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Archive for June, 2010

Pulled Pork Pizza

Just a quick tip for you here: We made an amazing grilled pizza tonight.  I simply followed my usual grilled pizza recipe, but went with the following changes:

  • Used Show-Me instead of pizza sauce
  • Topped it with our leftover pulled pork, chopped red onions and shredded mozzarella cheese
  • When off the grill, topped with fresh cilantro and fresh squeezed lime juice

Really good! Try it.

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They say if you never make mistakes, you never learn anything, right?  I guess that’s why they also say ignorance is bliss. 

Well, tonight I suffered a nasty one. One I won’t be making again.  I’ve been buying my pork butts at the same, awesome butcher for years.  But, as I reported a few weeks ago, a new butcher featuring only the finest, free range, local organic meats opened up nearby, it’s convenient, and I have had some good experiences there.

Fatty, floppy, heavy: The way a pork butt should look. Not the way mine looked.

Yesterday when I went to this new butcher I picked up their one and only pork shoulder. (Why only one?)

Anyway, I noticed a few things that just didn’t seem right.  “It doesn’t look the same,” I mentioned to the butcher.  He wasn’t unfriendly or anything (in fact, they’re super nice there), but he sort of shrugged and went to go remove the skin.

Then when he showed it to me again, I asked what I always ask: Can you tie that for me?  But I noticed that it didn’t seem to need tying.  It looked like a solid block of pork, with no loose bits.  A not floppy pork butt is a little bit like a tight-skinned Basset Hound. I’ve definitely never seen a pork butt look so, well, rectangular and firm.

And then, what should have been the final straw, it weighed quite a bit less than butts I usually buy. Like three pounds less.  Was this thing even a pork butt? It had the right shape, but it just wasn’t as loose looking, or fatty looking as what I’ve cooked dozens of times in the past.

Anyway, I told myself, maybe this is what real quality pork shoulders look like and weigh.  Well, perhaps that’s still true, which makes me even more sorry to report: BLECH.  Maybe that’s harsh. But it was significantly LESS GOOD than the fatty, floppy, heavy pork butts I get at my usual butcher.

It’s good to try new things, so no regrets.  But sorry awesome butcher, that was some seriously not awesome pork butt.  And the lesson for anyone reading this: If you can see that a piece of meat isn’t right, don’t waste your money.  I’ve made that mistake in the past with briskets, steaks and now this, the barbecue mainstay, a pork butt.

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I remember when I first saw my Kamado, I got this “oh crap, what now” feeling. Gas grills were turn it on, turn it up, you’re done.  This in comparison seemed like some sort of 600 pound, brain teasing, sci-fi  space pod that might require NASA training to use.

I’ve noticed in the Blue State BBQ search logs that I’m not the only one who gets that feeling.  “How to use a Kamado” is fairly common question. 

Well, relax.  A Kamado is actually really easy. And believe it or not, you’re way less likely to ruin your food.

How a Kamado works – It’s all about oxygen

The Kamado is a simple machine.  Air flows in through the bottom, over the coals, and out the top.  The more air the coals get, the hotter they become.   But starve the coals of oxygen, and they cool down and burn for a very, very long time. 

You regulate air flow by using both the vent (left) and the damper (right). Note, in this photo, both are "very open." My Kamado would get to 500 degrees or so with this much air flow.

So, using a Kamado is really just about managing the amount of air flow, and it’s easy.   There’s a vent at the bottom. There’s another vent (or ‘damper’) at the top.  You either open the vents a lot for hot, or just a sliver for a slow cook.

Every other option is just steps in-between. And you can generally get the Kamado to within a few degrees of any target temperature.  (By the way, did you remember to buy a thermometer from Kamado?)

Oh, and when you’re done cooking, close both vents entirely. This cuts off all the oxygen, and in a short while, your fire is kaput.

What to do when you first get your Kamado

The first thing you need to do is buy some quality lump charcoal, start a low heat fire, and cure the cooking chamber.  I remember hearing that and thinking, oh great, what a pain. I never had to cure a gas grill!

So, let me say this differently.  The first thing you need to do when you get your Kamado is buy some quality lump charcoal, and slow cook a delicious pork butt.   Doesn’t that sound better?

Curing just means you need a slow, cool burn in the Kamado for about 24 hours to prep the clay for a long, healthy life.  That doesn’t mean you can’t cook a pork shoulder on the grill while doing so.  So follow the instructions here – but make sure you keep the temperature at 200 degrees, and not hotter. Do that, and ta-da, your Kamado is cured.

Lighting the grill

Open up your bottom vent widely. Open the damper widely.  You want maximum air flow.

Take your lump charcoal and make a pile on one side of the grill basin.  There aren’t that many recipes that require direct heat. More times than not, piling your coals on one side of the grill allows you to put your food on the other side, and avoid direct heat. 

You don’t need a basin full of charcoal.  Usually a shoe-box sized pile is plenty.  If I’m doing a really long cook, or per the above, curing the grill, you’ll definitely need more than that.  I’m just saying, don’t feel like you have to ‘fill up’ your Kamado with charcoal.  A modest sized pile is sufficient for most recipes.

This is a snip from my post about Charcoal on how to light the fire:

The way it lights: Not with a single match, to which I respond, so what? Lump charcoal is easy to light with a little help from sawdust bricks (e.g. Duraflame Firestart), which you can get at almost any grocery store these days.  These bricks are hunks of sawdust held together by a flammable wax, and are more eco-friendly than lighter fluid.  Tear 2 or 3 pieces off, place them strategically in your pile of charcoal, and sure, with a single match, you can light them. You’ll have a hot fire in about 30 minutes. In a hurry? Tear off 5 or 6 pieces instead.  Two weeks ago, I cooked chicken wings at 450 degrees, and I was able to get the grill to that temperature in about 15 minutes. No gas, no lighter fluid, and no loathsome briquettes.

While the coals are trying to get hot, go ahead and leave the lid of the Kamado completely open. You want as much air helping the process as much as possible.  But then close the lid for a good 3 to 5 minutes to check your temperature.

Getting the Temperature you want

The first tip here is to get the coals hotter than you need them to be, then cool them down.

So, for example, if you’re going to slow cook a pork butt at 200 degrees, get your Kamado up to about 300 (by allowing plenty of air flow), then close the top and bottom vents to where they’re practically sealed shut and watch the temperature drop.  Only the slightest amount of air needs to trickle through for a 200 degree cook.

How open or closed your vents need to be will depend a lot on the charcoal you’re using.  That’s why I recommend finding a brand of lump you like, then sticking with it, so you don’t have to re-learn how to adjust your air flow every time.

The second tip is one someone first told me when I got my grill.  The bottom vent tends to adjust temperatures by 10 degrees or more with each slight adjustment, whereas the damper on top tends to adjust temperatures by 5 degrees or less with each turn.

I’m not sure, to be perfectly honest. But the tip does make a good point: The bottom vent makes big changes happen, top vent makes smaller changes happen. So, first use the bottom vent to get close to your temperature, then the damper on top to get it to just where you want it.

Cooking

There’s not a lot to say here, other than keep the lid closed as much as possible, unless you’re instructed to do otherwise.  The biggest benefit of the Kamado is that the tight temperature control, plus the kiln-like atmosphere keeps the moisture in your food, and prevents unwanted flare ups.  Every time you open the lid, you chip away a little at that benefit.  So, keep it closed unless you’ve got work to do.

Being safe

Not much to know beyond using common sense.  But, one very important tip:

ALWAYS open your Kamado lid SLOWLY. Especially with hot cooks. Remember, cooking with the Kamado is essentially an exercise in oxygen starvation.  So, when you open that lid, there’s a risk of a bunch of hungry hot coals flaring up. WHOOSH! A fire eruption that can burn your eyebrows off.

By opening the lid slowly, religiously, you will never have that problem.

Cleaning

The ashes….

The good news is that the efficient burns in a Kamado, in combination with quality lump charcoal, you’re not going to generate nearly as much ash as a kettle grill.  You’ll be surprised how infrequently you need to remove ashes, if you use quality charcoal. The bad news, there is ash, it does pile up and that restricts air flow. So, eventually you’ll need to clean it out, and it’s a pain.

You either need to get the ash out through the lower vent, which requires a skinny trowel and a lot of patience. Or, you need to get the ash out through the basin, which means you have to take out any left over coals, and that’s a dirty, annoying job.

One person tells me they use a shop vac.  I haven’t tried that, but it sounds like a nice solution.

The damper….

So, I had to learn this the hard way.  The upper damper is really just like a giant screw. There’s a threaded post that runs into the Kamado lid. Turns out, this bugger needs to be cleaned every now and then, or it will get stuck. Like, you’ll need to remove it with a blow torch stuck (not kidding).  So, at least once or twice a summer, you’ll want to unscrew the damper completely, and clean off the threaded peg.  I have also started lubricating it, before putting it back.

The outside of the Kamado….

It’s just ceramic tile, so I just use an all purpose kitchen cleaner.

The inside of the cooking chamber….

The chamber does get blackened with soot, and will stay that way. So don’t expect that the cream colored clay you see when you first get the grill is something you’ll ever see again after the first few cooks.  However, I sometimes get a little freaked out by some of the grime that builds up.

So every now and then, to clean both the inside and the grill grate, I’ll torch the thing with really high temperatures. After I’m done cooking a meal, instead of closing off the grill, I’ll open the vents completely, and let the Kamado get up to 500 or even 600 degrees, and let it burn with the lid closed until the coals are gone. Anything creepy at 600 degrees for an hour or two seems to disintegrate.  I have no idea if this is necessary, but I know it makes me feel better. 

One last tip

I didn’t care for the clay air sieve at the bottom of the Kamado basin. I’m referring to the round, clay disc that separates the cooking basin (where you put the coals) and the ash pit below.  The Kamado provides this custom fit item, that’s made from clay, and it has a dozen or so holes in it to allow air to pass through.

I found that the air flow was too restrictive, because the holes tended to get clogged with ash or small bits of lump charcoal.

I removed mine, and put in cheap, small, wire grill grate that I bought at the hardware store.  I found the traditional grate allows more air to flow up, and more ash to flow down, so my temperatures are more consistent and easy to control.

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A case of awesome.

A summer supply of my favorite barbecue sauce just arrived.   

In case you’re wondering, a case of 12 (21 oz) bottles goes for $27.  A case of 6 half gallon jugs goes for $41.50.  A case of 4 gallon jugs goes for $53.

I always buy the 21oz bottles for a silly reason. Even though the Show-Me folks insist — and I mean, with bold AND underlined sentences — that Show-Me Liquid Smoke doesn’t need to be refrigerated, I refrigerate it anyway.  In our house, we call that erring on the side of caution.

Anyway, the 21 oz bottles fit nicely in the refrigerator door, whereas the bigger jugs don’t.

(The Show-Me folks: 573-442-5309)

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Killer sandwich? Perhaps literally.

Don’t get me wrong. The Country Cousin is one of those amazing, roadside family restaurants that I find vastly preferable to Denny’s, and the lot. If you’re anywhere near Exit 82 off the I-5 and you’re in the mood for some excellent homestyle cookin’, this is your place.

Not to mention, it’s fun to make jokes about country cousins, even if you’re not allowed to explain them to your kids.

So, while I’m happy to recommend this place, I have to say, the Country Cousin served me the weirdest pulled pork sandwich I’ve ever eaten. 

It’s my own fault. I saw “BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich” as one of the night’s dinner specials, and I didn’t bother to read the small print. Mistake. The pork arrived as a sad, thin layer of sweet pulled barbecue stuffed inside a buttery, gooey, toasted grilled cheese sandwich.

Surprised, but not discouraged, I took one big, optimistic bite, American cheese and all.  Ummmm….. From there, I opted to eat the pulled pork with a fork, leaving the rest of the sandwich behind.

I think this is one of those things that Big Cousin John thought was good eatin’ one time, and so it made it on the menu. But, sorry Big John. I think we’re still better off with EITHER a grilled cheese OR a pulled pork sandwich, not both. 

(But don’t miss the onion rings. Really good!)

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I’d like to say tonight’s rib-vs-rib taste test was a well coordinated culinary laboratory effort. But truth is, it was just a side effect of my old age, and the accompanying onset of senility.

I simply didn’t buy enough ribs for our dinner guests (aw, crap!), so I had to go out and buy more at a different butcher, and so I ended up with both free range and regular pork ribs on the table at the same time. Fortunately, I’m not SO senile that I didn’t — both literally and figuratively — smell an opportunity.

 It was a chance to take two kinds of baby back ribs, prepped and cooked exactly the same way, and form an opinion on taste.  Which would be better? The meatier, more robust, light pink traditional pork? Or the nearly red, leaner and smaller free range pork? Four adults and five of kids took on the challenge.

Quick note: What’s free range?

This is a USDA label that a meat producer can use if their cows, pigs, chickens, etc. are permitted to go outdoors.   Keep in mind, the actual terminology is “permitted access to the outside,” so we’re not necessarily talking about fantasy farm, here, with mud slides, slop cones and sty dancing. But it does mean that the pigs can root around in the dirt a lot more, which I’m told, significantly increases the amount of iron in the meat (and thus the noticeably redder hue).

Here are the results.

I could definitely taste a difference, but it was close.  On the one hand, it almost seemed like the free range ribs had a stronger flavor that was a slightly better complement to the hickory smoke and my particular style of rub.  On the other hand, I liked the more substantial, almost lighter tasting traditional pork, too.  So, there was a difference, but in my opinion, it was too slim to persuade me to always choose over another based on taste alone.

That said, I was the only one who thought it was a toss-up.

The rest of the crew definitely favored the free range pork.  They noted a texture difference (which may have been because of the smaller size). But it was also a flavor issue.  The word ‘richer’ was used a few times, and I don’t disagree.

So, there you have it: 8 said free range (including one 3 year old), and 1 said too close to call.   Make sure to ask your butcher for the good stuff.

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Duck a la Kamado

I’d say I’ve only had two kinds of duck: “Fancy French” duck, and “Crispy Asian” duck. I guess I might also add “Crappy Inedible” duck, because of that first time I tried to roast my own. So, it was with a lot of excitement, but also anxiety, that I took on barbecued duck.  Especially since I couldn’t find any consensus out there on the best way to do it.

When I read through the forums and about 10 different cookbooks, only a few things really stood out for me.

First, you have to deal with the fat.  That means either steaming in advance, which for some reason seems like cheating to me. I know that’s irrational, but who said we’re rational here? Or you need to score, pin-prick the skin and/or hang the duck while cooking.

Second, you have to cook slow, then crank the heat up at the end.  Nobody wants a duck with a saggy, gooey skin.  You need to crisp things up with heat in the final moments. Makes sense.

And finally, ducks take time.  This isn’t like cooking hot wings.

But I could know all of that, and still make a bad tasting duck.  Where were the marinades, rubs, sauces and whatnot for the barbecue?  I didn’t want to take a French or Chinese recipe and just grill it.  I wanted a BBQ Duck.

I was really happy with the recipe below.  It came off the grill crisp on the outside, not too fatty, and cooked nicely.  But best of all, it had that sweet, smoky barbecue flavor that makes the whole idea of grilling a duck seem worth it.

So, here’s my Franken-recipe for duck.

Oh….an update …. If you do want a more Asian style duck, click here for my Honey Ginger Duck.

Prep

You will need a drip pan. I went with a large, aluminum bread loaf pan.

Stabilize the grill at 200 degrees.

Make sure the coals are off to one side. I used a handful of hickory on top of the coals.

Prepare your rub:

  • 2 Tbs Dark Brown Sugar
  • 2 tsp of garlic salt
  • 2 tsp of paprika
  • 1 tsp of black pepper
  • Optional – 1 tsp of cayenne pepper

Wash the duck, pat dry, apply the rub inside and out.

Using a metal skewer, poke holes in various places around the duck, but not through the breast for aesthetic reasons.  I found it most useful to poke several holes from inside the chest cavity through the back of the duck.

Cooking

  • Place the drip tray away from the coals
  • Place the duck, breast side up, away from the coals and directly over the drip tray
  • You may want to check on the duck later, to make sure the fat is draining the way you want to.  Poking a few more holes in the skin may be necessary.
  • The rule of thumb is roughly 60 minutes per pound at 200 degrees. Adjust if you’re running hotter or cooler.
  • Leave yourself 10 to 15 minutes toward the end of your cook to let the oxygen in, drive up the temperature, and crisp the skin.  Note: Keep a close eye on the duck to avoid over-cooking.
  • As with chicken, 165 internal temperature is considered safely cooked.  But given the slow cook, you should have no issue there.

I served Duck last night with a side of nothing, and imaginary sauce, then followed the meal with an ice cream sandwich.  Try getting THAT at Cafe Martinique.

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