Grill-Off: Bittman Takes on America's Chefs Food guru Mark Bittman and chef Chris Schlesinger have been at odds for years over just the right way to cook. They debate simple vs. fancy techniques for summer grilling.

Grill-Off: Bittman Takes on America's Chefs

Grill-Off: Bittman Takes on America's Chefs

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Mark Bittman, left, and Chris Schlesinger chew over Schlesinger's slow-grilled ribs. Bittman Takes on America's Chefs hide caption

toggle caption
Bittman Takes on America's Chefs

Clams 'Johnson,' Southeast Asian style. Bittman Takes on America's Chefs hide caption

toggle caption
Bittman Takes on America's Chefs
'Bittman Takes on America's Chefs'

Food writer Mark Bittman is a minimalist, a proponent of good food made simple. In his latest project, Bittman goes mano a mano -- or cleaver to cleaver -- against some of this country's top chefs.

It's all in good fun and it's all for a public television series, Bittman Takes on America's Chefs, which is also the name of his latest book.

Bittman, and Chris Schlesinger, owner of the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., join Melissa Block for a radio food fight (the men's disputes over cooking go back several years). Their culinary debate includes the basic grilling question: real-wood charcoal or gas? But they agree on one thing: the tastiness of Schlesinger's rib rub (featuring paprika, sugar and chili powder).

Below are some selected recipes from Bittman and Schlesinger.

Grilled Clams and Oysters with Barbecue Sauce


(Makes 6 first-course servings; Time: 15 minutes)

This is a straightforward, easy-to-execute dish, providing you've got your clams and oysters shucked. Unfortunately, shucking either intimidates or frustrates pretty much every home cook I know, including me.


It's not so much the combination of clams and oysters that is important here, but the freshness of the mollusks you buy. So if the oysters look better than the clams at your fish market, do all oysters; if the oysters look raggedy, load the grill up with clams (mussels will work too, or scallops on the half-shell if you can find them). And don't fret about the varieties you're buying: Freshness is the only imperative. Whether you get local littleneck clams, or fist-size oysters from the Gulf of Mexico, this recipe will work perfectly. Serve with cold beer.


· 36 clams, oysters, or (preferably) a combination

· 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

· 1 tablespoon minced garlic

· 1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce, or to taste

· The juice of 1/2 lemon

· Salt and black pepper

· Lemon wedges for serving


1. Build a multilevel fire in your grill (using hardwood charcoal, if possible): Leave one-quarter of the bottom free of coals; in the rest of the grill, bank the coals so that they are about 3 times as high on one side as the other. When the coals are all white and the temperature has died down to medium, 20 to 30 minutes after you light the fire (you should be able to hold your hand about 5 inches above the hot part of the grill for a few seconds), you're ready to cook. Meanwhile, scrub the clams and oysters with a stiff brush, then shuck them and detach them from their bottom shells.


2. Make the barbecue sauce: Combine the butter, garlic, Tabasco, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste in a small saucepan and simmer over low heat, cooking the sauce until the flavors have melded and the garlic has lost its raw bite, 5 to 10 minutes.


3. Arrange the mollusks over the hot part of the grill and baste each with a little of the sauce. Cook until the sauce bubbles and simmers for just a minute, then carefully transfer the clams and oysters to a platter and serve at once (be careful; the shells are hot), with the lemon wedges.


Clams 'Johnson,' Southeast Asian Style


(Makes 6 first-course servings; Time: 20 minutes, plus time to preheat the grill)


Steve Johnson is a great chef, a high school buddy of Chris's, and a friend of mine. His recipe for grilled clams in sauce is a modern classic; this was my take on it the day Chris and I cooked together, and it's a good one. Note that there is no shucking involved!


This will work equally well with oysters (make sure the shells are very well scrubbed) and mussels. Serve with sticky rice or crusty bread.


· 1/2 cup dry white wine

· 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted Salt butter

· 1 tablespoon trimmed and chopped lemongrass

· 1 tablespoon peeled and chopped shallot

· 1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger

· 1 small chili, minced

· Salt and black pepper to taste

· 36 or more littleneck or cherrystone clams, well scrubbed

· Chopped fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

· Lime wedges


1. Start a gas or charcoal grill; the core of the fire should be quite hot -- you should only be able to hold your hand a few inches above the flames for a couple of seconds -- and the rack about 4 inches from the heat source. In a pan large enough to hold a few of the clams at a time, combine the wine, butter, lemongrass, shallot, ginger, chili, and salt and pepper to taste. Place over a medium-hot part of the grill and bring to a boil. Move to a cooler part of the grill so the mixture just simmers.


2. Meanwhile, put the clams on the grill rack over the hottest part of the fire and close or cover the grill. When the clams begin to open, transfer each to the sauce pan, turning it a few times to coat with the sauce. When the pan becomes crowded, transfer the coated clams to a warm platter; continue until all are finished.


3. For each serving, top the clams with a sprinkle of cilantro, a squeeze of lime juice, and few spoonfuls of the sauce.


Grilled Tuna with Soy, Wasabi, and Pickled Ginger


(Makes 4 servings; Time: 20 minutes, plus time to preheat the grill)


This signature East Coast Grill dish is nearly raw tuna, seared on the grill for extra flavor. The tuna Chris uses here is sold as "#1" or "sashimi" quality -- safe and flavorful enough to be eaten raw. (In his dish, the tuna is cooked, but only just until rare.) It's a deep, rich red, with a sweet, slightly briny odor and a high price. Though it isn't seen everywhere, almost any fish market can order it for you, because it is sold (to the highest bidder) on the open market. But if you're not itching to spend $20 plus per pound for tuna, or the fish markets near you aren't outbidding the buyers at Tokyo's world-famous Tsukiji market, you'll probably want to cook your tuna beyond the near-raw stage; check out my recipe for Tuna Teriyaki (see below).


· 4 (8-ounce) sashimi-grade tuna steaks, each about 2 inches thick

· 1/4 cup sesame oil

· Salt and white pepper

· 3/4 cup Pickled Ginger

· 6 tablespoons wasabi powder mixed with water to a paste or 6 tablespoons real wasabi paste

· 1/2 cup top-quality soy sauce


1. Start a charcoal or gas grill; the fire should be quite hot (you should barely be able to hold your hand over it) and place the rack about 4 inches from the heat source. Brush the tuna steaks lightly with the sesame oil and season with salt and pepper to taste.


2. Put the tuna on the grill and cook 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until a dark-brown crispy skin forms. Now cook the steaks for 2 to 3 minutes on each edge (holding it on its side with tongs, if necessary), until they are cooked on the outside and very rare inside.


3. Transfer the steaks from the grill to a platter, and serve with the pickled ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce for dipping.


Tuna Teriyaki


(Makes 4 servings; Time: 20 minutes, plus time to preheat the grill if you're using it)


Chris's dish is great as long as you can get spanking fresh, sushi-quality tuna, but home cooks may have a hard time finding it -- or paying for it. My alternative recipe is less "pure" but works quite well with ordinary supermarket tuna, which is likely not fabulous enough to eat raw or very rare, but still good. You can use the grill or stovetop for this method, both with great success.


· 1/3 cup sake or slightly sweet white wine

· 1/3 cup mirin (or use 2 tablespoons honey mixed with 2 tablespoons water)

· 1/3 cup soy sauce

· 2 tablespoons sugar

· 4 (6-ounce) tuna steaks


1a. If you're grilling, start a charcoal or gas grill; the fire should be moderately hot, and the rack should be about 4 inches from the heat source. Combine the sake, mirin, soy, sugar, and 2 tablespoons water in a small saucepan and heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Grill the fish on one side until brown, then begin brushing it frequently with the sauce and turn it once or twice more, until nicely browned on both sides and cooked to the stage of doneness you prefer. Brush once more with the sauce, then serve.


1b. If you are cooking on a stovetop, preheat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes, then add the tuna. Brown quickly on both sides, not more than 2 minutes per side. Transfer the fish to a plate and turn the heat to medium. Add 2 tablespoons water, followed by the sake, mirin, sugar, and finally soy sauce. Stir to blend and, when the mixture is producing lively bubbles and beginning to thicken, about 10 minutes, return the tuna to the pan.


2b. Cook about 2 minutes more, turning the tuna a couple of times to glaze it with the sauce. By that time the fish will be adequately cooked (it should still be slightly rare in its center, but you can cook it longer if you prefer). Serve hot or at room temperature.


Chris Schlesinger's Slow-Grilled Ribs


(Makes 4 servings; Time: at least 3 (and up to 6) hours, largely unattended


These are ribs the way they should be, but you need a day off with an empty schedule to make them. If days like those are as infrequent in your life as they are in mine, try my version - Bittman's Faster Grilled Ribs variation. The flavor is roughly the same, but the texture is not as perfect as that you achieve with Chris's method.


Chris's reasoning is that you drink a beer every time you add charcoal to the fire, so wood fires are not only better but more fun. Mine is that you have a beer whenever you feel like it, regardless of which grill you're using.


· 1/4 cup Chris Schlesinger's Rib Rub (see below)

· About 4 pounds pork spareribs

· About 3 cups hickory, oak, or other hardwood chips, soaked in water to cover


1. Massage the rub into the ribs. If you have a gas grill, preheat by using the burner on only one side, on medium heat, for about 15 minutes. If you are using a charcoal or wood fire, bank it to one side of your grill and keep the fire as low as possible, starting with just enough fuel to get heat, about 15 briquettes or the equivalent in hardwood charcoal. Sprinkle a handful of wood chips onto the rack above the heat source, allowing them to fall directly onto the fire.


2. Place the ribs away from the heat source (over the unlit burner of a gas grill) and cover the grill. You want a very cool fire, less than 300 degrees if possible (you should be able to hold your hand right over the area on which the ribs are cooking with just a little discomfort). If you are using solid fuel, add a few lumps of charcoal or a few briquettes every hour, just enough to keep the fire going. Turn the ribs every 30 minutes or so, adding more wood chips as needed, and re-closing the grill cover.


3. Depending on the heat of your fire, after 2 to 6 hours the ribs will have lost much of their fat and developed an unquestionably cooked look. Just before you're ready to eat, raise the heat to high (or add a bunch more briquettes and wait a while) and brown the ribs on both sides. Be very careful; they will likely still have enough fat on them to flare up and burn, ruining all your hard work in an instant (believe me, I've done it several times). Watch them constantly and move them frequently. Browning will take about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.


Chris Schlesinger's Rib Rub


(Makes: 1/4 cup; Time: 5 minutes)


I've relied on this for more than fifteen years; it's the best rib rub in my repertoire, and the only one you'll ever need. Unbelievably delicious, and not at all hot.


· 2 tablespoons paprika

· 2 tablespoons sugar

· 1 tablespoon salt

· 1 tablespoon ground cumin

· 1 tablespoon black pepper

· 1 tablespoon chili powder


Stir all the ingredients together in a bowl, then transfer the mixture to a covered container. Keeps for at least one summer.


Bittman's Faster Grilled Ribs


There are certainly times I prepare Chris's ribs, but then there are times I decide to make ribs at the last moment. In those cases, I buy baby back ribs (about 1 pound per person) and rub them using Chris's Rib Rub. I grill them on a covered grill, over low or indirect heat for the first 30 minutes or so, to render some of the fat, and then I finish them over direct heat for 10 or 15 minutes, watching carefully so they don't burn. That's my recipe.


The recipes above are from How to Cook Everything: Bittman Takes on America's Chefs by Mark Bittman, published by Wiley.


Grilled Peaches With Blue Cheese And Sweet Balsamic Glaze


(Serves 4 as appetizer or dessert)



· 1 cup good-quality balsamic vinegar

· 2 tbsp sugar

· 1 tbsp fresh-cracked black pepper

· 3 peaches halved and pitted

· 2 tbsp virgin olive oil

· 4 ounces blue cheese of your choice, crumbled


1. In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, sugar, and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until reduced in volume by about two-thirds. At this point the glaze should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.


2. Rub the peach halves with olive oil and grill face down over medium to medium-low fire, until golden brown. Flip, brush the tops with glaze, and grill for an additional 2-3 minutes.


3. Remove the peaches from the grill. Brush on another layer of the glaze. Cut into thick slices.


4. Place the slices on individual plates. Crumble the blue cheese over them and serve.


From Big Flavors of the Hot Sun by Chris Schlesginer and John Willoughby (1993), Published by William Morrow & Co.

How to Cook Everything
By Mark Bittman

Buy Featured Book

How to Cook Everything
Mark Bittman

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Big Flavors of the Hot Sun
By Chris Schlesinger, John Willoughby, Alan Witschonke

Buy Featured Book

Big Flavors of the Hot Sun
Chris Schlesinger, John Willoughby, Alan Witschonke

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?