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Friday, August 1, 2014

Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan's new beef and barbecue cookbook mostly throws strikes



After the 1979 baseball season, a baseball pitcher already destined for the Hall of Fame, signed what was then a record $1 million contract to bring his golden arm back home to Texas, to pitch for the Houston Astros. 

He already had thrown four no-hitters over seven seasons for the California Angels, and Ryan would go on to throw three more – one as an Astro in 1981 and two more as a Texas Ranger in 1990 and 1991.

Over a  career spanning three decades as a player, he recorded more strikeouts than any other pitcher, often throwing pitches over 100 miles an hour.

I still harbor a grudge against Ryan for being a part of the 1969 “Amazing” New York Mets, who overtook my Chicago Cubs to win the division and then won the World Series.

During many of those 27 years, Ryan became a winner in another venue – as a cattleman. In his new book, “The Nolan Ryan Beef & BarbecueCookbook (Little Brown),” the Alvin, Texas native relates how he entered the business in 1973, while he was pitching for the Angels.

“My success in baseball gave me the economic resources I needed to get started in the cattle business. I have taken the same measured, careful and passionate approach to all my business operations, and buying and selling cattle and starting Nolan Ryan Beef have been no different,” Ryan writes in the opening section of the book.

In addition to marking prime cuts of beef coming from cattle free of antibiotics and hormones, Nolan Ryan’s All-Natural Beef has tasted success at the baseball stadium as the company’s hot dogs and steak sandwiches are now sold at Rangers and Astros games.

He has given his name to Beefmaster brand of cattle, which were bred in Texas to withstand its arid heat.

Grilled Asian Beef Ribs

Being an astute businessman – also obvious from his tenure as CEO of the Rangers – Ryan has produced a cookbook to complement his product. With Christobal Vazquez, executive chef at Rangers Ballpark, he has published a book dedicated to every cut of beef, from the standard steak varieties to ribs to brisket, flank and flat iron steak.

My main complaint with the book is that Vazquez’s name deserves to be on the cover with co-author J.R. Rosenthal, who has written books with other major leaguers Randy Johnson, Don Mattingly, Tony Gwynn and Leo Mazzone. Ryan acknowledges throughout that many of the recipes are from Chef Cris. It’s also quite the marketing brochure for the company.

The book also places a little too much emphasis on cooking times over meat temperatures, although it does mention using a meat thermometer on page 17. The photographs by Geno Loro accent the text well.

But otherwise Ryan’s book “brings the heat”with its simple, straight-forward recipes, which often take you through the entire cooking process, from the refrigerator to the dinner plate. Each one, particularly those in the ribs chapter, is a strike right down the middle.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Two well-known authors make an argument against marinades in their new book


Considering that pigs are known to wallow in their own slop, it’s only reasonable that your pork is clean before it hits the grill. However, that doesn’t mean it needs to take a bath.

As I wrote in an earlier column about a barbecue boot camp, successful pitmasters aren’t too keen on using marinades. Despite what Martha Stewart says, marinades frequently are not “a good thing.”

Acclaimed authors Chris Schlesinger and JohnWilloughby have dedicated an entire book to flavorful grilled food sans the liquid.

“Lately it seems, cooking has become very complicated. Brine this. Marinade that. Make a sauce that takes three days. It seems like you have to take a week off to throw a dinner party,” they write in their introduction to “The Big-Flavor Grill: No-Marinade, No-Hassle Recipes (Ten Speed Press).”

“One of the very best things about grilling is that it is a supremely simple process. Or at least it should be simple. Because when you get down to it, all you really need is a fire, a grid and a few bricks to hold up that grid,” they add. “We believe grilling is about proper technique and the flavors are created through that technique. Fancy equipment and complicated strategies are just distractions.”

In their latest book together, the James Beard Award winners highlight “the geographical model,’ which they acquired from their travels through the tropics. Simply defined, it is a technique “in which one flavor after another – sour, sweet, bitter, hot, aromatic, earthy – is laid out for your taste buds in rapid succession.”

Each flavor complements the other while remaining true to its own taste.

In barbecue parlance, we often call these flavors “rubs.” However, in “The Big-Flavor Grill,” Schlesinger and Willoughby also apply this concept to vegetables with flavorful results. Chapters are dedicated to steaks, lamb, pork, chicken and shrimp and fish. Chris’ nephew Tom Schlesinger applies a “mixologist’s” approach to cocktails in closing chapter.

Their first book together, “The Thrill of the Grill (1990),” was my first barbecue cookbook and remains relevant today. You’ll never see them on “Barbecue Pitmasters,” as they aren’t “bubbas.” Schlesinger is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and Willoughby graduated from Harvard and is executive editor of Cook’s Illustrated and held the same post at Gourmet magazine.

I appreciate the simplicity of their technique. My first attempts at barbecue many years ago included marinating the meat in fruit juices and even cheap bourbon – it seemed a good idea at the time. But now even injecting the meat seems excessive at times, although it still is a good way to introduce flavor and preserve moisture internally.

But Schlesinger and Willoughby suggest keeping it even simpler than that and offer the point that you can apply flavor to your food when it is hot, just off the grill. While the book does feature photographs by Ed Anderson, it uses simple diagrams to guide you along as you prepare each recipe.

This is not a barbecue book, but sometimes it’s good to prepare your food “hot and fast” too.

Schlesinger and Willoughby are correct in observing that marinades don’t penetrate into meats and other proteins and that they only tenderize the surface of what you are preparing.

Adding to the debate over marinades is a recent research study suggesting that there may be health benefits to using marinades, that they could lower your cancer risk.

The study, published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, found that marinate meat in pilsner beer or black beer lower levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The substances develop when meats are cooked at extremely high temperatures.

The scientists at the University of Porto in Portugal attributed much of this effect to the antioxidant activity of the beer, which is highest in dark beers such as stouts. To the scientists, marinades act as a healthful barrier.

To me, it seems a like waste of good beer.

I wonder what Schlesinger and Willoughby and my friend Chris Marks might think of the study. What do you think? I welcome your comments.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Georgia pitmaster Wiley McCrary shares secrets that other "men take to the grave"



Earlier this year, the travel site Trip Advisor generated much debate around the country when it announced that Georgia was the No. 1 state in the nation for barbecue, drawing the ire of folks from Texas, North Carolina and points west.


But there is no doubt that the Peach State is worthy of the attention, due to places such as Williamson Bros.Bar-B-Q in Marietta (and now also in Canton and Douglasville), Heirloom Market BBQ in Atlanta and Fresh Air Barbecue in Flovilla, and celebrity pitmasters Myron Mixon and Robby Royal.


However, down in the historic oceanside community of Savannah, is Wiley McCrary, owner of Wiley’s Championship BBQ with his wife Janet. After nearly 30 years of catering events in Atlanta and successfully competing in barbecue competitions around the country, they opened their business in 2005, initially as Savannah BBQ and the restaurant three years later.


In May, Trip Advisor chose Wiley’s Championship BBQ as the fourth best barbecue restaurant in the country, just behind more famous Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, Oklahama Joe’s BBQ &Catering in Kansas City, Kansas, and Bogart’s Smokehouse in St. Louis. Mo.

In 2000, Wiley McCrary was the focus of a CNN feature, “Hog Heaven,” and has finished first in ribs and brisket at the National BBQ Festival in nearby Douglas, Ga. The couple has been National BBQNews Caterers of the Year, state champions in Georgia and South Carolina and reserve grand champions in Alabama and North Carolina.


This spring, the McCrarys published a cookbook, “Wiley'sChampionship BBQ: Secrets That Old Men Take to the Grave (Gibbs Smith),” along with Amy Paige Condon, digital editor of Savannah magazine. It also features great photos by Chia Chong.


He writes in the book’s introduction that on winter days Janet still wears a red cowgirl hat with five pins that note the times they’ve earned perfect 180 scores in Kansas City Barbecue Society competitions.


“Barbecue is surrounded by myths, folklore and downright lies,” he says. “The truth is that although barbecue is an art form based on good craftsmanship, the skills are transferable. The wheel can be reinvented only so many times.


“We, who’ve gone before, owe it to the universe to teach you, just the way someone taught us. I couldn’t have gotten to where I am without the wonderful teachers I’ve been blessed with throughout my life.”


Wiley and Janet McCrary
He counts among his mentors Miss Alberta, the family cook when he was growing up; his father, nicknamed “Slick;” Big Jim Harris, a pitmaster who cooked for Alabama Gov. Big Jim Folsom and later, Ed and Muriel Roith, winners on the barbecue circuit and KCBS board members.


Wiley McCrary seems to be quite the character. He produces a sauce, called “Better than Sex,” which has this disclaimer, “If you still insist that your sex is better than our sauce, write us. Store in the rear of refrigerator out of sight of rabbis, priests and ministers.”


But as demonstrated through the cookbook, he appears humble (unlike another Georgia pitmaster we know). “I’ve always enjoyed learning new things. I’m somewhat of a foodie and like to taste dishes from all over the world, especially from home cooks and backyarders who carry with them knowledge of ingredients and techniques passed from one generation to the next.


“Some of the best cooks in America never went to culinary school; they simply learned standing next to a grandmother in her kitchen or beside an uncle who built his own barbecue pit out of a recycled drum.”


Perhaps that’s why the McCrarys are sharing the “secrets that old men carry to the grave.” Not only do they provide their own recipes, featured every day in their restaurant on Whitemark Island, but those of others as well. There’s Big Jim’s beer BBQ sauce, a salmon recipe from fellow Savannah foodie Damon Lee Fowler and a grilled lobster dish from Buddy Babb of Paradise Ridge Catering in Nashville, Tenn.


The book is designed to be used regularly, as suggested by its ringed binding, and its thorough presentation of the essentials – what kind of tools and accessories you’ll need, how to build your fire and spices and seasonings. A great piece of advice that it provides is that you get a notebook so you’ll remember what works for you.


Photograph by Chia Chong,from Gibbs Smith
The key to consistently good barbecue, the McCrarys say, is knowing the internal temperature of your meat. “Internal temperature always prevails over time,” they write. “An inexpensive digital meat thermometer will become the mightiest weapon in your barbecue arsenal.”


The 215-page book covers all the proteins – pork, poultry, beef, lamb, fish and seafood – as well as sides and deserts. As a Greek, I was pleased to find several recipes for lamb (including a rub) and successfully used the book’s recipe for smoked leg of lamb.


A standout section in the book is the chapter on fish and crustaceans, which reflects the influence and tradition of the Atlantic coastal region and includes Janet’s award-winning recipe for shrimp and grits.

“You cannot carry on a heritage if you are keeping secrets,” Wiley says. “You have got to tell those stories and eat hearty while you can, because there may not be good barbecue in heaven.”

Wiley's Championship BBQ on Urbanspoon