Firing up interest in outdoor cooking

Chef and food writer Ross Dobson. Photo: supplied
Chef and food writer Ross Dobson. Photo: supplied
Like most things, outdoor cooking has come a long way, and is, like so many things, returning to the old ways - cooking over a wood fire.

While the gas barbecue still has its place, the firepit is the latest craze for those keen on cooking outdoors.

Chef and food writer Ross Dobson has dedicated a whole book to the art of cooking on a fire pit, Firepit Barbecue.

Fire pits can range from the basic metal drum - with holes punched in the side to supply air flow and a grill placed on top - to the Big Green Eggs and other top-of-line wood-fired barbecues.

What they all have in common is it is the heat emitted from the hot charcoal left after the flames and smoke have died down what cooks the food.


It takes time to achieve this and patience is required.

Dobson says it starts with choosing the right wood. Softwood such as pine burns too quickly, so the best wood to burn is hardwood that is grey, dry and dense. Avoid anything treated or painted that could emit toxic chemicals.

Set the fire, giving the wood air and space to burn, so it is not overcrowded.

"It is not wood per se that you need to cook with; it’s what the wood becomes."

It can take about two hours for the wood to turn into charcoal. What you want to cook with is coals about the size of a golf ball and no bigger than a tennis ball. Push the coals together to maintain optimum heat and place over the grill. Leave to heat up for about 10 minutes.

Almost everything cooked on a conventional barbecue can be cooked on a fire pit but an average fire pit does not have a lid to trap in the heat, so smaller cuts of meat cook best.

If you do want to cook larger pieces of meat, sear it, then wrap in foil and place to the side of the fire so it can cook through without burning.

For whole fish wrap in a parcel of baking paper and then foil.

Vegetables such as peppers or eggplant cook well, and root vegetables can be wrapped in foil and cooked.

The recipes in Dobson’s book range from simple chicken skewer or steak to fancy lobster tails but are elevated with marinades, sauces, butters and dips.

The book

Recipes extracted from Firepit Barbecue by Ross Dobson, published by Murdoch Books, RRP $39.99. Photography:  © Alan Benson 2021.

Chinatown pork

You see these unctuous and shiny glazed morsels hanging in Chinatown windows. It’s probably a toss-up between roast duck and barbecued pork (char siu) as to which is the most popular.

The roast duck is one of those things you would never want to try cooking at home. The pork, on the other hand, is dead easy.

All you need are a few Chinatown grocery staples (sauces that will keep for ages in the cupboard) and away you go.

Serves 4

2 pork fillets, about 400g each

Char siu glaze

1 tsp Chinese five-spice powder

2 Tbsp runny honey

2 Tbsp hoisin sauce

2 Tbsp light soy sauce

Method

Put all the glaze ingredients in a non-metallic dish and stir until combined. Add the pork fillets and rub the glaze all over the pork. Cover and refrigerate for 3 hours. Don’t marinate it for any longer - the salt content is quite high and, left too long, the meat will become tough and chewy.

Remove from the fridge 30 minutes before cooking.

Your firepit is ready to cook on after about 2 hours of burning, when the timber is charcoal black, has transformed into red-hot coals about the size of golf balls, and the smoke has all but subsided. To test for heat, you should not be able to hold the palm of your hand 5-10 cm above the grill for more than 2-3 seconds. Replace the grill over the firepit and give it around 10 minutes to heat up.

Lift the pork out of the marinade, keeping the marinade. Lay the pork on the firepit grill. Cook for 12 minutes, turning every 3 minutes, and brushing every few minutes with the reserved marinade.

Lay each fillet on a separate sheet of foil. Brush with any reserved marinade. Wrap the pork in the foil and return to the edge of the firepit grill, where the heat is less intense.

Leave for 15 minutes, until the pork is cooked through. Remove and allow to cool to room temperature before slicing on to a serving plate.

Saganaki prawns

In Greek cooking, saganaki refers to cheese cooked in individual dishes or pans and this dish is popular at tavernas, bistros and tapas joints, served with bread. The prawns here are an addition.

I cooked this in one large frying pan; but it is understandable if you don’t want to muck up one of your good frying pans from the kitchen on the firepit.

I use a couple of frying pans I picked up at my local second-hand charity store especially for cooking on the firepit.

Serves 4-6

4 Tbsp olive oil

1 red onion, thinly sliced

6 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tsp dried Greek oregano

4 Tbsp ouzo

2 x 400g tins crushed tomatoes

3 Tbsp tomato paste

24 large, raw prawns (shrimp), peeled and deveined

250g Greek feta, crumbled

1 handful chopped flatleaf (Italian) parsley, to serve

Lemon wedges, to serve

Method

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and oregano. Cook for 4-5 minutes, until the onion has softened. Increase the heat to high. Add the ouzo, allowing it to sizzle. When the ouzo has reduced by about half, stir in the tomatoes and tomato paste. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to the boil and cook for just 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat. (This can be made in advance and kept in the fridge for 2-3 days.)

Your firepit is ready to cook on after about 2 hours of burning, when the timber is charcoal black, has transformed into red hot coals about the size of golf balls, and the smoke has all but subsided. To test for heat, you should not be able to hold the palm of your hand 5-10 cm above the grill for more than 2-3 seconds. Replace the grill over the firepit and give it around 10 minutes to heat up.

Put a large cast-iron skillet or ovenproof frying pan on the firepit grill. Give it 10 minutes or so to heat up. Pour the sauce into the frying pan. You want it to be bubbling hot before adding the prawns. Arrange the prawns in the sauce, leaving a bit of space between them. Cook for 5-8 minutes, until pink and just cooked through.

Crumble the feta into the pan and cook for another minute. Scatter with parsley and serve with lemon wedges.

Piri piri spatchcock

We have seen many fast-food franchises claiming to provide authentic Portuguese-flavoured grilled chicken. Some of it is very good. My version of piri piri makes a similar claim by title, although it is by no means traditional.

Serves 6

4 spatchcock (small chickens), about 500 g each

Piri piri marinade

300g chopped shop-bought roasted red capsicum (pepper)

4 Tbsp Chinese chilli garlic sauce

1½ Tbsp olive oil

1½ tsp ground cumin

1½ tsp fresh marjoram, plus extra to serve

Method

To make the piri piri marinade, put all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth.

Sit each spatchcock, breast side up, on a chopping board. Lay the palm of your hand on the top to hold it stable. Insert a large knife into the cavity and cut down either side of the backbone. Remove and discard the backbone.

Flatten the spatchcock on the chopping board by firmly pressing down on the breastbone with the palm of your hand.

Put the spatchcock in a large dish and rub all over with two-thirds of the marinade. Refrigerate the remaining marinade until needed. Cover the spatchcock and refrigerate for 3-6 hours or overnight, turning often. Remove from the fridge 30 minutes before cooking and sprinkle with sea salt.

Your firepit is ready to cook on after about 2 hours of burning, when the timber is charcoal black, has transformed into red hot coals about the size of golf balls, and the smoke has all but subsided. To test for heat, you should not be able to hold the palm of your hand 5-10 cm above the grill for more than 2-3 seconds. Replace the grill over the firepit and give it around 10 minutes to heat up.

Lay the spatchcock, skin side down, on the firepit grill and cook for 10-15 minutes, until aromatic and the skin is dark golden. Turn over and cook for another 10 minutes. Move to the edge of the firepit, where the heat is less intense. Leave for 10-15 minutes, until cooked through. Insert a knife into the thickest part of the bird the juices should run clear.

Scatter with fresh marjoram leaves and serve with the reserved marinade as a sauce.

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