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Old fashioned grilling

"That tangle of bars that lights up over the food isn't worthy of the name. In my book a grill is where the heat comes from below the food rather than above it." Nigel Slater



Last week was a guru week - meaning I would cook something from one of my long ago gurus. It was Robert Carrier's turn and the turn of this rather grotty looking and very retro book - volume 2 of The Robert Carrier Cookery Course which I acquired at Christmas in 1977, although it was first published in 1974. Like I said, gloriously retro - just look at that jacket. But then he was known for his flamboyance and enthusiasm, as the opening words of his introduction demonstrate:


"Cooking is easy; wonderfully easy. And cooking is fun. I firmly believe that every meal that we have should be a pleasure, an adventure." Robert Carrier


Volume 2 of his cookery course, was dedicated to Stocks and soups - as shown on the cover, sauces and butters, grilling, some exciting vegetable dishes and simple baked cakes, sweets and sweet sauces. I chose to focus on the grilling section.


Initially I was underwhelmed. I have grown so used to today's chefs - particularly Ottolenghi I suppose - with their exotic ingredients, emphasis on plating, and startling mixing of ingredients. As you know by now I am a huge fan, so reading through the recipes in Carrier's grilling section was not inspiring. There were of course - this is a cookery course after all - the basic recipes for grilling all of the meats that he featured (no vegetables) but even the non-basic recipe titles were not inspiring - "My favourite grilled lamb chops; lemon mint marinade; steak au poivre" ... Or else they were expensive - chateaubriand anyone, or needed things like beef marrow or foie gras. I almost gave up I have to say but reminded myself that this exercise of cooking a recipe from a long ago guru has often surprised with the simple deliciousness of the finished dish.


So I reasoned that I always failed with steak - I'm just not good at it; chicken is cooked in this house frequently, lamb is just so stupidly expensive at the moment, and veal - well we don't eat veal anymore do we? So I fixed on Grilled pork chops. Not an exciting title is it?


And it was certainly not complicated. The marinade ingredients were also extremely simple - salt and pepper, 4 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of white wine, 2 level tablespoons finely chopped onion and 2 bay leaves crumbled. The bay leaves being the most unusual item on the list. And such small amounts too. That list was for 4 chops and I'm afraid I kept the same quantity for 2 because I like a little sauce with my pork chops. You had to marinade for at least 2 hours; heat your grill to very high, grill for 5 minutes each side - basting from time to time (I didn't because I felt they had enough marinade on them anyway), then place in a baking dish and cook in the oven for a further 10 minutes. I did turn them over for this part of the cooking and I had changed the oven setting to fan and lowered the temperature.


The result? Absolutely delicious. This might have been the tenderest pork chop I have ever tasted. It almost melted in your mouth, although that could, of course, have been down to the quality of the meat - just Coles loin pork chops. Nothing special. No particular taste dominated but it was just lovely. It all blended together into a magical whole. Which just goes to show that we shouldn't ignore the old-fashioned or as Jay Rayner more eloquently puts it:


"One of the worst vices of food fashion is to look to the past and sneer jovially at our unsophisticated tastes. Look at us, stumbling about in the flour-thickened gravy ponds, like unsteady toddlers. Where’s the class? Where’s the style? Where’s the kimchi and miso?


We dismiss that past too easily." Jay Rayner


In addition it wasn't just gaining another recipe that I shall be repeating many times, it was also a lesson in grilling, beginning with how it all began:


"The first cookery lesson man ever taught himself was when he discovered that his game tasted a great deal more palatable if he first speared it on a stick and turned it over the glowing embers of an open fire.


Of course, the original, unknown genius, was, strictly speaking, discovering the barbecue, and nothing has been evolved since to replace the magnificent aroma and flavour of meat, fish or vegetables cooked over smouldering wood or charcoal." Robert Carrier


Carrier was indeed a lover of the barbecue, but he was also impressed by the wonders of modern ovens, something which today we seem to have ignored when it comes to grilling. I had a general feeling that indeed we now were all into either an actual barbecue or the stovetop griddle pan which gives you those decorative charred lines and burnt edges. I tried very hard to find whether this was true or not, but could not find an answer other than to realise that these days when cooks talk about grilling they are mostly talking about griddles, sometimes barbecues.


For barbecues themselves these days tend not to be over actual fires - unless it's a Weber - but are gas-fired, with hoods, which to my mind is more like an oven. Now I do like barbecued food, as Carrier says, the smell is enticing, but to my mind it is so difficult to get it right. In our house it tends to end up burnt rather than charred with the meat under the black outside being dry and shrunken. Not to mention the fact that any sauce it might have potentially had is lost in the fire. The marinade that our favourite beef kebabs have been soaking in, is, in fact, the star of the dish. Barbecuing it loses it. No the barbecue demands real skill I think. Much more than we have here anyway. Well we might, just sometimes, manage to barbecue sausages OK.


And the griddle produces an awful lot of smoke inside your kitchen, so you need a super efficient exhaust fan and an open window.


In my wandering around the net I also found that to the Americans, grilling and broiling are two different things, whereas I must admit I had thought that broiling was just the American term for grilling. Well yes and no. Broiling means oven grilling, grilling means over a flame, although I'm not quite sure whether that also includes the griddle - which is the most trendy of the three methods these days.


The danger of barbecuing is that you basically end up with a lump of coal - tasteless and unhealthy to boot - unless you are an expert. To be fair, however, there are also dangers in oven grilling which Carrier, to his credit points out:


"Successful grilling depends first and foremost on heat. Insufficient heat causes meat to turn a uniform, rubbery grey, makes it utterly impossible to control the degree of rareness, and inevitably dries out the precious juices of delicate foods such as poultry and fish instead of cooking them in."


He also warns against, too hot, and removing from the rack because, then it just ends up braised rather than grilled. He also specifically notes that when it comes to pork and veal, they:


"are easier to handle in a frying-pan ... but ... My favourite way of dealing with veal and pork chops is to mark them on the grill on each side and then finish them in a tablespoon or two of butter and oil in a heat-proof frying pan or gratin dish in the oven."


Which is what I did.


As this is a cookery course, and he is teaching as well as just providing recipes he also has a couple of other tips:


"Let us revise this ancient culinary lesson together. This is no magical secret about it, only one cardinal rule: grilling demands your undivided attention from start to finish. Never attempt to combine it with other activities. As you will see, sometimes only seconds separate a rare steak from medium, medium from well done, and well done from disaster." Robert Carrier


"test the temperature; a slice of fresh bread three inches from the source of heat should brown to toast on one side within thirty-five to forty seconds."


And here I will throw in a little bit of TikTok wisdom - how to map where the heat is concentrated under your grill because it is indeed true that there are hot spots. My oven also has three options for grilling - what they call Turbo grilling in which the heat comes from the top heat in the roof of the oven, the grill bars beneath that with both being assisted by the fan - said to be suitable for roasting and gratins. Then there is Fast grilling which uses the top roof heating and the bars of the grill - for flat food in large quantities and toasting bread - and Grilling which just uses the grill bars for flat food and toast. Not large quantities I assume. And, of course, you can also change the temperature. I confess I'm never sure which to use.


Nigel Slater maintains that he never ever uses his oven grill and I suspect that there are vast numbers of foodies who don't either. I have to say however, that now having grilled some absolutely delicious pork chops, my general feeling is that if you want more consistent results than a barbecue go for the oven grill - particularly if you want the marinade as a sauce. You will lose it on a barbecue - or a griddle.


Robert Carrier's pure recipe books rarely give you any advice on pitfalls or tips to improve things, but in this series of little books he offers invaluable advice on a number of things. The one exception that I can remember is the section on barbecues in The Robert Carrier Cookbook. Also invaluable. If only the men who are usually doing the cooking would pay attention.


The greatest qualities of his books, however, after the recipes themselves are his enthusiasm and encouragement with the emphasis on fun. Not at all like Elizabeth David, who is of course equally great but in a quite different way.


"Now we can all sit about the table commenting on the dish that is being served to us, talking about its flavour, its texture, remembering other dishes, other savours; and just plain exhuberating in the very fact that we are all together, with old friends and new friends, having the time of our lives." Robert Carrier


He was also, unlike his contemporaries also enthused by how the food world was changing:


"The shops are full of possibilities well within our reach, both gastronomically and economically. So don't get into a food rut." Robert Carrier


On Friday night I got out of my food rut, by adhering to my weekly vow to cook something that was either new or from an old guru. I encourage you to do the same. It's fun and enlightening all at the same time.


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