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6 Dishes, 1 Hot Class Act

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A last-minute request poured in: Could Chef on Call spend an afternoon with grillmeister Steven Raichlen?

It was like asking a shoe fetishist to hang out with Manolo Blahnik.

Raichlen, who lives in Miami and on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., with his wife, Barbara, would be in town for a day and could spare four hours before presenting a lecture that evening at the Smithsonian.

All that was missing was a student. I called Tom Natan, 47, an Adams Morgan neighbor who imports wines from France's Rhone region and sells them on the Internet. He's an excellent indoor cook, but his outdoor skills need help. I suggested he come over on Tuesday, attend a mini-session of Raichlen's Barbecue University and learn how to prepare an entire meal, dessert and all, on the grill. Natan offered to pair the food with selections from his wine portfolio.

A few days beforehand, Raichlen forwarded an e-mail curriculum with an international theme, which was not surprising given the ways in which he explores the world's barbecue trails. For his current television cooking series, called "Primal Grill With Steven Raichlen" (airing Saturdays on some Maryland Public Television stations), and for his upcoming book, "Planet Barbecue" (2009), he has traveled to 47 countries and has three to go (Armenia, Georgia and South Africa).

And, of course, there are plenty of global flavors in the recently released, 10th-anniversary edition of his award-winning "The Barbecue! Bible."

Raichlen's menu for Chef on Call included Catalan bread rubbed with tomato and garlic, shrimp cocktail with Mediterranean salsa, five-spice smoked short ribs with Shanghai barbecue sauce, Cambodian corn on the cob, sesame asparagus rafts and smoke-roasted raspberry pear crisp.

Six dishes in four hours?

It didn't take Raichlen that long. And had I not slacked on the prep that should have been completed before his arrival, it would have taken him even less time. So while I was getting caught up in the kitchen, Raichlen put Natan to work on the back deck of my house.

As Francophiles and Rhone wine fans, the two enjoyed an instant rapport. Raichlen is 56, looks 36 and maintains a public appearance schedule as if he were 26. He was running on two hours' sleep that day and already had shot a video for the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board.

Though tempted to sample the wine, Raichlen opted for iced tea and got down to business in an organized fashion, which made the afternoon plan work well. The dishes were finished in exact order: the bread, then the shrimp, followed by the corn and asparagus; next, the fruit crisp, then the ribs.

The bone-in short ribs took the longest, so they were the first to go into a smoker-type grill. "Those big gazunka ribs would normally take two to two and a half hours to smoke at 250 degrees," he said, "so I'm going to have to go a little hotter than I usually do." Raichlen didn't waste any of the 30 minutes it took to ready the smoker's charcoal. Wood chunks were set to soak for a half-hour (wet wood produces smoke when placed on burning embers); then Natan constructed the asparagus rafts.

"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.

"I like the taste of smoke and spice, not barbecue sauce," he says.

After the vegetables came off the grill, Raichlen and Natan assembled the fruit crisp in a cast-iron skillet and placed it on the grate, over an area left bare of heated coals, to cook indirectly at 375 degrees with the lid on. The grill approximated a conventional oven, but with the bonus of wood-chip smokiness that Raichlen claimed, accurately, would bring out the sweetness of the fruit. The ribs were still in the smoker; to finish them, he could have added hot coals and brushed the ribs with his sauce. But he transferred them to the higher heat of the second grill for his final approach.

Natan learned a lot that day. "I didn't know how to use a zoned fire properly; it wasn't part of my 1960s grilling experience," he says. "Nor was sequencing an entire meal with different fire requirements. And who knew you could use something other than butter, olive oil, salt and pepper on corn?"

There was an additional revelation.

He'd always thought that big, bold wines were best with grilled food. But on this occasion, everyday Rhone wines worked well, too, such as Cave la Romaine Tradition Rouge and Chateau de Clapier Calligrappe.

"Their earthiness complements the caramelization," he says.

True enough, but that day it was the caramelization that reaped most of the compliments.

David Hagedorn, chef and former restaurateur, can be reached atfood@washpost.com.His Chef on Call column appears monthly.

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