Now that it's August, your outdoor-grilling skills are likely to be beyond the brushup stage and into the experimental phase.
If you're like many people, you've been trying out new ways to spice up those steaks, flavor those fish filets, and rev up those vegetables. Or, at the very least, you've expressed interest in adding variety to the ho-hum practice of throwing it on the sizzler, then glopping on the store-bought barbecue sauce.
To avoid wearing that invisible U on your apron (U stands for uncreative), look no further than the bookshelves, where the pages of books might as well serve as a marinade of advice, a hotbed of ideas for those who suffer from creative block the minute the tongs come out of the kitchen drawer.
Most of these books offer sound advice on types of grills, fuels, tools, maintenance, cooking techniques, mail ordering, and more. Some also touch on current trends such as using aromatic woods (from mesquite to apple); grilling unconventional fare (bananas, California barracuda, curried goat); smoking your own meat and fish (no gas mask needed); utilizing exotic spices (what's achiote?); and creating a main course out of grilled vegetables (not for vegetarians only). The choices are enough to keep you grilling through autumn or even winter.
At the end of the day, how you cook outdoors is a matter of personal preference. And many say it's not what you put on the grill that matters, but what you do to the food before, during, and after it hits the heat. Flavor bursts onto the scene in the form of marinades, dry rubs, mops, sauces, dressings, butters, glazes, bastes, dips, pastes, and more. (See recipes, left.)
Keep in mind that somewhere between being a culinary Evel ``Knievel'' and a boring tender of the coals, there's uncharted territory to be discovered. Here are a few books to get the juices flowing:Grill-meisters Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby present Big Flavors of the Hot Sun with ``Hot Recipes and Cool Tips from the Spice Zone'' (William Morrow & Co., 487 pp., $27.50). As authors of the popular ``The Thrill of the Grill,'' restaurateur Schlesinger (of East Coast Grill, Jake and Earl's Barbecue, and the Blue Rooom, all in Cambridge, Mass.) and food writer Willoughby expand their repertoire of flavorful flame-cooked food by honing in on equator-inspired cuisine. ``This is my theory: Where the weather is hotter, the food is more intensely flavored,'' Schlesinger writes.
Many of the 240 recipes, though not all, in this hardback book call for grilling. The book peddles a sense of fun-filled travel and offers practical tips along the way.
For those interested in the ``real'' way to barbecue, Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison have created Smoke & Spice (Harvard Common Press, 414 pp., $14.95). Seasoned with tales, tips, serving suggestions, and more than 300 recipes, this thick paperback is a super-accessible guide, highlighting the difference between barbecue and grilling. Whereas both are done outdoors, real barbecue means cooking low and slow with lots of wood smoke; grilling means cooking over an open flame.
The Grilling Encyclopedia, by A. Cort Sinnes (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992, 351 pp., $16), is an exhaustive how-to-grill-almost-anything, from abalone to zucchini. Arranged alphabetically and accompanied by recipes, informational tidbits, general guidelines, ink-wash illustrations, and humorous quotes, the paperback makes for a handy, no-nonsense reference guide. Sinnes also includes information on flavors - from angelica to vinegars - as well as marinades, sauces, dry rubs, butters, condiments, and side dishes. ``Marinades made with herb vinegars can be as simple as combining equal amounts of water, oil, and the herb vinegar of your choice. Additional herbs and other ingredients can be added to accentuate a particular flavor.''
For more of a sassy - or saucy - read, try the El Paso Chile Company's Burning Desires, by company co-owner W. Park Kerr and cookbook writer Michael McLaughlin (William Morrow, 269 pp., $15). The cover of the book shows a red pepper bursting into the shape of a heart with flames, wearing a banner: ``Salsa, Smoke, & Sizzle.'' Kerr is in hot pursuit to inspire readers with his passion for the grill and the smoker; you can almost hear his Texan accent in the writing. More than 160 recipes are featured, including condiments, spice mixtures, sauces, main courses, pizzas, and more.
Finally, for visual inspiration, turn to HarperCollins's grill series, the newest additions of which are Meat on the Grill, and Seafood on the Grill (HarperPerennial, 1993, all 95 pp. and $17 each), following Chicken on the Grill, Vegetables on the Grill, the Grill Book, and the Art of Grilling. Authors David Barich and Thomas Ingalls introduce practical information that leads the way to tasteful, well-written recipes accompanied by exquisite color photographs, making the mouth water and the mind think: ``I'd like to try that.''