BEN HILLYER/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — A grilled whole chicken, surrounded by grilled patty pan squash and other seasonal vegetables makes a colorful main course for an Independence-Day cookout. If you want red meat, try grilled skirt steak or slow-cooked ribs, at top.

Red, White & BBQ

Published 12:13am Sunday, July 1, 2012

For some, how American you are this Fourth of July correlates to how much you can sweat it out over a grill while the mercury chases the 100-degree mark.

Whether it’s low and slow or fast and crispy, local chefs say they don’t quite understand why we Southern Americans like to cookout wrapped in a blanket of summer heat and humidity.

Carriage House Bingo Starr said he had no idea why that is, but he guessed barbecuing in the summer probably has something to do with family and custom.

“It’s just more or less tradition — barbecue and Fourth of July kind of go together,” said Martha “Jay” Owens, Starr’s neighbor and a guest at one of Starr’s backyard barbecues in June.

Besides tradition, Owens’ husband, Robert “Red” Owens, said barbecue can be a source of pride to many men.

“Everybody has a specialty, and if it’s going good … they’re not going to give you the whole recipe,” Owens said.

Grilled corn and black bean salad, fresh tomato and cucumber salad and pico de gallo, at left, are the right complements to ribs, chicken and barbecue.

Owens, a former educator and competitor in Memphis in May barbecue contests, has in the past accused a friend of shorting him one ingredient in a recipe he requested.

And Owens admits he’s no different.

Starr said Owens will never let him in on his Arkansas connection in the dry rub cartel.

“I got my guys up in Arkansas,” Owens said, cryptically. “They have a spice supply place.”

Owens said he also uses a rub recipe containing coffee, brown sugar and allspice, which he can’t fully divulge because he borrowed it from another Natchez native chef.

“If you taste it you would never know there was coffee, in it; but I mean it’s real good,” Owens said.

Meat matters

At Starr’s recent barbecue, he grilled marinated flank steak, along with Country Pleasing and homemade boudin sausage and a whole chicken.

“Cut the chicken in half, put the bone and thigh down and let it go for three hours,” Starr said.

To marinate the flank steak, Starr uses Worcestershire sauce, teriyaki sauce, garlic, salt and pepper.

It depends on how you like it cooked, Starr said. But he likes to cook his steak to medium rare for just 10 minutes.

“Pull it off, let it rest and slice it very thin across the grain on a little bit of an angle,” Starr said. “If you try to cut (the steak) thick it’s tough.”

Starr threw flour tortillas on the grill to wrap up the steak with Vidalia sweet corn and black bean relish.

He also made hamburger sliders, served with pimento cheese, jalapenos and bread and butter pickles for the adults and with the standard condiments for the children.

Starr said slider-sized buns are sold as enriched wholesome cotton biscuits at the grocery store and come in two or three varieties.

When cooking your steaks and pork tenderloins, high heat is better, Starr said.

“You want to get that good char on the outside, (or else) it will sit here and dry it out,” Starr said.

The larger, tougher, often cheaper pieces of meat are better low and slow and tend to be Owens’ specialty at the Robinson Street neighborhood cookouts.

Owens’ favorite meats to cook are pork butt and ribs.

“You hear everybody say low and slow, and that’s (what it works best) — low temperature and real slow,” he said.

He said he cooks pork butts six to eight hours.

With ribs, which he sometimes brines, Owens cooks them three-and-a-half to four hours to get them “good and tender.”

Sides and salads

For grilling most vegetables, Starr said he often slaps on his family’s “secret sauce” and throws them on the grill.

It’s a recipe his grandfather made and one he consented to sharing with the community.

Starr family secret sauce

Half cup cider vinegar

Half cup olive oil

Teaspoon chopped garlic

Teaspoon chopped green onions

Teaspoon Worcestershire

Teaspoon dried mustard, such as Coleman’s powdered mustard

Teaspoon paprika

Juice of one lemon

Salt and pepper to taste

“Just put it in an oil jar and shake it up real good,” Starr said. “I always have a jar of it in my fridge.”

When grilling vegetables, Star recommended putting them in a bowl with the secret sauce after a little time on the grill and let them sit for an hour.

“Add a little salt and pepper, and it’s dynamite,” Starr said.

The sauce also works well on chicken and even as a salad dressing, Starr said.

Starr said he uses a grill basket to grill vegetables like the pattypan squash, which he did recently.

“It’s awesome. You don’t have to sit there and flip all those veggies,” he said.

He also grilled whole ears of Vidalia corn with the husk on until the husks turn golden brown.

“Pull it off, let it steam on itself in the husk; it’s almost like aluminum foil.”

Starr said for his family, he peels off the husk and brushes it with mayonnaise before adding a course seasoning like Montreal or Tony’s Chachere’s seasoning for some texture.

Martha also contributed a tomato and cucumber salad to cool down the hot meal.

For this salad, Martha tosses slivers of red onion, cut-up rounds of cucumbers and diced tomatoes in a bowl. Martha tossed it in a creamy Vidalia onion dressing.

“It’s fresh and just keep it real cold, and serve it cold,” she said. “It’s a good accompaniment.”

Ultimately, the outdoor experience with friends and family in the heat is worth getting out of the kitchen, barbecue lovers say.

“There’s just some things that eat better off the grill,” Martha said.