FOOD & DRINK / Marinade for a summer's day: A soak in spiced lemon juice, wine, or yoghurt adds zest to barbecued meat. Geraldene Holt on a classic technique

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE forecasts of TV weathermen are required viewing for a team of enthusiastic young butchers in Bristol. At the first hint of fine weather, everyone at Gerald Millhouse, the butcher and delicatessen in Clifton's Mall, swings into barbecue mode: herbs are chopped, spices are ground and hundreds of wooden kebab skewers are readied. Here they understand that meat which is to be cooked fast over high heat is best prepared a day ahead.

The marinated meat on display at Millhouse is a medley of colour: kebabs of turmeric-yellow Moroccan chicken seasoned with cumin and cardamom, and cubes of Thai-flavoured pork flecked with lemon zest and chopped coriander jostle with Turkish kebabs of lamb marinated with mint and thyme, Tandoori-pink chicken tikka and chilli-hot lamb chops. The manager of the butchery department, Kevin Ashcroft, says demand for the 13 different kinds of kebabs has so increased during the last couple of years that some are now prepared all year round.

Our native tradition of spicing and marinating meat has been largely lost - a rib of beef spiced and marinated in medieval style for almost a week is something few people have time for today. Yet our appetite for these more pronounced flavours has been reawakened by our increasing awareness of foreign cuisines.

The primary purpose of marinating protein-rich raw food such as close-textured meat is to tenderise it. The practice is not new - pre-Columbian Mexicans used to wrap meat in papaya leaves before cooking. But food chemists have only recently examined the physical process involved. Nicholas Light, author of Longman's Handbook of Food Science, explains that it utilises the enzyme system of tenderising lysosomes already present in meat. When meat is placed in an acid environment such as lemon juice, vinegar or wine, its proteins swell and absorb liquid. This in turn helps to make meat more succulent and to remain moist during cooking. As the acid marinade penetrates the protein structure of the meat, it ruptures the cells and releases the naturally occurring enzyme lysosome.

In hot regions of the world, a marinade is also employed for short-term food preservation. Hence the South American and Indonesian dishes of marinated fish such as ceviche. This is eaten raw, but only after the chemical action of the fruit-juice marinade has coagulated the protein, making it opaque so that the fish appears to be cooked. Of course, marinated fish can also be cooked. Because I live seven miles from my fishmonger, I often buy enough fish for two meals and marinate half of it in white wine and herbs to keep it fresh for cooking the next day.

Since Roman times cooks have appreciated that a marinade intended to make meat more succulent could also contribute flavour. The first-century recipe book of Apicius gives instructions for a ragout of meat marinaded for two to three days in a mixture of pepper, lovage, dill, cumin and asafoetida moistened with liquamen, a salty flavouring made of pounded fish. Moroccan cooking makes much use of spices rubbed into the meat, especially chicken, while it marinates in lemon juice or vinegar. In French cooking, wine is the preferred liquid in a marinade, and the mixture is usually enriched with herbs and sliced vegetables. Indian cooking utilises plain natural yoghurt sharpened with garlic and fresh ginger as a marinade; this also forms a protective coating during the cooking. A boned leg of lamb opened out into a butterfly shape and marinated overnight with this yoghurt mixture cooks to a deliciously tender pink in just 30 minutes under a hot grill.

As its name indicates, a true marinade is liquid. However, the term is sometimes used for a dry seasoning of ground spices rubbed into food some hours before cooking to allow the flavours to permeate it. Meat, fish and even vegetables such as butternut squash, or a firm-fleshed fruit such as cooking pears, can be pre-seasoned in this way.

There are plenty of classic recipes, but a marinade can reflect your own flavour preferences. Start with the acid element - citrus juice, wine, vinegar or yoghurt. Then add spices, herbs and/or well flavoured vegetables such as onion and celery, chopped or sliced.

A marinade acts principally on the food it touches, so it makes sense to cut meat or fish into smaller pieces to increase their surface area. This makes them ideal for threading on to a skewer for grilling or roasting. Where a larger joint of meat is marinated, as in the classic, slowly braised daubes of Provence, marinating to maximum effect takes a day or so longer. Though food can be marinated perfectly well in a covered bowl, I find that better contact results from tipping the food and its marinade into a strong plastic bag; then, with most of the air expelled and the bag sealed, chill for at least 12 hours before cooking.

Marinating is usually done with raw food. The escabeche of Spain, however, is a marinated dish made with cooked fish. The marinade is made by simmering wine vinegar with garlic and herbs; while still hot it is poured over fried fish. If kept chilled, a dish of escabeche can be eaten up to three days later - which makes it an ideal food for summer.


Serves 4

1 lb tail piece of salmon, filleted and skinned

1 shallot or small onion, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into shreds

1 fresh red or green chilli, seeded and finely diced

1 handful of coriander leaves, chopped

4 limes

2 lemons

1 tablespoon clear honey or light muscovado sugar

1/4 teaspoon light soy sauce

4 tablespoons sunflower oil

Use a sharp knife to cut the fish into thin slivers or layers as for smoked salmon. Arrange the fish in a shallow dish. Separate the onion into rings and spread on top with the garlic, ginger, chilli and coriander. Grate the zest from half a lime into a cup, add the strained juice of all the fruit and pour over the fish. Chill in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours.

An hour before serving, pour off the liquid from the fish, reserving 4 tablespoons in a cup. Whisk in the honey or sugar, soy sauce and sunflower oil to make a dressing and pour over the fish and aromatics. Chill until needed.


Serves 4

1 1/4 lb skinned breast of chicken

4 tablespoons lemon juice or dry white wine

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon coriander seed

seeds of 2 cardamom pods

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 pint plain yoghurt

finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon

4 wooden kebab skewers

Cut the chicken into 1 1/2 -2 in pieces. Thread the pieces on to 4 skewers and place in a

shallow dish. Spoon over the lemon juice or wine and set aside in a cool place for 2-4 hours. Meanwhile, pound the spices together in a mortar or an electric coffee mill.

Pour off the liquid from the chicken and spoon the spice mixture over the meat, rubbing it in with the back of the spoon. Spoon the yoghurt over the chicken, making sure that all surfaces are coated, and sprinkle over the lemon zest. Cover the dish and chill for at least 8 hours, turning the meat over now and again.

Cook the kebabs on a barbecue grid or under a very hot grill for 15-20 minutes, turning over at least once until cooked.


Serves 5-6

2 1/2 lb topside of beef

1/2 pint Cotes du Rhone red wine

3 tablespoons olive oil

1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon dried herbes de Provence


milled black pepper

4 oz smoked streaky bacon

1 onion, chopped

8 oz tomatoes, peeled and chopped

strip of orange peel

2 anchovy fillets, chopped

handful of black olives

Mix the wine with the olive oil, garlic, herbs and some salt and pepper. Wedge an open plastic bag in a bowl to support it and place the meat and marinade inside. Expel most of the air, then seal the bag and turn over to ensure all the meat is coated with the marinade. Leave in a cold place or the refrigerator for 2-3 days, turning the meat over now and again.

Cook the bacon with the onion in a cast-iron casserole until the fat runs. Add the beef and sear lightly all over. Pour in the marinade, add the tomatoes, orange peel and anchovies and bring to the boil. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook in a low oven 325F/160C/Gas 2 for 2-3 hours until beautifully tender. Add the olives 10 minutes before serving. Carve the beef into slices and serve with the sauce and a dish of plain boiled rice or noodles.-