Firing up the grill with Mark Bittman
Posted May 8, 2018 5:32 p.m. EDT
ATLANTA -- With more than 20 books to his name, including "VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00," "Food Matters" and the entire "How to Cook Everything" series, it would seem that Mark Bittman has written about, well, everything. Not quite.
The prolific food writer and former New York Times columnist is back this year with "How to Grill Everything" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30). The full color, hardbound cookbook releases on May 14.
Besides his sheer enjoyment of cooking over fire, Bittman's impetus for creating this new reference involves a touch of nostalgia: the memory of driving from the city to visit cousins in the suburbs who fired up the backyard grill whenever the Bittman clan came over. "They cooked hamburgers and hot dogs," Bittman recalled.
There are umpteen grilling and barbecue books on the market, Bittman conceded. What makes his different? "Good cookbooks are very personal things," he replied. "The challenge of these books is what you're putting in there and what you're leaving out. It's an entirely personal decision."
Indeed, from the casual voice to the flexible nature of the recipes, "How to Grill Everything" is decidedly Bittman in its style and approach. The more than 550 pages include 200-plus recipes for flame-cooked food along with at least 700 variations. Readers will find modifications for such dishes as bacon-wrapped trout, baba ghanoush, stuffed flank steak and something as simple as grilled radishes and their green tops.
Bittman's flexibility with fire begins at the book's outset. "What you cook on (or over) hardly matters," he writes. "With a little rig and honest ingredients, you can enjoy excellent grilled meals with virtually any rig."
Some of us in Big Green Egg country might think Bittman needs some Egg-ucation, but Bittman is less worried about gas or charcoal than he is about getting people cooking.
"Each step that makes things easier makes it more likely that you're going to do it," he said. "You don't want to wait an hour and a half building the fire? You can turn on the gas grill and be eating in 20 minutes."
He compared the gas versus charcoal debate to that of cooking on an electric versus a gas stovetop. "It's heat. You learn how to master heat. The heat source is way less important than if you know what you're doing or not."
Know-how for grilling newbies includes the reminder that "You can always return something to the grill if it's not quite ready, but you can't undo overcooking."
Yet even seasoned grillers will learn ways to up their game. Some such tricks, like reverse-searing poultry -- cooking the bird first over the indirect portion of the grill until it is just done, then putting it, skin side down, over the fire for a few minutes -- are ones that Bittman learned after years of trial and error.
"I burned so much chicken," he admitted. Now that he's got the reverse-sear method down pat, he relies on it all the time, and particularly for skin-on chicken. "That's how I always do it now. Whenever you use that technique, which works for other fatty things too, you just have to be careful when you're browning it at the end."
The book is packed with meat recipes. Those that might be deemed "requisite" -- burgers, chicken wings, and the perfect steak -- are all accounted for, but included, too, is something as lowly as smoked bologna.
"I kind of love that," he said of the decision to include it in the book, next to a recipe for indulgent veal chops, no less. "It's very declasse to say, 'I'm a fan of bologna,' but I am a huge fan of bologna." Grilling it, he said, caramelizes the sugars and crisps it up.
Recipes also wander the globe, as with Korean-style short ribs (galbi), Balkan-style beef sausages (cevapi) and Puerto Rican roast pork (pernil).
"How to Grill Everything" holds ideas even for those who are not die-hard carnivores. Vegetarian mains go beyond tofu steaks and tofu sliders to include bean and nut burgers, cauliflower steaks, smoked mac and cheese and more. There are numerous recipes for baking bread over the fire and even using the grill to prepare polenta and pasta.
Especially creative are some of the grilled fruits and vegetable dishes -- from charred and pickled vegetables to charred smoked avocado -- many of which are suitable as starters, sides, entrees and even dessert, like the clafoutis (the base recipe calls for cherries, while there are variations for using pears, berries and grapes), one of Bittman's favorite recipes from the book.
"You have access to meat all year round. Summer is when you have access to so many vegetables," he said of the decision to stock the cookbook with produce-driven recipes. "To not take advantage of that is really a mistake."
A handful of the recipes may, at times, challenge grillers, such as when following Bittman's suggestion to cook and serve fish whole instead of as fillets. "Success isn't guaranteed," he said of grilling whole fish, "but when it's good, it's so good!"
As with cooking in general, Bittman regards success at the grill as one that comes with practice.
"You get enough experience, and you start to recognize when things are done. You learn visual cues, aural cues, taste and touch cues," he said. "So many people are afraid of cooking because they aren't good at it. If you don't do it, you're never going to get good at it. There's no success without a willingness to fail."
Bittman may have tackled grilling with this latest work, but it's not the end of the "How to Cook Everything" series. He's currently crafting the third edition of "How to Cook Everything," a kitchen mainstay that was first published in 1998. He is also writing a book about the "history of food and humanity and their interaction" that traces how food shaped different civilizations.
Ligaya Figueras writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: lfigueras(at)ajc.com.
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