Never Give Up

Fall is definitely in the air now. The mornings are crisp, sometimes laden with a little coastal fog that creeps in from Half Moon Bay through a small passageway in the mountains to the west. It burns off in the afternoon to give way to a clear shocking blue sky. Saturday was one of those perfect days. Fortunately I had some plans that involved a long outdoor smoking session on the PBC (www.pitbarrelcooker.com). I’ve wrestled with brisket in the past and never got it to where I thought I would want to serve it to anyone.

A full brisket (also known as a packer brisket) is a huge tough cut that weighs in at around 11 – 14 pounds untrimmed. It is made up of 2 main parts, the Point (or Deckle) and the Flat. It takes a long slow cooking process and patience to get it to break down into a meltingly tender, perfect piece of meat. This makes it a perfect target for traditional slow smoking in the style of Texas. It is also a formidable task to get it done right – some of the larger cuts going for as many as 18 hours.

Brisket has lots of hard fat pockets in it and a fat cap on one side that can be about 3/4 to an inch thick. These fat pockets don’t render during the cooking time and need to be DSC_0549trimmed. So armed with about a dozen videos of how to trim a brisket for competition (there are plenty on YouTube) I decided to take it on. I purchased an 11 pound packer from my local Smart and Final. Up early Saturday morning I let my wife sleep in and went downstairs to begin trimming my prize. It takes a sharp knife and a retentive nature to get this done properly. I felt around the brisket for the hard pockets of fat and carefully cut them out. It was actually somewhat therapeutic, a mechanical motion. When all was complete I had a fairly good looking brisket with enough fat for flavor.

I prefer to slather ribs and large cuts of meat with a mustard slather prior to adding my rub – in the style of Paul Kirk, the “Baron of BBQ”. Here’s how I made my slather (there are several I use, this one works particularly well for Brisket).

The Quincho Project Mustard Slather for Brisket

  • 1/2 Cup Ball Park Mustard (I use French’s)
  • 1/4 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 2 TBS Jack Daniels
  • 2 TBS Brown Sugar

DSC_0552Mix well until everything is dissolved.   Using a pastry brush, coat your brisket evenly.  It doesn’t impart a mustard flavor whatsoever, but it does aid in basting the meat and giving the rub something to stick to.

 

 

The Rub – Here’s how I put it together.  This makes a lot, but that’s ok since it’s good on just about anything (including popcorn).

  •  1 Cup Sugar
  • 1/2 Cup Brown Sugar
  • 1/3 Cup Seasoned SaltDSC_0556
  • 1/3 Cup Garlic Salt
  • 1/4 Cup Celery Salt
  • 1/4 Cup Onion Salt
  • 1/2 Cup Paprika
  • 3 TBS Chili Powder (not a blend, I use New Mexico)
  • 2 TBS Freshly Ground Black Pepper
  • 1 TBS Lemon Pepper
  • 2 Tsp Ground Sage
  • 1 Tsp Mustard Powder
  • 1 Tsp Wasabi Powder
  • 1/2 Tsp Thyme

Whisk Ingredients together and store in a ziplock bag.  Apply liberally to the slathered brisket.  Place the brisket on a sheet pan, cover it with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge.  Go to bed and dream of your time alongside your pit.  Tomorrow your baby will be ready.

Prior to the day of the smoke, I researched timings on smoking the brisket in a pit barrel cooker.  I knew it would be faster than a WSM or an offset firebox style but I wasn’t sure how much faster.  What I did know was this:  Take the brisket to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.  Wrap it in foil with a cup of Beef Stock.  Put it back on the pit until it hits 195.

So armed with my data, I added Oak, Hickory and Apple chunks to my PBC, I hung the meat in the cooker and closed the lid.  Using a digital probe, I don’t have to open the lid to check the meat.  I use a Maverick by Redi Check.  It works pretty good.  3 hours in, I noticed we were at a healthy steady 160 degrees.  I removed the meat and carefully wrapped it in heavy duty aluminum foil along with a cup of beef bullion.   The probe reinserted, I now could watch and wait.  To my surprise, it went to 195 within an hour and a half.  At this point I laid a towel down in my empty ice chest, placed the foiled brisket carefully on it and covered it with another towel.  I closed the ice chest and waited for 3 hours – when it was closer to dinner.  I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

When I unwrapped it I made sure to save all the broth (and drippings as well from the brisket)  into a bowl.  I added 2 TBS of ketchup to the liquid and whisked it together to use DSC_0013 (2)as a sauce.  This stuff smelled amazing, and ranks amongst the best sauces I’ve ever used.  Cutting perpendicular to the grain, I thinly sliced the flat into even slices and poured some of the sauce over the slices.  There was a light, but visible smoke ring around the edges of the slices.  Picking up a slice, I gently tugged at it and it fell apart.  I popped one half into my mouth.  It was incredible.  It had the unctuous consistency of well cooked ribs.  I had finally nailed it!  I was so proud of myself.  I ran a slice over to my wife who indicated how glad she was that she married me.  I wanted everyone to taste it.  I was even ready to give the dog a piece, but thought better of it (much to the chagrin of the dog).

I made some quick mac and cheese to go alongside my creation and all was right with the world again.  I finally conquered the high king of BBQ, the pinacle of pitmasters – the brisket.   All because I refused to give up.

DSC_0553 (2)

 

 

 

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Over a Barrel

In general when it comes to cooking, I am a fan of a big production.  Lots of fan fare, tradition, flamboyance and a bit of a “ta-da” factor.  Like a sculptor removing a cover sheet from my creation to the “oohs” and “aahs” of my guests, I am admittedly guilty of the sin of pride.  A heady smelling smoking pit or a roaring fire to grill on always attracts the guests to the center of attention – where the food (and of course, my bad self) is.

But fickle creature that I am, there are times when I prefer to be alone with my thoughts, a thin blue curl of smoke and a manly beverage – watching the pit slowly work it’s magic and thinking deep thoughts.

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I am a complicated being so once in a while, I just want to smoke a ton of grub without thinking about, tinkering with or watching the pit.  Enter the Pit Barrel Cooker from the pit barrel cooker company in Strassburg, Colorado (www.pitbarrelcooker.com).  I bought one of these on a whim at the beginning of the year in order to keep my hovering over the pit to a minimum at deer camp.  I brought it home after deer season, and found that it’s a hoot of a toy to have around the house.  It truly is a set-it-and-forget-it pit.  These run 289 dollars and shipping is free right from the company.  There is no assembly required.  It shows up and just works.

This weekend I did 6 racks (yes, 6) of ribs while watching football, and never even checked the pit.  Here’s a foolproof step by step of what I did.

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  1. Purchase 2 3 packs of baby back ribs from costco.
  2. Remove skin on the bone side (there are lots of videos on how to do this)
  3. Slather with ballpark mustard
  4. Coat with Sucklebusters “Hog Waller” rubDSC_0547
  5. Insert hooks into the racks
  6. Fill the charcoal basket in the bottom of the cooker with unlit coals
  7. Remove 40 briquettes to a chimney starter and light them
  8. When ashed over on top, pour these onto the remaining coals in the basket
  9. Wait 15 minutes
  10. Add hickory chunks, hang meat on the rods, cover barrel
  11. Walk away and do not look at the pit for 3 hours
  12. Open the pit and take out your ribs.

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If your inner pitmaster has the need for a no frills, inexpensive pit that does exactly what it is supposed to do with no modifications, then look no further than a pit barrel cooker.  And find something else to do while you cook.  Save the big productions for the parties.

 

 

 

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It realy is the Journey – not the Destination

Inevitably in the course of experimenting with new grilling or BBQ techniques, one comes across an unfamiliar required ingredient.  While it might be tempting substitute an easy to come by more familiar replacement, one would be missing half the fun.  Enter Gochu Jang, a spicy Korean pepper paste mixed with fermented black beans and Tae Kyung Red Pepper Powder – A Korean spicy pepper powder.  I’d never heard of this stuff, mind you, but I couldn’t wait to try and find it so off I trotted to my local 99 Ranch, an all Asian Supermarket.

Now this place is no hole in the wall ethnic neighborhood market.  It’s a gigantic exotic Asian food wonderland so brimming with strange smells, dialects and sights that I can forget where I am for hours.  I can also easily forget why I came, so like a food obsessed zombie, I began to lazily wander the aisles of imported sauces, powders, oils and completely unfamiliar items.

There was soy sauce by the gallon.  Huge bags of rice.  Fresh produce.  Piles of herbs.  Gai Lan.  Thai Basil.  Miso Paste.  Black Chickens.  Chicken feet.  Duck feet.  Duck Tongues!  Chicken livers and gizzards, chicken backs and wing tips for stock!  Rabbits!  Quail!  Whole Squid!  Pork Belly!  Ox Tails!  Liver!  Spare ribs!  I was in an absolute frenzy!  These were some things that I would normally have to order from my butcher or fish monger and wait for.

The fish section took up the whole back of the store, and there were what must have been two dozen types of fish.  It was so fresh it was almost moving, and they sold it whole, attractively laid out on ice.  Whole fish is wonderful to grill and easy to buy because you can tell if it’s fresh.  It always makes a dramatic presentation.  There were tanks of live fish and clams.  Crawfish and Lobster.  I had to break out of my fantasy and look for the Korean ingredients, but you have no idea how difficult this was.

Back in the seasonings aisle 30 minutes later I found where they had grouped the Korean items together.   My Gochu Jang and Tae Kyung were waiting for me there.  Inspired by the rows of fresh fish, I decided I would use the Korean marinade on a small whole fresh snapper.

Korean Bool Kogi Marinade

  • 1/4 Cup Gochu Jang
  • 1/4 Cup Soy Sauce
  • 1/4 Cup Sesame Oil
  • 1 TBS grated orange rind (Not traditional, but I like what it does for the marinade.  Get the outer part only with a microplane, don’t use the pith)
  • 2 TBS Mirin or other rice wine
  • 1 – 2 TSP Tae Kyung Pepper Powder
  • 3 Cloves Minced Garlic
  • 3 Minced Scallions, both white and green parts
  • Salt and fresh ground pepper

Mix the ingredients together and take a good whiff.  It smells wonderful.

To use it on a whole fish, simply cut slashes into each side of the fish and work the marinade into the cuts.  Marinate for about 30 minutes and grill over a hot charcoal fire to desired doneness using a fish basket.  You can use firm white fish filets or even shrimp if you want, just cut the marinating time back to 15 minutes and grill a couple minutes a side in the fish basket.  Serve this up with steamed rice and a variety of Korean accompaniments like Kim chi, fermented black beans, spicy tofu and pickled vegetables.

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Next time you run across an exotic ingredient, just take a trip to your local ethnic market and wander the aisles for inspiration and new found knowledge.  It’s like a mini vacation in a far away land.  Maybe if we all did this more often we’d have a better appreciation and understanding of each other.  Grill on!

 

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The Season of the Pepper

The lengthening afternoon shadows, warm days and cool evenings mean only one thing to me.  Fall is fast approaching.  Here on the left coast this also means that we get 2 more months of summer, and these last two months are usually a glorious end to my favorite season.

The summer harvest of fruits and vegetables are now the stars of the quincho and I try and exploit these as much as possible.  Some of my favorites are wood fire roasted chiles that I can vacuum pack and use through out the winter in salsas and sauces, so last weekend I built a nice big fire and roasted red bells, poblanos, jalapeno’s and a few eggplants.  I’m amazed at the number of people that have never enjoyed the taste of a smoke roasted pepper.  Here’s the way I do it, with a little background.

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Red Bells (Capsicum annuum)

Probably the most well known of the pepper tribe for roasting, these sweet and mild peppers make fabulous, soups, dips, sauces and garnishes.  A lots of folks roast them in the oven under the broiler, but the wood grill adds a smoky depth and complexity to them.  Red Bell Peppers and the green ones that you see in the store are actually the same thing, the red ones have been left on the plant to ripen longer.  They have an increased vitamin C content and they are sweeter.  Find large deep red peppers with fresh green stems.  Wash them off in clean running water and dry with paper towels.  To roast peppers, build a hot fire on a charcoal grill.  By the way, you can always roast peppers while waiting for the coals to cool down enough to grill your supper.  Drizzle a small amount of olive oil on the peppers and rub them with your hands to evenly coat them.  The oil helps the skin to blister.  Place the peppers over the hot fire and continue to turn them until they are well blistered and charred all over.  Place these in a paper bag (like a grocery bag) and close the bag.  Let them sit for about 15 minutes.  Dump them out on a cutting board, and using your fingers and a paring knife scrape the burnt skin off the peppers.  It’s quite ok (actually preferable) if you have some nice charred spots on the pepper flesh under the skin.  Slice the pepper open on one side and remove the membranes and seeds.  You can slice the skinned pepper into strips and freeze it for later use, or use it right away.

One of my favorite ways to use my smoke roasted bells are in a middle Eastern dip of Arabic origin called “Muhammara”.  Aleppo lays claim to the dish, but it’s pretty ubiquitous in the middle east.  It’s great with pita chips.  Here’s my tried and true recipe.

Mahammara (Middle Eastern Bell Pepper Dip)

  •  1 1/2 Cups Chopped Walnuts (roast these in a dry saute pan first until fragrant for more intense flavor)
  • 1/2 Cup Bread Crumbs
  • 1/4 Cup Tomato Puree
  • 1/4 Cup Olive Oil
  • 2 Fire Roasted Bell Peppers
  • 2 tbs Unsweetened Pomegranate Molasses
  • 1 tbs Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  • 1 tsp Ground Cumin
  • 1/2 tsp Sugar
  • 1/2 tsp Ground Allspice
  • Pinch Salt
  • Small Bunch on Flat Leaf Parsley, Minced (for garnish)

Combine all of the elements in a food processor and puree until smooth.   Spoon into a small dip bowl and drizzle a little olive oil over the top, garnish with the parsley and serve with pita chips.

Jalapenos (Capsicum annuum ‘Jalapeño’)

The Jalapeno is a firey, fat little green pepper that adds heat and flavor to sauces, stews, beans and just about anything.  While they aren’t the hottest pepper, they do pack a wallop.  A Jalapeno runs at around 2,500–10,000 scoville units – a measure of heat in a pepper.  By comparison, the feisty habanero tips the scales at 100,000 – 350,000 units.  I roast these over a wood fire the same way I do the red bells.   I coat them with a little oil and char the outsides.  These can be skinned the same way as the bells, and the seeds and membranes can be removed to manage the heat.  Usually I roast them, but I don’t peel them.  I’ll vacuum pack them and freeze them for use in ranch beans later.

They say if it tastes good fried, it’ll taste even better smoked or grilled.  That goes double for Jalapeno Poppers.  This requires a gadget called a chile grill (http://toolwizard.com/store/index.cfm/product/75_49/chile-grill—std-shape-12–stainless-steel.cfm), you can get these almost anywhere.  Here’s how I make them.

Smoked Jalapeno Poppers

  • 1 Dozen Jalapenos
  • 1 Small tub of cream cheese
  • 1 tbs Fresh Basil, minced
  • 2 Garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tbs chopped Sundried Tomatoes in oil
  • 6 strips hardwood smoked bacon (thin cut)

In a small bowl, completely mix the cream cheese with the Basil, Tomatoes and Garlic.   Spoon the mixture into a ziplock bag.  Cut the tops off the Jalapenos (use gloves if you are a sissy, or just don’t touch any other part of your anatomy that you don’t want burned).  Using a potato peeler (the cheap kind) scrape out all the seeds and membranes.  Cut off the corner of the ziplock bag and squeeze the mixture into the jalapenos.  wipe them clean of any excess.  Cut the bacon slices in half crosswise.  Wrap a slice of bacon around each Jalapeno.  The thin bacon will stick to itself.  Light a fire in your smoker at around 275 degrees with your favorite wood for smoke.  Smoke the poppers for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.  Serve hot.  These are winners every time.  Experiment with the fillings, I find that there are infinite combinations of yummy things to stick in these peppers.

Poblanos (Capsicum annuum longum)

If you’ve had Chiles Rellenos, that stuffed, battered and fried chile wonder from Mexico, then you’ve had a Poblano Chile.  In California they are mistakenly called Pasillas (which are actually a different chile altogether).  When dried, they are called Ancho chiles.  At 100 – 1500 Scoville units, they aren’t particularly hot.  They are steamed whole or diced in cans under the brand “Ortega” – which are pretty common in the grocery store around these parts.  I fire roast these just like the red bell peppers, remove the skins and cut off the tops.  I carefully scrape out the membrane and seeds leaving the pepper intact.

These get vacuum packed and frozen until I decide to pull these out for the best Chiles Rellenos you’ve had.  They are simple to make – and you can put one on top of a burger for an out of this world burger experience.

Chiles Rellenos

  • 4 Fire Roasted Poblano Chiles
  • 3 cups grated Monterrey Jack Cheese
  • 4 Eggs, yolks and whites separated
  • 1 Cup vegetable oil
  • Las Palmas mild enchilada sauce or your favorite salsa

Cut a slit lengthwise along the pepper taking care to not tear it all the way through.  Stuff each pepper with 1/4 of the grated cheese.  Place the egg yolks in a small clean bowl with a good healthy pinch of kosher salt.  Beat the yolks until smooth and frothy (about 2 minutes) and set aside.  In another larger bowl containing the whites and a good healthy pinch of kosher salt,  use a mixer to whip them into stiff peaks.  Gently fold in the beaten yolks with a rubber spatula and mix.  Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium high heat until hot.  Dump 1/2 cup of the batter into the pan and place a stuffed chile on it seam side down, gently pressing it into the batter.  Dump another 1/2 cup of batter on top of the chile and use a spatula to evenly coat it with the batter.  Leave it alone for about 3 minutes (or until the bottom is a golden brown) and carefully flip it to brown the other side.  remove it from the pan to drain on a paper towel and repeat with remaining chiles.  Serve immediately with the salsa or enchilada sauce.

I hope this inspires you to get out and roast some of summers best chiles.  They store well and you can keep a little of the summer sun in the freezer to pull out on a cold winter afternoon.  But now, it’s time for a nap in the fading summer sun.

 

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The Quincho Project Goes Backcountry

280px-IMG_9864MountHamilton_fxwbIt’s the first weekend of August and a hallowed time of year around these parts.  This is the unofficial beginning of the coastal blacktail deer season.  I say “unofficial” because this is the weekend we head to our mountain retreat in the hills between San Jose and Patterson to prepare deer camp.  Next weekend is the actual opening of the season but it takes us a couple days to get everything dusted off and set up for the next six weeks.  My poor bride becomes a deer hunting widow for the next six weekends.  What a great sport she is.

Our backcountry paradise was discovered when my father and some of his long time hunting buddies saw an add in the paper in 1962 for a deer hunting lease up on Mount Hamilton.  The property itself is made up of 4,000 acres of the most beautiful country I know.  Rolling hills, fragrant meadows of sage and mustard, scattered ponds and forests of deerfightold oak trees make up this classic old California landscape.  Wildlife is abundant here teeming with turkeys, wild pigs, deer, coyote, foxes, mountain lions, rattlesnakes and every other creeping crawling thing that lives in this state.  In fact, one of the last known Grizzly bears killed in the state was killed up here – at the Smith Creek station in the 1920′s.

The road heading up and over mount Hamilton is a steep and winding narrow curvy road, occasionally sprinkled with with red faced puffing bicyclists; knee dragging, death wishing motorcycle enthusiasts and the odd tourist wondering when the road will ever end.  Fortunately for those of us who have business up here, it’s pretty rare to see another vehicle on the road.  At the top of the mountain (4,360 ft) the Lick astronomical Observatory, the first mountaintop observatory in the world, stands (here are some interesting facts about our little spot: http://www.answers.com/topic/lick-observatory). This was once the home of the largest refractor telescope in the world – brought up from San Jose by a team of horses.  You can take a final look over your shoulder at San Jose, now a haze covered mass of buildings far below you.  Here’s where I leave civilization behind and truly feel like I’m part of the landscape.

A few miles down the other side brings you to the tiny Isabel Valley.  This is a little slice of heaven not so far from metropolis.  The winding road gives way to a flat valley floor with a creek running through it.  Great oak trees throw shade over the roadside.  A picturesque bridge crosses the creek.  It’s a very small valley by valley standards and I drive through it in about 3 minutes.  Up and over the next ridge is the beginning of the dirt road and the gate that leads to our cabin.

This year I chose to purchase a pit barrel cooker (www.pitbarrelcooker.com), an upright drum smoker that is pretty much set-it-and-forget-it.  This was a perfect addition to our usual santa maria style grill, which has ruined many an evening hunt for me – standing DSC_0520over it and cooking for the crowd while they get in a final evening hunt before dinner.  Now I can hang the meat, close the lid and walk away until the meat is done – a few hours later.

For opening day I bought a full 7 bone prime rib roast.  There were 14 of us and I wanted to impress them with my new toy.

DSC_0522The roast was ceremoniously unwrapped in front of a dozen wide eyed hungry men.  I slathered it in Stubb’s Beef Marinade and coated it with a pit beef rub I had concocted just for this purpose.  The hooks used to hang the roast in the cooker were carefully inserted into the ends of the meat.

After twenty minutes of burning the coals, they were ready to dump into the bottom of the cooker.  The meat was hung carefully on the rebar rods that go through the top of the barrel and a fresh chunk of oak was gently laid to rest on top of them.  The lid replaced, all we could do now was wait.  It was 4pm and I got some mightily raised eyebrows from the peanut gallery.  I don’t think that they believed it would be done in time, especially considering the snide “It looks like we’ll be having prime rib for breakfast tomorrow morning” comments.  But I remained faithful, and put my trust in the pit barrel (with crossed fingers).  When smoke slowly curled out of the holes where the rebar was inserted, I knew we were on to something.

I walked away and made myself a gin and tonic.  Hunting is so stressful.  At least that’s what my wife thinks.  I jumped in the jeep and took a ride to the pond in the front country to check for signs of game near the edges of the water.  There were several large wild pig wallows where they had rolled in the mud and coated their hides.  A good sign.  A small forked horn blacktail buck looked at me from the edge of the forest.  Another good sign.  Now if only the meat would cooperate, this could be a fantastic weekend by all counts.

DSC_0529When I returned to the cabin and yard, the crew were all standing around the smoking pit with their arms folded.  They were all sure that there was no way the meat would be done for another 4 hours in that little barrel.  I lifted the lid and smoke billowed out.  When it cleared I checked it with a digital thermometer, half thinking that it would be raw.  It was a perfect 127 degrees.  Done!  Even I was shocked.  I removed the meat (dropping it on the coals but quickly recovering before anyone noticed) and brought it inside to rest under some foil for 20 minutes.  I cut the tied ribs off and set them aside.  I sliced the first thick cut – it was rosy pink in the middle and juicy.  It had the faintest hint of oak smoke to it.  I continued to slice steaks and pulled the side dishes together – mashed potatoes, a green salad, some vegetables and garlic bread.  A beautiful feast for a hungry hunter.  Of course I had some horseradish sauce prepared just for the roast.

As evening slowly fell, and the sun dropped behind the oak studded ridges, the sky grew a brilliant deep orange.  Scents of wild sage and mustard were prevalent borne on the wind from the meadows below us.  At the table, the red and white tablecloth was covered with DSC_0535all manner of good things to eat, but the centerpiece was the prime rib, cooked to perfection and a fitting springboard for a fine meal and endless conversation, tall tales and jokes not suitable for mixed company.  I had turned them all into happy, satisfied believers.

 

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Makin’ Bacon

Bacon. It’s everywhere these days. People put it in their ice cream. They line their glass rims with bacon salt.  Its scent comes in dubious personal care products.  They even make air fresheners out of it for the car.  Enough I say.  Enough already.  Bacon does not cure cancer, it does not make mediocre food taste better.  It makes mediocre food taste like mediocre food with bacon in it.

Now with that rant out of the way, I have to say that it’s pretty good stuff.  Every now and then I get the itch to do a little DIY, so I figured I’d try and make it myself.  I got one of those “here we go again” looks from my wife, but she’s a good natured lass and let me at my folly.  Anyhow, I set out to cure up some bacon and I thought I’d tell you how I went about it.

First off, you need to know what it’s made out of. Most of us know that it’s a pork product but what part? Bacon comes from the pork belly.  As it’s name suggests, it comes from the belly portion of the animal.  What sets bacon apart from plain old pork belly (a lovely piece of porcine goodness in its own right) is that it’s cured (and then usually smoked).  Plain DSC_0126 (2)and simple.  It’s not difficult to get and it comes two ways in two flavors – Frozen and Fresh – Skin on and Skin off.  If you want to go to the trouble of making bacon yourself, go to your butcher and get skin off, fresh pork belly.  He will probably have to order it for you and it will likely be a huge sheet weighing about 11 to 12 pounds.  If you want you can cut it into more manageable pieces for working with – you might want to have the butcher do this for you when you pick it up since he can weigh out the pieces.

Now for the curing process.  After a little research into curing at “The National Center for Home Food Preservation” (there is such a thing – the NCHFP), I found out a couple neat facts.   According to the center (I’ll call it the center because NCHFP is to difficult to type),  “Curing is the addition to meats of some combination of salt, sugar, nitrite and/or nitrate for the purposes of preservation, flavor and color.”.  Salt plays a key role in the preservation of foods by inhibiting microbial growth.  The nerds call this plasmolysis.  In other words, water is drawn out of the microbial cell by osmosis due to the higher concentration of salt outside the cell.  Fortunately the growth of many undesirable organisms normally found in cured meat and poultry products is inhibited at relatively low concentrations of salt.  In days of yore, meat was dry-cured with coarse “corns” or pellets of salt. Corned beef of Irish fame is made from a beef brisket, although any cut of meat can be corned.

Most salt cures do not contain sufficient levels of salt to preserve meats at room temperature and Clostridium botulinum spores can survive.  Early on, we started using salt peter/nitrates to inhibit this nastiness, and a side benefit of this was that the meat stayed a pinkish color.  Meats cured without nitrates tend to be on the gray side.  Fortunately for us home DIY’ers there’s pink salt (or Prague Powder #1) which is salt with DSC_0124 (2)a 6.2% sodium nitrite concentration.  These days it really isn’t needed unless you plan on cold smoking at 85 degrees after curing (which I don’t recommend).  I decided to use it to see what it would do.  You use about a teaspoon per 5 pounds of meat.

My cure consisted of 3 pounds of Kosher Salt, 2 pounds of dark brown sugar and a good healthy pinch of pink salt.  In order to flavor it, I added about a tablespoon of cumin and half a tablespoon of red pepper flakes.  I mixed the cure together in a large bowl with my fingers, breaking up the brown sugar lumps.

I added a layer of cure to the bottom of a large non reactive pan, big enough to hold my DSC_0125 (2)Pork Belly.  I placed the belly in it and covered the rest with a thick layer of cure, rubbing it into the meat.  Almost as an afterthought I drizzled some rum and pure maple syrup over the top of it and rubbed it together into the meat again.  Next time I think that I’ll briefly marinate the belly in a rum and maple syrup mixture before I add the cure.

Once the pork belly is sufficiently rubbed and has a good layer of cure on it, cover the pan with plastic wrap and place it in the bottom shelf of the fridge.  This is where a garage fridge comes in handy.  Here it will live for 7 days.  Flip it once each day.  Expect a goodly layer of goo to form on the bottom – this is the salt doing it’s thing by removing the liquid from the meat – thereby curing it.

At the end of your 7 days, the belly will be firm and have almost a leathery appearance.  It DAY 7is now cured and ready to smoke.  Wash off the cure mixture and pat the meat dry with paper towels.  I like to let this air dry for a bit so I set it on a rack on a sheet pan in the fridge for a few hours.  Smoke will take better to this surface.

At this point in the process, I get a little less scientific and a little more poetic – perhaps even artistic in my own way.  Science has reigned throughout the curing.  Plasmolysis gives way to an ice cold beer.  I can put flame to wood, enjoy the thin blue curl of smoke wafting through the yard and meditate on abstractions.   Gone is the lifeless and cold hunk of pork belly I got from the butcher.

Sliced Bacon

Sliced Bacon

Seasoned and cured, I have dubbed thee bacon, greater than the sum of your meager parts.  All that is left to do is subject you to a gentle heat of around 200 degrees and bathe you for a few hours in apple wood smoke while I patiently wait.  An internal temperature of about 150 degrees is our green light to remove the prize from the smoker, slice it in a deli slicer and package the remnants for later use.  There is something ancient and satisfying in this process.  Maybe I have connected with a much more primal and agrarian nature within myself.  Humans have been curing meat for centuries just to survive the lean months.  Of course you can always go to the grocery store now, but somehow I feel that I have provided for my family – to keep us happy through the coming leaner months of winter.

Posted in Food, Smoking | 6 Comments

Something Completely Different

Summer has arrived here on California’s mid peninsular coast, and with it promises of warm days and balmy afternoons. This years Fourth of July weekend was no exception. Old glory barely waved in a light breeze, the smaller birds chirped and twittered and a mated pair of Eurasian doves sheltered in the shade of a mighty oak that hangs over the backyard, no doubt discussing plans for their future family. A picture perfect day for a DSC_0096barbecue with friends and family, plenty of hot dogs, hamburgers and beer – a classic celebration of the land of the free. We live in a great country by any standards, unless you are addicted to cyber chat rooms and subscribe to the ruthless taunting of those with nothing better to do than talk smack about the United States. But I digress. This post is dedicated the pursuit of all things barbecue and the thoughtful prose it evokes.

We are a nation of nations, a melting pot as it were – and I love the opportunity to learn another cultures food and adapt it to the barbecue. My Quincho, an Argentine concoction, is testament to that. So when a good Spanish friend of my wife’s offered to teach me how to make Paella on the grill, needless to say – I was all in. I immediately ran off to my nearest “Sur La Table” cooking equipment mecca and procured the largest Paella pan I could find. She was a beauty, measuring about 2 feet across in diameter.  Such a pan will feed about sixteen people of average to hearty appetite.

Conchita – our Spanish ringer – showed up ready for action and my mind was a sponge, awaiting the secrets of such a time honored dish. She began by inspecting the grill. She was very satisfied it would do the job (in fact she was rather impressed, which made me right proud).  I surveyed her ingredients and took careful notes, expecting exotic combinations and unfamiliar spices.  I constructed a list as I inventoried them.  This was to be a seafood paella.  There are many other types, and I will likely whip up my own version in the near future as I get better at it.  The measurements below are the best I could surmise based on the way Conchita made it.  They are close enough.  Do take note that these measurements are for a big pan as described above, if yours is smaller adjust accordingly.

  • 3 Crabs – cooked and cracked
  • 24 Scallops
  • 44 Prawns
  • 20 Squid Cleaned and the body portion sliced into rings.  For some reason she didn’t use the tentacles.  I would.
  • 20 Small Clams, washed and cleaned of any sand and grit
  • 2 Red Peppers, chopped
  • 2 Small Onions, choppedDSC_0086
  • 2 Heads Garlic, minced – Mama Mia!
  • 2 small cans of green peas (with the juices)
  • About a Teaspoon of Saffron Threads
  • An entire box of Uncle Ben’s Rice.  Whoa.  Wait – Uncle Ben’s?  I was expecting Bomba or Arborio – She swears by this stuff because it doesn’t stick.  And trust me – she is right. Use twice as much hot water as rice, reserving one cup.
  • 10 Oz jar of martini olives
  • Half a bottle of Chardonay
  • Corn Oil – Not Olive Oil – she says it’s too strong.

First you must build your fire.  This simple act trips up more people than you would think, DSC_0072 (2)myself included.  Why?  Because the size of the fire (or amount of lit coals) is going to set the tone for your cook.  Heat + Food = Cooking, right?  Well likewise, too much heat + food = burning.  Building a fire is a manly pursuit and as in all things manly bigger is better, so we endeavor to build a great pyre.  Here’s where a woman’s touch teaches us to calm down.  Pay attention as this will serve you well in other barbecues to come.  Your fire should be big enough to bring these ingredients to a simmer, but since they will simmer for an hour, not so big as to scorch those on the bottom.  Enough Said.  Once the coals have ashed over, spread them in a circle about the size of your pan.

Place the pan over the fire and coat the bottom with oil.  When the oil is hot add your onions and bell peppers.  They should sizzle and begin to cook.  When translucent and

The Master Stirring it Up

The Master Stirring it Up

soft, add your garlic.  Keep things moving here because we don’t want the garlic to burn.  After about a minute, add your squid.  Cook this for about 3 minutes.

Add the crab and stir again.  Sprinkle the rice evenly over the top of the crab.  Do not stir.  Take the cup of hot water you reserved and stir the saffron into it.  Let this sit for about 5 minutes.  Add the infused Saffron water to the rest of the water and add the water to your pan over the rice.  Do Not Stir.

Now add the shrimp by placing them one at a time around the pan.  Do Not Stir.  Add the scallops the same way.  Do Not Stir.  Add the clams and the peas.  Do not Stir.

We wait for the rice to begin to absorb the simmering liquid.  After about 30 minutes you should be able to see the rice again.  Loosely cover the pan with aluminum foil.  After about 10 minutes add the wine and replace the foil.  After 20 minutes, remove the foil and place the Olives around the pan one at a time.  The rice should be plump and thoroughly cooked and the clams should all be opened.  Discard any closed ones.

DSC_0087Your paella is now ready to serve.  This is exactly the way I learned it from Conchita.   Feel free to experiment – use chicken and sausage, whatever you find interesting.

Like America, paella is a great melting pot of cultures, tastes and textures with a common theme (rice/freedom) bringing it all together.  And like America, you are bound to have a few closed clams – but why focus on them when the dish is so wonderful?  Happy Fourth of July to everyone.  Cheers.

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Posted in Barbecue, Food, Grill, Quincho | 3 Comments