Follow your nose to the sweet-smokin' grill of July's Top Cook

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Kareem Bryant shows that you don't need a lot of space (a front porch will do) to produce a grilled work of art.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Kareem Bryant shows that you don't need a lot of space (a front porch will do) to produce a grilled work of art.
Posted: July 18, 2014

OVER the July Fourth weekend, Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park was alive with the sounds and smells of grilling. Once a year, over the past seven or eight years, about 300 friends, family and neighbors from North Philadelphia have gathered at Lemon Hill in unity and fellowship to share a meal, dance and enjoy the outdoors.

On the most recent holiday, Kareem Bryant was overseeing two 6-foot-long covered grills, cranking out 160 pounds of mesquite-smoked chicken or, as he described it, "dancing around the grill."

It's a self-taught dance he learned by trial and error. His mother was a good cook, and he picked up some knowledge about seasonings watching her, but when he was a teenager he started cooking in earnest on his own. "It's like learning to play piano. You have to practice," he said.

A trip to San Antonio got him interested in smoking with wood, and he sought out experienced grillers who taught him that the most important aspect of the cooking technique is the color of the meat, which signals how much smoke flavor it has. Bryant also looks for a reddish color ring that encircles properly cooked and smoked meat just under the outside edge.

His favorite wood to smoke with is mesquite, which he buys at hardware or big-box stores. All summer long, he keeps a bucket filled with water and wood chips ready to go, so there's no waiting for the chips to soak before firing up the grill.

No special tools are needed - just tongs and a spatula.

The one dish that gave him trouble was brisket. "It took me a minute to learn that," he said. "I went through a few pounds of brisket to get it so it was so tender a fork went through it."

Part of that success involved perfecting the marinade - a blend of olive oil, pickle seasoning, garlic seasoning and salt. The meat is marinated in the refrigerator overnight; then he smokes it for six to eight hours.

Although Bryant has a barbecue drum at home, he also uses a simple kettle grill. And just about anything goes on the grill, too.

His wife, Sheryl, makes the salads and other sides, though Bryant handles the baked beans, using a recipe he keeps close.

"I'd have to come after you if [you] got that," he joked.

Bryant is a janitorial worker by trade, but his grilling is so highly regarded that he is often asked why he doesn't go pro. His response?

"It's a big joy for me to see people enjoying food that I made. That's why I do this. If it were a job, I think I'd be afraid I'd lose the love for it."

Timing is everything with the grill, and that takes practice. Expect it will take a couple of cookouts for you to establish a routine.

For a big crowd, Bryant cooks hamburgers, corn and potatoes on the same fire as the chicken.

Plan for the chicken to take around 45 minutes; figure on about 20 for the corn and potatoes, and 15 for the burgers and hot dogs.

And if everything isn't ready at the same time, no matter. It's a picnic, and a second round of food is always welcome.

KAREEM BRYANT'S BARBECUE CHICKEN

1 whole chicken, cut up

1 8-ounce bottle Italian salad dressing

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon Italian herb seasoning

Charcoal

Mesquite wood chips soaked in water

Mix together salad dressing and seasonings. Pour over chicken pieces, cover and refrigerate overnight.

To ready the grill: Soak mesquite chips at least 20 minutes. Cover the bottom of the grill with charcoal, then make a mound in the middle. Light the fire and burn until the coals are ash white.

To grill: Add 3 or 4 chunks of soaked mesquite to the hot coals. When the fire begins to smoke, place chicken on the grill rack. Do this carefully, as the marinade may splatter.

Cover and cook. Check the chicken and move the pieces around. Add a few more chunks of the wood when the smoke starts to dissipate.

Observe the color of the chicken; as it cooks, the smoke will begin to give the meat a reddish tint.

The most important step of the recipe, according to Bryant, is to keep a watchful eye and pay attention during cooking. The chicken is done when the juices run clear or a meat thermometer registers 165 degrees. Serves 4.

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