Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Me and my stovetop smoker

I can be stubborn. And when a notion gets a hold of my imagination, it doesn’t matter if the experts and authorities wag their fingers and say, “It ain’t ever gonna happen,” I just keep on trying until I’ve decided for myself that it isn’t meant to be.

Take my stovetop smoker. I live in what can be called the barbecue district of Manhattan. RUB is right around the corner, Hill Country is a few blocks up, and Blue Smoke and Wildwood are both a quick stroll over to the east side. There is no shortage of smoked-meat options for whenever I get that itch, so why have I become obsessed with smoking my own meat in my own kitchen? There is no need for this, not to mention the results I get with a stovetop smoker will never be as good if I just leave my apartment and walk a few steps. But inexplicably, I’ve spent a good chunk of my time the past few months trying to make barbecue at home.

Now my stovetop smoker has done a commendable job on certain tasks: vegetables, poultry and fish all taste incredible when subjected to this type of cooking, all turning out moist with a subtle hint of alder, mesquite or oak. But that’s not Texas barbecue, now is it? I want to make brisket, sausage and ribs! And yet, while I keep trying, I still haven’t gotten anywhere closer to the real thing.

Last week, Mark Bittman’s column in the Wednesday New York Times explained how to use your broiler as a stand in for a grill if you don’t have access to the great outdoors. And on Friday, Grub Street ran a tutorial on how to make barbecue Hill Country style. Neither advised on how to use a stovetop smoker, but I decided to combine the essence of each article and see if I could make a moist, smoky brisket.

I’ve been keeping records of my various smoking experiments, and each time I get a little bit closer to what I seek. Grub Street, however, advised against even attempting to smoke a brisket at home as the cuts you get at the store (or at least in New York City) will never taste right. OK, duly noted, but you can’t fault me for trying. This weekend, to protect myself from complete heartbreak (and from my guests going hungry), I decided to also pick up a couple of slabs of spare ribs, you know, just in case.

For both types of meat, I did a simple rub of salt, pepper, mustard and cayenne. I chose to use oak chips in my stovetop smoker, as it burns sweet and clean. After cooking my brisket in the smoker for about seven hours and then crisping it under the broiler, it was falling-apart tender with a nice spicy crust. No smoke ring (and sadly, not even much of a smoky flavor), but it was good eating.

The ribs, however, were a greater success. I left them in the smoker for two hours, wrapped them in foil with some apple juice and cooked them in the oven one more hour. After running them under the broiler for a few minutes, they also were super moist with a good char. Plus, the smoke flavor was more pronounced in the ribs, perhaps because the meat is less thick.

Will my kitchen ever be a stand in for a proper pit or a backyard? Sadly, no. The light is bright and there are a few plants, but the wood floor isn’t grass and the white ceiling isn’t the sky. I have fond memories of my father getting up before dawn to smoke briskets for my family’s summer parties, and there’s nothing like that distinctive waft of sweet smoke to wake me up and say, "Pass the pickles and jalapenos, please!" (Because that's what I like with my barbecue.)

But even if my stovetop smoker doesn’t make the best barbecue, it excels at making my apartment fragrant with burning oak. Yes, it's basically a homesick Texan aromatherapy machine. But that's just fine because when I crank up the Willie Nelson, close my eyes and take a deep breath, I’m this much closer to home.

Stovetop smoker pork spare ribs
2 slabs of pork spare ribs trimmed St. Louis style
A few tablespoons of cayenne, salt, black pepper and spicy yellow mustard (or the rub of your choice)
A stovetop smoker

1. Clean the meat under lukewarm water, pat dry, and then generously rub yellow mustard, salt, pepper and cayenne all over the meat. Let meat come to room temperature, which will take about an hour. (If you want the rub to sit on the meat longer, put it in the refrigerator and then bring to room temperature before you cook it).
2. Place a quarter cup of wood chips in the bottom of your stovetop smoker (I like to use oak), place slabs of ribs on the rack, and then place on the stove over high heat with the lid ajar. When wafts of smoke leave the smoker, close the lid and turn heat down to medium low. Cook meat in the smoker for two hours.
3. Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. After two hours, take the meat out of the smoker. Place it in a pan and pour over it a half cup of apple juice. Tightly cover it with foil and cook in the oven an hour.
4. After an hour, take the meat out the liquid and run it under the broiler for a few minutes on each side.
5. Ribs should be tender with a bit of a pull and a nice crust. Serves four to six.
Notes: If you don’t have a stovetop smoker, I reckon you could brown the ribs in a skillet, and then braise them in the oven for three hours before running them under the broiler. If you want to make babyback ribs, they take less time to cook, about an hour less. Beef ribs should take about an hour more.

Keep reading...
Friday, May 23, 2008

Something to chew on

Have you seen the June issue of Texas Monthly yet? It's their BBQ08 issue, and while the usual suspects make an appearance, there's a new king (or rather queen) of Texas barbecue. Readers—meet Tootsie.

Curious how the editors rate the restaurants? Assistant editor David Courtney reveals his secrets on how to eat at nine barbecue places in just one day. Makes my stomach sigh just thinking about it. Nice work if you can get it, eh?

For those of us in New York, Hill Country gets a shout out. (Did you know that they are now serving an amazing weekend brunch with house-smoked bacon, migas, chicken-fried steak, cheese enchiladas, breakfast tacos and biscuits?). And The Big Apple BBQ is coming up in two weeks; I highly recommend the Fast Pass. Sadly, Southside Market isn't returning this year, but Salt Lick and Baker's Ribs will be setting up their pits to represent the home state.

Happy Memorial Day!

Keep reading...
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

How to render lard

Lard. I have to admit that for most of my life that I’ve been terrified of the stuff. Be it schoolyard taunts that used the word, or the absence of it at both the grocery store and in my childhood home—I believed that it was bad news and something to be avoided.

A few years ago, I embarked on a quest to teach myself how to make flour tortillas. The first recipe I found listed lard as a key ingredient. I was scared at first, but I sought out a pound of it as my love for flour tortillas triumphed over my fear of pig fat. And while that initial foray into flour tortillas proved futile, I did discover that lard isn’t so bad, in fact, often it’s my preferred fat of choice.

People think that cooking with lard will make everything taste of pork, but this is not true; its flavor is neutral. What it does, however, is create incredible texture and structure. With lard, you’ll fry chicken that is both moist and crisp. With lard, you’ll make a tender pie crust that flakes. With lard, you’ll make airy French fries that crunch. With lard, you’ll cook refried beans that caress your mouth like velvet. With lard, you’ll steam tamales that are soft and fluffy. And with lard, you’ll bake ginger cookies that snap.

But the best thing about lard is that it’s not bad for you. It has less saturated fat (the bad fat) than butter, while it also has more than twice as much monosaturated fat (the good fat) than butter. And it has none of those pesky trans fats—that is, if it hasn’t been hydrogenated to prolong its shelf life.

And that, my friends, is the problem. Most lard you find at the grocery store has been hydrogenated to make it shelf stable indefinitely, which robs it of its good qualities. Some butchers will sell freshly rendered lard that has not been hydrogenated (clue: if it’s not refrigerated than it’s not the good kind of lard), but it’s also quite simple to render it yourself.

For years, I heard stories about how difficult and malodorous the lard-rendering process was. My opinion changed, however, after a visit to my grandparents’ farm last August. As we were looking through old family albums, I found a fantastic photo of my great-grandfather standing outside stirring a large cauldron with a long stick. The caption? “Dad rendering lard. Dec. 1940.” It seems that lard was the fat of choice for both my grandparents growing up, and when I looked through some old family recipes, I saw that indeed many of them called for that fat.

When I returned to New York I decided it was time to render my own lard. And after a visit to the Union Square Greenmarket to pick up some pig fat, I was well on my way to being in hog heaven.

If you’ve never rendered lard before, trust me, it’s very, very easy. And the best thing is that when you’re done you can look at your supply of white, luscious fat and have a blast dreaming of the culinary possibilities each jar contains.

How to Render Lard
What you need:
A pound or so of pig fat, either leaf lard or fat back. Leaf lard is the best grade of lard and is preferred for pastry, while fat back is the next-best grade of lard and is appropriate for frying. Each pound of fat will yield about a pint of lard.
A big pot
A lard stick (though a wooden spoon will suffice)
Some water
Some containers—Mason jars work nicely.

What to do:
1. Open your kitchen window.
2. After buying your fat, preferably from a farmer or butcher that treats its hogs humanely, chop it up into little pieces.
3. In a Dutch oven or heavy, large pot, add about a half of a cup of water to the pot, and then add the cubed fat.
4. On the stove, heat the pot on medium low, stirring occasionally (every 10 minutes).
5. After the fat starts melting (about an hour), you’ll hear some very loud pops. Do not be alarmed—that is just the last gasp of air and moisture leaving what will soon become cracklings (little fried pieces of pork). Now is the time to start stirring more often.
6. Soon after, the cracklings will start floating on the surface. Keep stirring frequently, but be careful—you don’t want the fat popping out of the pot and burning you.
7. When the cracklings sink to the bottom, the lard has been rendered.
8. Let it cool, and then pour it into containers through a colander or strainer lined with cheesecloth. The cracklings will be left behind in the cheesecloth and these make for a fine, fine snack, especially sprinkled over salad if that’s not too perverse for you.
9. The lard will be a yellowish liquid. This is what it’s supposed to look like.
10. Refrigerate it overnight and when it solidifies it will turn white. It will keep in the refrigerator for about three months, and the freezer for up to a year.

Keep reading...
Monday, May 05, 2008

Migas in the morning

“Austin is long on music, migas and markets”—Molly Ivins

If you’ve ever had breakfast in Austin, chances are you’ve had a plate of migas. This dish of eggs scrambled with fried corn tortilla strips, salsa and cheese is ubiquitous in some of the Texas capital city’s most popular breakfast spots, including Las Manitas where it’s almost a crime not to order their marvelous migas. I have fond memories of spending lazy mornings in this bustling Congress Avenue diner, scooping spoonfuls of the crunchy, cheesy eggs and bacon-laced refried beans into fluffy flour tortillas. There’s no better way to start the day.

I took a holiday from my office last week and subsequently decided to take a holiday from the Internet as well. Do you remember what life was like before we became beholden to the Interweb machine? I had forgotten, and it was satisfying spending most of my time in the real world. Though I have to admit that not only did I upset my mom when I didn’t respond to an e-mail from her within 24 hours but I am also now woefully behind on correspondence with others. No matter, I haven’t felt this recharged in years!

One of the things I insisted on doing every morning was starting my day with a satisfying meal, the kind of food that normally I just don’t have the time to either make at home or linger over in a breakfast spot. One of the things I craved was migas. You won’t find migas on menus here in New York City but there is something a bit similar, chilaquiles, which someone I know insists is just a fancy-pants way of saying migas. But I have to disagree.

There have been endless debates if chilaquiles and migas are the same thing. There’s no need to question this further: there is indeed a difference, however slight. Chilaquiles, which are also made with fried tortilla strips, traditionally are just the tortillas, salsa and cheese; you don’t need eggs for the dish to qualify as chilaquiles. Furthermore, to make chilaquiles the salsa is added to the pan with the fried tortilla strips before anything else is added to the pan, whereas with migas the salsa is added at the end. Likewise, Tex-Mex migas are nothing without eggs; they don’t come any other way.

Then, to make things even more confusing, you have your Spanish migas, a dish I ate every Saturday morning when I spent time in Granada my junior year. The word migas in Spanish means “crumbs” and like Tex-Mex migas, Spanish migas are a way to use up something stale, in this case bread instead of corn tortillas. The bread is torn into pieces, soaked in water overnight and then cooked in chorizo fat and served with said sausage and fried eggs. A hearty way to start the day, much like Tex-Mex migas.

This dish is designed to use up your old stale tortillas, though if you only have fresh ones the end result will not suffer. You can use any kind of salsa you have on hand as well—migas taste just as good with a green sauce as with a red. While cheese is pretty much a must, you can also jazz these up with crumbled Mexican chorizo, chopped poblanos, bacon, pico de gallo, onions or whatever else you have lying around. And that’s the beauty of migas—as long as you have your fried tortillas, eggs, cheese and salsas, you can add anything else you like.

How do you eat your migas?

8 eggs
1/4 cup of milk or half-and-half
1/3 cup of peanut oil
4 corn tortillas cut into strips
1/2 an onion diced (about 1/2 a cup)
4 jalapeno peppers diced
1 cup of shredded cheese such as Longhorn cheddar or Monterrey Jack
1 to 2 cups of salsa
1 cup of cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a bowl, whisk eggs together with milk. Add a dash of salt and pepper.
2. In a large iron skillet, heat up peanut oil on medium-high, and place tortilla strips into skillet, cooking for about three minutes, turning once. Remove the tortilla strips with a slotted spoon to a paper-towel-lined plate. Drain the oil from the skillet leaving 2 tablespoons in the skillet.
3. Add onions and jalapenos to the pan, and cook for a couple of minutes
4. Add egg mixture and tortilla strips to the skillet and let eggs sit for about one minute or until set on the bottom and then gently stir.
5. Sprinkle cheese on top of eggs and continue to cook until melted.
6. Add salt and pepper to taste and top eggs with salsa and cilantro.
Serves four. And note that migas go mighty fine with refried beans and flour tortillas.

Keep reading...