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Houck: Dr. BBQ shares thrill of the grill

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 03:00 PM

My history as a cook is checkered.

I've had moments of great glory, with rib roasts that looked like they descended on the wings of angels.

I've also known more than my share of embarrassment and shame. Like last weekend, when I made a batch of Dutch oven jalapeno cornbread with a crust so stiff, it could have served as an emergency spare tire.

The one area where I've had consistent success: my backyard smoker.

It's not much to look at, just a vertical rectangle about the size of a dorm room fridge with a couple of shelves inside.

But the food it produces … my goodness.

Doesn't matter what I put into it. Whole chickens. Roasts. Ribs. You name it. Pork butts marinated in mojo emerge with such tender succulence, you could make a meal of just eating pig. Briskets that would otherwise be too tough for a hungry Marine to chew through come out butter-soft. I won't ever let a Thanksgiving pass without smoking a bird for the table. The taste is just too good to miss.

But this comes after years of practice. And by practice, I mean colossal failures.

I wish Ray Lampe's new book, "Slow Fire: The Beginner's Guide to Barbecue," (Chronicle, $22.95) had been around when I was turning every cookout into an outtake from the movie "Backdraft."

Better known as "Dr. BBQ," the barbecue champion, cookbook author and cooking teacher from St. Petersburg penned a book that untangles the mysteries behind great smoking.

The first place wannabe cooks get stumped is on equipment. The first impulse is to buy big. Especially if you're a guy.

Lampe gets that. After all, he promotes Big Green Egg smokers, which you won't be able to buy at the Dollar Store any time soon. But he prepared every recipe in the book so it could be cooked under 250 degrees, no matter if you're using a gas grill, a water smoker or a stove-top kit that looks like a cake box.

"The truth is, you can make barbecue on anything," he says.

Choice of wood for smoking is key. Everyone grabs for mesquite, partly because of the cool name. But there is such a thing as over-smoking. Softer fruit woods such as cherry and apple add flavor without overbearing smokiness. Mixing them with pecan can bring surprising results.

So is the seasoning rub applied to the meat before smoking. Creating a perfectly balanced sweet-hot combination that complements whatever protein you're cooking is a joy forever.

Then again, so is a side dish of his bacon and blue cheese coleslaw. Or the must-eat-before-you-do-anything-else cheesy jalapeno grits. And don't forget the chocolate buttermilk macadamia nut pie. Or the world's greatest banana pudding.

"There is something magical about barbecue that makes it different from any other cuisine," Lampe says. "Cooking great barbecue is unique and mysterious and we all love to eat it."

He's not just blowing smoke.


jhouck@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7324

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