Dateline: April 2, 2004

The doctor gets emergency calls in the middle of the night, but sometimes there is only so much a doctor can do. For example, there might be a call saying, "I'm cooking for my daughter's wedding next weekend for about 100 guests. Tell me how to cook a whole hog".

The doctor has to take these folks aside and quietly explain that a big undertaking like a whole hog or a quarter of beef is not something you can learn out of a book or off the Internet. These things require some second-hand experience. If you want to learn how to do a big project like the above, find someone who does it on a regular basis and ask them if you can watch and help. There is nothing like experience to teach any subject. I've never met a cook who was not happy to share his or her knowledge about the fine art.

The doctor also gets requests for recommendations on the purchase of smokers, grills and other cooking equipment. This is sort of a personal matter. What works for the doctor may not work for the patient. If there is a new cooking thingie in your future, do some shopping around. Go to all the stores or visit the sites on the Internet. Read about the various devices and find what they are designed to do, how big they are, what fuel they use and then make your decision. When you decide on the new cooker, be sure you get the manufacturer's instruction book, a number or address where you can ask questions and check into any warranties.

The above is not intended to keep you from visiting the doctor. It might save you some time and money on some issues. The doctor tries to answer every question he gets. Sometimes one will slip through the crack due to the huge volume of spam that everyone gets now days.

The doctor especially likes to hear from young readers who have a class project related to food or cooking. The doctor will point you in the right direction, but he won't do your homework for you.

So, with that taken care of, I'll call in the first patient for April.

Virginia writes: My husband put much too much chili powder in a large batch of chili. What can I put in the chili in the next warming to take out some of the chili flavor? Will a potato do the same as it does for salt?

Hi Virginia: We have had some success using instant potato flakes to tone down chili. You will need to add water to keep it from getting too thick. This will dilute the whole pot and more than likely will make it acceptable. Thanks for reading and writing.
Dr. John

Marc says: I'm interested in learning how to start and maintain a wood fire for barbecuing big cuts of meat like a brisket, butt, etc. Do you recommend using hickory? I would like to learn how to maintain these fires for like 8 to 15 hours. If you don't know, could you please direct me to someone or a website that could show me. Thanks a lot.

Hey Marc: This is one of those things you learn by experience and observation. Hickory is good, but a little sharp for some folks. Oak and mesquite work good, as does fruitwood, apple, pear, etc. Avoid oily wood like pine or cedar. If you are using a smoker with a firebox, you would start a fire using the logs in the box and let them burn down to coals before starting cooking. If using a grill, you would build a fire in a nearby location and when the logs turn to coals, shovel the coals under the grill. In either case, as the fire burns down, you would add a log or two to keep a constant supply of hot coals.

The best way to start logs on fire is to start with a wad of newspaper. Arrange small twigs around the paper in a tee-pee shape, and add larger logs to the outside layer. Then ignite the paper. Or you can use a propane torch to start the fire. You can also use charcoal lighter fluid. Avoid kerosene and gasoline as they can cause a big problem in a hurry.

Find someone who is cooking with real coals and go watch them a time or two. Thanks for reading and writing.
Dr. John

A reader whose name got lost asked about lingering fumes in a propane tank he is converting into a smoker. Here's my answer:

One of my experts tells me that if you hook up a hose and run exhaust gas from a car or pickup into the tank for five or ten minutes, it will purge all the vapors. If you have already cut into the tank and it didn't explode, I would think the fumes would leave after you built a good hot wood fire in it. Or, you might want to paint the inside of the tank with high-temperature paint to seal it. Ask your paint store. I hope this helps. Thank you for writing.
Dr. John

John is cooking for a crowd: I have to make a batch of chili that will make about 5 gallons. Where can I find a recipe for this quantity?

Hey John: Here's a recipe that should get you pretty close. If you need a little more, add more beans. If it's a little thin, add some instant potato flakes. Check it for salt when it's done. Chili needs a little more salt than most dishes. Thanks for writing.
Dr. John

Five gallons of chili

Cook and stir the ground beef and onion in large pans until meat is brown and onion is tender. Drain off fat. Stir in tomatoes, reserved kidney bean liquid, tomato sauce and seasonings. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat, simmer uncovered 1 hour and 15 minutes. Stir in beans. Simmer, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes, or until desired consistency.

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