too quickly. Please forgive me then if the photos are of the meat. I'll try to describe the vegetables and hope that you can visualise them without the pictures.
Our usual family braai centres on chicken wings, coated in a spice mixture that is patented by my brother-in-law. To go with it we often have a coil of lemon sausage or boerewors and a veggie pack wrapped in foil. Last summer a friend gave us a fresh marrow from his vegetable garden and on his recommendation we decided to try it on the braai. It was delicious. Thick slices of marrow, seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper, seared with grid marks on the outside and juicy with a delicate smoky flavour within.
Barbecued Marrow Slices
Take one medium sized marrow, as fresh as can be. Cut into thick slices (approx. 1.5cm / ¾ inch) and peel. You can leave the inner seeds in till after cooking. Brush both sides generously with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Then leave for a while for the oil to soak in. Cook on the grid, turning every few minutes, until the slices are cooked through and easily pierced with a fork. Serve straight from the fire as an accompaniment to the meat.
Barbecued butternut squash takes on a wonderful sweet, smoky flavour when cooked in foil on the embers, caramelised edges melting into inner softness, which I intensify with a liberal dash of cinnamon, to create a satisfying vegetable dish with enough flavour of braai to make vegetarians feel loved. Do plenty though because the meat eaters will also be clamouring for some. Warning - the cubes can go past caramel to charcoal if overcooked. It needs a thick layer of foil and an attentive braai chef to turn the package every so often
Butternut Squash cooked in foil on the fire.
Make a double layer of heavyweight tinfoil, which is big enough to fold over on itself to make a parcel. Smear a generous layer of butter over the centre part. Peel, de-seed and cube the butternut squash. The cubes should be roughly 1 - 1 ½ cm (½ - ¾ inch). Put them on the buttered foil. Season with salt and pepper and a generous sprinkling of cinnamon. Put several more slivers of butter on top of the butternut squash. Fold the foil over the squash and make into a loose parcel, folding the edges over securely. Cook directly on the glowing embers at the edge of the fire and turn carefully every five minutes. It should take about 30 minutes but could need a little longer depending on the heat of the fire. Open the parcel carefully to check and watch your fingers, as plenty of sizzling steam will rise up from the squash. The squash should be tender and starting to caramelise at the edges.
If we have vegetarians to a braai I usually do some vegetable kebabs for them and remember to keep one side of the braai grid meat free.
An assortment of red, green and yellow peppers, mushrooms marinaded in olive oil, herbs and lemon, or yoghurt and spices, alternated with chunks of courgettes and soft dried apricots, all threaded onto wooden skewers, brushed with the rest of the marinade and cooked over the fire makes a delicious vegetarian substitute for meat. The edges of the peppers char slightly, the apricots caramelise and keep the vegetables next to them moist and the marinade flavours the absorbent mushrooms and keeps them succulent.
A braai isn't just about the food though, it is a social activity, an opportunity for the family to gather around the fire, watch the sun go down, put the world to rights over a beer or a glass of wine and to cuddle up under blankets and smell your supper as it cooks in front of you.