BBQ Days and BBQ Nights, with Helen Graves

Live fire expert and flavour fanatic Helen Graves sits down with Sous Chef to share which ingredients she always has at her side. And to explain how she came to be a recipe writer and food editor.

Plus read on to discover her essential gadget... it might surprise you!

BBQ Days, BBQ Nights out now, by Helen Graves (Hardie Grant, £22), Photography by Robert Billington

Try Helen's recipe for BBQ Banana Split with Miso-Sesame CrunchSmoky Pork Belly Tacos with Charred Pineapple and Drunken Salsa, & Spring Green Soba with Asparagus and Crispy Garlic Recipe here!

What’s the one dish to make anyone fall in love with your new book?

I’ve concentrated on giving people as many simple-to-make but boldly flavoured recipes as possible this time, as that’s what people loved most from my last book, and I do think there’s something for everyone!

However, if I had to pick one, it would be the Burnt Shallots, Butter Beans and Salsa Macha. It’s a crowd-pleasing side dish of creamy, slightly sweet beans, bitter charred shallots and then fire and crunch from the magic that is salsa macha. I cannot get enough of this condiment!

Made with fried nuts, smoky dried chillies and garlic, it’s so addictive - think ‘Mexican chilli crisp’ and you’ll get the idea! It’s also fantastic as a dip with tortilla chips, and a handy all-star condiment to have around generally.

TRY: Smoky Pork Belly Tacos with Charred Pineapple and Drunken Salsa Recipe

What ingredients are always stocked in your pantry?

First, it has to be good butter. I find it very hard to cook without it! I love it on my toast in the morning, obviously, but I also love it whipped with smoked aubergine or charred vegetables or confit garlic, sliced thickly and topped with anchovies or melted, spiced and poured over grilled lamb chops on garlicky yoghurt.

Lemons and limes are my second choice. Adding acidity to a recipe is always essential but of course, lemons and limes add their fragrance too, and I appreciate their oily zest as a garnish as much as I do their perfumed juice.

Pul biber. I find its sun-roasted earthiness irresistible, and I love that I can add so much of it without too much heat. The flavour of chillies fascinates me as much as their heat.

Which leads me onto my next choice: scotch bonnet chillies. A much hotter chilli, sure, but the flavour! It’s so fruity and perfumed and really special. I infuse it into syrups to make cocktails as I’ve done for the Burnt Bonnet Largeritas in BBQ DAYS BBQ NIGHTS, where it adds flavour and just a little tingling heat. I do this with jalapenos too, for example in the Lemon, Jalapeno and Lemongrass Granita.

Extra virgin olive oil. I mean, it’s hard to make a salad or dress a plate without it, and you cannot beat the new-season stuff. I keep several bottles to use for different purposes, although it’s hard to resist reaching for the special bottles.

Fresh herbs. I can barely cook a dish without some kind of fresh herb involved! It’s bizarre to think that fresh herbs weren’t really available when I was growing up, other than the odd sprig of parsley or mint from someone’s garden. People like Ottolenghi have done so much to boost the availability of fresh herbs - in decent quantities! - in the UK.

Were you always destined to cook? What has been your path into food?

No! And I find the ‘hanging off grannies apron-strings’ narrative quite tiring. Getting into food outside of working in restaurants was simply not on my radar as a possibility when I was younger.

All the training courses cost a lot of money, and that was not an idea I could even entertain. So, I went into a career in psychology. Eventually, I discovered food blogging - and this was the early days, nothing like it is now!

That enabled me to make my own path and get my recipes out there in an inexpensive way. There’s a reason a lot of people working in the food industry come from a certain background.

Was I destined to work in food one way or another though? Possibly. I have always been wowed by food in general - I wanted to eat everything when I was a kid, and that hasn’t changed!

Let me tell you though, it has not been easy. It’s been a whole lot of work, often for zero payment, to get to where I am today (I’m not saying people should work for free - they shouldn’t - but I had to find my own route into the food industry that involved me putting in years of unpaid work to get noticed).

Things are a little more democratic these days, but there’s a LONG way to go.

TRY: BBQ Banana Split with Miso-Sesame Crunch Recipe

What new tips, tricks or ideas have you learned while writing the book?

Something that I found really fun to work on with the latest book is the Burnt Meringue, which I serve with good extra virgin olive oil, ice cream and salt.

I wait for a piece of charcoal to get really, really hot, so it’s a glowing ember, then blow any ash off and use it to quickly sear the side of a piece of pillowy Swiss meringue. It’s super fun, super impressive and tastes amazing!

What are the components of a fantastic meal for you?

I’m a big fan of keeping things relaxed, as you might be able to tell by my preference for BBQ cooking! A group of good mates, plenty of cold drinks, the sun shining, the grill sizzling… is there anything better?!

What do you cook, when you’re cooking for yourself?

To be honest, I cook the same way for myself as I do for other people! I’ve got non problem roasting a whole chicken, but then of course I will be eating chicken for a week… not a hardship!

To be honest, in my line of work (I am also Head of Content for Great British Chefs and editor of Pit magazine), I am constantly on photoshoots and cooking anyway, so there’s always plenty of food around.

I’ll load up Tupperware for the team, but always make sure I keep a lovely little ready prepped meal for myself at the end of a long day. Although the elements can often be a little random!

TRY: Spring Green Soba with Asparagus and Crispy Garlic Recipe

Where do you find inspiration?

Oh, anywhere and everywhere. My ideas often come to me in the shower, or just as I’m falling asleep, which tells me that I am at my best creatively when I’m relaxed - no surprises there.

There’s a lot of pressure on me to have ideas day to day, and of course that means I do run out of juice! As soon as I relax, the ideas start flowing again. Down time is incredibly important for the creative brain.

I find inspiration from cookbooks, other cooks, social media, ingredients, shopping, travelling, memories. I think every cook does.

Can you tell me about a particularly memorable meal you have had and what made it so special?

I’ve been lucky enough to work on quite a few food and travel stories over the years, and some of the meals I’ve had have been spectacular. I don’t mean the fancy restaurant meals, but the meals like the asado goat up in the Andes, or the feast cooked in bamboo over fire in Indonesia.

One of my most memorable meals was a super simple breakfast eaten at an off-grid guesthouse in Belize. We ate the most perfect fresh fruit and drank fresh soursop juice, which was like drinking sherbet.

We sat on a balcony looking out into the jungle and listened to all the insects and life inside. I’d been woken at 4am by howler monkeys and it was one of the most intense but incredible experiences of my life.

What’s your favourite kitchen tool - do you go in for gadgetry?

Oh yeah of course. I have this mini blender from Cuisinart that I’m a bit obsessed with. I use it for making salsas, sauces and garnishes pretty much constantly, and I now can’t live without it.

I guess people would expect me to say something related to the BBQ, but actually, I keep it very simple. Long tongs and heatproof gloves would be my top tips.

Which cookbooks have shaped the way you cook yourself?

Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course was the first cookbook I ever picked up, and, as I’m self-taught, it was very useful to me in those early days. Nowadays, books that I tend to turn to are more of a technical nature.

I’ve just been sent Nicola Lamb’s SIFT, and as a fairly basic baker, I’m looking forward to upping my skillset. I also love anything with a very strong sense of the author, and I don’t mean lots of pics, but more personal touches, for example I love Jake Tilson’s books.

As an editor myself, I really appreciate concepts and timing of publications, so I enjoy cookbooks from that perspective too. One of my favourites is Ixta Belfrage’s Mezcla - we have very similar tastes in that we love chilli, lime, sour, salt… all the good stuff!!


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