Food & Drink

Why grillmaster Steven Raichlen is smokin’ hot

The way mob bosses sit facing the door, Steven Raichlen sits at Wynwood’s KYU restaurant eying the wood-burning grill.

It’s his second visit to this polished, new restaurant and he has been eager to try the smoked Wagyu brisket, the cut by which he judges a grill master’s skill. Firelight catches his eye through his trademark Harry Potter glasses and he occasionally glances toward the kitchen, drawn instinctively to the flames.

Raichlen, 63, is just as you picture one of America’s foremost grill masters, the winner of five James Beard Awards for his New York Times Bestselling grilling books, like his most recent, “Project Smoke,” which launches Saturday at Books & Books in Coral Gables, and the eponymous PBS television show that debuts its second season Memorial Day weekend. (It will air on WPBT2 on June 25th at 11 :30 a.m.) He’s unassuming from under those English Sheepdog salt-and-pepper curls in relaxed dad jeans and a logo-free charcoal Henley with the sleeves pulled up.

Then he opens his mouth.

Soon, he’s discussing 18th century French poetry (he was a French literature major on Fulbright scholarship at Reed College), his first novel (“Island Apart,” Forge Books) and his time studying medieval cooking techniques in Europe while on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. A former Boston Magazine food critic who apprenticed in a Michelin-star rated restaurant, he appreciates food in the same exquisite detail with which he researches his thoughtful, insightful words on grilling.

“I’m not a Bubba,” he jokes, making a point that grilling isn’t low-brow and neither is he.

He notices everything about the sleek restaurant on a bustling Tuesday night, from the space between the tables and whether there is enough light (He asks to move to a brighter table: “I like to really see my food”) to the firewood artfully stacked near the kitchen. When a beautifully styled plate of mushroom arrives, he slips around to the other side to take a good food porn shot for his Facebook page.

He’s interrupted when the smoked, Wagyu brisket arrives. After one bite, he’s in awe. “Damn. They nailed it. Damn! Wow,” he says. “That’s easily the best brisket in Miami.”

To hear the grill master find Miami’s best brisket in a sleek tailored restaurant is unexpected. But you could say the same about Raichlen.

In the lush back patio of his north Coconut Grove home, where he has lived for the past 25 years with his wife, Barbara, it’s a game of “Where’s Waldo?” with grills:

A Weber at the foot of the bubbling rectangular pool. A Kamado ceramic cooker by the guest house. A upright barrel smoker in the sideyard by the rustling bamboo. You count 10 before he points out two more. He hasn’t used the oven in three years. Maybe four. If he has to cook in a skillet, he uses a grill as the heat source.

“It’s a constant push-pull with my wife. She would like me to have fewer grills and I would like to have more,” he said.

She understands his passion, though, since the day 35 years ago when she heard him use a Yiddish-ism (“Oy!”) while translating English to French at the Parisian cooking school La Varenne and declared “I’m going to marry this guy.”

She thought he would become a college professor and together they’d spend a life in academia. (“This is not the man I thought I was marrying,” she jokes.) Instead, they started a foodie family.

Barbara was the publicist for several of the original Mango Gang chefs — Mark Militello, Allan Susser and Doug Rodriguez — and her late father owned the defunct Raphil’s Deli, which served Jackie Gleason and Meyer Lansky on Miami Beach.

Raichlen’s stepson, Jake Klein, is the chef/owner of Jake’s Handcrafted gastropub in Brooklyn. And his stepdaughter, Betsy Berthin, is the team nutritionist for the Miami Heat. (Her phone pings during dinner and it’s Dwyane Wade, on the road, sending her a picture of a restaurant menu, asking her what he should order.)

“I’m usually against cell phones at the table, but we make an exception,” he said.

A journalist at heart, Raichlen dives into his work, traveling all over the world to report his books. If he discusses Two Bros BBQ Market in San Antonio, it’s because he has sat there to have their oak-smoked cherry-glazed baby back ribs. The bacon, ham and cheese chicken thighs in Project Smoke he’s had in Belgrade, Serbia. The best pastrami? Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“The first thing I do when I sign a new book contract is pack my bags,” he said, as he prepared to go on tour for Project Smoke, drinking an organic hard cider in the open white-and-stainless-steel kitchen that only his wife uses. “Grilling is the world’s oldest cooking method and the most universal.”

Raichlen studies food. He and his family go to excruciating lengths to know that their food is locally grown and humanely raised, to “know what I eat was eating,” Barbara said. They have a Key Biscayne fisherman they call twice a week for fresh fish. They buy Homestead and Redlands produce from farmer’s markets. And they order their beef from Strauss farms in Wisconsin, where cows are grass-fed and free range. They eat only what’s in season, when it’s in season, from wild-caught salmon to blueberries.

“I have to ask 15 question before I order anything,” she said.

“How your food is raised matters as much as how you cook it,” he added.

It’s a trend Raichlen sees spreading across the country as grill masters look beyond technique to the quality of the meats they are using. Clearly, there are believers when even Texas brisket lovers will line up at a Dallas bookstore to hear a self-proclaimed Jewish Yankee lecture them on barbecue.

To wit, he praises Little Havana’s Miami Smokers’ who are using locally raised meats, such as heritage Duroc pork.

“The next 18 months, Miami’s going to become a barbecue town,” he said. “There’s something in the air.”

Smells a lot like smoke.

Steven Raichlen’s 10 Commandments of Smoking

1. Know the difference between barbecue and smoking. All barbecue is smoked, but not all smoked foods are barbecue. Texas brisket, Carolina pork shoulder and Kansas City ribs are barbecue. Virginia ham, Irish smoked salmon, and Wisconsin smoked cheddar are smoked, but they’re not barbecue.

2. Understand the flavor of smoke. Think of it as the umami of barbecue. Smoke has a unique ability to endow familiar foods, from sausage to steaks, with an otherworldly quality that is simultaneously familiar and exotic.

3. Smoke everything. Really. Meat, poultry, and seafood, of course, but also cocktails, vegetables, cheeses, fruits, and desserts.

4. Buy organic, heritage, heirloom, grass-fed and local. What your meat eats and how it’s raised matters as much as how you smoke it.

5. Low and slow is the way to go. Ribs, shoulders and briskets need a slow cook at a low temperature to achieve smoky perfection.

6. Wrap it up. Wrap brisket and beef ribs in unlined butcher paper the last two hours of smoking. This seals in moisture without making the bark (crust) soggy.

7. Give it a rest. Once brisket, pork shoulder and other large cuts of meat are smoked, transfer them to an insulated cooler to rest for 1 to 2 hours. Your meat will be juicier and more tender.

8. It’s OK to overcook your meat. It’s essential to overcook your meat. Shoulders, bellies, brisket and ribs need to be cooked to 195 to 205F to achieve the proper tenderness.

9. Remember this simple rule: More air equals higher heat; less air equals lower heat. Adjust the vents accordingly to control the airflow and thus the cooking temperature.

10. Remember this other simple rule: Lower heat produces more smoke; higher heat produces less smoke.

Source: “Project Smoke”

If You Go

What: Renowned grill master Steve Raichlen will discuss and sign his new book, “Project Smoke,” and chef Allen Susser will design a meal based on recipes from the book.

When: 7 p.m. May 21

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables

Tickets: The event costs $50 (tax not included). Ticket includes a signed copy of the book and food. Tickets can only be purchased by calling 305-442-4408

Cherry-Smoked Strip Steak from “Project Smoke”

1 thick (2- to 3-inch) boneless strip steak, rib steak, or sirloin (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds)

Coarse salt (sea or kosher) and cracked or freshly ground black pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

Method: Reverse searing

Prep time: 5 minutes

Smoking time: 45 minutes to 1 hour

Grilling time: 4 to 6 minutes

Fuel: I like cherry for smoking this steak, but any hardwood will do. You’ll need enough hardwood chunks or chips (soaked and drained if using the latter) for 1 hour of smoking.

Gear: A remote digital thermometer or instant-read thermometer so you can monitor the internal temperature during smoking and grilling

Shop: Reverse searing works best with really thick steaks: 2- to 3-inch-thick strip steak, porterhouse, rib steak, and sirloin steak

What else: This steak works best on a charcoal-burning grill or smoker, like a kettle grill or offset barrel smoker with a grill grate over the firebox. That enables you to smoke low and slow, then sear over a hot fire. Otherwise, you’ll need to start the steak in a smoker and finish it on a grill.

Steak is one cut of beef you don’t normally smoke. It requires a hot fire to sear the exterior while keeping the inside sanguine and juicy. But there is a way to smoke a steak low and slow, and if you’re fortunate enough to start with a monster-thick strip or rib eye, this is one of the best methods I know for bringing its interior to a luscious 135 degrees medium-rare while achieving a sizzling dark crust. You guessed it—reverse searing (you slow-smoke the steak first to cook it through, then rest it, then finally sizzle it over a hot fire to sear the crust).

If using a charcoal kettle grill, light 10 to 12 pieces of charcoal (preferably natural lump charcoal) in a chimney starter. When ready, place the charcoal in one side basket or on one side of the bottom grate. Adjust the top and bottom vents to heat your grill to 225-250 degrees.

Meanwhile, very generously season the steak on the top, bottom, and sides with salt and pepper. Insert the thermometer probe through the side of the steak, deep into the center.

Add the wood to the coals. Place the steak on the grate as far away from the fire as possible. Cover the grill and smoke the steak until the internal temperature reaches 110°F. This will take 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove the steak from the grill and let rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, add 10 to 15 fresh coals to the bed of embers and build a hot fire in your grill, readjusting the vents as need ed.

Lightly brush or drizzle the steak on both sides with olive oil. Place it on the grate over the fire and direct grill until the top and bottom are sizzling and darkly crusted and the internal temperature on an instant-read thermometer reaches 120-125 degrees for rare to 130-135 degrees for medium-rare (2 to 3 minutes per side, 4 to 6 minutes in all), turning with tongs. If you like, give the steak a quarter turn on each side halfway through searing to lay on a crosshatch of grill marks. For really thick steaks, grill the e dges, too.

Serve hot off the grill. I like to cut the steak on the diagonal into 1/4-inch-thick slices. I wouldn’t say no to an additional drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Yield: Makes 1 really thick steak, enough to serve 2 or 3

Deviled Smoked Eggs from “Project Smoke”

12 large eggs, preferably organic

Vegetable oil, for oiling the wire rack or grate

Method: Hot-smoking Prep time: 11 minutes

Smoking time: 15 to 20 minutes

Fuel: Hickory, apple, or hardwood of your choice—enough for 20 minutes of smoking

Gear: A wire rack; an aluminum foil roasting pan

To hard-cook the eggs, place them in a large saucepan with cold water to cover by 3 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer the eggs for 11 minutes (a few minutes longer if you live at a high altitude). Drain the eggs and fill the pan with cold water. Cool the eggs in the pan until they’re easy to handle but still warm. Peel the eggs. (It’s easier to peel them while they’re still warm.) Return the eggs to the cold water to cool completely, then drain well and blot dry with paper towels. The eggs can be cooked and peeled up to 48 hours ahead, stored in a container covered with plastic wrap, and refrigerated.

Set up your smoker following the manufacturer’s directions and preheat to 225 degrees. Add the wood as specified by the manufacturer.

Place the eggs on a lightly oiled wire rack placed over an aluminum foil pan filled with ice (the eggs should not touch the ice). Place in the smoker, and smoke the eggs until bronzed with smoke, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool to room temperature. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Eat as you would hard-cooked eggs or use to make deviled eggs.

Yield: Makes 24 halves rep time: 20 minutes (plus egg smoking time)

For the filling

12 Smoked Eggs

1/3 cup mayonnaise (preferably Hellmann’s or Best Foods), or to taste

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon sriracha, Tabasco sauce, or other favorite hot sauce, or to taste

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

For the toppings (optional)

Chopped chives

Spanish smoked paprika (pimentón)

Regular or smoked salmon caviar

Fried bacon slivers

Finely shredded smoked beef brisket or pulled pork

Cut the eggs in half lengthwise. Cut a thin slice off the bottom of each half so it won’t wobble. Pop out the yolks and place them and the egg white trimmings in a food processor. (Alternatively, you can mash the yolk mixture with a fork.) Add the mayonnaise, mustard, sriracha, and Worcestershire sauce, and process to a thick puree. For a creamier filling, add more mayo. Spoon the mixture back into the egg white halves or pipe it in with a pastry bag or a resealable plastic bag with a lower corner clipped off. Top the eggs, if desired, with a sprinkling of chives and/or smoked paprika, or a dollop of salmon caviar, bacon, or shredded brisket or pork. Refrigerate in a covered container or loosely covered with plastic wrap until serving.

Yield: Makes 12 eggs; can be multiplied or reduced as desired

Mezcalini adapted from “Project Smoke”

Cross a margarita with a mojito and you get a Mezcalini. Add smoke and you achieve nirvana, not to mention notoriety — especially if you brandish the handheld smoker in front of your guests. It may be the most refreshing cocktail ever to slake your thirst (cucumber and yerba buena will do that).

Method: Smoking with a handheld smoker

Prep time: 10 minutes (yes, it can be made ahead)

Smoking time: 6 to 8 minutes (optional)

Fuel: 1 teaspoon mesquite or oak sawdust, or as needed (optional)

1 cup mezcal

1 cup fresh lime juice (it must be fresh)

3/4 cup simple syrup

2 tablespoons Cointreau (or other orange-flavored liqueur)

1 medium-size cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)

1 bunch fresh yerba buena, spearmint, or peppermint, rinsed, shaken dry, and separated into sprigs

1/2 cup smoked salt (use a good commercial brand or make your own) or kosher salt

1 lime wedge, for moistening the glass rims

6 jumbo ice cubes or 18 to 20 regular or smoked ice cubes

Combine the mezcal, lime juice, simple syrup, and Cointreau in a pitcher, cover, and refrigerate until serving. You can do this several hours ahead. Just before serving, place the cucumber and yerba buena in a mortar or bowl and lightly crush them with a pestle or muddler. Stir this mixture into the pitcher. If you make the Mezcalini right before serving, you can muddle the cucumber and yerba buena right in the pitcher using a long-handled wooden spoon. (Optional—for even more smoke flavor, smoke the Mezcalini with a handheld smoker: Cover the pitcher with plastic wrap, leaving one edge open for the smoker tube. Just before serving, load the smoker with sawdust following the manufacturer’s instructions. Insert the tube and fill the pitcher with smoke. Quickly remove the tube, seal the pitcher with plastic wrap, and let stand for 4 minutes. Stir well with a bar spoon and repeat once more.) To serve, spread out the smoked salt in a shallow bowl. Moisten the rims of 6 large glasses with the lime wedge, then dip themin the salt. Shake off the excess. Place 1 jumbo or 3 to 4 regular-size ice cubes in each glass. Pour the Mezcalini into the glasses. Spoon some of the cucumber and yerba buena into each glass, taking care not to drip on the salt.

Yield: Serves 6