on November 11, 2003
Afraid I'm in the minority here. While I use this book and am glad to have it, I've had mixed results from the recipes. In some cases, it seems the flavor combinations were chosen more for experimental reasons or to make a culinary statement, rather than because they taste good. Taste is always a matter of opinion, but I found that many of the recipes here are simply not for everyone. And it should be noted that a lot of the recipes have little to do with grilling or barbeque, as the book is a bit unfocused.
On the plus side, the text is more enjoyable to read than most cook books, with all sorts of interesting insights and recollections on most recipes. The southern, folksy demeanor of Schlesinger really makes this fun to read.
But cookbooks are usually bought for the recipes, and there are problems. The West Indies chicken calls for way too much rub, and I simply found it to be "an acquired taste". I simply didn't have the courage to try the Jerk Seasoning, which was basically a Scotch Bonnet chile paste with a whisper of other ingredients. Surprisingly, neither cloves nor allspice was one of them. I suppose one shouldn't criticize before trying it, but it's hard to imagine anyone other than the most bound determined fire-eater choking that one down. Does anyone really have time to simmer the tomatoes for 4 hours for the All-American Barbeque sauce, when so many other great sauces can be made in far less time and with less effort? Personally, I found some of the fruit and spice combinations to simply not work.
This is not to say that good recipes cannot be found. Some of the simple ones work well, such as the grilled bananas or the Greek-inspired lamb marinade. The Tidewater Coleslaw has become a fixture whenever I host a cook-out, but I do jazz it up with a tablespoon of yellow mustard. It certainly rounds out my cooking library and I expect to find some more good recipes here. But for my taste, there are too many clunker recipes for me to provide a ringing endorsement.
`The Thrill of the Grill' is the first book by the team of chef/restaurateur Chris Schlesinger and culinary journalist (`Gourmet magazine executive editor) John (`Doc') Willoughby. Even before I have read and reviewed this book, it was the one I always recommended when someone wanted a good book on grilling, based solely on the reputation of the authors and my observations on their non-grilling books.
As with several books, I picked this book out to review because I wanted to read a model for good grilling books to which I can compare other grilling and barbecue books. On reading this volume, I'm glad I have given the two Bobby Flay books I have reviewed only four stars, as they are very nice, inexpensive collections of good grilling recipes, but Schlesinger and Willoughby offer so much more. I am also just a bit chastised for having given Steve Raichlen's `BBQ USA' five stars. It is a very big book with lots of `color' sidebars on grilling and barbecue around the country, but it simply does not address the twin topics of grilling and barbecue in as well defined a manner as we get in this excellent book. Schlesinger and Willoughby are not only crystal clear on the differences between grilling and barbecue in exactly the right way, they explain all the regional differences between eastern North Carolina, western North Carolina, Texas, Memphis, and Kansas City in a way that puts all the Food Network shows rolled up together to shame.
One of the first things you discover about the authors' grilling technique is that (in this book) they don't even consider gas grilling, almost as if a gas grill was not true grilling. Just to be sure, I checked the index for the words `propane', `gas', `bottled gas', and `natural gas' and none of these expressions appear. The next thing I noticed was that their take on the various types of fuel and fire lighting techniques was very non-denominational. They expressed no strong preferences for briquettes, hardwood charcoal, or raw hardwood. They were also kind to the technique of starting fire with lighter fluid or even an electrical fire-starting coil. The only product / technique they dismissed was self-starting briquettes.
Like the very best grilling reference it is, the book covers virtually all aspects of outdoor cooking, including appetizers, main dishes, side dishes, breads, desserts, and beverages. Needless to say, not every dish is grilled, but every dish has a well-established role in the grilling milieu.
The recipes themselves are a very nice contrast to Flay and Raichlen. While Bobby does southwest and Steve does `redneck' traditional, Schlesinger and Willoughby are heavy on Caribbean and Oriental flavors. I suspect most of this is due to Schlesinger's preferences and experiences as a professional chef. Willoughby's half of the job is probably editing the English and getting all the details right.
The heart of the book is the five chapters on grilled dishes. These subjects are:
Appetizers, including soups with grilled ingredients, gazpacho, sauces, raw bar dishes, and the like.
Fish, including rubs, marinades, and vinaigrettes. This is the first book where I saw good specialized instructions on grilling fish, including the notion that not all fish take to the grill.
Meat, including Poultry, with lots of recipes for pork and Caribbean jerk seasonings.
`Grilling at the Ritz', or things to do with expensive or unusual ingredients such as figs, mushrooms, frogs legs, tuna, quail, rabbit, venison, sweetbreads, and duck breast.
The next chapter gives a taste of the authors strong interest in pickling (See their book `Quick Pickles'), as it has 35 recipes for chutneys, relishes, blatjangs (highly spiced South African preserves), jams, sauces, and glazes.
The next chapter gives an excellent introduction to the technique of barbecue, which they very accurately point out has much less to do with any sauce than it does with a method of slow cooking over an open fire plus smoke. They are also careful to differentiate it from curing with smoke (as done to bacon and some sausages). There are not many recipes in this section, but each one is a major exemplar for an important classic barbecue meat. The recipes include whole chicken, duck, baby back ribs, Missouri style ribs, North Carolina pulled pork, Texas beef brisket, and bologna. There is but one recipe for a barbecue sauce, with five major variations. For a serious survey of different barbecue sauces, rubs, and mops, see Paul Kirk's `Championship Barbecue'.
The next chapter covers the essential outdoor eating side dishes. This includes slaws, salads, biscuits, grits, dips, beans, greens, and fruity glazes. I strongly recommend the recipe for Cheddar Biscuits ( page 309).
The Breads and desserts chapter includes everything you would expect in an outdoor cooking and eating book, which is heavy on the corn bread, flat breads, and classic American desserts such as cobblers, pies, and crisps. Baking instructions are not given for baking on a closed grill. Most are done in the modern kitchen oven.
Note that while the recipes are very well written and annotated, the book enhances these dishes with sidebars of very well illustrated instructions on basic techniques such as making compound butters and cutting meat to serve or to prepare to grill.
Every good prescription for the grilling setup specifies that you have a flavorful beverage at hand before starting. Just to be sure this requirement is covered, the authors give us a few recipes for classic tea-totaller and alcoholic libations. The authors outdo fussy Alton Brown in the depth to which they set you up for a grilling session.
Virtually the only point where where I doubted the author's statement was when they said grilling is cooking by heat convection. I strongly suspect that cooking directly over the hot coals delivers heat by all three methods, convection, conduction, and radiation.
My reading confirms this book as THE best reference for grilling and true barbecue, at least until I review their next book, `License to Grill'.