Falling Behind

The verdant green leaves on the Crepe Myrtles have taken on a rosy red hue.  They fall from the tree at the mere hint of a breeze, lazily fluttering down until coming to rest on the DSC_0018JPG  DSC_0020JPG DSC_0021JPG DSC_0022JPG sidewalk.  These days, there is more raking than mowing.  The stately irises have spent their bright purple and cream vestiges and the hydrangeas are all but done.  A barely noticeable change in the daylight is afoot.

Being a lover of all things outdoors, these changes inspire me.  They mesh wonderfully with my love for outdoor cooking which, is usually the outlet for this new found inspiration.   This weekend however, finds me biting off a little more than I can chew.  There’s a charity event my wife is running for the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford we have to attend tonight.  A hoity-toity affair no doubt, but all for a good cause.  Tomorrow we leave for Carmel to celebrate our anniversary.  It’s pretty dog friendly and we like to bring the mutt.  All this adds up to no BBQ for this weekend, but a lot to think about and reflect upon.

What a wonderful year this has been, packed with a multitude of changes for me.  I’ve switched careers (swapped a 35 plus year career in hi tech engineering for one in commercial real estate), and my wife and I adopted a Havanese puppy in August (her name is Daisy and she is adorable).  These two things alone have changed everything – I am more reflective, a lot less stressed and a lot less rich (hopefully that will change soon enough).

So as Thanksgivings approaches, I think about the things that I really can be thankful for.  My lovely wife, a tireless worker who is cheerful through the worst storm.  The great people that I met this year.  My love for entertaining friends and fabulous Asado’s I cooked.  My family, that weathers my changes with grace and support.  As I wax nostalgically, I know it’s almost time to start prepping the thanksgiving meal, one of my favorites.  I’d love to share it with you, so I’ll be sure to write up the experience.  Until then, Daisy needs to get ready for Carmel.

Daisy and the Sausage

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The Morning After

It’s the morning after the final summer BBQ.  The smoker stands cold and silent, it’s promise delivered, it’s heat dissipated, an almost lifeless hunk of black aluminum and Ribssteel.  Nothing is left but the heady smell of hickory, memories of good friends, great BBQ and a final fleeting summer day.

We (the smoker and I) are ready to have our regular morning after rendezvous.  I know it’s a disgusting greasy mess and I just can’t put it away like that, after all it’s done for me in it’s final magnificent performance.  With a bevy of rags, hot soapy water, paper towels and simple green I approach my old friend.  Around a 5 foot perimeter of it, like shards of shrapnel from an exploded bomb, are little bits of rib meat, grease splatters and gristle.  I truly have no idea how these things happen but they always do.

I carefully lift off the lid and search for a place to put it.  I lay it upside down off to the side on the concrete so as not to stain anything more than it already is.  With great trepidation I peek into the maw of the smoker.  I can’t be poetic about it, that thing is positively disgusting.  The top grate to black with smoke and has bits of the last delicacy I cooked clinging all over it.  The bottom grate is a little worse as it was closer to the heat source.  I remove these two and set them on the newspaper I have wisely laid our on the concrete for this purpose.  This is about the time my wife asks me where the news paper is so she can read it.

Now we are deep into the bowels of the contraption.  In a Weber Smokey Mountain smoker – and probably many other smokers as well, there’s a water bowl component.  In the Smokey Mountain this serves three purposes.

  1. It provides a heat sink between the coals which are directly under the food racks and the target food.
  2. It provides moisture in the form of a little steam to keep your food from drying out while it smokes
  3. It provides the pitmaster with a unique conundrum of what to do with the island of grease and fat that ends up floating in there, particularly after a long cook of a plethora of ribs.

I carefully lift the bowl out of the guts of the smoker and the water, grease and fat glob sloshes around considerably.  Some of it get on my “squirrel whisperer” t-shirt.  That was my favorite t-shirt.  Some of it sloshes on the concrete.  I manage to get the rest of it poured into an old bucket and I set the empty bowl on the paper with the gratbatmanes.

So now I have to figure out what to do with the contents of the bucket.  I can’t dump it down my yard drains, the hardened grease could cause sclerosis of my pipes.  I can’t dump it behind my garage – the Racoons would have a field day back there and mess up my area.  I take it to the front yard.  My neighbor eyes me suspiciously.  I think he knows I’m up to no good.  I can’t just dump it in the gutter.  The fat would stay there for days.

This reminds me of a batman episode where the caped crusader finds a bomb on a pier and runs around trying to dispose of it.  Everywhere he turns he’s thwarted by his moral conscience – one side of the pier has baby ducks swimming by, can’t throw it there… Meanwhile the fuse keeps burning.  A humorous anecdote, but I digress.  I decide to rake a huge pile of leaves in the gutter and when no one is watching I dump the bucket on top of it.  The liquid goes harmlessly to the gutter and the solids are trapped by the leaves.  I pick up the leaves and throw them in the yard waste can.  Problem solved.

Back at the smoker I carefully clean each component with oven cleaner, simple green, and hot soapy water.  I reassemble the smoker in the garage and carefully place the cover on it.  I may still get one or two more final smokes out of it on a California Indian Summer fall day, but right now it’s clean, sanitary and sparkling.

I should add that the T-Shirt cleaned up well thanks to my beautiful wife’s laundry prowess.  The “squirrel whisperer” will be back in action soon.

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I Have Returned…

In October of 1944, a somewhat seasick Douglas MacArthur waded ashore in knee deep water at Layte, Philippines with his entourage.  Soon after, in a prepared speech to the Philippine people, he quipped (out of context, but you get the point) “…I have returned…”.   I am nowhere near as large of a personality as the general nor have I been awarded the medal of honor but – I too, have returned.  You see, I have taken somewhat of a break in regaling you with the latest in a long line of Quincho Project cooks.  I suppose I should explain myself in case you were curious as to why.

In June of 2013 (last June) I quit not only my job, but a career of 35 years in high tech.  Burned out from being overworked in an over-monetized and highly over-hyped technology space, I got my Real Estate license and quit.  My coworkers were baffled.  My boss was beside himself (incidentally, he just quit as well I hear) and my staff was practically in tears.  I pointed my bow seaward and left the safe harbor of the known to God knows where in the ocean of Commercial Real Estate.  Someone once told me that boats float safely in a harbor but they were made for the sea.  So I joined forces with Coldwell Bankers Commercial Team and begin learning the exciting business of commercial real estate at 53 years of age.  Nuts Huh?  Maybe, but every hour I work belongs to me.  I don’t have a steady salary, but I’m meeting lots of people, learning an incredible amount and making my way slowly.

I’ve also just started a new blog called RE Invest – Dedicated to Commercial Real Estate investing and some of the projects I’m involved with.  You can check it out for regular postings on listings we have (both for sale and lease) and Real Estate Analysis tools I find handy, as well as anything I find relevant on the topic.  http://reinvestblog.wordpress.com/ .  Not as exciting as 9 racks of ribs slow cooked for 6 hours and sauced to a mahogany sheen, but hey – I guys gotta make a living.

Here are a few pictures of this summers Quincho Project cooks, with more stories to come:

DSC_0130 DSC_0133 DSC_0145 DSC_0147 DSC_0148 DSC_0149 Ribs


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Your Perfect Tri-Tip Day

At first I think that witty phrases, poetic incantations and well articulated prose are all beyond my reach today.  As I sit behind my sterile desk in my glass walled office wolfing down raw vegetables, half a cold sandwich and a diet Pepsi, my mind drifts off to lazy warm summer evenings, crackling pit fires laden with heavy smoke and perfectly seasoned sizzling tidbits.  The words begin to flow and my imagination begins to stroll through fertile fields.  I longingly ponder a juicy and tender Santa Maria Tri-Tip steak – the high pinnacle and mainstay of real California BBQ – and conjure up memories so vivid I can almost smell them.

I entertain a flash back to the 1950’s when Bob Shutz, the butcher at a Safeway market (the hallowed spot is now an old folks home) in Santa Maria was flush with trimmings for hamburger and stew meat.  He took the bottom portion of a top sirloin usually destined for the grinder, seasoned it with garlic salt and pepper and threw it on the red oak rotisserie along with the rest of the trimmed sirloins.  On this seemingly uneventful red santamaria-tritipletter day, the Tri-Tip was born.

While simple to prepare, this unique cut of meat can be transformed into a piece of one of Akron’s finest whitewalls if not properly treated.  This is a California legacy and should be afforded the loving tender care it deserves.  A real tri tip cooking session is communal affair involving friends, music, beans and garlic bread.  This usually goes on at a ranch or large picnic area but backyards and even balconies are not excluded from the list of acceptable venues.

Your perfect tri tip day is not one reserved for the venerable slow cooking smoke gazers, but a celebratory and raucous gathering.  This day begins with a breezeless early morning when the air is still cool but electric with anticipation of a central California coastal range scorcher.  Your beans are finished and in the fridge.  The garlic bread spread is at room temperature and ready to be slathered on the fresh French loaves you have yet to pick up.  The beer is cold.

Hot cup of coffee in hand, you check to make sure everything is at the ready – no last minute disasters today.  A slow and deliberate walk around the yard and you begin your inspection.  Gnarled and ancient white oaks surround the area in front of the cabin.  Nuthatches and Downy red headed woodpeckers call from the shady branches.  You can smell humble beginnings of an epic summer day.   Way up ahead, in the rocky creek deerfightbottom that runs parallel to the cabin, a small family unit of black tail deer is browsing in the tall grass under the shade of a big stumpy palo verde.  Dog like tracks in the dust of the road are the only reminders of the coyote pack that came through here early this morning at 3am and woke everyone up.  You resist the temptation to stretch out on a hillside and dream the day away, for this is your perfect Tri Tip day!

hillsideThe red oak is split and stacked.  Clean towels are ready.  The grill is clean.  The good friends begin to show up in about two hours – around 10am – to help with the setup and drink your beer.  You’ll see the dust clouds kicked up in the long driveway leading out about a half a mile to the main road before you hear the engines of pickups.   The rest of them will trickle in around 2pm in open jeeps and SUVs.  You carefully selected your meat yesterday and seasoned it generously with a little olive oil, minced garlic, fresh chopped rosemary, some fresh oregano, a few crushed red pepper flakes and plenty of salt and pepper.  It’s been in the fridge absorbing the fresh herbs since you put in there last night, just before your wife called you to bed and told you to quit messing with it for the last time.

A last minute trip to the mountain junction store for ice, bread and fresh green salad veggies with a couple of your “helpers”, usually ends in an apology to the checkout girl who is rather quite embarrassed and not impressed by your juvenile antics in the store.  Once back at the ranch, it’s time to light the fire.  You have some thin dry splintered red oak pieces that you’ve carefully stacked under the grill and those readily take to the flame.  Soon, you feed it some more chunks, progressively larger until you are adding certifiable logs to the ever hungry fire.  By 2pm the rest of your guests have begun to show up.  The fire is spread out meticulously below the grill in the pit.  The grill is lowered and raised with something looking close to a gigantic steering wheel.  When the fire is good and hot – and the flames have receded to white hot coals, you lower your grate to get it ready for the meat.

The beans are on the stove and the garlic bread is ready and wrapped in heavy duty aluminum foil.  Your good friends are engaged in deep conversation in shady spots about the cattle that didn’t come out of the high country, the big deer they saw in the front country and the great big wild pig they’ve only been able to get a glimpse of and aptly named “Boss Hawg”.

It’s time to place the tri tips on the hot grate.  You lower the grate to a spot where you can only hold your hand for a “3 Count” and put each of the tri tips at an angle to the grate – for perfect grill marks.  They immediately sizzle and snap.  After about 5 minutes you will rotate them to make lovely cross hatch marks.  Between beers and tall tales you’ll flip the trip tips and repeat.  Raise the grill up a foot or so and the tri tips are well on their way to becoming memories of a great California BBQ.  These will stay put until you can see pools of juice forming on top of them and they’ve plumped up like little footballs.  It takes some experience to really get the timing correct, but you’ve done it a thousand times – and can tell when they are done by simply looking at them.

The tri-tips come off to rest under an aluminum foil shield for about five minutes and you slice them thinly – at a 90 degree angle to the grain.  This keeps them tender and juicy.   Of course, you always serve your Santa Maria tri-tip with your salsa – a very, very simple concoction of finely diced tomato, onion, some bell pepper, cilantro, salt, pepper and a squeeze of lime.  The crowd descends on the beans, the garlic bread that you’ve grilled, a green salad and your perfect tri tip.  The conversation gets quiet while your guests are turkeysotherwise occupied, and all is well at the ranch.

As the last dust settles from the last vehicle and silence returns to your little ranch, the feeling of accomplishment is almost overwhelming.  A wild turkey yodels in the distance.  Today was your perfect tri tip day.

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Cinco de Mayo, The French and an Excuse to Party


Ignacio Zaragoza

On May 5th, 1862, Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin and his army were taking part in one of the worlds favorite pastimes – kicking the French Army’s butt.   Known as “The Battle of Puebla” this was the end of 8,000 well armed French troops against a mere 4,500 Mexicans.  The celebration of this unlikely victory is what ultimately came to be known to most of us as “Cinco de Mayo”.

Earlier in 1861, the French fleet had landed in Veracruz and chased El Presidente Juarez and his cronies into the hills.  While the May 5th victory was a big boost to Mexican morale, it didn’t take long for the French to overtake Mexico city and install Maximilian as ruler of Mexico.  Soon, the American Civil war winds down and the US focuses its attention on booting the French once and for all out of Mexico.  Napoleon III is fighting a multi-front war (he has that nasty Prussian issue to deal with on the continent) at this point and gives up the ghost stranding our hero Maximilian.  So in 1866 the Mexican guerrillas retake Mexico city with Benito Juarez and execute Maximilian and his friends.  Politics are indeed muy peligroso.


The Battle of Puebla

Why all this history?  Because Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican independence day.  That would be September 16th.  Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of Mexican Culture in the United States and is strongly associated with the South Western states more than it is in Mexico.  The French were trying to break up the union by supplying the confederacy – and any friend of the confederacy was an enemy of the United States at the time.  And so we celebrate as we have been doing for 100 years.

Which leads me (and most of the West coast) to my excuse to throw a hum-dinger of a BBQ party.  This weekend, the Quincho gets its first real workout since it’s construction.  We’ll take the left over pulled pork from our last slow smoking session and use that to build our beans with.  Making beans is a hot topic of debate in the BBQ world – the ones we make out here West of the Rockies are what’s known as “Ranch Style” beans.  Spicy, a little soupy and a perfect accompaniment to Santa Maria tri-tip.  They are quite simple to master – here’s how I make them.  Note there aren’t any measurements as I never measure these things – it’s always to taste.

First, I start with a base of pork.  This is either thick-cut, smoky bacon, left over rib meat or left over pulled pork.  I use anywhere from half a pound to a pound.   Depending on what you use you may need a little oil to get the party started.  Cook this over high heat to render the fat and crisp up the meat.  To this I add a minced onion, a clove of garlic or two and a minced seeded jalapeno.  Continue cooking the vegetables until they are tender.  Deglaze everything with a can of chicken stock.  Let this simmer and reduce by about a third.  I then add a 12oz bottle of Negra Modelo (Mexican dark beer), and a can of Las Palmas Enchilada sauce (the preferred brand in these parts).  Get this to a simmer and reduce again.  Add two cans of pinto beans (drained and rinsed), and a diced ripe tomato.  Let this cook at a simmer for 20 minutes, then stir in about a quarter cup chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lime.  Serve hot with a dollop of Mexican crema.

So break out a cold one this weekend, make some frijoles and grill up whatever comes to mind.  Even if it is something French.  Viva El Quincho!

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Smoke, Zen and Really Great Barbecue

I positively love to poke at a live fire, coaxing a reluctant flame from wood and creating enough heat and smoke to cook a wonderful meal in the great outdoors.  The relaxation afforded me by such a process can not be expressed in mere digital form.  My mind DSC_0118becomes a primal thing, an instinctive instrument for mastering fire.  The right amount of fuel at the right time combined with the right amount of air flow and a heat source creates fire – a perfect triumvirate that is greater than the sum of its parts.

I am a complex and fickle thing however, and cooking over a live fire can (and often does) take second banana to a slow smoked delicacy.  An otherwise indigestible and tough cut of meat can be turned into a thing of beauty when slowly smoked in a WSM 22.5″ double racked bullet smoker.  The key word here is “slow”, so if golf is something you can’t stand because it takes 4 hours to play a round – crafting true slow smoked BBQ may not be your bailiwick. On the other hand, if you like a hobby that involves drinking a cold beer, looking at a black pit emitting slow steady curling smoke and smelling like something just this side of heaven – then you may be a latent seeker of the smoke.  Left alone with only your dwindling thoughts on which to quietly meditate, you may solve the worlds problems while slow smoking a meal fit for a king.

The other weekend I found myself with an entire Sunday that had nothing on the schedule.  These are rare days indeed for me, and after clearing it with my beautiful wife – making sure there were no unknown trips planned for me that day – I settled in to a day spent with the pit.

The beginning of each “smoke” starts with proper preparation.  I had decided on a pork shoulder and procured a beautiful 6.5 pounder from my buddy the butcher at the Italian market.  The night before, I slathered it generously with a ballpark mustard based DSC_0106concoction I created a while back.  I sometimes am partial to the “Dizzy Pig” company’s Dizzy Dust (readily available from them on-line), so I sprinkled this heavily on the meat.  It adhered well to the slather.  I wrapped up my prize with saran wrap and stuck it in the fridge (on a baking sheet as these things can get juice all over the inside of the fridge if you aren’t careful).

The next morning I slowly assembled everything I would need.  There is no rush, only careful movements.  This way you don’t forget anything.  Plenty of briquettes, towels, wood chunks, a remote thermometer and of course, cold beer.  Make a checklist for yourself and enjoy the process.  One must figure on about an hour a pound so by 9am your fire should be lit.

Lighting the fire in a smoker is an art in itself.  Do not do this without an open beer in your hands, lest the BBQ gods get offended.  And they are offended mighty easily.  Lighting the fire without a beverage in your hands is also referred to as a “Party Foul”.  You want to be sure you have enough fuel to burn the whole (or at least most of it) time without creating too much heat.  Enter the “Minion” method DSC_0108popularized by Jim Minion, smoker and BBQ aficionado extraordinaire.  He lights his coals in the middle of a can surrounded by the rest and removes the can so that the fire slowly spreads outwards.  My latest creation allowed me to do just that using a tube fashioned from heavy duty aluminum foil.  When the coals get going I remove the tube and let nature do the rest of the work.

Add the wood chunks, these are your flavor elements.  Match the wood smoke to your target food.  Pork matches well with Oak, Hickory and Alder.  Fruit woods also make an excellent choice.  Once we close up the “pit” and the wood begins to smoke, check the pit DSC_0113temp and find your happy spot.  This is where you will endlessly watch the BBQ and work on your beer.  You want the pit to hit a steady 250 degrees.  This is easily accomplished by closing down or opening the vents on your BBQ pit.  Once we are at the desired temp, you can add the meat.  Make sure you do this with no small degree of ceremony.  There’s no rule here but to marvel at your creation while you send it off to be bathed in smoke.  The next time you see it, it will be a beautiful mahogany color.  A remote thermometer is quite handy to help judge the condition of your meat without opening the smoker.  Pork shoulder “pulls” anywhere from 190 to 195 degrees, so if it’s pulled pork you are after (as was in my case), you’ve got to wait for it.

At this point one returns to his or her happy spot, preferably in the shade and preferably in earshot of some good blues or southern rock.  The Alman brothers, BB King or the Black Keys are a good accompaniment.  Put up your feet and focus on the smoke and the pit temp.  Relax a while.  Take a swig of your cold beer now and again.  If you are more “type A” than this, you may have a BBQ journal and record the pit temp and the meat temp every 15 minutes.  It won’t speed anything up, but it will give you the illusion of porkbuttcontrol somehow.

At the end of the process, the pork is finally at 195.  Note that around 180 degrees, the mysterious plateau appears – and you are stuck at 180 for about an hour.  As soon as she breaks through, you’ll quickly hit 195.

The meat is removed to inside quarters for the pulling.  You’ll find this process quite relaxing as well.  Some use their fingers while some use forks.  The meat is pretty hot so you might want to use some gloves unless you have asbestos fingers.  After you’ve pulled your beloved pork, the whole house will smell of smoky BBQ.  The traditional sauce for this is a vinegar/tomato/sugar/pepper based remedy – made specially to cut the richness of the dish.  Of course the actual ingredients folks use are hotly debated and usually closely guarded.  Just throw some commercial BBQ sauce in there and cut it with vinegar to thin it out if you don’t want to join the debate.

The shredded pork is now added to kaiser roll sandwiches with coleslaw and enjoyed immensely with more beer more conversation and more accolades from friends and family.

Now keep the left overs to make beans, but by all means – if you’ve learned anything – don’t rush it.  Slow BBQ is where all Southern wisdom comes from.  And probably Mint Juleps.


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Klassy Smoking

I’ll admit it.  I am a bit of a snob.  I am even dubious of red wines from Sonoma, anything made in China (except Chinese food) and Canned Spam.  But when it came to finding a cold smoker with the perfect balance utility and price, I swallowed my greater sensibilities and ordered one.  It was called the “Amaz’n Pellet Smoker”.  The mere fact that it had an apostrophe in it’s name was enough to raise a well coiffed eyebrow.  And when I saw it was actually spelled “Amaz’n”, I barely stifled an eye roll and practically passed it by altogether.  But, curiosity (and the fact that it was only about 40 bucks) got the better of me and I ordered it.  Besides, who would ever find out?

About a week later a little box showed up with a bag of cherry wood smoking pellets (which looked a lot like rabbit food) and a small metal perforated device for burning said pellets.  Basically, you fill the device up with whatever sort of wood pellets you want to flavor your target with, light one end with a blowtorch and blow out ensuing the flame after a minute or so.  AMAZN

The pellets are laid in a bit of a snake like row from one end of the device to the other – separated by a small metal wall.  This essentially acts as a “fuse” slowly burning the pellets from one end to the other, all the while generating smoke – for about 6 hours.

So, with a healthy dose of pessimism, last night I rigged the thing up and set out to cold smoke two mammoth blocks of mozzarella.  I filled the unit with pellets from one end to the other.  Using my creme brulee torch, I blasted an intense blue flame in the hole at one end and in about 30 seconds or less the pellets near the hole were burning.  I let them burn for about a minute and gently blew out the flame.  I placed the unit – which was now happily smoking away in the bottom of my 22.5 inch Weber Smokey Mountain (we snobby pit masters call this a “WSM” because it sounds much cooler).  I placed the cheese in the top rack, replaced the cover and went to bed to let it smoke.

I went to visit my project first thing this morning, half expecting to see that the pellets had gone out and stopped smoking.  The yard had a pleasant cherry smoke smell that was encouraging.  I opened the front access door on the WSM – and all the pellets were burned.  I carefully lifted the lid  and – DSC_0095low and behold – two beautiful golden bricks of mozzarella lay before my astonished eyes.  I was sold.  This Amaz’n Pellet thing actually is AMAZ’N.  I quickly vacuum packed my prizes and put them in the fridge to mellow for a week or so.

So if you are looking for an inexpensive, simple, effective cold smoking solution for your cold smoking dreams – look no further than something with an apostrophe in it.  Mighty klassy if’n I don’t say so myself.  Did I actually say Klassy?  God Help me.

Check out https://www.amazenproducts.com.  (I ordered the AMNPS – which is the pellet smoker).  You can cold smoke salt, peanuts, bologna, lox, cheese, popcorn… possibilities are endless.   And don’t let the name fool you.

Posted in Barbecue, Food, Smoking | 2 Comments