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   Cooling Off the
   Backyard BBQ

  by Mark Bittman

  The Fourth of July guests are wandering around the backyard - nibbling chips, manhandling the carefully stuffed grape leaves, sipping beer or some rosé from Provence. You, on the other hand, are standing in front of the hot grill with smoke blowing in your face, watching a piece of chicken catch fire.

  A lot has changed in backyard cookery in the last few decades. The menu is no longer limited to hot dogs and hamburgers, and might not even include meat. The grill may be fueled by rocks heated by gas or simply gas flames. If there are coals, they may be real charcoal, not petroleum-laden briquettes. And the cooking is correctly called grilling, rather than barbecuing, which is an extremely slow, smoky form of grilling over indirect heat.

  What has not changed, at least at big parties, is that the person doing the grilling does not have any fun. It's not that grilling isn't enjoyable; it is as easygoing a cooking process as exists, though not without its stressful moments. It's that there is too much fussing going on in front of that grill.

  The menu here is designed to change that. Follow it, and you can grill two of the most labor-intensive foods — ribs and chicken — with minimal effort and almost no risk of incinerating the meat. And most of the grilling is done before guests arrive.

  The secret to the grilling is a combination of low heat, indirect grilling (in which the food is set off from, not over, the coals), and a final blast of hot, direct heat. You need a covered grill, preferably gas, though real charcoal or briquettes do not present much of a problem: you just need to replenish the fire, either by adding coals a few at a time to its sides or by keeping a batch of coals going in a second grill.

  Chicken and ribs are tricky to grill because their fat renders and catches fire over high, direct heat. If the flames are low enough and the griller vigilant, by turning the meat frequently and shifting it around the grill, the job can be done well. But the energy expenditure is enormous, especially when feeding large numbers of people. By taking more time and using lower heat, the cooking can be done slowly and leisurely.

  Grill the chicken or ribs slowly on the coolest part of the grill, covered, until most of the fat has melted away. For chicken, this usually takes 30 to 45 minutes; for ribs, up to several hours. The time will depend on just how low the fire is. If your grill has a thermometer, you might aim for 300 degrees or even a little lower. When the chicken or ribs are cooked through, they will be lightly browned but not truly crisp. At that point, they can be set aside for a while: up to a couple of hours for the chicken, up to a full day for the ribs.

  When you are ready to serve the meats, brown them right over the coals over moderately high heat. They will still need your attention, but only for a few minutes. You can then attend to more important matters, like enjoying your own party.


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