The sun is shining and the heat’s subsiding, which means only one thing: it’s time to eat al-fresco, and what better way than by stoking up a barbecue? Yet there’s a lot more to creating a barbecue feast than flipping burgers and sipping drinks in the sun. Barbecuing is an art, which is why we thought we’d better consult an expert for some top barbecue tips.
There are few in the Gulf who are better qualified on the subject than Norberto Palacios of Asado at The Palace in Downtown Dubai. For the 36-year-old Argentinian chef, barbecues are a way of life; an occasion for friends and family to gather in the garden for a lazy weekend feast, drinking and eating until they can eat and drink no more. Norberto has brought this tradition to Asado, where we caught up with him to talk about the finer points of barbecuing in the region, the best cuts and how to prepare them and, even, what to do with fish.
The fuel ‘Use wood charcoal,’ advises Norberto. ‘You’ll get at least one hour of good temperature from good wood charcoal.’ Not sure when the lit charcoal is ready for cooking? Norberto says you should be able to hold your hand 30cm over the grill for no longer than five seconds. ‘[The coals] need to be hot enough to seal whatever you’re cooking on the grill, from meat and fish to vegetables – even the vegetables need that criss-cross mark from the grill.’
The dressing For Chef Norberto, there’s only one true condiment for a good barbecue: chimichurri (a traditional Argentinian sauce). ‘We just need parsley and oregano – it could be dry or fresh, but normally we use dry oregano because the flavour is a little stronger.’ When chopping the parsley, Norberto discards the stems – they’re a little bitter, he tells us – preferring instead to use the leaves. He also recommends adding clove of chopped garlic and a small sprinkling of chilli flakes.
‘We have beautiful beef in Argentina, so we don’t need to cover the flavour of the beef with too much chilli,’ he explains. After mixing the parsley, garlic, oregano and chilli flakes, you can either use white vinegar or lemon (Norberto favours lemon) and a dash of salt. ‘Finally, add some corn oil. We have huge corn production in Argentina, so the corn oil is very good. Of course you can do it with olive oil, but it is a little too strong for the chimichurri,’ advises Norberto.
The beauty of chimichurri, he says, is that it can be used as a dressing or to marinate the beef.
There are no exact proportions dictating the quantities of ingredients you use, so it’s worth experimenting. Also, bear in mind that chimichurri is never served fresh: it’s always kept in the fridge for a day to allow the flavours to combine.
Cheese ‘This could be a side dish or an appetiser. Put a little pot of provolone cheese on the grill and sprinkle with oregano and dried chilli flakes.’
Fish ‘Fish isn’t our strong point in Argentina – we focus on steak – but if you want to barbecue seafood, we recommend scallops and salmon. It’s difficult with fish because it tends to stick to the grill and dries out so easily. The solution is to use a brochette [skewer]: rest it over the charcoal and cook on one side, then the other until it browns a little.’
Vegetables Potatoes and bell peppers are best cooked directly in the charcoal for a smoky flavour. Norberto advises leaving them to cook until the skin is totally black (this usually takes around 15 minutes). ‘Of course, I then peel off the skin so you won’t see the blackness, but it still leaves that nice smoky flavour,’ he explains. Meanwhile, onions, baby corn, asparagus and tomatoes should be cooked on the grill.
Meat (the main event)
Tenderloin ‘A big fillet from Argentina will normally weigh about 2kg,’ says Norberto. ‘I love Australian beef too, but an Australian fillet will be bigger because they work with bigger cows. The flavour of Argentinian steaks is better, in my opinion, because the cows are grass-fed, so they have less fat and more flavour. We use a fillet cut that the French call the chateaubriand (about 200g).’
‘Tenderloin has very little fat, which makes it difficult to cook on the grill. Why? Because it dries out so easily.’
Rib-eye Rib-eye, according to Norberto, is the perfect cut for cooking on the barbecue. ‘You can see the fat on the outside of the meat. I don’t clean the steak on the outside, I just cut it. While rib-eye is not as tender as the fillet, it’s juicier – when you cut it you can see the [fat] marbling, and it’s this fat that makes the meat juicy. I always recommend a 350g cut because it gives the perfect cooking time to melt the fat and combine the flavour of the fat and the meat.’
‘The more you cut a steak, the more it loses flavour. Sealing steak on the barbecue helps to retain the flavour.’
Short ribs Norberto explains that short ribs are a must at an Argentinean barbecue. ‘Cuts that contain bone, fat and meat together are great for the grill. Why? Because the fat and bone will help cook the meat properly. You can dissolve the fat slowly on the grill, then you’re left with the meat with the flavour of the fat. The bone also gives extra flavour.’
‘When you’re barbecuing short ribs, always start by putting the cuts bone-side down on the grill.’
Sirloin ‘If you don’t like the fat, sirloin will be difficult for you to eat. But if you enjoy the fat, it will be perfect,’ says Norberto. He recommends cutting the steak from top to bottom, ensuring there’s a slither of fat on top of the meat.
‘Try not to use defrost sirloin. When you defrost beef, it loses water, which means it also loses flavour.’
Cooking your meat ‘When the fibre of the beef is opening and beads of water appear [as if the meat is sweating], it’s time to turn it,’ says Norberto as he leans over the grill, looking closely at the sirloin. ‘You can also swivel the beef around during cooking to create the criss-cross mark of the grill. Personally, I like just one grill mark – the less you move the beef, the less water you lose, and therefore the less flavour you lose. When you turn the meat to the other side and the meat begins to sweat again, you know it’s cooked medium. I prefer meat on the grill to be medium, because when the fat is crispy it gives a lot of flavour.’
Get your grill on!
Not sure where to set up your barbecue? There are barbecue spots in the regular desert camps and also on the beach at Amwaj. Lots of people also set up their grill in the public parks but be prepared for a telling-off if it’s not a designated area. Enjoy barbecues but are too lazy to make your own? See our Eating Out events from page 60 for a number of barbecue nights taking place at restaurants around town.