IN summertime, a barbecuer’s heart lightly turns to creating -- or stealing; who cares? -- dynamite grill recipes.
That’s why we have barbecue books. The current crop shows the magnificent vitality of the American ‘cue scene (translation: there are some wacky backyard grillers and barbecue contest entrants out there).
And there are two major entries: “Mastering the Grill” by Andrew Schloss and David Joachim, which borrows its structure from Julia Child’s epic, and “Weber’s Charcoal Grilling” by Jamie Purviance, which aims to show that those of us who haven’t bought a gas grill can do very impressive cooking. The former is the big book of the season, a virtual school for the authors’ particular kind of high-level inventive barbecue.
There are others, natch. Fred Thompson’s “Barbecue Nation” gathers recipes (350 of them, in this case) from home grillers -- some of them very rudimentary, such as using bottled salad dressing as a marinade. Which happens to work pretty well, by the way.
“Extreme Barbecue: Smokin’ Rigs and Real Good Recipes,” by Dan Hunter and Lisa Grace Lednicer, is something else -- a walk on the very wild side of homemade barbecue rigs.
The authors visit people around the country who cook in customized trash cans, brick-lined pits in the ground, cardboard boxes lined with aluminum foil, elaborate two-story rigs with spiral staircases and raggedy piles of loose cinderblocks.
And those examples are just from the East; the Midwest apparently specializes in grills made out of earth-moving equipment or old steam engines.
The recipes aren’t as exotic as the rigs, but the one thing I’m disappointed at in this book is that it’s printed in a small (6-by 8-inch) format on paper stock that doesn’t reproduce color very well. I, for one, would have liked bigger, clearer photos of these crazy rigs.
Recipes with imagination
BACK to the big dogs. “Weber’s Charcoal Grilling” and “Mastering the Grill” are both ambitious cookbooks with a lot in common, including a taste for butter, fresh herbs and kosher salt (which is better than table salt for brining and dry-curing and elsewhere can add an attractive crunch).
Purviance’s book has slight folksy tendencies -- he visits with 10 (Weber barbecue-using) “charcoal fanatics” who include a retired lawyer, a Colorado game hunter and a Marine stationed in Iraq.
Basically, though, it’s another collection of imaginative recipes from a guy who graduated first in his class from the Culinary Institute of America and went on to write (as of this volume) five barbecue cookbooks under the Weber imprint.
Not that he’s out of touch with what a lot of us are looking for. He includes five recipes for pork tenderloin, that favorite cut of dieters, which can always use a little dressing up.
He has a very good way with adapting non-barbecue sauce ideas. The tomatillo salsa in one of his pork loin recipes has a smoky note of bacon in it, turning this Mexican concept into something a little bit Southern. He serves rosemary-crusted porterhouse steaks with what’s pretty much a French wine sauce except for that half cup of ketchup, which gives it a subtle kinship to barbecue sauce.
His idea of topping oak-grilled swordfish with a savory hash of ground almonds and garlic fried in butter is brilliant, and he makes a luscious pale green sauce from Anaheim chiles, mayonnaise and sour cream that goes beautifully with scallops. Sometimes, as you always fear in high-flying barbecue books such as this one, his creative ideas go a briquette too far: Marinating filet mignon in gin and olive brine is a cute idea, but it doesn’t have much payoff in flavor.
The title of “Mastering the Grill” recalls Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and the Schloss-Joachim volume has something of the same systematic style. There are “mastering technique” sections for everything you might cook on the grill (ribs, chops, fish fillets, even cheese, leaves and flowers) that feel like the “master recipes” in Child’s book.
The resemblance extends to the practice of incorporating recipes given elsewhere in the book. The ingredients list of a given recipe may refer you to pages 382 and 393.
And as with Child, you often have to multiply or divide those subsidiary recipes to fit the dish at hand, so you might have to reduce a two-thirds cup recipe to two tablespoons (FYI, friend, it’s just a simple three-sixteenths proportion). But also as with Child, it’s actually worth it. These are classy, inventive recipes.
Take cumin-crusted sea bass in lime-cilantro butter. The idea of flavoring fish with cumin, though common in the Mediterranean, is little known in this country, but cumin happens to have a real affinity for fish (here, a bit of fresh ginger is along for the ride as well). With a luscious, perfumed lime-cilantro butter on it, this is one irresistible fish.
Butter, with a twist
BUTTER is certainly part of the secret of that dish’s success, as in a number of “Mastering” recipes. There’s often a twist, though. Grilled vegetables come in a vinaigrette in which browned butter replaces the oil, its browned flavor pointing up the grilled taste of the vegetables. There’s a spectacular roast chicken recipe in which butter compounded with Provencal herbs is rubbed under the skin, making for particularly fragrant meat and crisp skin.
Butter’s not the whole story. Molasses-brined pork chops come out not only juicy but also with a hint of barbecue sauce in the meat.
Whole-grain mustard burgers contain horseradish and two kinds of mustard, but the effect is mysteriously savory, rather than strongly pungent, and the texture is punctuated by the gentle popping of balsamic-marinated mustard seeds between your teeth.
And you’ve got to love foodies who are determined to perfect the humble s’more. Evidently it has always rankled one of the authors that the toasted marshmallow is rarely hot enough to melt the candy bar, though it’s so gooey it squishes out between the cookies. So: an open-face s’more with the hot marshmallow resting on chocolate-hazelnut spread.
That recipe’s so easy to make it might have been thought up by one of the backyard grill jockeys in “Barbecue Nation.” Well, at this time of year, it’s all one barbecue world. And we barbecuers will steal ‘em as we see ‘em.