We love barbecue! But it’s only the last couple of years that we’ve been focused on upping our barbecue game, improving our skills and widening our repertoire of food cooked outside on a charcoal or wood-fired barbecue. We learned loads of BBQ skills attending Marcus Bawdon’s UK BBQ School a few months ago. The other half of that equation is making use of the best barbecue cookbooks.
I’ve known food writer, editor and blogger Helen Graves since I first started Kavey Eats – there weren’t that many of us back in 2009, and those of us in London all knew each other and met up often at blogger events. For many years Helen has been one of the UK’s Queens of BBQ – indeed she co-founded and is editor of Pit, an indie food magazine with its roots in ‘food and fire’.
I’ve long hoped she would write a barbecue cookbook, and thankfully, publishers Hardie Grant were in complete agreement, commissioning Live Fire: Seasonal Barbecue Recipes and Stories of Live Fire Traditions Old and New, which was published in May of this year.
I’ve found there’s a strong tendency for barbecue discourse in the UK to be male-dominated, competitive, and overly focused on professional equipment and complicated, time-consuming recipes. As those who follow Helen’s website and instagram will already know, Helen turns that on its head, sharing recipes and ideas that are the very opposite of daunting, boastful or energy-sapping. As she explains in the book, “not everyone needs (or indeed wants) to cook the perfect, competition-worthy brisket; most of us want to have fun and a nice dinner at the end of it“. Helen has always created recipes that are as straightforward in their execution as they are beautiful on the plate and delicious to eat. This is exactly what you’ll find in Live Fire.
As the book’s full title foretells, this is a barbecue book for all four seasons, with recipes presented in chapters for Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. You’ll also find plenty of dishes with methods and ingredients learned from other cuisines, focusing on those which have most influenced Helen’s cooking.
As you’d expect, there’s an introduction to types of barbecues, useful accessories and key techniques, which is helpful without being prescriptive. In place of the common reiteration of barbecue being intrinsically associated with expensive equipment and hard-won expertise, Helen adopts a more encouraging approach, firmly demolishing any economic or steep learning-curve barriers that some might fear. From equipment Helen turns to fuel, discussing charcoal (and its various types), wood, wood-smoking chips, firelighters and how best to light your barbecue. The rest of the introduction provides notes on cooking (which talks through timings, indoor cooking, recipe measurements, and key store cupboard basics), some words about meat, a description of some of Helen’s favourite ingredients, and a helpful list of recommended suppliers.
Like many of the cookbooks I’ve reviewed this year, one of the joys of Live Fire is in the story-filled essays scattered throughout the book. Each article is a mix of the food’s background and history, Helen’s personal story of discovery and learning, the professional chefs, home cooks and producers she interviews, and a recipe or two that ties in to the topic.
There are fifteen such passages in the book, easy to find by their pastel green, pink or orange pages, covering a wonderfully diverse array of topics including Smoked Salmon and Craster Kippers; Foraging, Pickling and Preserving (“we might think of pickles and ‘cue as an American thing and it is, but for me, any seasonal pickle is game for biting through the richness of a fatty piece of meat, and I love a quick pickled onion with oleaginous fish. I love the feral funk of kimchi with a beef taco, and the lighter sting of pickled fennel with a slow-grilled chicken“); Grilling Goat (in which Helen talks of her friendship with Cabrito Goat founder James Whetlor); Suya and the Power of Yaji (with a recommendation to try the Nigerian food of Aliyu Dantsoho in Peckham); Corn, Comal and Carne Asada (and stories from Helen’s visit to Belize); Beach Barbecue (which shares lots of practical advice for doing your own); Jamaican Jerk Chicken; Bún Chà: Fish Sauce and Street Fans; Thai Barbecue: Smoke, Umami, and the Long, Slow Sizzle; Mackerel; Tandoor: Mixed Grill, Lamb Chops (in which there is mention of Helens favourite stalwart, Tayyabs); Sheftalia and Psychotherapy (North Cypriot cuisine via food writer Andrea Oskis); Eritrean-London Barbecue: Smoking Shanks and Sweating Onions; Smoking Pigs: Burnt Bangers and Whole Hog Roasts; and The Ocakbasi and Me (in which we read about Helen’s love affair with the mangal, a specialist Turkish grill).
Recipes are very balanced, with plenty of vegetables alongside meat and fish – so it’s easy to cook a meal that caters to different diets and likes.
I’d describe the bulk of recipes in the book as simple and super quick, yet delivering bags of flavour: Monkfish Cheek Kebabs with Peas and Preserved Lemon; Langoustines wtih a Spicy, Sour and Herbal Dip; Xinjiang-style Cumin and Chilli Lamb Skewers; Onglet with Scotch Bonnet and Grapefruit; Spiced Goat Chops; Charred Spring Onion Salsa Verde; Spring Coleslaw with Sugar Snaps, Almonds and Miso; Jersey Royals with Rosemary; Charred Green Salad with Burrata; Grilled Peach and Tomato Fattoush; Grilled Corn with Whipped Beer Butter; Scallops with Sorrel and Chilli Butter; Jamaican Jerk Chicken; Green Beans with Anchovy Cream; Home-smoked Mackerel with a Salad Dressed with Pickling Spices; Prawns with Sweetcorn and Special Seafood Seasoning Dust; Squid with Chilli, Fennel, Garlic and Mint; Flank Steak with Seaweed Butter; Cider-brined Pork Chops; Quince and Scotch Bonnet Hot Sauce; Marinated Grilled Carrots with Yoghurt and Spiced Butter; Mussels with Nduja, Thyme and Cider; and that’s not even all of them!
Then there are those recipes that have a longer list of ingredients, have multiple steps to follow, take a little longer to prep or cook, or need extra time for pickling or to marinate before you cook: Herby Spatchcock Street Chicken with Chicken-fat New Potatoes; Leg of Lamb Stuffed with Nettles, Wild Garlic and Seaweed; Slow-smoked Shoulder of Goat with Bay and English Mustard Barbecue Sauce; Easy Barbecue Flatbreads; Sticky Pork Bánh Mi; Upside-down Nectarine Cake with Thyme Cream; Whole Barbecued Pumpkin Stuffed with beer and Sage Fondue; Chicken Wings with Miso Fish Sauce Caramel; Seekh Kebabs; Pickled Potato Salad; Smoked Duck with Pancakes and Blackberry Hoi Sin; Mushroom Shawarma; Blackened Leeks with Garlic Mayonnaise, Romesco and Charred Sourdough; English Mustard-rubbed Rib of Beef; Smoky Barbecued Cowboy Chilli; Smoky Celeriac Gratin with Beer and Taleggio; Smoked Coronation Turkey Sandwiches; Coal Baked Potatoes with Cacio e Pepe Butter; Jerk-spiced Pineapple Relish. Again, there are more but I’m trying not to list every recipe in the book!
And there are a handful of recipes that are perfect for when you have more time to play with (though much of it is not hands on): Pork Cheek Tacos with Wild Garlic Crema; Fermented Wild Garlic ‘Kraut’; Slow-cooked Shoulder of Pork with Peach Salsa, Peach Barbecue Sauce and Tortilla Chips; Zigni Lamb Shanks; Smoked and Braised Ox Cheek Tacos; and Brussel Sprouts Kimchi to give you a flavour.
Just reading the titles of the recipes, let alone Helen’s introductions to each, is a lesson in making yourself hungry, as is flicking through the bright, attractive and unpretentious food photography!
We started our Live Fire cooking with three recipes for a lunch time barbeque feast (all this between the two of us, but it did mean lots of leftovers to enjoy that evening). We made Piri Pri Chicken Thighs with Tomato and Onion Salad, Backyard-style Apricot-glazed Pork Ribs with Crushed Spices and Charred Tomatoes with Cool Yoghurt, Pomegranate Molasses and Herbs.
All three recipes proved to be very straightforward to make, and utterly delicious – we’ll happily make all of them again. Indeed I was so deeply enamoured with the charred tomatoes dish that I sent Pete out to the shops first thing the next morning just to buy more tomatoes so we could make it again that day; to put that into perspective, we’re a 15 minute drive from the nearest shops! And we’ve made it several more times since then!
That focus of Live Fire (on food that’s delicious but not remotely pretentious) absolutely encapsulates Helen’s own cooking style – it feels like the culmination of the last decade and more of her personal evolution as a cook, food writer and recipe developer (though I am positive there will be many more wonderful titles in the years to come).
It’s such a joy to cook from a barbecue cookbook that’s so chock-full of recipes that are both incredibly tempting and eminently achievable, regardless of your skill level.
Recipes from Live Fire
We have permission from Hardie Grant to share some recipes with you from the book:
- Charred Tomatoes with Cool Yoghurt, Pomegranate Molasses and Herbs
- Piri Pri Chicken Thighs with Tomato and Onion Salad
- Backyard-style Apricot-glazed Pork Ribs with Crushed Spices
Kavey Eats received a review copy of Live Fire: Seasonal Barbecue Recipes and Stories of Live Fire Traditions Old and New from publishers Hardie Grant. Book photography by Rob Billington.