Here we are in February, the month of lovers and ground hogs. So far we haven't received a request for a recipe for chocolate dipped ground hog, but we have pulled some other interesting questions off the wire, so here we go.

The computer ate the letter, but the gentleman wanted to cook a half a beef on an open fire for his daughter's wedding, and asked the Doctor's advice.

The Doctor advised against such an undertaking. Very, very seldom is anything larger than a small hog cooked on an open fire. The thicker parts of the half beef would be nearly twelve inches thick. This would require a very long cooking time, something on the order of 24 to 48 hours.

The last person I heard of cooking a beef on an open fire was the gentleman who did barbecuing for President Lyndon Johnson. I can't recall his name right now, [Editor butts in: That gentlemen was Walter Jetton.], but he said the beef on the spit was just for show. The meat they actually served was cooked in a pit, and the beef on the spit usually ended up being fed to the dogs.

With an event as important as a daughter's wedding you sure don't want to have a less than perfect barbecue for the guests. Stick to the pit and smaller cuts to insure success.

Miriam from California writes:

My family says my pinto beans are just not as good as they should be. Any suggestions?

Ah, yes. Pinto beans have kept Texas moving for many years. They are daily fare in many households.

The first thing you need to know is that when dried beans get old, they are harder to cook. Beans more than a year old are nearly impossible to cook real tender. So, buy your beans where there is a high turnover to insure a fresh supply.

I'm an advocate of the "soak 'em overnight" school of bean cooking. Cover the beans with cool water and let them soak overnight before starting to cook them. I also think a slow simmer results in better beans than a hard boiling.

For seasoning, bacon or salt pork is a must. A small amount of chopped onion and a smushed clove of garlic also go in the pot. Instead of putting chili powder in the pot, take a dried ancho pepper and remove the stem and seeds. Drop the pepper in the pot for about 10 minutes, then take it out, put it on a plate and let it cool. When it's cool enough to handle, scrape the "meat" off the skin and return it to the pot, discarding the skin.

When the beans start to get tender, use your stirring spoon to smash a few of them against the side of the pot. This will thicken the broth and give it a dose of taste from the inside of the smashed beans.

The beans need to be accompanied by fresh cornbread or your best homemade white bread.

Mike in Missouri writes:

Dear Doctor John, the bottom fell out of my backyard grill last fall. It is time to replace it. I want to move up to a larger, more versatile cooker, what do you recommend?

It sounds like you are a serious barbecue chef, so I recommend you invest in a unit that will last you for a long time. Once you learn how a particular cooker works, you can save a lot of experimental time and just get down to the business of cooking.

I'd look for a brand name cooker, one that comes with a guarantee. Look for heavy-duty materials and good construction. Thin metal and ill fitting joints are a sign of ineptness. A cooker with a firebox for smoking and a grill for broiling is more versatile. Also, there should be a flat place on top of the firebox where you can set a pot and do cooking there. Look for air-flow devices that are easy to operate, and make sure you get wheels on the thing unless you are as strong as Tarzan.

Once you get your new cooker, take care of it. Don't let it set with ashes in it or grease all over it. Clean it up after each use and keep it covered if it's out in the weather, and it will give years of good service.

While on the subject of new cookers, several readers have asked where they can get plans for building barbecue cookers. I don't know of any plans for metal barbecue pits. If you are in the market for a masonry pit in the back yard, Better Homes and Gardens puts out a magazine nearly every year on the subject. You can find them on eBay.com for a few dollars each.

My favorite Doctor John letter came in several months ago. I chose not to print it here until now.

Dear Doctor: How do you make toast? Tell my wife. Signed "Tired of charcoal"

Dear Tired:

After many years, the good Doctor has learned not to touch a question such as that.

See y'all next month. Keep them cards and letters coming in.