“Every time you’re building a fire outside, it’s a community event,” writes Chef Michael Chiarello in his foreword to “The Great Outdoors Cookbook,” one of several new volumes devoted to cooking with fire and smoke. Humans have been preparing and preserving food that way for millennia, and our enthusiasm shows no sign of waning.
In the preface to the new edition of their 20-year-old barbecue classic “Smoke & Spice,” authors Cheryl and Bill Jamison observe: “The joints keep getting fancier … tending the pits outside may be a professional chef trained in the culinary arts … Americans everywhere seem to have accepted barbecue as our true, red-white-and-blue national folk food.”
Those wishing to advance their outdoor-cooking prowess this summer, read on, and prepare to light your fire.
“Pitt Cue Co.: The Cookbook,” by Tom Adams, Simon Anderson, Jamie Berger, and Richard H. Turner (Mitchell Beazley, $34.99)
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What can Americans learn about barbecue from four Brits? Plenty, as it happens, in this cheeky, how-we-do-it by the owners of the restaurant Pitt Cue, “a small hobbit den in Soho” where Londoners queue up for what chef April Bloomfield (of NYC’s The Spotted Pig and The Breslin) calls “the most refined BBQ I have ever eaten.” After eating their way through barbecue joints across this country, these blokes concluded that “trying to replicate U.S. barbecue was exactly the route they did not want to go down.” But they do start the book with a discussion of bourbon, before moving on to meats, sauces and rubs, snack, sides, and “sweet stuff.” While admitting “a lot of barbecue is winging it,” they deliver sound advice on the basics (sourcing meat, the different cuts) as well as techniques for grilling or smoking various creatures whole (chicken, duck, quail) or in parts (ears, jowls, innards, feet). Their candid, Brit-speak makes this a fun read.
“Cooking with Fire,” by Paula Marcoux (Storey Publishing, $19.95)
Food historian Paula Marcoux wants readers to spend “quality time with fire.” To encourage that, she begins with roasting and toasting food on a stick (marshmallows, yes, but bacon, too). She explains how to rig up a rotisserie, bake bread and vegetables right in the ashes and coals, and eventually gets to putting a grate over fire and grilling. Then she moves on to pots, pans, smokers and other gear: the schwenker (a swinging grill that hangs from a tripod), the Argentine Infiernillo, and all manner of griddles, stoves and ovens invented to manipulate the cooking environment. Methodical, authoritative, encyclopedic, Marcoux’s book blazes a mesmerizing trail for contemporary cooks back through the hundreds of millennia since humans first used fire to transform their food.
“The Great Outdoors Cookbook,” by the editors of Sunset Magazine (Oxmoor House, $24.95)
Here’s a book designed to turn happy campers into creative campfire cooks, help backyard barbecuers up their game, and inspire epicures to seek their next open-air cooking conquest. The sumptuously illustrated paperback is filled with practical tips (how to pack a cooler, use a Dutch oven, forage for wild foods, throw a garden party). The section on backyard grilling starts with basic techniques but the recipes span a world of flavors, from paella to garam masala steak naan-wiches. For those ready to venture beyond the Weber or break out of the Big Green Egg, there are sections on box roasting, solar oven cooking, vertical water smoking, cowboy caldrons and building your own patio oven.
“Gastro Grilling,” by Ted Reader (Pintail, $25)
Canadian chef Ted Reader is an ebullient cheerleader who encourages grill tenders to “feel the fire.” He is so serious about meat that he bought a fridge just for aging primal cuts. He loves gadgets too. His favorite flavor-boosting tool is an injection syringe, which he uses to pump Tabasco sauce into hot dogs, hot buttered rum into sweet potatoes, and spiced whiskey into blueberries. He sets those berries to sizzling on a hot stone (another tool he favors). Anyone bored with doing the same-old same-old on the backyard grill will find plenty in this heavily illustrated book to fire the imagination.
“Smoke & Spice,” by Cheryl & Bill Jamison (Harvard Common Press, $24.95)
The authors have collected numerous James Beard Awards for their cookbooks, including one for this bible on “the real way to barbecue.” First published in 1994, it’s been updated and expanded with color photos and 50 new recipes. The Jamisons serve up a bit of historical perspective along with advice on buying (and even building your own) equipment and supplies for both outdoor and stovetop smoking. Useful tips, trivia and anecdotal asides culled from spelunking in ’cue joints from coast-to-coast punctuate the 450 wide-ranging recipes, from smoking a classic smoked pork butt and “a passel of pulled pork ideas” to “Going Whole Hog.” Fish, fowl, fruits, vegetables and grains take their turn in the smoker, too. Also included are mops, sops, rubs and marinades; pickles and sides; and (because smoking is a hot, thirsty business) beverages like Cold Buttered Rum (made with butter pecan ice cream) and a smoked tomato Bloody Mary.
“The Nolan Ryan Beef & Barbecue Cookbook” (Little Brown, $25)
Famous for pitching strikeouts, baseball Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan doesn’t strike out with this down-to-earth collection of recipes developed with the expertise of Texas Rangers executive chef Cristobal G. Vazquez, who also cooked for the Ryan family. A cattle rancher for 40 years, Ryan knows what he likes, though Vazquez’s Mexican roots influence recipes such as barbacoa brisket and a grilled T-Bone with tequila-chipotle butter. A warm, family feeling comes through in the anecdotes sprinkled throughout the book, sure to warm the briquettes of beef lovers and baseball buffs of a certain age.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org