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Archive for April, 2011

Cheeseburger Gallery

I do like a cheeseburger.  And apparently so do a lot of other people.  My post on how to make a cheeseburger that doesn’t fall apart  is by far the most popular thing I’ve ever put on this blog.  But a closer look at the search keywords that bring people to the cheeseburger post reveals that, while some people do want to cook cheeseburgers, at least as many people are just looking for pictures of cheeseburgers. 

So, since we’re all about service here at the Blue State BBQ, here is a gallery of cheeseburgers.   I hope you find the one you’re looking for.

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Big bags of old pork. Er, I mean, “Country Ham.”

(Part One) Some things just don’t seem like a good idea. For example, taking a giant piece of pork and letting it hang on a hook to mold for a year or so, and then eating it.  Yet, that’s exactly the plan here at Blue State BBQ this weekend.

I bought not just one, but two 14 pound country hams today, which I admit may seem excessive. But the logic goes like this: Next weekend is Easter, and I’m in for providing the in-laws with a smoked ham. Well, I know almost nothing about Easter, but I do know this about religious holidays: There’s hell to pay if the ham’s no good.

That’s why this weekend is all about the practice ham. And of course, it has to be a Country Ham.

So what’s a Country Ham — also known as a Virginia Ham or a Salt-Cured Ham?   While there are plenty of poetic portrayals of ham curing, including many comparisons to fine wine making, the reality is pretty straightforward. These are whole hams that are intensely brined, making the meat so salty that it keeps. For months.  And months.   And months.

And theoretically, just like the dry-aged beef story, you end up with a ham full of “mellow, rich, aromatic flavors.”  But I think that’s probably just Virginian for “wow, that’s one salty ham.”  Chances are, whenever you’ve had a truly outstanding bite of smoky, salty ham, it was probably salt cured and dry aged.

Here’s the next thing you need to know about a Country Ham.  It takes three days to prepare.  So,that’s why today is just part one.

Prepping the Ham

You need to be a bit mentally prepared to open up your salt cured ham.  Here, you’ve forked over a fistful of cash for this so-called premium pork, then you open it, and you think there must have been some sort of horrible mistake.

Like fine wine.

It’s smelly. It’s a weird color. It is visibly moldy. A lot moldy.

But rest assured, that’s actually what you paid for. 

What you need is a new, wire brush. The same kind you would use to clean your grill grate. I put the ham in the sink, had a small flow of cold water running, and using the brush, had the crusty mold easily removed in just a few minutes.   No big deal. Except for the part where I washed my hands for 10 minutes afterward with carpenter’s soap, because I was a bit freaked out.

The next step is a multi-day process.  Submerge the ham in a cooler of water, adding a few ice cubes.  And then, every 6 hours or so after that, replace the water.

What you’re doing here is using water to suck out all the salt that was previously pushed in.  I’ve read at least a dozen variations on the formula for doing this just right.  There are differences of opinion on how many days to do this and how often to change the water.  Some of these opinions seem to be a matter of taste.  The less time in the water, the saltier the ham.  I made my decision by taking the advice of the butcher’s wife. 

She hasn’t been wrong yet, and she makes a great Chow Chow. She said to keep the ham in water for 3 days, changing the water 3 or 4 times a day. So, that’s the plan.

(Part Two)

I first submerged the ham in water on a Thursday morning.  And I confess, seeing that big hunk of pork soaking in a cooler, hour after hour, then day after day, failed to have the usual barbecue-bliss effect on me. Instead, I started having flashbacks to my favorite show,“Dexter.” If you don’t know what that means exactly, let’s just say this de-brining process can be a bit grotesque, even for a shameless bbq carnivore like me.

 By Saturday afternoon, I wasn’t seeing any more discoloration of the water, so I decided, enough was enough. Either that, or it was just wishful thinking on my part, so I could get past this creepy component of the prep.

 I decided to get the coals hot, and cook the thing. 

(Part Three)

 Well, good news bad news.

The good news is: I made a fantastic glaze for the Country Ham. Half a bear of honey, mixed with pineapple juice, ground cloves and dry mustard.  The outside of my Country Ham was delicious. The bad news is: I absolutely destroyed my Country Ham. Consider this part of the tale, “What NOT to do.”   

Here’s what went wrong, and I think it’s worth writing about so that you don’t make the same mistake.  If you don’t care, then jump to Part Four below.

There are two kinds of recipes I found on various barbecue forums out there. One version says, roast the ham in a shallow bath of water at about 350 degrees, skin the ham when cooked, then glaze it and finish it on high temperature either on the grill or in the oven.

 The other version (the one I decided to go with) says to smoke the ham on the grill at a relatively low temperature (200 to 250), then again, pull the skin off, crank the heat and finish it.  This method should take about 6 hours or so.

 I chose the latter recipe because, hey, when is slow cooking ever bad?  Plus, it still feels a bit cheaterpants to use an oven, even if that’s totally irrational.

I got the grill at about 210 degrees, put the ham on, and then three things went terribly wrong.

The best looking, best smelling piece of salted shoe leather ever.

Problem One: Real life nuked my temperature.  Multitasking is a great way to ruin a barbecue.  I had tickets to a really hilarious kids play at the Seattle Children’s Theater.  Alas, thanks to a performance that lasted 45 minutes longer than scheduled, plus an unexpectedly closed section of highway that caused worst-case-scenario traffic, I was away from the Kamado for almost 4 and a half hours instead of (as I was planning) 2 and half hours. When I got back, the temp had dropped to 150 degrees, which is fine if you’re smoking fish.  This leads to ….

Problem Two:  I completely dried out the ham. You can want to take a ham off the grill, but it’s too bad for you if the internal temperature hasn’t yet reached 165 degrees. I didn’t really feel like poisoning all my friends. So, thanks to problem one above, I clocked at least an extra 2 hours of time over the coals, maybe even more, and the ham had barely broken 110 degrees.  I effectively was smoking ham jerky.

Problem Three:  Salty is good, but insanely salty is not.  The whole “Dexter” thing I mentioned in Part Two above was a huge mistake.  Why, oh why, didn’t I listen to the butcher’s wife? I definitely should have soaked the ham for at least an extra day. I’m sure drying out the ham made the salt flavor even more intense.

The final result was a beautiful looking, great smelling, but unfortunately, inedible ham.  Tough, chewy, and salty to the point of turning your stomach.  But yes, covered in a really yummy glaze.  The glaze recipe I will definitely use again.

I was told that hams are usually better cold the next day. To that I respond: No they’re not.  This morning I ate 4 or 5 dry, leathery bites, and threw the whole thing away.

Next weekend, I think I’m going to use the oven roasting method.   So stay tuned for Part Four.

In the meantime, I can really recommend the play. Really funny! Go support your Seattle Children’s Theater!

Part four: The final chapter

With Easter dinner looming, I took on the second Country Ham. This time, determined not to ruin it, I made a drastic decision.

And I confess, the plan worked perfectly.

As hard as it is to believe, I decided not to barbecue the ham.  That’s right. To NOT barbecue the ham. After reading enough articles about baking — oh and did I mention the directions on the ham packaging? – it seems that cooking the ham in an open roasting dish, in a water bath of an inch or two, keeps the country pork behemoth moist and tender.   

So, even though this is a barbecue blog, I’ll go ahead and recommend these …

Instructions:

I made all the same preparations as above (the scrubbing, the soaking in the cooler). But of course, this time I kept the ham soaking for a full three days.  The ham may still turn out terrible, but it wasn’t going to be because I didn’t soak it long enough.

I changed the water 3 times each day.

When it was time to cook, I rinsed the ham and patted it dry.

The ham takes about 15 to 20 minutes per pound at 350 degrees. I put the ham in the roasting pan, fat side up, in an inch or so of water.

 For the first three hours I kept the ham covered in foil, per the advice of almost every recipe I could find that wasn’t on the bag. But when I saw that the temperature in the middle of the ham was only about 100 degrees after three hours, I decided to remove the foil.

After four hours, I pulled the ham out of the oven, transferred to a cutting board, and removed the crispy skin using kitchen shears.  The dogs were very, very pleased that I wasn’t saving “the best part” for myself.   

With the skin off I cooked the ham until it reached 160 degrees.  I removed the ham from the oven again, and basted it with the same pineapple honey glaze I mentioned above.  Then I put under the broiler for just a few minutes.  The outside of the ham got this great, sweet crust in no time.  But I’m glad I was keeping an eye on it, because it also could have burned very quickly.

I took the ham out of the oven,  and promptly wrapped it in heavy duty aluminum foil. Twice. And the placed it in a brown paper bag. It would be wrapped in the foil for another 30 minutes or so.

Serving and Results

Finally. A delicious, thinly sliced country ham.

Per another bit of commonly found advice, I started cutting the ham into very thin slices.  Well, I tried to anyway. This is the first ham I ever attempted to carve, and I’d say I was getting slivers and chunks, not slices.

Luckily for me, there were a number of surgeons in the room.  In fact, one who used to operate on human hams.  <Not kidding. > He pointed out that if I would cut deep along the length bone, I could remove an impressive football-sized hunk of meat, and from that, I could then make nice long thin slices a lot more easily. 

Once I didn’t have to negotiate the bone, slicing the ham was easy.

And it was delicious.  I’ll point out that the ham was still very salty, but in a good way. We served it on home-made biscuits, with a little spicy brown mustard.

Ten adults and a handful of kids ate the ham, but we easily could have served twice that many people.

So, while I’m not changing the name to Blue State Barbecue AND Kitchen Range, I figured I ought to complete the story. A country ham is a lot of work, but it really was very satisfying to get it right.  Eventually.

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What's next from this wackadoodle crew?

Leave it to those left wing, blue state, liberal media, socialist, celery chewing,  tax loving, probably not even born in the USA,  cat petting, soccer watching, hummus eating, grammatically elitist New York Times journalists to get on board with a batch of oven baked ribs.

I’m moving to Canada.

In this article published in their liberal, anti-progress “Dining” section, they lead with the following:

“CONVENTIONAL wisdom holds that pork ribs taste best when cooked outdoors on a grill or smoker. Conventional wisdom hasn’t experienced the sweet-sour balsamic-glazed St. Louis-cut spare ribs at Animal in Los Angeles.”

Now to be fair, I didn’t actually read the story. I only read these two sentences, and made up my mind. And I’m not changing it.  That is, after all, the proper way to read The New York Times.

(Ok, seriously, I get to L.A. pretty often, and you better believe I’m trying those ribs. They sound pretty awesome. And for those of you who don’t know me, I am both a former journalist and a sarcastic smart ass.  That said, I’m going to guess that oven baking ribs is best left to these two incredible chefs, not you and your Kenmore.)

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Mackerel over many handfuls of wet hickory.

Everything about my previous smoked whitefish effort went extremely well, except one thing. I’ve had this pesky feeling I could have used a better fish. And by better, I mean cheaper and crappier. I feel like I paid entirely too much for fish that I essentially obliterated with brine and smoke. 

When I think back to all the great Jewish delicatessens I’ve been to, I can’t recall seeing particularly high prices on those poor, shriveled up, yellow-stained fish. So, while the Branzino I smoked was really great, I’ve been thinking I should try something else.

Last weekend I was down at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and I was poking around one of the many incredible fish stands. A vendor wearing a rubber apron, black rubber boots, and rubber gloves, came up and asked what I was up to. I told him I wanted to take another stab at smoked whitefish, and he suggested the Mackerel.   “Oily,” he said. 

Intriguing. But I shrugged it off.

Then yesterday, I stopped by one of Seattle’s best seafood shops (Mutual Fish Co.), to buy a Dungeness crab. And there, I got to talking to yet another guy wearing a rubber apron, rubber boots, and rubber gloves (but this time, also with plastic safety goggles).  I asked him if I should smoke a mackerel, and he made one of those “ooooh, yeahhh maan” kind of remarks that I just couldn’t ignore.

So I bought two mackerel, and note, less than half the price of Branzino. Two mackerel, quite large by the way, cost about $15. 

I followed the same technique as before, and all I can say is, wow.  As good as my first effort was, this was way better.  Fantastic, smoky, fatty, incredible smoked fish.  I highly recommend going with a mackerel.

That said, now I’m going to have to try 4 or 5 other kinds of fish, too, just to make sure I find the best. 

Oh, one more thing. I’d like to point out that I was barbecuing in hail storm today.  So I’m making the point, yet again, that every day is a good day to barbecue.

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