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If you have a question for Doctor John, send an email to moc.oohay@nevarkeerc

From H.L., San Jose, California

I have attended several chili cookoffs and they are a lot of fun. I think I can give the regular cookers a run for their money. My question is: What equipment will I need?

Dear H.L.:

Competition chili cooking doesn't require a lot of equipment, but there are some things you will need that you won't find in the everyday kitchen.

First of all you will need an outdoor stove. Coleman leads the pack in such stoves. You will have to choose between liquid fuel and bottled gas to fire your stove. I recommend you get one that uses bottled gas (propane). The reason is simple: Liquid fuel is very explosive. You really have to be careful around it. It also takes some time to familiarize yourself with the operation of a liquid fuel stove. On the other hand, the propane stoves work just like the one in your kitchen, except the gas comes from a bottle (metal) rather than from a pipe. A small two-burner propane stove will meet all your needs for cooking chili. Just understand and follow the directions that come with your stove.

Next you need a pot to cook your chili in. The size you get depends on the amount of chili meat you can afford. From your observations at the cookoffs, you should have an idea of what size is most popular. I recommend you get a heavy gauge stainless steel or other non-reactive interior pot. Chili has a way of eroding some materials. Make sure the pot you choose has a tight-fitting lid.

Of course you will need a table and a couple of chairs for your creature comfort. As you go along you can refine your furniture selection.

You will probably want an ice chest if you don't already have one. Don't skimp here. Get the best you can afford while keeping in mind that a huge ice chest can be mighty heavy after a long day of cooking chili.

Most of the other things you will need you can borrow from your kitchen. You will want a large, wooden spoon for stirring your chili. Don't use it for anything else; flavors can transfer. Measuring devices, a cutting board, a sharp knife, some small spoons for tasting, a spice rack or box to keep your chili spices in order. Don't forget a hot pad or insulated mitt for handling the hot chili pot lid. Always take an extra roll of paper towels.

After you have experienced a few cookoffs you will have your favorite tools. Start to build a set of them just for your chili cooking. Find a nice wooden box or hamper that they will all fit into, and then you can have all your chili gear together and not have to hunt all over the house for your nutmeg grater that the kids were using to file the dog's toenails.

Two more things that I deem essential to proper chili cooking: (1) a notepad and a sharp pencil. This will help you keep track of what and how much you put in your chili. It's also handy for jotting down phone numbers and chili hints that you might find to be of interest. And (2), a roll of duct tape. Duct tape can repair nearly anything. You can splint a broken leg with it, or you can patch a hole in your umbrella with it. When the folks find that you have duct tape, you will be really popular. Everyone needs some duct tape at some time during the day at a chili cookoff.

Good luck from Dr. John.

Our next question comes from R.B. in Springfield, Missouri.

I'm a real barbecue fan. I subscribe to several barbecue newsletters, and I have noticed that at the big competitions the same names show up in the winners list on a regular basis. Is there something funny going on here?

Dear R.B.:

As in most competitive activities, the cream rises to the top. The winners are those who have the most desire to win. They like to win. They are not good losers. Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a person who loses a lot. The winners work at winning. They are always alert for any information that will help them. They try new things.

A person who enters a barbecue contest just to cook, eat and have a good time will not be a regular winner. The winners go expecting to win. Mental attitude has a lot to do with it. If you go out with the idea that you are just going to cook and you don't care if you win or lose, more than likely you will lose. The winner will go thinking, "I'm going to cook the best barbecue I've ever cooked today and I'm going to win."

This question comes from A.R. in Arizona:

What is the best wood for barbecuing?

Dear A.R.:

The best wood for the occasion depends on three things:

  1. Where are you?
  2. What is available? and
  3. What are you cooking?
The area in which you live has hardwoods. You don't use soft woods like pine and cedar, they contain a lot of oils and give off a foul taste. In the Southeast, hickory is the favorite. It has a deep, sharp taste that complements most any red meat. In the Ohio Valley you will find lots of folks using apple wood for barbecue. In Texas, the favorite is mesquite or oak for red meat, and pecan for fowl and seafood. Up in the Pacific Northwest, alder wood goes in the pit.

With the ever-growing popularity of barbecue, most of the popular woods are available to everyone who can afford to have them shipped in. Look in the Yellow Pages under barbecue supplies.

Your red meats can use the stronger flavor of oak, hickory and mesquite. Seafood and fowl do better with a milder flavor from pecan or fruit wood such as apple or cherry.

I don't know of any wood commonly used for barbecue that produces toxic smoke. I would check with some knowledgeable person before I used something like Bolivian Bois d'arc though.

In any case, the barbecue wood needs to be well seasoned. Green wood doesn't burn all that well, and it may produce more smoke than you care for. As in all things I urge you to experiment.

If you have a question for Doctor John, send an email to moc.oohay@nevarkeerc
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