Thursday, March 20, 2014

My New Smoker

Recently, I bought a new primary oven/stove for the house (out of necessity), to replace an older model that finally gave up the ghost.  I weathered quite a bit of anxiety about it (good ones aren't cheap) and we finally chose a nice model and got it installed.  A couple of months later, I was looking at my bbq pit-smoker/grill that was sitting outside on the deck and I thought, "It's time."  Looking back,  my wife and I agreed that I (we) cooked more food on more days outside in the smoker than we did inside with our oven, so it was easy to justify the "need" for a new smoker, but the justification for the "expense" of a new smoker took a bit more doing.
My old grill, "Old Faithful"

I spent almost double the amount of money on an outdoor cooker than I did on our nice indoor stove/oven (the "good" one, with two levels of convection and a steam cleaning cycle).  Why!?  Well, let's walk through the process.  Hopefully, this will help guide you if you're in the market for a grill or smoker.

What I needed:
  • I needed something that could get hot enough to sear a steak, and to grill burgers, chicken or salmon.
  • Something that could support enough hot coals to get a cast iron skillet white-hot so I could blacken steak and fish, and cook pizza.
  • Multiple chambers so that I could slow-smoke briskets, pork shoulders, racks of ribs, or whole chickens, turkeys, or other big hunks of meat.
  • Something that could stand up to heavy use (multiple times/week) in all 4 seasons.
  • Enough surface area to cook for 50-100 people at a time (because that's how I roll at least once a month).
What I wanted:
  • Something that could calm the fires of my testosterone occasionally, without sending me to prison.
  • Enough surface area and head-room to cook for a thousand people at once!
  • Something I could fit an entire animal on, at one time, like a whole pig or a lamb on a spit!  Perhaps some Woolly Mammoth ribs...
  • A completely efficient wood-burning smoker that ran forever on one stick of wood!
What are my options?

Start looking around and you'll discover that every home improvement, hardware, and appliance store is excited to sell you a grill.  I mulled over options from four categories, the Kettle, the Egg, the "Classic" grill, and the Offset Smoker.  I've described the advantages and disadvantages to each of these in a prior blog post, so I won't belabor the point again here... I decided on an offset smoker from Yoder Smokers, in Yoder Kansas.

What did I pick?

The most economical cooker that satisfies every single one of my bulleted "needs" above (as well as half of my "wants") was a Yoder "Wichita" model (loaded).  Sure, it looks just like the offset smoker you can buy at Walmart for $149.00 but there are a few significant differences... First, this is hand-welded 1/4" steel, and it weighs in at just under 660lbs.  It has a lifetime guarantee against burning out the bottom.  The stamped tin/steel grills you find at Walmart won't last a single summer of heavy use, and they leak heat like crazy so, you'll use 10x the charcoal or wood to cook the same amount of meat.  Besides, who wants a grill made out of metal so thin you can bend it with your bare hands?  Other goodies in the Yoder package:
  • The firebox is easily large enough to function as it's own charcoal grill, with over 340 square inches of grilling space.
  • The main cooking chamber has over 1,300 square inches of surface area to pack with meat!  Most "Classic" propane grills max out at about 600.
  • A heat-dispersion plate diffuses the direct heat from the firebox and distributes it more evenly throughout the cooking chamber to eliminate hot-spots and to turn the chamber into a predictable "oven" without the need to constantly rotate everything to get heated evenly.
  • Multiple thermometers allow you to keep a very close eye on the space around what's cooking.
  • The counter-weight on the door makes sure the heavy door won't slam shut on you, and it makes an awesome place to stick your magnetic food thermometers, or to hang your hat.
  • A Probe-port allows you to use a temperature probe during the cook without having to prop the door open.
In the end, what drove my ultimate decision to buy this particular pit, were the people at Yoder.  I visited the factory (20 miles outside of Wichita, KS).  I was impressed.  Here's a hard working group of folks welding and creatively building a quality product in America's heartland, and they each had time to stop what they were doing to shake my hand to talk about what their role was.  It was obvious to me that they took pride in their work.  Welding up all kinds of cookers from small pellet smokers to huge trailer-mounted custom rigs for restaurants or other businesses, Yoder has been around BBQ for decades.

I'd spoken to them on the phone a number of times prior to my visit, and upon my arrival I was excited to see that they'd built my custom pit, and had it all ready to load (complete with a custom ash-rake with my initials welded into it) into my truck.  They didn't even require a paid deposit... There is still a business in America that builds products here with American steel and American labor, who will still do business with a telephone-handshake?  Yes, there is... and it's the people at Yoder Smokers!  More pics from my visit, below.

It glows in the dark!

Damper Control

Firebox grill grate

Multiple shelves

Hand Welded, excellent seal

My own personal ash-rake!

Custom giant

Another giant!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Oxtail Chili

Before I give you my latest award winning Chili recipe, I feel the urge to gather my soapbox and to say a few words about Chili.  I believe with all of my heart and soul that the first person to put beans in his chili, did so because he ran out of meat.  Sure, beans are "traditional" now, but they shouldn't be.  A "Chili" is a pepper, after all, not a bean.  Season a pot of meat with enough Chili Powder, and eventually you'll taste more chili than meat so, the dish is really all about balance (and the chili peppers).  On a purity scale from 0-10, a pure-bread Texan would rate a "10" if he were to slice the meat up into chunks so tiny, it would almost cook completely away, leaving a bowl of deeply flavored thick red chili "sauce" (this is where the phrase, "A good bowl of red" came from).  A Vegan bowl of "Meatless White 3-bean Chili" would earn you a zero. 

If you ask me, a hearty bowl of chili turns into a mild bowl of soup as soon as you drop a bean into the pot.  So, don't do it... I fall somewhere around a 7 on the purity scale.  You'll never find beans in my chili, the meat should always play 2nd fiddle, but I will add some onions, tomatoes and other spices to the mix to bring a bit of texture.

Here is the recipe that recently won me a "1st Place" in the "Beef" category, as well as "Best Overall" at the cookoff:

You Will Need:
  • 2 Packages Oxtail Medallions (5-6lbs)
  • 2 28ox can diced tomatoes, (I used the “Fire Roasted” kind)
  • 4 Tbs tomato paste
  • 2 large yellow onions, diced
  • 2 red bell pepper
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 5 Heaping Tbsp (yes, TABLESPOONS) Chili powder (I like homemade)
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced as fine as possible
  • 2 dried chipotle chili peppers
  • 6-8 Cups beef stock from your oxtails
  • 4 slices of uncooked bacon (chopped into tiny tiny bits)
  • 2 tsp Mexican oregano
  • 2 Tbsp paprika smoked
  • 2 whole jalapeno chili peppers, diced

Oxtails can be tough to find.  Ask your local meat cutter for a source if your store doesn't have them.  They're fantastic for making beef stock, and the meat is similar in texture to Barbacoa.  It's very flavorful.  The only hassle is, there is a LOT of connective tissue to deal with and, of course, bones.  I bet you didn't know a cow's tail had so many bones... Before you even think about chili, you'll have to cook the meat off of those bones and build some stock.  This takes time!  Your patience will be rewarded!
Place all of the oxtail medallions into a stock pot and add enough water to cover them by ¼ inch. Add a cup or two of red wine if you have some handy (who doesn't?).  Add a few heavy pinches of salt, bring it to a boil and reduce that to a simmer.  Let the oxtails simmer for at least 6 hours, until the meat will fall off of the bones.  Pull the meat off and save it in a bowl, discard the bones and keep the stock.  Skim the fat off the top, these beauties will produce copious amounts of it.
Now, for Chili!  Sweat the bacon in your stock pot. When the bits are nice and brown and crispy, remove the bacon and leave the fat. Add all of the powdered spices (except for the oregano). Stir it into the bacon fat and cook over Medium High heat for 1 minute to wake up the oils in the spices and Chili powder. 

Add the onions, peppers, jalapenos and garlic.  Saute all of the veggies, stirring frequently for 15 minutes or so.  Add tomato paste and keep sauteing.  

Pour on your diced tomatoes. Stir.  Add the Oxtail stock and bacon bits to pot.  Stir.  Add the ox tail meat, along with the chipotles and oregano. Continue to heat until boiling, then reduce to a simmer and let it simmer there, with the lid OFF, for about four hours.  Leaving the lid off will allow some of the liquid to boil off and the sauce to thicken.   

After 4 hours or so, everything should have come together very nicely!  Remove your Chipotle Chilis, as their flavor has now been imparted to the mix and you don't want your diners to eat a whole one of those... As a final step, I like to Cool the chili when it’s done so the fat will solidify into a disk that is easy to remove.  Chili is always better when it's reheated the second day, right? 

Since this recipe calls for two "Cool Down" periods, I recommend starting it a day earlier than you plan to serve it.  If you're wondering if it's worth it, I promise you; you've never tasted anything like it in your life and it's fantastic!  Spicy, but not too much so; smoky, soft with a bit of "bite" for your tooth, and deeply flavored.  You'll need a block of cornbread to sop up any leftovers.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Pulled Pork

So, I tried Quinoa for the first time this week; Heads Up, people.. it's VILE!  I did some reading on Quinoa and found that since the U.S. demand for it has accelerated beyond the speed of light, this poor little grain derivative has been taken from it's Peruvian mountain soil and been mass produced in other, less hospitable places, making it the vile nasty dirt-filled fungal mess that you can now buy at the local grocery.  These facts failed to deter a pitch-fork wielding mass of Vegans from yelling at me and calling me names.  Sticks and stones... For all of their posturing and whining, all they managed to do was to convince me it was time to cook something very muscular and very big; Pork Shoulders!
Pulled Pork is a heavy favorite at any BBQ restaurant and while you could certainly achieve tender pork goodness by slow cooking it in a crock-pot, why would you want to let such a pinnacle of porcine purity cook by simmering it in its own fat?  Infuse it with smoke, I say!

You Will Need:
  • At least one 8-12 whole "Bone-In" pork shoulder
  • A squeeze bottle of yellow mustard
  • 1 Cup of Dry Rub per shoulder, equal amounts of:
    • Fresh Chili Powder
    • Brown Sugar
    • Kosher Salt
    • Black Pepper
    • Paprika
    • Cumin

Notes: Let's talk for a minute about how many shoulders you should consider smoking.  A healthy pork shoulder should weigh in around 10lbs. You'll render at least 2lbs of fat out, and the bone weighs a bit, so let's say that you end up with 7lbs of meat to serve.  According to reason, that should serve 28 people a 4oz pulled pork sandwich.  However.... if you put a tray of 7lbs of this glorious dish in front of 5 hungry teenagers, it will completely disappear.  So, purchase accordingly.  Also, it's important to find bone-in shoulders.  If the shoulder has been de-boned, it's been fileted open so the bone can be removed.  You can roll it back up and tie it, but it just won't behave the same way in your smoker once it starts to cook and swell up, and render fat, etc.  Find a bone-in shoulder, it's worth the effort!  Warehouse stores (Sam's, Costco, Restaurant Depot) usually have bone-in pork shoulders available.  They come two to a pack and that's a perfect place to start.  It's funny to me that the shoulders in each pack obviously come from different pigs... how does that happen?

Let's get started!  Open the pack and rinse and dry your pig using cold water and a clean towel. Use a sharp knife to cut away any obvious chunks of fat.  Keep in mind, the thing is riddled with fat and that's a good thing, so don't spend time trying to cut it all out; you'll lose.  Just cut off any large pure nodules that you might find offensive.  Remember, as the fat and connective tissue slowly dissolve and render away, it will leave the meat with the glorious flavor and texture we're looking for as BBQ providers!
Squirt the shoulder generously with yellow mustard.  Smear the mustard all over and into the shoulder with your hands.  It will be messy... do it anyway!  Rinse your hands and shake on a generous amount of your dry rub.  Cover all sides and surfaces.
Wrap your shoulders in plastic-wrap and let them "marinate" in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.  This is when the magic happens!  The salt (and other spices) in the dry rub will dissolve into the mustard, and the meat on the shoulder will react by leeching out some fat and moisture and a gooey "bark" will form.  This gooey bark will eventually become the dark and smokey crust that pulled pork is famous for!  On the day of the smoke, pull the shoulders out of the chill-chest and let them rest on the counter while you build your fire.
Empty the grease bucket under your smoker, things will get messy and you do NOT want an overflow!  Your dogs do... you do not.  Place your shoulders on your smoker, and make sure the temperature is 225 degrees.  I strongly suggest the use of a temperature probe because of the "Stall Factor!"  Your target temperature is 200 degrees.  This is when the last of the collagen and connective tissue will finally break down and melt away.  How long will that take?  That's the million dollar question because pork shoulders are stubborn!  Some are more fatty than others and they take longer.  You'll see them come up to 160ish degrees fairly quickly, but then they'll stall!  They'll stay at 163 degrees for hours, and you'll swear that your fire went out, or that your temperature probe is broken, or that God made a mistake when he gave you dominion over the animals.  Stick with it!  Be patient, for it is during this "stall" that the best of things is happening!  Fat is rendering away, unwanted chewy tissues are breaking down, lean meat is cooking up, etc.  Just let it stall... eventually, she'll climb up over 170 and continue on her quest for 200.

If you take your shoulders off the smoke during the stall, thinking, "It's been 8 hours, these MUST be done," you won't be "pulling" your pork, you'll be "chopping" your pork with a cleaver or knife.  The meat will be done, but it will be very chewy and it won't have that "melt in your mouth" texture that will set you apart from the competition.  Patience.

When you take the shoulders off, cover them with foil and let them rest for an hour or so.  They'll be too hot for you to pull anyway, so you might as well let them rest for awhile.  Take the foil away and the first thing you'll want to do is to remove the bone.  If things are as they should be (internal temp. is 200, pork is well-rested), you should be able to grab the end of the bone with two fingers and literally slide it right out of the shoulder.  It should come out cleanly and neatly, and your dogs will want it, BAD!  I let my dogs have one each, after all; their noses have been driving them crazy during the cook for the last ten hours or more so...  Grab a fork and simply start pulling the meat apart, using a knife if you want to chop it into smaller pieces.

Personally, I like to heap a pile of this stuff on a fresh bun with a bit of coleslaw and honk it down!  Some like to cover it with BBQ sauce and some like to "hover" near the cutting board, just to steal pieces and eat it, right out of the pan!  It freezes well, so you can portion it out for future lunches.  Nothing tells the rest of the office, "you're missing out," like a re-heated pile of pulled pork!  You'll be the scourge of the break room, and that's a good thing!