Grilling season has arrived, and you should check out Steven Raichlen's Planet Barbecue if you want to get beyond the burger rut -- and maybe open the door to Howard County's ethnic shopping.
I have tried to find a better grilling cookbook. Literally. I got a paperback copy of Planet Barbecue, and I'm leery about reviewing a book just because someone sent it for free. Generally, I avoid TV chefs and paperback books, so I cooked from Planet Barbecue while pulling a half dozen other books from the library.
Planet Barbecue stands out because it's actually creative. For weeks, I have been flipping page to page and thinking, "Oh, I want to eat that." It's techniques and dishes that are unusual, but accessible enough that I'm raring to try.
Grinding my own lamb for kabobs. Baking bread wrapped on a flat skewer. Stuffing small eggplants with bacon. Coating grilled corn with cheese. By the time that I served up tacos of marinated pork and grilled pineapple, I realized that I was not only going to priase Raichlen's book -- but I am going to have to buy a hardcover copy so that it can survive a few years in my kitchen.
Anyone could cook from Planet Barbecue. But I love writing about the local ethnic markets, so I'm going to particularly recommend this book for anyone who wants an excuse to explore this summer. Whole fish at an Asian grocery. Lamb from a halal butcher. Spices from a Mexican market. Skewers at the new Persian store on Snowden River. Raichlen does a wonderful job of talking about ingredients that are beyond a supermarket, but absolutely within your reach and guaranteed to bring new flavors to your grill.
First, the complaints. The travel stories fall in a swampy middle ground. Long enough to take pages and distract from the recipes. Too short to give useful information. It's like name-dropping, not like telling stories to a friend. Also, the recipes suffer a few fails. You should buy this book because Raichlen writes clear, interesting instructions about new ways to cook, but he could have added a little more in a book that emphasizes new ingredients. My ground lamb came out chewy -- presumably because I didn't remove gristle or something when I cut the meat from the bone. Unfortunately, Raichlen has six photos of how to form a kabob without a single explanation of what "lamb shoulder" meat should look like or how to take it off the bone.
(A moment of warning: I'm not even sure I got a lamb shoulder. It looked like a lamb leg. It's not horrific, but it's clearly a little animal's leg. I definitely had a discordant moment at Nazar Market in which I was thinking about "Mary had a little lamb" and the butcher was using a band saw.)
Those fails, however, are a minor price for a fun book with truly interesting recipes. The half-dozen other grilling books that I auditioned fill page after page with meat glazed with sauce, thrown on the fire. This is a true random flip through the second-best book: Chicken breast coated with soy sauce, ketchup, sugar, and vinegar. Flip. Hanger steak coated with Dijon mustard, anchovies and olives. Flip. Shrimp over "garlicky" spaghettini where you use 4-5 garlic cloves for six people. Seriously? Ketchup, mustard and 2/3 a clove of garlic per plate? I'd rather just buy great meat and grill them plain.
In contrast, Raichlen offers innovations. Lemongrass beef with fish sauce, sesame oil, ginger and more -- served over rice vermicilli and a salad of lettuce, cukes, Thai chilis, bean sprouts and herbs. Turkey schwarma with seven spices and an Israeli tomato relish. A Serbian chicken where you debone drumsticks, stuff them with mustard, ham and cheese, then grill them as little bundles. Recipes teach new techniques and new ideas, and they offer up new flavors to get you outside at the grill.
The ideas run from salads and appetizers through every part of the carnivorous world, including shellfish. There are hugely ambitious recipes here -- like cooking a whole pig and smoking meat -- but also lots of options for people who just want to cook on a gas grill.
All this week, I'll use Planet Barbecue to post some ethnic shopping trips -- a Mexican market to make tacos al pastor and grilled corn, a halal butcher to make lamb kabobs and grilled bread, and an Asian supermarket for whole fish. To start, however, Raichlen stands out because he suggests new ways to grill vegetables, a skill that I'm going to need with my new CSA. Eventually, I will try his grilled mashed potatoes and his butternut squash. But I started with eggplant. Started because the recipe called for bacon, and that seemed like fun.
The Miami Herald food section taught me to grill eggplant sliced thin. You salted the slices, rubbed them with red-wine vinegar, then grilled them until until browned. After about a decade, I realized that this eggplant was horrible. Often bitter. Often burnt. I gave up at some point and never grilled eggplant again until Raichlen suggested whole eggplants. Small eggplants, sliced open and stuffed with paprika and bacon. Grilled whole, they stay moist and almost collapse around the filling. They're warm, crisped on the outside, soft on the inside, and delicious all the way through.
That's the kind of discovery that makes me want a hard-covered Planet Barbecue on my shelf.
adapted from Planet Barbecue
Note: You want small, thin eggplant and great bacon. Look to long, slender eggplants, and this is your chance to try the Asian grocery stores like H Mart in Catonsville, Grand Mart in Laurel or Lotte in Ellicott City. They often sell small black-skinned Italian eggplant (which I used) and purple Japanese eggplants (which would be fun to try). Look for thick-cut bacon, and you'll enjoy checking out one of Howard County's meat markets like the Laurel Meat Market or JW Treuth & Sons in Oella. Note that you only need four inches of bacon for each eggplant so I actually used one full slice for two eggplants.
4 small eggplants (3 to 4 ounces each)
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and fresh ground black pepper
4 thick slices of bacon -- each about four-inches long.
1 1/2 tsp sweet or hot paprika
1) Cut a deep lengthwise slip in each eggplant. The slit shoudl run almost but not quote to each end and cut almost completely through the eggplant. Gently pry open the eggplants with your fingers and season them generally inside with salt and pepper.
2) Cook the bacon in a skilled until browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Drain the bacon on paper towels. Reserve any fat in the skillet.
3) Generously season the bacon with the paprika. Insert one slice of bacon in each eggplant. Sprinkle any extra paprika into the slits. The eggplans can be refrigerated, covered, for several hours until you are ready to grill.
4) Set the grill for direct grilling and preheat to medium-high.
5) Brush and oil the grill grate. Arrange the eggplants with the slit side up. Grill them until darkly browned on the bottom -- 3 to 4 minutes. Turn each eggplant to gril on one side, then the other -- 3 to 4 minuts per side. Carefully turn the eggplants over and grill until the slit side in browned -- 1 to 2 minutes. Overall, the eggplants will cook for 10-14 minuts. Baste them with the reserved bacon fat if you like. When cooked, the eggplants will be very soft to the touch and easily pierced with a skewer. Transfer to a platter and serve hot.
Planet Barbecue has inspired Grilling Week here at HowChow. Later this week, I will post about buying whole fish at the Asian grocery stores, finding lamb at a halal butcher, and getting chiles and spices at a Mexican market. Raichlen travelled the world to find all these recipes, but you can play with them right here in Howard County.