Barbecue: Feeding People Cheaply for Centuries

Dear Up in Smoke Subscriber,

No matter what your net worth, there’s something supremely satisfying about feeding your family and friends well with limited resources. Anyone can drop $100 on a beautiful hunk of prime rib, but it takes talent and heart to turn low-cost victuals into a feast. Given the combination of a volatile stock market, tightening credit, and an uncertain economic forecast, I thought you’d appreciate a few suggestions for the grill that don’t break the bank.

Though barbecue is democratic in nature—enjoyed by high-born and low, rich and poor— it is a religion that has traditionally been preached in America from the pulpits of the budget-minded.

The slaves were among barbecue’s early practitioners in the American South. They quickly discovered that the meanest cuts of meat were much improved by smoke, spices, and low, slow cooking. The cooking was done over ember-filled trenches dug in the ground—the origin of the modern barbecue “pit.”

Political rallies during the 18th and 19th centuries were often organized around epic barbecues (they were called “pig pickin’s” in the Carolinas), and candidates duked it out over who provided the best comestibles. These barbecues were a way to feed a lot of people for not much money.

Yes, the history of live fire cooking is entwined with tales of thrifty people whose ingenuity led to some of our most beloved iterations of barbecue.

  • Charlie Vergos of Rendezvous fame, ran a sandwich shop in Memphis, Tennessee. One day, a meat salesman gave him a case of pork ribs to experiment with. (There was no market for baby backs in those days; the salesman couldn’t give them away.) Charlie direct-grilled the ribs high over blazing charcoal, mopped them with a mixture of vinegar, water, and salt, then he crusted them with a Greek-inspired seasoning he made up on the spot. Today, Rendezvous serves about four tons of its legendary ribs a week. They’ll ship ribs and their proprietary seasoning right to your door as you’ll discover if you visit their aptly-chosen website,
  • Another Charles—German immigrant Charles Kreuz (rhymes with bites)—founded a grocery store in Lockhart, Texas, in 1900, and did much to sharpen the state’s enduring appetite for beef shoulder clod, brisket, and sausage. At the end of each day, he barbecued any unsold meat over a wood fire and unloaded it at bargain prices. The business, though no longer in the atmospheric original location, is iconic in the world of regional barbecue.
  • Southern California’s favorite barbecued beef was once considered a cut too tough and fibrous to grill. The tri-tip was generally ground into hamburger or sold as stew meat…that is, until supermarket butchers Larry Viegas and Bob Schultz seasoned a tri-tip with salt, pepper, and garlic powder and threaded it onto a turnspit, never expecting that spit roasting was just what this maligned cut needed. That was 1952. Now it’s the signature barbecue of Santa Maria, about 170 miles north of Los Angeles—and indeed, is enjoyed throughout the West Coast.
  • Most pitmasters discard rib tips, the cartilaginous ends of trimmed spareribs. But as my friend Lindsay Shannon knows, they make a great gnaw when properly seasoned and lengthily smoked. Lindsay is the proprietor of one of my favorite Kansas City rib joints, BB’s Lawnside Bar-B-Q. (For a close facsimile of his recipe, see Raichlen on Ribs, page 156.) The restaurant’s heat-holding granite barbecue pit has been working its smoky magic since 1950.
  • Even charcoal briquettes came to the market through one man’s frugality. Henry Ford began manufacturing them in the 1920s using wood scraps from his Model T production line. The business was run by a distant relative, E. G. Kingsford. Does that name sound familiar?

Saving Money
As any shrewd shopper knows, bargains in meat, poultry, and seafood are getting harder to find. The industry claims corn and its importance to the alternative fuel ethanol is to blame in part for the steep price increases we’re seeing at the butcher and dairy counters. But supply and demand bear responsibility, too, and as more people smoke brisket and ribs at home, the price of these cuts rises. It doesn’t help things when star chefs like Thomas Keller feature beef cheeks, lamb tongues, etc., on their upscale menus.

So, how do you save money?

Well, first use neglected or overlooked cuts. Baby back ribs have achieved star status, but spare ribs and country-style ribs (the latter direct-grilled like pork chops) are still affordable cuts of pork. Beef long and short ribs (see recipe below) and lamb ribs are also quite reasonable and deliver huge flavor for your investment.

Brisket prices have crept up, especially for the lean center cuts. But a whole brisket, sheathed in fat, with point and deckle attached, is still quite reasonable—and it’s a lot easier to cook without drying it out than the leaner version. Even better, ask your butcher to order you a clod (whole beef shoulder). Cook it low and slow as you would brisket (see a recipe on page 164 in BBQ USA). The flavor will come as a revelation. And it will serve a crowd of 20 to 30 people.

Asians have evolved a sensible strategy that saves you not only money, but calories, cholesterol, and fat grams. They often use meat as a flavoring or condiment—rather than a huge, plate-burying hunk of protein. Consider the Thai Grilled Beef Salad (recipe below) where a single flank steak will serve 4 or more people. A single salad can be as satisfying as a steak dinner when it’s paired with such explosively flavorful seasonings as chilies, fresh basil, mint, cilantro, fish sauce, and lime juice. In addition to the recipe I’m sharing below, you can find more Asian-inspired recipes in my story on healthy barbecuing in the June/July issue of Best Life magazine.

BBQ U Mac & Cheese with Grilled Onions, Chilies, and Corn (Photo courtesy of Don Barto)

Finally, another way to trim the cost is to avoid meat entirely. Believe it or not, one of the most oft-requested recipes from my files is a rich grilled version of macaroni and cheese, made famous in “BBQ U” Season 4, that has the most unrepentant carnivores reloading their plates. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself with this recipe.

Get out of your grilling and barbecueing comfort zone and try your hand at unfamiliar cuts like the aforementioned rib tips, tri-tip, or beef shoulder clod. Or grill up skirt or hanger steak for authentic fajitas, or beefy-tasting flat iron steaks, a relatively new cut from the shoulder. Make friends with your butcher or fish monger and ask them to keep you abreast of good buys.

As always, for great ideas and information and lively discussions about grilling and barbecueing, visit the Barbecue Board.

Five-Spice Short Ribs with Shanghai Barbecue Sauce
Here’s a preview of one of the recipes on my new TV series, “The Primal Grill” with Steven Raichlen. Shows will begin airing in May on PBS. Meaty but value-priced beef short ribs get an easy but exotic rub before being smoked to tenderness, sauced, and sizzled.

Source: “The Primal Grill” with Steven Raichlen
Method: Indirect grilling
Serves: 4 to 6
Advance Preparation: 4 to 6 hours for marinating the meat

3 to 4 pounds beef short ribs, bone-in

For the rub:
2 tablespoons Chinese 5-spice powder
1 tablespoon teaspoon fine grained sea salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons ground white pepper

For the Shanghai Barbecue Sauce:
1 cup hoisin sauce
1/3 cup Chinese rice wine (Shaoxing) or dry sherry
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons rice vinegar, or more to taste
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon peeled, minced ginger
2 scallions, white and green parts minced

You’ll also need:
1-1/2 cups wood chips or chunks, soaked for 1 hour in water to cover, then

1) Make the rub: Combine the 5-spice powder, salt, sugar, and pepper in a small bowl and whisk to combine.

2) Make the barbecue sauce: In a nonreactive saucepan, combine the hoisin sauce, wine, soy sauce, sugar, ketchup, vinegar, garlic, ginger, and scallions. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the sauce thickens (5 to 10 minutes).

3) Generously sprinkle the ribs on all sides with the rub. Cover the ribs with plastic wrap and refrigerate them while you set up the grill.

4) Set up a charcoal grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium. Place a large drip pan in the center of the grill. When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Place the ribs in the center of the grate over the drip pan and away from the heat. Toss half of the wood chips on each mound of coals.

5) Cover the grill and cook the ribs until they are well-browned, cooked through, and tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, about 1-1/2 to 2 hours. When the ribs are done, the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by about 1/4 inch.

6) Just before serving, brush the ribs on all sides with the Shanghai Barbecue Sauce and move them directly over the fire. Grill until the sauce is sizzling, 1 to 3 minutes per side. Watch carefully so the sugars in the barbecue sauce don’t burn.

7) Transfer to a large platter or cutting board and let rest for a few minutes. Serve with the remaining barbecue sauce on the side.

Spicy Thai Grilled Beef Salad (Yam Nua Yang)
In honor of the forthcoming 10th anniversary edition of Steven’s Barbecue! Bible (May 2008), here’s a recipe for Asian Grilled Beef Salad along with a photo from the new book.

Source: The Barbecue! Bible 10th Anniversary Edition by Steven Raichlen (Workman Publishing, May 2008)
Method: Direct grilling
Advanced Preparation: 2 to 8 hours for marinating the meat
Serves: 4

For the beef and marinade:
1 flank steak (1-1/4 to 1-1/2 pounds)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

For the dressing:
3 cloves garlic
1 to 6 Thai or jalapeno chiles, minced (seed the chiles for a milder dressing)
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

To finish the salad:
2 large heads Boston or 4 heads Bibb lettuce, separated into leaves, rinsed, and spun dry
1 hothouse or English cucumber, very thinly sliced
1 small sweet onion, very thinly sliced
12 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
12 fresh mint leaves (optional)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1/4 cup coarsely chopped dry-roasted peanuts

1) Lightly score the flank steak in a crosshatch pattern, making the cuts 1/4 inch deep. Place the meat in a glass baking dish. Combine the soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, garlic, and ginger in a mixing bowl and whisk until the sugar dissolves. Pour this mixture over the steak and let marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or as long as 8, turning several times.

2) Preheat the grill to high.

3) Make the dressing. Grind the garlic, chiles, and sugar to a paste in a mortar with a pestle. Work in the fish sauce and lemon juice. Alternatively, puree in a blender or small food processor.

4) Prepare the salad. Line a platter with the lettuce leaves and arrange the cucumber slices, onion, cherry tomatoes, and mint leaves (if using) on top.

5) When ready to cook, drain the steak. Oil the grill grate, then place the steak on the hot grate and grill until cooked to taste (4 to 6 minutes per side for medium-rare), using tongs to turn. Transfer the steak to a cutting board and let cool slightly or completely. The salad can be served warm or at room temperature. Thinly slice the steak across the grain on the diagonal. Spoon the dressing over the salad and arrange the beef slices on top. Sprinkle with the cilantro and roasted peanuts and serve.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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