Catherine Devaney brings us a recipe for some top spring barbecuing, which makes the most of this season’s produce.
Yes, we’ve been here before. You’d be forgiven for a sense of déjà vu, laced with a mild ennui, at the thought of bringing the barbecue out of hibernation when it’s still cold enough for a winter coat.
The Scottish spring is fickle at the best of times and we’re all holding our breath waiting to see whether the glorious spring days of the first lockdown will return, or whether our government sanctioned garden gatherings of four will leave us shivering (still unable to huddle remember), nursing a cup of tea and a faint sense of disappointment aimed at no one in particular.
There’s a lot of talk of “emergence” at the moment and it seems we’re largely divided into two camps.
There are those desperate to loosen the shackles, busily planning lunches, weekends away or, apparently, walking holidays (of all things, I find this perhaps the hardest to understand, but each to their own); they are poised to leap into a frenzy of post-lockdown reunions.
Meanwhile, in the other camp, there are those who have made peace with solitude and feel a certain relief that the expectation of sociability has been in suspended animation. I guess I fall somewhere in between the two, with a foot in both camps. The idea of reuniting I like, on a conceptual basis, and even admit to initiating plans for a time when all things are possible.
Elusive restaurant tables
The reality, I suspect, I will find myself shrinking back from. When it becomes possible to book that elusive restaurant table again, to meet people from more households than I can count on the fingers of one hand, to sit opposite someone without mentally calculating metric distances… will I actually be able to do it?
There are days I suspect my ability to make conversation with more than one person over the age of seven is well and truly extinct.
For once we’ve talked about the lockdown and the vaccine and the fact it’s gone on for such a terribly long time and gosh, aren’t we glad it’s over with… what on earth are we going to talk about? Holidays? Possibly still a thorny issue. UK-China relations? No, I don’t think anyone really wants to hear about my Radio 4 listening obsession somehow.
But then I remind myself that coming out of lockdown is strangely like going back to work after maternity leave, and that worked out alright in the end, eventually. Both involve learning how to go out for lunch again, getting properly dressed, remembering a handbag, making adult conversation and basically reprogramming self into something resembling a normal human.
When you’re in it you feel like you’ll never get out of it; and once you’re out of it you can’t remember what it’s like to be in it.
As for entertaining though – as in, actually inviting people inside the house, serving them drinks and sitting around a table together – that seems to recall skills so rusty I’m not even sure where to begin.
Think of all that multi-tasking involved in pouring drinks and talking to people at the same time, not to mention all the work required to bring the domestic surrounds back from the brink of slattern (just about acceptable for a quick dash to the loo and back but absolutely wouldn’t bear closer inspection). So perhaps easing our way back in with a spot of garden reuniting is the place to start.
Lunch in the garden with friends seems a simple idea, but think through the logistics a little. Sharing dishes are still to be avoided (sigh), so a spread of salads or sides isn’t really an option yet (unless you want to fall down the rabbit-hole of multiple bowls, side tables and serving spoons, which could sap your will to live before the guests – all two of them – have even arrived).
There’s also the inside/outside logistics to think about. You don’t really want to find yourself inside, slaving away over a risotto, while your guests shiver alone in the garden. Something hot is probably also preferable.
As I write this it’s currently still cold enough for the heating to be on during the day, but whatever you serve needs to have a freshness fit for spring. The soups and one-pot dishes that saw us through the wintery days don’t quite hit the mark anymore.
Fish en papillote
Fish en papillote has a tinge of excitement about it and also fits the bill as the ideal way to serve individual portions that can be prepared completely in advance and simply popped in the oven, or on the barbecue.
Packed with spring vegetables, zesty citrus and butter, they’re the loveliest packets of flavor, encasing the fish in paper so that it cooks in it’s own juices and steam. Let each diner tear open their own individual parcel and experience that moment when the rush of aroma and heat escapes from the puffed up packet.
Any white fish will do. Cod, halibut and hake all respond beautifully to this simple method of cooking. Lay out four large pieces of baking parchment, each big enough to be doubled over and generously encase each piece of fish.
Next, place some purple sprouting broccoli and a few halved cherry tomatoes in the middle (you can creatively add any vegetable and herb combinations you like, tarragon and dill would both work well).
Place a fillet of cod (or your fish of choice) on top. Lay a knob of butter (wild garlic butter if you have some in the freezer) on top. Then drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and squeeze over the juice of half a lemon and/or a dash of white wine.
Now for the fun part… making the parcels… and remember that this can be done in advance so all you have to do when your guests arrive is pop them on the barbecue or in the oven.
Fold over the piece of baking parchment, then pinch together at one side of the fold. Begin folding and pinching along the edge in a series of folds. You should end up with a folded semi circle, the same shape as a Cornish pasty, with lots of little folds along the circular side.
If you want to put them on the barbecue, prepare the packets in the same way but lay the baking parchment on a piece of tin foil first, so that the packet has a foil exterior and a paper interior.
When you’re ready to eat, place the packets on a baking tray in an oven pre-heated to 180C (fan), for 15 minutes, or on a heated barbecue with the lid down (adjust the cooking time depending on the thickness of the fish and also the heat of the barbecue, a thinner fillet will not take as long to cook and on a hot barbecue they will cook quickly). When they are ready the packets will have puffed up, full of aromatic steam.
Serve with some new potatoes roasted on the barbecue with chorizo (these can be roasted before the fish and kept warm). Boil the potatoes until tender, then drain and steam, then wrap them in a parcel of tin foil with some olive oil, chopped chorizo, fresh rosemary and sea salt.
Place the packet on the barbecue to roast for twenty minutes. Lastly, you can entertain your guests with some low-stress asparagus charring on the barbecue. Toss the raw asparagus spears in olive oil, add some lemon zest and salt and tip onto a hot grill to lightly char the spears.
By this point you might be ready to retreat back to solitude, but if you’re of another ilk and are feeling adventurous, a rhubarb crumble makes for a teasingly tart springtime end to this meal.
Slice 600g rhubarb stems (washed and trimmed) into 3cm lengths, then place in a crumble dish, sprinkle over 90g caster sugar, the zest of an orange and stir to gently coat the rhubarb.
To make the crumble topping rub 60g cold diced butter into 120g plain flour and half a teaspoon of baking powder, to a sandy consistency. Then rub in 60g ground almonds and 75g caster sugar. Scatter the crumble over the rhubarb and bake for 40 minutes at 190C/170C Fan/375F/Gas Mark 5.
Alternatively you could just give everyone a cup of a tea and biscuit, but that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun now, would it?