Steven Raichlen's business card says "Writer."
That was the first thing I noticed when the grilling authority, instructor, television personality and all around barbecue guru handed me his card.
It turns out that for all the notoriety that Raichlen has amassed for mastering a world's worth of grilling and barbecuing techniques, he's basically a writer. Always has been, in fact.
"I'm not a chef or a pit master. I'm not qualified to be. But I am a writer," he told me after a recent talk he gave at the Smithsonian. Thumbing through his latest barbecue book, that makes sense.
Like its author, Planet Barbecue is a work of many things. First and foremost, it's a cook book. But it's also a history text, with sections dedicated to the origins of barbecue and country profiles that show how this popular American cuisine is common around the world. Between the recipes for bacon-grilled enotake mushrooms and hanger steak with Marchand de Vin sauce, are interviews with pit masters, Spanish chefs, and Laotian women who probably know more about grilling fish than Barton Seaver.
With more than 300 recipes and pages of color-photo instructions, Planet Barbecue is very much a cook book. It just also happens to be a work of non-fiction the size of a phone book.
Planet Barbecue is Raichlen's twelfth book and his last on barbecue. The genre has been very good to him, but he's ready to move on. His next book will be a novel -- a novel with somewhat of a food theme, but a novel all the same.
So if Planet Barbecue is the barbecue and grilling cook book he's going out on, at least he's doing so on a high note.
As I've mentioned in previous posts, Raicheln's earlier cook book, BARBECUE! Bible, is a must-have for anyone who enjoys barbecue and grilling and wants to improve. It was also the book that put Raichlen on the map.
Like Planet Barbecue, the BARBECUE! Bible featured an international assortment of barbecue recipes. More importantly though, it came with tips and illustrated techniques.
BARBECUE! Bible taught me how to properly butterfly pork, grill lobster and rotisserie a leg of lamb. It also covered the origins of the barbacoa, profiled a restaurant in Mumbai and dedicated 500 words to Indonesian grilling. Turns out, Raichlen has been writing about more than grilled chicken and baby back ribs for some time.
As good as BARBECUE! Bible is, I like the selection of recipes in Planet Barbecue better. Raichlen hits all the necessary American recipes, including brisket, smoked pork shoulder, burgers, whole hog and ribs; and his selection of recipes from other countries is eclectic enough to be interesting, but not so much so to pass up. So while there are tips on how to grill onion and coriander brined lamb chops like they do in Uzbekistan, there's also a world's worth of steak and pork recipes. They may have come from other countries, but many of the dishes feel familiar even if their origins aren't.
When it came out in 1998, the BARBECUE! Bible became one of the authoritative texts on barbecue. The problem was, the book's focus on American and international barbecue recipes meant that the attention given to any one of those cuisines was a little thin. And as interesting as other countries' barbecue recipes are, they were a bit too obscure and I wanted more recipes from my own back yard. Planet Barbecue picks up where the BARBECUE! Bible left off. Add to that the detailed photo illustrations (a step up from the hand-drawn illustrations in BARBECUE! Bible) and additional techniques, and Planet Barbecue becomes the new must-have for barbecue enthusiasts.
Raichlen said he wanted Planet Barbecue to be an authoritative work, a bookend to the BARBECUE! Bible and How to Grill. With the combination of recipes, techniques and profiles, Raichlen expects this book to be used differently by different people: some will read it cover to cover, while others will only crack it for the recipes.
On the other hand, Planet Barbecue benefits from the BARBECUE! Bible. Like the earlier work, Planet Barbecue is a great cook book and an interesting read. However, I'm glad I have both books and the battery of recipes and techniques they provide. Each book is good, but both books are great.
Speaking of those barbecue recipes, in Planet Barbecue they are once again a best-of from around the globe. Raichlen covers grilled bread with DC's own Jose Andres, Balkan grilled veal and pork "burgers," and Singapore-style skate grilled in banana leaves. Each recipe includes a bit of info on where it comes from, what the ingredient is and a little info on the region or dish.
That's all well and good, but what's important is Raichlen has a recipe for Allen & Son's pulled pork, sauce and all.
Some of you just said, "Oh shit." I did, too.
I love Eastern Carolina barbecue, and Chapel Hill's Allen & Son is the epicenter of all things tangy, porky and right. Proprietor Keith Allen has finessed this beautifully simple combination of slow smoked pork shoulder and vinegar sauce into an unctuous nirvana. Given how protective pit masters and barbecue enthusiasts are about their recipes, I was stunned to see that Raichlen got Allen's recipe for that moist, tart pork. I'm also suspicious.
I mean, this might rank up there with the Colonel's 11 spices or the recipe for Coca-Cola.
I promise you, I'll be putting that recipe to good use this summer. I also promise that it'll never be as good as Keith Allen's.
Even as Raichlen traveled from country to country working on Planet Barbecue, he was already working on the novel. He will continue is popular PBS series Primal Grill, but is quick to admit that his delivery and style are better suited for writing than TV.
As middle-aged men stood in line for pictures and autographs, it's hard to think of Raichlen as anything but a barbecue authority. But Raichlen is writer and he's moving on. Fortunately for those fans, he's left them with a great body of work.
Grilled Veal Chops with Sweet-and-Sour Onions
(Where: Florence, Italy)
Excerpted from Planet Barbecue, copyright 2010 by Steven Raichlen. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc. New York. All Rights Reserved.
1 pound small torpedo onions, cipollinis, pearl onions, or shallots (see Note)
2 cups dry red wine
1 cup balsamic vinegar, or more for taste
1 cup honey, or more to taste
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
4 thick loin or veal chops (each 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick and 12 to 14 ounces)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)
Peel the onions, leaving most of the stem end intact; this helps hold the onions together as they cook. Place the onions in a large, deep saucepan, add the red wine, balsamic vinegar, honey, and 3 tablespoons of the butter and bring to a boil over high heat.
Reduce the heat to medium and cook the onions until tender - they'll be easy to pierce with a skewer - 12 to 15 minutes. If all goes well, the wine, vinegar, and honey will cook down to a syrupy glaze at precisely the same moment the onions are tender. If not, using a slotted spoon, transfer the onions to a plate and continue boiling the sauce until it is thick and syrupy. Return the onions to the pan, if necessary, and taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste and more vinegar and/or honey as necessary; the onions should be a little sweet, a little sour, and very flavorful. If you add more vinegar and/or honey, return the pan to the heat to let the liquid cook down. You should wind up with about 1 1/4 cups. The onions can be cooked several hours, or even a day, ahead and reheated just before serving.
Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat one zone to high.
When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Generously season the chops on both sides with salt and pepper. (OK, I know they add the sale after the grilling in Tuscany and they don't bother with pepper. But I still maintain you get a better crust when you season the meat just prior to grilling.) Arrange the veal chops on the hot grate at a diagonal to the bars. Grill the chops until nicely browned on the outside and cooked through, 5 to 6 minutes per side for medium. Use the poke test to test for doneness. Give each chop a quarter turn after 2 1/2 minutes on each side to create a handsome crosshatch of grill marks.
Transfer the chops to a platter or plates and let them rest while you reheat the onion mixture. Just before serving, stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Spoon the onions over the chops and sprinkle the parsley, if using, on top. Serve the chops at once.
NOTE: Baby torpedo onions (elongated red onions), cipollinis (small, flat, round onions), pearl onions - or any small whole onions or shallots are available from Melissa's (www.melissas.com). Although it's not strictly traditional, a few years ago I took to grilling the onions before simmering them in the wine and balsamic vinegar. This takes a little more time (although you can grill the onions at a previous grill session), but it gives the sauce an incredible depth of flavor. Brush the onions with oil, season with salt and pepper, and grill over a hot fire until browned on the outside, but still firm inside, 4 to 6 minutes per side.
I have never eaten a tomato. Well, not a real one, evidently.
Until recently, I didn’t even know there was a difference. And depending on your views about plant breeding and agribusiness, you might not see or even care about the difference. I do.
How could I not? I grew up in rural central Florida. I used to live next to a tomato farm. Over the course of 34 years, I’ve devoured hundreds if not thousands of tomatoes. Each and everyone of those lovely love apples, I assumed, was as nature intended. That's where I was wrong.
With little exception, every tomato you and I have ever eaten was manipulated by man. From seed to picked fruit, the tomato is worked over at every stage of its development. That’s not to say there was anything wrong with the tomatoes that have accompanied my salads and made sauce for my pizzas. It’s just a little unnerving to think that I have never eaten a perfectly natural tomato.
For all I know, the tomato -- the true tomato -- doesn’t exist any more. And if it did, I doubt that I’d know it if I saw it.
Arthur Allen, author of Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato, said in all likelihood the wild tomato would be a weird and ugly thing, a far cry from the pretty red orb we know and love.
His new book tells the story of how that ugly South American jungle fruit grew into a hundred million dollar business, an Italian icon and a project for the Chinese military.
Meeting over lunch at Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle, Arthur said that for years he’s had an interest an in agribusiness and the things that we eat, which led him to research and write Ripe.
His story of the tomato is a story of industry. The majority of tomatoes, as we know them today, were bred to be harvested by machine, capable of a long shelf-life and to a lesser extent, palatable to the consumer -- in that order (which helps explain the common lament about the modern tomato's lack of flavor). However in Florida, taste falls even farther by the wayside, as growers focus on producing large, firm tomatoes for their fast food clients, who are looking for tomatoes that can be sliced uniformly, over and over again. Despite the hardiness of the Florida tomatoes, most of them are still picked by hand; a back-breaking task most often carried out by immigrants.
As Arthur notes in the book, “Tomatoes, a wholesome food with clear nutritional benefits, have been bred to taste plain, while food chemists and the companies they work for have gussied up their corn-syrup-based snacks with savory essences culled from nature.”
Rather than serving as a totem of modern agribusiness, Arthur said the tomato has been changing since the first genetic accident occurred centuries ago. In fact, the tomato’s ability to be so easily manipulated has resulted in the wide variety of tomatoes available today. It’s also kept the cost down and allowed us to have this seasonal fruit all year long.
Tomato breeders have bred the tomato to have a firmer skin to make it more resistant to bruising and rot. The color, flavor, seed content, density and shelf-life are all the result of breeding. The Brandywines, Green Zebras and Sun Golds are all a product of breeding. As truffle hunters still use dogs and pigs to find fists of fungus in the French countryside, which are sold at premium prices, tomato breeders have built a fruit they can harvest by the ton and sell to consumers cheaply and still clear a profit (and an even greater profit if they can add an organic sticker).
“Today’s tomato -- whether the strangely crunchy specimens on your fast-food burger, sliced from a tomato picked green in southern Florida, the yellowish purple heirloom sold at the farmer’s market, or the paste on the slice at the corner pizza shop -- is the product of countless human hands,” Arthur wrote in Ripe.
But for all that effort, the vast majority of tomatoes grown here and elsewhere end up crushed and cooked down into paste for salsa, ketchup and the very pizza sauce Arthur and I were likely enjoying on our lunch.
In the book, Arthur also explores the spiritual home of the tomato, Italy (again, the actual home was probably a Peruvian jungle). Although the tomato is a cultural icon and a staple of the nation’s cuisine, its place in the Italian kitchen dates back only to the mid-nineteenth century. To be sure, the tomato is a major crop and export for Italy, but the country also imports quite a bit of Chinese tomato paste.
Oh, and the cans of pricey San Marzano tomatoes you’re buying at the grocery store? They’re probably a Roma or similar plum-type tomato. Disease likely wiped out Italy’s San Marzanos 40 years ago.
So the San Marzanos are fake and most of the tomatoes at the grocery store weren’t grown to taste great, just easily harvested. What do we do with this information?
Enjoy your tomatoes. If nothing else, Ripe can help you make better decisions about the tomatoes and tomato products you buy and consume. Why spend the money on cans of San Marzanos when Hunt’s or Heinz will do? If you long for the flavorful tomatoes of your youth, buy or grow smaller tomatoes, like cherry and grape varieties.
Arthur is even an advocate of year-round tomatoes, though he prefers the greenhouse variety over tomatoes that are picked green and then sprayed with ethylene to ripen. And aside from your home garden, the best quality tomatoes you can find tomatoes are at the farmer’s market.
Not because they’re the real thing, it just more likely that they were picked in season and fairly recently. And a fresh ripe tomato is about as good as you're going to get.
The beer world has become a vast, confusing place, since the boom hit back in the early 2000's. A lot of atlases have been published of late to guide one through this vast, undiscovered country -- indeed, one might call it an overwhelming number, as a search for "beer guides" at Amazon.com yields 855 results! For a beginner, selecting a guide has ironically become as difficult as wading through the beers they propose to describe! And each guide, of course, has its own aim and specialities, which are not always as clear as they might be. Well, neophytes, fret no more; The Beer Trials is a practially perfect populist preamble to the wide world of beer.
Okay, full disclosure: I got this book for free from the Fearless Critic Media, the book's publisher (There! You happy FTC?!). I agreed to receive a copy on a whim, not thinking I would get very much out of it, but what they sent me is actually a really great reference. Where most beer books go either super technical or into the realm of epic beer porn, The Beer Trials keeps it simple, stupid.
A rotating group of about two dozen beer lovers and experts blind tasted 250 beers of various types, agreed upon a score, condensed their notes into a pithy three or four sentences, and framed each entry with a little bit of background and label notes. That's about it. After a preface, some basic information on brewing, and a bit of a diatribe on marketing, the book consists mostly of these well laid out, cleverly written one page descriptions of each beer based on their results.
While this method is nothing new, authors Seamus Campbell and Robin Goldstein excelled in their execution. The extensive notes section is preceded by a brief but well thought out description of beer families and styles, in which groups the various beers were compared and ranked. This division by type is very important; it is often tempting to compare a light lager to Belgian ale, but what's the use? The Beer Trials does not compare Natural Light's apples to Chimay Blue's oranges, but rather ranks the beers in relation to their peers.
That's the other great thing about this book: along with Chimay Blue, they actually DO rate Natural Light! And Bud Light, for that matter, and MGD, and Busch, and every other cheap beer under the sun. And they do so earnestly, with thoughtful notes and reasoning to back up their high or low scores. Though many do garner the scores you'd expect, there are a good number of surprises, like the rosy description and score given to Steel Reserve, pictured at right.
Along with the macrobrews, the book is populated with widely available beers anyone can find; sizable microbrewers like Anchor, Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, regional giants like New Belgium and Yuengling, and a good number of your dominant import brands from Asia and Europe are all well represented. Only a handful of these beers are rare or extraordinarily dear, and that is this book's greatest asset. Any newbie with even the most vague idea of what he likes could take this book to the grocery store, flip through and find information on any number of alternatives right in front of his face.
The authors state at the end of the preface that this book has an agenda: "To broaden your horizons, and narrow your search, by arming you with better information about beer. If we can help you find a new beer to love, then our purpose is met." For those new to the game, this book is sure to hit the mark, thanks to its populist selection and fun writing style. For these same reason, I don't think this would be a great pick for the journeyman or 'serious' beer drinker; you lot know most of these quite well, and would be better served by a Michael Jackson tome. This one would be the perfect gift for that slightly geeky young person in your life who is just about to start college -- it'll give him important knowledge to guide his beer pong selections, and force him to think about what he drinks, hopefully leading him down the healthier, more rewarding path towards better beer. Go on! Be the coolest aunt or uncle ever; here's the link.