From Lebanese food to Turkish cuisine, TV chef and author John Gregory-Smith knows his Middle Eastern cooking. And with barbecue season in full swing, we thought we’d ask him for his best simple BBQ ideas if you want to give your grill a Middle Eastern twist. Read on for all his outdoor dining ideas and get ready to drool…
What are some of the most popular Middle Eastern dishes right now?
Hummus, fattoush, tabbouleh and shawarma – they’re all lovely big Middle Eastern dishes.
Lebanese food is pretty hot at the moment and Palestinian food is quite niche, but it’s definitely having a bit of an emergence. They’ve got wonderful dishes like giant couscous served with chicken or musakhan, which is like bread with sumac and roast chicken. It’s an amazing sharing dish.
Do you have a particular favourite?
I love Lebanese food and Turkish food as well. I think Turkish food is so delicious. All the kebabs are amazing and the pastries like the gozleme, which are savoury Turkish flatbreads; the pide, which are boat-shaped pizzas; and the lahmacun, which is a round flatbread topped with meat and squeeze of lemon.
What ingredients are often used in Middle Eastern cuisines?
Sumac is a red berry, which has got a lovely tartness and it’s bashed up into a vibrant powder. You can add it to salad dressings like a vinaigrette or sprinkle it onto a roast chicken and you’ll get this lovely extra layer of flavour.
Saffron is huge in places like Iran and further south in the Middle East. Za’atar is so good! In Lebanon, they’ll mix the herb with sesame seeds and serve with bread and olive oil, or they’ll put it into flatbread. Over here, we don’t really get that herb so substitute it for oregano, thyme and sumac. It’s great on any sort of grilled meat, fish or salad.
Middle Eastern food is all about the sour tang of pomegranate. Pomegranate molasses, which is the juice cooked down to a sticky hot mess, adds this perfumed flavour. Use it as a salad dressing – instead of lemon juice and olive oil, use olive oil and pomegranate molasses to give things a twist. Then there’s pomegranate seeds, which make everything pop and look gorgeous.
Tahini is the key ingredient in hummus and is made with sesame seeds. You get this creamy, rich paste – throw that on everything, from toast to salad and cooked meat. It’s really good with grilled halloumi, too. In Lebanon, they’ll fry bread and butter in a pan and drizzle tahini over it with a squeeze of honey.
How can you give your BBQ a Middle Eastern twist?
You can use harissa, which is a North African chilli paste, to make a marinade by mixing it with orange or lemon and some olive oil. You can put that on meat, fish or chicken. Or use the seasonings: baharat, which is a woody Middle Eastern spice mix made with things like cinnamon and cloves, and it just gives this incredible background flavour, or Moroccan ras el hanout. Mix them with olive oil, rub them over everything and shove it on the barbecue for next-level flavour.
Or cook what you would normally, like grilled chicken pieces or fish, and then mix harissa with some yoghurt for a dip – so very simple.
I love meat with hummus. Cook up some chicken, steak or lamb and serve it alfresco style with flatbread, hummus and salad so you can make a kebab yourself – that’s just delicious. Put everything on the table and let everyone tuck in!
Want some more foodie inspiration? Watch our video to see John’s BBQ marinade recipe…
What are your all-time favourite summer dishes?
Kebabs! I love monkfish kebabs. There’s this Jamie Oliver dish which he did years ago where he threads monkfish onto rosemary stalks. I like that a lot. As fish is delicate, it cooks super-quick on a barbecue and can stick. If you put tin foil down and add a bit of olive oil, you can cook fish kebabs quite easily without it breaking up. Or just do a whole fish like sea bass or trout, or even sardines – oily fish is really good because it can take the heat.
Can you give us a really simple but delicious spice mix that’s perfect for serving with grilled meat?
I love a Yemenite mix called zhoug, which is a vibrant green chilli paste. It’s very similar to the Indian chilli chutney or a chimichurri. It’s made with green chillies (seeded or whole), garlic, cumin and then lots of parsley and mint leaves. Pop them all in the blender with a squeeze of lemon, lots of olive oil and whizz it up with some seasoning. You want a pesto consistency. It goes with meat and fish, and it’s also really good with cauliflower.
What are the best in-season vegetables to grill on a BBQ?
Asparagus is brilliant on a barbecue. Trim them by snapping towards the woody end – they’ll naturally break when they’re ready – toss them in olive oil and salt and slap straight onto a hot grill. They’ll go soft and charred and are great for dunking.
Aubergine is brilliant, because you can slice it up and griddle it, and courgettes are also good. Most British summer veg are great on a barbecue. If you’re organised, get a large dish, squeeze in some lemon and salt, add the veg when it’s cooked and it will suck up all the flavour when it’s hot.
What’s the secret to juicy and perfectly cooked, grilled meat?
You need to have a very hot barbecue. Put your coals on and get them white hot for an intense heat. You need to oil the meat, season it and then when you put it on the best thing to do is to not touch it. Just close the lid and it will cook nicely.
When it’s ready to be turned, it should peel off quite easily but if it’s sticking it means that your grill is not hot enough and it hasn’t cooked enough. It’s all about keeping the heat – the more you open and close the barbecue, the more heat it will lose.
Any handy presentation pointers on how to serve your BBQ dishes?
I love shared plates. I like having nice big salads with pomegranate seeds on top, bowls of dips like yoghurt, tzatziki and hummus, along with some breads. With lamb and steak, it’s really nice once it’s rested to slice it up on a plate. Serve on some yoghurt, chimichurri or zhoug – it will soak it all up and look beautiful.
What makes the perfect summer barbecue?
Lots of good mates and family, good food and good music! Get everything done beforehand so, if you’re hosting, you’re not in the kitchen and you can enjoy yourself. Get everyone to help you put things on the table. It’s about not doing too much when people are there.
OUR ALFRESCO PRODUCT PICKS AT WESTQUAY
Now you’re buzzing with BBQ ideas, let’s get your alfresco entertaining essentials sorted! If you’re feeding a crowd, look for tableware that’s great for sharing. We’ve picked out the brightest and best from Westquay: think serving bowls for delicious salads, large platters for piling on the kebabs and large jugs to keep everyone topped up and refreshed!
Our picks: Mango wood salad bowl, £10, John Lewis & Partners; Eddingtons leaf melamine salad servers, £9, John Lewis & Partners
Our picks: Bright stripe placemats, £10 for two, Next; XL reactive jug, £55, Next
Our picks: Hand painted abstract rectangular platter, £17.50, M&S; Saffron in the Souks by John Gregory-Smith, £25, Waterstones
Our pick: Everdure by Heston Blumenthal furnace 3 burner gas BBQ, £699, John Lewis & Partners