Barbecue Hall-of-Famer Steven Raichlen has lots of meaty cookbooks and a smoke-filled empire to his credit. His latest book lights a fire under veggies.
Steven Raichlen could probably write a book on how to be super-successful. If he did, he might call it Follow the Fire. That’s what he’s done for the past two-and-a-half decades, and it has served him well. Since the former French-lit major veered off course and landed in the world of crackling fires and sizzling meat, he never looked back. Instead, he kept looking inward — peeling back the stories, the recipes, and histories associated with the world’s oldest form of cooking and selling more books than anyone thought possible.
He struck gold with The Barbecue! Bible, a tome of 500-plus recipes from around the world, and has penned more than 30 others. Along the way, he picked up five James Beard Awards and three IACP Julia Child Awards. He’s even been inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. All these smoke-filled years later, his enthusiasm for cooking with fire burns as bright as ever.
You might have seen him on TV. His latest television show is called Project Fire, which airs on PBS. He has grill-themed shows in Canada and Italy, and you can catch him speaking French or Italian. In addition to all of that, Raichlen’s just had to make room on the bookshelf for one more cookbook. His newest, How to Grill Vegetables: The New Bible for Barbecuing Vegetables Over Live Fire, was released this May. And he’s collaborating with Windstar Cruises on Star Grill by Steven Raichlen, a barbecue and grill restaurant that will be in three of their ships; the first one is scheduled to open this year.
We caught up with him between grilling and smoking at his home in Coconut Grove, Florida, to talk all things barbecue, and how he got here in the first place.
Cowboys & Indians: Did you ever think that you’d be here, 25 years later, still barbecuing, still grilling, still smoking away?
Steven Raichlen: Never in a million years. I wrote The Barbecue! Bible in 1998, and right after it came out, it was a super-big success. Immediately. Then I wrote a proposal for The Noodle Bible, and it just didn’t seem to grab me the same way. Instead, one night that may or may not have been substance-enhanced, I wrote down all of the things that I wanted to do with barbecue — TV shows, Barbecue U, and products — and that’s been keeping me busy ever since. I sort of stumbled into a plan.
C&I: What are some of the changes you’ve seen since you wrote The Barbecue! Bible? How has grilling changed?
Raichlen: It’s huge. When I first started, people didn’t know what indirect grilling was. Grilling was something you did once a month or on the weekends. Our notion of international flavors was limited to teriyaki, and people maybe had heard of satay. Now, global flavors dominate our grilling, whether it’s in restaurants or in our backyards. It’s how we grill. Now we’ve become experts of direct and indirect grilling, and many people own smokers. That’s what I’m doing with the Project Smoke TV show and with the Project Smoke book. It’s pretty amazing.
C&I: What do you think the fascination is with burned meat?
Raichlen: I like to say “charred meat” rather than burned meat. Many reasons. For one thing, it has always been with us. There has always been that fascination. We’ve come full circle from that historic moment when Homo erectus discovered we could cook meat with fire. I call it the first act of barbecue, that went to a chain reaction of barbecue, which included quadrupling or doubling the size of our brain and changing the size of our teeth, making us more communal, and [necessitating a] division of labor. If you think about all of the things that make us human — intelligence, our communication skills, communal life, and social organization — all of that arose out of barbecue. So I think there’s been a fascination of food cooked over fire that’s imprinted in our DNA. It was always there, but when I was growing up, it didn’t have the central role that it does now.
C&I: Why is grilling suddenly so popular right now — and everywhere, it seems?
Raichlen: Most foods taste best cooked over live fire. Not just steak but even vegetables. Vegetables — you steam them, eh, you roast them in the oven, OK, under the broiler, OK, but you cook over live fire, it just really intensifies flavor; it makes most foods taste more flavorful. We’ve also become obsessed with big flavors; plus, there’s a theatrical component to it. It’s instant theater and instant party. You know, I like to think that I’ve helped advance the case for barbecue here in the U.S. and globally. My books have been translated into 17 languages, and they’re all bestsellers. It’s an idea whose time has come.
C&I: Can anyone light a fire and throw something on the grill?
Raichlen: Absolutely. You can fashion a grill out of a can of cooking oil and tin snips, and fuel it with coconut-shell charcoal, which is what the street vendors, the grill masters, in Southeast Asia do and is incredibly cheap and effective. Contrast that with a Kalamazoo Gaucho Grill, which has a gas ignition system to burn logs and costs more than my first car. It’s a sport that appeals to all levels. It’s extremely democratic. No matter what your income, you can enjoy it and be good at it. It really does cross all boundaries. That’s something I really love about it.
C&I: Are there any commonalities among barbecue cultures around the world?
Raichlen: There’s a common language that transcends words. If you were to take an Indian kebab wallah and put him next to [Thai] satay master next to an Argentinian asador and a Brazilian churrasco expert, even if they didn’t speak the same language, they would communicate. I have seen it time and time again. It’s the same technical process: The secret to barbecue and grilling boils down to heat control and oxygenation. And distance. You put food closer to the fire, and it cooks faster and hotter. Away from the fire, it cooks cooler. Well away from fire, if it’s something that’s big and ornery, like barbecue brisket and ribs. The seasoning’s what’s different. The best Texas brisket is cooked with just salt and pepper. In Kansas City, you have elaborate spice rubs and mops. The third principle is the layering of flavors. In Indonesia, they might do a brine or a lime marinade with coconut with lemongrass flavors. We do the same thing with KC barbecue, which might start with a rub, then a spritz of apple cider during cooking, and finally a basting of barbecue sauce, not to mention the judicious application of woodsmoke.
C&I: What about smoke? What role does it play in live-fire cooking globally?
Raichlen: Smoke is a huge part of it in some parts of the world, and not in other parts of the world. In Japan, they take enormous pride in their briquettes called binchotan. It’s so pure and artisanal in fabrication. The last time I bought it, it was two bucks a briquette. It burns super-hot and is 100 percent pure. They’re proud of the fact that no smoke flavor comes out of it. Then switch to Texas, where smoke is the essence — whether it’s a steakhouse or barbecue joint, it’s all about the smoke.
C&I: Your new book, How to Grill Vegetables, is a departure from the previous ones. How did the idea for this one come about?
Raichlen: It is both personal and intellectual. My daughter is a vegetarian. My wife prefers to eat vegetarian, and many other members of my family are vegetarian. What I love about barbecue is the field is so vast and so broad and deep. Project Smoke is about smoking, BBQ USA is about barbecue in the U.S., and The Brisket Chronicles was a deep dive into pastrami and cured meats. Coming off such meat-centric books, I thought, vegetables. They’re a part of all of my books, but I’ve never devoted a complete book to them, so I thought the time was right for that.
C&I: You can smoke vegetables. … Any tips?
Raichlen: Smoking is great. I love smoked foods, and I love smoked vegetables. I love smoked gazpacho. You can smoke a tomato the conventional way if you cut it in half. You can smoke moist vegetables, like tomatoes, just like you normally would smoke something on the grill. But for a denser vegetable, you want to parboil it beforehand — otherwise it will end up tasting like an ashtray.
C&I: Do you grill every day?
Raichlen: When we eat at home, there’s a grill turned on. A couple of nights ago, we had grilled artichokes and steak and a dish I call “smashed potatoes” — smoke-roast Yukon Gold potatoes, and then you smash them on a press. They’re creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside. That’s a typical dinner at our house. When corn season comes in, it might be corn. We love all manner of vegetables. Tonight we might have a simple grilled dish, but tomorrow night, I’m preparing an exquisite — and exquisitely expensive — A5 Wagyu ribeye from Japan. I’ll grill some of those smashed potatoes in the Wagyu fat. We buy our fish from a charter boat, and I’d imagine by Thursday, I’ll be grilling mutton snapper and hog snapper.
C&I: What’s the biggest mistake people make when grilling?
Raichlen: The biggest mistake is thinking all vegetables grill the same, but they don’t. Vegetables divide rather neatly into high water-content vegetables — like zucchini, corn, peppers, mushrooms, and onions that demand a high heat and relatively short cooking time — and then a family of vegetables that are denser, drier, and firmer — like potatoes, winter squash, beets, parsnips rutabaga, and turnips — that require a lower and more-indirect heat.
C&I: Biggest misconceptions about grilling?
Raichlen: That it’s a guy thing — that’s one. That it’s one-size-fits-all. That you grill everything the same way. You have to learn to control the fire and not let it control you. You see many people who build a raging fire and just throw food on it and think that by some magical process it will cook without burning.
C&I: Can you have a great dinner party without serving meat?
Raichlen: Yes! You can have a planked brie with fig jam and walnuts, and then for a pass-around starter, smoked guacamole with chia seeds and totopos. Then for a main course, a grilled vegetable paella — with artichokes, broccolini, snap beans, corn, Padrón peppers, cherry tomatoes, and onion — which is super-colorful and fantastic. And for dessert, a painted pineapple, with molasses dredged in cinnamon sugar and caramelized with roofer’s torch or blowtorch, flamed with 151 rum. It’s extremely dramatic.
C&I: What’s one thing everybody ought to cook from your new book?
Raichlen: I feel like grilled artichoke is something that everyone should know to make. Another dish everybody should know how to make is grilled corn, and I give five different ways in the new book. Grilling has become my new favorite way of doing okra. I have three recipes in the new book for grilled okra that are amazing.
C&I: OK, you’ve just lit the fire. You’re waiting for it to get hot. Wine or beer?
Raichlen: I’m more of a wine drinker than a beer drinker. It depends on what I’m grilling. A sauvignon blanc from New Zealand if it’s fish, and if it’s beef, a Barolo or a sake from Japan. If it’s an American steak, I’ll have a smoked Manhattan.
C&I: Is there anything you wouldn’t grill?
Raichlen: I would’ve said ice cream, but, in fact, I have figured out how to grill ice cream, and I include in the new book a recipe for smoked ice cream that’s pretty amazing. I would’ve said sushi, but there’s tataki that’s raw on the inside and seared on the outside. I’m not sure I’ve found a food that you can’t grill.
The guy behind The Barbecue! Bible turns his live-fire expertise to veggies and shares recipes from his new book.
Grilled Corn Five Ways
Yield: Makes 4 ears and can be multiplied as desired
Method: Direct grilling or ember-grilling
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Grilling Time: 8 to 12 minutes
Grill/Gear: Can be grilled over charcoal, gas, or wood. You’ll also need butcher’s string (optional); a sheet of aluminum foil folded in thirds like a business letter to make a grill shield to protect the husks; a rimmed sheet pan; and insulated gloves or a stiff-bristled brush.
What Else: It used to be that to experience corn at its peak sweetness, you had to source it locally in August. While this is still best, new corn varieties, such as American Dream (a late-maturing variety) and Kickoff XR (an early-maturing variety), make it possible to enjoy sweet corn almost anywhere almost year-round.
When I was growing up, grilled corn was not on my radar. It wasn’t until I started researching The Barbecue! Bible that I encountered charcoal-grilled corn basted with chandon beni butter (flavored with a cilantrolike herb called culentro) in Trinidad; corn grilled with coconut milk and fish sauce in Cambodia; and, of course, Mexico’s now ubiquitous elote (grilled corn slathered with mayonnaise and dusted with piquant Cotija cheese and chili powder). Well, today, just about everyone grills corn — and with good reason, because there’s nothing like the blast furnace heat of live fire to intensify its natural sweetness while imparting an irresistible smoky caramel flavor. Not to mention the leopard skin dappling of yellow and black that makes grilled corn so handsome to look at. And the popcornlike snap, crackle, pop you hear as the corn grills. I’ve written about grilled corn a lot over the years, and I keep coming up with new ways of preparing it.
(Corn Grilled with Garlic, Basil, and Cheese)
Mexicans have been pairing grilled corn with cheese for centuries. That set me thinking about what elote would taste like if it had been invented in Italy (and if Italians traditionally grilled corn, period, which they’re finally starting to do). Imagine smoky-sweet grilled corn with sizzling garlic butter and fragrant basil. The only decision you need to make is whether to crust the corn with sweet Parmigiano-Reggiano or tangy-sharp sheep’s milk Pecorino Romano. Whichever you choose, make sure you use a genuine imported Italian cheese.
Vegetable oil for oiling the grill grate
4 ears of sweet corn in the husk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
4 basil leaves, cut into thin slivers
Coarse salt (sea or kosher) and freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup freshly and finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese
- Set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to high. Brush or scrape the grill grate clean and oil it well.
- Meanwhile, husk the corn: Cut the tapered ends off and strip back the husk as though you were peeling a banana. Strip them all the way back so you expose the entire ear, including the last inch at the bottom. Tie the husks back with butcher’s string — the idea is to make a handle for eating the corn. Alternatively, use one or two strips of husk to tie off the handle. Pull off and discard any silk (the fine filaments between the husk and the ear). Skip this step if your corn comes already husked.
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Stir in the garlic and basil, and cook over medium-high heat until fragrant, but not brown, about 2 minutes.
- Lightly brush the corn on all sides with the garlic-basil butter and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the ears on the grate, sliding the foil grill shield under the tied-back husks to keep them from burning. Grill the corn until the kernels are darkly browned, rotating the ears every minute or so to ensure the ears cook evenly. You may hear some popcornlike crackling — cool! Baste the corn with more garlic-basil butter as it grills. Total cooking time will be 8 to 12 minutes.
- Transfer the corn to a platter or plates and brush one final time with the garlic-basil butter. Sprinkle the corn on all sides with the grated cheese and dig in.
Zucchini “Burnt Ends” with Herb Butter and Lemon
Yield: Serves 4
Method: Direct grilling
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Grilling Time: 8 minutes
Grill/Gear: Can be grilled over charcoal, gas, or wood, but for the best flavor, work over a wood or wood-enhanced fire (see page 8). If you’re enhancing a charcoal or gas fire, you’ll need hardwood chunks or chips (unsoaked). You’ll also need a rimmed sheet pan; a mandoline; and 8 flat (12-inch-long) bamboo skewers or 16 round bamboo skewers.
What Else: You’ll need a special tool called a mandoline, which is a flat slicer with a razor-sharp blade you can adjust to slice vegetables as thinly as you desire. (The back-and-forth action of slicing the vegetable mimics the strumming of a mandolin: hence the name.) Choose small zucchini — 6 to 8 inches long and 6 to 8 ounces. Use flat skewers or parallel bamboo skewers, which keeps the zucchini slices from spinning when you attempt to turn them.
Your first zucchini of the season delights, as does your second, but by the fourth or fifth, you wonder why so many people have planted so much of a vegetable that is mild (almost bland) in flavor, soft in texture, and moist to the point of being watery. Russ Faulk knows why. Russ is the head designer at Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet and, as such, is responsible for some of the most stylish grills on the planet. He has also devised one of the world’s most ingenious ways to grill zucchini. He slices it paper-thin on a mandoline (a necessary tool for this recipe unless you have mad knife skills), then accordions the slices on bamboo skewers. (This recipe was inspired by his stunning cookbook, Food + Fire.) This turns the notoriously limp vegetable into a series of crisp burnt edges. The result looks cool as all get-out. Add a lemon herb butter, and you may just find yourself planting extra zucchini next summer.
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and slightly flattened with the side of a knife
1 teaspoon freshly and finely grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons stemmed, chopped fresh dill or mint leaves, plus 3 tablespoons for serving
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (optional)
8 small zucchini (each 6 to 8 ounces)
Coarse salt (sea or kosher) and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for oiling the grill grate
- Make the lemon herb butter: Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, lemon zest, 3 tablespoons of chopped dill and the hot red pepper flakes (if using). Cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool. Discard the garlic.
- Cut off and discard the ends of the zucchini. Using a mandoline equipped with a finger guard, thinly slice one zucchini lengthwise. (The slices should be the thickness of a quarter.) Lay the slices flat on a rimmed sheet pan. Lightly brush the slices on both sides with the lemon herb butter and season with salt and pepper.
- Fold a zucchini slice into an accordion shape (like multiple Ws) and thread it onto a flat skewer. Don’t worry if a few of the slices break — skewer the pieces back to back. Continue threading until all the slices from a single zucchini are on the skewer. The green skin should be on the top and bottom. If using round bamboo skewers, insert a second skewer parallel to the first. (This keeps the zucchini slices from spinning.) Slice, butter, season, and skewer the remaining zucchini the same way. You should wind up with 8 kebabs. It’s best to skewer the zucchini right before grilling.
- Meanwhile, set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to high. If enhancing a charcoal fire, add the wood chunks or chips to the coals; if enhancing a gas fire, place the chunks or chips in your grill’s smoker box or place chunks under the grate directly over one or more burners. Brush or scrape the grill grate clean and oil it well.
- Arrange the zucchini kebabs, skin side down, on the grate and grill until darkly browned, even singed, at the edges, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn and grill the other side skin side down the same way, 6 to 8 minutes in all. Baste the zucchini skewers with the lemon herb butter as they grill. Transfer to a platter or plates for serving and spoon any remaining butter over them. Serve immediately.
(Feta Dip with Fire-Charred Chiles)
Yield: Makes 1½ cups, enough to serve 4 to 6
Method: Direct grilling or ember-grilling (caveman grilling)
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Grilling Time: 6 to 12 minutes
Grill: Can be grilled over charcoal, gas, or wood.
What Else: Tyrokafteri (also known as ktipiti) can be made with hot green or red peppers, and while jalapeños aren’t native to Greece, many Greek restaurants in the United States add them for extra kick. For an interesting variation, substitute a soft goat cheese for the feta.
Tex-Mex? How about Greek-Mex? How else do you describe a dip that starts with Greek feta cheese, which you electrify with flame-roasted poblanos and jalapeños? The first gives you that smoky fire-roasted chile flavor; the second cranks up the heat. Tip o’ the hat to a Greek restaurant called Estia in Falmouth, Massachusetts, which serves this fiery dip with warm pita. You, my pyromaniacal friend, will grill the pita for dipping, and if it would occur to you to add a thoroughly un-Hellenic ingredient — fresh cilantro — well, great minds think alike.
2 poblano peppers
2 jalapeño peppers (optional)
8 ounces feta cheese in brine, drained and crumbled
3 to 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or as needed
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves or dill (optional)
Grilled pita chips, for serving
- Set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to high. Brush or scrape the grill grate clean (there’s no need to oil the grate when grilling peppers). Arrange the poblanos and jalapeños (if using) on the grate directly over the fire and grill until charred on all sides, 2 to 4 minutes per side, 6 to 12 minutes in all. Alternatively, set up your grill for ember-grilling and lay the peppers directly on the embers. Grill until charred on all sides, about 1 minute per side, 3 to 5 minutes in all.
- Transfer the peppers to a cutting board (if ember-grilling the peppers, transfer to a rimmed sheet pan). Let cool to room temperature, then scrape off the charred skins. Cut the peppers in half lengthwise, remove the stems, and scrape out and discard the seeds. Cut the peppers into 1-inch pieces.
- Place the peppers in a food processor fitted with a metal blade and coarsely chop. Add the crumbled feta and coarsely puree. Work in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. If the mixture is too thick, add 1 to 2 tablespoons more extra virgin olive oil. But don’t overprocess: I like the mixture a little chunky. Work in the cilantro (if using). Transfer to a serving bowl.
- Serve the tyrokafteri with the grilled pita chips or wedges of pita bread for dipping.
Grilled Red Bell Pepper and Feta Dip
Swap the poblanos and jalapeños for fire-roasted red bell peppers and you get another terrific Greek dip. The smoked pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika) isn’t traditional, but I like the way it reinforces the smoke flavor.
2 red bell peppers
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika) or sweet or hot paprika
2 ounces feta cheese in brine, drained and crumbled
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or as needed
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, plus extra for sprinkling (optional)
- Follow the preceding recipe through Step 2, substituting red bell peppers for the poblanos and jalapeños (note that the bell peppers will take a bit longer to char).
- Place the bell peppers, garlic, and pimentón in a food processor and coarsely chop. Add the crumbled feta and coarsely puree. Work in the olive oil. For a spicy dip, work in the hot red pepper flakes. If the mixture is too thick, add an additional tablespoon or so of extra virgin olive oil. But don’t overprocess: I like the mixture a little chunky. Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with hot red pepper flakes (if using).
Steven Raichlen, How to Grill Vegetables (Workman Publishing). Used by permission.
Photography: (All images) courtesy Workman Publishing/ The Brisket Chronicles by Steven Raichlen © 2019. Photography by Matthew Benson.