Cooking With Fire
Hi Chris and Steven,
Thank you so much for your thoughts so far—I wish we could be having this conversation out in a backyard somewhere, drinking a brew or two while poking around some coals with that sort of purposeful leisure that's, of course, another great pleasure of cooking out.
Steven, I agree that the BGE has its limitations in the playing-with-fire department. In many ways, it is ovenlike—an incredibly versatile oven, but ovenlike nonetheless. There have been a few moments recently when I've flirted with bringing the old Weber kettle out of its garaged exile and also with getting a smaller hibachi-type grill for some quick, close interaction with flames. Your description of that Japanese robata master at Inakaya is bewitching—robata, practiced at that level, is the grilling equivalent of bonsai: small, measured, and astoundingly precise. It's also the first time I've heard fish guts described as creamy, but I'll trust you on that.
And Chris, you touched on something important when you talked about the appealing unpredictability of the charcoal fire. I think Americans also like grilling (with gas, fire, and wood) because we feel more free to improvise once we're away from the (sometimes false) precision of our ovens and the pristine Corian of our kitchen counters. We're more willing to wing it—whether that means judging meat doneness by poking it or improvising on our own secret marinades and barbecue sauces.
Speaking of winging it, Chris, you asked about dry rubs, and I use them all the time, since it's rare that I'm prepared enough to come up with a moist marinade. For really fine dry-aged beef, there's probably no finer dry rub than salt and freshly ground pepper. I also use combos, but unless I'm following a recipe for a particular style, I tend to keep the number of flavors to two or three, plus salt. (Then again, I did use a tasty, weird combo of ancho chile powder, cumin, cinnamon, coffee, and a pinch of cocoa for a flank steak a couple of weeks ago.) More often my rubs are something like fennel, orange zest, and red pepper for chicken or fish; saffron and coriander (seed and fresh) for a Sicilian twist on swordfish; and sumac, fresh thyme leaves, and garlic for lamb. I have generally distrusted dried herbs, but I've recently become quite taken with lemon myrtle from Australia, which as far as I am concerned is chicken's best friend—distinctly lemony, without the bitterness of lemon peel or the excess perfumery of lemon verbena. I rub it on copiously with salt and pepper, too, and then grill up my spatchcocked birds.
When I do make a marinade, I tend to go pasty rather than wet: It crusts up nicely in the heat. I like variations on general Indian/Eastern Mediterranean yogurt marinades, and I also like to mash garlic and reconstituted dried chiles into a paste.
So, there are some ideas, but as you both mentioned in your entries, fire-cooking is something we share with the whole world, a fact that's a constant source of inspiration when the home fires seem a little tired. Recipes from both of you remind me of the amazing grilling traditions of the Caribbean, Korea, and Turkey, to name a few. Then there are always books by Rick Bayless to remind me that achiote paste (made with what we call annatto seeds) is a tangy wonder for fish and pig alike; Su-Mei Yu has me thinking about amazing Asian coconut cream marinades; and Paula Wolfert makes me remember that there is always something to be done with pomegranate molasses.
I've frittered away most of my entry talking about added flavors, but there is one flavor that I think it's important to spend more time on: smoke. We've already talked about how wood brings so much flavor to fire-cooking and that different woods give you different aromas. But how do you control the smoke flavor you're imparting—I love smoke, but I hate that harsh, acrid flavor that I come across when something has been oversmoked (and plenty of times, I've been responsible for the oversmoking). Also if we're getting into low, slow, and smoky fire-cooking, what are the basic things to keep in mind? How low is low? Is mopping (basting the meat) necessary? When should you lay on the barbecue sauce? And is there one American barbecue delicacy that you would choose to eat in your last moments near your earthly fire pits?
Yours in smoke,
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.