Nothing like a good soak

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
One glass of rough red wine and half a glass of olive oil will a marinade make, but only just. Add a sprig of thyme, a torn bay leaf and a crushed garlic clove and you achieve interest. But fashionable star anise and slooshes of grape brandy will only serve to introduce discord and raw spirit.

The more careful and thoughtful the ingredients for marinade, the better will be the final taste of the meat or fish you have pampered it with. Similarly, if the meat is dull, then all it will taste of is the bullying and coarse ingredients of a cowboy marinade. Such ill-judged combinations can also result in an indigestible aftertaste - in, for example, barbecue cooking - that repeats itself after the alfresco fiasco, long into the uncomfortable night.

No, marinades can, and should be, delicious and rewarding. Why we all like tandoori chicken - apart from the blasting and blistering it receives from the clay oven - is really all to do with the orange sludge it has wallowed in: this is blue chip marinade. Twenty-odd years ago, when I had a small restaurant in Pembrokeshire, I made tandoori chicken with some success. I had eaten it only a couple of times, at the standard Indian restaurant in (to me at the time) glamorous Westbourne Grove, on a trip to London. I thought it was the bees' knees, especially when doused with that sickly- looking, but delicious, mint gloop.

Back in west Wales - where in those days it was difficult to buy anything as exotic as tomato puree - I fiddled around with spices brought back from London, to try to simulate the burnt red offering. Lemon juice and salt went into the slashed and skinned joints, then yoghurt, spices and more paprika than I thought safe (just to get it red). Imagine how I felt when I discovered that the colour was due to red dye. Out came the little bottle of cochineal, but somehow it was not the same.

I still think the tandoori marinade one of the most seductive, however ubiquitous. A home-made one is worth the trouble, I promise. Don't bother with the red colouring; just make the marinade, soak the chook and blast it in the hottest possible oven until it is nicely burnished. The domestic oven is a compromise, I know, but the resultant succulence will often be better than the dried-out, scrawny, foil-bag-wrapped red wreck of a takeaway. Madhur Jaffrey gives an excellent recipe for the marinade and method for tandoori chicken in her book An Invitation to Indian Cooking (Jonathan Cape, pounds 9.99).

One of the most remarkable dishes I have ever had the pleasure of eating was a trio of spiced and grilled lamb cutlets, cooked by the McCoy brothers at their restaurant The Tontine, Staddlebridge, near Northallerton, North Yorkshire, circa 1979. The dish is called lamb tjitske, described on the wondrously eclectic menu - the McCoys were eclectic long before it got trendy - as having "Javanese overtones". (They also used to do a chocolate dessert called "choc-o-block Stanley", named after the man who used to ask, when he delivered their evening paper, whether they were busy; their reply was always, "Oh, chock-a-block, Stanley".)

Anyway, here's the recipe, courtesy of Tom, Peter and Eugene McCoy. Thanks, lads.

Lamb tjitske, serves 4

12 plump lamb cutlets, not fatty chops (ask the butcher to cut them from the best end)

cooking oil, to brush on cutlets

for the marinade

150ml/5fl oz light soy sauce

50ml/2fl oz sesame oil

1 large clove garlic, peeled and crushed

half a small onion, peeled and crushed

5cm/2-in piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

juice of 1 orange

juice of 1 lemon

25g/1oz brown sugar

1 heaped tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground turmeric

12 tsp cayenne pepper

12 tsp paprika

Liquidise all the ingredients for the marinade and then pour through a sieve. Lay the cutlets in a suitable dish and pour over the marinade. Move the cutlets around with your hands so that they are evenly coated with the mixture. Cover with cling film or foil and put into the fridge for 24 hours. Turn them occasionally.

Heat a stove-top ribbed grill or, failing that, a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan. (A charcoal fire, however, will give the most perfect and authentic results.) Lift out the chops from the marinade and shake off excess liquid. Lay on a metal tray or plate, ready for cooking. Heat the grill or frying pan till really hot and then dribble over a film of oil (any old oil will do). Allow to smoke, then grill the chops. Keep at a high heat throughout the cooking process, which should not be more than about 3-4 minutes on each side. It is intentional that they will become slightly blackened; the pink inside contrasts winningly with the carbonised exterior. Serve with an interesting salad. The brothers McCoy used to do something called "salad incredible". The name now sounds a bit naff, but it really did have an incredible taste. And d'you know, I don't think there was a rocket leaf in sight