Review: Michael Symon’s Playing With Fire

The other day I sat down with legendary Chef Michael Symon and talked about my favorite subject: barbecue. Ok, not really, but it felt like I did after I read thru the Chef’s new cook, Playing with Fire. Full of techniques, recipes, pictures, and written very well, it got me jonesin’ to fire up my smoker and get to cookin’!

Many of the recipes in the book come from Mabel’s BBQ, Chef Symon’s BBQ restaurant outside of Cleveland, which is definitely on my bucket list. There’s a lot in here about techniques and mastering them. The recipes are all pretty straight-forward. Sprinkled throughout the book are ‘pitmaster profiles’, little sidebars highlighting BBQ pits around the US and their specialties. Good stuff, and you can sure bet there’s one near you that you need to visit (I’m a huge fan of supporting my local BBQ joints. Nothing wrong with chains, but make sure your neighborhood pitmasters get your business). Back to the book..

Introduction: I was going to skip this section. It talks about the different kinds of smokers and grills and such. I have over 20 grills and smokers, so I’m pretty up on that stuff, though there’s always something to learn no matter how long you’ve been at it. The section on fireplace cooking made me stop and pay attention. If you live in a cold place like Chef Symon (and I) do, being able to cook inside over a big open fire is a plus. If you’re new to the world of smoking and grilling, this section is a fantastic read.

The rest of the book is about recipes, and there’s a good amount of them, with great pictures and details. You’re sure to amaze your guests with everything from Playing with Fire. There’s a section on pork (hard-core great recipes, from my favorite, pork belly, to pigs ears, to cracklings to homemade bacon), beef (only seven recipes, but don’t let that bum you out. They’re all amazing, from pastrami (something I make often) to prime rib and rib eye), chicken (I cook a lot of chicken outdoors. This section of the book does not disappoint. It’s old-school favorites done right and done well), seafood (fish, shrimp and clams), lamb (not something I cook regularly, but this section will inspire me to do just that!), vegetables and sides (oddly my favorite section of the entire book. Not a lot of recipes, but those that are there are really great. Quality, tasteful dishes. Quality over quantity.), and last, sauces, relishes and rubs (darned near my favorite section too!).

I found that Playing with Fire really focuses on the important things in barbecue: technique, quality and flavor. Every dish in it is something special. At first I thought that it’s more for the hard-core barbecuer, but a novice can make anything in it too. Not many cookbooks can accomplish that.

Michael Symon’s Playing with Fire is a great book for anyone serious about barbecue. It rates very high on my ‘Mater Rater scale.

For more of my reviews of cookbooks available for the Amazon Kindle readers, visit Kindle Thyme.

Review: Margaritaville: The Cookbook: Relaxed Recipes For a Taste of Paradise

Boy, where to even begin. Let’s start with the easy part: I was beyond pleased with Margaritaville: The Cookbook. I bookmarked darn near every recipe in it. By the time I reached the last page I was excited, chomping at the bit, to get started making everything I had tagged. What I thought would be a boring restaurant copycat cookbook couldn’t be farther from that. This is great stuff.

One of the authors of Margaritaville, Carlo Sernaglia is the Concept Chef for the Margaritaville brand. He’s not fooling around. What’s in the cookbook is often the same food you can get in the many Jimmy Buffet-owned or licensed restaurants. And we’re not talking 10 or 15 recipes here either. There’s page-after-page of them, from breakfast to appetizers to desserts to drinks. Everything.

As you’d expect, many of the recipes have an island theme. But not all. I found the ingredient lists to be very accessible. No need to scour the internet to find some bizarre ingredient and have it cold-shipped to the house.

The breakfast section has some nice island-y twists on classics, like huevos rancheros, omelets and pancakes. For example, the South Florida eggs Benedict. What’s different? The Key Lime holandaise, which has, yep you guessed it, key lime juice mixed in. A nice refreshing citrus variation that I cannot wait to make.

The appetizers have a seafood theme, from crab dip to lava lava shrimp to fried oysters. I am pretty sure i bookmarked every recipe to make and make soon. There are a ton of appetizer recipes. Since I’m a big appetizer kind of guy, this was my favorite part of the book. I consider appetizers to be side dishes and often serve them instead of sides.

The list of salads and soups were all light, refreshing and include the steps for making the same dressings you’ll find in the restaurants.

The section on burgers, sandwiches and hot dogs reminded me of the appetizers: I bookmarked everything. Specially the Cheeseburgers in Paradise with Paradise Island Dressing. We live near (but not near enough) the first Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant. Having a copycat of their delicious namesake burger is a win. A big win.

Next up, main dishes. Everything from fried chicken, to tuna steaks to jambalaya. Something for everyone, and each with a nice twist from the normal versions you’d expect.

You gotta have sides (or at least, appetizers!), and this book has lots of great ones. At the top of my to-do list: JWB (as in James William Buffett) creamed spinach, Yukon gold loaded mashed potatoes, and spicy red onion rings. Yep, onion rings made with red onions. Where have I been that I haven’t made those yet?

You knew that the dessert section would have a recipe for Key Lime pie. And it does. How could it not? And also crispy bananarama. No, they don’t serve the band Bananarama. It’s a flour tortilla smeared with Nutella and topped with nuts and cinnamon, then rolled around a banana and deep-fried. Yes, I bookmarked it. Of course I did.

Last up, the drink section. Like the book (and song) says, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere and this book doesn’t leave you looking somewhere else for good tropical drinks. No matter what your indulgence, there’s a drink in here for you. Don’t forget the little umbrellas.

Margaritaville: The Cookbook wraps up with 3 non-recipe but totally useful sections. ‘Party Menu Suggestions” gives you menus for different theme parties, like ‘backyard beach bbq’ or ‘dockside dinner’ and ‘build-your-own burger paradise’. All
the work has been done for you including suggestions for decorating. ‘Recipes Organized By Fun’ gives you menus for different activities. Going on a boat ride? Tailgating? Looking for some menu ideas for a grill-out? This section, like the party menu suggestion section, does all the work for you, giving you a full menu no matter the activity. Last up, the ‘Party Tips’ section, although short, contains some ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ ideas for your next party. Little time savers and things that will make your next party a lot easier and a lot less stressful.

On my ‘Mater Rater scale Margaritaville: The Cookbook gets top scores across the board. I don’t even have to think about it.

One of the first recipes I made from this cookbook was the BBQ Island Club sandwich. It’s a wonderful spin on the classic, and something I’ll make again.

For more of my reviews of cookbooks available for the Amazon Kindle readers, visit Kindle Thyme.

Review: The Big Book of Sides

I needed this book and I needed it bad. I am bad about sides. I spend most of my time thinking about the main course, giving little thought to the side dishes. The Big Book of Sides was written by Rick Rodgers for people just like me. And the title is not an overstatement. This book is big and it is crammed with OVER 450 recipes. No kidding. No lie. Over 450. And they aren’t lame, boring recipes either. No “open a can of corn, heat and serve’ recipes, here, that’s for sure. It’s all great stuff.

The Big Book of Sides is divided into the following main sections: Eat Your Vegetables, From the Root Cellar, A Hill of Beans, Righteous Rice and Great Greens, The Side Salad Bowl, Pasta and Friends, The Bread Basket, and Pickles, Relishes and Sauces. Before that the book concentrates on basic cooking techniques and menu planning.

Recipes are grouped by main ingredient (think artichokes, beets, bok choy, you name it), along with a great description of that ingredients and a story or history of it’s origin. The peak season times for each main ingredient is also noted, along with how to choose the best ingredients at the store, how to store them, and how to prepare them. Very helpful information that you don’t normally find in a cookbook.

The recipes are very well written and are very concise. There’s no guessing required. You know upfront what the dish goes well with, how long it takes to prep, how long it takes to cook, how long ahead of time you can make the dish (very helpful!), and the recipe category. I found the recipe category to be interesting and different and more useful than I expected. Examples of the categories used are: holiday feasts, weeknight suppers, and family favorite. No need to spend time trying to decide what is the best occasion for serving a side, Mr. Rodgers has already thought about it for you.

You quickly realize that The Big Book of Sides wasn’t thrown together willy-nilly. You know how sometimes you notice little things (typos, missed steps, whatever) in a cookbook? Not with this one. This book sets the bar high and then goes right over it. Oh, and many of the recipes also have variations included, so you can use the same basic idea several days in a row but change it up with little effort. Nice.

Now, if you follow this blog you know that I have on occasion zinged a cookbook for not having what I thought was enough pictures. The Big Book of Sides does not have a picture for each recipe. To keep consistent in my reviews I did knock off a point on my ‘Mater Rater scale but I felt guilty doing it because if there was a picture for each of the 450+ recipes this book wouldn’t fit onto my Kindle. I mean it’s huge (in a good way) as it is and I definitely would not let the lack of a few pics stop me from recommending it again and again.

For more of my reviews of cookbooks available for the Amazon Kindle readers, visit Kindle Thyme.

Review: Let’s Grill! Best BBQ Recipes Box Set

This right here is why we signed up for Kindle Unlimited, a subscription service from Amazon that gives us access to tons, and tons of eBooks for a low monthly fee. We use the heck out of our subscription. Let’s Grill isn’t just a book, it’s a massive 6-set volume of recipes and techniques for all things grilling. Considering how little we pay monthly for Kindle Unlimited, this set pays for our subscription for months just by itself.

Let’s Grill is divided into 6 books: Texas’ Best Secret BBQ recipes, Carolinas’ Best BBQ, Tennessee’s Best BBQ, Missouri’s Best BBQ, Alabama’s Best BBQ, and Hawaii Best BBQ. Each book has page after page of recipes, from rubs and seasonings, to sauces, to salads,, to sides, to main courses, to desserts. I didn’t count the recipes, but I think it’s safe to say the total is definitely into the hundreds.

The recipes in Let’s Grill are not complicated. They’re great for everyone from the beginner to the seasoned professional. It’s full of down-home backyard good stuff, the kind where you aren’t going to have trouble finding the ingredients and most likely have a lot of them already on hand.

Every recipe is accompanied by a picture. You know exactly what you’re getting yourself into with each one. Now, they aren’t big pictures, but they are good pictures. It’s no-nonsense collection of classics and some great twists on the classics. And hey, you can’t eat pictures!

I couldn’t be happier with Let’s Grill, even if it wasn’t free! I found tons and tons of new recipes and ideas to try. That’s a win-win, so it scores high on the ‘Mater Rater!


For more of my reviews of cookbooks available for the Amazon Kindle readers, visit Kindle Thyme.

Review: Denise Gee’s Southern Appetizers

I’m a big fan of all flavors Southern. That’s why I picked up Denise Gee’s Southern Appetizers: 60 Delectables for Gracious Get-Togethers. Now, truth be told, I didn’t get the book thinking about tablescapes or entertaining a crowd. Me, I’m after the food. But, that being said, this book has a lot more than just recipes. There are tips for planning for parties and being the perfect host. The book is well-written, clear, easy to follow, and packed with fantastic photos.

From there we get into the food, starting with the easy-to-eat handheld dishes. There are recipes for all of the classics, such as deviled eggs and finger sandwiches. The fanciful cheese straws looked so great that I made them that day. They came out fantastically!

Next up are spreads, including, of course, a great version of pimento cheese, Anita’s favorite. From salsas, to dips, to great spreads for crackers, this section of the book has great recipes that really are not difficult to make at all. I bookmarked a good many of the pages in the spreads!

The next part of the book is a bit more serious. It’s the grab a plate, some utensils, and sit-down-and-eat section. There is lighter fare, such as salads, tarts and soups. But then there are also (my favorites) meaty dishes. Wings, riblets, brisket, and baked ham, for example. And the peppered beef tenderloin just makes me drool. It is on my short list of dishes to make, along with the crawfish beignets

Next up: the drinks. And lots of awesome drinks. The book covers everything you need to throw a party, and that means drinks too of course.

This brings us to the last chapter, party themes. Denise Gee does all the work for you, whether you want to throw a New Year’s Eve get-together, a Mardis Gras-themed event, or just having a casual tailgating party. Every recipe you need for the party is listed, all designed to work together in a cohesive theme.

All in all I was quite happy with Southern Appetizers: 60 Delectables for Gracious Get-Togethers. I found it easy to follow, with accessible recipes and with great photos. Many of the dishes make me think of a great Sunday brunches or get-togethers in the South. My only wish is that there were more pictures because they really were fantastic.

Southern Appetizers: 60 Delectables for Gracious Get-Togethers rates high on my ‘Mater Rater.


For more of my reviews of cookbooks available for the Amazon Kindle readers, visit Kindle Thyme.

Review: Richard Blais’ So Good: 100 Recipes from My Kitchen to Yours

It seemed like forever that I was on the library waiting list to get Richard Blais’ new cookbook, So Good: 100 Recipes from My Kitchen to Yours. I waited and waited for the email that said the book was finally available for downloading to my Kindle or reading on my PC’s Kindle Reader.

I like Chef Blais’s style. I’ve seen him on several cooking competition shows on TV. He is always cooking dishes that look fantastic and often use techniques (in particular, liquid nitrogen) that I have no experience with.

This book isn’t about restaurant dishes. It’s about dishes Chef Blais makes at home. Most of the recipes have a short list of ingredients and also a short list of instructions. Some are recipes you may have seen before, executed perfectly. Like BBQ shrimp. Nothing fancy, but good eats, and one of my favorite dishes of all time. Now, there are a few different recipes, that’s for sure (the barbecued lamb’s head carnitas with masa comes to mind) . And there are a few that have ingredients that might be hard to find if you aren’t near a good Asian market (Amazon to the rescue!). As Chef Blais says, he’s curious about techniques, equipment and ingredients. I share that curiosity, although certainly not on the level that he does. The beauty of food and cooking, for me, is that every day you wake up you can do something new, something different. Or you can do something old and familiar. Or both.

The commentary throughout the book is light, witty, funny and insightful. You don’t have to wade thru two pages of a story to get to the recipes, either. Not that I don’t appreciate a good story now and then. This isn’t that kind of book. It’s full of dishes Chef Blais makes during his time off. You feel like you’re there at his house with him and his family on a Saturday, getting ready to make a few Juicy Lucy burgers, and for desert, homemade banana splits (an absolutely amazing recipe, everything homemade).

I’ve already made an extensive list of the dishes I will be making from the book, beginning with chicken shawarma (Update: made this last weekend and it was fantastic!). Next up, a steak coated in blue cheese to mimic dry aging, then cooked in a hot skillet to onion rings. Yes, onion rings. Chef Blais takes his onion ring batter and places it into a whip cream canister. Dispensing the air-injected batter produces a super-light coating. What a brilliant idea. Brilliant. Another is the sweet-and-sour ham hocks with mustard greens. I recently smoked my own shanks (larger than hocks, but I substitute them for hocks all of the time) and cannot wait to make Chef Blais’s recipe.

The photos in So Good: 100 Recipes from My Kitchen to Yours are amazing. Now, me, I’m a big fan of food porn so I could’ve gone for a few more pictures, but the truth is you can’t eat pictures. What pictures there are are truly drool-worthy.


For more of my reviews of cookbooks available for the Amazon Kindle readers, visit Kindle Thyme.

Review: Todd-Michael St. Pierre’s The Southern Po’ Boy Cookbook

I absolutely love po’ boy sandwiches. That’s why I bought Todd-Michael St. Pierre’s The Southern Po’ Boy Cookbook. So I could sit here and drool over every great po’ boy, from the classic to the fancy Vieux Carré (pecan-crusted trout with a meunierè sauce). And, in between recipes I get to read interesting stories about the history of the po’ boy and it’s importance in New Orleans’ history. And of course, there’s a recipe for homemade po’ boy bread, an absolute must if, like me, you can’t find proper po’ boy bread where you live.

Every po’ boy in The Southern Po’ Boy Cookbook sounds insanely delicious. I’ve only begun my journey of making as many of them as I can, and I couldn’t be happier. Once you start making them you can’t stop, either. As an aside, if you’re in the Indianapolis area, I recommend Papa Roux, J Gumbo’s or B’s Po’ Boy for great sandwiches (if you know of other great places around Indy for po’ boys, let me know in the comment section below). And make sure you keep your po’ boy real and get a bag of Zapp’s chips to go with it.

One of my favorite things about po’ boys is the remoulade sauce. You can find many variations on the usually mayonnaise-based sauce in and around New Orleans, and you’ll also find several variations in The Southern Po’ Boy Cookbook. I usually make a good-sized batch of remoulade and keep it on hand for other things, such as hamburgers or wraps.

The Southern Po’ Boy Cookbook rates high on my ‘Mater Rater, with the exception that I really, really wish it had more pictures so I could drool more. The pictures (and artwork) in the book are quite nice, though, so don’t let that minor point deter you from picking up a copy of this great cookbook.

For more of my reviews of cookbooks available for the Amazon Kindle readers, visit Kindle Thyme.

Review: Ray Lampe’s Slow Fire: The Beginner’s Guide to Lip-Smacking Barbecue

Do not let the word ‘beginner’ deter you from reading Ray Lampe’s Slow Fire: The Beginner’s Guide to Lip-Smacking Barbecue. Whether you’re just contemplating low-and-slow cooking or you’ve been doing it for 30 years or more, this book is so full of great recipes and approaches that you’ll find yourself going back to it again and again. I do. I’m pretty sure that this book shattered my previous record for how many recipes I bookmarked.

The first chapter of Slow Fire concentrates on rubs and sauces. I made my own variation of Lampe’s Basic Rub #67 and it has now become my go-to rib and pork butt rub. You’ll find yourself doing the same thing. I recommend you make the rubs or sauces as Ray intended, then taste and add whatever you want to make them your own. Or you might find yourself making substitutions for something else you prefer. No matter what, the recipes in the book are fantastic starting points (and they are perfect they way they are too!).

The next chapter is all about ribs. Great ribs done tons of different ways. Including a fantastic Asian-inspired rib. Ribs are my favorite meat to smoke, and I’m always on the lookout for new variations. Slow Fire did not disappoint.

Next up, pork. Glorious pork. Butt, shoulder, chops, tenderloin, you name it. My rule when smoking pork: always make extra because it’s always good. Slow Fire has a great mix of recipes for pork.

Beef is next, including a great recipe for homemade pastrami, which is next on my to-do list. I make a cheater pastrami, which starts with an already brined brisket (corned beef). Slow Fire shows you how to make a real pastrami, beginning with a brisket.

The section on cooking poultry is next. It includes a recipe for Buffalo turkey wings, something I hadn’t even considered and will definitely make soon. You’ll find recipes for every part of a chicken (or turkey or game hen or duck) that you can want.

The book wraps up with recipes for miscellaneous dishes, like kielbasa or lamb, and a number of side dishes too, including some of the staples for a good barbecue, such as slaw or potato salad. All of the recipes are well-written, thought out and bulletproof. And good. Very good.

Ray Lampe’s Slow Fire: The Beginner’s Guide to Lip-Smacking Barbecue rates high on my ‘Mater Rater. My only complaints are I wish there were more pictures and maybe a few more recipes included, but what there is there is fantastic.


For more of my reviews of cookbooks available for the Amazon Kindle readers, visit Kindle Thyme.