With the publication of Where There’s Smoke (Sterling Epicure), his second cookbook following the well-received For Cod and Country, we ask D.C. Chef, and National Geographic Fellow, Barton Seaver to point out some of his influences, some of his favorite eats, and his approach to sustainable grilling.
In the introduction to your book, you recall a family cookout when you were a child. Did your father’s outdoor cooking influence your own grilling style?
My father's cooking has been a major source of inspiration for me. It was by his side that I first learned to enjoy cooking. And it has been his simple approach to highlighting natural flavors that has been a major theme in my cooking. My memories of the Weber grill in our backyard and the gatherings that were centered on it pop up in many of the recipes included in this book and reflect many of the dishes that we ate when I was a child.
You write about wood smoke much like one would write about wines, with attention to aroma, flavor and “ashy notes.” What, then, are a few of your most trusted wood and meat pairings? Is there a wood you would never use for grilling fish?
I do approach cooking woods in much the same way as wines. The flavors that you add to a dish through the cooking fuel are as influential to the final experience as is any wine that you might pair with food. And just as with wines, there are some woods that simply don't belong with some foods. Just as I would not pair a robust CA Cab with raw clams and oysters, I would not grill seafood with the astringent flavors found in hickory or mesquite woods. Of course, these woods are beautiful when their personality is tempered and used to flavor a rich, fatty steak or pork shoulder, just as that CA Cab is delicious alongside braised lamb. Every food has its own set of friends and when you try to mix these cliques usually the result is not good.
I’ve never seen wine-less wine salts before, but it’s a great idea to have seasonings with flavors that complement various dinner wines. Were they your invention and could you say a little about how you developed these blends?
I remember seeing some wine salts, made with dehydrated wine, and thinking that it would be fun to use flavorings not just to match flavors, as is done with wine-infused salts, but to accentuate and pull out of the varietal-specific flavors that you really want to feature. That is how I came to create these, which I am sure that other people have done, and to use them in my cooking. People get really nervous about food and wine pairings. The solution? Make your food taste more like your wine and everybody wins! And most of these ingredients are things that you regularly find in a well-stocked pantry and can really help to illuminate the wine drinking experience. Not only do these help make food and wine taste great together but they also help you to self-educate on what you are sensing and experiencing in a wine.
From your perspective as a major advocate for sustainable cooking, what should your average backyard chef be thinking about when planning the next barbecue?
How many vegetables you can serve!! So much of sustainability is about how we use products. Sure, what we use is very important. But even the most sustainable grass-fed steak from a locally and humanely raised cow is not sustainable if we are each eating 20 ounces of it in a single meal. We must take into consideration how the meal sustains us, and then seek out a variety of flavors, textures, and ingredients that will not only greatly satisfy but also satiate. Cooking vegetables ahead of time is also a great way to take away some of the pressure of having to execute a perfect meal when family and friends have arrived and the spirits are high, and flowing. A pasta salad, shaved zucchini and carrot salad, sliced tomatoes with basil oil, a chilled peach soup, and then a brilliant steak, smoky after its turn on the grill along with some now-crisp kale off the grill and warm on the plate- that sounds like an awesome meal, and one that relies most of the cooking to be done before guests arrive. This not only helps sustain our planet, it allows us to better sustain our bodies with a healthful variety of foods. It also helps to sustain your sanity because you can enjoy your own dinner party!
Most people would probably not think to brine their fish before grilling, but you recommend it. Beyond water, sugar and salt, are there other ingredients you ever throw into the mix?
I do, but not usually. The purpose of brining is to allow the fish to taste more like itself and to help retain moisture through the cooking process. I tend to like seafood dishes that are clean and fresh tasting and therefore I do not like to add too many competing flavors that might mask the pristine quality of the product. Sometimes these added flavors can be a benefit in that they can help tie together disparate dishes in a meal, much like the wine salts can do for libations. I have a couple go to brines that include bigger flavors such as coffee or maple syrup in place of the sugar. But I reserve these for dishes where I want the seafood to blend together with the other flavors in the meal rather than stand alone.
When grilling just for yourself, what’s your favorite go-to dish?
One bunch of lacinato kale brushed with olive oil and placed directly over the coals. 1 piece of fresh bluefish or salmon placed away from the heat on the cool side of the grill and allowed to gently heat through as it absorbs the sexy smoke aroma. By the time the kale is crisp, the fish is barely cooked through to a smoky custard-like finish. And then I drizzle a little more olive oil or infused basil oil over the dish and dig in. Oh, wait. Before I dig in I throw a couple of halved peaches over the coals and close off the air vents and cover the grill. By the time I am done with the savory course the peaches are perfectly soft and caramelized with the smoky undertones of the dying fire. A little ice cream or balsamic vinegar and life is good.