Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"Succulent Loin of Pork"

When did "Pork Chops" become "Succulent Loin of Pork?"  When a Marketing executive took hold of a restaurant menu, that's when.  People don't go out to eat and order "Pork Chops," but they'll fork over a wad of cash for some "Succulent Loin of Pork!"

Let's call a spade, a "spade," ok?  If you shave the bones off the back of a pig's baby-back ribs, you'll have a pork loin.  If you cut medallions off of this loin, you'll have chops.  If you cut medallions off of this loin from between the bones, you'll have bone-in pork chops.  Sam's and Costco both sell whole pork loins, and if you're careful when you cook them, you can make your own succulent loin of pork for your table.

First item of note, the whole pork loin is NOT the same as a pork "tenderloin."  The tenderloin is an entirely different cut of meat.  It's the "Filet Mignon" of the pig and is much smaller, more expensive, and while it is worthy of it's own show, we won't talk about it in this article.  The second item to note, is that whole pork loins have very little fat in them, and while this makes them exceptionally good for you, it also means they are tricky to cook properly.  Low-fat means "low forgiveness" and you can easily overcook this delightful treat and turn it into a chunk of white leather if you're not careful.  Ready?

You'll need:
  • One whole pork tenderloin
  • A spool of butcher's twine or cotton string, OR
  • An oven safe elastic netting for roasts (available for free from most butcher counters)  Just be sure to get one that is long enough to fit your pork loin.
  • A pound of good bacon (I know, its about the loin but you'll need bacon.  Trust me.)
  • Salt 
  • Pepper
  • Chili powder 
  • Brown sugar
  • Digital oven safe probe thermometer

Open the pork loin package and slide the loin into a clean sink.  Rinse it off, and pat it as dry as you can with a few paper towels.  Move to a clean work surface and stretch it out.  Notice that it kind of "settles" under it's own weight.  To make it easier to transport or to move around on the grill, etc, we'll need to truss it up.  Before we truss, we have a decision to make...  Should we leave it whole?  I love to leave it whole. It makes for an amazing presentation at dinner time, when you bring out that huge hunk of meat, it's a beautiful thing!  The problem is, most folks don't have an oven or a grill that can hold such a long chunk of pork.  You may need to cut it in half.  You could always cut chops off of it, but that's another dish.  The pictures here illustrate a whole pork loin, cut in half "for your convenience."  What you see here is 1/2 a whole loin, trussed in cotton butcher's twine, into a nice cylinder that is easy to work with.

Shake on some salt and pepper to taste, then shake on a fairly liberal mix of brown sugar and chili powder.  Roll the loin so that you cover all surfaces, then...

and here's the fun part, wrap it bacon!  Why?  To serve this dish so that it is truly succulent, moist, and delicious, you'll need some fat to season it.  That's just a fact.  In addition to adding flavor, the layer of bacon also helps seal the loin so that critical juices aren't lost to steam during the cooking process.  How much bacon you add is entirely up to you.  Obviously, I like to go a little crazy.

What you see above is a lot more than a pound of bacon.  Sorry.  I know I told you you'd need a pound of bacon.  I cooked this dish a second time, following my own instructions.  It came out like this:

Either way you choose, you'll need to anchor your bacon with toothpicks.  Stick your toothpicks in on a straight line and count them, so you'll know you got them all out when you're done cooking.

Now, to the heat.  You could put this dish in the oven, no problem.  It would be fantastic and delicious.  Why not bring up the flavor quotient a bit by adding some apple wood smoke from the grill, hmm?  If you do put it on the grill, make sure it's not over direct heat.  Bacon fat + hot coals makes fire, fire makes char, and you'll burn this thing before you know it.  Push all the coals to the front or the back of the grill and lay the loin on the other side, on a nice layer of non-stick foil (non-stick foil is one of the finest inventions of man).  Close the lid and bring your grill (or your oven) to a fairly low temperature.  300 works very well for this application, you want to cook the loin without burning the bacon, so lower temps are better.  Open the lid and turn the pork two or three times during the cooking process so that it cooks evenly.

When is it done?  It's done when the middle of the beast is exactly 145 degrees or hotter.  According to the USDA, 145 is "safe."  The problem is, 145 degrees in pork is a little on the rare side of medium.  Some people are skittish about pink pork and even though it's perfectly safe, they'd rather it be closer to 155.  I pull mine at 150, and then let it rest.  During the rest, it cooks up to 153-155 degrees.  If you bring it to 160 or hotter, you're only drying it out.   The only way to be sure is with an oven safe probe thermometer.  If you don't have one yet, get one!! 

Here she is!  Having rested for about 10 minutes under a loose foil tent, I removed the foil and pulled all 16 of the toothpicks out.  Then I simply sliced off some 1.5" disks.  The juices were evenly distributed and the medallions were flavorful, succulent, super juicy, and as soft as a baby's freshly powdered butt!

I would serve this with a baked apple side-dish that some walnuts in it (for crunch), and with a garden salad that had a tart vinaigrette.  Maybe some bacon-wrapped bundled asparagus, too?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Stuffed Portabella Cannibals

Vegetarians are so funny.  They can be so indignant!  "Good grief Ken, would it kill you to eat a vegetable once in awhile?"  Sheesh.  Ok, today's recipe was inspired by my good friend, Shelly B.  Shelly is a vegetarian, and yet she cheerfully tolerates me bringing an "actual" turkey to her house for her Thanksgiving celebration.  She may have even stolen a bite or two when nobody was looking so Shelly is "Aces" in my book.  Therefore, when I hosted dinner for her, I sat down and worked out something (other than a bowl of steamed broccoli) that I knew she would enjoy eating.

I call these Portabella Cannibals because I cook the stems from the mushrooms, then stuff them right back into the mushroom caps.  It's sick, I know, but they're delicious so...

You will need:
  • 6 large Portabella Mushrooms if you want to serve them as an entree OR a few dozen "Baby Bellas" if you want to serve them as appetizers.
  • Balsamic Vinegar
  • Olive Oil
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Oregano
  • Fresh Garlic (5 or 6 large cloves)
  • Fresh Jalapeno (one or two)
  • Fresh Roma Tomatoes
  • Red Onion (1 large)
  • Panko Bread Crumbs
  • Fresh Parmigiano Reggiano cheese for grating

Yes, I realize that I didn't say exactly how much of everything you will need.  This recipe does not require laboratory precision and relentless predictability.  It's about love!  Besides, how large is "1 large red onion" anyway?  Some of those things are gargantuan so.... hold on, we'll figure it out.  There are lots of pictures, that should help!

First, pull all of the stems out of your portabella caps.  drizzle a ring of olive oil into the caps and set them aside, belly up.  Chop the stems up into a small dice and toss them into a pot with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and saute them (stirring frequently) until they're soft.  Take them off the heat and set them aside to cool.

Finely chop the Basil, Cilantro, Jalapeno, Garlic, and Oregano.  Dump all of the Jalapeno and Garlic into a big bowl.  Grab spoonfuls of the rest until it feels "Right" to you.  You can see in the picture, I ended up with about a cup and a half of the mixture.  It should smell great, if you love basil, go heavy with it.  I'm a cilantro guy so I went with a whole bundle of that, then added a few Tbsp of the others.  Go with your gut.  Drizzle in some Balsamic Vinegar (just a splash or two) and some olive oil.  Mix, stir, and set aside to "mingle."

Next, give a nice fine dice to two or three Roma Tomatoes, and an equal amount of Red Onion.  Toss them in with the herbs and garlic and mix well.  Lightly season with salt and pepper.  How does your kitchen smell now?  It should smell like Tuscany, Italy.  In the fall.... Check your Portabella stems.  If they've cooled to room temperature, you can add them to the bowl.  If they're still hot, just wait a few minutes.  You don't want the heat from the stems to start cooking the herbs prematurely.  Everything should cook together so you can get a better balance of aroma and texture.  Your patience at this stage will be rewarded.

If you've done your job well, the mix will appear to be juicy.  Salt is bringing moisture out of the tomatoes and onions, etc.  If you're worried that it's "too juicy" to make a proper stuffing, then rest easy.  This is why you have Panko Breadcrumbs!  Shake some over the top of your mushroom veggie mix and stir it in.  How much will depend on how well it binds your mix together.  You want a mix that hold its own shape, but just barely.  If you're worried, scoop some out with an ice-cream scoop and gently lay it out on a flat surface.  If it sits there happily, while just starting to ooze out from under itself, you're ready!

Now, it's time to take your lovely vegetable and mushroom saute, and stuff it right back into the belly of the beast from which it came!  Scoop the stuffing out and pack it into your mushroom caps.  Line them up, like little soldiers, on a cookie sheet.  If you have a charcoal grill or smoker, put the sheet over indirect heat and close the lid.  Bring the heat up to 350 or so, using the air intake baffles (more air = higher heat).  You could also bake them in a 350 degree oven.

After they've had about 20 minutes of cook time, check on them.  You want them to soften and to cook, but you don't want them falling apart.  You should be able to use a pair of tongs to serve them, not a spatula and spoon.  When they come out of the oven, the tops should be golden brown.  Quickly sprinkle a light dusting of Parmigiano cheese over the tops and serve while hot!

I apologize for the lack of a "final finished" product; my guests just ate them all as soon as they came out of the smoker.  I literally came back outside from the kitchen and they were gone!  I'm scheduled to make them again, soon, so I should be able to update this entry with a good picture... If I can keep Shelly in a cage or something until I can get the camera.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Smoked Beef Short-Ribs

When I was little, I watched the Flintstones cartoons.  At the beginning, during the opening song, there's a car-hop waitress that brings Fred a rack of ribs that is so big, it actually tips his car over.  I think about that to this day, and now I'm over 50.  "Someday," I think, "They'll clone a Woolly Mammoth and they'll pick me to cook it's ribs!"  That would be a glorious day, indeed.

Everybody is hung up on pork ribs.  Don't get me wrong, baby-backs, St. Louis style, Country Pork Ribs (which aren't ribs at all, by the way, just cross cuts of the pork shoulder), any rib from a pig is certainly delicious, but there's something special about a beef rib.  I'm not talking about the Short Ribs your mom has stewing in the crock-pot either, I'm talking about fulfilling that primal urge to grab the whole damn rib bone out of the cow, holding it like a big beefy club, and gnawing on it, caveman or Polar Bear style.

First, you gotta find them.  This isn't as easy as it might sound, since we're living in an age where most meat is shipped boneless.  What you want to tell your butcher is, "I'd like the whole, uncut beef ribs off of the short plate, please.  Blades of 4 ribs are preferable."  Luckily, my local Sam's Club has them!  Here's what you're asking for:

So... you found some beef ribs.  Congratulations!  Lay out your slabs of ribs (or "plates" to be butcher-friendly) onto your work surface.  I put down a layer of plastic first because my wife won't allow me to install a stainless steel work surface in my home kitchen (yet).

On the back of the plates (inside the curve), you'll find a membrane of connective tissue.  This membrane will not dissolve or "cook away" so it has to be removed.  If your ribs are still good and cold from the fridge, this should peel off in one easy-to-peel piece.  Just cut it loose in one corner with a sharp knife and grab the corner with a paper towel and pull. 

Once the membrane is gone, you'll need to apply some "glue" to help the dry rub stick to the ribs.  I love the new "Worcetershire Thick" sauce.  It's exactly what it sounds like, a Mustard-like version of the classic Worcetershire sauce.  Go ahead and glop on a thin layer as shown.

Shake on your dry rub.  I like a sugar-based rub, and I make my own.  I use equal parts of brown sugar, Kosher salt, ground pepper, paprika, and chili powder.  I might also add a bit of garlic powder or white pepper or jalapeno powder, but I'm keeping that a secret!  Don't be shy with the rub, let her fly.  I would use 2 or 3 cups of dry rub to get all four of these plates covered.

Flip your plates over so the front side is showing, and start trimming some fat.  The "fat cap" is still on your ribs if you bought them "whole" or "un-trimmed."  How much fat to cut is up to you.  There's always a part of me that thinks, "I paid good money for these and I hate to just throw any away."  Try to resist this thought.  What makes ribs so gosh-darn juicy and flavorful is the fat and connective tissue that is deep inside the muscle.  Trust me, there is plenty of it in there.... there's no need to "skimp" on the trimming of exterior fat.

Here's what my ribs looked like after trimming the exterior fat.  If you have a dog, you can cut the fat into small portions and add it to his food over the next few weeks, right out the freezer.  Saturated fat is actually very good for them!  Anyway, once the fat is trimmed from the front side of the ribs, repeat the Worcetershire/Dry-Rub process on the front.

Now that the rub is in place, tightly wrap each plate in plastic wrap and stack them on the counter (away from the dog), and let them come up to room temperature.  Typically, I start this whole process around 6am if I want the ribs for dinner that day.  Once they're wrapped up well, let them sit until noon (4-6 hours).  DO NOT SKIP THIS CRUCIAL STEP!!  Magic happens during these hours; the dry rub penetrates the meat and turns into a spicy/sweet mushy goodness that will become a wonderful "bark" or crust on the exterior of the ribs.

The cooking process will take almost exactly 6 hours.  Get the heat in your smoker up to a consistent 225 degrees.  When you can hold 225, lay the plates out on your smoker (curve down, or backside down) with as much exposure to the smoke as possible. Make sure the thicker side is facing up.

Close the lid and let the ribs sit and smoke, untouched, for three hours.  A good smoker should be able to hold a temperature of 225 for that long without any interference, but you'll definitely want to monitor it.  Do NOT let it get hotter than 250 and certainly don't let it get any colder than 225. 

After your 3 hours are up, transfer the ribs to a large cooking pan and add one cup of apple cider vinegar and one cup of orange juice. 

You should notice a couple of things.  The crust on the outside of the ribs should be getting noticeably darker, and the meat should be starting to pull back away from the bones.  Pour on the cider and COVER the ribs with a couple of layers of foil.  Put them back on the smoker for two more hours.  You could do this stage in a 225 degree oven if you want, but your smoker is already going so...

After the 2 hours are up, take the cover off of the ribs.  Have a look.  Is the meat falling off of the bone?  No?  GOOD!  In the end, you want to be sure that there's enough "pull" so that your teeth can pull the meat off of the bone.  Put the ribs, uncovered, back into the smoker for about an hour to "finish" them.  Brush on a glaze of your favorite BBQ sauce or spritz them with the juice that was rendered during the 2-hour covered phase.

I used my cleaver to cut the ribs into "individual servings" but I certainly didn't need to!  (I put that in quotes because most normal people can't finish a rib by themselves).   A small steak knife would easily have sung it's way through these without any sawing motion, ZING!  Note the nice dark crust (bark) and the dark smokey red color of the meat on the inside.  Also note, most of the fat has cooked away (it's in the grease bucket under my smoker).

They say you should keep your lawyer happy!  Mine was very happy on this particular day, I can tell you.  We had 16 of these monstrous ribs to split between three hungry men (we did have leftovers).

These are so good, you don't really need any bbq sauce.  Some insist on it though, so use it if you want it.  Just make sure it's a vinegar based sauce and that you heat it up prior to use.


Video Summary:

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Smokers and Grills and Eggs, Oh MY!

It's baffling.  Walking into a mega-store that sells outdoor cookers can be super intimidating.  So many styles, so much to consider, so much money to spend, where do you start?  The answer is inevitably up to you, of course, but I've cooked on them all and owned most of them so I can provide you with some facts.  In the end, I'll tell you what I bought and why I bought it, but your mileage may certainly vary.  Here are the most popular pits (in no particular given order) and some notes on each:

GenesisThe Propane Grill: The ubiquitous propane grill is, far and away, America's favorite.  Why?  Convenience, plain and simple.  Push a button, FIRE!  It doesn't get any better than that.  These grills have come a long way in the last ten years.  Hotter burners allow for better searing, "flavor plates" or bars can be seasoned to add more flavor, and the addition of external burners to cook your eggs on is a nice touch.  Still, it's propane.  Propane isn't wood or charcoal.  It's next to impossible to smoke anything or to slow cook anything in there.  Sure, you can use indirect heat to cook something slower than you ordinarily would, but I dare you to try to cook a whole turkey in one of these.
The Charcoal Grill: Every house should have one.  They're cheap, Easy to run, and they're incredibly versatile.  Granted, you have to deal with ash and cleanup when you're done, but these little buggars come in an infinite array of shapes and sizes and you won't have to transport a heavy grill and your propane tanks to the ballgame when you want to tailgate.  There's no better grill when it comes to building flavor on burgers, steaks, and hotdogs; not to mention ears of corn, whole "Beer Can Chickens" and other foods.  The only thing I don't like about them is that its not terribly easy to add more fuel when you need it.  Adding more charcoal or wood means taking everything OFF the grill first and that ain't always easy.  Some charcoal grills have such fuel doors to make that easier.  When/if you purchase one of these, make sure it is as easy to dump/clean the ash as it is to load up with charcoal or wood.  Keeping them clean is essential if you don't want them to rust away.

The Big Green Egg:  You've seen these, right? They're growing exponentially in popularity.  They do one thing very, very well.  They can hold a low temperature (200 to 300 degrees) while using a very small supply of fuel, for hours and hours and hours.  Any experienced BBQ chef would KILL for such a device.  For the cost of a fistful of charcoal and a few sticks of wood, this super-insulated ceramic vessel will sit there and smoke at 225 for all the live long day.  There are only two problems; capacity and cost.  For the money you'll drop on one of these, you could easily afford a commercial steel smoker with 5x the capacity.  Take a good look at this picture.  The dome shape of the lid and the thick ceramic insulation make for a very limited capacity.  I don't know about you, but I frequently cook more than one chicken at a time.  Hell, I couldn't fit a single whole brisket in there without it lopping over the sides.  No thanks.

The Offset Smoker:  Have a good look at this beast.  It looks like a steam locomotive, doesn't it?  It looks like two grills welded together and that's exactly what it is.  The main chamber with the smoke stack is the cooking chamber.  This functions as a huge charcoal grill, if you like, but it's much more than that.  The main cooking chamber will hold your food, while the heat and smoke come from the smaller "firebox" chamber there off to the right.  This allows you to control your fuel, heat, and temperature, without losing heat in the cooking chamber or messing with your food until it's done.  This can be used as a smoker, grill, outdoor oven, etc, and it's loaded with capacity.  It's not without it's negatives though.  For example, the heat that flows from the firebox, through the cooking chamber, and ultimately out the smoke stack keeps one end of the cooking chamber hotter than the other.  This is a tough challenge to overcome if you demand uniform cooking (and most of us do).  More on this one in a bit.

Pellet Smokers: This little marvel of technology solves the problem of having to monitor the fuel and temperature of the cooking chamber.  A computer monitors the temperature and turns a screw-type auger that dumps pellets onto the fire when the heat gets low.  All you need to do is to dump pellets into the hopper, set the temperature, and walk away.  For the most part, this is true.  It can be hard to find pellets to buy, and the pellets just don't produce the same quantity of smoke that natural wood does.  You can't turn this into a charcoal grill either, although some high-end models do allow that.  High end models also allow an infinite temperature setting, rather than a "High, Medium, Low" type of setting.  Expect to pay over $1,000 for a really good Pellet Smoker.

The Bullet:  Isn't it cute?  So named for it's unique shape, a bullet smoker solves the capacity problem by allowing multiple vertically stacked shelves, taking advantage of heat's natural tendency to rise.  Your coals go in the bottom and the smoke and heat rise through the chambers, cooking the food, and out the top.  I like these.  They can be a bit meticulous and cumbersome to deal with though. The door is small, to prevent heat from leaking out, so you need small hands to add coals or to take temperatures.  It's also difficult to extract food from various shelves unless everything finishes cooking at the same time.  Lots of various parts mean lots of things to scrape and clean.  These are easily the cheapest smokers on the market though, and they do a great job and last quite a long time for what you pay for them.

So, what did I buy?  This is the Yoder Smokers "Wichita" smoker.  It was built from 1/4" steel pipe, and everything is welded at the seems so smoke and heat won't leak out.  A removable steel baffle inside the cooking chamber diffuses the heat from the firebox to minimize hot-spots and to even the temperature.  A charcoal grate can be placed in the bottom after removing the baffle to turn the beast into a massive grill.  It's made in America (Kansas) and it has a lifetime guarantee.  Now, I realize that the average consumer doesn't want/need 600+ pounds of wood burning welded steel on their back deck, but it's so much better than the cheap offset smokers that you can get at Walmart for $149.  Avoid those like the plague.  You'll be lucky if it lasts more than one summer, and you'll burn a big 20lb bag of charcoal every 4 hours trying to keep the cooking chamber at 225 degrees.  A good welded steel smoker should hold heat at a constant temperature for a couple of hours at a time, without additional fuel.

If you're serious about getting the "last grill you'll ever need for the rest of your life," you'll need to budget around $1500 for one.  For that you can get:
  • A Stainless Steel Weber Genesis propane grill AND a Webber charcoal kettle (and have plenty of money left over to buy the meat for your first party)
  • A large "Big Green Egg" and a cart to set it in (they're heavy) so you can cook one chicken or a pork shoulder
  • 8 Bullet smokers
  • A welded steel 800lb monster with the capacity to cook from one hot dog to 8 pork shoulders and 4 chickens simultaneously.

If you're ready to "up your game" and jump to a full sized offset smoker, I recommend Yoder Smokers.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sweet & Spicy Bourbon Cherry Ham Glaze/Sauce

Why do you want this sauce?  It's NOT your Grandma's ham glaze, that's for sure!  This sauce will glaze and accompany up to a whole bone-in ham for the holidays! It’s also delicious on toast, English Muffins, Ice Cream, or right from the jar with a spoon. I’ve even used it on a large pork roast with great success. It’s gently sweet with a hint of spicy heat on the back-end. OH, and it smells like Whiskey, which is a very good thing!

You will need:
  • 2 sticks of butter (It's "Good" not necessarily "Good for you")
  • 1 small jar of Marasch├Čno Cherries (with the juice, without the stems)
  • 1 Fresh Pineapple, Crushed (A good sweet fresh pineapple should “let go" of its leaves when you “pluck” them, one by one, from on top)
  • l bag of dried cherries (they're near the raisins and dried cranberries at the store)
  • 12 oz. Good Bourbon (Honestly, use your favorite and not the "cheap stuff" Maker's Mark works well here)
  • 2 Cups of dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon GOOD Chili powder or Chipotle Chili powder (Preferred)
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher Salt
  • 1 teaspoon Fresh Ground Black Pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Paprika (Smoked Paprika if you can find it)
As soon as you get home from the store, dump the dried cherries into a mason jar, and pour on the Bourbon. Put the lid on, and let these set somewhere for TWO DAYS. The cherries will rehydrate and create a glorious cherry bourbon syrup. You can leave them in there for more than two days, if you want. Two is the minimum.

When you’re ready to cook

In a heavy sauce pot, melt the butter and brown sugar together over medium heat, stirring until the sugar is melted and you have a wonderfully dark brown caramelly goo. Pour about an ounce of your Bourbon syrup into a shot glass. Drink it. It's been a long Week and you deserve it! Now, pour the rest of the Bourbon/cherry mix, as well as the Maraschino cherries into the pot. Stir to combine, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a bubbling simmer.

Now to the pineapple... Lop off the base and the top of the pineapple, then (using a very sharp knife) cut off the hide until so you have a cute yellow “plug” to work with. The core of the pineapple is hard and fibrous so it has to go. Slice down through the pineapple, around the core, taking as much of the fruit away from the core as possible. Sadly, the sweetest part of the pineapple is right next to the core so it’s worth being extra stingy about it. Coarsely chop the “good stuff" into smaller pieces and dump them all into a large ziplock bag. Suck as much air out of the bag as you can, before you close it. Now, give your kids a large serving spoon and have them BEAT AND CRUSH that pineapple into a coarse pulp. WHACK WHACK WHACK!! (If you feel like drinking more Bourbon syrup at this stage, it is encouraged).

Add the pineapple to the pot and stir to combine. Bring it back up to a gently bubbling simmer and add the spices. Stir. Simmer for about 10 more minutes, then ladle into Mason Jars and screw down the lids. This will yield 6 cups, or about three jars.  Use it as a glaze to brush onto your ham, or serve it (warm) as a side sauce for dipping.  You could also just leave it in the fridge and not tell anyone about it, and sneak spoonfuls of it late at night, just for fun....

A Word about Chili Powder....

Chili Powder fades fast.  It's flavor and it's "punch" quickly goes away in a relatively short amount of time so if yours has been in your spice cabinet for longer than 6 months, then
A) Shame on you
B) Throw it out and get some more, or

If you buy dried Chilis at the store (they're sold in big bags and they look like dried pieces of leather), you can easily make your own Chili powder.  Just pick a chili that matches your own heat profile.  Dried Cayenne Peppers are most commonly used but you can mix it up.  Let your nose tell you which ones to bring home from the store.  Simply cut the ends off, shake out the seeds, and gently roast them in a hot pan or under your broiler to "wake them up" and to get their oils going.  Then slide them all into a blender and hit the juice till it's powder.  Be careful when you pull the lid off, or you'll mace yourself!  Let the dust settle in the blender first!

Dried Cayenne Chilis are a popular choice, but so are Anchos, Annaheims, and dried Jalapenos (Chipotles).

The powder you make won't look like the stuff that comes out of your average grocery store spice jar.  It'll be a little rough around the edges, but it will taste a zillion times better!  Trust me!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ham! Where do I start??

It’s as if all of the butchers and hog farmers in the world got together and made a pact to confuse the general populace.  First things first, “Ham” comes from a pig’s buttock (left or right).  While a “Pork Butt” might sound like a ham, the Butt (or “Boston Butt”) is actually a pork shoulder.  Confused yet?  It gets better.  If you cut the buttock out of a pig, it’s not called a “Ham” yet, it’s called a “Picnic.”  Some call it a “picnic ham” or a “country ham” which is even more confusing.  What you need to know is this; a “Picnic” does not become a “Ham” until it is brined, salt cured, and cooked (usually smoked).  When you buy a ham from the store, if the label says “Ham,” then it’s already cooked and safe to eat.  Technically, you could bring it home, cut it open, and eat it right away (but it won't taste very good, to say nothing of the rubbery texture).

Curing and smoking your own ham from scratch, starting with a raw Picnic is a chore and while I’ve done it, I don’t recommend it because it’s involved, messy, and it takes days or weeks to do it right.  Therefore, I buy “Hams” and then cook them (ok, “re-heat” them, essentially) at home, adding flavor, etc.

Smoking a ham is one of the easiest things in the world to do.  There is very little prep involved.  You just score the skin (See picture) and put it in the smoker.  Since its already cooked, the only temperature you’re shooting for is one that will kill any bacteria that may have survived the salt cure (doubtful) and one that will allow you to finish slicing and prepping before serving that still feels “mouth hot” when the fork brings it to the hole in your face.  That's about 140 degrees or so.  You will render out more fat too, but low and slow is the best way to reheat it while guaranteeing that it will stay juicy.

Things to avoid at the grocer:

-Spiral cut ham.  This ham is not only cooked, but also sliced (For your convenience).  Since it’s sliced, all of the moisture leaks right the hell out when you put it on your smoker or into your oven and it will dry out like nobody’s business.  If your grandmother ever cooked one of these, she probably opened the oven and basted it every 20 minutes to keep it moist.  No thanks.

-Partial cut or “half” ham.  This will dry out for the same reason.  The whole ham was cut in half (again, for your convenience) and it will dry out for the same reasons.

-Boneless ham.  Since they had to open the picnic up to remove the bone (why?  For your convenience...), what’s left is usually a processed (pressed) “loaf” of many smaller pieces of ham.  This is actually nice if you want to keep it, cold, in your fridge to slice big thick disks off for breakfast frying, but not for Holiday presentation and certainly not to impress a houseful of carnivores at your next party.

So, what do you buy?  “Whole, Bone-in Ham”  Cook’s brand is my favorite. Our Walmart ALWAYS has some very nicely sized (12-14lb) Cook’s whole hams.  During the holidays, they bring out the “big boys” (20-30lbs).  

I smoke 5 or 6 “big boy” hams every year.  Notice in the picture, I used a small paring knife to cut about ¼” through the skin in a lattice pattern.  Then I smeared the whole thing with yellow mustard and a good dry rub (stay tuned to this blog for my dry-rub recipe).  I jabbed in a quality temperature probe (keeping it away from the bone), put it onto the smoker (or over indirect heat on a grill at 225 degrees) and nature did the rest.  I pull it off the heat when the internal temperature hits about 140 degrees.   

Sauce.  Why sauce?  Well, since the darned thing was already cooked when you bought it, your smoker will only contribute "so much" additional flavor to the party.  Once you start pulling the meat off of the bone in the center (and it should just pull away, by hand), you may want to flavor it even more with a sauce.  Favorite sauces for ham usually include something to offset the salt cure like honey, pineapple, cherries, brown sugar, molasses, etc.  For presentation, I usually slice and pull all of this apart and then pour over my ham sauce (also an up and coming article), then put the whole damn thing into the middle of the table where people can dig in!