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Thursday, June 3, 2004 04:11 am

Fired up

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From now until Labor Day, there's no better way to enjoy the warm days of summer than an outdoor meal. Firing up the grill for an outdoor barbecue is one of America's favorite pastimes. The aroma, the appeal of the great outdoors, and the taste of a meal hot off the grill combine to yield the perfect summertime activity.

We checked with two local grill masters who have perfected the art of basting, marinating, and cooking over an open flame to learn their secrets.

Perry T. Hines of P.T.'s Bar-B-Que doesn't advertise. He doesn't have to. You can find his business just by following your nose and the clouds of smoke rising above his three large metal smokers on Taylor Avenue.

Hines, who lives in Decatur, has operated the barbecue stand on Springfield's East Side for nine years and is well known for his chicken, racks of ribs, and shredded-pork sandwiches.

Hines, who began cooking at the age of 15, learned the tricks of the trade from his father, who owned a barbecue business in Decatur. A former basketball coach and teacher, Hines proves that you don't need an expensive grill or fancy grill gadgets to get good results. His smokers are made of old metal oil drums and piano hinges. Next to his smokers is a recycled Snowball Express concession stand, where customers order their food from a handwritten menu on the window. Metal poles and plastic form a makeshift tent to provide shade on hot days. Wooden tables topped with bottles of vinegar and spices and piles of hickory logs complete the setting.

Hines usually cooks slabs of pork ribs, chickens, and pork shoulders at one time. He first places hickory logs in the bottom of each drum, then adds a pyramid of charcoal. Once the pyramid has burned down, he spreads the charcoal out evenly, adds the meat to the grill, and waits. "It takes about three hours for meat to cook," he says.

Hines, who runs the business with his nephew Lavell Johnson, says he uses liberal amounts of Mrs. Dash and Adolph's Meat Tenderizer (without MSG) to make the meat tender without adding salt. "I know how to get meat tender without having to boil it," he says. Hines has a system of rotating the meat, turning it over, and moving it around so it all gets the proper amount of heat.

The secret to grilling success? "Patience," Hines says. "People get in too big of hurry." He adds, "I don't drink. Drinking and cooking don't really mix."

Whereas some people prefer to add water to the fire to create smoke, Hines uses white vinegar to stir up the flames. After cooking the meat, he slathers on a homemade concoction of onions, apple-cider vinegar, and seasonings with a small basting mop to add even more flavor and moisture.

Scott Crane, corporate chef at Robert's Food Inc. and Robert's Seafood Market, specializes in preparing seafood and says grilling it is quick and easy. The secret to grilling seafood, from fish to shrimp, is not to overcook it.

"When it's flaky, it's overdone," Crane says. He suggests coating fish with olive oil or even a nonstick spray oil, which adds moisture and prevents the fish from sticking to the grill. Marinating fish for 15 to 20 minutes is another way to keep it from drying out.

After coating the fish, Crane places it skin side up on the grill. He says this prevents the amino acids in the skin from burning and sticking to the grill and also prevents the acids from seeping into the fish and affecting the taste. Crane cooks a one-inch piece of fish over medium heat for five to six minutes on the first side, skin side up, and then turns it over for another two or three minutes.

PT's is located in the 1500 block of Taylor Ave.; 217-620-1013. Hours: 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu. and 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Fri. and Sat.

Scott Crane holds cooking demonstrations every Wednesday through October at the downtown Old Capitol Farmers Market from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and from 4-8 p.m. at Robert's Seafood Market, 1615 W. Jefferson St.; 217-546-3089.


See food sizzle

Two recipes for the grill, courtesy of Robert's Seafood Market:

Grilled Coconut Shrimp

Ingredients
1 lb. medium raw shrimp
15 oz. Coco López
4 tbs. coriander
2 tbs. ground white pepper
4 tbs. chopped garlic
Bamboo skewers

Directions
Clean, peel, and devein shrimp, then set them aside. In large bowl, mix Coco López, coriander, white pepper and garlic. Marinate raw shrimp for at least 4 hours (overnight is best). Skewer shrimp and grill over medium heat for 2 minutes on each side.

Grilled Caesar Mahi-Mahi

Ingredients
1/4cup plain fat-free yogurt
2 tbs. grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbs. fresh lemon juice
2 tbs. low-fat buttermilk
1 tbs. Dijon mustard
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. anchovy paste
1/4 tsp. black pepper
6 garlic cloves, crushed
4 6-oz. mahi-mahi steaks (or other firm white fish fillets)
Cooking spray

Directions
Combine first nine ingredients and stir well with a whisk. Pour yogurt mixture into a large zip-top plastic bag and add fish to bag. Seal bag and marinate fish in refrigerator for 20 minutes. Prepare grill. Remove fish from bag, reserving marinade. Place fish on a grill rack coated with cooking spray. Cook for 5 minutes or so on each side or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork, basting frequently with reserved marinade.

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