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6 Dishes, 1 Hot Class Act

Steven Raichlen -- author, TV personality and guru of the grill -- teaches Tom Natan the tricks of the trade.

"Skewer them crosswise with toothpicks, one at top, one at bottom, four per skewer," Raichlen directed. Shrimp were secured with double-pronged bamboo skewers. The salsa accompaniment was assembled. The ribs were seasoned. Corn husks were tied back to act as handles for corn on the cob.

Raichlen does not grill corn in its husk; for him, it's all about caramelizing the sugars in the vegetable. Plus, he thinks the husk handles look cool, and cool is good, he says.

That could explain the round, tinted John Lennon glasses, thick mustache and impish grin he sports on the logo that marks his brand on books, sauces, marinades, rubs and grill accessories -- including the face of his meat thermometer.

Applying his own smarts (Fulbright scholar, degree in French literature, stints at the Cordon Bleu and La Varenne in Paris) to every step of the grilling process, Raichlen has given barbecue a "college education," he says. He created products that make sense, such as two-pronged flat skewers (ever flip a shrimp brochette and get annoyed when some turned and others didn't?), 20-inch tongs with an LED attached (ever try to monitor a steak in the dark?) and a monster grill brush that really works.

"Where there is a need, there is a tool," Raichlen says.

He likes those mantras.

"Keep it hot, keep it clean, keep it lubricated," he repeats often as he brushes grates free of detritus and uses tongs to draw oiled paper toweling across their bars. Coals should be replenished to maintain the correct temperature for direct, high-heat grilling (about 600 degrees), the method used for foods that cook quickly, such as steaks, chops and fish fillets.

Another mantra, which he calls the "Mississippi test," measures the fire's heat (see accompanying sidebar). To demonstrate, he holds an open hand, palm down, above the grate and counts until the heat makes the position untenable. " 'One Potomac, two Potomac, ouch!' means it's hot. If you get to six, it's medium. At twelve, it's cold," he says. Depending on what town he's in, Potomac gets changed; in Quebec, where he was headed the following week, Raichlen planned to use Saint Lawrence, after the patron saint of barbecue.

"He laid himself on a grill, got burned alive and told his torturers when to turn him," Raichlen recounted as he toasted a piece of bread.

Raichlen grilled the bread slices, shrimp skewers, corn and asparagus rafts using a three-zone method. A thick layer of coals created the searing, direct-heat zone on one side of the grill; next to that, a sparser layer in the center became the indirect-heat cooking zone; on the far side, there were no coals in what he called "the safety zone." On the grate above the safety zone he placed a folded sheet of aluminum foil, which kept the overhang of corn husks and bamboo skewers from burning.

Although charcoal, wood and smoke were common threads drawing the six dishes together, each had distinct characteristics. Charcoal toasting of the bread helped set off the burst of tomato and garlic flavor applied off the grill. Lemon, olive oil and sea sweetness came through loud and clear on the shrimp. The corn, its kernels burnished thanks to a basting liquid of coconut milk and sugar, was all about the caramelization, as Raichlen had predicted. A slight char complemented the sesame and soy on the asparagus. The short ribs demonstrated the intoxication born of low-and-slow smoking.

Raichlen does not sauce the ribs while they are cooking. He likes to hit them with sauce right at the end, over direct heat, to develop a rich, brown, sizzling crust.

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