As is implied by the title of his latest book—Planet Barbecue!—the bestselling author and popular television host Steven Raichlen subscribes to the big picture view of what barbecue really means. In other words, he rejects the chauvinistic Texan and Carolinian view that real barbecue must by definition be smoked and slow cooked, and instead embraces the term as an umbrella for anything at all that is cooked over or near a live fire.
I respect that, because like pretty much everyone I enjoy cooking outside over these summer months, and if I made ribs or brisket every time, my doctor would soon relegate me to one of those battery-powered wheelchairs conceived for those too fat to walk. In any case, my palate abhors monotony—and so does Raichlen’s, with the exception of the flavour of smoke.
Simply put, Raichlen will travel anywhere someone is known to be cooking something decent over a fire, on a grill, or in a smoker. As USA Today once put it, “Where there’s smoke, there’s Steven Raichlen.” This latest book takes him through 60 countries, from whence he returns with over 300 recipes, from Singaporean pork jerky to Moroccan grilled pepper salad and Catalan grilled bruschetta. From Korea, we get grilled eel with cinnamon and star anise glaze, from Germany, spiessbraten (onion-stuffed pork shoulder spit-roasted over a beechwood fire), while South Africa contributes that tried-and-true mainstay of their 1960s dinner party circuit, springbok kebabs with monkey-gland sauce.
“When I’m travelling my goal is threefold,” Raichlen explained to me when he passed through Toronto a couple of weeks back. “Taste the dish, learn the recipe, and then find a way to make it taste as good back home.”
The process is relatively easy with Third World street food, but tricky with the highly refined grill cuisine of, say, the brilliant Argentine asador (grill-master) Francis Mallmann or the celebrated custom-grill-designing Spaniard Victor Arguinzoniz. And while flipping through the pages of Planet Barbecue! the adapted recipes for Mallmann’s signature salt-crusted chicken and Arguinzoniz’s smoked ice cream intrigued me, I was instead drawn to the simpler, more primal stuff.
What I wanted to do was to cook over an open fire at the cottage, just like my kids roast marshmallows, but with more adult treats like chickens and legs of lamb impaled on my (metal) stick. Because I had just acquired a brilliant new $US49 culinary toy called the “Grizzly Spit Portable Rotisserie” from the rotisserie manufacturer Spit Jack (www.spitjack.com) and was anxious to try it out.
Raichlen suggested a recipe for spit-roasted lamb with garlic and mint, a Kenyan recipe heavily accented with a flavour drawn from its colonial past (lamb and mint jelly). But his advice for cooking over a wood fire was scant. “As a rule, you are supposed to cook over embers, not live fire,” he allowed. “But there are exceptions. Germany’s spiessbraten for example. And the Brazilian spit-roasted pineapple . . . ”
Well yes, obviously, I thought to myself. And so it was that I found myself a couple of days later at the cottage confidently pulling a leg of lamb from its marinade of soy and lime juice, massaging it with butter, garlic and mint and then confidently impaling it on my new spit. The campfire by the water was already raging. A friend and I briefly put down our drinks and banged in the stakes, threaded the spit through, and turned on the motor—which ingeniously runs for hours on a couple of D batteries.
The cooking process proved easy. The surprise was the power of the visceral draw of a big piece of meat turning slowly over an open fire. Men, women and children all proved to be equipped with the identical inner caveman and gathered around the fire like moths around a floodlight at midnight. The smoke and flame, the crackle and sizzle . . . it was beautiful. So was the lamb, its fat crisp while its slow-cooked flesh was supple, and the permeating wood smoke light and sweet. The next night, lemongrass chicken was a success of similar qualities. This weekend my planet barbecue will host some ducklings (Vietnamese-style with star anise and honey). I’m hooked.