When I was growing up, grilling meant three things: my grandfather Lyman was hosting one of his rib nights, a very messy production that drove my grandmother completely crazy; it was summer and grown people were coming over to drink Bolla Soave and eat chicken barbecued on our revolutionary new gas grill; it was my birthday and my mother made coat-hanger skewers for hot dogs while she flipped hamburgers on a portable grill (this happened once).
So it was for most Americans, happily munching on overdone beef patties and blistered Oscar Mayers at family cookouts throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s. And then, in 1983, the great Jeremiah Tower, a founder of "New American Cuisine," signed on to cook for a group of food journalists in Newport, R.I. Pushed out of the tiny kitchen by the headlining French chef, he took his groceries outside, poured bags of mesquite into some grills and cooked his whole menu—from lobsters and lamb racks to marinated leeks and grape-leaf-wrapped goat cheese—over the coals. Tower had already offered whole grilling menus as the chef at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, but this was the East Coast and the press went wild. The way was suddenly paved for both home cooks and restaurant chefs to throw everything from pork loins to peach halves on the grill, and a national pastime was transformed into a far more sophisticated national obsession.
Since then, a great many books have been devoted to the subject. This year's crop, just in time for Memorial Day, includes "Bobby Flay's Grill It!", Mario Batali's "Italian Grill" and "New South Grilling" by Robert St. John. A fourth, "The New Steak" by Cree LeFavour, is not billed as a grilling book but, as LeFavour says in her introduction, grilling over hardwood is not only the best way to cook steaks, it also provides "a great excuse to stand around outside with a tall icy drink."
My husband, a natural griller with Job-like patience, has clocked countless hours in front of his grill, with glass in hand. His meats are always brown and crusty, never charred; he is a pro at the "finger poke" method LaFavour describes ("squishy with lots of give means very rare, while a firm steak means overcooked meat"). So, as we plowed through these books, I prepped and he grilled: my favorite steak Florentine (a thick T-bone rubbed with oil and fresh herbs found in both "The New Steak" and "Italian Grill"), strip steaks with LeFavour's delicious compound butters, corn four ways (Flay's with toasted garlic-thyme butter was a standout), Batali's shrimp on rosemary skewers (a perfect and very chic appetizer) and redfish with one of St. John's "no-stick" marinades (they work).
We also made Batali's artichokes with mint and chilies. And while I love the smoky, caramelized thing that happens to mushrooms, artichokes and especially eggplant on a grill, I do not get the point of grilling potato slices, as all three of the men do. Batali's corn is "as the Italians might do it" (grilled, rolled in oil and balsamic vinegar and again in grated Parmesan), but he does not try to "Italianize" the burger. Flay, on the other hand, gives us a divine Spanish version with Serrano ham, manchego cheese and paprika aioli, and the "Russian dressing" with chopped pickled okra that tops his buffalo burger is nothing short of genius. LeFavour's Montpelier butter is smeared on a rib steak in her book, but it would be wonderful on a burger between slices of grilled French bread. This classic butter, a favorite of Tower, who includes it in both his own cookbooks, also enhances grilled corn—and pretty much everything else in life.