By Herb Gardener -
While singing “The Farmer in the Dell” to my two year old, Fauna, I was struck by the peculiar “cheese” reference above. It sounded like part of a coded exchange between spies on a park bench. And besides, cheese is a convivial food that belongs in the company of others.
In my free associative state I thought about Steven Raichlen, the live-fire master who, for me, stands alone as preeminent exponent and scholar of world barbecue traditions. While barbecue in this country evokes thoughts of “low and slow” ribs or brisket, Raichlen’s global observations led him to Planet Barbecue!’s definition: “live fire cooking with wood smoke, a series of iconic dishes, a meal prepared and eaten outdoors, and a communal food experience”. I am sure that the Farmer’s cheese will be welcome at the table.
Live-fire was the first cooking method of any kind. According to anthropologists, early man harnessed flame to grill meat more than 250,000 years ago, with the first documented use of charcoal dating back to 30,000 B.C.E. Raichlen tracks barbecue’s ancient and modern history in the opening pages, then starts with another beginning — appetizers — from around the world. Don’t miss the first chapter’s Israeli smoked egg pate. The book’s organization continues with salads and breads, followed by animal proteins, vegetables, and grilled desserts.
Raichlen visited 60 countries to document the world’s live-fire catalog, resulting in over 300 recipes, national grilling profiles and signature dishes, homage to and wisdom from regional grilling greats, tips and techniques, photos and illustrations. Everything about this book screams ambitious. There is far too much to cover in a brief review, so indulge me in a theory concerning this book’s appeal.
Raichlen is an authority, yet he writes with enthusiasm about new discoveries and learns along with the reader. Though he has long disparaged boiling ribs, he admits that a Balinese treatment results in “…reaching for another. And another.” There are photos of the author standing with accomplished chefs and street vendors that convey a sense of reverence, like a teen posing with a favorite sports figure. He limns the cultural details and atmosphere of each location, and his etymologies and historical references support understanding and appreciation rather than distracting from the food and its context.
In short, Raichlen develops an authentic voice and connection with the reader. Planet Barbecue! worked for me as a unique culinary travelogue, a personal quest, and a celebration of all that is grilled, smoked, or buried in embers. Raichlen writes with brio and confidence, but he delights most in giving his representative cooks, their traditions, and recipes exposure to light our creative fires. An excellent holiday selection.
“For generations, the English have served (afflicted) lamb with mint jelly…” As I read Raichlen’s introduction to “Sweet-Sour Mint Sauce” I thought of a hotel buffet where lamb carved under the harsh glare of a police interrogation lamp is proudly served with dollops of the cloying condiment. This “grown-up” version achieves the balance of a gastrique. I found a worthy complement to “Spit-Roasted Lamb or Goat with Garlic and Mint” from the Carnivore Restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya. As is the case with a surprising number of recipes in Planet Barbecue! the preparation and ingredients are accessible to the average grill jockey and his/her pantry.
Sweet-Sour Mint Sauce
Two tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
One tablespoon minced fresh ginger
One tablespoon finely chopped fresh or dried mint
½ cup distilled white vinegar, or more to taste
One cup mint jelly
One to two tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper.
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and mint and cook until just beginning to brown, about three minutes. Increase the heat to high, add the vinegar, and let boil until reduced by half, three to five minutes. Whisk in the mint jelly and Worcestershire sauce and let the sauce simmer until thick and richly flavored, about three minutes. Season the sauce with salt and pepper and more vinegar as necessary; the sauce should be highly seasoned.
Planet Barbecue! by Steven Raichlen. New York: Workman Publishing, 2010. $22.95.