Project Fire: Grillmaster and Author, Steven Raichlen talks with MIAbites
Steven Raichlen, Miami resident, chef, author and all-around barbecue and grilling genius made his way to Books & Books Coral Gables for a special talk promoting his new book Project Fire. I was able to sit down with the New York Times bestseller and talk to him about his projects, his life as a traveling grill master and everything else barbecue.
I saw that you graduated with a degree in French literature… And now you have this barbecue empire, so, how did you go from French literature to barbecue?
Well, it was total serendipity. I wrote my thesis on a medieval French poet named Christine de Pizan, while I was researching the stacks I came across a medieval cookbook. I was like wow people were writing cookbooks 800 years ago that’s fantastic. So, after I graduated I applied for a Thomas F. Watson fellowship. So, the idea of these fellowships is that they are non-academic, you were supposed to go in the field and do something interesting and cool. So, I proposed to study medieval cooking in Europe and to my astonishment I got the Watson.
After that I devoted my time in the libraries reading old cookbooks, I visited monastery kitchens and castle kitchens to see how people cooked, I went to a modern French cooking school to understand the process of cooking, and that really got me looking at the intersection of food and history and culture and that in effect is what I’ve been doing ever since.
What made you choose grilling and barbecue specifically?
That came out of the blue in November 1994. This idea came to me, cooking over fire is the world’s oldest and universal cooking method but it’s done differently in every culture and country, so wouldn’t it be cool to travel the world and write about how people grill in different cultures, that book then became the Barbecue Bible.
You’re running a "Barbecue University" out of Colorado. What gave you that idea?
One night after Barbecue Bible came out I kind of sat down and made a list of all the things I would like to do in barbecue. It included other books on other topics and it included a Barbecue University—I consider myself an educator—a website, a line of products, barbecue and grilling TV shows and this is the power of list making. After that night I just kept that in mind and everything sort of unfolded.
What’s the main difference between barbecue and grilling?
Grilling is a direct high heat method, how you cook a steak or burger, fish or vegetable. It’s what most of the world means by “live fire” cooking. True barbecue is low, slow, big food, a lot of wood smoke and indirect cooking. We are really about the only country in the world that does both barbecue and grilling, but they’re two very different animals.
Would you say you prefer barbecue over grilling?
I love both! I’ve written about both, I’ve taught about both, done TV shows on both. I would say I’m probably more drawn to grilling then barbecue because barbecue is primarily an American phenomenon, and the beat that I carved out in this crazy field is global grilling. It’s a topic I’m fascinated with.
Since we’re talking about barbecue, do you feel that this regional barbecue battle is serious? Is there such thing as Kansas vs Texas barbecue?
Well, I love them all, it’s hard to choose.
As someone who lives in Miami, how’s our barbecue?
Barbecue is not part of our indigenous culture, we’re more of a grilling culture than a barbecue culture. I would say if you want to eat American barbecue you go to Texas or Kansas City. However, in the last three years, we have become a major destination for wood-fire grilling. Think about restaurants like Los Fuegos by Frances Mallman in The Faena Hotel or Michael Schwartz’s restaurants. South American inspired grilling or “asado” is a big deal now.
When it comes to barbecue, do you think the culinary world is taking it more seriously now? Is there a possibility for barbecue and grilling to become sort of high-class dining?
Many of the wood grill restaurants are very high class. As for barbecue, it remains down-and-dirty. I wouldn’t say that our barbecue places are world class but we’re about to get the best guy in greater New York to open a restaurant down here in Miami so that’s going to be a whole new thing. (Editor’s Note: We’ve got the scoop- watch for news about Hometown BBQ in Brooklyn’s Billy Durney.)
Project Fire came out May 1. What’s the main thing people should be expecting from this book?
Well, first of all, it is about grilling as opposed to smoking which was my last book. It’s really a very forward-thinking book, it’s about grilling today and tomorrow. A book like Barbecue Bible and Planet Barbecue are really books about what people do traditionally, a profile of a particular country. This book is more about cutting-edge techniques, grilling on a salt slab or grilling in the embers. It’s about meals you never think of grilling like breakfast, dessert, cocktails.
You did a lot of traveling for this book?
I do a lot of traveling for all of my books, whenever I start a new book the first thing I do is pack a suitcase.
Are there any places that really stuck with you during these past trips done for Project Fire?
I’ve been thinking a lot about Italy lately because I taped a new show in Italy for the fall for Italian television so that’s on the brain. Maybe Latin America, Southeast Asia, Europe.
Any memorable dishes or techniques?
Oh, yeah absolutely, leaf grilling which they do in Greece and Portugal. They wrap sardines in grape leaves so the leaves burn and sort of smoke the fish. In Mexico, they do ember-roasted salsa where they lay the salsa ingredients on the coals and let them roast.
Comparing the States to all these different places, would you say that we have a lot to learn when it comes to both grilling and barbecue.
Actually, on the contrary. The States have a lot to teach, we are the only country in the world that has a very strong tradition of both grilling and true barbecue. I actually got an email from a Czech grilling friend who read my book Barbecue Bible and got totally hooked on the subject and opened the first grilling restaurant in The Czech Republic and now he is coming to New York for a week to study American barbecue and this happens with people I know all over the world.
Ok, so I got a speed round for you.
For grilling would you prefer gas or charcoal?
Charcoal. But the actual answer is neither, I prefer wood.
Any specific wood?
Oak, the point to make is that gas and charcoal produce no intrinsic flavors of their own, wood grilling gives you smoke as well as heat, so wood is the way to go.
Pork or beef?
Probably beef, although it helps that my wife doesn’t eat pork, so I only do pork professionally not at home.
Sauce or dry rub?
I’m more of a rub guy. I’ve written a whole book on rubs and sauces so obviously I do sauces, but I think sauces have been used to camouflage foods.
Steven Raichlen’s new book Project Fire is out now. It is available at all Books & Books and on Amazon and would make a great gift for Father's Day Sunday, June 17th!
If you want to try your hand at one of Steven’s recipes from Project Fire, below is recipe for his Grilled Basket Halibut:
GRILL BASKET HALIBUT with Maple Teriyaki
YIELD: Serves 4
METHOD: Direct grilling
PREP TIME: 10 minutes, plus
1 to 2 hours for marinating
GRILLING TIME: 6 to 10 minutes
GRILL/GEAR: Can be grilled over charcoal, wood, or gas. You also need a hinged grill basket and oil spray.
SHOP: Halibut is a semi-firm white fish with a mild sweet flavor. And it’s one of the rare wild fish you find on both the East and West Coasts. Can’t find halibut in your area? Teriyaki goes equally well with salmon, bluefish, and bass. You’ll need to know about a couple of special ingredients for this dish. Asian sesame oil—pressed from roasted sesame seeds—has an alluring nutty flavor. One good brand is Kadoya from Japan. Mirin is Japanese sweet rice wine—you can substitute sake or white wine plus a little extra maple syrup.
INSIDER TIP: So how do you grill a delicate stick-prone fish, like halibut, without leaving half of it stuck to the grill grate? One solution—used by grill masters in Europe and Central Asia—is to cook it in a grill basket. The beauty of this method? You turn the basket, not the fish.
Here’s a New England riff on a Japanese favorite: teriyaki sweetened with maple syrup. You might think that the fish will stick to the grill grate. It won’t. You might think that the sugar in the maple syrup will burn. It will—but just enough to impart a sweet-smoky caramel crust to the fish. Teriyaki comes from the Japanese words teri, meaning “luster” or “shine,” and yaki, meaning “grilled.” Rarely do four simple ingredients deliver such a big dividend of flavor.
For the marinade
1/2 cup soy sauce or tamari (a high-quality soy sauce brewed exclusively from soy beans)
1/2 cup sweet rice wine (mirin), sake, or white wine
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup Asian (dark) sesame oil
1 scallion, trimmed, white part smashed (reserve the green part, thinly sliced on the diagonal, for serving)
For the fish
1 1/2 to 2 pounds fresh halibut, cut into 4 even pieces
Cooking oil spray for the grill basket
Vegetable oil for oiling the grill grate
1. Make the marinade/sauce: Combine the soy sauce, mirin, maple syrup, sesame oil, and scallion white in a saucepan and whisk to mix.
2. Arrange the halibut in a baking dish just large enough to hold it. Pour the marinade over the halibut, turning it a few times to coat well. Marinate the fish, covered, in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours, turning two or three times.
3. Drain the halibut well, pouring the marinade back into the saucepan. Place the fish pieces in a grill basket that you’ve oiled well with oil spray.
4. Boil the marinade over high heat until syrupy and reduced by about one third, whisking often. You should have about 1¼ cups. Set this glaze aside for serving.
5. Set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to high. Brush or scrape the grill grate clean and oil it well. Lay the grill basket with the fish in it on the grate and grill the halibut until sizzling and browned on the outside and cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes per side. After 3 minutes, start basting the fish with some of the teriyaki glaze. Baste several times.
6. Carefully open the grill basket and transfer the fish to a platter or plates. Reboil the remaining glaze, whisk well, then strain it over the fish. Sprinkle with the scallion greens and serve. FYI, our food stylist, Nora Singley, likes to serve the halibut with grilled scallions.