Steven Raichlen always has books that look to be filled with great information and recipes, but as a Southerner, I have always been cynical. Raichlen’s books The Barbecue! Bible and BBQ USA are great, but How to Grill: The Complete Illustrated Book of Barbecue Techniques sets off Southerner alarm bells. Grillin’ ain’t barbecue, Son.
Still, when I had a chance to review a copy of Raichlen’s latest, Planet Barbecue!: 309 Recipes, 60 Countries, An Electrifying Journey around the World’s Barbecue Trail, I jumped at the chance, especially since the idea of a look at barbecue around the world meshes nicely with our own forthcoming book on immigrants bringing food from the world to the South.
Delving into the book, I was quickly comforted by Raichlen’s approach to the term barbecue. He is fully aware of, and respectful of, the Southern definition of barbecue. He is also open to something greater. He says, “for practical purposes, this book embraces the ancient art of cooking with live fire, a specific cooking technique involving wood smoke, a series of iconic dishes, a meal prepared and eaten outdoors, and a communal food experience.”
A broad swath? Not particularly. Raichlen is writing about people coming together around a fire to make and share a meal. He’s writing about food community. A few pages further in, he’s writing about “Grilling with a Conscience.” Raichlen writes a brief but impassioned plea in support of local and sustainable food. Oh my, the boy’s a hippie! Of course I’m a hippie too, so this should be good.
The bulk of the included recipes are meat-based. That’s only fair, because the primal urge is to get that big raw hunk of meat and get it sizzling on the fire. And Raichlen delivers with dishes like bistecca alla fiorentina, an inches-thick porterhouse or T-bone grilled with just salt and pepper then cut off the bone and served at the table with only a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
That’s not to say that the entire book is all brute force cooking. There is also a lot of delicacy as seen in dishes like grilled salmon with shallot cream sauce. Nor do you need another book to round out your meal. Raichlen includes sections on starters, salads, grilled breads, vegetables, and, of course, desserts. All you need for your entire meal is a fired up grill.
Tantalizing though they are, the recipes aren’t my favorite part of Planet Barbecue!. I love the copious amounts of information that Raichlen presents, nothing too dense and all very interesting. To open the book, he looks at the history of barbecue in a mere 2,000 words. To close the book, he presents a “Nuts and Bolts of Live-fire Cooking” covering building a fire, grilling methods, and grill care.
My absolute favorite parts, though, are the bits in between, where Raichlen introduces the reader to people and places around the world. My particular favorite is the section on Colombia because our dear friend Karen (Sorta Sister Squirrel to long-time readers) is in Colombia now. Hopefully she is getting out and having lots of grilled dishes, especially the one Raichlen calls “the most singular dish in the repertory” chiguiro or capybara, essentially an 100-pound guinea pig. I would pay to see that.
Don’t worry. We decided to try a dish that doesn’t involve raiding the local zoo.
Disclosure: This book was received as a free review copy.