Saying Goodbye to Last Year’s Summer

There are many ways people gauge the end of summer.  For some it’s as simple as looking at a date on the calendar.  For others, yearly rituals like closing up beach houses, pulling the leaf rake out of the shed or closing pools serve as a sad indication that autumn, with it’s shorter days and colorful leaves is just around the corner.

Nature of course has her own methods.  Heat and humidity (at least here in Delaware) give way to cooler days, and even cooler nights.  Summer flowers fade into memory as fall colors from mums and sedums start to prevail.  The night sky intrudes more into our daytime as the summer triangle (Vega, Deneb, and Altair) slides from sight and Orion begins to rise in the southern sky.

But some of us have other methods to gauge when summer is over, and indeed it doesn’t even have to be the summer in the current calendar year.  For me, summer 2011 ended on Sunday when the last of the vacuum sealed pulled pork was taken from the freezer.  Having taken a trip to BJs to stock up on some pantry items, Tracey suggested picking up rolls for dinner and hinted that perhaps, just perhaps, it was time to let last year’s summer finally go.

The prep was easy enough, some sliced onions in a pan until they were translucent and then in with the thawed pork.  Soon the tantalizing aroma of smoke, onions and meat was wafting through the kitchen.  When ever I walk into a Yankee Candle store get dragged into a Yankee Candle store by Tracey, I always give a silent prayer that someone there has realized the gold mine they would be sitting on if they would infuse this bouquet into one of their candles.  I hold my breath as I scan down the shelves hoping to find Smoked Pork® between  Sage and Citrus; and Soft Blanket™.  Always to be denied.  Don’t any men work in that place?

Looks good. Smells awesome.

Once the pork was heated through I hit it with kosher salt, two caps of apple cider vinegar and red pepper flakes – and stepped away.  I happened upon this simplistic preparation at a winery one summer where a local BBQ team was set up to serve sandwiches to people out on the wine trail.  Only three ingredients, but each having a very important and distinct role.  It starts with the tang of the vinegar balancing the sweetness of the meat and then the red pepper flakes adding a welcomed, but understated heat to the party.  Salt?  Well salt does what salt always does – make things taste better.  I quickly adopted this method  which I have playfully dubbed “naked” for serving my pork, but I am not a man of strong will power and found it impossible to give up on BBQ sauce entirely.   But I turned this into a positive when I realized that by not putting BBQ sauce on the pork, it was leaving me and my fellow diners the opportunity to take our sandwiches in any direction we individually wished.  After all, what could be better than BBQ sauce – well obviously having your choice of BBQ sauces!

So once the food hits the table, I break out the six pack of BBQ sauces.  I have to thank my friend Lisa for the inspiration here.  One year for Christmas she got me a set of white squirt bottles because I had mentioned how I loved Guy Fieri’s set up with his oils on “Guy’s Big Bite”.  When she bought them, our mutual friend John asked her, “Why are you buying him those?  You know he’s never going to use them.”  Of course John should know better then question the connection between two Aquarians born only a day apart.

The “six pack” stands ready.

Oh he was right, I couldn’t really use them for my oils like Guy does.  I already had a set up for that.  However, I could use them to bottle different BBQ sauces to put on the table.  So I grabbed a couple of my favorite sauces (that’s another post) and a couple I wanted to try and bottled them up.  To make them all transportable, I put them in a Stoudt’s Scarlet Lady ESB six pack holder which is an excellent use for it, second only to transporting six bottles of Scarlet Lady into my house.

Needless to say, the pork was very good and still tasted as smokey as the day I … well, smoked it.  And while I admit it was sort of sad to sit there and stare at my empty plate and realize that my summer of yesterday had finally come to end. I could take comfort that another summer was indeed around the corner and that Tracey was already thinking ahead.

“This was the last of the pork right?”

“Yeah”

“So when are you making more?”

The End of Season BBQ Review

Last Season's Shredded Brisket

Ok, I’ve been promising to write this one for awhile, and I thought I’d better get on it before it turned into the “Beginning of the BBQ Season” post.  For any of you keeping score out there, I think of my BBQing in seasons.  The simple reason being that where I live in Delaware, the winters get to cold for me to drive my smoker to the 225 degrees I need to do BBQ.  It’s far easier to do it in the summer when my smoke box is 120 degrees in the sun with no fire in it.  Let’s run down some thoughts and things I’ve learned last season.

First, I seem to have pretty good control of the basic stuff.  Smoking sausage, chicken (especially wings), pork loin, turkey legs and the similar are pretty straight forward.  I still have things I can learn about seasoning and wood selection, but the basic process is pretty straight forward.  Tracey even came across a recipe for smoked round eye that’s now a regular in my smoking rotation.  As to the big stuff like pork shoulder and brisket…

The oven is my friend.  Ok, the thundering noise you hear in the distance is all the BBQ purists running over to my house to beat me to death with a bag of hickory chips.  And look, nothing is more amazing to me then watching BBQ Pitmasters and seeing Myron Mixon pull off a perfect piece of brisket that he’s been cooking all night in the smoker.  But the reality for me is that I don’t have the time or fuel to run my smoker for the 12-15 hours that’s needed to pull that off.  I’m not blessed with groves of hickory or apple trees at my disposal.  The bottom line for me is meat will stop taking smoke around 140 degrees, and with the smoke box at 225, the delta T dictates that to get the meat from 150 to 190 (especially brisket which “pauses” around 154 when cooking) will take more wood than getting the meat from room temp to 140.  I’m sure there is probably a way I could be more effecient in my wood and charcoal use, but I haven’t stumbled upon it yet.  So in the mean time, I start my meat the night before at around 6pm, smoke it till I need to and then place it in a 225 degree oven over night.  By early morning, it’s done and the house smells amazing (take that Yankee Candle Company).  As for those mentioned pieces of meat….

I’ve got the pulled pork thing pretty well down.  I can get two very nice sized pork shoulders in my smoker.  A generous amount of rub and apple wood smoke and we’re good to go.  The oven method above works well, and it’s usually falling apart on its own by the time I pull it out.  I’ve been spritzing the shoulders with apple juice during the cooking, but a bartender at Two Stones, suggest I try apple liquor.  Not only is the apple flavor more intense, but the added sugar makes the pork bark a little sweeter.  It’s on my “to try” list for sure.  Then we move on to….

Brisket.  This is the king of kings here, and I’m close.  The oven method works well here, but when I do it I wrap it in aluminum foil with a little beer or apple juice inside to keep things moist.  What’s been haunting me is controlling the presentation of the final product.  Most times when you see BBQ shows on TV, the brisket is sliced like a london broil.  But in some places where I’ve had it, it’s shredded like a pulled pork (note : not chopped).  The first couple of times I’ve tried it, I ended up with a very nice slicing product.  However, the last time I tried it I let the meat finish at 200 degrees instead of 190.  I found this shredded a lot better.  Whether I’m on to something or it was a happy accident I won’t know till I try it again, so that will be a topic for a later post.  But as we all know, when it comes down to BBQ…..

It’s all about the rub.  I really liked my rub this year.  I made two varieties, my basic (recipe here) and an “island rub” I use for ribs which is my basic rub with some McCormick Grill Masters packets (baja citrus and mojito lime being two of my favorites) in it to give it some citrus flavors.  I’ve tended to change the basic recipe from season to season and I’m sure this year will be no different.  Where I’m going with it I have no idea yet, but I’m thinking of adding some cumin to it and also maybe some type of sugar – which is something I’ve never put in my rubs.  Oh, and did I mention ribs….

This still seems to be my Achilles heel.  Oh, I cook an OK rib.  But the process is inconsistent and they never seem to get done in the time frame I think they should.  Tracey takes this in stride, joking “It’s ok, I’m used to eating ribs at 11pm”, but it would be nice to have this down better.  This is the one case where I try to finish them totally in the smoker (or maybe a little toss on the grill) and leave the oven out of the equation.  This season I may have pass on the pork shoulder a few times and focus on getting my ribs down.

Well that’s about where I am coming off of last season.  My rubs are almost gone (I use them in just about everything) and I recently took stock of my left over charcoal/wood supplies.  Nothing to do now, but wait until spring comes.

Time for another beer….

The Food Side : Smoked, Chipotle and Maple Chicken Wings

Maple Chipotle Chicken Wings

One  place Tracey and I love to go to for the day or an over night is New Hope Pa.  This town, on the banks of the Delaware River, is a unique collection of old time history and up scale chic.  The main street is lined with small eateries and artisan shops which draw a diverse crowd from high profile shoppers to bikers on any given day.  The town also claims home to Marsha Brown’s Creole Kitchen and Lounge (an amazing restaurant built in a converted church) as well as one of the Triumph brewery locations.  And I would never think of leaving New Hope without first stopping into Susie’s Hot Sauce, one of the best hot sauce stores I’ve ever set foot in.

And as if that wasn’t enough another interesting town, Lamberville NJ, is just a short walk via bridge across the Delaware River.  For you people reading this that live in my area, I know that sounds strange considering our bridge to get over the Delaware is close to 2 miles long!  And for you history lovers Washington Crossing Park, from where Washington made his Christmas night crossing in 1776 is right down the road.

One of the things I love about places like New Hope is that you never know what you might stumble across.  One night while we were walking down the street we passed John & Peter’s, a place that is as unique as it’s blue, yellow and red paint job.  John & Peter’s is billed as the oldest continuously owned music club in the US.  And with live acts 365 days a year, twice on Saturday and Sunday, it’s hard to argue that they are a (if not thee) driving force in the local music scene.

But it wasn’t the music that brought us in that night, it was an item on the menu – deep fried double stuffed mint Oreo’s.  Now I know what you’re thinking, when is this article getting to the wings!  Well, as these discoveries usually go it’s sometimes not about the item that brings you into the restaurant, it’s what you discover while you’re looking at the menu.  And what we discovered was Maple Chipotle chicken wings.

When we saw them on the John & Peter’s menu we quickly decided that people do not live on deep fried Oreo’s alone so we placed an order.  And they were awesome!  The balance of the sweet maple and smokey chipotle was fantastic and so appetizing that we actually debated on passing on the Oreo’s for another order of wings (we didn’t).  So as a person who likes to fancy himself a wing guy, I knew sooner or later I’d have to give these a try.

Ok, first if you’ve gotten this far (thank you) I have to state that if you’re looking for some well spelled out recipe – you won’t find it here.  I’m kinda a “cook by zen” guy.  So I’m going to lay out the basics, and leave you the ability to tweak it to your preferences and tastes – which to me, is the very essence of what cooking is about.

I started by smoking the wings for two  hours with hickory wood.  I thought the smoke from the wood would help support the smoke from the chipotle and give a little flavor to the wing, not just the sauce.  This isn’t a necessary step in my mind, to be honest it was a beautiful  summer Sunday morning and I wanted to light my smoker.  What IS important is that you don’t cook them all the way through in the smoker. You’re just trying to give the meat a hint of smokiness.

Next I hit them with a touch of my dry rub (recipe and info here) and finished them off in a 400 degree oven.  GASP!  I hear you yell!  Yes, I bake my wings.  I find that by baking them in a very hot oven, they turn out crisp, plump and juicy.  Plus, I have an oven handy in my house, not a deep frier.  This shouldn’t take long, maybe 30 minutes.  If in doubt, pull out a wing and check for doneness.

As for the sauce, well that’s easy.  Start with whatever maple syrup you have on hand and I would dare say, the better the syrup the better the sauce.  Next I cut it with a little liquid to get the consistency I want.   I want the sauce to cling to the wings, but not be thick and gloppy.  To cut mine I used champagne, hey it was a Sunday morning so there was a bottle open, but you could use anything you’d like.  And don’t be afraid to use this step to add some flavor and take the recipe in a different direction (PSSSST orange juice).

The Software - As Alton Brown would say

For the chipotle part I used two different ingredients.  First I used the chipotle peppers packing in adobo sauce that you can buy in a can.  I used three or four peppers (make sure you get as much of that good sauce as you can) and chopped them up and added them to the syrup.  The rest I placed in a zip lock freezer bag and popped them in the freezer so I’ll have them for future use.  To give it a touch more spice I added a couple of pinches of McCormick’s chipotle pepper spice.

Now this is where the zen comes in, give it a taste and adjust to your liking.  I like to start with as much syrup as I’ll think I need for the amount of sauce I want and then add the chipotle peppers a little at a time till I get the balance I want between the sweet and the spice.  Then a quick whirl in the blender (taste again to make sure it’s still where you want it), place the sauce and finished wings in a big  bowl and toss to coat.  Serve with  your favorite beer or glass of wine.

I thought these turned out great.  Sadly it’s been a while since I’ve been to John and Pete’s so I can’t be sure how they compare, but I do know that if I had gotten these that night I’d have been tempted to order a second helping as well.  So give them a try and if you come up with any variations that you love, let me know!

Time for another beer…oops, sorry…order of wings.

Brisket, Beer and Badges

Several years ago, my girlfriend cemented her position in my life by giving me a Brinkmann vertical smoker.  I’m not sure how she knew I wanted one.  Maybe it was all the times I sat transfixed in front of the TV with the Food Network on watching guys pull huge hunks of meat from smoking metal contraptions whispering, “man I’d love to try that.”  Or maybe it was her deep, in-tune womanly psyche which in touch with the basic needs of her man.  Nah, it was probably the whispering.

The goal (and the result) - brisket sandwich with onion and horseradish; with a tomato, corn and basil salad.

Well of course I dove right in.  I read everything I could on the internet.  Subscribed to a couple of Enewsletters.  Even bought a couple of books.  Soon I was smoking chickens, sausage and pork shoulders (more on that in a later post) but the mountain I kept hearing I had to climb was brisket.  Brisket is a piece of meat from the belly region, and it can not be cooked anyway but low and slow in order to break down all the fat and connective tissue.  If you try to cook this like a steak, well you might as well dine on your dog’s favorite rubber chew toy.  So I dove in one day and tried it, I think I did fairly well but obviously I still have things to learn.

First it all starts with the rub – the dry rub.  Even if you’re a casual Food TV watcher you’re probably aware the roll that this spice blend has in BBQ.  Spice shelves at supermarkets are full of them, but part of the fun of BBQ is coming up with  your own blends of rubs and sauces.  Mine started as basic creole type blend that I got from a famous Food Network chef.  You can find it here.  Over the years though I’ve changed things either to suit my taste or simply because I found something neat I wanted to add to it.  My recipe this year is below.  I make a big batch every spring and if it lasts the season, I’m lucky. I started with a 4-5lb brisket, liberally applied the rub, wrapped it in plastic wrap and let it sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours. My rub recipe:

  • 1 part Smoked Paprika
  • 1 1/2 parts Spanish Paprika
  • 2  parts Kosher Salt
  • 1 part Roasted Garlic Powder
  • 1 part Garlic Powder
  • 1 part Black Pepper
  • 1 part Onion Powder
  • 1 part Dry Chipolte Powder
  • 1 part Dry Oregano
  • 1 part Dry Thyme

Because you have to cook it low and slow, brisket is not something you can just pop in the smoker at noon and eat at 6.  So I planned to cook it by starting it early in the morning and keeping it warm in the oven until my guests arrived.  Since I like to multi-task when I’m smoking I figured I’d take this opportunity to rack up some Untappd badges that I normally wouldn’t get.  I normally (read rarely) drink the same beer twice in a row, and I count on one hand the number of times I buy a case of something in a year – and most of them are Guinness at St Patty’s day.  So I bought a case of cheap beer (cheap beer is essential when you’re BBQing, it can be used in brines, marinades, sauces) and set the alarm clock to 2am!

I had already set up my smoker so that it was ready to go when the alarm went off.  The water tray was filled, and my charcoal starter was set up with a combination of briquets and lump charcoal.  All I had to do when I walked out on the deck was light a match.  When the coals were ready I poured them into firebox and waited for the  internal temp of the smoker to hit 225.  When it was ready I unwrapped the brisket and placed it in the smoker box and added some water soaked hickory chunks to my fire. Then I cracked a beer.  Yeah, at 2am – I’m a professional, don’t try this at home.

Let me just take a moment to editorialize here – sunrise, with the smoker going is heaven.  Ok, back to it…

At 7:30 the temperature of the brisket was 135.  At 140 meat doesn’t take a lot of smoke any more so I let it creep up to 145, removed it from the smoker, wrapped in aluminum foil and placed it in the oven which was set at 225 – and took a power nap.

The brisket - sliced and ready to serve.

When the digital thermometer read 195, I turned the oven off and left the brisket in it until it was time to serve.  When I sliced the meat it was moist and tender, but  not as moist as I’ve had at some smoke houses.  The flavor was amazing and a friend of mine who does BBQ parties on the side really liked it.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t have any experience with brisket so he couldn’t help with why it was a little drier that I’ve had from other places.

So BBQ fanatics, what am I missing in my brisket prep?  Do I need to mop on occasion?  Put some liquid in when I wrap it in the foil?  What’s you’re trick for making that amazingly moist brisket?

Oh the beers?  I won’t say how many I had throughout the day but here’s a list of Untappd badges I got :

Take it Easy, The Usual, Power Month, Six Pack, Drinking your Paycheck and Brewery Loyalist.  I wanted the Top of the Morning (5 beers before noon), but I didn’t get it.  But I did the next weekend.  Time for another beer – something different.