We may fire up the barbecue year-round, but even we weather-blessed Californians view Memorial Day weekend as the true start of grilling season. Whether we're lighting the hibachi or revving up the gas grill, what lies ahead is an endless, sunlit series of backyard feasts with friends and family.
It's also the raison d'être for a dozen new cookbooks, from Michael Chiarello's new "Live Fire" to Bon Appetit's hefty "The Grilling Book." But the most striking -- and delicious -- take in this year's batch belongs to Washington, D.C., chef Barton Seaver and his new book, "Where There's Smoke: Simple, Sustainable, Delicious Grilling" (Sterling Epicure, $30, 304 pages).
And if that sounds contradictory -- grilling typically involves brontosaurus-sized slabs of meat, after all -- read on. Grilling and the sustainable food movement go together as naturally as burgers and ketchup, says the National Geographic fellow, Harvard lecturer and sustainable seafood advocate.
"Grilling is inherently celebratory, seasonal and communal -- much of the values we are looking for in sustainable foods," Seaver says. "But aside from the sustainable factor, it's just fun. You get outside, change up your rhythms, invite friends and family over. The heat itself becomes an ingredient -- that slow, smoky, sexy, sultry background."
The new book brims with recipes for grilled appetizers, side dishes and main dish deliciousness, but the entire first half is devoted to ingredients that do not graze, swim or fly.
That's as it should be, Seaver says. When friends gather around a grill, the table groans with salads, whether it's potato, tomato, corn or coleslaw. There are grilled vegetables -- kale, asparagus and snap peas -- and platters with fresh ribbons of crunchy carrot tossed with zucchini, shaved paper-thin. There are watermelon wedges and parsley-flecked garlic bread and ...
"I haven't even started talking about the hamburgers yet," Seaver says. "That's what I love about grilling. I've got a fire. What else can I throw on there? Vegetables are what makes eating fun."
Those flavorful sides also mean you don't need six enormous T-bones to feed half a dozen diners. A free-range chicken, a whole fish, a single large cut of meat, cooked low and slow over the fire should be enough.
"One large portion cooked for many people slowly, that mahogany, rustic hue served up on the table -- wow. That steak tells me you love me," he says. "Our satiety box has already been checked by the visual -- and that frees you to eat more of those vegetables."
When it comes to produce, fire and smoke bring out "undiscovered personalities" in familiar ingredients. Grill asparagus and serve them with a sprinkling of chopped pistachios and orange zest. Throw snap peas on the fire, then pair them with a smoky aioli for dipping. Take a pass on the ubiquitous kale salad and head instead for the grill.
"Throw kale directly over the smoldering embers until it takes on a crispy, charred crunch -- ooh!" Seaver says, his enthusiasm palpable even over the phone. "One bunch is not enough! One person ate it before you even took it off the grill!"
Seaver's best grilling tip lies in the starter, and not for any reason you'd expect.
"I love starting people off with a cold soup: peach and ginger, gazpacho, buttermilk dill cucumber," he says. "It's cold, it's punchy, it's a beautiful color. Put it in a little mug or glass. It's a great way to transition from the swelter of the summer sun, just setting, into the cooler hours of evening."
Picture the scene, he says: "You've just handed them something they're going to hold for a while, and they're going to have a beer or wine. They're not going to have a hand free to screw with the food on the grill. There's always some primordially driven person with a primitive need to poke the fire."
Check out this Saturday's Home section for the
latest in barbecue gadgets, including clean-burning coconut-shell briquettes, taco racks for the grill and "charms" to keep track of your guests' meat selection.