Cooking With Fire

How To Please the Vegetarians Among Us
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 16 2006 6:17 AM

Cooking With Fire

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Dear Chris and Steven,

Thanks, Steven, for your "rule of palm" on whether to cover the grill or not; it's amazing how much we can rely on our hands in barbecue. You can also use them to check how hot the fire is and as your guide to judge meat doneness. Back when I was a restaurant cook, hands were pretty effective tongs, too, but these days my pain threshold has shot back down again.

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Chris, I'm a little envious of your Chinese box—I've been wanting one of my more pyro friends to get one of those, but so far no takers. (Don't you love the name? It sounds like a magic trick.) I still remember the first day I ate pork cooked in its own skin—I was probably about 25, and I was shocked that I had eaten this meat all my life yet had never tasted such depth of flavor.

But thinking of those delicious beasties reminds me of a cold, hard truth about cookouts: There is a vegetarian in every bunch. It seems worth delving into some of the non-meaty capabilities of the backyard grill. Beyond pleasing your veggie friends, meatless dishes add depth to grilled meals that threaten to become too fleshy.

Not allowed at any barbecue of mine: tofu dogs and garden burgers—not when there are recipes like the aforementioned Su-Mei Yu's satay tofu. In season, asparagus is a popular barbecue treat, and justly so: Just make sure to skewer them into a raft or lay them perpendicular to the grate or you'll witness a lot of fiery asparagus suicides. Mushrooms are among the finest items to grill, except, in my opinion, portobellos, which, though fleshy, offer little flavor. Skewer me up some chanterelles, porcini, or cheaper shiitakes, however, and I am a happy woman. I also love what a little char does to bitter greens like rapini, escarole, and radicchio (tossed before grilling with a little olive oil, balsamic-style vinegar, and salt and pepper). One last thing I like to do is throw an earthenware dish full of cooked beans or lentils on the grill (covered in this case) to reheat them and give them a little smoky goodness (if some bacon happens to fall in the beans, so much the better, but I'm trying to be veggie-friendly here).

I'd love to get more adventurous in my non-meat grilling—one thing I haven't tried that you both mention in your cookbooks is the traditional accompaniment to Jamaican jerk, breadfruit, which always makes me think of Phillip Larkin ("Boys dream of native girls who bring breadfruit,/ Whatever they are …"). What are they like? What else am I missing?

One thing about barbecue (and by this I mean outdoor fire-cooking in general, not low-slow-smoky barbecue): Although its roots are in humble cuisine, in the states, it often presumes a backyard or a deck. Whether it's a 1950s image of someone's dad cooking wieners out on the flagstone, or the MTV show Cribs, where every pop star profiled seems to have a massive grill by the pool, grilling is seriously entrenched in our American real-estate fantasy.

So, what's a backyardless cook to do? Chris, maybe you know something about this since a couple of decades ago you had the nerve to open a barbecue restaurant in the city of Cambridge, Mass. I know restaurant kitchens are worlds apart from home kitchens when it comes to ventilation and fire suppression, but is there any value in the indoor grilling options: broilers, stovetop smokers, grill pans, in-stove-grill units, or George Foreman grills? (And, Steven, is Inakaya's hi-tech shoebox-sized grill available for American kitchens?) Stepping outside, is there a particularly good way to work with those boxy little grills built into so many parks?

And for those who won't be cooking themselves, where do you turn for word on great barbecue around the states? I know the Southern Foodways Alliance is a terrific resource on the South, with oral histories from great pitmasters who explain the curious juggling act of keeping the fires (and tempers) low and slow while producing a tremendous volume of food. Steven, your BBQ USA serves as a guidebook as well as a cookbook; beyond Texas, Memphis, and other points south, you had me hankering to go to upstate New York, of all places, to try Cornell Chicken. Are there any other trustworthy guides to barbecue on the Web or in print?

As for that "last barbecue on earth" question—I'll have to mimic Chris and go with a pulled pork sandwich: There's something about the way slow-cooked Boston butt just collapses and how a vinegar sauce helps slice through all that fat. Plus, I love coleslaw, its traditional sandwich counterpart. On the other hand, if we extended to the broader reaches of firecooking, I would have to choose whole lamb, rubbed with garlic and oregano and spit roasted—I can't get enough of those little, juicy interstitial bits that never make it to a restaurant table. Oh, boy …

Thanks a million for sharing your thoughts and advice. Here's hoping I run into you on the barbecue trail,

Sara

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.