Like white shoes and bathing suit diets, the first hint of warm weather inevitably is accompanied by a bumper harvest of barbecue cookbooks. But when you get right down to it, grilling is cooking at its most elemental: man, meat and fire. Anything else is elaboration.
After more than 60 years of barbecue books, can there really be anything new to say?
Depends on what you mean by “new.” Certainly each grill guy who writes a book (and they are almost universally guys), tries to find his own twist on the subject--his own approach and, of course, his own set of recipes. But basically, almost all barbecue cookbooks proceed down the same path, at about the same pace. The form is as ritualized as any detective novel.
First there’s the equipment. Ahhh yes, the equipment; would grilling truly be as attractive without it? In the old days, this revolved around the do-it-yourself building of backyard barbecue pits. Today, it’s arguments about “gas vs. charcoal” and discussions of thousand-dollar grills and talking barbecue forks.
What is believed to be the first barbecue cookbook was published by Sunset magazine in 1938. Bound in board (literally, the cover is a very he-man plank), it is half project book, half cookbook. Or, as they put it then, “barbe-construction” and “barbe-cookery.” The latter was written by the late Virginia Rich, more famous recently for her series of culinary murder mysteries featuring a sleuthing chef.
The coolest part of this book is the construction plans. This was a time when “do-it-yourself” consisted of far more than merely changing light bulbs. Real men, it seems, were adept at everything from digging pits to pouring cement and laying brick. (Or maybe they weren’t but wanted to think they were. Wasn’t there an “I Love Lucy” episode about Ricky and Fred building a barbecue?)
Make no mistake about it, some of these projects amount to major remodeling, the backyard barbecue equivalents of the Taj Mahal. “Plan 13" is for a “barbecue, oven, fireplace, sink, cupboards and work surfaces” and is more than 16 feet wide (it calls for 2,100 bricks, the plan advises helpfully). You can’t help but wonder how many of these were converted to planters during the 1970s.
Today’s barbecue cookbooks aim a bit lower. Even something as detailed as Cook’s Illustrated magazine--in its new book--limits itself to electric and chimney starters, hardwood charcoal and tongs. Instead of do-it-yourself know-how, today’s books seem to focus more on “spend-it-yourself.” Most have at least something about those gleaming, stainless steel $3,000 mega-grills.
Sometimes in grill books the food even seems secondary. Usually, there’s a selection of “foolproof” basic recipes followed by an increasingly more complicated series of rubs, marinades and sauces, culminating in dishes where--whatever the generation--the fact that they’re cooked on the barbecue seems to be almost secondary.
From today’s vantage point, the food in the 1938 Sunset book is pretty basic stuff. There’s an interesting-sounding barbecue sauce, but it’s probably most notable for its mangling of names. Veal “sati” is easy enough to figure out, but it takes some puzzling to decipher “passoli” (hint: it’s Mexican, not Italian, and it’s made with hominy).
The first major revision of this book came in 1950. Quite a lot had changed in the world during the intervening 12 years, and that is amply reflected in the recipe selection. This is an almost startlingly sophisticated book--a sure antidote for anyone who insists that the 1950s were a dead time in American cuisine. An early version of Korean bulgogi , sophisticated French herbal butters, broiled wild mallard duck and a whole tuna pit-cooked on banana leaves are just a few of the recipes.
Of course, with grilling, the simple things are almost always the best. That’s true with this book as well. If you can find a copy, it’s worth it just to gaze mournfully at the pictures of the different cuts of meat and remember when “well-marbled” referred to something other than a fancy new countertop.
The meat is the only thing that’s leaner about this year’s crop of grilling books. We’ve sorted through the most recent--including from the last several years--and highlighted these we think are especially worth mention.
“How to Grill” by Steven Raichlen ( Workman, $19.95; 2001)
As he taught cooking classes in the heart of barbecue country, Raichlen discovered a strange phenomenon: Students were peppering him with questions about grilling, and once they opened up, even some of the hard-core guys were asking basic questions. So was born Raichlen’s picture-filled primer on grilling, which covers a variety of techniques--from setting up charcoal grills for smoking to preparing lobster for grilling.
Raichlen, who also wrote the recipe-filled “Barbecue! Bible” (Workman, $19.95) and a follow-up book on sauces and rubs, takes a modern-guy sort of tone here. To help you decide gas vs. charcoal, he starts by asking “Are you process-or result-oriented?” Yet among the 150 straightforward recipes is one for barbecued whole pig, undoubtedly appealing to run-of-the-mill grillers, but also to the sorts of weekend barbecue warriors who’ll drive miles in search of custom butchers.
The nifty photos are the best part about “How to Grill.” Packaged with big type and colorful boxes of tips, they make the book seem quite handy. That the recipes, such as Brazilian Coconut Shrimp Kebabs, sound good is almost secondary. The only slightly glaring part of all this is that color photos look a bit unappetizing on the book’s white pages. But no doubt the pages soon will be splattered, as any good cookbook’s should be.
“Weber’s Big Book of Grilling” by Jamie Purviance and Sandra S. McRae (Chronicle Books, $22.95; 2001)
After taking barbecuing to new heights a few years ago with “Weber’s Art of the Grill” (see below), the grill-maker has gone more down-home. It’s latest recipe epic, a hefty, softbound book, has a recipe for every day of the year. The “Big Book” is more fun, from its slightly silly tone (“In the beginning, there was fire, and it was good”) to old black-and-white photos of guys standing around grills in sport shirts.
But the book’s recipes are also really good. They’re not so complicated that you spend more time prepping than grilling, nor so simple that you can’t serve something such as Simple Salmon Marinade to guests (1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup Dijon mustard, 3 tablespoons prepared horseradish, 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, 1 teaspoon rice vinegar. Marinate the salmon in all but 1/3 cup of marinade about 30 minutes; brush the rest on while grilling).
The Tia Maria Skirt Steak won praise from our steak fans, while Tequila Shrimp was another winner. In fact, flipping through the pages, few recipes-if any--sound unappealing, and that’s pretty unusual in a cookbook today.
‘Barbecues 101" by Rick Rodgers (Broadway, $15; 2001)
In previous books, Rodgers has talked turkey (“Thanksgiving 101") and the holidays (“Christmas 101"), and now he takes on the freshmen barbecue class. Although his slim, picture-less book is nowhere near the size of Raichlen’s “How to Grill,” it still has good information. You just have to rely on words rather than pictures and graphics to get you through.
The usual topics are covered: gas vs. charcoal, smoking, grilling safety. Then Rodgers takes us to his recipes, starting with some sauces you can slap on, such as Napa Red Wine Marinade and Bangkok Lemongrass Marinade, and eventually getting to the big stuff, Grilled Steak 101. (There’s also Grilled Burgers 101, Grilled Pork Chops 101, BBQ Chicken 101--you get the idea--as well as more advanced numbers.)
Though probably a book more for the novice, even old grill hands might find a recipe or two, such as the Portobello Mushroom Quesadillas. They were good, though--come to think of it--an old grill-hand might not do mushrooms.
“The Best Recipe Grilling & Barbecue” by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine (Boston Common Press, $29.95; 2001)
Combine Consumer Reports with a cookbook and you’ll get this big book from the folks at Cook’s Illustrated, a magazine known for its painstaking attention to every possible food preparation detail. “We lit more than 5,000 fires to find the absolute best way to grill,” the cover says of its 400 “exhaustively” tested recipes, from grilled bruschetta and pizza to charcoal-grilled squid. But before the recipes come somewhat exhaustive descriptions, such as 3 1/2 pages on grilling burgers and five pages talking chicken.
Of course some cookbooks might just lay it out there--burgers are best made with 20%-fat ground beef. Not so Cook’s, which editor and publisher Chris Kimball says in the book’s introduction is almost “plodding” when it comes to recipe development. Here we’re given how this decision was arrived at (which includes the final thought that you should grind your own meat), detailed in 22 paragraphs.
The idea, Kimball writes, is that once you’ve mastered the book’s techniques, when you pop open that beer and stand around the grill, you’ll “appear the very model of the easygoing barbecue chef.”
“Weber’s Art of the Grill” by Jamie Purviance (Chronicle Books, $35; 1999)
This big, bold book from a couple of years ago still looks good on the coffee table, and its full-page color photos will get you in the spirit to grill for guests, if nothing else. Bliss Potatoes With Sour Cream and Caviar, or Crispy Asian Duck Breasts and Soft Polenta--two of the recipes--might be a bit much for the boys on a Saturday night, but not for the grilling sophisticate.
This is more grilling as art form, the book says, which means controlling the fire, getting down some techniques and working with a good recipe. And, of course, buying an expensive book. Still, there’s good information here, and if you’ve got one of those big fancy grills, this might go well with it.
“Born to Grill: An American Celebration” by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison (Harvard Common Press, $15.95; 1998)
You can tell from this book or any of the Jamisons’ others (“Smoke and Spice” won a James Beard award) that this couple likes to cook outdoors. In every recipe, they like to “fire up the grill.” Their recipes are somewhat creative and have the sound of those from folks who like to eat (Banana-Glazed Butterflied Pork Chops, Garlic and Guac Burger, Bourbon Turkey Breast Filets, Cinnamon Chicken With Crunchy Cashew Relish).
There also are bits on grilling principles, wood chips and chunks, and gas and charcoal grills. While this may not be the best first grill book (no chicken breast 101 here), it’s a nice one to add to any collection.