Monday, September 23, 2013

Prepping and Smoking "Melt in Your Mouth" Chicken

Some people are squeamish about butchering chicken.  Well, it's time to "Man-Up" and get your hands dirty because we're going to be butchering some chicken in this article.  Why?  Several reasons:
  1. It saves you money
  2. It gives you flexibility, do you need quarters?  halves? all 8 pieces?
  3. You'll have leftover parts to make Chicken Stock
  4. It gives you a sense of pride
  5. You'll learn something
  6. You'll have an excellent excuse to go out and spend some money on a good boning knife or two!
Honestly, wouldn't you want to be able to look at these two chickens on sale for $7 in the meat case at the grocery, and know that you have all the skills necessary to take them apart and smoke them into a deliciously moist meal for 8-10 people??

You Will Need:
  • At least one 4-5lb whole chicken
  • A good quality, sharp filet knife
  • Olive oil
  • Cutting board, paper towels, anti-bacterial soap, large mixing bowl
Dry Rub for the Chicken (enough for this recipe and to have some left over, because you can never have enough dry rub for chicken):
  • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup smoked paprika
  • 1/2 cup chili powder
  • 4 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 4 tablespoons Kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper

To begin... Extract the birds from their packaging and rinse them in cold water, then pat them dry.  Place one of the birds onto your cutting board, belly down, and then wash your hands.  With your clean right hand (unless you're left handed, then you'll need to do everything backwards, like you usually do), pick up a pair of kitchen shears and tell yourself, "This is my scissor/knife hand.  It will not touch raw poultry or get wet or slimy.  It's sole duty for the next 15 minutes is to cut and handle knives and tools while the left hand does the messy work."

Using a strong pair of shears, snip out the backbone as shown here and save it for your Chicken Stock.  Things get a bit tough around the back of the rib cage, but you can do it!  Take heart, squeeze a bit harder, and carry on... past the crunching noises you'll hear.  With the backbone out, you can spread the bird open, exposing the keel bone.  Do not be "mousy" or tentative with this procedure!  Grab, pull, spank, spread, or manhandle that bird!

Your knife hand is still clean and dry, right?  Good!  Put the scissors in the sink and pick up a sharp boning knife.  The waxy looking bone in the middle is called the Keel bone.  It has to go.  Trouble is, it sticks to meat and it's a stubborn thing to remove so, start by using your knife to get some separation between it and the meat, then use the fingers of your left hand to "squinch" the meat away from it.
Once you've cleared the meat from the keel bone, you can use the knife to filet the ribs away from the breast meat easily. Pictured here to the left is the keel bone and other rib bones removed from the breast meat.  Keep it for stock, and take joy in the fact that you've now de-boned most of your bird!  If this approach is a bit too "hands on" for your taste, there is another method...
Method 2?  Simply take a cleaver or heavy chef's knife and whack a clean cut, straight through the middle of the keel bone.  This picture shows a clean cut, down the middle of the keel and breast plate.  The cleaver also cut the wish-bone cleanly in two.  This is a fast and easy way to halve the chicken, but your guests will have to deal with a few more bones.  You decide what's best.  Knife hand still clean and dry?  Excellent!
When I smoke chicken, I like to smoke quarters.  There are several reasons for this; a quarter of a large chicken is a great portion size, and you'll have an equal number of white meat portions (breast/wing) and dark meat portions (leg/thigh).  You can always easily cut these portions apart after the smoke if you want to.  Also, the larger portions seem to smoke better and cook more evenly than say, a large breast next to a small leg, etc.  There are no bones or connective tissue of any kind between the leg quarter and the breast quarter, so your knife should sing straight between them without issue.  Toss your portions into a large mixing bowl.

When you're finished butchering, it's important to stop and consider just where all of the germs from your raw poultry might be hiding.  If you've kept your knife hand clean, that's the one you'll want to use to turn on the water, grab some paper towels, etc.  Minimize the use of your "chicken hand" in order to curtail the further spread of what could be salmonella, etc.  Take this moment to wash everything with anti-bacterial soap, your knives, board, counter top, and finally, both of your hands.

FINALLY, it's time to consider cooking!  While your chicken is in the bowl, drizzle on about 1/4 cup of good olive oil and use your "chicken-hand" to turn the pieces over for even coating.  With your dry hand, grab the shaker of your dry rub and shake-shake-shake on a liberal coating of spice to the mix.  Continue to mix/turn the pieces over with your chicken-hand until everything has a good coat of oil and spices, then place them back onto your clean cutting board or pan so you can carry them to the grill.  Put the bowl into the sink with your dry hand so you can wash it later.

Start your fire, bring the cooking chamber up to 225 degrees.  I prefer a smoker or offset charcoal grill for this, but you could use an oven.  You could also use a propane grill (if you're too stubborn and/or cheap to spring for a real cooker) and just light one of the burners while keeping the chicken on the other side.  Watch the thermometer like a hawk and keep things just under 250.  Now, go back inside and wash your cutting board, the bowl, your sink, and your hands! 

When things get hot, lay your chicken out onto the grill.  Obviously the chicken you see here on the left has been on the smoker for awhile already!  Open a beer and hang out for a few hours, after all, you're busy right now, you're the grill master!

My smoker and I seem to have come to the agreement that it will take somewhere between 3.5 and 4 hours to finish the chicken.  Using a thermometer is absolutely essential here!  Breast meat is done at 160, and dark meat is done at 175.  As soon as your chicken arrives at this temperature, take it off of the grill and cover it with foil to rest!  Chicken does not get "safer" or "more done" if you leave it there, it only dries out and gets rubbery, so pull it when it's done!  If it's done right, it will look like this (well, it will look like this after you've taken a bite out of it):

The skin will be nice and crispy, with caramelized sugary bits of spicy heat.  the meat will be smoky, soft, tender, and super moist.  One final note, I usually pack the smoker with as much chicken as I can when I run a batch.  Chicken is cheap, and leftover smoked chicken is super tasty in chicken salad, breakfast burritos, smoked chicken pizza, or simply reheated in a microwave!  You get the idea!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Best Cornbread Ever

Let's get something straight right off the bat, what follows is an absolutely amazing recipe for cornbread.  It is "way good!"  It is not "good for you," necessarily, unless you are looking for some added motivation to get to the gym.  So don't email me with hatred in your heart, trust me, I'm fully aware of how much butter, eggs, and other goodies abound in this recipe.  If you want cornbread that you can slather a pat of butter on and take with you to a guilty corner of your basement to enjoy, privately, with a cold glass of whole milk, then you're "home."  Read on!

You will need:
  • 1.5 cups stone ground yellow cornmeal
  • 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons baking powder
  • 8 eggs
  • 1.5 cups sugar
  • 14 ounces creamed corn (1 can)
  • 4 ounces diced green chilies, drained well (1 can)
  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks, softened)
  • 1 cup shredded Monterrey jack and cheddar cheese blend
  • 4 Fresh Jalapenos, chopped whole (optional)
This recipe is enough to fill two 9" cast iron skillets, enough for 12 people, or enough for 6 people and 6 "hidden sessions with your own private slice."  If you are crazy enough to make a 1/2 batch, fine.  Don't say I didn't warn you when you run out.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Get a bowl and add all of the dry ingredients together, including the cornmeal, flour, salt, and baking powder.  Mix it together and set the bowl aside.  Now, turn on the mixer (low setting) and begin to add the wet ingredients.  Start with the eggs and butter, then sugar.  Cream it together well, then move on to the creamed corn. While the mixer is turning, slowly add the dry ingredients.  Once everything is mixed in to a lovely batter, slowly fold in the green chilis, cheese, and jalapenos with a spatula (you don't want to bruise the chilis).

Now, get a couple of 9" cast iron skillets (or cake pans if you don't have the iron) and liberally lubricate the bottom and sides with vegetable oil or butter-flavored Crisco.  Pour your batter equally among the two.

Once your oven beeps and says that its at 400 degrees, wait another ten minutes to make sure things settle up to 400 in there.  Ovens are never, ever at the temperature they say they are!  To maintain 400, an oven will swing up to 415 and down to 375 so that an average temperature of 400 is maintained.  If you wait for a couple of these cycles to run, you'll be sure that "most" of your oven is truly 400.

Slide the pans into the oven and set a reliable timer for 35 minutes.  Check the middle with a toothpick every 5 minutes after that to ensure doneness.

What you'll see (if you used cast iron) is a lovely dark brown moist crust on the bottom, and an airy, "moist to the point of being juicy" cheesy middle, cornbread.  I slice it "wagon-wheel" style into 6 wedges for each pan.  Enjoy! 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Taking Stock of your Chicken

"Save that for stock!"  How often have you heard this from your grandmother, your mother, your favorite cooking show, or from a "helpful" neighbor?  Let's be honest, normal people throw the bones, backs, gizzards, wing tips, and other less appetizing parts of their chicken and turkey into the trash, right?  Well, I don't... but I'm not normal.

Chicken stock is often misunderstood.  First and foremost, it is NOT "Chicken Broth."  Chicken "broth" is made when you boil a chicken to flavor the water, or when you add chicken bouillon to water to make a chicken flavored soup or broth.  Now, if you were to toss the bones and other chicken bits that are packed full of connective tissue, marrow, etc, and if you were to literally boil the essence out of it for hours and hours, you'd end up with an amazing and versatile jiggly, gelatin based chickeny goo that is packed with all the flavor elements you need to make hundreds of recipes that start with "Grandma's homemade...."  That is "Chicken Stock!"  It's super easy to make, it's cheap, and it will be your secret weapon for killer chicken soup, chicken and dumplings, gumbo, casseroles, and a host of other favorites.

You will need:
  • 4 pounds of "Scrap Chicken" (or turkey).  I use backs, giblets, bones, etc.
  • 1 large onion, quartered
  • 4 carrots, peeled and roughly cut
  • 4 ribs of celery, broken in half
  • A few fresh sprigs of Thyme and Parsley
  • Small handful of peppercorns
  • A few crushed garlic cloves
  • 2 gallons of water
Why, "no salt?" Because you'll be adding this stock as a flavoring agent to other dishes that already have salt in them.  Good stock is, by nature, "Low Sodium." Stay away from store-bought broths or stocks that have salt added to them.  Ick.  

Ok, throw everything into a giant stock pot, jack the heat to "HIGH," and bring it to a boil.  Watch it carefully.  I know, you're literally watching water boil right now, but you don't want to be involved with what happens when you don't.  If you don't watch the pot, a lot of "scum" will develop moments after the boiling starts.  Quickly, it will foam up upon itself and it will climb out of the pot and spread itself out, in a bacterial ridden ooze of jubilant freedom, all over your stove-top.  So... Totally... Gross!  Therefore, it would behoove you to be a diligent watcher of the pot until the first boil!
As soon as it boils, scoot the heat down to MEDIUM-LOW and skim the scum off the top with a large spoon.  Keep your scum cup handy because you'll need to skim every 15 minutes for the first hour or so of cooking.  The "Scum Scooper" job is a great one for a family member who typically "wants to help," but who brings no other culinary skills to the table.  After an hour or so, the scum will settle down and the stock will start to find it's rhythm.  

Give the pot a look every couple of hours, and add more water as necessary to keep everything submerged and roiling around in there.  Plan on keeping things at a good boiling simmer for 8 hours.  As a test, you can pull out a wing bone or rib bone, and snap it in half.  If it breaks easily and seems "dry," then you can be sure that its essence is in the water, where it belongs.

When it's done, the fun begins!  Use a kitchen spider, strainer, or a set of tongs to remove the solids.  Note that if you'd had a giant steamer bucket that fits into your stock pot, that you should have used it so this step would have been super easy... the liquid that remains is pure gold.  Literally, it should be a beautiful gold color.  Let it cool a bit (30 minutes or so) and then pour it through a cheese-cloth or a fine mesh strainer.  I find that it's easiest to do this by ladling it through a strong paper towel, directly into mason jars, or into small Tupperware containers.  Put your stock into the fridge, and in the morning each jar will have a thin white disk of pure fat on top.  Pluck this off and discard at will (or spread it onto a Pig's Ear sandwich, like my grandfather Arles used to do).
The gooey stuff left in the jar is invaluable!  Keep them in the freezer until ready to use.  Some people pour it into ice-cube trays and freeze them, so they can easily pop out a few when they make soup or whatever.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Cast Iron Cookware Conundrum

This article is packed full of culinary secrets.  They will seem "boring" to most, but trust me; I bring naturally formed, large diameter, deeply lustrous pearls of wisdom to you today!  Well, maybe not "pearl" per se, but Iron, "Cast Iron" to be precise.  Four or five generations ago, we figured it out.  We started cooking everything in vessels made from cast iron.  Dutch ovens, cornbread pans, pie pans, chicken friers, and everyone's favorite, the ubiquitous cast iron skillet.  A quick look around a modern kitchen supply store will show you that cast iron cookware is back "in."  Your great-grandmother will be the first to tell you, however, cast iron never really went "out."

A stroll through a trendy kitchen store will reveal an amazing array of modern cookware to you.  You almost need a degree in metallurgy to know what to buy!  Copper, copper bottom, non-stick, Teflon, hard-anodized aluminum, polished stainless steel, and even titanium cookware is available these days, and it ain't cheap.  You can even buy "Enameled" iron cookware (should regular cast iron not appeal to you).

If you're less concerned about how your kitchen looks with your fancy pans hanging from your pot rack than you are with the quality of your food, you should take a step back from shelf and ask:  Cast Iron.  Why?

Here's Why:
  •  Natural non-stick properties
  •  Indestructible
  •  The more you use it, the better it gets
  •  Fast, even heat distribution
  •  Holds heat forever
  •  Cooks over a range of temperatures, up to 2,000 degrees F
  •  Requires only "water" (no soap) for cleaning
  •  Can be passed along to your children as an heirloom
  •  How can you make a good Cast-Iron Cowboy Steak without a cast iron skillet?  You can't, that's how!

If you insist on having expensive cookware, consider that some rare antique cast iron skillets sell for more than $300 each.  Buy yourself one of those and display it proudly in your kitchen!  Personally, I bought all of my cast iron cookware from antique stores, and I rarely spend more than $30.  Brand new cast iron pans are often more expensive and they don't have that well seasoned, non-stick surface that's as smooth as a baby's butt.  My favorite skillet is this Griswold #8 skillet that I bought from a local junk store.  I paid $18 for it:

Cooking Surface

Now, the pan wasn't quite this "cook ready" when I bought it, as it is today.  I spent a few hours getting her ready... I used some oven cleaner to get some light crud off of the sides, and I re-seasoned it a few times.  She shined up prettier than a brand new penny, and that's another great thing about cast iron, you never have to throw it away!  To test this theory, I recently underwent an attempt to restore the worst, most dilapidated and neglected pan I could find.

Observe, the "Woodland Camping Pan:"

How nasty is this thing?  This pan was found in the woods, near the old logging township of Gheen, MN (now a ghost town, but formerly a railroad depot for local logging interests).  I'm sure it was forgotten or abandoned when a logging camp moved from one location to another.  Some research later revealed to me that this pan was cast in 1960.  It has endured decades of nature's full seasoned bombardment.  It has collected countless inches of rain in hot Summers, and been buried in mountains of snow in sub-zero Winters.  Ladies, Gentlemen; I submit to you that this, THIS, is a skillet who's greatest hope was a quick death by way of a recycling center, rather than a lingering demise, rusting into oblivion over the coming centuries.  I decided to save it.

Step 1:  Remove the loose chunks of "crud" and surface rust.  This was easy, I used an old chisel and some elbow grease to scrape away the loose stuff.

Step 2: Oil it up, and rub it down with steel wool.  When I say "oil," I'm talking about a light greasy household lubricating oil... not cooking oil.  I needed something that would lubricate the surface and allow my ball of steel wool to slide around and do its magic.  I sprayed the whole pan down with Linseed Oil (it was handy) and I literally rubbed 4 separate balls of industrial steel wool (not S.O.S. pads, but pure steel wool) down to the nub.

Step 3: Check progress.  A quick look at myself revealed that I had so much iron dust caked into my arms and shirt, that had a U.F.O. with a tractor beam magnet been within 5 miles of me, I'd have been abducted for sure.  I gave the pan a final scrub with a scouring pad and a generous amount of Dawn (to cut the oil) and I rinsed the pan several times with excess water from our rain barrel (I knew that was good for something) and went inside to wash myself. 

Step 4: "Fine Crud" removal.  To eliminate the last remnants of rust and other nature-born impurities (I was certain that at least one weasel had pooped in this pan), I added a few Tbsp of CLR (Calcium, Lime and Rust remover) to the pan, and I attached a wire brush wheel to my electric drill (I used my industrial speed drill with the plug on it, a cordless drill won't be up to the task).  Then, I dipped the brush into the CLR, donned a pair of safety goggles, and an apron (hastily made from a trash bag), to guard against U.F.O.s and I hit the switch!  I spent over an hour, wire-brushing the sins out of this pan, baptizing it back into it's former glory!

Step 5: Final Soak.  To make sure every last remnant of rust was gone, I gave the pan a final scrub with hot soap and water, and then submerged it completely in CLR overnight.  The next day, I pulled the pan from it's liquid soak and it smiled at me for the first time!  It's shiny gray eyes let me know, it was ready to cook.

Step 6: Seasoning.  Many methods abound for seasoning cast iron.  They all advise a food-grade oil bath and some heat.  I subscribe to this method, and I apply a finishing coat of linseed oil for the last oven cycle.  If you can't find linseed oil, use peanut oil.  They both have an astonishingly high smoke point.

Here's the "After" pics:

Surface (I have no idea how my shoes found their way to my island counter-top)


Step 7: Identification.  A bit of research has revealed that this pan was made by the Birmingham Stove & Range Co. It is part of their Century Series, made in 1960. I also learned that lots of similar "unmarked" cookware was cast in those days.  According to The Cast Iron Collector: "In addition to store brands, like those made for companies such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, several major foundries produced unmarked versions of their goods for sale in hardware, department, and building supply stores. As such, these no-name pieces could be sold at a lower price without sacrificing the brand image and value of their main product lines. Product differentiation in the various channels was achieved by the use of paper labels affixed to the unmarked iron. A couple of manufacturers actually made the decision at some point to cast all of their pieces without trademarks, instead relying totally on the adhesive labels."

What did I learn?  Would I do it again?  Well, in my case, I didn't have a skillet this big in my collection.  A #12 pan cooks a LOT of bacon, a whole chicken, huge slices of ham, a garden of green beans, etc.  New ones cost at least $60 and that's only if you can find them.  Buying them online makes them more dear, as the shipping costs almost as much as the pan.  So, if I were to find the lid to this bad boy, or another piece that I've not encountered before, "YES," I would do it again!  I learned that the more care and love that you put into a cast iron piece of cookware, the harder and longer it will perform for you!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Best Grilled Chicken Wings EVER!

Last year, a week before the Superbowl, I went to my usual supply depot to get a big mess of chicken wings.  I was met with disaster:  "What do you mean you're OUT of wings?  but... I... You can't... shut UP... What about..."  It was true.  Due to a sharp increase of "Buffalo Wing" restaurants in the country snapping up millions of wings across the nation, local stores were unable to supply local consumers with any wings at all.  This was the first time in history that this happened and it affected me in several ways:

  1. I was suddenly struck by just how many people in the world are stricken by famine, and it made me sad for awhile.
  2. I wondered what made the wings at Buffalo Tap, Buffalo Wild Wings, and other places just "that good."
  3. I visited these places over the next couple of days to learn that, while they have great TVs and cold beer, their wings are truly, truly, awful!
Seriously, the wings in these joints are little more than tiny portioned, over-cooked, dried up salt-licks with a variety of well-marketed sauces to hide their horrible texture and flavor profile.  I can make better wings.  YOU can make better wings!!

You Will Need:
  • A bunch of chicken wings
  • Olive oil
  • Dry Rub
  • Hot charcoal fire OR a fire grate over your bonfire pit
If you insist on sauce, you will need:
  • 1/2 Cup of Cayenne Pepper hot sauce
  • 1 stick of unsalted butter  (yes, I'm serious about the "unsalted" part)
Wing Anatomy

Have a look at your basic chicken wing.  There are three parts, everyone's favorite, the "Drummy," the low profile, two boned "Flapper," and the useless "Giblet" that gets thrown away. You don't need Popeye's arms and a huge set of kitchen shears to cut this thing apart.  A sharp filet knife will do the trick, if you follow the cut lines here.  There are ligaments that join these parts together and you can easily slice right through them without having to cut any bone!  Practice makes perfect and for goodness sakes, don't cut your own fingers in the process.

Good wings start with an ample supply of over-sized drummies and flappers.  I start with a 24-pack of wings, if I can find them.  If you buy a pack of wings already prepped, you'll pay almost double the price, so it's worth it for you to cut them yourself.


Get a dozen wings or more and put them into the fridge as soon as you get home.  It's ok if they're partially frozen.  On "Wing Day," take them out of the fridge and cut them apart (throw away the giblets, or make stock with them, if you have 50 or more of them on hand).  Place them in a big stainless steel bowl in layers.  Lay down a layer of wing parts, then a healthy drizzle of olive oil, then a generous shake of your best Dry Rub.  Repeat until you're out of wing parts.

Now, shake the bowl or stir it up until everything has a complete coating of oil and some dry rub.  Add more dry rub at this stage, until the oil is a light shade of orange and a generous amount of the rub is sticking to the wings.  Now, set the bowl down on the counter, cover with plastic wrap, and let the wings come up to room temperature.

NOTE: For those of you who are freaking out right now that I'm leaving chicken out on my counter at room temperature, please consider the fact that at some time in this chicken's cooking history, it WILL HAVE TO pass from its refrigeration temperature, up through 50, 60, 70, and 80 degrees on it's way to 160, eventually, where it will be plucked from the grill and consumed.  I don't plan to leave it on the counter, in the "bacterial zone" long enough to pose a bacterial problem.  If leaving cold chicken on your counter for an hour or two freaks you right out, then go straight from the fridge to your grill.  Just don't get mad at ME when your chicken is burnt on the outside and the inside still hasn't come up to temperature.


Now, go outside and make fire.  Make a big old hot flame ridden fire under HALF of your iron grate with wood, charcoal, or (sigh) propane.  Get the grill hot hot hot, and let it preheat the grate for 15 minutes.  Pour your big bowl of winged goodness right onto the grate!  Flames will rise!  Using a long pair of tongs, stir them around in the flames for a few minutes (be careful) and let the heat sear the rub and the skin a little bit.  Close the lid quickly to douse the flames to a more reasonable level.  Once the excess olive oil and chicken grease burns out (a minute or two) the flames will subside to a manageable level. 

Open the lid, and stir the wings around.  Get them all separated and move them off to one side, away from the heat (see the "Wing Man" video, below).  Make sure your grill is cooking around 400 degrees with the lid closed and the smoke is imparting its goodness into the wings for around 20 minutes.  You may want to turn the wing pile over once, halfway through cooking to make sure they're all browning evenly.

Using an instant-read thermometer check a few random drummies and flappers to make sure everyone is 160 degrees (or a little warmer), then pull them off the grill into a clean serving bowl.  Cover with foil and let them rest while you make the sauce.


Melt a stick of butter with your favorite cayenne pepper hot sauce, stirring constantly (it will want to separate).  Add a sprinkle of flour to bind the two together, if you want to.


Take 1/2 of your wings and put them into a different bowl, then stir the sauce all over them to coat.  Now, you have a bowl of "Grilled Wings" and another bowl of "Hot Wings" for everyone to share!  Both bowls will feature smoky, juicy, full flavored wings, with plenty of meat on the bone!  The cold beer and big TV are up to you to provide...