Barbecue sauce may be the most abused foodstuff in the American pantry. In its natural state--whether made at home or a good commercial brand--a good sauce is glorious, fiery and tart and just the thing to balance the rich smokiness of a well-grilled piece of meat.
But come the Fourth of July, it seems like every Tom, Dick and Harry decides he’s Emeril Lagasse and takes that perfectly good sauce and Kicks It Up a Notch! Bam! (And I am being gender-specific here; manhandling barbecue sauce is very much a guy thing.)
They say they’re “doctoring it up” (which begs the question of whether the cure is worse than any possible disease). They make it cloyingly sweet by adding everything from molasses and corn syrup to Coca-Cola and grape jelly. They make it unbearably hot by pumping it full of cayenne or minced habaneros. They empty the spice drawer, tossing in handfuls of cumin, fennel seed and dry mustard.
In short, they cook with all the discretion of sailors on shore leave. Too much is not enough when the smell of charcoal is in the air. For God’s sake, try a little restraint this summer. Give your old sauce (and the people you’re feeding) a break and try something different.
Put away the ketchup and liquid smoke. Forget the long marinating. Season your meat simply with salt and pepper. Grill it carefully. Then add something that will accent its natural flavor.
Abandon the conventional. There are greener pastures out there, richer fields to explore.
Let’s start with the rich. One of the best and most overlooked sauces for grilled meat is butter. Let’s face it, the list of things that a little bit of butter won’t improve is short. But what we’re talking about here is something a little more complex than just a simple pat of fat.
Compound butters are a venerable French institution that have fallen sadly into disuse. They may sound complicated, but they are nothing more than butter whipped with some flavorings, shaped into a log and chilled, then dispensed in coins to melt atop the grilled meat.
One that behaves very much the way you’d like a barbecue sauce to is chipotle butter, made by adding a bit of the peppers pureed in their vinegary adobo sauce and served on a grilled pork chop. You could even make a barbecue butter, flavored with plenty of cayenne, a bit of cumin and a couple stiff shots of Tabasco. The one necessary element in these compound butters is a bit of acidity to balance the richness. It doesn’t take much, even a couple of drops of lemon juice will help balance the flavors. Other citrus will work as well, as will wine or vinegar.
If you want something a little saucier, try a salsa verde ... or two of them.
Both Italians and Mexicans make a green sauce. They are completely different, yet both pair remarkably well with grilled foods. Salsa verde is one of the most basic elements in Mexican cuisine. Yet recipes for it are wondrously diverse, affording all kinds of opportunities for improvisation. The one constant element is the verde--tomatillos.
Beyond that, each cook is on his own. There isn’t even agreement on whether the sauce is raw or cooked--or how.
The simplest version is made by crushing raw tomatillos with jalapeno or serrano chiles and some garlic. Add a little diced white onion and some chopped cilantro and there you are. Some cooks cook the tomatillos, which softens their texture as well as their tart edge. You can do that by boiling them briefly or by charring them under the broiler or on a griddle. I prefer charring, which adds another level of complexity to the flavor.
The most traditional way of making the puree is the molcajete--those volcanic stone mortars and pestles. You can try it if you like, but you’ll probably find yourself amazed at just how tough those little tomatillo skins really are.
Most cooks today use either a blender or a food processor. The blender results in a smoother, more liquid puree; the processor pulses it into chunks. It’s up to you which texture you prefer.
Once this basic puree is made, you can thin it by adding water (for an even more elegant sauce, you can use stock). Frequently the salsa made from cooked tomatillos will be cooked again: briefly fried in a bit of oil to further soften the hard edges.
How much the sauce is cooked and in what way are only the first variables. Try adding a little juice from those tiny, sweet yellow limes you find at Mexican groceries. A pinch of pungent dried oregano would be nice too.
In addition to being spooned over grilled fish or meat, salsa verde can be used as a sauce for enchiladas or chilaquiles. It even makes a tangy marinade for pork or chicken.
The Italians also have a salsa verde and--typically--it is a joyous anarchy of a recipe. At its most basic, it is a paste of green herbs, garlic and olive oil. But from there, the variations spin out infinitely.
First of all, which green herbs? Parsley usually predominates, but adding basil, sorrel, tarragon, arugula or mint--or any combination of those--will result in subtly different flavors. Use more sorrel when you’re serving it with shellfish, mint with lamb, tarragon with chicken.
Commonly, anchovies are added. Capers are good too. Some cooks add chopped hard-boiled egg, which seems like it would be very nice when served with cold beef. You can increase the heft of the sauce by adding some toasted bread before you make the puree. This results in a thicker, more satisfying texture.
While only masochists or the truly burly will use a mortar and pestle for the Mexican salsa verde, do try it for the Italian version--it makes for a better sauce. A mortar and pestle crushes and smears the herbs rather than chopping them, which marries the flavors better and makes the sauce creamier and better amalgamated.
Another thing salsa verde has going for it is a clear and well-documented history of being used as a base of improvisation.
According to Anna Del Conte’s “Gastronomy of Italy” (recently reissued by Friedman/Fairfax Publishing, $40), the first written record of the sauce is found in the anonymous 14th century Venetian book “Libro per Cuoco” and includes parsley, ginger, clove and cinnamon.
By the 16th century, a recipe from the writer Bartolomeo Scappi had reduced the spices in favor of greens--sorrel, spinach tops, mint and arugula (he also added bread as a thickener). Pellegrino Artusi, the 19th century author of “The Science of Cookery and the Art of Eating Well"--the Italian “Fannie Farmer"--came up with the modern salsa verde by adding capers, onion, anchovy and olive oil.
So, this holiday, when you’re doing your backyard-chef bit, throwing in a handful of this or a big slurp of that into a rich compound butter or some vibrant salsa verde, just tell anyone who asks that you’re following in a grand historical tradition.
If they don’t buy that, point out that at least you’re laying off the barbecue sauce.