Just as the upcoming July 4th holiday kicks the summer grilling season into high gear, the nation’s outdoor cooking authorities, Cheryl and Bill Jamison, have launched a timely and useful new cookbook.
“100 Grilling Recipes You Can’t Live Without” (Harvard Common Press, $16.95) is a collection of the Jamisons’ greatest hits, gleaned from a half-dozen previously published grill and barbecue titles that, collectively, have sold more than 1.5 million copies and represent more than 20 years of creative fire-roasted cooking.
Yes, the Santa Fe, N.M.-based couple know their stuff, and in a recent phone conversation, Cheryl Jamison shared grilling tips, debunked the gas-charcoal divide and explained why we all need to step away from the grill cover.
Q: How did you select just 100 recipes from six previous books on grilling and barbecue? Your extraordinary “The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking & Entertaining” [William Morrow, 2007] is packed with 850 recipes, and that’s just one title.
A: It was actually rather fun. The first thing we did was sit down and make a list, off the tops of our heads, of our favorites. Surprisingly, we came up with a good part of the book. Then we discussed flavor combinations, and balanced out the book with different techniques. Then we retested, and tweaked recipes to accommodate changing tastes.
Q: You are not fans of the grilling gadget, right?
A: Correct. All you really need is a sturdy spatula and a good set of spring-loaded tongs, especially the ones with heatproof inserts. OXO makes one [www.oxo.com], and it’s great. They’re really the most important tools.
Beyond that, we go for a grill mesh, one of those toppers you can place on the grate for grilling little tidbits, or a grill mesh basket, which make it easy to grill vegetables or stir fries.
Q: It’s the age-old grilling question: Gas or charcoal?
A: It doesn’t matter all that much. It’s more about which one fits your personality, and if your gas grill can give a range of heat.
The earliest gas grills tended to have low firepower, so the results were not nearly as good as any old hibachi or those braziers that people used to have.
When you’re buying a gas grill, what’s really important is where the fire is going to be, relative to the grate. For searing meats, you want access to high heat. If the fire is going to be 6 inches below the grate, it’s not going to work the same way as if it were 2 to 3 inches.
We think that if you have a gas grill that can give searing power, the results between gas and charcoal are fairly similar. There is a difference if you grill using logs, or large wood chunks that have been burned down to coals. You’ll get some good wood character with either one of those.
Despite what people think, charcoal has had its wood character already burned out of it by the time it turns to charcoal. We’ll use gas on any old Wednesday evening to get dinner on the table, but when we’re entertaining — and we’re not under drought conditions, the way we are right now — we’ll go to our wood-burning fireplace.
Q: Care to share a few grate tips?
A: You want to preheat the grate, get it good and hot. Once it’s hot and oiled, and once you put the food in place on the grate, you want to leave it in that place for a good minute or more. While the food is cooking — while it’s browning — it will release from the grate if you leave it in place and don’t fiddle with it. And it’s always a good idea to clean the grate immediately after grilling, using the brush that’s recommended for the grill. It’s easy to do when the grill is hot, because by the time it turns cold, all that stuff that’s sticking to the grate can turn to concrete.
Q: Why do you say “No” to the grill cover?
A: The problem with covers is that you’re basically baking, you’re not grilling. Grilling is a very specific cooking technique, where food is exposed to fire and its surfaces get a good crisp. We think the flavor is better when the grill is uncovered, although covers have their uses, whether you’re using a rotisserie, or if it’s windy or raining, or you’re trying to cook something large and you’re using indirect heat.
Way back when grilling was becoming popular in this country, meats were fattier, and the marinade recipes in those old cookbooks were loaded with oils. It wasn’t any big surprise that people were getting massive flare-ups. George Stephen, the father of the Weber grill, observed this, and he figured that if you put a cover on it, then people wouldn’t burn their eyebrows. People grill all over the world, of course, and no one tries to use a cover other than Americans.
Q: What made you such ardent grilled pizza fans?
A: Unless you invest in your own home pizza oven, this is the closest thing you can get to a real wood-fired pizza oven taste. The technique sounds awkward, but it’s not hard to do, and with practice it becomes really easy. It freaks people out that you put the dough on the cooking grate, but it works, and you get great results, fast.
Q: What’s the route to first-rate grilled burgers?
A: Well, there’s the burger itself. You need to start with good-quality, freshly ground beef. Ideally, it should be at least 15 percent fat content, maybe even 20 percent. It’s not like you’re going to eat all that fat — it’s going to drip out of the burger — but it makes it especially juicy.
Get a better bun than your average supermarket bun. Or try a different meat. Lamb makes for a wonderful burger.
Q: What about grilled steaks?
A: Again, you want to start with a good-quality steak. It should be at least choice, and if you can find prime and you can afford it, that’s a great splurge, and a good way to begin.
You don’t want to grill super-cold meat, you should let it sit out for about 30 minutes before it goes on the grill.
You’ll want to start it over a really hot fire. That will help you get that seared surface, that nice, almost caramelized crunch, which will contrast to the juicy meat inside. Then you’ll want to finish it over medium heat.
You’ll want to season the meat before you grill, and the better the steak, the less we do with seasoning. We like kosher salt and a fairly coarse pepper for steak. And at the end, maybe a little Maldon sea salt, or a little butter. Really great meat just doesn’t need a lot.
Q: It never occurred to me to warm the graham crackers on the grill while the marshmallows were also being toasted for the s’mores. Maybe it’s my austere Lutheran background. Where did the idea come from?
A: That’s something that we’ve done forever. Did I learn that in the Girl Scouts? I can’t remember, it has been such a long time. But it’s wonderful.
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