As any dad can tell you, few things evoke the basics of life - and fatherhood - more than grilling.
Hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, ribs, steaks, salmon and sausage.
If it can be cooked over a campfire, lad, you can grill it.
But what's simple is simple no more, and those who have been known to throw a slab of meat onto a hot fire with some measure of success may find themselves in the midst of an identity crisis.
And it goes beyond the modern debate of charcoal vs. gas. We're talking about the meaning of backyard barbecue itself.
This all came to me when a dozen cookbooks, weighing more than 20 pounds - all dedicated to grilling - landed on my desk.
First, I wondered, when did grilling require so much instruction?
Any man with a good eye, a spatula, a fork and - if necessary - a meat thermometer can prepare the main course of a cookout with little danger of failure as long as the cut of flesh isn't so cheap a dog would snarl at it or it hasn't been marinated into pulp.
That honorable standby,
The Joy of Cooking
, dedicates all of four pages to "outdoor cooking."
And what is more honorable - and more simple - than a wiener or a burger on the grill?
But according to a recently released survey by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, 63 percent of backyard chefs would like to have a celebrity chef as a grilling instructor.
How much more is there to say than marinate, grill, flip and serve?
Alas, as I turned through the newly arrived collection of cookbooks, I found they are dedicated not so much to the basics of grilling as to what a fashion writer would call "accessories."
That is, sauces, side dishes and desserts, which might or might not be cooked on the grill and could include "Irish Oatmeal Risotto," (
The Best Barbecue on Earth
, by Rick Browne, Ten Speed Press) and "Crepes with Grilled Nectarines," (
Semi-Homemade Grilling 2
, by Sandra Lee, Meredith Press).
Where once grilling was manly, it has become metrosexual.
Sauces, of course, have long been part of the grilling tradition, employed before, during or after the actual cooking of the meat. What would London broil be without that special marinade, or ribs without barbecue sauce?
But now we're talking about more than mild, medium and hot.
Consider "Guinness Mop Sauce" (
Semi-Homemade Grilling 2
), a mix of barbecue sauce and a stout-based braising liquid for a brisket. Or "Fig-Cabernet Vinegar Glaze," (
Bobby Flay's Grill It!
, by Bobby Flay, Stephanie Banyas and Sally Jackson, Clarkson Potter), which you are to apply to your filet mignons once they come off the fire. Even down-to-earth Al Roker has a recipe in his new book for "Tuna Provencale," made with shallots, basil, capers and ahi tuna.
This all sounds tasty, but it means special preparation, a concept once antithetical to grilling.
Still, if you have the time and are adventurous, I'm all in favor of cooking - and, of course, eating - "Seared scallops with chili-pepper dressing," (
, Julie Biuso, Julie Biuso Publications) and "Grilled Filet Mignon with Gorgonzola Pancetta and Peach-Balsamic Jam," (
Grill It! Recipes, Techniques and Tools
, by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby, Dorling Kindersley).
And a pleasant surprise is a push for grilling pizza on the grill, something I'm actually considering attempting.
The good thing about these books is that they remind us that as much as we think grilling is part of backyard Americana, it emerges from a history as old as the discovery of fire itself and spans many cultures.
These weighty tomes also underscore that we live in a time when ingredients once considered exotic - back when my own Dad was grilling in the 1960s and '70s - are now easily available in this melting-pot country of ours.
With a little effort, any of us, dads included, can take a culinary journey without leaving the patio.
Be it far from me to recommend one book over another, but in terms of simplicity and utility two books - both by guys, of course - stood out for me.
First is the latest edition of
The Barbecue! Bible
by Steven Raichlen (Workman Publishing), which has been instructing backyard chefs for a decade.
which could keep you busy every summer weekend for years to come.
But my tastes may not mirror yours, and the simplest thing to do is head to your favorite bookstore, page through the vast selection of grilling books, and determine which chef or recipes appeal most to you. There are a lot to choose from. But then again, you may be happy just doing what you've been doing all these years, and in my book there is nothing wrong with that.
On a personal side note, I think there is one place where some books stray too far, and that is with recipes that could just as easily be prepared in your kitchen instead of on a grill.
Since converting from a charcoal purist to propane proponent, I have advocated using the grill to cook roasts of any and all sorts.
But I draw the line at actually using the grill to cook anything in a pan, such as shellfish. My rule is if the meat, fish or vegetable doesn't actually touch the hot grill, take it inside. No sense wasting room when you've got dogs to cook for the kids.
1. Be organized.
Have everything you need at grillside - the food, marinade, basting sauce, seasoning and equipment - before you start grilling.
2. Gauge your fuel.
There's nothing worse than running out of charcoal or gas in the middle of grilling. When cooking on a gas grill, make sure the tank is at least one-third full.
3. Preheat the grill to the right temperature.
Remember: Grilling is a high-heat cooking method. In order to achieve the seared crust, distinctive flavor, and handsome grill marks, you must cook over a high heat. How high? At least 600°F for high-heat direct grilling. When indirect grilling, preheat the grill to 350°F.
4. Keep it clean.
There's nothing less appetizing than grilling on dirty old burnt bits of food stuck to the grate. Besides, the food will stick to a dirty grate. Clean the grate twice: once after you've preheated the grill and again when you've finished cooking.
5. Keep it lubricated. Oil the grate just before placing the food on top. Use a tightly folded paper towel soaked in oil, or rub it with a piece of fatty bacon, beef fat or chicken skin. Or, lift it off the hot grate, spray it with oil - away from the flames - then return it to the grill.
6. Turn, don't stab.
The proper way to turn meat on a grill is with tongs or a spatula. Never stab the meat with a carving fork - unless you want to drain the flavor-rich juices onto the coals.
7. Know when to baste.
Bastes and marinades made with oil and vinegar, citrus, or yogurt can be brushed on the meat throughout the cooking time. If you want to use a marinade for basting, to avoid cross-contamination, set some of it aside before you begin marinating the meat. Never use a marinade that has contained raw meat as a baste or a sauce.
8. Keep it covered.
When cooking larger cuts of meat and poultry, such as a whole chicken, leg of lamb, or prime rib, use the indirect method of grilling or barbecuing. Keep the grill tightly covered and resist the temptation to peek. Every time you lift the lid, you add to the cooking time.
9. Give it a rest.
Beef, steak, chicken - almost anything you grill - will taste better if you let it stand on a cutting board for a few minutes before serving. This allows the meat to "relax," making it juicier and tastier.
10. Never desert your post.
Grilling is an easy cooking method, but it demands constant attention. Once you put something on the grill (especially when using the direct method), stay with it until it's cooked. This is not the time mix up a batch of your famous mojitos.
The Barbecue! Bible
, by Steven Raichlen (Workman)
Makes 4 servings
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, finely chopped
2 cups cabernet vinegar or other red wine vinegar
1 cup dry red wine,
6 dried figs
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves, plus whole sprigs for garnish
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
4 (8-ounce) filets mignons
Freshly ground black pepper
8 fresh figs, halved
Heat one tablespoon of oil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add the shallots and cook until lightly golden brown. Add the vinegar, red wine, dried figs and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally, until the figs are soft and the liquid is reduced by half, 15 to 20 minutes.
Transfer the mixture to a food processor and process until smooth. Wipe out the pan, strain the mixture back into the pan, and place over high heat. Cook until the mixture is thickened, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the honey and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and the coarse black pepper. Let cool.
Twenty minutes before grilling, remove the steaks from the refrigerator and let sit, covered, at room temperature.
Heat your grill to high.
Brush both sides of the filets with 2 tablespoons of the oil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place on the grill and grill until golden brown and slightly charred, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn the steaks over and continue grilling until cooked to medium-rare, 3 to 4 minutes.
Transfer the steaks to a platter and immediately spoon some of the glaze over each steak. Tent with foil and let rest for 5 minutes.
While the steaks are resting, brush the fresh figs on both sides with the remaining two teaspoons of the oil. Grill the figs until they are soft and lightly browned, about 2 minutes per side.
Uncover the steaks, top with the figs, and garnish with thyme before serving.
From Bobby Flay's Grill It! (Clarkson Potter)
690 calories, 49 grams protein, 49 grams carbohydrates, 39 grams sugar, 32 grams fat, 141 milligrams cholesterol, 490 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber
Makes 4 servings
cup Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon dried tarragon leaves, crushed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 boneless, skin-on chicken breast halves
Prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill, or preheat a gas grill on medium-high.
In a bowl or baking dish large enough to hold the chicken, combine the mustard, olive oil, tarragon and pepper. Stir to mix thoroughly. Add the chicken breasts and turn to coat on both sides. Set aside until the grill is ready.
To create a cool zone, bank the coals to one side of the grill or turn off one of the burners. Oil the grill grate. Place the chicken breasts, skin side down, directly over the medium-hot fire and sear on one side, about 5 minutes. Turn and sear on the other side for 5 minutes.
Move the chicken breasts to the cooler part of the grill, cover and grill until the juices run clear when the thickest part of the chicken breast is pierced with a knife, or an instant-read thermometer registers 165 degrees, 5 to 7 minutes longer.
Divide the chicken breasts among warmed plates. Serve immediately.
303 calories, 37 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, no sugar, 16 grams fat, 109 milligrams cholesterol, 332 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber
Makes 8 servings
1 large egg, hard-cooked and cut into ¼ inch dice
1 ripe medium-size tomato, seeded and finely chopped
¼ cup corn kernels, freshly cooked, or drained canned corn
¼ cup cooked fresh or
frozen green peas, or drained canned petits pois
¼ cup pimiento-stuffed green olives, cut into ¼-inch dice
¼ cup pitted black olives, cut into ¼-inch dice
¼ cup diced red onion
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4½ teaspoons red wine vinegar, or more to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 best-quality hot dogs
8 best-quality hot dog buns, split
Combine the egg in a medium-size bowl with the tomato, corn, peas, olives, onion, olive oil and vinegar, and toss gently but thoroughly to mix. Taste for seasoning, adding more vinegar and salt and pepper to taste; the relish should be highly seasoned.
Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat to high.
When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Arrange the hot dogs on the hot grate and grill, turning with tongs, until crusty and nicely browned all over, 6 to 8 minutes in all. While the hot dogs cook on the second side, place the buns, cut side down, on the grate and toast lightly.
Serve the hot dogs on the buns, topped with the relish.
Steven Raichlen tasted this unusual hot dog at a samba school in Rio. From midnight to 4 a.m., the cavernous concrete hall reverberated with the thunderous rhythm of samba. An army of street vendors stood by to assuage the hunger of the dancers, and he was particularly intrigued by the hot dog stand: The vendor crowned her hot dogs with a luscious relish of corn, tomatoes, peas, black and green olives, and hard-cooked eggs.
From The Barbecue! Bible, By Steven Raichlen (Workman)
327 calories, 10 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 51 milligrams cholesterol, 865 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber
Makes 4 servings as an appetizer
11/2 pound cleaned squid with tentacles, thoroughly rinsed and drained well
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon minced garlic
7 dashes of Tobasco sauce, or to taste.
Build a fire in your grill. When the coals are all ignited, the fire has died down, and the temperature is hot, you're ready to cook. Wrap a clean brick with foil and place it by your grill.
Put the squid in a large bowl, add the olive oil, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper, and toss gently to coat. Thread the tentacles onto skewers so they don't fall through the grill when you cook them.
Combine the dressing ingredients in a large bowl, mix, and set aside.
Arrange a few squid bodies on the grill over the coals, and cover them completely with the brick. Cook until opaque throughout, about two minutes per side, then remove the brick and allow the bodies to cook for about 30 seconds longer, until they are golden brown and crispy.
Repeat this process with the rest of the squid bodies, adding the tentacles to the grill (no brick required) with the last batch. Cook the tentacles for about two minutes until they are evenly brown and crispy.
Slice the squid bodies into rings and add them, along with the tentacles, to the lemon-garlic dressing, tossing to coat. Pile the squid on a platter and serve.
Grill It! Recipes, Techniques, Tools
317 calories, 27 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 20 grams fat, 396 milligrams cholesterol, 80 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber