Independence Day means many things to many people. Clearly, there is the patriotism celebrating the birth of our nation that comes with this holiday. For some people it means the spectacular fireworks displays or the opportunity to get away for a long weekend. There are many more possibilities, but for me and my family, the 4th of July meant one thing: grilling.
I have the fondest memories about our 4th of July barbecues: the sun, the conversations, the running into the house with the food when it downpoured. (There was always at least a 60% chance that we would be rained on; it never stopped us.) Each year was met with anticipation. It was a chance to get the “good rolls” from the bakery in the next town, an excuse for my mom and grandmother to unearth the pizzelle makers to make dessert and an opportunity to have steak (if it was on sale and my grandfather liked the way the meat looked). My grandfather would helm the grill while I hovered by him. I watched as he turned the meat and waited for him to slip little tastes to me and our dog who was hovering just as eagerly on the other side of him. He taught me grill safety, how to clean it and as I got old enough, how to grill the food as well.
Despite all of these food-associated memories, these celebrations weren’t really about the food. This was partly because it was good, quality time spent with family and friends and party because the food just wasn’t that great. In my eyes, my grandfather was a god among men; he just wasn’t one that was handy on the grill. Every year, we treated ourselves to charred sausages (it was only until much, much later after I had taken over the grilling to let him relax at these shindigs that we learned to parboil the sausages to prevent the outer coating of char), tough, well-done steak and dry burgers. Our backyard barbecues were great, but they were definitely not about the food. As I got older, the roles shifted and my grandfather stood by and chatted with me while I did the grilling and slipped him and the dog a few tastes. But I also learned to make the food tastier. I taught myself to marinate and grill chicken, the aforementioned parboiling sausages trick and how to grill for vegetarians. The barbecues weren’t any less about the company, but they did become somewhat more about the food.
Part of how I learned to improve my grilling skills was through cookbooks and we have a bunch of books here at the South Branch that I can only wish had been available to me when I started grilling. To say that the world of grilling has changed for the better would be a gross understatement. People are paying more attention to meat, and even more attention to the non-meat entities that can become immensely tasty when hit with a bit of flame. One of the best ways that grilling books have improved is that they focus on the whole meal, not necessarily just what’s hitting the grill. They accompany main dishes with off-grill items that can compliment the flavor of the meat (or meat alternatives in some cases). Here are a few of my new favorites that are on our shelves right now:
This Better Homes and Garden tome is packed with mouth-watering illustrations for nearly every recipe, an introduction to grills, fuel options and an at-a-glance grilled vegetable guide that blew my mind. (Can you really put strawberries or fennel on the grill? Yes, yes indeed.) It’s not comprehensive, but that’s just makes it wonderfully manageable. This book has great, non-traditional ideas in addition to the expected fare, so you’re likely to find a new favorite recipe here.
What this book lacks in photos and illustrations it more than makes up for in content. There are hundreds of recipes here that cover the usual, the unusual and the downright surprising from all around the world. Each section is broken down by meat type, plus sections on starters, veggies, marinades and rubs, and desserts. Brief essays with enticing titles like “Happy Birthday, Hamburger!” and “A Dessert that Dances on the Grill” start off each section and there are some great “Looking Back” recipes pulled from the NYT archives. Don’t let this one intimidate you. There’s a lot there, but it’s there to pick and choose as you please.
Chris Schlesinger and John Willougby, both Massachusetts residents, have created a relaxed, no-nonsense attitude to grilling in this book that can be very appealing for anyone who doesn’t have a lot of time or just wants good, grilled food with minimal effort. The book’s sections cover different meats plus vegetables (“Vegetables love the grill, too”) and drinks (because everyone needs a delicious wash-down after a good, grilled meal). Each section starts off with a “Super-Basic” recipe that pares grilling down to the utter essentials (usually the meat, oil, salt and pepper and that’s it) and they tell you how to cook it without killing it. If you get more comfortable, you can always try out some of the amazing flavors they have featured here in recipes that are only slightly more complicated than their basics.
I’m not going to lie; local institution America’s Test Kitchen and their accompanying magazine Cook’s Illustrated have always intimidated me a bit. There is an underlying sense expecting perfection because once you’ve controlled all the elements and gotten the best ingredients, how can you not achieve greatness? My messy kitchen experiments rarely follow their expectations but there’s no denying their recipes are tried-and-true. This book doesn’t focus solely on grilling, but it does focus solely on meat. (Vegetarians will want to steer clear of this one.) The recipes include many classic restaurant dishes like Chicken Saltimbocca and Porl Lo Mein. Plus with recipe titles like “perfect poach chicken” and Cook’s Illustrated signature illustrations, it’s hard not to be tempted.
I haven’t talked much about traditional barbecue because it is really a tradition of its own and aside from a slow-cooker pulled pork, isn’t really in my cooking repertoire. But I couldn’t have a grilling blog entry without at least addressing the sauce-covered elephant in the room. If you want a solid introduction to classic barbecue and smoke techniques, this book is a great place to start. Not only will Cheryl and Bill Jamison give you a solid introduction to using smoke both outdoors and indoors, but they’ve compiled a collection of great, accessible recipes with tantalizing photos. With a laid-back tone, this revised James Beard Award-winner may just make you want to spend this weekend building a smoker in your backyard.
Till next Saturday, dear patrons, have a happy, safe Independence Day, however you celebrate.