Previously in Corby's Table:

A Kitchen of One's Own (May 1, 2002)
Corby Kummer on Barbara Haber's From Hardtack to Home Fries, a book that intertwines American history with the lives of some enterprising female cooks.

Chic & Simple Cooking (December 21, 2001)
The perfect gift for the unconfident cook with a sophisticated palate.

The Curious Cook (July 18, 2001)
Corby Kummer reviews How to Read a French Fry, Russ Parsons's investigation into the science of cooking.

No Taste Like Home (June 13, 2001)
Corby Kummer extols the simple pleasures of David Page and Barbara Shinn's Recipes From Home, an all-American cookbook.

A Fortunate Crossroads (May 9, 2001)
Corby Kummer on Fred Plotkin's La Terra Fortunata, a portrait of a region with "one of the worthiest and most complex cuisines in Italy."

Pasta With a Passion (April 4, 2001)
Corby Kummer offers selections from Piero Selvaggio's The Valentino Cookbook—"one of the few Italian cookbooks I plan to keep on my shelf."

Israel on a Bun (February 28, 2001)
Corby Kummer looks at Joan Nathan's new book on the food of Israel, a country not exactly known for its cuisine.

Napa Valley Blend (January 31, 2001)
Corby Kummer on Terra: Cooking From the Heart of Napa Valley, and its authors' unique mix of Mediterranean style with a Japanese sensibility.

More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

Atlantic Unbound | August 22, 2002
Corby's Table
Summertime and the Grilling Is Easy

Grilled Tautog with Pesto, Tomatoes, and Greens
Parsley- and Garlic-Rubbed Steak
Four Grilled Corn Strategies With Latin Flavor Modifiers
Hobo Pack of Tomato and Broccoli Rabe with Garlic and Lemon

Let the Flames Begin

Let the Flames Begin
by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby
W.W. Norton & Company
428 pages, $30.00

eading Chris Schlesinger and John "Doc" Willoughby gives me all the pleasure of being on a grassy dune within barefoot distance of a perfect beach, Tom Collins in hand, watching someone who really knows what he's doing move food around a grill.  In salty, casual, pal-around prose they tell just how to achieve the perfect dinner cooked in summer twilight—especially in the sweet, shortening days of late August and September, when oncoming cool weather makes you think less about mosquitoes and more about how best to use those fabulously ripe tomatoes.

Let the Flames Begin is the pair's seventh book, and their third big book dedicated to grilling. Like all their others, this one is packed with useful tips and recipes that feature "Big Flavors of the Hot Sun," as one of their previous books calls their preference for chiles, peppers, Asian sauces, and tropical fruits.  However much I've relied on The Thrill of the Grill and License to Grill—the best demystifications I know of the fatherly art of grilling supposedly passed on in male genes—I learned afresh from this new book.

Schlesinger is the chef-owner of East Coast Grill, a friendly, lively Cambridge restaurant that has influenced a generation of cooks to be both loose and respectful in their approach to food; he also owns Back Eddy, a waterfront restaurant in Westport, Massachusetts, a town on the Rhode Island border, which is central to my own fantasy of the perfect late-summer twilight. Willoughby is the executive editor of Gourmet and an enviably prolific and expert writer, able to draw amply on the skills he teaches at the country's most highly regarded courses on food writing.  

The pair have become the American gurus of grilling, and can now distill basic instructions with a smooth potency reminiscent of filtered bourbon.  On checking food for doneness, for example: "Remember that it is going to be underdone for a long time, perfectly done for just a minute, and overdone for the rest of its existence." They give detailed but unintimidating instructions on the "hand method" for checking doneness—and where to stick an instant-read thermometer and which temperature produces what results.  

In Let the Flames Begin Schlesinger, a longtime Weber skeptic as I recall, reveals that he has fallen in love with the Weber Ranch Kettle grill, a yard in diameter, shallow, and shaped like a UFO.  Its size lets you keep several kinds of cooking going at once, which is perhaps the pair's fundamental principle: "You can regulate your cooking by moving food around to hotter and cooler parts of the fire or even off to the side where there is no fire at all."  As always, though, the pair is happy to work on a hibachi or an oven rack propped up with bricks over briquettes.  "It's not about the grill, it's about technique," they say, and everything you need to know about technique is included in the book.

Here are recipes to capture the essence of the end of summer—and the early fall, which is of course peak produce time.  Grilled tautog with pesto, grilled tomatoes, and balsamic greens highlights one of Schlesinger's prized "trash fish"—the kind of "underutilized but delicious fish" that comes daily to the back door of Back Eddy. Like many of their main courses, this recipe includes side recipes you'll want to keep: a pesto worth the effort of mashing by hand (by far the best way to release the aromatics of basil and garlic), in a non-fatiguing quantity; and hearty greens wilted fast and furiously in a hot skillet with sugar and balsamic vinegar, a great use for chard and beet greens and a dish somewhere between salad and a vegetable course.

Skirt steak is both the authors' and my favorite cut for grilling.  A simple marinade of vinegar, sugar, coriander, garlic, parsley, and red pepper flakes is just right for both the grill and, once the weather is discouragingly cold, the broiler; it also cooks much faster (about ten minutes in all) than a slab of beef.

Four grilled corn strategies with Latin flavor modifiers take you through the options of giving fresh corn a hint of smoke—or much more than a hint, as their favorite method, wrapping shucked and buttered ears in foil and roasting them in the coals for fifteen or so minutes, produces. Scheinger and Willoughby's "modifiers"—condiments and seasoned butters—are both quick to prepare and effective, and you'll want to use them often.

Finally, tomato and broccoli rabe with garlic and lemon offers an easy way to try out the technique the two focus on in this latest installment of their ongoing life at the grill: "hobo packs," simple foil packages that result in the flavor concentration of cooking en papillote.  The preparation requires no cutting or fancy folding of parchment paper, and lets each diner unwrap a fragrant, smoky package.  The simple but perfected method does what Schlesinger and Willoughby manage to do in all their books—make cooking easy, fun, and communal.

Corby Kummer

Excerpts from Let the Flames Begin, by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby

Grilled Tautog with Marcy's Pesto, Grilled Tomatoes, and Balsamic Greens

My (Chris's) wife, Marcy, has become a master of pesto. Not long ago she didn't have a clue as to how to make it, but one day she dug out a giant mortar and pestle that I had brought back from Mexico, picked a basketful of basil from the garden at our beach house, and went to work. That first pesto she made was fantastic, and it has gotten better over the years. I like to use it in every way I can think of.

Here we make a kind of breadless BLT in which the bacon becomes fish, the lettuce becomes wilted greens, the tomato is grilled, and pesto plays the part usually assigned to mayonnaise. For this dish I like to use tautog, a local New England fish also known as blackfish. It's mild-tasting and has off-white flesh with a firm texture and a medium flake. I think of tautog as a cross between snapper and striped bass, and it's my personal nominee for the single most underutilized fish in the Northeast.

You might serve this preceded by Ihsan's Grilled Cheese in Grape Leaves and accompanied by rice or simple grilled new potatoes.

Serves 4

For the pesto:

3 garlic cloves, peeled

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

2 cups whole basil leaves

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

For the greens:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon minced garlic

4 cups hearty baby cooking greens such as kale, mustard, collards, or beets (or substitute spinach)

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste


4 tautog fillets, 8 ounces each (or substitute fillets of grouper, monkfish, or red snapper)

4 tablespoons olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

2 ripe tomatoes about the size of baseballs, cored and halved

1 lemon, halved

1. Build a multi-level fire in your grill: Leaving one-quarter of the bottom free of coals, bank the coals in the remaining three-quarters of the grill so that they are three times as high on one side as on the other. When all the coals are ignited and the temperature has died down to medium (you can hold your hand about 5 inches above the grill grid, over the area where the coals are deepest, for 4 to 5 seconds), you're ready to cook.

2. Make the pesto: Mash the garlic to a paste in a mortar and pestle or purée in a blender. Add the pine nuts and basil and again mash or purée to a paste. Add the olive and mash or purée until smooth, add salt and pepper to taste and set aside.

3. Make the greens: In a large sauté pan or skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic and cook for only about 5 seconds. Immediately add the greens, vinegar, and sugar and toss furiously until the greens are just wilted, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat, season to taste with salt and pepper, and divide among 4 individual plates.

4. Rub the fish all over with about 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Put on the grill directly over the coals and cook until opaque all the way through, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. To check for doneness, poke the fish with your finger to check its firmness level; if you're unsure, nick, peek, and cheat: Cut into one of the fillets at its thickest point and peek to be sure it is opaque all the way through.

5. While the fillets are cooking, rub the tomato halves with the remaining tablespoon of oil, then put them on the grill on the side with fewer coals and cook until nicely seared, 2 to 3 minutes per side.

6. Place the fillets on top of the greens, smear a couple of tablespoons of the pesto over each fillet, then top each with a tomato half. Squeeze the lemon over the top and serve.

COOK TO COOK: We very highly recommend that you look around to find the most underutilized but delicious fish in your region and use it in this recipe. You can be sure there will be one, and using it is a painless way to help preserve a sustainable supply of seafood.

Parsley- and Garlic-Rubbed Steak With Sweet-and-Sour Marinated Red Onions

We have a South American pampas-style situation here, featuring one of our very favorite steaks, the skirt. This thin, flat, heavily grained piece of meat—which became well known in this country because it was the meat originally used in fajitas—has terrific beef flavor. Cooked quickly over high heat and sliced thin against the grain, it is also very tender. In other words, get it on, get it seared, and get it off.

Here we coat the steak with parsley and garlic before it goes on the grill, then serve it with some simple marinated onions to complete the mix of South American flavors. This is a great dish if you're having friends or a crowd over, because the onions are made in advance and the steak cooks very quickly. And people unfamiliar with skirt steak will be amazed by its flavor.

Serve with Grilled Potato Steaks with Bacon, Sour Cream, and Chives, or check out the Fire-Roasted Peppers with Five Flavor Options.

Serves 4

For the onions:

1 large red onion, peeled and sliced thin

1 cup red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons sugar

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons white vinegar

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons freshly cracked coriander seeds


3 tablespoons minced garlic

1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley

2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, or to taste

1/4 cup olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

4 pieces of skirt steak, 8 to 10 ounces each

1. In a large bowl, combine the onions, red wine vinegar, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste, mix well, and let stand 3 to 4 hours at room temperature. Drain the onions, discarding the marinade. Add the white vinegar, oil, and coriander seeds to the onions and stir well. Cover and set aside.

2. Build a multi-level fire in your grill: Leaving one-quarter of the bottom free of coals, bank the coals in the remaining three-quarters of the grill so that they are three times as high on one side as on the other. When all the coals are ignited and the fire is hot (you can hold your hand about 5 inches above the grill grid, over the area where the coals are deepest, for 2 seconds or less), you're ready to put the meat on.

3. Meanwhile, combine the garlic, parsley, red pepper flakes, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste and mix well. Rub this mixture onto both sides of each piece of steak. When the fire is ready, put the steaks over the hottest coals and cook until done to your liking, 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare. (To check for doneness, poke each steak with your finger to check its firmness level; if you're unsure, nick, peek, and cheat: Make a cut in the thickest part of the one of the pieces and peek at the center to be sure it is just slightly less done than you like it.)

4. Thinly slice the steak, cutting on the bias across the grain. Arrange the slices on a serving platter, heap the onions beside the meat, and serve.

COOK TO COOK: These steaks are going to cook very quickly, and you might get a little flare-up action; if you do, move the steaks to the cooler side and let them rest for 15 or 20 seconds.

Four Grilled Corn Strategies With Latin Flavor Modifiers

There are any number of methods for dealing with corn on the grill, each with its own merits. We decided to give you not just one method but four. That way, you can take your choice depending upon which aspect is most important to you. Or you might like one method for one meal, another for a different meal. In any case, here they all are. We've also included three Latin-inspired flavor modifiers to brush onto the ears after they're cooked.

Incidentally, you need to start your fire about half an hour before you plan to cook the corn, to be sure the fire has time to come to a peak and then die down to medium or medium-low.

Option 1: Incredibly Intricate

This is the most difficult method. We don't recommend it, but we include it here because some people are inexplicably fond of it. We think they just like to do a lot of work.

1. Peel down the outer husk of each ear of corn without actually removing it, remove the inner silky threads, and wrap the outer husk back up around the ear. Run all the ears under water for a couple of seconds before putting them on the grill, to keep them from burning.

2. Place the ears of corn on the grill over medium heat (you can hold your hand about 5 inches above the grill grid for 4 to 5 seconds) and grill until the husks look brown and slightly charred, about 10 to 12 minutes. (To check for doneness: Peel back the husk on one ear and poke at the kernels to be sure they are tender.)

3. Remove the husks, brush on butter, season with salt and pepper, and serve.

Option 2: Husk-on and Soaked

This method gives very tender corn, and it's very easy. On the other hand, it ties up a lot of grill space for a while, because it's relatively slow. The soaking takes time too.

1. Soak the ears in water for 15 minutes.

2. Place the ears on the grill over a medium fire (you can hold your hand about 5 inches above the grill grid for 4 to 5 seconds) and let them steam until they are just cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes. (To check for doneness, peel back the husk and silk on one ear and poke at the kernels to be sure they are tender.)

3. Remove the husks and silk, brush on a little butter, season with salt and pepper, then roll the ears around on the grill ever so slightly to add a little char. Now they're ready to eat.

Option 3: Naked Corn

This is our favorite top-of -the-grill method. It's easy, it's quick, and you get good corn flavor plus a nice smokiness.

1. Shuck and de-silk the ears.

2. Place the ears over a medium-low fire (you can hold your hand about 5 inches above the grill grid for 5 seconds) and let them cook for 3 to 5 minutes, rolling them around for even cooking, until they are just golden brown.

Option 4: Ash-Roasted

This approach, which we like because the corn cooks with some of the butter, salt, and pepper already on it, produces a very smoky flavor. It's our favorite method of the four.

1. Shuck and de-silk the corn.

2.Wrap each ear, along with butter, salt, and pepper to your liking, in a double layer of foil. (Or place all the ears in a disposable foil pan and cover the pan tightly with a double layer of foil.) Place the packages in the coals of your grill fire for 12 to 15 minutes. (To check for doneness, peel open one of the packages, and poke at the kernels to be sure they are tender.)

3. Remove the corn from the foil packages, brush on more butter, season with more salt and pepper, and serve.

Latin Flavor Modifiers

Each of these should be enough for a dozen or more ears of corn

Orange Chipotle Butter:

1/2 cup orange juice

2 tablespoons puréed chipotle peppers in adobo sauce

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1. In a small saucepan, bring the orange juice to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer vigorously until the orange juice is reduced by two-thirds, about 15 to 20 minutes.

2. Remove from heat and add the chipotles and butter, stirring until the butter melts and blends with the orange juice. Drizzle over the grilled corn.

Lime Juice and Roasted Cumin Salt:

1/2 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup cumin seeds

3 limes, cut in wedges

1. In a small sauté pan or skillet over low heat, combine the salt and cumin seeds and cook, stirring constantly, until the salt starts to smoke slightly and becomes fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Squeeze the lime wedges over the corn and sprinkle liberally with the salt.

Cilantro-Lime Butter:

1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons lime juice (about 1 lime)

1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

1. In a small bowl, work the cilantro, lime juice, and Tabasco into the butter until well mixed. You can use the butter right away, or you can wrap it in plastic wrap, shape it into a square log, and place it in the refrigerator until firm. When you're ready to serve it, place the butter, unwrapped, in a butter dish.

2. Allow your guests to roll their own corn on the butter (the way most people do at home when they eat corn on the cob and no one's watching).

A Mediterranean mixture, this dish gets its flavor punch from pleasantly bitter broccoli rabe and thinly sliced lemons, which actually turn sweet as they cook in the heat of the coals. Garlic, thyme, and tomatoes round out the mix, all bound together by the indispensable olive oil.

Serves 4

2 lemons, sliced very thin

2 ripe tomatoes about the size of baseballs, quartered

2 bunches broccoli rabe, trimmed

2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

1/2 cup olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

1. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and toss gently to mix well.

2. Tear off 4 sheets of heavy-duty foil, each about 2 feet long, and stack them one on top of another. In the center of the top sheet, arrange the lemon slices and the tomato on the bottom and put the broccoli rabe on top. Fold up the sheets around the vegetables, one after another, turning the package a quarter turn each time and making sure that each sheet is well sealed around the vegetables. If necessary, split the ingredients and make 2 hobo packs. Or arrange the lemon slices and tomato in a deep disposable foil pan, put the broccoli rabe on top, and cover tightly with a double layer of heavy-duty foil.

3. Place the hobo pack (or packs) in the coals around the periphery of the fire, where the heat is less intense. Pile the coals up around the pack and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Remove the pack from the coals, unroll the foil, and serve hot.

What do you think? Discuss this article in the Sports & Leisure conference of Post & Riposte.

More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Corby Kummer, a senior editor of The Atlantic, is the author of The Pleasures of Slow Food, to be published in November.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
Recipes from Let the Flames Begin by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby. W.W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 428 pages. ISBN: 0393050874. $30.00. Copyright © 2002 by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby.