Cooking With Fire

Direct Heat and the Rule of Palm
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 16 2006 6:17 AM

Cooking With Fire

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Yo, Sara and Chris,

Cold beer would be nice. Hell, I'd be happy just to be on solid ground. (I've been on the road for the past three weeks and am writing this on a flight from Dallas to Memphis, Tenn.)

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One of the lesser-known cool things about the culture of barbecue is that it lets you quote Shakespeare: "Ay, there's the rub" (Hamlet). If smoke is the soul of barbecue, rubs and marinades endow it with character. Indeed, you could start with the same spatchcock chicken and give it a dozen different personalities simply by varying the seasonings. An ancho chili powder, cumin, and oregano rub makes it a Texas bird; a garlic, cilantro root, pepper paste turns it Thai; a yogurt, saffron, lemon marinade renders it Persian. 

Both of you seem to prefer rubs—you, Chris, for their crust-fostering properties, and you, Sara, for their convenience. As a frequent traveler on the world's barbecue trail, I find my use of rubs and marinades is dictated by regional traditions. When working in a North American mode, I'm apt to reach for a rub, but when grilling Middle Eastern, Indian, or Asian style, I'm more likely to use a marinade.

The granddaddy of all American rubs is what I call the 4/4 rub: equal parts salt (preferably coarse); pepper (preferably freshly ground); paprika (preferably imported); and sugar (preferably brown or maple). Just sprinkle it on, and rub it into the meat. The mixture works equally well on ribs, pork shoulder, briskets, poultry, and even tofu, and you can customize it with garlic or onion powder, dried mustard, chili powder—really, any ingredient you desire.

Marinades typically contain some sort of aromatic for flavor (e.g., ginger or juniper berries); some sort of acid to break down tough meat fibers (like wine or lemon juice); and some sort of fat to keep the food moist during grilling (such as olive or sesame oil). For me, there are three things to bear in mind when using marinades:

  • Drain the food well before putting it on the grill. (Otherwise, it will stew rather than roast and generate the sooty smoke Chris warned us about.)
  • If you want to use the marinade for basting, apply it during the first few minutes of cooking, not at the end.
  • If you want to serve the marinade as a sauce, boil the bejesus out of it to kill any bacteria, and apply it only to fully cooked meat. 

This brings me to one of Chris' favorite seasonings, the wet rub (aka spice paste), which combines the intensity of a dry rub with the coating properties of marinades and is epitomized by seasoning like Jamaica's jerk: a fiery paste of allspice, thyme, escallion (a sort of green onion), and fiery scotch bonnet chilies.

One of the best things about grilling in America is our willingness to add foreign flavors to our melting pot. The globalization of grilling has been one of the most exciting developments in American barbecue in the past decade, and it makes me curious about some of the more offbeat items you both have observed on your travels.   

My shortlist of grilling oddities includes sesame oil-brushed, flame-roasted nori seaweed in Korea; grilled eggs (quartered and wrapped in lettuce leaves with fresh basil, mint, cilantro) and nuoc mam (sweet lime chili fish sauce) in Vietnam; chinchulines (chitlins) in Uruguay; choto (crusty coiled lambs' intestines) in Argentina; and escargots grilled in the shells over grape-vine trimmings in France. 

The grills these are cooked on are as varied as the individual dishes: stone braziers in Korea, a charcoal-filled car wheel in Vietnam, oversize oak-burning grills in South America, and an outdoor fireplace in France. Chris, you mentioned one of my favorite grills, the Weber Ranch—which I am wont to describe as a kettle grill on steroids. Size does matter when it comes to many forms of barbecue, and this baby can cook 80 bratwurst, 12 beer-can chickens, eight pork shoulders, or four briskets—it can even handle a whole salmon or a small pig. The quarter-inch bar-steel grate lays on the handsomest of grill marks—unlike the thin chromed grate of the smaller kettle grill. The fact that it burns charcoal and can be used for direct grilling, indirect grilling, and smoking should please the Big Green Egg-loving Sara.

To cover or not to cover is a question I'm asked a lot, and it ties into your query, Chris, about covering the grill when you're direct grilling. I follow what I call my "rule of palm." For foods thinner than or as thick as the palm of one's hand (shrimp, asparagus, chicken breasts, etc.), I leave the grill open. For thicker foods (spatchcock chickens, porterhouse steaks), I cover the grill half way through to speed up the cooking time. (You always cover the grill when indirect grilling or smoking.) Chris, you use an ingenious technique at your restaurant: covering tuna steaks and other thick-cut grilled meats with a metal pie pan to speed up the cooking.

So little space and so much to say. I haven't even had a chance to touch on grilling accessories; cooking temperatures; or other cool things you can do with a Big Green Egg. But Sara, I will expand on your "last meal" question to include all food, not just barbecue—and you may be surprised to learn that if I had my way, this former Baltimore boy would dive into a pile of peppery Maryland steamed crabs.

Yours in great grilling,
Steven

For years, Sara Dickerman worked as a restaurant cook; she is now the food and dining editor at Seattle Magazine. Steven Raichlen is the author of award-winning Barbecue Bible, How To Grill, and the new Raichlen on Ribs, and is the host of Barbecue University on PBS. He's also the creator of the Best of Barbecue line of grilling accessories. Chris Schlesinger opened the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., in 1985. He is the author of eight cookbooks and also won the James Beard award for the best chef in the Northeast. 

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