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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Northern Barbecue

It's 7:30 on Sunday morning; I've been up since 5:10. I don't normally get up this early on a weekend, but today I'm smoking. I'll be smoking for the next 15 hours or so, as experience serves. Smoking a couple of pork shoulders, that is. Southern barbecue. Last night I submerged the meat in marinade, prepped the firebox, and started the smoke media soaking. So at 0515 today, after catching up on some minor personal hygiene, I touched off the newspaper under the charcoal, and set about the final preparations on the meat. At this juncture, the smokebox temperature is stabilized, the internal meat temperature has climbed to 75F, and my Occoquan river neighborhood is enjoying the aroma of roasting pork and hickory – the smoking has officially begun!

As I bask in the peaceful universe that is a calm winter Sunday morning, I reflect that I am thankful for many things. I have a good job, a good marriage and family, a nice place to live, and vehicles in the driveway that are functional and not prone to theft; I'm washed in the blood of the Lamb, and when I stumbled into my living room this morning, I did not encounter any naked strangers.

I wish I could say the same for a family (names withheld) in Woodbridge, VA, last Thursday. See “Woman finds naked man in living room” in our local fish wrapper for details. To make a short story short, a woman and her children encountered a naked man, one William Eduardo Avila (William? Must be of Anglo-Norman descent), who has been read various charges and is now contemplating his transgressions in the county correctional facility.

Firebox prep: I lined the firebox with wadded-up newspaper, upon which I assembled a pile of charcoal briquets. I normally use the News & Messenger, newspaper of record for Prince William County, and the Washington Post (motto: All the classified leaks that are fit to print) but any newspaper will do. I recommend not using shiny newsprint or magazines, nor do I recommend lighter fluid. For charcoal, I use just plain old standard Kingsford briquets, with no additives (e.g., Match Light, etc.). BTW, Kingsford Charcoal was originally named Ford Charcoal, after none other than Henry Ford, who helped found the company. Ford and his relative E.G. Kingsford auspiciously started in the 1920's by making charcoal from wood scraps left over from Model T production.

Let's talk about fire for a moment, shall we? There are many opinions on all aspects of smoking technique, and if you want all of them, I invite you to consult the almighty Internet and buttonhole local BBQ chefs as I have, but since you're here on the VOB, what you'll get is my opinion, informed by literally months of experience. Charcoal is the foundation for the fire that will burn for 12 to 15 hours. I use briquets for “baseline” fire, and hardwood (“lump”) charcoal for flavor and heat control. Briquets tend to burn cooler and steadier, while hardwood charcoal is hotter but more subject to extremes (gets hotter faster but burns out and cools faster). You can make a fire completely from hardwood charcoal, but it will require a bit more attention to manage the smokebox temperature. The United States Constitution guarantees protection of your right to make a fire entirely of plain old wood if you're so inclined, but that would be really difficult to control and frankly, I've had substandard BBQ from a pure wood fire.

Speaking of smoke, I use mainly hickory and apple, “tweaked” with pistachio shells and mesquite. Except for the shells, I usually just buy wood chips and chunks from the local Home Depot or Lowe's, but also harvest hardwood from my backyard. Most any hardwood will do, but some are better than others for various applications, and some are completely unsuitable. For example, elm is contraindicated, for reasons I've yet to ascertain, and yellow poplar produces bitter smoke, which is unfortunate, as I have a bunch of it. Don't use any softwood, which is to say pine and other conifers, as it produces creosote which makes the meat taste bad and can increase your risk of contracting a terminal illness. I've used maple, ash, oak, and hickory from the back 40, but alas, my wood supplies of all but pine and yellow poplar are depleted. The technique to make smoke is to soak the media in water, then add it to the fire periodically. Some BBQ chefs say you should only smoke for the first few hours, while others indicate smoking throughout the process; I do the latter, but if your supply of smoke media is limited, concentrate on smoking during the first few hours when it will be more effective. BTW, if you do harvest your own wood for smoking, make sure of two things: (1) it's aged, i.e., not green, and (2) it is not diseased, rotten, or otherwise adulterated. For that matter, lumber is generally not recommended, even if you know what kind of wood it is, as it may have been treated with, or been exposed to, preservatives and other chemicals.

Speaking of naked musicians in the laundromat, several years ago, my uncle in northern MI (cousin actually, but more like an uncle due to generational distance), a state politician with diverse business interests, was contacted by local authorities indicating that they had removed a naked polka band from his laundromat. They, along with the local media and opinion, suspected a publicity stunt, but my uncle claims that he had nothing to do with it. I believe him; his statement to the Mother of Bruck: “They call me every time the change machine runs out of quarters. They call me every time the vending machine is out of detergent. They call me when they run out of paper towels in the restroom. But when naked people are playing polka music in my laundromat, does anyone call? No!”

Apparently, this was not an isolated incident; in another story from the same area, we read:
"Naked musician briefly in trouble,” By Matt Helms, Knight-Ridder News Service: A naked man who played an accordion while four friends danced partially dressed in a Laundromat in Michigan's Upper Peninsula has learned his lesson, authorities said Wednesday, and neither he nor his friends are likely to be charged.

The five, believed to be students at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, had faced disorderly conduct charges. When Hancock, Mich., police responded to a complaint early Saturday morning, two men and two women were dancing in their underwear to the music of the accordionist, who was naked.

Police said the man, a graduate student from Brazil, told them, 'I can't play the accordion unless I'm completely nude.'

Neither can I. Well, I can't play it clothed either.

Anyway, note that the smoking media itself is combustible and therefore has an impact on the temperature of the fire, so take that into account as you add it.

Hardware: There are several different styles of smoker, but “seasoned” professionals advise using the “offset” configuration, which consists of a sideways, barrel-shaped smokebox with a firebox connected to the lower half of one side and a chimney on the top of the other side. This allows cooking by having the smoke evenly traverse the meat in a sideways direction. I place steam/drip pans under the meat to help regulate the internal temperature and keep the meat moist.

Temperature control: The importance of temperature control is paramount; in fact, it's probably the single most important element of good BBQ. I place a cooking thermometer in the middle of the smokebox and try to keep the temperature thereof at about 225F, tolerating fluctuations between about 190F and 240F. So Bruck, why don't you just cook it in the oven at 225F and douse the meat with Liquid Smoke? You could do this, but I can't be held responsible for what might happen afterward.

When it comes to crime and punishment, I generally see things more from the perspective of the victim than the criminal. So I'm always encouraged when I see crime victims take matters into their own hand, as in the following case: Woman, 88, gives naked intruder the ‘squeeze’ The title pretty much summarizes the whole story, but in case you need the details and don't want to trouble yourself to click and read, he did escape her grasp, only to be caught by police later, not far from the scene of the crime.

Marinade: I employ a variation on “Grandma's” (MILOB's, actually) marinade. I use a half gallon of apple juice, a few glugs of soy sauce, half a bottle of red wine (no need to get fancy here; two-buck Chuck will answer the mail), salt, sugar, garlic powder, and minced onions. This time I also poured in a pitcher of iced tea; we'll see if that made a difference. I add water to ensure that the meat is entirely covered with marinade, and let it sit overnight in the fridge. In the morning, before putting the meat on the smoker, I rub the entire surface of it with ground pepper. This time, I also rubbed it with garlic powder and minced onions as I forgot to put them in the marinade last night. Don't throw away the marinade! After removing the meat, I pour the used marinade into the drip trays in the smoke box, for added flavor.

Meat: Today, we're talking about southern BBQ, which is to say smoked pork, or “pulled pork.” Similar techniques may be applied to Texas BBQ (brisket) and other meats, but my main “Northern BBQ” specialty is pulled pork. The cut to use is pork shoulder, which is the shoulder and upper part of a pig's front leg. Normally it would be a tough, chewy hunk of meat, being full of connective tissue, as it's a load-bearing, working muscle, and its price reflects this, at around a dollar a pound, plus or minus. The shoulder is normally cut into two pieces, the lower part being the “picnic ham,” and the upper part sporting the curious moniker, “Boston butt.” Aficionados generally prefer the Boston butt, which is slightly more expensive, but I favor the picnic ham as it has more bone and generally comes with attached skin which makes for great home-made pork rinds. Either cut is fine; in fact, today we're cooking Boston butts as that's all what the tolerant and supportive WOB could find at BJ's last week. I like to get one in the 9- to 10-pound range; larger ones take too long to cook, and smaller ones are, well, smaller. I usually cook two at a time, as my smoker has the room and it's no more effort; the only extra variable cost is the nominal price of the meat itself. BTW, for planning porpoises, after the fat melts off and the bone is removed, you'll get about 50% of the original weight in actual pulled pork.

Technique: Place the meat on the smoke box grate, fat side up, with a drip/steam tray directly underneath. Put your meat thermometer probe into the center of the thickest part of the meat, away from the bone. Cook until the meat reaches 190 to 200F, remove from heat, let it sit about a half-hour to 45 minutes covered in foil, then shred the meat manually, using meat forks and knives. If you've done everything right, it should fall apart easily. If not, it will still taste good, but may require a bit more than perfunctory chewing. The outer surface, or “bark,” will be black or dark reddish-brown, and has a stronger smoke flavor – try to mix the bark and inner meat evenly while shredding.

Here's one thing that will perplex the newbie: the plateau. For the first four to six hours of smoking, the meat temperature will rise, pretty much linearly with time, but once it hits about 160F, it stops rising, and even falls sometimes, for the next four or more hours. What's happening here is the magic of BBQ. During this time, the heat energy is consumed in converting the connective tissue, which is mostly collagen, into nice, tender gelatin and fat (disclaimer: it's a lot more complicated than this and I'm not a biochemist). So be patient and just keep the fire going. At this time, I adjure you to resist the temptation to turn up the heat. The conversion process takes time, necessitating the “low and slow” cooking process. After the collagen conversion process completes, the temperature will start rising again. So pay attention, as you don't rightly know when this will happen.

Inspiration: You can't accomplish anything productive without inspiration. For mine, I'd like to acknowledge three FOBs. Father of Bruck makes a perfect grilled steak. Although I try to recreate his technique, I've never been able to reproduce the outcome. But his example serves to inspire me to excellence in my own forays into manly cooking. Two Friends of Bruck, both named Chris, also serve as inspiration. The local Chris taught me the basics of southern barbecue, and generally enlightened me as to the existence of the technique and products thereof. Another Chris, a former co-worker in MI, probably has no idea that southern BBQ exists, much less his part in my exploration thereof; he's a homebrewer (of beer, not radio equipment, settle down Evan). He's also a scientist, as is his wife, who works in the medical field. Between them, they have substantial laboratory experience, and Chris claims that his ability to make clear, tasty pilsner, as opposed to the yeasty slurry that most neophyte homebrewers produce, is due to his and his wife's strict adherence to process and keeping all tools and equipment clinically sanitary. And of course, much of my inspiration comes from our many dinner guests who provide positive feedback by going for seconds, thirds, and fourths!

So Bruck, why do you call it “Northern Barbecue?” Allow me to illustrate: my last rambling diatribe was written while in the throes of the Snowpocalypse™; in fact, you may recall that I did some smoking on the day after the storm. It's been melting quite a bit, but there's still plenty of global warming all over the place. Meanwhile, last Friday at work, I was making small talk with a co-worker who averred that he was looking forward to warmer weather so he could start barbecuing again. DOES NOT COMPUTE flashed through my brain until I comprehended the implication that southerners don't barbecue in the winter. Then during last night's preparations, it occurred to me, this is probably the first time in history, at least in a southern state, that someone has shoveled snow off of his smoker in preparation for immediate use.

And of course the other question I'm sure you're asking right now is, how can I get me some of that good stuff? Answer: you'll have to come to VA, but be advised, we have a dress code here. Unless you're really good friends with the chef, you'll have to wear clothes.

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