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Grilling gets dressed up and accessorized

As any dad can tell you, few things evoke the basics of life - and fatherhood - more than grilling. What cookbooks can take the charcoal gourmet to new heights?

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," (Sizzle, 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.

Next is Bobby Flay's Grill It!, 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.