Monday, July 07, 2008

Independence Day AAR

This past Independence day we partook in the great American summer pastime, the barbeque; in our case a genuine one which means meat slow cooked over wood smoke, not just burgers and dogs on a grill.

Let me tell you, I will never regret the day we bought our smoker; nor the fact that we bought a sidebox smoker, that's also a convertible grill.

We had 6 adults over (JohnOC, his parents, a friend of his from college, Kommander, and one of my co-workers), plus me, Mel, and the kids, for a total of 10; which is just about right for our indoor common space (you could pack in maybe 16 if you took up every spare seat in the main area of the house).... oh and of course the dogs, who take up a fair bit of airspace themselves. Anyway, I never was one for a crowded party. I like things quieter, where people can actually converse.

The day started with Mel and I getting up early to start the smoker, and get the meat on... Actually you might say it started the day before, when I prepped all the meat by dry rubbing it with my smoking rub; then foil wrapping it, and letting it "steep" in for 24 hours.

We had a 12lb whole ham (on the bone), a 6lb point brisket (with substantial fat cap), and a couple racks of loin ribs (basically babybacks with more meat on them. They're only called baby backs if each rack weighs less than 3 lbs); plus a couple dozen bacon wrapped shrimp that went on later.

Mel also made a fresh fruit salad, with pineapples, pears, peaches, strawberries, and grapes; and let it sit overnight for the flavors to blend.

After getting the meat on, around 7:30; Mel and I cleaned up, readied the house, prepped the potatoes for the potato salad, and tended the smoker; til our guests started arriving, right around 2.

We were planning on starting to eat around 4, with mains around 5; and one of our guests was bringing salmon, which usually takes about 2 hours to smoke, so that timing should have worked out great. Unfortunately that guest ended up arriving about an hour late, so there wasn't really time to smoke her fish.

The biggest difficulty with smoking, is the timing. Generally speaking, with a medium temperature smoke (180 to 220 degrees), you want about two hours minimum (no matter how much, or how little something weighs), plus two hours per pound of meat (past the first) on the smoker; so a 12lb full plate and point brisket, with fat cap, should take about 24 hours for example. Of course this varies with the type of meat, the cut of it (the thickness mostly), the amount of fat and connective tissue, and how you like your meat done; but it's a pretty good rule of thumb. For a hotter smoke, at 220-250, it's more like two hours, plus an hour to an hour and a half per pound.

You have to be careful to choose the right smoking heat for your meat though, because too high, or too low, and you won't dissolve the connective tissue, or render the fat properly; and you'll end up with tough, or dry meat.

In this case, I was smoking three different kinds of meat, at three different weights, and three different thicknesses. For that, I started off with the longest cooking meats, at the highest temperatures; and got cooler as the day went on, adding the shorter cooking pieces as their time came up.

So I put the ham and brisket on right away at 7:00, and started them off with a hot smoke at around 250; planning on taking the smoke down to 220 or below when I put the ribs on about 90 minutes later; then to drop the smoke to the 200-210 range for the shrimp and salmon, about two hours before service time.

This should've got the whole mess up to about 165-175 degrees internal temperature right around 4:30-5; enough time to start my first course at 4, and be ready to eat the main when it was ready to come off the smoke.

By the by, 170 degrees is HORRIBLY overdone when you're doing any kind of cooking, other than slow smoking (or braising... BBQ is effectively braising with hot flavorful smoke instead of hot flavorful liquid). If I cooked a steak on the grill to 170, it would be beyond well done; dry, tough, and inedible. But with brisket on the smoker, 170 is the minimum temperature to have all the connective tissues dissolved, and fats mostly rendered; which keeps it juicy and flavorful (and ribs are similar).

Well, as it turned out, we were right at 170 degrees at 3 pm, instead of 4:30. I'm not sure why that happened; I had very good temperature control on the smoke (I have a remote smoker thermometer with overtemp, and undertemp alarms. Makes it easy) but the internal meat temperature just rose faster than I expected; in fact had been doing so from the moment I put the meat on. I had noted this as the day wore on, and kept dropping the smoke temp, but my meat just wasn't slowing down.

The thing is, my thermometer and my gut, were telling me two different things. The feel of the meat (except the ham of course, which started off partially cooked anyway, and just needed to be brought up to the proper internal temp) was just not right. The rib bones weren't quite twisting free; and I cut the brisket, and I could tell it wasn't 100% ready just from the feel under the knife; but I figured I was off in my own instincts, since the thermometer was telling me a different story.

So, I went against my gut, and decided to take the meat off the smoke; but not to stop the cooking completely. I wrapped it all very tightly in foil, with some hot, wet, sauce slathered all over each piece, and stuck them in a 200 degree oven to continue cooking off until I was ready to serve. That would be roughly equivalent to continuing the smoke at 180 degrees, but should prevent the meat from drying out.

Then I turned to my opening course. I was waiting for my late guest to arrive to start the shrimp; and as I said, they didn't get in with their salmon until it was too late to smoke either seafood bit; so I put them off for a few minutes, and made my famous warm potato salad, mixing it up a bit with some carmelized onions, and diced fresno chilis.

The salad went over quite well (I of course didn't have any, because I'm allergic to onions; but everyone tells me it was great); as did Mels fruit salad, which we had as a palate cleanser before the seafood (and which I DID have. It was great).

Next course Mel wrapped the shrimp in applewood smoked black pepper bacon for me, and skewered them. She then trimmed some asparagus spears, which I tossed in a little olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. I dusted the shrimp skewers with a little salt, pepper, lemon juice, garlic powder, and cayenne powder; then had JohnOCs dad take over for a few minutes and VERY GENTLY grill all of the above over the pecanwood fire (until the bacon is just crisping up and the shrimp are completely white, but not completely red; and the asparagus gets just a tiny bit of char on the ends).

While my guest chef was grilling off the shrimp, I was preparing his wifes salmon. She's apparently on some no-red meat "lifestyle change" not-a-diet thingie, and would not be partaking of our smoked meat feast; but I wanted to at least bring some of those flavors in, without overwhelming the rather nice piece of alaska salmon she had brought for me to perpare for her.

I decided to make a bit of a beurre noir; sauteing thinly slivered then crushed garlic in butter I had heated to the nutty brown stage, and tossing in the last little bit (perhaps a teasooon full) of my diced fresno peppers. Then I seared the salmon filet, skin on, until it was just as the lady wanted it (cooked completely through, which to my mind is over done); and had a nice crisp browning on the flesh. In the last two minutes I tossed in a bit of fresh rosemary and thyme, and squeezed a half lemon over the filet.

Finally, I plated the salmon, then deglazed the pan with white wine, and finished the sauce with a tiny tablespoon of cream; reduced it a bit, and finished the salmon with the sauce, and a crudite side salad.

Apparently it was good, as the dear lady said she enjoyed it very much.

Finally, it was meat time.

I heated up some more of my home made BBQ sauce (which I had also used to glaze the meat while cooking) and we put out the platters of brisket, ribs, and ham; while Mel prepared her home made fresh and hot flatbread.

As it turns out, my instincts were right, the meat was definitely NOT done when the thermometers said it was, because after over an hour in the 200 degree oven, the ham and ribs were PERFECT; and the brisket was good, but to my mind still not done. I couldn't cut it with my fork when sliced in 1/4" slices; which is the proper doneness for BBQ brisket.

It was hover moist, and mostly tender; and everyone else really liked it... I'm just a perfectionist. Of course by the time I got to my brisket, I was too full to finish it anyway, having underestimated just how good the ham and ribs would be, and eating my fill of those first.

Finally, when we could all move again, we had chocolate chip cookies that my co-worker had baked that morning; and an American flag cake that Mel grabbed from Costco (huge cakes, pretty good, cheap prices). Then we settled in for the night, and played rock band and watched Casino Royale on BluRay.

All in all, a really great time, with good friends.

Now, given that we had 30lbs of meat and fish, plus side dishes, for 10 people; you would have thought we'd have had more leftovers... Not a chance bubba. There wasn't a rib left, there was MAYBE a pound of brisket, and maybe a pound and a half of ham left over from all that.

... so I guess I really AM just overly fussy about my meat and it was as good as they said it was...

Yesterday, I took that leftover brisket, chopped it fine, and used it as the beef in my 2lb meat sauce. Along with that I used some nice hot Italian sausage that I was going to make as an appetizer for the BBQ but never got around to, the last of my fresh chili peppers, and the half bottle of left over red wine.

Oh my GOD that was good. The spicy smoked brisket and chilis gave the sauce a new kick, and depth of flavor that is just awesome.

Of course the best part of barbecue, is that all that food, including the shrimp and the sides (but not the desserts, or the brought in salmon filet), for 10 people, was less than $50 (we added it up; it was $48)... and we've still got leftover ham, and the meat sauce.

Nope, never going to regret buying that smoker one bit.