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Celebrating the joys of summer barbecue

By Shelly Ridenour

MAY 24, 1999:  I grew up at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, where impromptu cook-outs are par for the course - from the moment school lets out all the way through the fabled, leaf-turning fall. First stop: one of the family-owned markets ("Kuntry breakfast: sausage 'n' biscuit for 99 cents - free with car wash!") along the Dolly Parton Parkway, for some hot dogs and buns; next, KFC for potato salad and cole slaw. A bag of charcoal and lighter fluid should just be in the trunk to begin with.

All along the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are darkly wooded inlets-cum-picnic grounds, with names like The Chimneys and Cades Cove, perfect for playful family outings, romantic rendezvous and drunken teenage bacchanals. These are the kind of Polaroid-perfect places you see in tourist brochures, with shy deer peeking between the trees, a soundtrack of rushing stream water, the occasional bear sighting, decently clean bathroom facilities and built-in concrete hibachis.

In other words, a far cry from my current cook-out digs: a wooden porch on the backside of a Milwaukee Avenue loft, overlooking the scenic Blue Line tracks, with a bathroom of questionable decency. It is not so unusual to come across the native wildlife at the ground level, perhaps a couple of half-clothed lesbians sharing a crack pipe, perhaps a couple of homeless men - once even the guy who sometimes tries to sell me copies of Newcity by the six-corners ATM - sharing a brown bag. Though I always dreamed I would grow up to have sophisticated cook-outs of perfectly kebabed meats and vegetables, the likely suspects are Polish red hots and a bag of Doritos.

But it doesn't have to be - and, to be fair, isn't always - that way. While I'm not nearly ambitious enough to copy the backyard bash my friend attended last summer, where the guest of honor was a whole goat on a spit, there are fairly simple ways to elevate your cook-out menu above Drew Carey- and Homer Simpson-style fare.

Even though grilled pork tenderloin is one of my favorite things ever, I don't usually trust myself - or rather, my patience - to cook it. A safer bet is shrimp, which doesn't take so long and can be dressed up with a simple Japanese Ponzu sauce. For 10 ounces of shrimp (which serves two quite generously), whisk together 3 tablespoons each of soy sauce, rice wine and lemon juice; 2 tablespoons olive oil; 1 tablespoon chopped, fresh ginger; and 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel. While your coals are heating up, marinate the shrimp in the sauce for at least ten minutes, drain (save the excess if you want to serve it over finished dish, but remember to boil it first), and grill until opaque - usually just three minutes for extra-large shrimp.

Should vegetarian friends drop by (although, come on, it's a cook-out - what do they expect?), treat them to a smoked tomato sandwich that would make Harriet the Spy proud. With a gas grill, smoking time for a whole tomato (yes, unsliced) is only ten-twelve minutes; plain old charcoal can take up to an hour. While the sliced (and seeded, if you prefer), fresh-off-the-grill tomatoes are chilling in the fridge, spray or lightly spread thick slices of crusty Italian bread with olive oil. Place oil-side down on grate, two-three minutes or until as toasty-brown or black as you like. A slice of goat cheese makes it just right; mayo is optional, but don't forget the salt.

To impress your friends and drive your neighbors crazy with the heavenly aroma, try grilled banana splits. Mix a half-stick of melted and cooled butter and 1/4-cup of brown sugar; peel four firm bananas and halve lengthwise, then coat with butter-sugar mix. Grill on oiled rack until brown and cooked through, about two minutes for each side. Top with ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream if you want to go all out; to really impress friends, don't skimp on the ice cream - Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk and Bovinity Divinity are always crowd-pleasers.

Even if your wallet and energy only limit you to Oscar Mayer's best, you can still teach an old dog new tricks by grilling some garlic, too - peel cloves, brush with olive oil, wrap in aluminum foil and roast until tender.

As for the issue of scenic location, well, I'm still waiting for the Chicago Park District to install hibachis or pits or something safer and more convenient than a portable Osco cheapy grill. Hmph.

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