Griller goes from back yard to kitchen, with tasty results

December 29, 2004|By ROB KASPER

WHERE THERE IS smoke, there is Steven Raichlen. On a recent Baltimore afternoon, the author of a series of best-selling barbecue books, including The Barbecue! Bible and How to Grill, was sitting in Joy American Cafe on the top floor of the American Visionary Art Museum, where the air, appropriately, was perfumed by the restaurant's wood-burning grill.

Raichlen, a native of Baltimore who now splits his time between homes in Coconut Grove, Fla., and Martha's Vineyard, Mass., has set fires around the world. He conducts classes and shoots his public-television show, Barbecue University, at Greenbrier resort in the mountains of West Virginia.

He crisscrossed the country in a school bus that sported a massive portable grill. In Japan, he defeated Iron Chef Roksbura Michiba in a televised barbecue battle.

Now he is taking his act indoors. His latest book, Raichlen's Indoor! Grilling (Workman Publishing Co., $18.95), is premised on the idea that whatever smoky acts you performed in the great outdoors now can be undertaken in the confines of your home.

As a confirmed year-round griller - just put on a thick coat and carry a good flashlight - I was skeptical of grilling in an enclosed space. Over a delicious meal - chicken enchilada, cachapas (Venezuelan corn cakes), a vegetable empanada with toasted pumpkin seeds, a grilled chicken sandwich, a trio of desserts and permission pudding - with Raichlen and his wife, Barbara, my resistance to indoor grilling weakened.

You do need some tools, Raichlen told me, to make the transformation from outdoor to indoor cooking. He quickly ticked off the five grills and two devices - a grill pan, a contact grill, built-in grill, fireplace grills, free-standing grill, stove-top smoker and rotisserie - that I could choose from to give foods the brown skin, smoky flavor or handsome crosshatch grill marks generally associated with backyard cookery.

While getting started requires coughing up some cash for the new equipment, there are items such as the popular George Foreman grills, stove-top smokers and grill pans that can be had for $40 or so, he said.

The key to buying a George Foreman grill, or any type of the waffle-iron type cookers known as contact grills, is to get one with enough oomph to brown and sear food, he said. This means a grill that delivers at least 1,000 watts, preferably 1,500 watts, he said.

These grills do a great job grilling Cuban sandwiches and the Italian panini, Raichlen said. However, these grills, like most indoor cooking devices, have a hard time handling the odors generated when fish hits a hot grill. The best way to cope with the fish-aroma problem, he said, is to place the contact grill under the hood of your stove and crank up the exhaust fan, or to cook near an open window.

"It is a trade-off," Raichlen said, one of the handful of adjustments that grilling indoors requires. For example, a contact grill with a lot of wattage also takes up a lot of counter space, and that is a consideration that an indoor griller living in a small apartment should take into account, he said.

Nonetheless, he said, the equipment for indoor cookery is steadily improving. A fireplace rotisserie called the SpitJack seems, he said, to have solved the problems of flare-ups and lingering odors that have traditionally troubled cooks roasting a piece of meat in the fireplace. It has a long, flat metal pan that is placed under its rotating spit to catch the drippings, Raichlen said.

Raichlen told me he had used the SpitJack and smaller countertop rotisseries to cook ribs, artichokes, onions, even tofu. All in the comfort of his home, without setting off the smoke detector.

The idea of writing a book on indoor grilling came from several sources, he said. One was an editor in Manhattan who had worked on his prior cookbooks and wanted a way to make these grilled foods available to her and all the rest of the nation's apartment-dwelling cooks.

But another "ah-ha moment" came, he said, when he visited the free-standing hearth in the middle of the Da Toso restaurant in Leonacco, Italy. Not only was the hearth turning out remarkable dishes such as grilled lamb chops, it also provided, as he wrote in the book, "the inimitable sense of comfort you get when you stand in front of a fireplace on a cold, or rainy day."

Raichlen and his wife complimented the Joy America chef, Spike Gjerde, on the lunch and had a hard time tearing themselves away from the exhibits in the Visionary Art Museum. But they had a plane to catch to Martha's Vineyard that would land before the fog rolled in.

A few days later, inspired by Raichlen, I tried to do a little indoor grilling. I couldn't find a store that sold the small stove-top smokers, devices that use sawdust to deliver smoky flavors. I could have ordered one through the Internet (Raichlen's book lists online sources), but I did not want to wait.

So instead I used a grill pan, a skillet with ridges in its bottom, to make a pork-chop dish from his book.

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