New books on barbecue celebrate primal fire and smoke

It’s grilling season — the time when new cookbooks, gadgets and grills pitched to Father’s Day gift-giving are unveiled. But while there are all sorts of how-to manuals and gizmos again this year, there’s also a noticeable and welcome trend toward getting back to the roots of barbecue.

Of my four favorite new books on barbecue, only one comes close to being a traditional cookbook. What they all have in common is the assumption that barbecue is a noun that refers to a specific kind of food, and the proper way to prepare that food is with fire and wood smoke and some variation of the primal “barbecue pit.”

In his new book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” (The Penguin Press, $27.95), nature-and-culture writer Michael Pollan explores the way the four classical elements — fire, water, air, and earth — transform the stuff we eat and drink. As he learns from culinary masters who represent each element, the journey brings him back to his own kitchen, and he offers four basic recipes that represent the four transformations, including one for pork shoulder barbecue.

In the fire part, Pollan travels to Eastern North Carolina, where he chases a taste of barbecue and an idea. “The idea goes something like this: If fire is the first and most fundamental form of cookery… then, for an American at least, whole-hog pork barbecue over a wood fire represents the purest, most unreconstructed expression of that form.”

In his new book, “Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes from a Southern Odyssey” (University of Texas Press, $24.95) journalist and author Robb Walsh goes east from his home base in Texas to the Carolinas with photographer O. Rufus Lovett.

Their Homeric travels through the South take them to barbecue joints that both disappoint and delight. Too often they find kitchens taking modern shortcuts. But they still manage to meet a good number of pitmasters who do it the old-fashioned wood-fired way.

“I didn’t have much luck finding great old barbecue places in Georgia,” Walsh recently told me. “Fresh Air in Jackson kind of made up for it, though. It’s definitely spectacular. I’ve never seen a stone pit with whole logs like that one. And the only meat they cook is uncured hams.”

Walsh also gets into the fascinating intersections of race and religion in Southern barbecue. Fresh Air restaurant’s name and appearance were inspired by a nearby outdoor camp-meeting grounds. And he touts “young blood” pitmasters, such as Rodney Scott of Scott’s Variety in Hemingway, S.C.

Walsh bemoans the current emphasis on barbecue competitions and restaurant ratings, as he celebrates community barbecue. “Restaurant reviewing is fairly recent compared to barbecue,” he said. “There are still community barbecues at the V.F.W. hall and the local fire station.”

Edward Lee’s new cookbook, “Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen” (Artisan, $29.95), isn’t specifically about barbecue, but as the title points to, smoke is a central theme.

A Korean American chef who grew up in Brooklyn and trained in French kitchens, Lee has spent a decade in Louisville, Ky., where he owns the renowned restaurant, 610 Magnolia — though he may be best known for his time in Texas during the 2012 season of “Top Chef.”

“For me, being Southern is not a geographical location, it’s more mental or spiritual,” Lee said during a recent phone call. “When I moved to Louisville, I felt connected to something that was bigger than me and much bigger than just cooking. Southern culture is all about food.”

Lee, who will be in town at the end of May for the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, has a recipe for smoky spiced-rubbed pulled lamb barbecue in the book.

“Smoke is at the core of barbecue, both from a Korean side and a Southern side” Lee said. “But when you start talking about smoky flavor you can get it in different ways. One is an outdoor grill with an indirect smoker. Another great way is using bourbon, because it’s aged in charred barrels.”

On the pickle side, Lee has a recipe for quick pickled jasmine peaches that he says is a perfect foil for lamb barbecue. “I can’t eat barbecue and not have pickles,” he says.

In “The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue” (An Anthony Bourdain Book, $29.99), Daniel Vaughn, who is the barbecue editor at Texas Monthly and is known as the “BBQ Snob,” zeroes in on regional differences in Texas, where brisket is a way of life.

But Vaughn’s book is very much about the traditions of all kinds of smoked meat, and the legendary pitmasters who have defined certain styles, such as Central Texas “meat market” and Hill Country “cowboy.”

Vaughn will be in Atlanta on May 30 for a dinner and book-signing at Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, a place known for its Texas-style barbecue. “The Fox brothers are a couple of guys from Fort Worth who have made good in Atlanta,” Vaughn said during a recent phone call. “I tried it last year for the first time and it was incredible. I really like those big gnarly spare ribs with the salt-pepper rub.”

“I must admit, I was going to Atlanta with very low expectations, especially for brisket. But I was pleasantly surprised, not just by Fox Bros., but by Heirloom Market and Grand Champion, too.”

As far as making real barbecue at home, Vaughn doesn’t believe it can be done without a proper smoker. “You can’t replicate it any other way,” he said.

But he does feature pitmaster profiles at the end of the book that document their methods, offers some recipes for rubs, and pro tips. “If you read through those profiles, you do get a sense of the process they go through to get their finished product,” Vaughn said.

Recipes

These barbecue recipes call for an offset smoker or charcoal grill set up for indirect grilling with wood chips and a drip pan filled with water placed under the meat on the cool side of the grill. Smoke the meat low-and-slow, don’t grill it directly over the coals.

Pulled Lamb Barbecue

Serves 8

Hands on time: 30 minutes. Total time: 5 hours

The flavor of this lamb barbecue is simple, smoky, and earthy. Lamb is less fatty than pork, so it doesn’t call for a sweet element, which makes it a great vehicle for what’s so great about barbecue – the smokiness. You can eat the pulled lamb by itself with just the warm jus on the side for dipping. Or serve it on slider buns topped with pickles and Duke’s mayonnaise.

Spice Rub

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Lamb

1 lamb shoulder roast (roughly 3 pounds)

5 cups beef stock

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

To make the rub:

In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well. Pat the shoulder all over with the spice rub, applying as thick a layer as you can. Let the meat rest for about an hour. (Any extra rub can be stored in an airtight plastic container in the refrigerator for a month or two.)

To cook the lamb:

Heat an outdoor smoker or grill to 250 degrees. Add some hickory wood chips. When the chips start to smoke, place the lamb shoulder on the coolest part of the grill, close the lid, and smoke for 1 ½ hours. Check the heat occasionally: The grill temperature should not get above 250 degrees, but it should still be hot enough for the chips to keep smoking, and you can add a handful of chips when you check the temperature. The rub should look like a nice dark crust.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Transfer the lamb to a roasting pan. Add the beef stock, cider vinegar, soy sauce and Tabasco sauce, Cover loosely with aluminum foil. Place in the oven and slow-roast the lamb for 3 hours. It should become very tender.

Remove the lamb from the roasting pan (set the pan aside and shred the meat while it is still hot). Use two forks to pull the meat apart, or put on some disposable gloves and use your hands.

Strain the braising liquid, which will have absorbed a lot of the smoky flavor and use it as a dipping jus.

Per serving: 306 calories (percent of calories from fat, 73), 19 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace fiber, 24 grams fat (10 grams saturated), 81 milligrams cholesterol, 727 milligrams sodium.

Adapted from “Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen” by Edward Lee, (Artisan, $29.95).

Barbecued Chicken with Alabama White Barbecue Sauce

Serves 4. Hands on time: 30 minutes Total time: 3 ½ hours plus overnight for marinating.

For this Alabama-style recipe, barbecue the chicken first and then coat it in the white sauce. Then you slather on more white sauce at the table – or give each diner a cup of sauce so they can dip each bite in white sauce as they eat it.

For the chicken

1 whole fryer, about 3 ½ pounds

4 cups Wish-Bone Italian dressing

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For the Alabama White Barbecue Sauce

1 cup Duke’s Mayonnaise

½ cup apple cider vinegar

¼ cup apple juice

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon prepared horseradish

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup lemon juice

Dash of cayenne or to taste

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon white pepper

For the chicken

Remove the giblets and, with a sharp knife or poultry shears, cut the chicken along the backbone and flatten it open to “butterfly” it. Rinse the insides. Place the chicken in a freezer bag with Italian dressing and marinate in the refrigerator overnight. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and discard the marinade, Sprinkle the chicken inside and out with salt and pepper.

Set up your smoker or grill for indirect heat with a water pan. Use charcoal or a combination of wood and charcoal. Maintain a temperature between 275 and 325 degrees.

Spread the butterflied chicken on the grill, bone side down. Cook with indirect heat for 2 hours, then turn over and cook skin side down for 1 hour or to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Transfer the chicken to a platter and coat with about ½ cup of the barbecue sauce. Serve with additional sauce at the table.

For the Alabama White Barbecue Sauce

Makes 2 cups

Hands on time: 5 minutes Total time: 5 minutes

Here’s a variation of Big Bob Gibson’s white barbecue sauce. It tastes great on chicken, and it also makes a great chicken salad dressing.

In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well. Use immediately or keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Adapted from “Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes from a Southern Odyssey” by Robb Walsh, (University of Texas Press, $24.95).

Per serving: 485 calories (percent of calories from fat, 67), 35 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 36 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 108 milligrams cholesterol, 509 milligrams sodium.

Georgia Barbecued Ham

Serves: 12

Hands on time: 8 hours (for minding the smoker) Total time: 8 hours plus overnight for seasoning

We are talking about an uncured ham here, not the bright red ham you serve at Easter or buy sliced for sandwiches in the deli department. You will find uncured hams alongside the Boston butts and picnics in the pork section of the grocery store meat case.

Barbecued ham is darker in color and lower in fat than Boston butt or pork picnic. At Fresh Air in Georgia they grind the barbecued ham up in a meat grinder and mix it generously with barbecue sauce.

1 uncured ham, about 8 pounds

Salt and pepper to taste

Hog Mop

For the Hog Mop:

Makes 2 1/2 cups

Hands on Time: 5 minutes Total time: 5 minutes

1 cup cider vinegar

1 cup apple juice

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 tablespoons crushed red pepper

2 tablespoons kosher salt

In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients

To cook the ham:

Season the meat with salt and pepper, pressing the seasoning into the meat, and refrigerate overnight.

Fill a water pan with water and place it in the pit.

Set up your grill or smoker for indirect heat with a water pan. Use hardwood lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes. Maintain a temperature between 225 and 275 degrees. Place the ham in the smoker with the largest area of skin down. The skin will shrink and harden, serving as a bowl to contain the fat and juice. You might rotate the ham to achieve more even cooking, but don’t turn it over.

Replenish the charcoal and the water in the water pan as needed. Mop the meat whenever you open the lid. Expect a cooking time of eight hours – more if you raise the lid often or the fire goes out. Cook to an internal temperature of at least 195 degrees.

When the meat is done, allow it to rest for at least 15 minutes. Then remove the skin and bones. Cut the meat into chunks, and then push it through a meat grinder, or finely chop. Season the ground barbecue mixture with salt and pepper and barbecue sauce. Serve the minced meat on sandwich rolls topped with your favorite slaw.

Per serving: 460 calories (percent of calories from fat, 57), 40 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 29 grams fat (8 grams saturated), 129 milligrams cholesterol, 1,460 milligrams sodium.

Adapted from “Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes from a Southern Odyssey” by Robb Walsh, (University of Texas Press, $24.95).

Pickled Jasmine Peaches with Star Anise

Makes 2 Quarts

Hands on time: 20 minutes Total time: 20 minutes plus 2 days for pickling

You need to flavor your pickles, but it’s a hassle to strain out or remove loose spices that you don’t want to eat. Using tea bags is the perfect solution – they are packed with flavor. You can steep the pickle liquid just like you would a cup of tea; then, when the pickles are ready, you can just toss out the tea bags. Of course, use only high-quality tea.

This pickle screams for a nice, fatty pork dish, but it’s great with the gaminess of lamb and goat too.

2 pounds slightly under-ripe peaches

1 cup champagne vinegar

1 cup water

1 ½ cups sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

4 star anise

2 Serrano chili peppers, sliced in half

3 jasmine tea bags

Peel the peaches with a vegetable peeler. Slice into wedges, discarding the pits. Pack into a large glass jar or other heat-proof container.

In a medium saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, salt, and star anise and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Pour the hot liquid over the peaches and add the peppers and the tea bags. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate.

Remove and discard the tea bags after 1 day. The peaches will be ready after 2 days, and they will keep for up to 3 weeks.

Per 1/2-cup serving: 102 calories (percent of calories from fat, 0), trace protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 118 milligrams sodium.

Adapted from “Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen” by Edward Lee, (Artisan, $29.95).

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