Harvard Common Press: Stoking the Book Publicity Coals

Ah, springtime, when a young man's thoughts turn to...Outdoor cooking on the grill!
It's time turn on the gas, light up the charcoal, and try out some new recipes from the grilling cookbooks from Harvard Common Press...

HCP of Boston has developed a peerless reputation as one of the nation's leading publishers of high quality cookbooks, childcare, and parenting titles. The press is particularly noted for its barbecue, grilling, vegetarian, regional American, and home-cooking cookbooks which have earned rave reviews and a long list of awards including two James Beard Book Awards, "the Oscars of cookbooks."

Founded in 1976 in the basement of a house located on the Harvard village green, current president Bruce Shaw purchased a partial share of the company in 1981, bought out his partners in 1987. The press employs a staff of 9 to publish 10-12 titles annually and recently doubled its physical space by moving to newly renovated offices in Boston's South End.

Cookbooks have been a strong category for Harvard Common Press throughout its history, but in 1994 the press was awarded its first James Beard Award, for Smoke & Spice, by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, and they've never looked back. In 1998 they published another Jamison classic, Born to Grill, and The Vegetarian Grill by Andrea Chesman, providing a two-volume library that should entertain and enlighten even the most adept backyard grill-jockey.

On May 5th, HCP spices up this year's grilling season with their latest offering, The Southwestern Grill, by superstar chef Michael McLaughlin. This is his 20th cookbook, and his first with HCP or any other press of such "compact" size.

"We chose each other," quipped McLaughlin when I asked how the partnership came about. "The experience has been very pleasant--and much different--than with my other books. I think the main difference has been the way HCP put it all together, from the concept right through the packaging. I'm impressed with the way they generate what the market needs, rather than waiting for something to come to them. In fact, we had a completely different book in mind until they came to us with the idea. It's been a very creative and positive experience."

McLaughlin was also impressed with the speed with which the project was carried out--the idea only came up last June. "They really understand the benefit of timeliness and capitalize on that. I know the entire staff by name now, because they lavished so much attention on me.

"I was kind of fishing for a compliment when I got everything turned in, and Bruce said 'You should know how much we love it, as it is only one of three titles we're publishing this season.' I guess the real compliment was the outstanding job they did on the book and the fact that nothing was forgotten; nothing was overlooked."

Shaw confirmed that the project was given top priority, and that all the stops were pulled, even hiring outside staff. "We are very committed to having a new title out each spring selling season. There's a knack to publicizing these books, and knowing where to get the publicity--but timing is everything. Our managing editor Debra Hudak gets the credit for getting this book out on time. She practically killed herself to do it."

I asked Shaw how HCP gauges "what's hot" in the cookbook market and how he finds the right people to work with. "We acquire and publish books in many different ways. Some books come to us, but we scour the magazines to see who's writing great articles. Since we can't afford the big advances, we make up for that with the big royalties. The more we publish, the more we understand what works, and have been able to fine-tune our marketing efforts. We know how to do it."

All indications are that this one was done right-and will be another big hit. "The interesting thing about Southwest cooking is that it's been 'hot' for years. In fact, the first cookbook we published was the Rancho de Chimayo Cookbook (also by the Jamisons). It's become a 'cuisine' and it's certainly not going away."

Nor are Bruce Shaw and Harvard Common Press likely to go away anytime soon. Now in its 25th year, HCP remains independently owned--and the great books just keep cookin' along.

Outdoor Grilling Issue Bonus! Following are two sidebars from Southwestern Grill with some great grilling tips from Michael McLaughlin. Skillets on the Grill

Cooking in a skillet over an open flame seems natural if you're camping out, odd in the backyard. But why? The same joy of cooking and eating something-or-other outdoors applies, as does the extra boost of flavor the smoke and flame supply. And without a skillet, certain dishes just can't be cooked on a grill--gooey, drippy queso fundido being an ideal example.

Cast iron cooking is undergoing a renaissance these days, so finding a medium-priced, medium-sized (9- or 10-inch) skillet probably won't take a trip to the survivalist store. If it costs you more than twenty dollars, you've probably paid too much. Or look for a used skillet at a yard sale for even less. The fire won't be as hard on the skillet as you may think (though it makes sense to avoid pricey enamel-painted pans or anything with a wooden handle, which might be damaged by the flame), so you won't need to dedicate the skillet to grill use only. In fact, using it as often as possible, both indoors and out, will help keep it seasoned.

Brand new or used, first scrub your skillet well with hot water and detergent. Dry it, fill it with about 1 inch of cooking oil, and set in a 300F oven for an hour. Discard the oil, wash and dry the skillet, and it's ready to use. When it is well seasoned and depending on what you have cooked, you may be able to just wipe it clean. Otherwise, wash it by hand with hot water and detergent, dry it, set it on a medium-high burner, and when it is hot, use a paper towel to lightly coat it with cooking oil, preferably peanut oil. Remove it from the burner, let it cool, and store it away till its next use. .

Fear of Fish

Afraid to grill fish and shellfish? It's not as tricky as you might imagine. Certainly a piece of halibut will overcook more quickly than a pork chop, and turning a fillet of red snapper without leaving much of it behind on the rack needs more experience than flipping a burger. Nevertheless, grilling -- preferably with bold Southwestern seasonings -- is one of the best ways I know to cook seafood, and it's worth getting really good at. Here are some tips:

  • Work with fish that is easy to handle, like the red meats you are comfortable grilling with. This means start with steaks. Cut to an even thickness, swordfish, tuna, shark, halibut, and salmon steaks cook evenly, and are easier to turn than fillets, which vary in thickness and have delicate edges.

  • Grill shrimp. Nearly foolproof on the grill, all it takes to master this popular shellfish is a set of flat metal skewers. Turning a few skewers filled with shrimp instead of dozens of individuals makes the process speedy, and on a flat skewer the shrimp stay in perfect alignment for easy cooking.

  • Clean your grill rack. Fish won't stick as readily to a clean rack.

  • Lightly oil your grill rack (use a paper towel dipped in oil; never aim a can of nonstick spray at an open flame). If you're not grilling a naturally oily fish (like salmon), or it hasn't been in a marinade containing oil or another fat, this will also reduce sticking.

  • It may sound unlikely, but be sure the rack is very hot before laying the fish on. A hot rack sears and seals the fish, forming a crust that readily releases when you're ready to turn the fish.

  • Give that crust plenty of time to form. Poking and turning fish shortly after it goes on the rack is a sure way of tearing delicate fillets or even hearty steaks. Allow at least 2 minutes of uninterrupted grilling.

  • Buy the biggest spatula you can find, preferably one with a bent or offset handle; a restaurant supply house is a good source. The larger the spatula, the more reliably the fish can be turned.

  • Create attractive marks on the fish by rotating it 45 degrees about halfway through grilling each side.

  • Buy fresh fish, from a store dedicated to seafood, if possible. If it must be a supermarket, choose a busy one with a good turnover of product. Avoid fish on trays sealed in plastic wrap. In all but the busiest of stores, seafood usually comes in only a couple of days a week. Ask your fishmonger what his delivery days are, shop on those days, and cook the fish within a few hours.

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