Dust off that grill – it’s barbecue time

“This is a whole other breed of folks. There’s lots to know, like what kind of rubs are best, a number of types of wood to choose from, various sizes and shapes of barbecue pit and grills, all kinds of things to consider like smoke rings and barbecue ‘flavor prints,’ whether to cook fast or slow, hot or medium. But most of the barbecue cookers that do it for a living have already learned the real secret: The barbecue business is when you get to charge for doing something you love and would probably be doing anyway. Barbecue men have to have stories to tell, too, and they tell them best while stoking the fire and getting the meat ready. They also tell them best when they’ve got one hand free to motion and one hand filled with a cold can of beer, for leverage.”

“Barbecue Men” by Big O’s restaurant in Valera, Texas

Barbecue is a complex word. We barbecue on a grill, we eat barbecue, we go to a barbecue and we like barbecue sauce. We’re not even agreed on how to spell it. But we do know that when May rolls around we move out onto the deck, uncover the grill and get ready to barbecue. When we grill food, we do it on an open charcoal- or gas-fired grill, usually at high heat, but not always. When we slow-cook food over coals or wood chips, we are smoking or barbecuing it. Both methods produce some delicious food that is often enjoyed out on the deck with friends.

Traditional barbecuing involves less tender cuts of meat that are slow-cooked over indirect heat and usually covered. Hickory, mesquite or other wood chips are placed on top of the coals for flavor. Sometimes a bowl of water is placed under the meat to collect juices and provide steam. Long, slow cooking with a basting barbecue sauce results in well-done meat that can be very tender. Beef brisket, pork shoulder, country style ribs and bottom rounds of beef are examples.

Grilling is the best method for small, tender cuts of meat and poultry. Often beginning with a marinade, we place the food over hot coals and cook quickly, sometimes basting with barbecue sauce as we go.

Barbecue always requires a little forethought and lots of patience. But if you let the marinade do its magic and if you prepare the coals properly and let the slow cooking happen — you will be rewarded with some amazing food.

Slow-Cooked, Hickory-Smoked Short Ribs of Beef

Season 8 short ribs with coarse salt and pepper. Make a mound of charcoal in your kettle grill and ignite. Push the coals to one side and place a stainless steel bowl of hot water (about 3 quarts) on the other side of the coals. Wrap 2 handfuls of hickory chips in heavy foil and punch holes in the top. (You do not need to soak the chips.) Place this packet on the hot coals. Put the grill over all of this and place the short ribs on grill over the water (not over the coals) to cook with indirect heat. Put the grill lid on, with a small vent open, and cook for 3 hours. If the temperature gets too low, add more charcoal. Keep the lid on during cooking or you will lose heat. After 3 hours, remove the lid and baste the meat with the following sauce.

Serves 4.

Kentucky Bourbon Barbecue Sauce

Sautà 1 cup chopped onion in 1 tablespoon butter until soft and golden. Stir in 1 cup ketchup and 1/4 cup brown sugar. Simmer over low heat and add 1/4 cup Kentucky bourbon, 1/4 cup cider vinegar, 1/4 cup pineapple juice, 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, 2 teaspoons molasses, a few drops of Tabasco and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Let cook, uncovered, about 30 minutes until sauce starts to thicken. Check for seasoning and add a little salt and more Tabasco if desired.

Barbecued Spatchcock Chicken

This is the method of butterflying a whole chicken so it lies flat on the grill. The term originated in 18th century Ireland. When prepared this way, the chicken looks very attractive and cooks evenly.

Purchase a whole 3 1/2- to 4-pound chicken and remove the giblets. Place it on a cutting board breast side down. With a stiff boning knife make a cut along one side of the backbone. The cartilage is easy to cut through but you must go wide around the leg joint. Repeat on the other side of the backbone so that it is totally removed. Open the chicken up and make a small notch with your knife through the cartilage at the breastbone. Bend the chicken back with your hands and the hard keel bone will become exposed. Remove this with your hands and the chicken will lie flat.

Prepare a marinade with 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 tablespoon lemon zest, 1 teaspoon minced garlic, 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme and 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Marinate in a zippered bag for 2 hours.

Heat the barbecue grill until the coals are white. Preheat the grill and wipe clean with a towel dipped in vegetable oil. Pat the chicken dry and brush with oil. Place it skin side down on the grill and cook until grill marks show. Rotate the chicken and cross-hatch the grill marks. Turn the chicken over and move it to the side of the grill so that it cooks with indirect heat. It should take about 45 minutes to cook. Check with an instant-read thermometer to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Remove, cut into quarters and serve.

Serves 2 to 4.

Mesquite Smoked Spareribs with Texas Rib Rub

Purchase one whole rack of spareribs (not baby back) and cut them in half so they fit on the grill. Make a rib rub by combining 1/2 cup brown sugar; 1/4 cup paprika; 1 tablespoon each of chili powder, onion powder and garlic powder; and 1 teaspoon each of cayenne, black pepper and coarse salt. Rub this mixture on the ribs and let them sit while preparing the fire.

Prepare the kettle grill by mounding charcoal on one side and igniting it. Place a stainless steel bowl alongside the coals with 3 quarts of hot water in it. Put two handfuls of mesquite chips in heavy foil and punch holes in the top. Place the chips on top of the coals and put the grill back in place. Put the ribs over the water on the grill and cover, leaving the vent open a little. Slow-cook about 3 hours at 250 degrees (or thereabouts) until the meat is very tender and coming away from the bone. During the last hour of cooking baste with the following sauce.

Classic Barbecue Sauce

Combine in a saucepan 1 cup ketchup, 1/4 cup water, 1/4 cup brown sugar and 1/4 cup cider vinegar. Add to this 2 tablespoons paprika, 1 tablespoon chili powder, 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 tablespoon minced garlic and 2 tablespoons canola oil. Simmer for 30 minutes at low heat. Check for seasoning.

Char-Grilled Marinated Duck Breasts with Smoked Duck Legs

Purchase 2 whole 5-pound ducks and remove the breast meat, leaving the skin on. Remove the leg and thighs, leaving them in one piece. You will have 4 breasts and 4 leg pieces.

Prepare a marinade with 1 cup Grand Marnier (or triple sec), the juice and zest from 2 oranges and 1/4 cup sugar. Marinate all the duck pieces overnight. Prepare the grill as above for slow-cook smoking with hot coals, a bowl of water and wood chips. Smoke the legs for 3 hours until they are fully cooked and very tender. Remove them and keep warm. Add some fresh coals to the grill, remove the water bowl and grill the duck breasts at high heat until medium rare, about 5 minutes per side. Brown the skin over the coals, but do not burn.

Cut the smoked legs into two pieces each and slice the grilled duck breasts. If desired, roast the duck bones and make a stock from them, using the marinade as flavoring.

Serves 8.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. E-mail: [email protected].