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Saucy Secrets

Grilling local barbecue chefs for their best tips

By Gretchen Giles


SUMMERTIME, and the livin' is supposed to be easy. Your chances stand well ahead of Porgy and Bess's if you plan on cooking al fresco this summer, abandoning the stove and standing outside of the heat of the kitchen. And what better place to go than your own backyard? Better, that is, if it's equipped with plenty of fire power.

Because grilling ain't just for those who are trundled into joke-emblazoned aprons, wearing silly white hats exploding like Parker rolls gone insane from their heads, busy hardening perfectly good ground beef into regulation-density hockey pucks.

From escarole to cabbage rolls, just about anything except goldfish can hit the grill and come out just fine. (And really, it's just finding a poacher for Goldie that's difficult; grilled fish is divine.)

With our ordinary seasonal perversity, we at the Independent decided that it was high time to call up some local chefs and harangue them endlessly about one of our favorite topics: the finger-licking, chin-greasing, happy-tummy loveliness that is barbecue.

Rob Larman used to serve delicately arranged California cuisine meals on fine-boned china strewn with organic flowers for garnish and enlivened with small chunks of heat-softened chèvre for taste. Formerly a white-linen chef working such high-end gigs as opening San Francisco's acclaimed Kuleto's restaurant, Larman now does nothing more ornate than strew meat and fixin's onto a paper plate--proud to call this, er, food.

And the only flowers found on his creations now might have fallen there from the garden where diners can sit comfortably picking their teeth at picnic benches. Rest assured that there is no concierge and a no-tie policy at Larman's joint. Bibs, on the other hand, are not necessarily frowned upon. Even for babies.

Operating his elegantly named Rob's Rib Shack in Sonoma for three years, Larman first began devising down-home meals for his upscale kitchen crews. Fact was, they liked it, eschewing to chew even escargots for the meaty, smoky wonder of his ribs. Larman thought he might be on to something.

And on he is, as the county and the country experience something akin to the crockpot phenomenon, with rib joints and grill shacks popping up all over like a chicken's wingtip when it's done. "I spent 25 years putting things perfectly on plates, and now I slap ribs on a paper plate and it's like I invented the Holy Grail," Larman chuckles.

While meat cooked over an open fire is older than the Grail itself, Larman's method might cause a few Crusaders to pause. Purchasing wine-infused oak chips discarded from local wineries' casks, Larman gives his meat a good, dry rub of spices and lets the foodstuff hang free for 24 hours in a no-fly zone. Once properly aged, his ribs and chicken are immersed in the brick smoker and infused with the burnt offerings of the winey oak.

Finally, they are ready to be tendered upon the grill, cooked through, slathered with his homemade sauce, cooked some more, and served with garlic mashed potatoes and homemade slaw. "And that," Larman concludes with satisfaction, "is why we've been so successful."

Matt Palter, head chef at Massés Poolside Cafe in Santa Rosa, prefers to soak his meat in an herb and peppercorn brine for smoking.

But he can grill a mean plate of ribs and chicken as well, slathered to perfection with tasty homemade sauce.

For home grilling, Palper stresses the basics: grill over an even heat, not too hot. Sear in juices and spread the coals to the side of the family Webber to slow- cook meat. Never use barbecue sauce over a high heat because the sugars will ignite and cause a flameup; so spare the sauce until the end when the heat has died down. For store-bought sauce, Palter recommends Fireman's brand.

Jerome Schwartz has found more than a modicum of success for himself through his self-named eatery, which he established in Petaluma some 14 years ago. Partial to tenderizing his meat with a dry rub of spices, he then smokes it slowly over mesquite in the oversized Webber-type grills that dominate the outside area behind Jerome's.

But Schwartz has a secret.

"There's nothing tougher than a beef rib," he proclaims. "You can cook 'em for a week, but if you figure out how to cook 'em, which I have, then it's the best thing in the world."

Schwartz, whose barbecue was voted the best in the Bay Area by listeners of the late Duane Garrett's talk show on KGO radio, shared his secret with Garrett. Aw, c'mon, Mr. Schwartz. Unfair, unfair.

He hesitates.

"All right," he says with finality, "I told him, I may as well tell you.

"Score the back along the length of the ribs," he begins rapidly. "There's a thin membrane that will pull off [as the meat cooks]."

Next, Schwartz rubs the meat with a Lawry's type of seasoned salt (he concocts his own, featuring onion and celery salts, paprika, and other seasonings whose names he tossed off too quickly to note; buy the Lawry's and fool around for yourself) and throws it on a stoked-up Webber until the meat is cooked to medium, about one hour.

The next step is the magic: With a sharp knife, cut out every other bone from the rack--the previous removal of the membrane has made this wonderfully easy.

"It makes it like a meat lollipop," Schwartz says of his every-other method. "And the meat there is wonderful--if you can get to it."

Then dredge the ribs in your favorite sauce, put in an ordinary shallow pan, cover with foil, and bake at 225 degrees for about two hours. Finally, sauce the meat once more and grill until the sauce caramelizes.

"I like the homestyle method where the outside gets all crispy and sweet," Schwartz confides. "Now," he says seriously, "I'm not going to give you any more. That's how it's done."

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From the June 12-18, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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