Spanish barbecue cooking is enjoyed almost all year round in Spain due to the long summers and dry winters. In fact, cooking on the barbecue is preferred even during the cooler months, in the summer you will see the locals taking cover under the shade while various members of the family bustle around the outdoor barbecue usually with the head of house taking control over the entire proceedings! The Spanish barbecue is a joy to behold and a world away from undercooked sausages and drizzly weather. It is fair to say that the Spanish, like most Mediterraneans are experts at cooking outdoors.
Cooking Over Flame
One of the more common Spanish meals cooked over the barbecue is the paella or dishes such as sam feina, a vegetable based dish also requiring a flat based pan like the paellera or paella pan. These typically Spanish dishes can be cooked over a barbecue grill but by far the best way is to use a metal tripod which the pan sits on. The most important factor in cooking dishes such as paella outdoors over naked flame is the flame itself. This is in fact when the barbecue never actually becomes a barbecue at all more of a fire. The reason is that unlike a typical barbecue bed of hot coals, flame can be controlled which is ideal for rice based dishes, considering the paella (no matter which version you choose) is a fairly simple dish to make it allows the chef more time to regulate the flames. Remembering that nothing in Spain requires any immediate rush the paella can be cooked normally or slower depending on the cooks preference to the meat they are using in the dish.
The best way to prepare for your outdoor paella is establish how much wood you will need for the fire, a good bucket full of sticks will certainly do, it is surprising how little wood is required to cook such a dish but small thin sticks produce big fat flames... Retain a couple of thicker pieces to place around the edge of the fire as these will smoulder helping to give the dish that lovely outdoor smoky flavour. Light your fire in the normal way with either fire lighters, newspaper and kindling, from this point on carefully manoeuvre the sticks under the pan so that the flames gently lick around the edges. Twenty-five minutes later . . . Paella done.
Cooking Over Coals (Brasa)
Cooking over brasa is very different and takes more time, many Spanish dishes are named a la brasa which means cooked over hot coals. It is worth mentioning at this point that the majority of Spanish barbecues are fired with wood, charcoal is available but the preferred method is wood such as pine which is collected from nearby woodland or even harder wood such as almond, olive or dried oak all of which create a lengthy and intense heat.
There are various dishes that can be cooked over brasa and the main one is meat, whether it be pork, beef, chicken or lamb. Fish are also welcome on the Spanish barbecue, sardines and gilthead bream being a favourite and not forgetting gambas or prawns which are usually cooked in a clay cazuela with garlic and chilli. Preparing for brasa may take a while but is certainly worth it, the process from lighting to cooking can take as long as three hours but considering the nature of the event itself, food being the focal point of friends and family get togethers a mere three hours is just enough time to enjoy a few tapas, aperitivos and some conversation.
Brasa needs to begin as a normal fire, gently adding larger and thicker pieces of hard wood as and when required. The main trick with brasa is to pile up the wood once the fire is fully established and leave it - do not stoke the fire until you are ready to cook, what you will have will resemble white, charred, broken logs on the fire which when stoked will disintegrate into burning hot coals - this is perfect brasa. Leave the coals for a good ten minutes before cooking as they will in fact be too hot. Barbecue your chosen meats and enjoy some real Mediterranean flavour and al fresco dining.