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You can smell it in the air: millions of long-dormant grills being lit in observance of the rites of warm weather, bright sunshine and long days. ‘Tis the season when our nation smells of wood smoke. ‘Tis summer: the happiest time of year, as far as I’m concerned.
This time of year is also the most delicious. I am 100-percent convinced that nothing served in any restaurant ever tastes as good as food that you, yourself, cook outdoors with friends on a sunny day. Nothing. No competition. This is not to say that everything that comes off a grill is perfect. The experience, however, is perfect, replete, enough.
For this month’s cookbook recommendations, I’ve rounded up four books that approach live-fire cooking from a variety of angles — from grilling to barbecue to smoking and everything in between. Some of these, like the Jamisons’ Smoke & Spice, are long-established classics; others, like Adam Perry Lang’s Charred & Scruffed, are relative newcomers well on their way to achieving similar status. All are full of valuable instruction and fantastic recipes. So whether you’re a novice grill jockey or a seasoned backyard pit boss, the following four Food Network Library favorites will have you all fired up this summer.
Charred and Scruffed, Adam Perry Lang and Peter Kaminsky (2012)
In this book, Adam — a chef with a serious haute cuisine pedigree — scruffs up everything you thought you knew not only about grilling but about cooking meat. His book is a catalog of brilliant, radically unorthodox techniques. There’s “clinching” (cooking directly on the coals), there’s “active grilling” (“hot potatoeing” meat on the grill), and then there’s “scruffing” (roughing up meat by scoring it or encouraging it to stick and tear in order to increase surface area and get a better crust). In Adam’s world, grill marks are a false god, meat should be rested in the middle of cooking, charcoal is grated onto foods as a seasoning, and “low and slow” has nothing on “high and slow” (placing large cuts far from a hot fire). In recipe after recipe, Adam does amazingly right by doing what seems incredibly wrong, and that is his genius.
Smoke & Spice, Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison (2004)
This book gets referred to as a bible so often you’d think it had been commissioned by King James. Truth is, since it first came out in 1994, Smoke & Spice has done more to wise up the American public to the difference between grilling (small cuts cooked directly over a flame, hot and fast) and barbecuing (large cuts, indirect heat, smoke, low and slow) than any other book. Smoke & Spice brought barbecue out of the Deep South, and it remains today a go-to resource for all who wish to “graduate from grilling” (“introductory barbecue,” as the Jamisons call it) and partake in real-deal barbecuing.
Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook, Robb Walsh (2002)
Pit masters squint through smoke, oil-drum smokers billow and grease-stained East Texas ur-BBQ joints come to life in this glorious celebration of the great American folk tradition that is Texas barbecue. In Legends, there’s the barbecue baron, Walter Jetton, “the last of the open pit barbecuers,” and his Barbecued Beef for 250; there’s the great Tejano barbacoa master, Ray Lopez, and his beef ribs; and there’s the legendary African-American pit boss, Harry Green, and his beef links.
The World of Kebabs, Anand Prakash (2002)
This one’s the wild card of the bunch. The author, a Canadian marine biologist born in India, threads a skewer clear around the world, picking up kebab recipes along the way. You’ll find Azerbaijani chicken kebabs with sumac and pomegranate, Malian beef kebabs with chile paste and peanuts, Persian lamb kebabs with saffron and lime and on and on. The fact is, when most of the world fires up a grill, most of the time there’s a skewer involved. This is rich territory, to say the least, and World of Kebabs may be the most international cookbook in the Food Network Library. Full of erudite chapter introductions and straightforward recipes, there is much to discover here.