Cooking With Fire

Sweet Potatoes, Corn, and Carcinogens
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 16 2006 4:41 PM

Cooking With Fire

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It never fails to amaze me how a simple chat about barbecue evolves into a wide-ranging discourse on travel, anthropology, physics, chemistry, and culture. Then again, barbecue is our oldest and most universal cooking method, so there's a lot to say.

Something Chris and Sara may not know about me: Both my wife and daughter used to be vegetarians (thank goodness, they're now both omnivores), so I've spent a lot of time focusing on meatless grilling. In countries like Japan, grilled tofu with miso barbecue sauce has the sort of street-food cult status occupied by hot dogs and bratwurst in the United States.

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To my thinking, nothing brings out the flavor and sweetness of a vegetable or tofu like the high, dry heat of the grill. To Sara's and Chris' lists, I would add artichokes slathered with garlic parsley butter or olive oil, grilled over indirect heat. These are enjoyed in regions as diverse as Spain, Sardinia, and California. And garlic cloves, which the Japanese and Koreans skewer side by side on toothpicks and grill on charcoal-fired hibachis.  

Speaking of charcoal and Chris' hobo packs, one of my favorite ways to grill sweet potatoes is to roast them directly in the coals (no grate needed) until they're charred and jet black outside, turning with long-handled tongs every 5 minutes so that they cook evenly. Fish them out of the coals, taking care to knock off any glowing embers, and cut them in half: The sweet, smoky flavor is electrifying.

No discussion of grilled vegetables would be complete without corn, and I'd like to jump with both feet into a debate raised by several Slate readers: husk on or husk off. For me, the best way to grill corn is naked (the corn, not the griller): husk stripped back, kernels basted with Parmesan or herb butter or garlic-scented extra-virgin olive oil. The high heat roasts and browns the kernels, caramelizing the plant sugars—sometimes you even hear a snap, crackle, pop. Grilling corn with the husk on is like showering with your socks on.

Sara, you mentioned breadfruit, which was to be brought from the East Indies to the West Indies by none other than Captain Bligh of the Bounty as a cheap source of food for the slaves. In Jamaica, they toss it right in the coals and roast it in the skin like the sweet potatoes I mentioned—the technique gives this otherwise hopelessly bland, starchy vegetable enough flavor to make it pleasurable to eat—especially when doused with melted butter.

Chris, I beg to differ with your position that indoor grilling isn't really grilling. First, if you own a fireplace and a Tuscan grill (gridiron with legs), you can grill over wood embers exactly as you would charcoal. Bistecca alla fiorentina, anyone?

Grills built into your stove, like the Viking or Jennair, function like gas grills, although there's no lid to lower for indirect grilling. Chris, you're right that grill pans aren't really grills in the sense that there's no live fire involved, but the surface charring and grill marks replicate both the look and taste of the grill marks achieved outdoors. (When buying a grill pan, look for a heavy cast iron model with sharp ridges.) I also love my Cameron stovetop smoker-cooker, and despite the 60-some grills and smokers in my collection, when it comes to smoking the perfect salmon for Sunday-morning bagels, it's the device I prefer. Chris, I do agree that the George Forman has serious limitations (curiously, it's not bad for cooking sea bass).

I feel obliged to discuss one topic we haven't raised that may concern some nervous Nellies: barbecue and carcinogens. At the heart of the debate are HCAs (heterocyclic amines)—alleged carcinogens that form when dripping fat and meat juices hit the hot coals. One way to avoid this is to indirect grill or smoke. I wouldn't worry about it too much, even if you're fanatic about direct grilling (and you should be). Columnist Ed Blonz, who holds a Ph.D. in nutrition, puts it in perspective this way: Eating 100 charcoal-grilled steaks will statistically increase your odds of dying by one in a million—but so will rock climbing for 1.5 minutes, bicycle riding for 10 minutes, and being a 60-year-old man for 20 minutes. In other words, the risks are greatly overrated. 

My advice: Fire up the grill, invite over some friends, open some beer or wine, and don't sweat it. Mankind has been grilling for about 500,000 years.

Sara, Chris—it's been a great pleasure chatting with you. Please visit if you're on Martha's Vineyard this summer or in West Virginia the next time Barbecue University is in session. We'll fire up some grills and put our money where our mouths are.

Yours in great grilling,
Steven

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