The first barbecue of the summer (+ recipes)
I've been reading Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, by Richard Wrangham, a book that hypothesises (very eloquently) that the single thing that made us human stemmed from the control of fire and the advent of cooked meals.
Wrangham talks about cooking being responsible for changing the shape of our bodies and our brains, our use of time, our social habits and, perhaps most importantly, the nutritional value of our food. He argues that the extra energy from cooked food gave the first cooks a biological advantage that made them stronger and able to reproduce better.
Popular thinking has the start point of humans' relationship with food and fire as a relatively new activity on the evolutionary scale - some time in the past 100,000 years - and thus not that relevant to our evolution. Homo sapiens stepped on the scene some 200,000 years ago but new evidence shows that our early predecessors, the prehistoric hominins, were using controlled fire much, much earlier.
In an ancient cave in Israel that was home to several lineages of prehistoric hominins, artefacts have recently been found that suggest that the controlled use of fire became routine about 350,000 years ago.
It's little surprise that we are so enamoured with barbecueing - it's almost programmed into our DNA in that ancient brain we still carry around. Add in the wonderful sociability of standing around a barbecue as the food pretty much cooks itself, and, of course, the aromas - we sniff the air, our saliva glands kick in, our stomachs rumble, we just want to get in there and start gnawing on bones and licking our fingers. It must always have been this way, the appetising aromas of food cooking over the fire bringing people together - and then the conversation, the ideas, the camaraderie, the shared pleasure of eating together.
As a cook, there's something inherently feel-good about the idea that our humanity could be pinned through time on the cooks of the world. We are the only species on earth that cooks - and barbecue is the world's oldest cooking method.
Annabel's top tips for grilling
The fire. Start a charcoal fire a good hour before you plan to be cooking and don't use lighter fluid or treated wood. Coconut fire starters are great and fruit woods, including grape prunings, make the best barbecues. Once you've lit the fire and got it stoked don't disturb it until you have a good bed of glowing red embers. If flare-ups occur, douse them with a little water spray. On a gas barbecue, use a bed of rosemary or thyme branches between the grill and your food to infuse herby, smoky flavours.
The salt. Brining keeps the moisture in and works well for pork and chicken. Be generous when salting meat and vegetables.
The vegetables. It's not just about the meat. Broccoli and cauliflower caramelise fabulously on the grill, as do zucchini, corn, peppers, eggplant, fennel and thin slices of pumpkin, kumara and potatoes. If you want to speed things up, blanch vegetables, dry, lightly oil and season before grilling.
The marinades. Marinades are the key to making barbecues interesting and there are a world of flavours to choose from. Go easy on the sugar though - whether you're using it in the form of sugar, honey or syrup - too much will make your food burn.
This salad brings together my favourite high-summer flavours. Tuna steaks are a delicious alternative to lamb, or use extra eggplant for a vegetarian version. Get the recipe
Yoghurt is such a great marinade ingredient - as well as taking up different flavour profiles, it delivers tenderness and juiciness to any kind of protein. Get the recipe
Flank steak isn't the tenderest of beef cuts, but it has great flavour so it's perfect for cooking on the barbecue and serving with a gutsy sauce and a selection of salads. Get the recipe
For more great Annabel Langbein recipes see her new winter annual Annabel Langbein A Free Range Life: Share the Love (Annabel Langbein Media, $24.95) or visit annabel-langbein.com.