You don’t have to be a great cook to pull off a fabulous barbecue. The secret is, quite simply, a good marinade.
It’s astonishingly easy if you follow some basic rules, which consist of chopping your meat (or prawns or halloumi or fish) into appropriately sized chunks and then slathering the lumps in delicious liquid and letting them soak before cooking.
Olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper will form the base of just about any marinade, and so as long as you’ve got those ingredients, you’ll be fine.
Don’t get hung up on quantities and measurements – this should be a pleasurable and relaxed experience.
Make space in your fridge, mix the basic ingredients, add whatever herbs and spices are appropriate, and then use your hands to mix it all up. Then leave it in the fridge to absorb all the lovely flavours, the longer the better: overnight is ideal but at least an hour will do for souvlaki-sized chunks of meat.
Once the chunks are marinaded, you just need to put them on sticks, wood or metal. Cook and voilà – you have shish kebabs, or souvlaki, or whatever you choose to call them.
Here are five marinades to get you started:
1. Secret C marinade for chicken
The best thing you can do to chicken is to smother chunks of it in olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, but also add a sprinkle of cardamom and cinnamon. This will give your chicken a warmth reminiscent of the best Middle Eastern shawarma. Don’t forget to season it well.
Be sure to use thighs to ensure the kebabs don’t dry out on the barbecue. If you must use breasts, the longer you can leave them in the marinade the better – overnight is good. It might help if you cook the chunks in a moderate oven for 20 minutes and finish them off on the barbecue – that way you’ll get a crisp outer layer while retaining moisture in the middle.
2. Oregano marinade for lamb
Lamb loves oregano. Again, the base of the marinade is olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. But a splash of red wine vinegar (if you have it) and fresh oregano will bring lamb to life. Thyme and rosemary also go well with lamb. These flavours will take you to the Greek taverna, especially if you cut the meat from a leg or shoulder.
If you can’t be bothered to do this, cook a whole leg or shoulder on the barbie, but be prepared for it to take time. At least three hours on a low-to-moderate heat is probably about right and soaking the meat in the marinade overnight is essential.
Whether you make souvlaki or cook the joint whole, serving your lamb with tzatziki is a very good idea. You can buy good quality tzatziki in most supermarkets but it always tastes better if you make it at home with authentic (unsweetened) Greek yoghurt, lemon juice, chopped cucumber (with the seeds scooped out) and a generous portion of garlic and salt. A little bit of fresh chopped mint can be a lovely addition.
3. Everything goes marinade for pork
Pork is an alternative to lamb if you want to make souvlaki. In his book, The Real Greek at Home: Dishes from the heart of the Greek Kitchen, Theodore Kyriakou recalls how souvlaki was a seasonal dish – made with pork between late autumn and early spring, then made with lamb the rest of the year.
The meat around the shoulder blade is ideal for pork souvlaki and the addition of herbs and spices such as cumin, oregano, thyme or rosemary to olive oil, lemon juice and garlic will make the marinade magic.
If you’d prefer to char some chops, a great marinade is equal parts mustard and honey and whatever bourbon you’re not drinking. Add olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Rachel Ray has a great recipe for this.
4. Chilli marinade for prawns
We’ll resist the temptation for a shrimp on the barbie joke but there’s little doubt that you can turn any barbecue from bland to beautiful with the addition of prawns. If you’ve got access to a good fishmonger, then cooked prawns served cold with some lemon wedges or seafood sauce is an easy but delicious starter.
But if you’ve bought raw prawns, a marinade of finely chopped garlic, small red chillies and parsley with a drizzle of olive oil will make your barbecued prawns a hit. But don’t overcook them – they only need a minute or two on the hot plate.
5. Sweet halloumi marinade
Halloumi is a barbecue beauty and doesn’t need much help to taste delicious, other than a squeeze of lemon juice straight off the barbie.
But if you really want to impress, drizzle the hot halloumi with honey and sprinkle with za’atar before serving.