Dateline: March 2, 2004

March has marched right in the door. Being this column is written a little in advance, we don't know if March came in like a lion or a lamb. In either case, someone is ready to put it on the grill and warm it up until the bluebonnets begin to bloom. Let's solve some problems.

Jimmy writes: I have tried cooking fajitas in the broiler and on the grill and can't seem to get it right. It always comes out chewy. I tried different marinades to no avail. I am using skirt steaks. Any tips?

Hi Jimmy: That skirt steak is naturally tough. You do know about slicing them "across the grain"? This makes them seem more tender. As a last resort, when they are done as usual, wrap them tight in heavy duty foil, let them steam on the grill or broiler for about thirty minutes. If this does not make them tender, nothing will. Thanks for reading and writing.
Dr. John

Jerry is looking for salsa: I need a good old-fashioned table salsa recipe. I grow tomatoes, cilantro, and jalapeños in my garden and can't seem to get the flavor I want from my own experiments. Any help would be welcomed.

Hi Jerry: As you know, everyone has a different taste. A recipe I like may not suit you at all. A couple of things you might try: Use some good olive oil in the salsa. Vegetable oil usually has an oily taste. Put a little fresh limejuice in the salsa just before serving. That brightens it up. Any salsa needs to sit in the refrigerator at least overnight to allow time for the flavors to marry. Keep working on it, you'll find the combination soon.
Dr. John

Glen is troubled with tough jerky: I recently got two batches of venison jerky. One was very chewable. It flaked easily and was easy to chew. The other was like rubber. Same deer (I was told), but one was spicy (the chewable one) and the other only had salt and pepper. I have noticed that the jerky I get in a store is also very rubbery. I like it when it flakes easily in the mouth and becomes chewable. What is it in the process that causes jerky to be rubbery?

Hi Glen: The rubber jerky was not cured properly. It takes a long time to dry the jerky. The commercial jerky probably is cooked, rather than dried, to save time and money. Most folks don't know the difference. Does that answer your question? Thanks for reading and writing.
Dr. John

Natalie writes: What if my cast iron skillets are pitted with rust? Can they still be seasoned and used? Or are they worthless?

Hi Natalie: If the skillets aren't too deeply pitted they can be used. You'll need to clean out the rust to bare metal. Use sandpaper, steel wool or Scotchbrite pads and water. When you get them clean as possible, season them and they should be okay. Always remember to dry them after use and reapply some oil or shortening. Thanks for reading and writing.
Dr. John

Cathie writes: My son-in-law has been cooking a brisket, overnight, in the oven. His oven is set at 180 degrees. My grilling cookbook says low is 225-250. Is 180 a safe temperature?

Hi Cathie: Son-in-law may be on the edge here. The critical thing is to get the temperature of the brisket up to 140 in two hours or less. Slow cookers (crock pots) run from 185 to 200 degrees on Low. I think it would be a good idea to start the brisket at about 300 for the first hour and then it would be fine to cut back to 180. Thanks for reading and writing.
Dr. John

Megann writes: Hello Dr. John. I make a very tasty White Chili. It has ground pork, white (cannelli) beans, poblano (used for rellenos) and jalapeño chilies. It is very mild but flavorful. How can I turn up the heat for a contest without losing the flavor?

Hi Megann: Oh gosh, white chili. We don't want to use cayenne and get pink chili. First thing that comes to mind is white pepper. It has what we call an up-front bite, that is, you taste it on the tip of your tongue immediately. It doesn't get real hot but you know it's there. Sure fire is the habanero. If you can find fresh in the yellow stage, it will go with your color scheme. Or you can find habanero powder. Now, habaneros are HOT. Start with just a tad and work up to where you want it. If you use fresh, use gloves and, for heaven's sake, don't wipe your eyes. Hope this helps. Thanks for reading and writing.
Dr. John

Lisa writes: Have you ever cooked wild hog meat? It's a ferrell (sp?) hog. I think it's a hind quarter. Someone gave it to us because we do a lot of smoking on the pit. It's a little over 2 feet long with bone in. I'm a pretty good cook, but I'm not real sure what to do with this thing. I don't want to ruin it. I've heard of people soaking wild game in a milk bath before cooking to help soothe the wild taste. I'm thinking they gave it to me as a challenge to see if I could come up with a way to cook it. Any input you might have would be appreciated and interesting.

Hi Lisa: The feral hog is just a regular hog that doesn't have a home -- not to be confused with the wild boar, which is really wild. Feral hog is fine eating. It is not as fat as farm-raised pork. You would cook it just like regular fresh pork. You may want to cut that quarter into more manageable portions. If the hog was properly cleaned and dressed, it will have no wild taste. Be sure to cook it to an internal temperature of 170 degrees. I have roasted feral hog in the oven and done it on the smoker. Either way, it is very good. Thanks for reading and writing.
Dr. John

Kathepoo writes: I am planning a pig roast for my daughter's graduation. We are doing it in a propane grill, and I would like to know if there are some spices I should put in. Everyone has a stomach problem so it cannot be real spicy. I feel we need to do something besides just laying it on the grill. Thank you.

Hi Kathepoo: All you really need is salt and pepper. For the delicate stomachs, they may stand a little onion and garlic powder. Avoid the chile peppers. For a little extra zip, have some dipping sauce to serve with the pig. If it needs basting during cooking, use some Italian dressing from the bottle. Thanks for reading and writing.
Dr. John

If you would like to direct a question to Ask Doctor John, e-mail it to John Raven, Ph.B.