Paul Barker converts his old five-burner barbecue into the ultimate backyard Asian kitchen and serves up three tantalising dishes
Asian food has been a long-time favourite in our household. Rarely a week would pass that would not find me and my wife at one of our local Chinese restaurants and being within easy walking distance from home we could enjoy a glass of wine with our meal. Unfortunately over a period, the restaurants either closed or changed owners and the food quality went downhill compared to what we had become accustomed to. After sampling the cuisine at various other restaurants, all of which we had to drive to, it was decided that we should try our hand at home prepared Asian food.
After a qualifying number of attempts with mixed results, it soon became obvious that our domestic gas stove was fairly inadequate in terms of heat output, as stir-frying vegetables turned out more like stewed offerings. Meanwhile, deep-frying various meat dishes took far too long, requiring several batches to be done in sequence with sufficient time intervals to allow the cooking oil to come back up to temperature.
The stove issue triggered a chain of events that led to the creation of the ‘backyard Asian kitchen’.
The hunt began to find a suitable wok burner that was able to generate significantly more heat than our kitchen stove. An hour or two on the internet turned up what looked like an ideal solution ‑ a Rambo 55MJ/H high output stand-alone wok burner, model HPA100LPB. Fortunately there was a YouTube video showing the product in action, along with the specifications. After reading a couple of reviews, all of which were very positive, I went ahead and ordered one online from a Sydney supplier.
Returning home from a hunting trip a weighty parcel was waiting. In no time at all the parcel was unpacked, revealing an awesome looking item of cookware. Carefully reading through the instructions it was noted that it must be used outdoors and have significant clearance from any nearby structure, testament to the amount of heat generated when in use.
The Rambo weighs 6.7kg so a fairly substantial work space would be required to set it up on. As luck had it, we had an old five-burner covered barbecue that was destined for the next council bulk rubbish pick-up. The hardwood frame was in reasonable condition as was the enamelled steel chassis and roll down oven cover. All of the hot components had rusted to a point where it was unusable.
The restoration job began by gutting out all of the gas related components with just the chassis, cover and the timber frame remaining. A few hours work removed years of built-up cooking residue while the metalwork looked quite respectable given its age. The timber frame responded well to a thorough sanding and after several coats of clear acrylic lacquer looked like new.
A suitable sized sheet of 18mm thick marine ply was cut to size to form the in-fill benchtop inside the chassis. This was also given several coats of clear lacquer. At this stage the plan was to retain the roll down oven top, the logic being that it was enamelled to handle a reasonable amount of heat. In the event that it did overheat it was a simple task to just lift it off the main chassis when the wok was in use.
To increase the clearance between the wok and the oven top a small removable extension was constructed which allowed the burner to be located right to the front edge of the benchtop with the controls sitting on the extension. This also increased the head room to make it easier to manipulate the wok.
To illuminate the work area when cooking at night, a 1m-long strip of high intensity LEDs were mounted in a length of aluminium angle with two sections of flat bar attached at right angles. These in turn fitted into two sections of sail track mounted on the roll top hand rail. This system allowed some adjustment in lighting angle and can simply be removed when not required ‑ a small 7A/h battery will power the LEDs for about six hours between charges.
The Rambo instructions also stated that it had to be located on a non-combustible surface. A stainless steel circular tray also came in the box. This was placed on a large floor tile that gave extra protection to the plywood benchtop and judging by the heat pattern on the tray the tile is certainly required.
The moment of truth came with the first trial run of the new set-up. The Rambo lived up to expectations heat wise, as it has step-less heat adjustment and at full heat consumes 1kg of gas an hour. It roars like a jet engine, very similar to what you see and hear in Asian restaurants.
At one stage along the way, a second Rambo was considered based on the cooking times we had experienced with the house gas stove. The initial dishes cooked on the Rambo soon demonstrated that we only require the one. With rapid heat changes, deep-frying meal sized meat components was quick and precise and stir-fried vegetables took on a whole new appearance and taste.
While on the subject of deep-frying, different types of meat/chicken spring rolls to name a few, require different oil temperatures. Some folk gauge oil temperatures by placing a wooden chopstick in the oil, observing how long it takes for minute bubbles to form around the chopstick. A more precise method is to use a digital thermometer to monitor oil temperatures and takes the guesswork out of this sometimes critical aspect of deep frying.
After additional experience using the new outdoor kitchen a sheet of stainless steel was added to the benchtop, making it more durable and easier to keep clean. Also the fold up/down benchtops on either end of the chassis may at some stage be extended for extra space for the many items that gravitate to the area while cooking. A small sink and tap connected to the garden hose could be added if a need arose.
We chose to use two woks, both made from carbon steel. The first is a slightly heavier flat-bottomed version that has become our choice for deep frying and has the temperature probe for the Maverick digital thermometer set up on it. The second wok is a lighter round-bottomed version that is used for stir frying. Having the two woks saves having to swap out the cooking oil between different cooking requirements. Both woks were properly seasoned in the beginning to create a non-stick surface. This was achieved by rotating the wok over high heat so that the entire surface turned a dark blue/grey colour after which three coats of peanut cooking oil was applied sequentially, again over high heat.
A visit to the local Asian grocery store to purchase a selection of wok related utensils pretty much completed the project to a point where it’s a pleasure to use in combination with an orderly work flow with all of the required ingredients lined up in order of need to prepare the meal.
A timely word of caution ‑ the Rambo wok burner can reach extremely high temperatures when in use and being situated in a fairly exposed environment it should not be left unattended, particularly where young children and pets are likely to come into contact. Inquisitive dogs and cats could cause all manner of issues, particularly with extremely hot cooking oil. A fire blanket or appropriate fire extinguisher nearby would not be out of place.
Overall the exercise in building the outdoor kitchen has been well worthwhile and certainly makes preparing Asian-style dishes far easier than in the house kitchen. When not in use the whole thing packs up into a compact unit and can be wheeled to any convenient location in the backyard.
Rabbit and bacon spring rolls
Experimenting with various types of food and the manner that it is prepared can be a tasty culinary pastime. Hunters in Australia have the opportunity to harvest a wide range of game, taking the time to properly dress the assets in the field and returning home with a car fridge loaded with meat can lead to some interesting dishes.
The humble rabbit is one example that has found its way onto many Australian tables at meal time dating back from when they were introduced a century or two back. Being fortunate to have access to a couple of properties that have fluctuating rabbit populations, it’s generally not too difficult to shoot a few to bring home for the table.
Having an increasing interest in preparing Asian-style foods and on returning home from a recent hunting trip with a number of rabbits in surprisingly good condition, given the severe drought conditions the area was suffering, it seemed logical to have an attempt at preparing a rabbit dish with an Asian twist.
Spring rolls are a popular starter with many Chinese meals and so it was that rabbit and bacon seemed like a delicious combination to experiment with in the kitchen to see what we could come up with.
To begin the preparation the rabbit was cut into pieces, back and front legs and the spine sliced in half. These were placed into a bowl containing salted water along with half a cup of black rice vinegar and left to marinate for about three hours.
Once out of the marinade the rabbit was thoroughly dried with a paper towel and the meat cut from the bones into matchbox-sized pieces. The last stage in preparing the rabbit is to run the meat through a mincer. This produced an even textured mince ready for the main preparation with the other ingredients.
One whole full-grown rabbit
Three rashers of smoky bacon
Half a red bell pepper
Three heaped cups of diced cabbage
One large carrot
Two cloves of garlic
A thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger
Spring roll pastry
Light soy sauce
Sweet chilli sauce
Slice the bacon into matchstick-sized pieces and combine with the rabbit mince in an appropriately sized bowl and add one tablespoon of light soy sauce, one teaspoon of sesame oil and a light sprinkle of sugar. Set aside while the other ingredients are prepared.
Finely chop the garlic cloves, ginger and the white ends of the shallots.
Cut or julienne the carrot into thin strips and cut the cabbage and red bell pepper into 4/5mm wide strips.
To prepare the sauce combine two tablespoons each of the oyster sauce and fish sauce along with one level tablespoon of palm sugar and mix well. Now the fun cooking bit starts.
Bring the wok or non-stick pan to a high smoking heat and add two tablespoons of peanut or canola oil. Swirl the oil to cover the surface of the wok/pan and add the rabbit and bacon meat. Reduce the heat a little and stir fry until nicely browned and there are no clumps in the mince. Once cooked, remove the mince to a plate but retain the meat juices in the wok. Add the garlic, ginger, shallots and stir fry for about 45 seconds over medium heat. Next increase the heat and add the vegetables and stir fry quickly for a minute or so. Then return the meat to the wok along with the previously prepared sauce. Mix and combine well.
Turn off the heat and add the green parts of the shallots and combine, to complete this part of the preparation. Place the mix into a strainer to remove all of the excess moisture. If the mix has too much moisture, it can cause the spring roll pastry to split when frying and allow the cooking oil into the mix. Before advancing to actually putting the spring rolls together, allow the mix to completely cool and drain.
With the spring roll pastry defrosted, place a sheet on the bench with the corners perpendicular. Place a heaped tablespoon on the mix about a third of the way up the pastry. Form the mix into a cylinder shape and bring the bottom corner over the mix and tuck it under so the pastry is a firm fit around the mix.
Next, roll the mix up to about halfway, keeping the pastry tight as it is rolled and then tuck the ends in and over the first wrap to form an envelope shape. Finally, paint the exposed pastry with beaten egg to seal the completed spring roll.
Now it’s back to the wok. Bring approximately 300ml of cooking oil to about 180 degrees Centigrade. Initially the oil temperature will drop as the spring rolls are added. For best results adjust the heat to maintain the oil temperature between 160 and 170 degrees Centigrade. The cooking oil temperature is fairly critical in that if it is too low the spring rolls will be rather oily, too high and the pastry will burn before the contents have enough time to heat through. A suitable thermometer is handy to monitor the oil temperature, allowing the heat to be adjusted to maintain the correct temperature through the five-minute deep frying.
If the free-floating spring rolls tend to cook faster on the underside as they often do, reduce the oil level so they just contact the bottom of the wok sufficiently to prevent them from rolling back over once they have been turned. This should result in them being evenly browned.
If the whole process has gone to plan, lovely golden-brown crunchy spring rolls should arrive at the table with whatever garnish and dipping sauce you choose. Light soy and or sweet chilli sauce go well, along with pickled ginger.
Spicy Szechuan venison
For most of the year we are fortunate to have a good quantity of venison in the freezer in various cuts ‑ fillet, rump and backstrap being our favourites. Over time we have prepared and cooked venison in what may be described as traditional ways with pleasing results. Our recent interest in Asian-style cooking has us enjoying the experience of trying the vast selection of spices and cuisine methods that go into this form of tasty food presentation.
On a number of occasions we had enjoyed Szechuan beef and chicken at local Chinese restaurants, so why not try Szechuan venison at home? The kitchen pantry is well stocked with an ever-increasing range of Asian spices and sauces and the refrigerator crisper with a good selection of vegetables, so assembling and cooking the dish should be pretty straightforward.
To start the preparation, the Szechuan peppercorns have to be roasted in a suitable pan over medium heat for about five minutes, then allowed to cool. This done, they need to be ground to a fine powder in a spice grinder or with mortar and pestle.
As with most Asian-style wok prepared dishes it pays to have the entire ingredients ready ahead of time as the actual cooking is quite fast for best results.
About 300 to 400 grams of venison. Backstrap or fillet are ideal as they are the correct shape. Other cuts can also be used with suitable trimming
Prepared ground Szechuan peppercorns
Half an onion
Half each of red and green bell peppers
Two medium-sized mushrooms
Three cloves of garlic
A thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger
Salt and sugar
Light soy sauce
Chinese cooking wine
Sriracha hot chilli sauce (optional)
Slice your chosen cut of venison ‑ rump on this occasion, into 5 or 6mm thick bite-sized pieces - cutting across the grain.
Place the venison into an appropriately sized bowl and add one teaspoon of sugar, half a teaspoon each of baking powder and salt, half the ginger finely grated, half a tablespoon of Chinese cooking wine, one-and-a-half tablespoons of cornflour and a tablespoon of water.
Combine all of the ingredients with the venison. Cover and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for about two hours.
While the venison is marinating, prepare the remaining ingredients. Slice the bell peppers into thin strips, dice the mushrooms and onions and finely chop the garlic and remaining ginger plus the white ends of the shallots. The green ends are cut into 50mm long sections for the garnish.
With most styles of Asian wok cooking it pays to have all of the ingredients prepared, vegetables cut to size and the liquid components measured out and placed into dishes. Working with a very hot wok once the cooking begins, the dish comes together quite rapidly. So it’s best to have all of the ingredients at hand. That way the work flow is smooth and without interruption rather than having hold-ups locating some of the ingredients while those in the wok over-cook and potentially spoil the finished dish.
Start the cooking by bringing the wok or pan up to a medium high heat and add a tablespoon of peanut or canola oil. Then add the bell peppers, mushrooms, onions and quickly stir-fry for a minute or two. If the vegetables look a tad dry, add a light splash of water to finish the cooking, then remove them to a plate.
On a medium heat add another tablespoon of the cooking oil and then about half a teaspoon of the prepared Szechuan pepper and stir-fry for a minute or two to infuse the flavour of the ground peppercorns into the oil.
Next, add the garlic, ginger and white ends of the spring onions. Stir-fry for a minute then increase the heat and add the venison and cook until lightly browned. Now add the previously cooked vegetables and mix well. To complete the dish, add a tablespoon each of the oyster sauce and light soy sauce and combine to make the sauce. If the sauce is too thin, add a small amount of cornflour mixed with water to thicken the sauce. Finally add a dash of the Chinese cooking wine and the green ends of the shallots and serve.
If you enjoy a fair amount of heat in your Asian-style dishes the Sriracha hot chilli sauce can be added to taste, along with the garlic, ginger and shallots. Also the Szechuan pepper content can be increased if you like that numbing, tingling taste on your tongue that the peppers are renowned for.
If you are using one of the more tender cuts of venison the baking powder can be omitted from the initial marinade. Also, venison tends to ‘cook on’ that can lead to a slightly chewy texture so it’s better to under-cook the venison prior to the vegetables being added and allow the residual heat to complete the cooking.
Served with a side dish of steamed or fried rice, Szechuan venison makes a great meal and is bound to please all those who try it. Just be a little careful with the hot spices. Remember they can be great slaves but poor masters.
Sizzling hot Mongolian goat
Goat meat or chevon is a great resource to have in the fridge or freezer, particularly younger animals, and can be prepared in any number of ways. In parts of Australia graziers have found goats to represent another form of income, particularly during drought periods when cattle and sheep are doing it tough. But the goats seem to survive reasonably well. For this reason it’s becoming harder to take a couple for the table in some areas.
On a recent hunting and prospecting trip the property owner was kind enough to allow the taking of a young goat for the table. Considering the goat population, it was a fairly simple task to select an appropriate animal and after field dressing it, we hung it overnight to be cut up next morning. After that it was packed into the car fridge to bring home.
Given our penchant for Asian-style food, my wife and I decided to prepare the goat backstrap to form the basis for a Mongolian meat orientated meal. Mongolian lamb features on many Chinese restaurant menus and is a great tasting dish. So this gave rise to the idea of preparing the goat in this manner. Interestingly, this method of cooking originated in Chinese America and apparently you would be hard pressed to find it on the menu in a restaurant in China.
Approximately 500 grams of backstrap, sufficient for two people
A thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger
Salt and pepper
Light soy sauce
Dark soy sauce
Chinese cooking wine
Sriracha hot chilli sauce (optional)
Peanut or canola oil
Cut the backstrap across the grain into 8mm thick bite-sized pieces.
Place the meat into a suitable sized dish and add the marinade ingredients as follows: one tablespoon light soy sauce, half a teaspoon of baking powder, one-and-a-half tablespoon cornflour, half a thumb-sized piece of grated ginger. Squeeze the juice into the mix then add the ginger and lastly a few dashes of ground white pepper. Mix all of the ingredients well and place to one side to marinate while the remaining elements are prepared.
Next, finely chop three cloves of garlic, julienne the remaining ginger and cut the white ends of the spring onions into small pieces ‑ the green ends are cut into 50mm pieces for the garnish. Strips of red bell pepper can also be added for some extra flavour and colour.
To prepare the sauce, combine the following: one tablespoon each of oyster sauce, dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, half a tablespoon of palm sugar and the sriracha. Half a teaspoon gives a pleasant amount of chilli flavour to the finished dish ‑ more can be added if you like. Also put aside one cup of water and a tablespoon of cornflour mixed with water to thicken the sauce.
Once all of the ingredients are prepared and placed within easy reach of the wok or pan, the cooking can begin. Bring sufficient cooking oil to deep fry the meat up to approximately 180 degrees Centigrade and deep fry the meat in small batches to maintain the oil temperature. This will prevent the meat from becoming too oily. Cooking time should be approximately 45 to 60 seconds to nicely produce a golden brown finish to the meat. Don’t over-cook the meat as it will be added to the hot sauce later.
Once the meat is cooked and removed to a side dish, drain the oil from the wok leaving about two tablespoons to prepare the sauce.
Bring the wok temperature to a medium heat and add the garlic, ginger and white ends of the spring onions and stir fry for a minute or so until they become aromatic. Don’t allow them to burn as it will spoil the taste of the sauce. Next, add the prepared sauce mix and raise the wok temperature to high and bring the sauce mix to a modest boil and stir well then add the cup of water. While this is in progress, heat a sizzle plate ready for the dish to be added for serving.
When the sauce has been reduced slightly, add enough of the corn starch/water mix to thicken the sauce to a creamy consistency. Next add the meat to the sauce and combine well, ensuring each piece has a good coating. To complete the dish add a half tablespoon of sesame oil along with one tablespoon of Chinese cooking wine and the green ends of the spring onions. Quickly combine everything and add the finished dish to the hot sizzle plate along with a light dusting with sesame seeds. Steamed or fried rice and stir-fried vegetables are a great match for this dish.
If all has gone to plan you will bring to the table a visually pleasing, sizzling hot meal of Mongolian-style goat that is bound to impress everyone present.