Friday, January 6, 2012

American BBQ

I realized that I haven't talked about one of the most traditional American things: barbecue. Readers unfamiliar with American BBQ may be frowning upon what I just wrote. The Tuscan Foodie has lost his mind...we have barbeque in Italy, or France, or pretty much everywhere! This is not an American thing, you will be thinking.

And boy: would you be wrong.

What we traditionally call barbecue in Italy, the simple form of quickly grilling meat or fish on an open pit, has evolved into a very serious artistic slow cooking form in the US, with regional variations that make a Kansas style BBQ something very different from a Texas BBQ.  Texans in particular are very serious about their BBQ.


Kreuz Market BBQ, from Texas.

I remember one of the most mystical experiences (I cannot avoid using almost religious terms when I talk about the flavors of BBQ) was to enter into this giant BBQ joint, Kreuz Market, in Lockardt, Texas, the self-dubbed Capital of Barbeue. Two gigantic smokers, as big as the 18 wheels trucks that are the nightmares of any motorcyclists, were slowly cooking tons and tons of meat. The smell was Paradise. And the food we got - served in plain paper, with no forks or knives and with absolutely no sauce - was the tastiest meat we have ever had.

In much of Europe barbecue is often associated with quick preparation: you get your steak and your sausages, you throw them on the grill, you eat. Although this type of BBQ can obviously also be found in the US, the actual cuisine called BBQ is a different thing entirely. And it is as much to do with fast preparation as Berlusconi has to do with sexual abstinence: very little.

Certain traditional BBQ dishes (brisket, pulled pork), are extremely long preparations, requiring often more than 20 hours if you want to do them right. Texas BBQ, if I understand correctly, actually demands the longest preparation, because here the meat is cooked/smoked through indirect heat: the meat is not put on coals or a grill, but it is cooking standing next to a furnace which sends its smoke and heat towards the meat for hours.

If you are not salivating by now you have no heart, really.

Different American States have different traditions in barbecuing different animals (or different parts of the same animals). Variations can also be found in the sauces or rubs used to marinate the meat: from the mustard based sauce of South Carolina (I must admit, one of my favorites), to the Texas mop sauce, the sauce will tell you what type of BBQ you are eating as much as the cooking method.

Whatever the type of BBQ you are having though, the one feature that groups them all is that BBQ is served in joints which are as unpretentious as they come: metal chairs, metal tables, no towels. Some places - for instance Chicago Q - try to offer an upscale dining experience, with cloths on the table. But if you are going to eat BBQ and you can't be licking your fingers at the end of the meal, then you are in the wrong place, as far as I am concerned.


A typical BBQ joint interior: unpretentious...

Cooking good BBQ at home is not impossible. Provided your building allows for charcoal grills or at least gas grills. If - like me - you live in a place where the only grill allowed is electric, and no smoker, then you are out of luck. That's why my experiments with BBQ have been mostly limited to the classic quick grilling, and to the BBQ dishes that you can actually make at home in a slowcooker. The slowcooker is in fact an excellent alternative cooking method for some of the BBQ dishes: the extremely long cooking times allow the fat and the connective tissues of the meat to dissolve and give the meat that specific tender, off the bone appearance that is required in so many US BBQ dishes.

Baby back ribs, slowcooked and caramelized in the oven. Not a bad alternative...
I have devoted myself to two areas in particular: BBQ ribs and pulled pork (but this year I am going to start experimenting with brisket). Pulled pork is a US specialty that I disliked at first: In a very old post back in 2010 I indicated that that stuff was growing on me...now it hasn't just grown: it is one of my favorite dishes.

I have been playing it with quite some time, and I came up with a couple of recipes that I think are smashing good, if I do say so myself: pulled pork with dry tart cherries and cherry beer, with a cherry beer BBQ sauce, for instance. Interested?

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18 comments:

Trobairitz said...

We learned that too when we moved to the USA in 2001 - grilling is way different that bbqing.

Didn't know there was a difference until we moved down here and boy people sure have strong feelings about their BBQ - more so in the south though.

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Yes, people in the South are especially serious about their BBQ. Their attitude reminds me that of people from Naples when they talk about pizza: only THEIRS is the real one..

Claudio said...

Here in Italy (as you know very well, I guess) the only BBQ admitted consists in throwing the meat on the grill, barely cooking it and then just devouring it in two bites. Too much italians pose as "conoisseur" of grilled meat and proudly claim they eat only "fiorentina" and only "al sangue". In my opinion they're just too narrow minded and I really envy you when you write about your real american BBQ experiments!

gattasorniona said...

BBQ in USA is a very serious thing. I loved it when I was there. Food was really good and feel too! :)

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Claudio, I agree entirely. There is a sort of presumption in many of us Italians: we believe our food is the best and nothing else can be as good. So we do not even try something different because we know that in any case ours is the best. Very, very narrowminded...

Gattosorniona, I am happy to see another fellow Italian agreeing on this!

Claudio said...

Just to keep on criticizing our compatriots: I was in London a few years ago and I tried all the kind of food I could, specially junk food in its most dangerous and harmful forms (for me that city is a sort of paradise for reckless foodie). On the contrary, it seemed that all italians in London could not survive without "pizza" or an espresso "fatto come dio comanda"... Poor miserable people!
Anyway, don't you think I'm a sort of total iconoclast... Right now I'm spending my saturday evening preparing a boar stew and I'm going to have it for dinner tomorrow with a plenty of baked potatoes and a bottle of Sangiovese. When I'm in my own kitchen I really love traditions!

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Claudio, you summed it up perfectly: most Italians go abroad refusing to eat local cuisine. They spend their time looking for Italian cuisine, they complain because they can't find it - or because it is not like the one they have in Italy - and end up convinced that nowhere you can eat decently but in Italy. If they embraced local cuisines in their travels they would instead eat well and have more fun. Their loss.

I love boar stew! I haven't had it in such a long time! How did you make it?

Claudio said...

Well, I'm not sure I can explain my recipe for boar stew in english but actually my recipe is not so complicated, so let's try.
Usually I make boar stew when I can get some fresh boar meat, so the meat needs to marinate in red wine with a lot of spice (I use black pepper in grains, laurel, rosemary, juniper berries and cloves) for at least half a day to eliminate the "wild" smell from the meat. Actually this time I got some frozen boar meat, so there's no need to marinate it. I prepare a classic "soffritto" with garlic, carrots, celery, onion (lots of onions, indeed) in a "terracotta" pot and then I put all the meat in the pot, let it cook a bit till the meat keeps its juice, then I add a glass of red wine (even the wine used to marinate the meat) and "faccio sfumare a fuoco alto" (sorry, I can't really translate it and Google doesn't help me at all!). Finally, I add some tomato sauce and start the slow cooking: it takes 3-4 hours at least.
I got the recipe from my mum and it's a very classic one, as you can see. According to her, the basic elements are good boar meat, a "terracotta" pot and her housemade tomato sauce!
In the end, you just need to eat the stew with a bottle of good red wine (Sangiovese Superiore, since I'm from Romagna. But even Chianti works out very well!)

Tuscan foodie in America said...

This sounds yummy and an excellent candidate for the slowcooker...

Weight Watcher Wannabe said...

Sound good!!!

illmakeitmyself said...

Your cherry BBQ sounds amazing! I don't eat or cook a lot of meat anymore, but I adore the cherry pulled pork bbq from Cherry Republic's restaurant in Glen Arbor, MI.

I live in Japan now, and barbecue is more like grilling meat and veggies and serving them with dipping sauce (tare).

I love reading your blog because I discuss cooking in Japan on my own blog, but also because it's so interesting to hear your opinions on American food! :)

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Welcome illmakeitmyself: I love your blog...we seem to share a passion, i.e. the love for Japan. I visited several times, and absolutely love the food.

I am going to glen arbor soon...I am adding this restaurant to the must do list of things!

Andrew said...

I was well-trained by a good Southern friend to know the difference between drilling and BBQing: time.
I can now do ribs, chicken, roasts and brisket with the best of my Okie friends. I've also had fellow Italians over for dinner and served BBQ with no shame and to general appreciation.

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Hi Andrew, welcome and thank you for your comment. Yes, time is key. And a lot of patience.

jhausch said...

What do you think would happen if an American opened a BBQ place in a cosmopolitan Italian city featuring all regional american barbecue flavors? Would it be embraced for its exoticism, or laughed into bankruptcy?

A Tuscan foodie in America said...

Good question, jhausch, and one that I have often asked myself too. My instinct tells me that most people would just laugh at you. And I don't think that bringing people to actually taste the meat would do much to change their opinion: the sweet/sour aspect that is so enshrined in US bbq is a combination that most Italians simply hate (I am making big generalizations, obviously).

However, I do think there is a potentially big niche. And one of my dreams, if I ever go back to Europe, is actually to open a 'REAL' US restaurant offering REAL burgers, and real bbq. So I may let you know, one day...

Jhausch said...

I did not know the Italian palate did not like sweet and sour. Very interesting.... Marco Polo brought back pasta, but sweet and sour chicken did not make the trip! ;)

In my crazy vision of the American BBQ in Italy, I would put a map on the wall showing the different styles. Something like this, but including Texas (heck, maybe the whole US) and detailing how some areas are sweet and others are spicy.

http://www.eatinginrichmond.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/bbq_ma

A Tuscan foodie in America said...

A big map on the wall, and a huge smoker in the house...that is the vision!

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