on December 8, 2013
I own a dizzying number of grilling and barbecue cookbooks, most of which hew closely to established techniques and tropes, with variation mostly in the details - an interesting marinade here, a refinement of technique, a new take on a side, perhaps a bit of gentle encouragement to weekend warriors to try out a new cut or throw that salmon on a plank. And that, truly, is great - too many grillers limit themselves to steaks and hotdogs every Sunday. Anything that gets people trying new stuff is a great thing by me. But a lot of us have a bunch of grills, know our way around a semit kebap or jerk chicken or a pork shoulder, and we're restless. We're looking for some inspiration, for someone doing a new thing with food and fire.
Chef Byres' cookbook is a new thing. What he's done with the flavors and techniques of Mexico, the Southwest, Texas, and the Deep South is more than a cookbook: it unpacks the creative process, inspirations, favorite techniques, and ideas of a uniquely creative open-fire cook. Doing so is no easy thing: the weight and pressure of tradition and "how it's always been done" is hard to get out from under in this genre, and many have tried and failed to bring something new to the table.
Whether you work through his recipes or simply use them as launching points for your own innovations and work based on your own "nostalgic food memories," you'll be creating fresh, interesting food that touches what we all love about the foods of the Southern and Southwestern US but which carries a unique imprint. His attention to balancing flavors - hot and smoky with fresh and acidic being the best example - results in lively, punchy, vigorous flavors.
There's a lot to learn from Byres, and he's generous with his insights. He provides walkthroughs on roasting whole pigs, creating a drum grill for a crawfish boil, building an old-time smokehouse, and digging a Tejano barbacoa pit. He touches on making sausage, creating wood-aged tequila and bourbon, and even smoking a pipe. Be prepared to sharpen up your skills in justification and rationalization, because you'll be asking your spouse to do all sorts of outlandish stuff in the back yard.
I'm having a lot of fun trying out Chef Byres' ideas, and I'm inventing a few of my own, too. This is a great, great book for the experienced griller.
on November 2, 2014
If you're looking for a cookbook with simple, straightforward recipes, this is not for you. There are some very simple recipes, such as his red chile vinegar ( which just whisks together vinegar, cayenne, salt, lemon, and sorghum). But this appears as part of a spread on how to roast a whole hog.
And the red chile vinegar is just one of 36 ingredients you'll need to make his recipe for crispy pork souse with deviled egg (138-9) - five to brine the pork, eleven to cook or "pickle" the head and hocks, six more for assembling the terrine, six each for the deviled eggs and the salad to accompany the souse, and finally two more to complete the presentation.
And three of these "ingredients" are actually recipes from elsewhere in the book, one of which combines four other recipes (with ingredients that come from still other recipes, etc), so, all in all, there are 9 recipes to consult, 75 ingredients required, and days of advance preparation, just to assemble this one, deceptively simple dish. Similarly, his Bloody Mary Mix (236) calls for 14 ingredients, 6 of which are recipes elsewhere in the book, so really you need 40+ ingredients and 7 different preparations to make the "mix" that's just one of seven ingredients (several of which - you guessed it! - are recipes from elsewhere in the book) you need to make his Bloody Mary. If you want to serve his Bloody Mary Sunday morning, you better start early in the week.
In other words, cooking from this book requires a real commitment to cooking from this book.
But in my experience, it's well worth it. His recipe produced the tastiest souse I have ever had. And for my part, I relished (pun intended) the opportunity to see how a gifted chef assembles a satisfying plate from his store of ingredients. You can learn more from thinking through this one recipe than you can from other entire cookbooks. Similarly, I've spent hours gazing at photographs that illustrate how he plates a dish - particularly the Pickled Beet Carpaccio (70) and the Pork Jowl Bacon with Half-Sour Cucumber Salad (137). There's nothing foofy about his arrangements - no silly squeeze bottle daubs or squiggles, no biscuit-cutter-assembled towers, no ingredients tweezered into place - just simple ingredients laid out with great artistry. Again, I've learned more from this book about putting together a beautiful plate than I did from years working in some kitchens.
Even though I'd rank this cookbook as one of the best in recent years, and it definitely deserves its James Beard award, it does have its faults.
His technique for making sausage is poor - he grinds the meat and fat too warm, which will degrade the texture, and he adds salt just before mixing and stuffing, with the result that he has to rely on added binders like dried milk powder.
More seriously, for a restaurant called Smoke and a cookbook dedicated to "New Firewood Cooking," some of the things that he says about smoke and wood are plain wrong.
In his primer on firewood cooking (18-20), Byres claims that "a constant white smoke" is what's "desired." Anyone who's serious about true slow and low barbecue knows better. White smoke may be acceptable, to get a lot of smoke flavor in a short time, but thin, blue smoke is best. Blue smoke is the sign of a fire that is hot (around 750º F) but smoldering rather than igniting. This combination produces a rich, aromatic smoke, full of the invisible gases that color and flavor smoked food.
Byres notes correctly that green wood is undesirable for smoking, as it "produces an extremely bitter, tarlike smoke." But then, like countless others, he recommends soaking wood chips in water before using them for smoking. The only difference between "green" wood and "seasoned" wood is the moisture content, so taking dry wood and trying to wet it is the opposite of what you want to do. It's true you don't want chips igniting, and soaking will help prevent that, but wet wood yields steam not smoke, and while doing so it cools your fire down, and low temperature smoke is "bitter, tarlike smoke."
He also claims that it's possible to over-dry wood, "which causes it to lose energy." This is pure mystification. Trees convert solar energy into stored energy in the form of carbon, specifically cellulose. As you'd think, cellulose is not degraded by over-drying (or wood-built houses would fall down every winter, when the air dries out). On the contrary, the energy value of wood is directly related to its dryness, as heat is lost in the process of evaporating and driving off whatever moisture remains. Cellulose can be dissolved by fungi, which cause the wood to rot and soften, but they require moisture. ("Dry rot" is another myth.)
So four stars rather than five, even though I love a lot of things about this book and heartily recommend it.