Essentials: Barbecue Basics

Real food people might throw around the terms grilling and barbecuing interchangeably, but when they get down to business they know there are big differences between the two. The 411: Grilling is a quicker and hotter way to cook; barbecuing is a slow-and-low method of cooking.

Barbecue versus grilling
The key to true barbecue is a low temperature, between 212 and 300 degrees F, and a long, long cooking time (often, hours). The low temperature keeps meats — whether beef, pork or poultry — juicy, and a lengthy stay in a covered grill, a makeshift smoker or a real-deal smoker lends proteins telltale smokiness.

Over the top
Barbecued foods get their taste from wood chips or charcoal, often enhanced by marinades, wet or dry rubs, mops and sauces.

Barbecuing, American Style(s)
All barbecue is not created equal — just travel some American byways, ask the locals what’s essential and taste the difference.

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A vanilla ice cream shortage is looming

Vanilla has a reputation for being plain and boring, but it is actually one of the world’s most expensive spices. Cultivating vanilla plants is difficult and time-intensive at the best of times, relying on pollinating the plants at a precise time, not to mention the months that follow necessary to prepare the beans for sale. Now, a bad harvest could spell trouble for the ice cream industry as it faces one of the worst vanilla shortages in years.

The very best vanilla comes from three countries: Madagascar, Mexico and Tahiti. Vanilla is a member of the orchid family, and is just as hard to grow and harvest as its delicate cousins. Seeing as vanilla flowers only open once on one day of the year, farmers have to be extremely precise about when they hand-pollinate the plants, Alex Swerdloff reports for Munchies. Once the plant is pollinated and produces a pod, it then has to be sun-cured for months and sheltered in a box overnight. But because of a bad harvest in Madagascar last year, the price of vanilla has spiked nearly 150 percent, putting the squeeze on ice cream makers around the world.

“The price has doubled in the last month,” Charlie Thuillier, founder and owner of the British ice cream brand Oppo tells Zoe Wood for the Guardian. “We were paying €35 [about $40] a liter in February but now it’s €76 [about $86]).”

Much like wine, vanilla takes on different flavors depending on the soil and environment it grows in. Madagascar vanilla has long been a favorite of the ice cream industry for its specific flavors, and the shortage has left many ice cream makers worried about having to raise prices just as the summer is fast approaching, Clint Rainey reports for Grub Street.

“Vanilla is every ice-cream company’s biggest-selling product,” Dave Bishop, production manager at New Forest Ice Cream tells Wood. “You can bring out a niche flavour but vanilla will still be top. You’ve just got to take the hit on it because customers would notice the difference.”

Vanilla’s skyrocketing price is also having a detrimental effect on the quality of the vanilla that is available on the market. As vanilla is a prized commodity at the best of times, it is a prime target for thieves looking to make a quick buck by snagging a few pods out from under the nose of farmers. To ward off would-be thieves and make an extra profit off their crop, some in the industry are now harvesting their vanilla beans earlier, which can make the beans less flavorful and the customers even pickier, Rainey writes. But because Madagascar vanilla has such a unique flavor, ice cream makers are leery to look elsewhere for the spice.

“You can get vanilla extract all over the world but we chose Madagascar because it had the greatest depth of flavour,” Thuillier tells Wood.

While some ice cream manufacturers could turn to artificial flavors to make up the difference during the shortage, many are refusing because of modern consumers’ tastes for “natural” foods. Luckily, the numbers for next year’s vanilla harvest are already looking better, but that crop won’t be ready for months. Until then, that summer ice cream cone might be getting pricey than usual.

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Eat Fresh All Year: A Guide to Seasonal Cooking

Eating fresh vegetables and fruits when and where they grow naturally provides plenty of benefits. Often, fresh produce is less expensive and more flavorful, and you’re helping local farmers flourish and, in turn, grow more fresh food to make available to more people.

Let the season determine your menu

“Seasonal is the way I learned how to cook, it’s a natural way of life, not a new concept,” says Tim LaBant, chef and proprietor of The Schoolhouse at Cannondale, a restaurant in Wilton, Conn., where each menu is based on what’s available that day. “Everybody in history before the 1900s has eaten seasonally. It’s more like going backwards to figure out what’s right. As you cook, you start to think about food and where it comes from. What’s important to me is keeping it seasonal and local; the more connected to the food I am, the more inspired I am.”

Creating seasonal dishes, says LaBant, just means that when strawberries or asparagus or corn are in season, you use them. “All foods have a season. As leaves change and I smell the first fire in a fireplace, I think about squash and pumpkin. Like a kid getting excited around Christmas, in August I get excited about tomatoes,” he explains.

To taste firsthand the advantages of eating seasonal dishes, LaBant suggests buying two or three organic apples from small farms or fruit growers and the same number from the supermarket, and comparing how they taste. “If you’re eating an apple in the fall, it has a lot more flavor than the ‘super’ apple,” says LaBant, adding that it’s also good to support the small farmer who’s trying to grow food the healthy way.

LaBant works directly with a local farmer who supplies three restaurants and a few families from her two-acre farm. He takes as much produce as he can, and then he creates his menu, depending on what foods he can get. On occasion, the produce mix might not yield enough ingredients for every salad, for example, to look identical on a given night, but each will have a great medley of fresh ingredients.

As a restaurateur, Labant can’t shut down in the dead of winter when there’s no fresh seasonal food available locally, but like the generations before him, he’ll switch to summer crops that were pickled or canned in preparation for the winter and to vegetables stored in a root cellar. He’ll then look at what’s in season in other parts of the country, like citrus from Florida fruit growers and pineapple from Hawaii where it’s actually growing in season. What he won’t serve is a dish that would be totally out of place in winter, like a summery salad. “With FedEx, we have the ability to get ingredients from anywhere [in the world], but if you put blinders on and work only with what you have, you’re forced to be creative.” And a better cook.

LaBant translates his approach for the home cook this way: “Try not to come up with the perfect recipe, then force the ingredients into that recipe.” In other words, let what’s fresh and available determine your meals — don’t decide to make a peach cobbler in January when peaches aren’t in season.

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