Monday, July 5, 2010

A Rib by any other name….

By now you’ve figured out that I like to smoke meat.

I LOVE to smoke meat….

And yet, sometimes I HATE to smoke meat.

Like most guys, I love the process of building a fire and using it to cook a chunk of dead animal flesh. The process of taming a fire… making it submit to your will… harnessing its destructive nature to your own ends… taking a piece of meat and turning it into something succulent… oh yeah, baby… I’m there all the way.

Except for when I realize what a general pain in the ass smoking meat can be.

Like now, for instance.

It’s July in Oklahoma… where the temperature is high, and the humidity nearly so. We’re enjoying an unnatural cool spell this Fourth of July weekend, with temps in the high ‘80’s and relative humidity in the mid 50%’s. Not unpleasant at all… but not what I call comfortable weather either. I personally like it in the high ‘50’s… 30-40% humidity… northerly breezes… in other words… FALL WEATHER. Problem is… smoking in cool temps can be a pain too.

Smoking in the summertime means lots of heat and humidity… bugs… schlepping in and out of the house to check on the smoker and the fire. I suppose I could stay outside by the smoker, but I’m just not that into sitting in the heat and sweating when there’s a nice air conditioned room and a recliner calling my name.

Whether I sit in the house, or sit by the smoker, by the time I’m done I’ve inhaled enough smoke to make a fireman gasp, and sweated a good 10 pounds off. Especially if I’m smoking briskets or pork butts, because I allow a minimum of 12 hours for those. The Last thing I want to do is come inside and eat a big bunch of smoked meat.

Smoking in the fall is great… it’s cool outside… I get to listen to the leaves rustling in the trees… those dry, cool fall breezes, and let's face it... there's absolutely nothing better on a cool fall day than the smell of wood smoke on the air. But I still inhale a ton of smoke, and if the weather is cool to cold, I burn a ton of wood just keeping the smoker up to temp.

Summer or fall, the efficiency and utilization of wood just isn’t what I’d like it to be.

And my old smokebox was especially problematic if I wanted to cold smoke something, like bacon. I do a lot of bacon, both American and Canadian styles, as well as cold smoking various sausages. My old steel, convection style smoker just wouldn’t go low enough to adequately cold smoke what I wanted.

Enter the new kid on the block.

My best friend bought a new smoker a year or so ago, and much to my surprise, it was an electric model. Now to understand my surprise, you have to know that my buddy has smoked competitively in the past on the KCBS circuit, and has a smoker that’s roughly 9 feet long, 36” in diameter and can easily smoke a whole cow at once. So imagine my surprise when he bought this little dorm-fridge sized electric jobber to smoke meat in. I shouldn’t have been too surprised, because another of my bud’s great qualities is that he never buys anything without thinking it through and doing his research.

So… finally I got to where the old smoker was in need of replacing, and I decided to join the ranks of the converts. I happened into my local Sam’s Club one day, and found a great deal on a model comparable to the one he bought.

Right off the bat, I fell in love. The digital temperature control goes from 90 to 250 degrees, with a 24 hour timer. There are 4 large racks that can each hold a 15 pound brisket, or two 10 pound pork butts easily. The model I purchased had a window in it, which I was seriously skeptical about (at first), as well as an interior light and meat probe. It has an interior heating element in the bottom that burns wood chips inserted through a hopper in the side. The hopper will hold about a large cup of chips, which you place in the hopper, slide it in, and rotate to drop the chips onto the heater. There’s a stainless steel water tray, as well as a nice stainless catch tray in the bottom that diverts all the drippings out of the smoker and into a catch tray mounted on the back side at the bottom. The entire interior is stainless steel, with the meat probe located in the middle of the smoker, with a good length of wire on it.

Since I’ve started using this little gem, I’ve fallen back in love with smoking. Not only is it far less work, the temperature control is a no brainer. About every 45-60 minutes, I drop a new load of wood chips into the hopper, and that’s it. The catch on the lid is an adjustable type (think about the lid on a tackle box), which makes for a great, tight seal. The damper is located on the top, and is easily adjustable.

For bacon or sausage, I just take out all the shelves except the top one, and hang the meat from there with whatever hanger or hook I need. Cold smoking temperature is easily maintained, and the subtleness of the smoke is hands down better than my old smoker. My older unit would really put a layer of smoke on the meat, giving the finished product an almost black appearance. Now I realize that I had a lot of control over this by playing with the dampers, etc. and regulating how much heat and smoke I applied to the meat, but again… I don’t want to be tied to the smoker for 12 to 16 hours.

The new electric smoker puts a much more subtle amount of smoke on the meat. It still tastes just as good in all the right ways, but without the excessive, smoke laden qualities of the old one.

Am I a sellout?

Do I lose my membership in the smokeeater’s club?

Honestly, I don’t think I’m worrying about this one too much.

Smoking meat is essentially the application of smoke, heat and time, all in the proper proportions. And as with any type of cooking, you can work smart or you can work hard. Personally, if I can work smart, and get results like I worked hard... I win.

And anytime I can find something that gives me better results with less effort, that’s a hands down win in my book. And because it’s so much freakin’ easier to smoke meat now, I find myself smoking more often. That, coupled with the new vacuum sealer (that’s another post in itself), means I’m putting more meat in the freezer for later consumption.

I’ll let the pictures below make my case…….

Smoking on FoodistaSmoking

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I'm Baaaaaaaacccckkkk....
Yeah, yeah, I know... I been busy.

But I finally got some time to try something new. Something I've been wanting to try for several years now and lacked the info and nerve to try.

Guess I'm getting older, and maybe a bit wiser... or at least I found a good reference to show me the basics on......


Yep, those little corn wrapped logs of Mexican lovin...

I've loved tamales just about my whole life. In my early years, I thought tamales were something that came from a can. As I got older, I learned that, well... they do come in a can.
In all fairness, in my little corner of the world, we didn't even really get any good Mexican restaurants until the last 15 or so years... so it's no wonder I grew up in what was essentially a tamale wastland.
Oh, sure... I could get those parchment wrapped, grease laden things in the can... in fact, that was ALL I could get.

Flash forward to the present... so much has changed.... we now have the Interweb thingy... HiDef Flat Screen TeeVees, DVR's, MRE's, a worldwide recession, economic meltdowns, illegal immigrations, Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi....
Maybe those inned tamales weren't so bad after all.... but I digress.

It's no secret I'm an Alton Brown fan. I love the science behind the cooking. I'm at heart a 'why' kinda guy. You can tell me how to do something, but unless I understand the 'why' I'm doing it, and the 'what' that's really happening, I pretty much don't get it, nor do I care. I'm just not the kind of person who can insert tab A into Slot B and be happy.

Recently, the Good Eats tamale episode re-aired, and I got it recorded on my DVR, and watched it on my HiDef Flat Screen TeeVee, then did some research on the Interweb. Net effect was I now felt I was, finally, once and for all, equipped for the challenge of making tamales.

As with most things we undertake, it was much simpler than expected (I said that about childbirth once, and the look I got from the wife.... well, never again....)

The ingredient list is pretty simple, the process even more so. I won't kid you... it takes a little practice making the tamales, but I did my second pass today, and I'm now considering myself a tamale expert.

Here's the recipe...

Group 1
2-3 pound boneless pork shoulder, cubed in 2" chunks

Group 2
1/4 cup chili powder
1 tbsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp garlic powder
2 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp black pepper
1 1/2 tsp fresh roasted and ground cumin seeds (or plain ground cumin is fine, too)

Mix this all together. We'll use half in a second, and the other half later.

Oh yeah, I used a couple teaspoons of hickory smoked salt.

Group 3
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 jalapeno, seeds removed, finely chopped

Group 4
2 pounds yellow corn masa (or corn meal, but the texture is much coarser)
1 tbsp baking powder
1 1/2 tbsp kosher salt
8 ounces lard (yes, LARD)

1 large package dried corn shucks

Put the cubed pork into a pot or dutch oven with enough water to cover, add half of the spice mix from Group 2 and bring to a boil.

Lower heat to medium/low and simmer for about 3 hours, until pork shreds when looked at sternly. Remove from pan to cool and shred. Remove cooking liquid to a bowl so it can cool too.
In the same pan, add the contents of Group 3, and cook for a couple of minutes. Then add the shredded pork, set temp to medium/low and simmer for another hour. At this time, heat up a large pot of water to boiling, and submerge your dried corn shucks into the water to soften up. Once the water boils, remove from the heat, and let soak while the pork is cooking the second time.
The pork after the second cooking.

Oh yeah.... it's THAT good....

Remove the pork to the bowl to cool again. Unless, that is, you like dipping your fingers into scalding hot meat.

Get a large mixing bowl, and add the stuff in Group 4.
Mix the masa and baking powder together first, then add the lard, pinching it with your fingers like you would if making biscuit dough. Once the mix is grainy/mealy, add about 2 cups of the cooled cooking liquid. Work it into the dough. Add more as necessary. You're looking for a fairly dry dough but wet enough that it holds together when you squeeze it into a ball. If it's too dry, your tamale will fall apart.
Take a wet corn shuck from the pot, and place it on the counter.
Roll out a ball of dough, slightly bigger than a golf ball. If you don't play golf, then make it about as big as a large egg. If you don't eat eggs, close this browser window, turn off your computer, and go away... far away...
I usually roll the ball into a tube to make the flattening a little more easy.

Using moistened fingers (a wet corn shuck works GREAT), spread the dough into a roughly oval or rectangular shape. The more rectangular, the better, in my opinion.

Take a large pinch of the meat mixture (probably about a good tablespoon full) and place it in the middle of the dough, spreading it out longwise. DON'T overfill the dough, or you won't get the tamale closed... and then you've got tamale casserole. Still good... but not what we're going for here.

Tuck and roll the tamale up in the shuck. Fold the narrow end up to seal, leaving the 'wide' end open.

Repeat this until all the dough, meat or corn shucks are gone. If you get lucky, they all run out pretty much at the same time. If not, at least hope you run out of dough or shucks first, because the meat is worth eating all by itself...
Once they're all wrapped up, place them sealed end down in the pot you've been using (unless you're REALLY into washing dishes). If there's more pot than tamales, put a coffee cup or something in the pot to fill the empty space.

Cover, bring to a boil, then drop the heat to medium and cook for another hour to hour and a half.

Oh, and you probably want to try to make all the tamales the same length... preferably one that will fit in your pan... otherwise you get some that stick up above the rim, and some that don't... which makes using a lid sort of problematic at best....
UNLESS... you're a quick thinker....

Yes, that's a mixing bowl on top of my pot.... don't laugh... it worked.
Once they're done, remove them from the pot to a holding dish, and reduce the cooking liquid by about a third. This really ups the flavor. If you want a thicker gravy, mix up some masa with water, and use it to thicken the liquid, much like a roux.
Unwrap, add some sauce, and tear into your homemade tamales.

Oh yeah, baby....
For the perfect sauce for these, I'd heartily recommend Chilebrown's red chili sauce. Tried to direct link, but I couldn't find it.... Drop him a line... I'm sure he'll cough it up.
As usual... if I can do it, so can you.... if you like tamales, there's no reason not to give this a try.
I used a 4 pound shoulder, and adjusted everything accordingly. When I was done, I had 32 tamales. Ate a couple, and vacuum sealed the rest for later enjoyment.