US food critic and author Katie Lee describes barbecue as “the defining scent of the summer.” But if you thought the barbecue was a purely American invention, think again. Italy has a long tradition of cooking delicious and nutritious food over an open fire – and it is a skill that is well worth learning. The Italian climate makes outdoor dining a delight in summer months, and the typical Italian barbecue recipes are lighter than the carbohydrate-rich meals you might ordinarily associate with traditional Italian cuisine.
Setting up an Italian barbecue
The one thing that Italian and American barbecues have in common is the basic set up. Food is laid out on a grill over hot coals, wood or charcoal. If you prefer the convenience of a pellet grill, that’s fine too – it is easier to control temperature and it’s also more convenient to clean. If you don’t already have some, the only extra piece of equipment worth investing in is a set of good quality skewers. This, however, is where the similarities between Italian and American barbecues end.
Keep it simple
If to you, barbecue means huge chunks of meat slathered in rich sauces, be prepared to challenge your preconceptions. An Italian barbecue uses the fire to enhance the flavour of the meat and vegetables, aided only by subtle blends of herbs, seasoning and perhaps an olive oil marinade.
Flavours of the Mediterranean
Seafood, preferably locally sourced and freshly caught, is a popular choice, in particular, salmon and swordfish. As well as being delicious cooked in fillets with a squeeze of lemon, salmon can also be formed into patties for a uniquely Italian burger that is far lighter for a summer’s evening than prime beef.
That’s not to say you won’t find meat on an Italian barbecue. Remember those skewers we mentioned? They are known as spiedini in Italy. Cut your meat, fish and vegetables of choice into bite size chunks, baste them in your marinade and they will cook over the flame in a matter of minutes. The great thing is you can prepare them in advance and leave them in the marinade till you’re ready to cook them. It’s all about speed and simplicity, while still giving you a chance to let your culinary imagination run wild.
Take it slowly
Quick and easy cooking on the day is great, as it frees up time for you to spend with your guests. But there’s no need to hurry over the meal itself. An Italian barbecue should be a leisurely experience. Start with a light starter such as bruschetta and perhaps some grilled salad and stuffed mushrooms before you move on to the meat, fish and skewers.
As a grand finale, grilled fruit makes the perfect summer dessert. Try stoning some peaches and placing a scoop of mascarpone cheese in the empty pit. Add a drizzle of balsamic syrup before placing on the grill for a dessert your guests will be talking about till Christmas!