Not everyone is as fortunate as those of us who live in New Mexico. Our moderate weather allows us the opportunity to cook and entertain outdoors most of the year. But even snow-bound Minnesotans love their barbecue. In fact, 81 percent of US households own a grill, and use it 26 times per year, mostly in the Memorial Day to Labor Day season. Today, 60 percent of those surveyed by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association said they use their grill year round.
If you find yourself stuck in the rut of grilling up the same old burgers, steaks and hot dogs, then pick up the newly published cookbook from New Mexico's own reigning royal couple of outdoor entertaining, Cheryl and Bill Jamison: The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking & Entertaining.
The hefty, 548-page tome pulls together ideas from around the world for smoking, roasting, deep-frying and, of course, barbecuing, and presents them in easy to understand recipes, tips and suggestions for making the most of your outdoor cooking season.
"We've written a number of different books on outdoor cooking over the past 12 years or so," says Bill. "This book is a culmination of all our experiences. It's a big book because it's comprehensive, covers all outdoor cooking forms, and reflects our experiences with outdoor cooking methods and ways to prepare outdoor foods."
The couple spent about a year and a half researching the book, but didn't have to start from scratch. They'd already learned the best methods for grilling certain kinds of foods from their other cookbooks like Good Times, Good Grilling: Surefire Recipes for Great Grill Parties and Smoke & Spice: Cooking with Smoke, the Real Way to Barbecue. "We revisited many of our other recipes, and a few of them in the new book we acknowledge are from previous books. This is definitely not a compilation of other recipes, though," says Bill.
The Jamisons come from a home cooking background and perspective. They don't have a test kitchen or staff helping prepare the recipes or washing the loads of dishes they generate. They appreciate what people in home kitchens or on back patios go through and hope that the book reflects the realities a home cook experiences.
A big part of the book, something the Jamisons didn't address in other works, is making people feel at ease and comfortable while entertaining outdoors. "It's amazing how nervous people get with something that should be casual," Cheryl laughs. "They fret over am I going to get the main course out before the dessert? And somehow, when people get outside they forget that cooking anything is about time and heat. You still need to pay attention to the temperature and how long things have been on the grill. The one beer, two beer timing method really doesn't work."
The problem, as the couple sees it, is that most cookbooks and magazines that deal with entertaining, even outdoor entertaining, are oriented to high-class affairs with perfection in mind. "It's okay to be causal. It's about friends and family and food and not the accouterments. No one needs to have a perfectly folded cloth napkin. Give them a paper towel to wipe their hands!" they say.
While the most popular type of outdoor cooking is grilling, there are other techniques that are gaining favor, adds Cheryl. "There isn't that much information out there on techniques for making great rotisserie chicken at home, for example. Pot boils are also growing in popularity, but it's hard to find cook books that address this very easy way to entertain."
Big pot cooking outside is simple, offers Bill, but doesn't get a lot of attention in this part of the country, as it does in the Southeast and in New England-areas known for their clam bakes and lobster boils. "We wanted to learn more about it partially because we didn't know the equipment very well. We got a big new Masterbuilt electric pot for boiling and frying. We fry turkeys or fish, or do a Door County fish boil."
Cheryl loves the electric pot, too. "Before we discovered it, we used propane and our turkey fryer like most people. But it was hard to find a sturdy pot. This new one sits on the ground or on the counter or table. It feels safer than cooking over the open flame, too."
Plank cooking, a trendy preparation method a few years ago that seems to have disappeared, is making a comeback. "We were mystified by the process, though," says Bill. "Many commercially available planks are outlandishly expensive, and a lot of home cooks are afraid of burning up dollar bills. But now many stores, including Whole Foods, are carrying well-priced cedar, maple and alder planks that are easy to use."
Here's a plank cooking primer from the Jamisons. Having a hot grill and soaking the wood plank thoroughly (up to two hours for a one-inch thick board) are key. Then the plank will smolder while the food cooks, adding its woody character to the meat, poultry or fish. There's no turning of the food, which cooks in just a few minutes. "This is a great technique for fish, especially salmon and red snapper and for vegetables. You want to use a quick cooking food, so that the plank doesn't burn up before the cooking is done," says Cheryl.
The planked salmon recipe is a favorite of Cheryl's, for its simplicity. "The fish takes on so much flavor from the cooking process. But I also love the jalape-o cheese burgers," she says. As for Bill, paella is a really special dish. "Paella has outdoor origins and returning it to the outdoors is a splendid way to do it at home. First we grill off the seafood and sausage and then finish them in the rice on the grill. People are fascinated by it, and it's a great single dish party recipe," he adds.
With this book's more than 850 recipes and any possible method for doing them well, the Jamisons have surely earned their moniker of king and queen of outdoor cooking.