How I learned to stop worrying and love barbecue

A few days ago, one of the supplements in The Guardian did a little ‘Barbecues – For Or Against?’ piece that utterly failed to wow me. On the one hand there was the ‘Most barbecues are awful, but…’ argument, which had me sold on pretty much everything before the ‘but’. On the other was a few columns of socially contentious guff about burnt freezer sausages, liberally immolated offer accelerant-laced hell pits, and tended all the while by burly, topless men, fending off the nigh-indistinguishable feral dogs and children snapping at their ankles. I should say something pithy and sympathetic here really, mention my own council estate childhood rather than making me sound like a dreadful sneering twat. But I’m not going to.No, the barbecues I grew up with typified by the gormless, rather vacant confusion with which much of Britain seems to greet food.

Ok, so the Australian solution touted in the article made me throw up in my mouth a little, but there’s only so much parboiling that even a man who likes to cook Mexican can take. Back in Blighty, we take probably our most unusual, certainly our most unfamiliar and seasonally fragile means of cooking, and put it in the hands of a chef selected purely on the basis of body-mass, then scratch our big manly chins over the process of making fire, before liberally littering it with the worst produce available. My parents, bless them, had got a little further, but were wedged firmly in the eighties. Theirs was a land of skewered pork with a mushroom at the end, and oily mustard marinades which smoked like all hell.

It’s no huge surprise, then, that my reaction to an ebullient “Let’s barbecue stuff!” from Mr C (who is, after all, a broad-shouldered man with a beard) followed a rough trajectory from “Thrice-sodomised Moses, have I not put that shit behind me,” through to “Fine [sigh] but I want it in writing that you wont take your shirt off.” Three or four attempts later, all more or less untroubled by pasta salad, bare nipples, or gang violence, I’m ready to recant.

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The End of the Anchovy

Another of those Sundays. Flounce around, tidy the kitchen, watch old episodes of Buffy, good things. I get up at about midday, having spent most of the night finishing Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y, and by the time I realise we’ve bugger all food in the house, I’m still chewing over whether or not it’s actually any good.

It’s got the book-about-books shtick, more in the lightly gothic mould of Shadow of the Wind than anything, with spades of Philip Pullman-esque cod Quantum, over emphasised, not quite so well executed, and worst of all, dragged wailing into view via Derrida. But it does have one or two rather lovely sentences. There’s Lovecraftian dream-walking in the nebulous beyonds, a light excess of mercifully underwritten sex, and a mouse god on a moped. I think, on balance, it all stands up, even if it does all wind up just a bit pat at the end – the writers own epilogue worries over it being read as a “Shaggy God story”. I take the point, and think she probably should have too, but it otherwise makes a fair stab at living up to its rather eye-catching binding.

All this, of course, brings us no closer to tacking the problem of dinner, or explaining exactly what did become of all those carrots. The first part’s easy. Tapenade is good. Once you’ve got that far, there’s really only so much more you need to know between now and the eventual utter depletion of global anchovy stocks. Less fatuously, I hastily made some Pappardelle, and dressed it with some onions, peppers, and mushrooms, fried and let simmer for half an hour in a Tapenade-light tomato sauce. Actually, the sauce has the beginnings of a promising soup. It’s just a puree of tomatoes, salt, pepper, garlic, a tin of anchovies, and a few handfuls of black olives. Good stuff.

Soup, of course, brings us to the fate of the carrots. My father used, on tipsy occasion, to talk about one day making a chocolate pizza, and it is that simple fact that I turn to for security and perspective whenever I fear that I may have gone too far. Carrot and Pig soup seems fairly sensible when “Capers and Marshmallow! Together at last.” Looms on the horizon.

Oddly enough, do try this at home. It’s just the Mexican-ish stock thing taken to an extreme. Sauté the carrots in chunks with some onions, allowing to brown a little. Toast some dried chillies and garlic, rehydrating the blackened chillies in a little vegetable stock. Add cumin seeds, black pepper, and allspice to the mix, frying a little, then a load of water and plenty of salt. So far, so soupy. Throw in the chopped stalks of the handful of fresh coriander you’ll need later, a chopped potato or two, most of the garlic, the chilli broth and chopped chillies, and a few large bits of pork. After an hour or so of simmering, the pork comes out to cool and eventually shred. Crank up the heat and reduce a little if it’s still all watery, otherwise, blend until smooth, cram it full of coriander and some extra cumin, and serve scattered with shreds of pork. Actually, I’d be tempted to include crumbled feta, too.

It is, I freely own, a freak of prodigious mutancy, but the spicy-sweet kick worked quite well, and all that generic-Mex spice puts in the much-needed savoury that a lot of carrot soups lack. Plain old carrot and coriander has its charms, and all, but it doesn’t push those big, deep, earthy buttons. To do that, make sure the chillies are Chipotle, and really get some brown on the carrots.

Tomorrow, the queer film backlog, and possibly some real pizza to flush out the memory.