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Fourth of July? That's the 'cue to fire up the grill for some smoky, meaty goodness.

July 4 is our Independence Day from the kitchen. Time to cook outside on the grill and taste the smoky flavor that seeps into sizzling meat. To get ready for one of the biggest barbecue days of the year, we toured the kitchens of some of the best locally owned barbecue joints to see what the home cook can learn.

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{ 5707 N 40th St., Tampa, (813) 623-3600 }

In 1968 the late Rev. John A. "Big John" Stephens opened Big John's Alabama BBQ in east Tampa on N 40th Street. He ran the business for around 25 years until his death in 1994, and now his family carries on the way he taught them.

Jabessa Major, one of the Rev. Stephens' 10 children, runs the restaurant with two brothers and nieces and nephews. Her advice to the home cook? Choose quality meat. She will only buy IBP brand "select" ribs, a hefty hunk of pork that runs about 3 pounds a slab. She calls baby back ribs "cute" but sniffs that "a real rib eater likes a meaty rib."

Well-known national brands, like IBP and Swift, are sold at supermarkets, butcher shops and wholesale warehouse stores. But most stores don't advertise the brand of ribs they sell, and they tend to change brands frequently because of price and availability. Choose slabs with good meat coverage over the bones and no large areas of surface fat.

Her brother Fred's method of cooking the ribs and roasts as head chef is something the home cook can easily emulate. Instead of countless hours in a slow smoker, they have a high-heat, wood-smoked open grill that can cook a rack of ribs in an hour or less, about three hours for a 5-pound Boston butt pork roast.

What the home cook doesn't have, however, is the enormous $60,000 brick barbecuethat they use at Big John's to burn huge logs of oak for cooking hundreds of pounds of meat on a busy weekend.

On a recent weekday, Major's nephew Clifford Roach arrived to put in oak logs as big as television sets to get the smoky fire burning. The specially made ceramic bricks hold heat so well, sometimes they are still warm from the day before. On a weekday, the heat is moderate, about 300 to 400 degrees, and they can cook half a chicken in 45 minutes or a rack of ribs in less than an hour. On a busy Friday and Saturday the pit is blazing and the time is cut down by about 20 percent.

But there are no thermostats or special gadgets here.

"I can hear when the fire is ready," said Major, who has worked for 30 years in the restaurant her father founded. Roach can take a look at a pork roast and hear how its skin is sizzling to know when it's close to ready.

"The key to a hot fire is to control it," said Roach, moving giant roasts around with what looks like a small pitchfork. He has a water hose within reach and a vent to add air, plus a nose and eyes with 18 years of experience at his grandfather's grill.

The home cook can follow their model of indirect cooking. In the giant barbecue, the meat is never closer than 31/2 feet from the fire. On a basic barbecue grill at home, that means using the indirect cooking method of getting the charcoal hot and ashy and then pushing the briquettes to one side, placing the meat on the empty side and closing the lid to create a kind of convection oven.

On a gas grill that means turning off one of the burners under the food and using medium-high heat on the other burners.

In either case, get some smoke flavor by soaking a cup of wood chips (found in the grilling area of most grocery or big box stores) at least 30 minutes. Drain, then wrap the chips in a foil pouch for a gas grill or toss them onto the gray briquettes of charcoal.

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{ 340 Main St., Safety Harbor, (727) 712-3727; }

Saturday night's pulled pork sandwich starts on Friday afternoon at Brady's Backyard BBQ in Safety Harbor. The award-winning smoke master seasons roasts of beef brisket and pork shoulder, ribs and chicken and puts them in the awesomely named Dominizer smoker box. Some 18 to 20 hours later, the pork will be fall-off-the bone heaven and the beef fork tender.

So what can a home cook learn from a guy whose "fastest" dish is chicken cooked for four hours? Respect temperature, not time, said Brady Fisher, 52, a former barbecue hobbyist who left the real estate title business in 2006 to follow his dream of opening a barbecue place like the ones he haunted as a young man in Memphis.

"I have a passion for the process," Fisher said as Etta James plays in the background of his low-key Main Street restaurant. "There's a thrill of doing it the hard way and being rewarded in the end."

That means the day before, he will wait as his roasts come to room temperature before putting them in the refrigerator-sized smoker on his back porch. He sets the temperature to 200 degrees and keeps track using a high-tech BBQ Guru CyberQ, a computerized temperature gauge that allows him to check on it via the Internet if he has to, and adjust.

He doesn't add the smoke just yet.

"The meat needs about an hour in there to relax," he said. "I call it making it sweat. It needs to warm up and loosen a bit. Then I throw in the wood and allow it to smoke heavy for two to three hours."

And that smoke is special, too, a combination of special lump charcoal, oak and alder wood ordered specially from Salt Lake City because he likes how the light smoke doesn't overpower the meat like mesquite or hickory.

Then it's a game of waiting and adjusting. If the temperature gets above 210, water turns to steam and dries out the meat. If it dips below 185, the tough connective tissue won't melt away as it should.

The home cook can get a smoker in the $150 to $300 range that can do a similar job, but the temperature adjustment can require more attention. A gadget like the Maverick wireless temperature gauge ($40) can help. It comes with a probe for the meat and a pager you can clip on your belt to alert you when the temperature has peaked.


Grandma Honey's MacDill Salad

The MacDill Salad comes from Brady Fisher's mom, Carolyn, and is a popular summer side dish.

2 pounds elbow or bowtie pasta, cooked al dente

2 heaping cups of Miracle Whip

1 (10-ounce) jar of Durkee Sandwich Sauce (found in most groceries in the mustard/mayo aisle)

1 large green bell pepper, seeded and diced, or a combo of 1 small red, green and yellow bell pepper for more color

4 sprigs of fresh dill chopped fine or 1/4 cup dried

Stir all ingredients together, and if it seems stiff when stirring, add more Miracle Whip, little by little, until you like its consistency.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 4 hours or, better, overnight.

Leave salt and pepper to personal choice of the diner.

To serve, stir well and enjoy.

Source: Chef Brady Fisher of Brady's Backyard BBQ in Safety Harbor

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{ 901 Platt St., Tampa, (813) 254-7070; }

Putting on the table what they call "New World barbecue," Smoke is the latest project of Ceviche restaurateur mastermind Gordon Davis. Grill master Dave Del Rio adds a slickness to the basic barbecue scene that South Tampa seems to crave. The food coming out of the converted old brick gas station since 2008 has diners swooning over the Montreal-style smoked meat, Texas brisket, fried catfish and smoky pork ribs.

Del Rio, a Tampa native, rose through the bay area's culinary ranks, helping Outback develop its menu before taking over as director of culinary development for Lee Roy Selmon's. The vision at Smoke was "to get great traditional barbecue, but throw in something different, such as Argentinian skewers and our own homemade sauces." They also have fish and vegetarian dishes - something unheard of in many barbecue joints.

What Del Rio faces that the home cook can appreciate is a shortage of space. The former mechanic's space has just enough room for a refrigerator-sized smoker out back and a char-grill out front for cooking steaks and skewers as customers watch from the front counter.

"To maximize space, make sure you start off with the best ingredients, that will yield the best product," Del Rio said.

Have fun, he said, but don't wing it. The biggest mistake home cooks make with their steaks and burgers is overcooking them or cooking them on too hot a grill.

"I'm a professional, but I still use a cooking thermometer on every piece of meat. Even after 30 years I don't trust it without one. I still use measuring spoons, utensils and thermometers," Del Rio said. "If you want something to taste the same way twice, you have to be precise."

His suggestion: A simple, digital $20 temperature gauge from Bed Bath & Beyond "is the best thing you can do to ensure results."

Sharon Kennedy Wynne can be reached at or (727) 893-8595.


Home Style Smoke Burger

The Smoke burger isn't always on the menu, instead appearing occasionally as a daily special.

2 or 3 slices of white bread, crusts removed

-1/4 cup milk or water

2 1/4 pounds ground beef, 80 percent lean

1/2 tablespoon A1 or barbecue sauce of choice

Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper or seasonings of choice

6 hamburger rolls

Sliced cheese, cheddar, Swiss, provolone or favorite cheese

Sliced onion, or grilled onions

Sliced tomato

Sliced dill pickles

Cooked Applewood smoked bacon

Leaf lettuce, romaine, or baby field greens


Mustard, yellow, Dijon or grainy

In a large mixing bowl, soak bread in milk or water. Mix bread well with fork until bread absorbs liquid and is well blended.

Add beef, A1, seasonings and mix gently until bread mixture is incorporated.

Divide mixture into six equal balls. Wet hands slightly and shape into -3/4-inch-thick by 41/2-inch-round patties. Hint to minimize shrinkage: Make a quarter-sized depression in the center of each patty, about a quarter of an inch deep.

Grill over medium high heat, 4 to 6 minutes per side or until desired doneness. Recommended internal temperature is 160 degrees for well-done.

About 11/2 minutes before the burgers are ready, add cheese to melt and place buns on grill to toast, if desired.

Source: Chef Dave Del Rio of Smoke in South Tampa


Grilled Pound Cake With Fresh Strawberry Compote

The Grilled Pound Cake With Fresh Strawberry Compote is "one of my favorite summer recipes," Smoke chef Dave Del Rio says. "It's cool and refreshing, uses the grill and is really simple. The pound cake has amazing flavors with the light markings from the grill and has an awesome look that will impress your family and friends."

1 pint fresh strawberries, washed and hulled

-1/4 cup sugar, or as needed to taste (Splenda also works well)

2 tablespoons brandy or port wine (optional)

1 good homemade or store-bought pound cake

Softened butter (unsalted preferred)

Whipped cream

Sliced strawberries for garnish

Slice washed and hulled berries and place into a bowl. Sprinkle the sugar over the berries and stir well. Lightly smash a few to release some of their juices. Add brandy or port. Place in the refrigerator until ready to use. Compote can be made an hour or so before serving, or the night before; the longer it macerates, the better. Stir occasionally. (Compote recipe can be doubled or tripled for a crowd.)

Note: This also works great with mixed berries, or frozen mixed berries when out of season.

Cut pound cake into 11/2-inch-thick slices. Spread butter lightly but evenly over both sides. The cake can be refrigerated at this point until ready to serve.

Preheat grill to medium to medium-high heat. Brush grate lightly with oil just before placing cake on grill. Cook about 2 minutes per side, or until grill marks appear. Place one or two slices on a plate. Spoon some of the compote over the cake as desired, then top with some whipped cream, and garnish with a few strawberry slices.

Source: Chef Dave Del Rio of Smoke in South Tampa


BBQ Baby Back Ribs

4 cups wood chips (apple or hickory)

4 pounds pork loin back ribs or meaty spareribs

2 tablespoons barbecue seasoning

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion salt

1/2 teaspoon celery seed, crushed

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 to 3/4 cup bottled barbecue sauce

At least 1 hour before smoking, soak wood chips in enough water to cover. Drain before using.

Trim fat from ribs. For rub, in a small bowl stir together the barbecue seasoning, garlic powder, onion salt, celery seed and cayenne pepper. Sprinkle seasoning mixture evenly over ribs; rub in with your fingers.

Preheat gas grill. Arrange grill for indirect cooking over medium heat. Add soaked wood chips according to manufacturer's directions. Or wrap in foil and add to grill. Cover and heat about 10 minutes or until chips begin to smoke.

Place ribs, bone-side down, in a roasting pan; set the pan on the grill rack over the unlit burner. (Or place ribs in a rib rack; place on grill rack over unlit burner.) Cover and smoke for 11/2 to 2 hours or until ribs are very tender. Cut ribs into serving-size pieces. Heat the barbecue sauce and pass with ribs. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: To cook ribs on a charcoal grill, arrange preheated coals around a drip pan; add soaked wood chips to coals. Test for medium heat above drip pan. Place ribs, bone-side down, over drip pan (or place in a rib rack over drip pan). Cover grill; cook and serve as above, adding more coals as necessary to maintain medium heat.

Source: Better Homes and Gardens

Like ribs? Try this

Per Southern tradition, Big John's Alabama BBQ's recipes remain a family secret. Since Big John's is tight-lipped, we found a recipe for BBQ Baby Back Ribs from Better Homes and Gardens.