Monday, August 26, 2013

Smoked Pork Spare Ribs

There are hundreds of recipes out there for spare ribs.  If you have one that you like, you're probably not here reading this.  If you have one that's "OK" but you're ready to take it up a notch or two, Welcome!  I didn't realize just how far off the beaten BBQ path that ribs had fallen until I moved from Texas to Minnesota.  Here, I found that people like to boil their ribs in a pot of boiling water, before drowning them in a sauce filled crock-pot "swimming pool" for several hours.... I know, "wow!"  So wrong.

What follows here is my take on the standard "3-2-1" method of slow-smoking a rack (or two, maybe three) of pork spare ribs.

You will need:
  • Spare Ribs.  I like the 3-rack pack of "St. Louis Style" spare ribs from Sam's Club.
  • 1/2 Cup Yellow Mustard
  • 1/2 Cup Honey
  • 1/2 Cup Apple Cider
  • 1/2 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
  • Dry Rub (equal amounts of):
    • Smoked Paprika
    • Brown Sugar
    • Granulated Garlic
    • Kosher Salt
    • Ground Pepper
    • Chili Powder
  • BBQ Sauce (Optional.  I like my ribs "Naked.")


Take one of the racks of ribs out of the pack and have a closer look:

Only about half of this is what will go onto the smoker.  The rest is tips and skirt.  Rib tips are pure gold and they're perfect for a pot of beans or to make Red Beans and Rice!  Keep them once you cut them loose.  The skirt is very lean and shouldn't be thrown away.  Typically, I'll put the skirts onto the smoker alongside the ribs, and pull it off at the halfway point to have a snack or an awesome sandwich (with sliced onions and BBQ sauce on a toasted hunk of TX toast).

Flip the rack over and run your fingers up and down one or two of the ribs.  You'll feel where where the main rib is separated from a smaller tip of the rib bone.  Only a layer of cartilage holds this joint together.  You'll need to cut or trim the main rib rack away from their tips by running a sharp knife along this line of joints:

Once you separate the main rack, set it aside and spend a minute or two cutting your rib tips apart and cutting your skirt into smaller portions.  Freeze them in a zip-top bag for your batch of Red Beans and Rice with Rib Tips later.  

Now, back to the rack... place the rack back onto your cutting board and have a closer look at the back side.  If you look carefully, you'll find a thin membrane of tissue that covers the back-side of the ribs.  You can slow cook this particular hunk of connective tissue but you'll never ever break it down.  It just turns into burnt paper and it prohibits any penetration of dry-rub or sauce into your ribs from the back side, so it has to GO!  Simply use your knife to bring up an edge of this membrane, grab it with a paper towel, and peel it away:

Repeat this process with all the racks you intend to cook and get ready to apply the rub!  Aren't they cute?

To get the rub to stick, I like to use honey-mustard as a base.  People who buy honey-mustard from the salad dressing aisle at the store baffle me, just mix equal amounts of simple yellow mustard with your favorite honey and stir, stir, stir.  You'll have a simple and delicious honey-mustard for 1/2 the cost of that bottle of salad dressing.

Mix the honey-mustard well and apply it liberally to both sides of the ribs.  Get your hands dirty and really press it in and smear it around:

Side Note: If you haven't done this already, you should make and store a generous amount of your dry rub.  It comes in handy whenever you're making chicken wings, brisket, ribs, etc.  You can use my dry-rub recipe if you want, but you might want to "put your own stank" on it too, by trying various other dry spices like cumin, onion powder, or whatever you might like.  I took a mason jar and drilled a few dozen 1/8" holes in the lid (large enough to let out small clumps of brown sugar).  This is where my dry rub resides.  I have a "bulk supply" in a one-gallon container hidden in the dark recess of my pantry so that my neighbor Craig will have some to borrow.  I really should start charging him for that....

Shake on a generous amount of the dry rub, to both sides of the rack(s):

Time to cook!  Bring your grill, smoker, or oven to 225 degrees.  You'll place the ribs over indirect heat so the fire doesn't burn them.  I use big chunks of apple wood in my smoker for this, it adds a sweet flavor and aroma to the smoke.

3-2-1 Go!  The 3-2-1 method of cooking ribs means:
  1. Cook the ribs, uncovered and naked, over low heat (225) for 3 hours.
  2. Cook the ribs, covered and basted, over low heat (225) for 2 hours.
  3. Finish the ribs, uncovered and mopped, over low heat (200) for one more hour.

I subscribe to this method, it has not let me down and it works for beef or pork ribs.  So, close the lid and leave the ribs to cook/smoke for three hours.  Then, open the lid, take the ribs out and place them in a vessel that you can cover with a lid or foil.  For this, I love those disposable foil pans (with lids)!  You can put them in your oven, back onto your smoker, or wherever, and they will hold heat, fat, sauce, or whatever.  Put your ribs into the pan and pour over the mix of vinegar and cider.  I use a ladle to further baste the ribs with the vinegar mixture to make sure they are nice and saturated:

Yes, I know the left edge of my ribs is a little "crusty."  This is Cindy's fault.  She likes the "extra crispy" darker edges of the rib rack so I leave the edge a bit closer to the heat for this reason.  Normally, I'd flip the racks around about half way through the first 3-hour cycle.  Anyway, baste your ribs and cover them, then put them back on the heat for two hours.

After two hours, take them out of the foil pan and place them, naked, back on the grill (or your oven, in a cookie sheet).  Mop on a light sauce if you want to, every ten minutes or so.  I find that they'll be plenty juicy on their own and I love the flavor of the dry rub so I fore-go the mop.

After the last hour, pull the ribs off the heat and cover them (back into the foil pan) to let them rest for at least ten minutes.  Then, all you need to do is slice the ribs off the rack.  Note, I slice from the back side, so I can easily see where the ribs are.

The meat will not fall off the bone!!  There will be just enough "pull" so that you can sink your teeth into the meat and then pull the meat off of the bone with your teeth.  This is called "bite" and you want your ribs to have it.  If you cook them until the meat falls off, they'll just be dry and you won't be having "ribs," you'll be having "hunks" and they really aren't that good, even if you drown your hunks in a crock-pot full of BBQ sauce for 6 hours!

Present your ribs however you like.  I usually just leave them on the cutting board and when the line comes through the kitchen, people just grab some and go!  Ain't no need to put them on a fancy platter or nuthin......

Friday, August 23, 2013

Authentic Chicken and Sausage Gumbo!

Authentic Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

Lots of my MN friends have been bugging me for an “honest to goodness” step by step recipe that will take them to Gumbo Heaven.  I finally had the time to write this up, so here it is.  As with most instructions, I will caution you to read all the way through it once or twice before you head off to the store.  If you have questions, shoot me a comment or an email.  Also, this is more of an “event” than a recipe, it will involve lots of pots and pans and prep, so you may want to get the kids involved and make it a “thing” for a cold snowy Saturday.  If you want it for dinner, you’ll need to start cooking around noon.

Here is your ingredient list:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • Two 3.5lb frying hens (whole)
  • 4lbs RAW Andouille Sausage (This is a tricky ingredient to find in Minnesota.  If you’re planning ahead, you can order it from the internet.  Cub Foods usually has it.  If you get stuck, you can substitute Hot Italian Sausage and 4 additional cloves of garlic)
  • 2 cups finely chopped yellow onions
  • 1 cup finely chopped celery
  • 1 cup finely chopped green bell pepper
  • 8 cloves of garlic, crushed and finely chopped
  • ½ cup finely chopped parsley
  • ¾ cup chopped green onions (tops included)
  • 1 14oz can peeled whole tomatoes
  • 1.5 cups chopped okra (frozen okra will do, but fresh is better if you can find some)
  • 2 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
  • 3 Tbsp Cayenne Pepper Sauce
  • Cooked white rice (for serving)
Here is your equipment list:
  • One large cast iron gumbo pot (I use a 2.5 gallon dutch oven).  It doesn’t “need” to be cast iron, but the even heating that a good cast iron pot (with a lid) yields is particularly helpful.  Generally for most people, this is the biggest pot they have in the house.
  • 4-cup Pyrex or glass bowl with a handle
  • Stock pot large enough to boil two chickens (this is probably your 2nd biggest pot)
  • Large Saute pan
  • Cutting board
  • Excellent, sharp knife

The first thing you’ll need to do is prep all of your ingredients.  The veggies are easy, just chop them all into tiny pieces.  You mix the onion, bell pepper, and celery all together in a large bowl, but the remainder of the ingredients will have to live separately until it is time to assemble the pot.  For the sausage, you’ll need to cook it however you like it; I like to cook mine on the grill to bring in some smoky flavor.  You can pan fry it too, just be sure to pour out any of the fat that develops or you’ll be skimming it off the top of your gumbo later (yuk).  After it’s cooked, slice all of the sausage into bite sized disks and store them off in a bowl.

Boil the chickens in at least two gallons of salted water.  When the chicken is cooked through (165 degrees), carefully strain them out of the water and drop them into a sink full of cold water.  Peel the skin off, shred the meat (by hand), store the meat along with the sausage (they can share a bowl, they’re not racist) and return the bones to the stock pot and simmer until you have a nice rich chicken stock (another hour or so).  Season the stock to taste; it should taste very much like the base to your favorite chicken soup.  Strain all of the bones out, and keep the liquid chicken stock.  You can buy your own chicken stock if you want, but two gallons of it can get pretty expensive.  Besides, store-bought stock is loaded with sodium and you had to cook two chickens anyway, so why not use authentic stock?

Stirring the Roux

Note:  The Roux is the single most important ingredient in Gumbo.  Do not take it lightly, and do not take shortcuts with it.  You should know, it's a pain in the ass to make it properly; but it's a skill any good cook needs so you should try it!  If you'd rather not bother, I recommend Bootsie's Roux, sold by the Mason Jar from the Cajun Grocer.

Any good gumbo starts with a roux (pronounced “Rooh”).  In fact, most good Cajun dishes start with a roux (Jambalaya, Etoufee, Gumbo, etc).  The roux gives color, base of flavor, and most importantly, it serves to thicken the dish.  The roux is what makes this dish a “gumbo,” rather than a “soup.”  It’s important and it shouldn’t be trifled with.  Traditionally, it takes hours to stir a roux properly.  What’s happening is, you’re mixing flour with oil and very slowly, you’re burning the flour.  This is what gives color and flavor.  If you burn it too quickly, it will scorch and you’ll have to start over.  Gumbo “purists” will whisk a roux over a very low heat in a cast iron pan for the three or four hours it takes to turn a roux that gorgeous dark red brick color that we want.  Modern technology has brought us the microwave and I’ve developed a successful method to create an excellent roux using it.

Mix your cup of oil and flour in a glass bowl (I use a pyrex bowl because it has a handle and this bowl will get super-crazy-napalm HOT so don’t say I didn’t warn you).  Use a wire whisk to stir the oil/flour mixture together until it’s a nice uniform consistency.  Now, microwave it on high, uncovered, for 6 minutes.  Pull it out and stir it up until it has the same uniform consistency that it did when you started.  It will be a “dark blonde” at this point.  Our goal is a dark red brick color so, nuke it again for 30 second intervals, stirring like crazy each time.  If the mix separates a bit too much, add a teaspoon or two of oil to bring it back together.  BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN YOU’RE STIRRING THE ROUX!!  It is “rocket hot” so if you splatter any drops up onto your forearms, it will stick and it will blister and it will suck and you will be tempted to drop the bowl which will ruin your gumbo and your day (and your ankles, shoes, shins, etc).  Stir slowly, carefully, often, and with confidence.

When you finally reach the desired dark red color (no more than 8 or 9 minutes of microwaving total), transfer the roux to the big cast iron gumbo pot, turn the heat on, and keep stirring.  You’ll want to maintain the consistency as you transfer it to the pot but for heaven’s sake, be careful because the stuff is hot hot hot!  You’re ready to move to the next step, but keep an eye on it and keep stirring.

Assembly of the pot

Get your sauté pan out and spread some olive oil or butter in the bottom, then sauté the Cajun trinity (your big bowl of peppers, celery, and onions).  Stir and sauté until the onions clarify.  Slowly, stir it into the roux in the Gumbo pot (add a cup at a time).  The roux is still hot and it will sizzle and complain, but that’s part of the fun!  Now add a cup or two of your chicken stock and bring the heat up to a boil.  Stir slowly and add the garlic, okra, parsley, and tomatoes.  There’s a trick to adding the tomatoes, squeeze each one into a messy pulp before you drop them in.  You don’t want little red round orbs in your gumbo.  This is a fine job for the kids!  Let this mix come together over a boil for a few minutes, and then add all of the meat.  Stir it all together, and finally, pour in enough chicken stock to cover everything.  Stir it together and give it a look.  What does it need?  Is it too “chunky?”  Add more stock… Add the pepper sauce and the Worcestershire sauce.  Stir, stir, stir, and taste it.  If it needs salt or pepper, now is the time to adjust it.


The roux will need time to thicken the dish up, so a good bit of simmering will be required.  Once the pot is fully assembled, you’ll need to adjust the heat until the pot is just barely bubbling and simmering (In St. Louis county, MN, we call this “Gonkulating”).  Lid her up and let her gonkulate for two to four hours so all of the flavors come together.  Stir fairly often to keep things from sticking to the bottom of the pot.  This is a great time/opportunity to clean up the epic mess you’ve made of your kitchen!


Gumbo is traditionally served with rice.  I like to take a deep dinner plate, place a scoop of rice in the center, and then ladle the gumbo around the outside, garnishing with a dash of parsley or Gumbo Filet over the rice in the middle.  A stout gravy ladle is best for serving.


Gumbo freezes remarkably well.  I scoop the leftovers into zip-top bags and freeze the bags.  When you want to reheat one, just pop the top off the bag, place the bag in a bowl, and microwave for a few seconds until you can pour out your bag prior to a full reheating in the oven, stovetop, or microwave.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Mean Green Beans and Pickles

Looking back on it, I see that this recipe is strictly vegetarian!  Oh well, I make it a lot and they go GREAT with meat dishes so... pay attention!  This recipe will make some awesome hot & spicy pickles, in a one-gallon container.  I like it because I happen to have a glass jug with a tight lid, that holds a gallon.  It's tough to break this recipe out to 8 pint sized mason jars, but you can try if you want.

You'll need:
  • 1 Gallon Container (glass, plastic, or ceramic) with an air-tight lid
  • 1 Gallon of Baby Cucumbers or Green Beans
  • 1/2 Cup Sugar
  • 1/2 Cup Salt
  • 4 Cups Distilled White Vinegar
  • 4 Cups Purified Water
  • 1 Large Red Onion, sliced into rings
  • 20 Whole Cloves of Garlic
  • 1 "Bunch" of Fresh Dill
  • 2 Fresh Jalapeno Peppers, sliced into Rings
  • 1 Fresh Habanero Pepper, sliced in half
  • 1/4 Cup Whole Peppercorns

In a heavy pot, add the vinegar, water, salt, and sugar and stir to dissolve.  You can dissolve it faster if you use pickling salt, and if you heat up the solution.  However, you'll need to cool the solution to room temperature before you use it.  Meanwhile, find a helper who is creative and who has small hands (hands small enough to fit through the portal of your pickling vessel).  Place a ring of the onion on the bottom of the jar, and stand up the green vegetables around the edge and in the middle of the jar.  They tend to fall over, so you'll need some patience.  You might find that it helps to lay the jar on it's side first, to send in the first "troops."

Once the bottom layer of your beans (or cucumbers) is packed in and standing at attention, add a layer of dill, garlic, peppercorns, and chili peppers.  Repeat the process with another layer of beans/cucumbers followed by the spices and peppers.  Once your jar is packed with veggies and you don't have enough space left to slide in even one single additional green bean, you're ready to pour on the liquid.  Make sure the liquid isn't hot or you'll cook the contents of the jar, and things will end up mushy instead of crunchy! Don't worry, the liquid will not fill the jar, just top off the space with cool clean drinking water.

I like to hold back one last "disk" of red onion for the tippy-top, just before screwing on the lid.  Now, you're done!  Leave it out on the counter and spin it upside down every 12 hours or so.  After 3 days, put the jar in the refrigerator and eat them whenever you feel like it.  When you unscrew the jar for the first time, you'll find the onion there, on top.  That's the best!  Make sure it goes to the guest of honor at the table.

Don't worry if the garlic cloves turn blue.  It's a reaction of the sulfur in the garlic to the pickling liquid.  It is perfectly safe to eat.

Note: As you might surmise, splitting this recipe up across 8 mason jars would be a bit of a chore, considering they'd have to share a single Habanero Chili.  If you make an attempt to cut one of these orange beauties into 8 pieces, I strongly suggest two things:
  1. Wear gloves.  Handling these peppers after you cut them open can turn your next bathroom visit into a long moment of pure agony.
  2. Try to cut and portion the white pith inside as carefully as the orange flesh.  That's where the heat is.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Red Beans & Rice (with Rib Tips)

When I worked in Louisiana (just outside of New Orleans) we used to have lunch at Laverne's Soul Food Cafe.  Laverne never had menus; she just wrote, in huge letters on a big chalkboard, what she cooked on a particular day.  If you walked in and liked what you saw; "Chicken and Sausage Gumbo," or "Crawfish Etouffee," etc, you sat down at the long table and you placed a $5 bill in front of you.  Laverne would walk by and take your money, then put down a plate and dish you out a portion.  If you cleaned your plate, you could flip it over and she would give you a slice of pie on the clean side!  You had to clean your plate first, though... there were no exceptions.  I do miss Laverne!

My favorite dish from Laverne was her Red Beans & Rice with Rib Tips.  I've tried to replicate it over the years and I think I'm really close.  Have a look!

You will need:
  • 2 Bell Peppers (diced)
  • 1 Large Yellow Onion (diced)
  • 3 Stalks of Celery (diced)
  • 2 Fresh Jalapeno Peppers (diced)
  • 1 Leftover Ham Bone (if you have one)
  • 1 Dozen Rib Tips, or hunks of salt pork, bacon ends, or a few ham-hocks
  • 1lb Dry Red Kidney Beans (Not canned.  Canned beans are gross.)
  • 2 Tbsp Cayenne Pepper Hot Sauce
  • Your favorite Cajun Seasoning (I like Tony Chachere's)
  • Fresh Ground Pepper
  • Filet Gumbo (not necessary, but good if you got it)
  • 1/2 Gallon Chicken Stock
  • 1/2 Head of Garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • Lots of cooked rice
Break out your best 7 quart (or bigger) dutch oven or stock pot.  Dump in a big glop of decent Olive Oil and heat it up over Medium High heat.  When it's shimmering, add the Bell Peppers, Celery, and Onion (Cajuns call this base mix, "The Trinity").  Saute this mix, stirring often, until the celery is tender and the onions are translucent.  Season well with Cajun Seasoning and Pepper.  Seasoning mixes usually carry enough salt, so use your judgement on adding additional salt at this time.  I wait until the end to make adjustments.

Once the Trinity is well on it's way, add the Jalapeno and Garlic.  Avert your eyes when you stir it in or you may get slightly "maced!"  :)  Stir to wake up the aroma for a minute or two, your kitchen should really start to smell great at this point. 

Consider the humble rib tip.  Some stores sell rib tips but if they don't you can easily get your own, trimmed from a full slab of St. Louis style ribs.  They don't come from baby-back ribs.  I had recently cooked a 3-pack of ribs that I'd purchased from Sam's Club, and I had several strips of rib tips and other trimmings from that event.  If you can't get your hands on rib tips, you want to look for some ping-pong ball sized hunks of pork.  You can use chunks of leftover ham, salt pork, unsliced bacon ends, or even some ham hocks if you like them.  This recipe makes 8 servings so you'll want enough meat to portion x8. 

Add your pork to the pot and stir.  Cook them with the vegetables for 5 minutes or so, stirring, so the pieces get a light brown crust on them, and they start to turn white. 

Then, add 1/2 gallon of Chicken Stock, bump the heat to HIGH and wait for it to boil. 

While you're waiting, look around to see if you have a leftover ham bone, chuck it into the pot.  Where, on earth, do you get a ham bone like this??  From smoking a whole bone-in ham, of course.  It won't be the end of the world if you don't have one, but HOOO, Boyo, it's better if you do!

Now, let's consider the beans for a moment.  At this point, you're probably thinking, "There is no way this small 1lb bag of kidney beans is going to be enough to be the "star" of this dish.  I should get another bag!  Don't get another bag.  Trust me, 1lb is enough.  Sort them before you add them to the pot though.  Many is the bag 'o beans that has a bean-shaped rock or two in it.  I've seen rocks that are exactly bean shaped that even have a lovely red bean-colored hue.  Get these OUT of your bean pile or you'll be sending someone to the Dentist!

Is your pot boiling yet?  If so, dump in the beans! Also, dump in your hot sauce, and liberally shake on some Filet Gumbo if you have some.  Give the pot a final stir, reduce the heat so a "strong simmer" and lid her up.  Simmer this goodness for two hours, stirring every 1/2 hour or so.  Really get in there and stir it!  Don't be afraid of crushing any beans, the additional starch they release will help thicken the gravy.  I have no idea how that jar of Whisky got into the picture, but it's a good idea to have a snort or two during the simmer.  There's nothing quite like the food breeze of a big pot of beans and Whisky!  After two hours, taste a few of the beans.  They should be soft enough for you to crush with your tongue against the roof of your mouth, but just barely.

When they're done, pull out the ham bone and ladle a big 'ol portion of beans and rib tips over a bowl of rice.  It will be thicker than soup, but will carry an amazing broth!  The bowl pictured here has an extra rib tip (or two) in it and was specially prepared for the cook (along with another snort of Whisky).  The rib bones inside are each about an inch long; don't eat them!  I line them up on the plate, away from the dogs...

I'd like to think Laverne would be proud of this dish.  I imagine her looking over my shoulder and giving me a big hug, over a glass of Whisky.  I only wish she was here to bring pie...

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Smoked Brisket; Texas Style

NOTE:  This entry is long.  I'll try to make it entertaining so you'll read it, but brisket is complicated so it deserves time.  Give it a read, give it a try, your efforts will be well rewarded!

I hear the question all the time, "If brisket is only $1.39/lb at the store, why do they want $15 for a quarter pound brisket sandwich at the BBQ restaurant??"  The answer is, "Time."  Brisket is a tough, fatty, chewy, downright "difficult" hunk of meat to deal with.  To turn it into a tender, flavorful, "beefy," delicious BBQ delicacy takes time.  Figure on at least two hours per pound of time, actually, once you count the time to prep, rest, cook, and slice it.  My rule of thumb?  If you want Smoked Brisket for dinner on Friday night, you better have one thawed out and ready to prep when you're done with dinner on Thursday.

First, you need to buy a brisket to put on your smoker.  Typically, you will find three different cuts or preparations for brisket when you go to the store:
  1. Whole, Untrimmed Brisket.  A whole brisket is tough to find in your average grocery store.  Ask the meat cutter and he should be able to tell you where to find one.  Locally, I find them at Super-Walmart (go figure), Sam's Club, and a few other places.  A whole brisket is composed of a flat piece they call "The Flat," a rather fatty piece they call "The Point" and a lovely topper called "The Fat Cap."  The best "Smoked BBQ Beef Brisket" starts with this; the whole cut, all 14-22lbs of it.
  2. The Flat.  If you're looking at a piece of meat labeled "Brisket" and it weighs in at 3-5lbs, you're looking at the flat portion of a whole brisket.  This popular cut of beef is trimmed from a whole brisket and it's a great deal leaner than the rest.  Being smaller, it's easier to deal with and it doesn't bleed all over your counter when you take it out of the package.  People typically boil or crock or brine this poor hunk of meat and that makes me sad.
  3. Corned Beef.  If you take the flat and pickle it in a salty brine, then boil it for a few hours, you get corned beef.  Corned beef has it's place in the world, but if you see this in the store, and you're thinking about smoking it, you'll wind up with PastramiPastrami is good, but it's a completely different process, since you're dealing with all of that salt and brine.  If you're dying for a Reuben sandwich, or if it's St. Patty's day, buy it.  Otherwise, leave it alone.
So, here's my 16lb whole brisket, still in the cryovac pack.  Looks frightening, doesn't it?  All lumpy and bloody and fatty... trust me, it's going to be delicious!  First step, CLEAN YOUR SINK!  Then slide the meat out of the package into the sink and rinse it with cold water.  Pat it dry with paper towels.  Place it onto a cutting board.  If your cutting board is too small, simply line your counter with plastic wrap and place a clean tea-towel down and put the brisket on top of the towel.  The goal is to have it resting on a surface that is anchored.  You don't want it sliding around while you trim it or you'll cut your fingers and you already have enough blood in your sink from the brisket, so be careful.

Now, flip it over so that the fat cap is on top.  You should have no trouble at all discerning which side is the fat side.  The fat side is white, and full of pure saturated beef fat.  Pick up a sharp filet knife and start trimming it.  Now, let's make no illusions about something.  You are not a butcher.  You have not spent thousands of hours cutting beef.  Don't think for one second that you are going to have this thing trimmed in record time.  Your goal should be to trim all but 1/4 inch of the fat off of this cap.  Your goal is not to have it done in 5 minutes or less.  Take your time, don't cut yourself, and work in small batches if you need to.  don't worry if you cut too deeply into the meat to expose some red muscle, it's ok.  There's plenty of fat in the brisket to go around.  When you're done, you should have a good chunk of fat to toss out, or to portion out and to feed to your dogs.  It's actually very good for the (in small doses).

Ready to rub?  You'll need at least one Cup (8oz) of dry rub.  I like equal portions of brown sugar, salt, pepper, garlic powder, smoked paprika, onion powder, and fresh chili powder.  Whichever rub you choose, make sure it has a good brown sugar base to it because the sugar will melt down and help form a good "bark" or crust on the finished brisket.  Lay your brisket onto a bed of plastic wrap and liberally rub the stuff onto both sides of the brisket and into all the nooks and crannies.

Now, fold the plastic wrap up and around the meat.  Take a new roll of plastic wrap out the box and throw the box away!  The only thing the box is good for is cutting your fingers on that ridiculous serrated knife they put there to "help" you.  Use the roll to tightly wrap a layer around the brisket.  I like to stick a small note on the "fat cap" side that says "FAT" to help me remember which side should go UP when it hits the smoker.

Now, do your best impression of a spider who is wrapping her web around a new fly... tightly wrap plastic around and around and around your brisket until its encased in a plastic cocoon.  The brisket needs to rest for awhile and so some magic.  In the mean time, you don't want it leaking all over your refrigerator or counter, and you don't want to introduce any new bacteria to the puzzle so wrap it well.  You can put it back into the fridge if you want, but you'll need to be room temperature when you start the cook, so......'ll need to do some math (sorry)!  Say you have a 16lb brisket and you want to serve it at 7pm.  You need to figure on about an hour per pound at 225 for the internal temperature to reach 190 degrees.  Why 190?  I know, I know, 190 sounds "burnt" if you're a Medium Rare steak eater but here's the deal, there is a ton of fat to render, as well as a bunch of connective tissue and collagen to melt down.  This will help make the meat tender and not all tough/chewy.  Therefore, you'll need to get your 16lb brisket onto the smoker at 3am on the day you wish to eat it (sorry).  Furthermore, it will need to be room temperature at that time so, you need to allow at least 4 to 6 hours for it to rest on the counter (and out of the fridge).  Therefore, I usually rub/prep my briskets just before bedtime, and I leave it out on the counter for the night.  You can prep ahead of time, but be sure to pull it out of the fridge about 6 hours before you cook it.  Therefore, my rule of thumb (again) is to start your prep 24 hours ahead of the time you wish to eat.

3am to start the smoker??  You're starting to realize why BBQ restaurants price this stuff higher than gold now, aren't you?

Time to build your fire.  You can't cook a brisket in the oven.  Well, I suppose you could, but it would suck.  The whole point of "Smoked Brisket" is to add smoke, right?  I like Mesquite, but I was raised in TX.  Oak works, so does Hickory.  I mix lump charcoal and heavy chunks of wood to create a good fire, then I adjust the air dampers to get the heat right at 225 (plus or minus 10 degrees).  Keep an eye on the thermometer and only lift the lid to check the fire when your dampers are wide open and the temp drops below 200.  I used to check my temp every couple of hours but I finally bought a fancy thermometer with a "low temp" alarm, so now something beeps at me when I need to add fuel to the fire and that's a good thing.

Spin your brisket so that the fat side is up (you should be able to see your sticky "FAT" note through the plastic wrap.  Take a small knife and slit open the plastic so that you can slide the meat out.  During the rest on the counter, some magic happened when the rub met the meat so, be prepared.  It will ooze an awesome spicy gooey liquid "melt" created from the marriage of the rub to the surface of the meat.  Your hands will get dirty!  Now, my offset smoker tends to be hotter on the left than the right so I aim the bigger end of the brisket toward the firebox (and I typically add a layer of foil underneath for a bit more protection from any direct heat that leaks in).  Your smoker may vary.  Don't use foil if you don't have a hot spot, etc.  Insert your temperature probe into the leanest part of the flat, and set the alarm for 185 degrees.  Say goodbye to the precious thing and close the lid.  You will not open the lid again until she's done.

It is important to know that throughout the day, your friends and neighbors will drop by to inquire what that "wonderful smell" is.  It is equally important for you to be near your smoker, with your feet up and a beer in your hand, ready to say, "Oh, just something I'm cookin' up for the evening meal.  It ain't no big thing."

You'll be surprised at how much fat you'll render out of your brisket at the end of the cook.  If you've kept the heat constant, you should see a slow and steady drip of liquid fat (that your dogs will not wait to get into, by the way) into your grease bucket.  This is a good thing, the fat kept the meat lubricated and juicy.  I throw my rendered fat into the backyard fire-pit, it will continue to stoke the "BBQ Restaurant smell" throughout your neighborhood for at least another 1/2 hour.

When it's finally time to lift the lid (Your brisket's internal temperature is 185 degrees), you'll see a huge, dark, lump of meat and it might scare you a little.  Do not worry, it's what's inside that counts!  Take the brisket off (poking as few holes in it as possible, to preserve the juices), and move it to a cutting board, and cover it with foil to let it rest for at LEAST 45 minutes.  Don't worry about it getting cold, there's enough heat in there to last a long time.  During this rest, the brisket should come up to 190 degrees.

Finally... it's time for the slicing!!  Start at the smaller end of the flat and be sure to slice against the grain.  You should see a nice smoke penetration ring of pink on the outside of your slices, and you should be able to pick up a slice, and simply "tug" it apart with your fingers.  Personally, I don't believe it needs any sauce but I wouldn't be offended if you served some on the side for folks.  Serve it plain or with rolls for people to make sandwiches with.  Slice the cap off of the top, and chop into smaller bits to make "chopped beef" sandwiches or to add to your pot of beans.

A 16lb brisket should serve about 20 people.  I'm usually lucky if it feeds 12 or 13.

This article is long, I get it.  Trust me, the more briskets you do, the less complicated they will be and the more you will think, "I can't believe people pay $15.99/lb for this at Country Bob's BBQ!?!"  If you have any questions about my process, please leave a comment and I'll be happy to answer! 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Salsa Your Mouth Can Dance To

I'm a huge salsa fan!  I can't eat it out of a can or a jar though, there's just some sort of weird "processed" taste going on that tastes like the inside of a jar.  I can't explain it.  It's the same weird processed taste that I sense when I eat Queso Cheese dip out of a jar, or soup out of a can.  Ick.  I don't know what's going on over at Old El Paso, Pace, or all the other places that try to capture fresh Mexican "goodness" in a jar, but they need some serious help.

In the mean time, we're left to our own devices if we want good salsa for our chips, burritos, eggs, tacos, etc.  Growing up in Texas, it seemed like every family I knew had a secret recipe for their salsa.  To that I say, "Bueno!"  Far from me to insinuate in the least that mine is better.  You go on with your secret, and keep on doing what you've been doing.  Now, for those of us who don't have gardens full of tomatillos and cilantro, I am willing to share my own recipe for salsa that is so good, it rivals restaurant salsa, so easy you can assemble it all without so much as a knife, and so fast, you can jar up over a gallon of the stuff, less than an hour after you decide you want some!

"It can't be," You say?  "Yes, it can," I say!

Here's what you need:
  •  4 Tbsp white vinegar (I put this in bold because it's easy to forget, but it's IMPORTANT for germ killing and for pickling everything together)
  • 10 Mason Jars or roughly enough containment to hold what you see above
  • 8 Big Fat Green Tomatillos (peel off the "paper" skin)
  • 8 Roma Tomatoes
  • 1 medium yellow onion, cut into 1/4ths
  • 1 medium red onion, cut into 1/4ths
  • 1 bundle of cilantro
  • 1/2 head of garlic (peeled)
  • 3 14oz cans tomato sauce
  • 1 32oz can whole peeled tomatoes
  • 1 whole jar of pickled jalapeno slices (plus the juice)
  • Juice of 4 fresh limes
  • salt/pepper to taste
EITHER (The easy option):
  • -2 Fresh whole Jalapeno peppers
  • -1 Fresh whole Poblano pepper
OR (For more smokey flavor, but harder to obtain):
  • -4 Rehydrated Chipotle peppers
  • -1 Fresh whole Anaheim pepper
Wash everything that's fresh, and cut out the stems and onion butts.  Take all of these ingredients, and dump them into a food processor or a blender.  Blend the crap out of it until you obtain this consistency:

You're done!

You may need to work in smaller batches if your blender doesn't hold more than a gallon!  :)  Just make sure each small batch you work with has some liquid (tomato juice, jalapeno jar juice, etc) as well as some chunks (1/2 an onion or whatever).  Don't worry if your intermediate batches are pink or frothy looking... as long as you dump them all into a huge bowl and stir it when you're done, you'll be good to go.

What's a Tomatillo?  Third cousin to the tomato, tomatillos are bright green in color and bring a very nice "tart" flavor to the party.  Look for tomatillos that still have the paper husk around them.  The best ones have just started to split through their husks like the one pictured here.  They should be bright green and firm, and larger than ping-pong balls.  "Plum sized" is good.  Peel the paper husk off and toss your tomatillos into the blender.  Your hands will get sticky, it's just part of the "baggage" that these little green guys bring with them.  Just rinse and carry on!

What about the "More Smokey Flavor" pepper option?
There's no mystery behind a Chipotle Chili.  It's simply a Jalapeno Pepper that someone left out on the smoker to slowly cook it and dry it out.  If you can find a handful of shriveled up dried out Chipotles, soak them in hot water for a few hours to rehydrate them and use them!  The added smoke flavor you'll get in your salsa will mystify those who consume it.  It's worth the effort to find them.  I'd shy away from canned Chipotles in Adobo sauce though, those bring some fairly bitter flavors to another wise "sweet heat" kind of salsa.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Stuffed Chilis with Bacon (and Ice Cream)

Jalapeno Poppers.  Like 'em?  I do, but I hate the frozen ones.  Something bad happens to fresh chilis when you freeze them, cooking them up again renders them soggy.  Also, commercially processed poppers seem to lose all of their heat by the time they come to your table.  There are so many variables involved when it comes to creating the "Perfect Popper" that I like to make them myself.

What follows here is a recipe I call "Peppers a la Cindy" because my friend Cindy brought me a bag full of fresh chili peppers from the Farmer's Market this past weekend and we stuffed them and LOVED them!  The principals used in the creation of these peppers apply to any chili you choose to stuff.  You can apply this method to Jalapenos, Cayenne, Poblano, Anaheim... even "unkown" peppers (like Cindy's mysterious Farmer's Market peppers).  Enjoy!

How hot are your peppers?  God did not make all Jalapenos the same.  In fact, if you have a garden with Jalapenos and other peppers, bees will cross-pollinate them for you and you'll end up with some crazy combinations of heat and pepper.  You can spike the heat of a bell-pepper or a poblano pepper by growing Habaneros next to them, for example.  Bottom line?  You'll need to eat one to be sure!  Pour a cold glass of milk (Dairy fat wicks the heat away, so milk, cream cheese, or ice cream always helps with recovery), and prepare to take one for the team.  Dice one of your peppers up into small bits and mix them all together.  Take a spoon a scoop up a small bit of pepper flesh, pith, seeds, and all and eat it.  Chomp down to mix it up in your mouth before you swallow.  Make a note of the heat on a scale of 1-10.  If there's no heat at all, you may want to consider a different batch of peppers because this dish is about balance... balanced heat and flavor.

Prepare the peppers for stuffing.  First, you have a decision to make...

Keep them whole?  Or cut them in half?  There are advantages to each method:

 Leaving them whole makes for an awesome presentation.  It also gives your eaters the "full spectrum" of pepper goodness, from the mild tip to the hot "butt" of the chili.  It's a bit more work to cook these, however, unless you have a handy Jalapeno support tray like the one pictured on the left.  Slicing the peppers in half, lengthwise, gives you more control of how much heat you leave, and how much cream cheese you can pile on.  Sometimes, the decision is made for you; it's tough to slice a big curly Anaheim pepper in half, lengthwise, for example.

Once you've decided on how you wish to present them, you'll need to balance them.  If your peppers rated a 9 on the heat scale, you have some work to do.  Take a close look at your chili... The white "pithy" stuff on the inside is where the heat is.  It's not in the seeds, so don't think seed removal will save you.  The trick here is to remove (via scraping, cutting, etc) as much of the pith as you need to make your peppers "just hot enough."  Pith removal also gives you more room for the cream cheese stuffing. If you don't have a Jalapeno coring tool, you can make one by bending an old serrated grapefruit spoon into a cylinder with a pair of pliers.

The rest, as they say, is easy!  Stuff your peppers with cream cheese.  I like to use "Spreadable" cream cheese because it's easier to manipulate, but you can use a softened block of it as well.  If you cut your peppers in half, layer on a thick slice of lean bacon that matches the length of your pepper.  If you're wrapping a whole stuffed pepper, use a very thin slice (or two slices if you have a long Anaheim pepper, etc).  Thin slices of bacon tend to cook where you mold them to cook and they have less of a mind of their own when they hit the heat.  In other words, they won't curl up and try to escape!

Now, put them on a cookie sheet or stand them up in a holder (if you have one), and cook them!  A 400 degree oven for 1/2 an hour should do the trick, but they're way better if you cook them outside on the grill.  Layer a non-stick slab of aluminum foil on a cookie sheet, and put the cookie sheet onto the grill over charcoal.  Close the lid.  Check back every 15 minutes or so, and when your bacon is sizzling and done, the peppers will be, too.  Turn your "whole stuffed" peppers once or twice during cooking to prevent burning, and to evenly crisp the bacon.

These are the greatest "finger foods" ever!  Trust me, there is nothing cooler than watching the sweet little old ladies from your church's social outreach committee, walking around with one of these in their mouths like a big delicious cigar, at your next church picnic.  Be sure to have some ice-cream nearby, to sooth the mouths (and the colons) of those who are "overly affected" by the heat!  :)

Friday, August 2, 2013

Perfect Filet Mignon, for Cheap!

Whenever she made stew or soup, my Grandmother used to tell me, "The best cuts of meat are furthest away from the head or the hoof.  Everything else can go into the pot."  Those are pearls of wisdom, right there.  Think about it, a cow's head is big and heavy and the set of muscles used to move it around must get quite a workout.  That means they're tough, dense, and full of connective tissue (like the Brisket, or Chuck Roast for example).  The muscle in a cow that does absolutely the least amount of work is the one you want, and that's one of the two twin muscles on either side of the back, nestled up against the spine, otherwise known as, "The Tenderloins."

Looking at this picture, the only possible function these muscles could have would be to hoist both of the bovine's legs off the ground and high into the air.  With the exception of a bucking rodeo steer, I can't imagine that most cows would ever use them.  You don't see a lot of cows jumping fences (or moons) on your average ranch.

Buying a bacon wrapped Filet Mignon in a butcher shop these days can easily set you back about $20/lb.  That amazes me.  At Sam's club (or Costco), you can get a whole tenderloin for about half of that.  People get intimidated though, about spending $85 for an 8lb hunk of meat, worried that they might mess it up.  Trust me, it's super duper easy to trim one of these things.  You have two choices:

  1. If you're pressed for time, don't have a sharp filet knife, or are just plain "grossed out" over a bit of blood and fat, you can ask the nice man in the Sam's Club meat dept. to "Trim the fat and silverskin" for you.  He'll do it for free.
  2. Cut it up yourself!  If you can filet a fish, you can clean up a tenderloin.  Rinse it out, and lay it out on a cutting board.  Have a good look at what a finished one should look like, and start cutting away the bits that don't belong.  The meat will help you, naturally separating along seams where you should cut.  Be advised, it is much easier to cut/trim when it's really cold, so this is best done when you pull it right out of the fridge.  You may even want to put it into the freezer for an hour or so first, just to firm things up a bit.  The last step is to shave or filet away the bit of connective silverskin:



Cooking it is the simplest part!  Start with a whole trimmed beef tenderloin, then fold the tapered end back on itself and truss it up to make a nice roast.  You want to be sure that's it's the same thickness throughout (even cooking is essential here, and you don't want to burn the ends).  Cover with olive oil, salt, and a nice cracked peppercorn medley, then roast over charcoal, turning regularly, to an internal temperature of 120 degrees. Pull it off the fire, and let it rest under a foil tent for at least 5 minutes.  Don't skip this part!  Then slice off gorgeous medallions of Filet Mignon, as thick or as thin as you want them!  You are using an oven safe digital temperature probe, right?  It would be a shame to waste a perfectly good tenderloin roast by overcooking it...