About the only things more common than fireworks on the Fourth of July are cookouts, those backyard rituals of burgers, hot dogs and beverages. Throw in some fireflies, burnt hair and sweaty revelers, and you've got a party.
But burgers and franks are the khaki of cookouts -- dull and predictable. You can do better (or at least different), with less effort and more impressive results.
Good grilling just needs an excuse to happen. Here are some suggestions for some righteous repast, fit for either the gas grill or charcoal cooker. Feed the masses with style from your outdoor oven.
Chicken leg quarters or just thighs are cheap and hard to mess up, thanks to a little fat and balanced mass. Take some thighs or quarters and put a dry rub (brown sugar-based) on a third of them, and then put them all on a medium-hot (275 F-350 F) grill. After 45 minutes, put your favorite barbecue sauce on a third and some Texas Pete mixed with butter on the other third.
Forty-five minutes later you have three distinctly different offerings. The rub thighs, with their brown sugar, should have a caramelized crispy skin. The Texas Pete thighs will have a little heat and will be the "Buffalo" offering. The barbecue-sauced pieces will be, well, barbecued chicken. Note that most store-bought sauces are loaded with sugar, which burns easily. Watch it. Also, cold barbecue sauce slides off hot food. Heat sauce before applying.
It's not hard to make good barbecue. (Great 'cue takes some practice and charcoal and wood). Buy a Boston butt and coat it with your favorite rub. Cook on indirect heat. On a gasser, that means turning one burner on and placing the meat opposite. (Most gassers vent to the rear, so that will cook hotter). On a covered charcoal grill, put a cast-iron frying pan with water under the meat to keep coals at bay. Cook for about 1.25 hours per pound at 225 F-275 F to an internal temperature of at least 170 F. For pulled pork, "done" STARTS at 170 and settles at about 200.
For butts, you should figure on about a 60 percent to 70 percent yield, and figure on at least a quarter-pound per person. Pull with two big forks, or buy cheap hazmat gloves and look cool. Cooked pork freezes very well. Offer bags to your guests as parting gifts. Maybe they'll leave their beer.
Ribs can be tough to master, but don't steam or boil them first. On a 250 F-300 F grill, cook on indirect heat for two hours. Then apply honey or sauce, wrap in foil and cook another hour. Remove the foil, sauce again and cook on direct heat for about 30 minutes. (As with everything else, your mileage may vary).
Save this for special occasions, such as Independence Day, Christmas dinner or the opening of deer season.
Buy a whole rib-eye roast, or a good chunk of one. (Your local butcher can set you up). Yeah, it's hard to spend $50 to $100 on a hunk of meat, but you're feeding the masses for less than $10 per head. A rib-eye roast is cheaper than a standing rib roast and tastes just as good.
Season and cook on indirect heat about 20 minutes per pound at 325 F-350 F to a middle internal temp of 135 F. The ends should be well done, and the middle rare (great for reheating later), so you've got many palates covered. Have someone take candid pictures of the guests when you take it off the grill. Revealing the meal has a certain panache, and the pictures will amuse after everyone sobers up.
My mom told me as a youngster, "If you can read, you can cook." She was right. Three great cookbooks for grillers are "Grillin' with Gas" by Raleigh's Fred Thompson (whose work can be seen in this paper), Weber's "Charcoal Grilling: The Art of Cooking with Live Fire" by Jamie Purviance and "The Barbecue! Bible" by Steven Raichlen.
Long-handled tongs are essential, as is a good spray bottle of water for flare-ups. Keep a fire extinguisher handy (I had the paint on the outside of a smoker catch fire once). Wear something on your feet, lest you step on an ember barefoot (again, the voice of experience). Embers stick to flesh like burning nylon. They make you cuss in front of children, too.
Have dry paper towels and moist wipes handy. It's a cleaning kit.
A remote digital thermometer is a wonderful tool. They start at $30 and take a lot of the guesswork out of the game. At the very least, have an analog meat thermometer. And have some fun. It's the Fourth of July, for crying out loud.
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