The problem with barbecuing – other than intemperate weather – is often scope. Do you stick with the tried, tested and beloved sausages and burgers, or start treating your grill like you would your oven, with panache, bravery and all manner of ingredients? And do you really have the fire skills to do the latter?
It’s a conundrum, one that husband and wife restaurateur duo Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich – best known for their series of Honey & Co. restaurants – may just help you resolve with their new cookbook….
Chasing Smoke: Cooking Over Fire Around The Levant
Who will love it? Amateur and more experienced pyromaniacs, ahem, grill fiends. Also, those who find barbecue season a repetitive bore and chore – which by mid-June, it often becomes.
Chasing Smoke offers major escape from the usual parade of burgers, sausages and grilled halloumi, but crucially retains the best of all BBQ sides: corn on the cob (the Honeys’ versions involve an array of chilli butter, chive dressings and avocado accompaniments).
What is it trying to get us cooking?
Food from the Levant, and the kinds of grilled dishes Packer and Srulovich encountered during their pre-pandemic travels in the Middle East, through Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Israel. There is, of course, a lot of griddled meat: lamb chops with plums, smoked beef short ribs with black pepper and orange, chicken kofta with tzatziki. But the vegetable sides are arguably even more enticing: baked potatoes with charred spring onion sour cream, grilled artichokes, ash-baked beetroot, lentil and feta salad, and grilled cabbage with chilli garlic butter. And while there aren’t tons of desserts, the Honeys know how to extract all the sweetness from barbecued stone fruits.
How easy is it to use?
Very. They explain the kit and know-how you need to get started, including the basics of sparking a fire, and if you don’t have a barbecue to hand, they help you be just as au fait with a griddle pan indoors. Sure, some of the methods on some dishes are more complicated, or require more time, energy and attention (like the lamb shoulder, or the whole chicken) but one of the strongest aspects of the book is that they’ll cook or serve one ingredient three-ways – like dips and corn, artichokes and lamb kebabs. There’s variety, all succinctly explained.
The best recipe is… it’s a tough call between the grilled peaches with almond tahini and charred endive, and the kebabs. ALL the kebabs (especially the chicken in yoghurt and saffron).
The recipe we’re most likely to post on Instagram is… the whole baked red onions with sage, honey and walnut dressing – it’s served so beautifully in onion petals. That, or the grilled watermelon and prawns with feta and chilli, below.
The dish we’re least likely to try is… the pigeon with onion and pine nut jam – not because it doesn’t sound intriguing, but mainly because pigeon can be tricky to come by.
Overall rating: 9/10 – it’ll make you think about barbecued food differently, encourage you to try different ingredient pairings, and see cooking over flames as something you needn’t reserve for the summer months.
How to make grilled watermelon and prawns with feta and chilli
“Cooking the prawns with the shell on allows them to stay juicy and moist, while taking on the great smoky flavour from the BBQ. If you use pre-peeled prawns, they will only need a really fast flash on the grill, to avoid overcooking.”
(To serve 4 as a light lunch)
12 large prawns or 16 smaller ones, whole and with shell on
Half a small watermelon (or 2 thick slices of a large watermelon)
1 red chilli, sliced into rings
2tbsp red wine vinegar
250g sheeps’ feta
1 small bunch of mint, leaves picked, half of them chopped, the rest left whole
3tbsp olive oil, plus a little more for brushing on the watermelon
1tsp roughly crushed black pepper
1. To prepare the prawns, use a sharp serrated knife to score a slit down the back shell of each one, cutting through the flesh to reveal the digestive string. Remove it with the tip of the knife. Put the cleaned prawns in a bowl in the fridge until you are ready to cook (once you start, you will only need 15 minutes to get this dish to the table). Cut the watermelon into eight large wedges, keeping the skin on. Mix the chilli slices with the vinegar and salt, and set aside while you build your BBQ to a high heat with lovely glowing embers.
2. Start by grilling the watermelon – simply brush the pieces with some olive oil and lay them flat on the hottest part of the grill for one to two minutes each side. You want to form black grid marks on the flesh, as this will intensify the flavour and sweeten the fruit. Remove the melon to a side platter, then grill the prawns for three minutes on each side (two minutes for smaller ones) or until they turn bright pink.
3. Add the prawns to the watermelon, crumble the feta over them, and scatter with the whole picked mint leaves. Just before serving, stir the olive oil, black pepper and chopped mint into the marinating chilli and drizzle all over the platter. Serve immediately with a finger bowl and another bowl for shells.
4. To cook without a BBQ: Use a lightly oiled, preheated griddle pan on your stove and cook just as you would on the fire.
Chasing Smoke: Cooking over fire around the Levant by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, is published by Pavilion Books, priced £26.