Dateline: June 2, 2005

Summer came early in Texas this year. As this is being written in May, the temperature has already set a new record high for the day. Just perfect weather for getting out in the yard or on the patio or deck and doing some cooking the real Texas way. Don't forget to make that big pitcher of ice tea. Just be sure to serve it in real glass glasses. I know why the restaurants use the big, red plastic glasses, but we ain't running no restaurant. Some day we will have to talk about what to do when your plastic dishes and glasses get "slick".

To the subject at hand, we got some folk with problems, and we aim to set them on the correct path.

From Jodi: I have an old Philco Fridge in my basement and want to convert it to a smoker. My Grandpa smoked a lot of fish when I was younger, and I would like to be able to do that now with our fish and wild game. Any help on converting it would be appreciated. Thanks!

Hi Jodi: First, make sure the icebox has a metal interior. Plastic will go away too soon. About all you need to do is take out the ice cube maker (if it has one). Then you need a smokestack. About a two-inch hole should do it. Put in a piece of pipe extending out the top about a foot and seal around it. Slickest deal I've seen used an electric light base in the bottom of the icebox with a 100-watt bulb in it. A metal can with both ends was put over the light bulb, and an aluminum pie plate holding wood chips or saw dust was on top of the can. The heat from the light bulb was enough to make the chips smoke.

You need to read up on cold smoking so you can apply all the safety measures. And don't forget that many areas have laws about keeping refrigerators outdoors. Check and see what you need to do to comply. These things were real popular here in Texas for a while. Thanks for writing.
Dr. John

Rita likes things tender and moist: How do you make a really, really moist Cajun cake? Also, what can you do to make meat so tender that it melts in your mouth? I love eating t-bones and rib eyes, but I can't seem to get them or any other meat tender. Thank you for your help.

Hi Rita: First of all, the beef. There are eight grades of beef on the market as graded by the United States Department of Agriculture. The grades are (starting with the best) Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner.

The grade is determined by the visible marbling of the muscle tissue; that is, fat in the meat. The meat with the most marbling tends to be the most tender and flavorful. Prime and Select is what the good restaurants serve. It is more expensive as it is not as plentiful as the lower grades. The Select grade is the best compromise between cost and quality. The lower grades go for canning and processing where the tenderness and flavor is not so important.

The beef should be marked as to grade. If it is not, ask your butcher what grade it is. This is another case of you get what you pay for.

You might try experimenting with some meat tenderizer. It is made from the papaya fruit and has no bad effects. You can also try marinating the less tender cuts. There is an article on marinades in my Traditional Texas Fare column on www.texascooking.com. (Marinades You Should Know).

As for moist Cajun Cake, here is recipe that has been gar-on-teed.

Cajun Cake

Preheat oven to 350F degrees (175C degrees). Grease and flour a 9x13-inch pan.

In a large bowl, sift together flour, 1-1/2 cups sugar, salt and baking soda. Add eggs, pineapple and juice. Mix at low speed until well blended. Pour batter into prepared 9x13-inch pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until cake tests done.

Have topping ready when cake is done.

To make topping: In a saucepan, combine the milk, 3/4 cup sugar and butter. Bring to a boil and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add pecans and coconut and combine. Remove from heat. When cake comes out of the oven, Pour on the topping and carefully spread on while cake is still hot.

Thanks for writing and good luck.
Dr. John

Paul needs a strawberry measure: Many, many recipes call for strawberries by the quart or pint. Unfortunately, these delicious berries are no longer sold by that measurement. Today, they are sold by the pound. So, my question is how to determine the quart, pint or even cups available in a pound of berries? I have lots of recipes for strawberries, but none of them give any indication of the relationship between weight and volume.

Hi Paul: The strawberry measuring business has got complicated recently. As you say, they come mostly by the pound now. Also, you get all different sizes of berries, so a pint of the huge ones won't contain near as much as a pint of small ones. Best thing is find a pint box of the size you use and weigh it. Most of the produce sections have scales on hand. That way you will have a base line to work from. Thanks for writing.
Dr. John