I like to think of myself as resistant to marketing, but I just couldn't take it any more. All of these loudmouth food personalities (now there's a job) hawking piles of stringy brisket, pulling apart ribs, slurping up pulled pork, with the sauce dribbling down there chin. Look, it's another barbecue competition in Texas (dry rub) or Tennessee (look at that sauce), with a parade of prunefaces dourly judging what, by all appearances, is a tower of animal sacrifice enticing enough for even the most observant vegan to cast aside his sacred vows and convert to the profane church of the flaming hog. It's only dirty if you're doing it right.
There were few saving graces in the strip mall paradise of Northern Virginia I was unfortunate enough to relocate to at the beginning of the aughts. Here's one: right off I-95 if you happen to be driving through. I can't tell you if it compares to infernally tempting meats of the deep south, but it sure as hell was the best thing around. It was stupid to ask how they made it taste so good. Having a family tradition helps, but at a minimum you need one of these things, or these, or, if you sell your soul completely, maybe one of these. It may also work if you're the kind of person who has ready access to a junked home oil tank and brazing tools. The point being, you, you little suburban pissant you, can't possibly do it right. I think that's why it makes such compelling tv.
But a decade of this kind of pressure, and we finally bought a home smoker last month. A $60 Brinkmann charcoal smoker, looks like a little capsule, or a footless R2-D2, or--and I think this is the real inspiration--a half-size prettified version of your standard 55-gallon industrial drum. They stocked a ceramic version too, which cost an order of magnitude more, and with the various doodads and the heft of it, looked like a Flintstones submersible robot. I imagine they perform the same function, if you ever actually use it, but are mainly decorations for your McMansion and I am not that far gone. For the price of the little Brinkmann, I figure if I get one good meal out of it, it will make up for its costs in comparable restaurant fare, factoring in wood (there's some oak and possibly some not-yet-rotten cherry in the woodpile, but not much mesquite around these parts), and the gas to get to Cambridge. Casual observation finds it is indeed cheaply made with the ill-fitting top an actual problem even before I dropped it off the porch, but still functional, main failures being the lack of any means to adjust the airflow (and hence, the temperature) and a badly conceived thermometer. I can't believe it would have cost any more to put some damn numbers on it, and let me judge for myself what temperature is "ideal."
Right, so week by week, I've been running experiments with smoked meats. The first was a rack of ribs and a beer can chicken, done at the same time. Hickory smoke, which was, approximately a thigh-sized log, broken up into chunks, and a couple big handfuls of these compressed hickory pellets we've had around the house since forever. I lit the charcoal with lighter fluid only for this trial. (You can probably guess the result, dear reader, but I don't want to get ahead of myself.) The second week, it was a rib eye roast, smoked with three or four large chunks of woodpile oak. Third week, it was more ribs, with mesquite, properly soaked this time, and about three handfuls of chips in all.
This weekend it was hickory-smoked trout. For reasons I'll describe below, here is the fish recipe:
- three whole trout (about 10 inches), gutted.I tried to smoke some corn on the cob (July 4th is early enough, turns out), but you need more than fifteen minutes to do this. It was pretty great on the regular ole grill in any case.
- 2 lemons
- fresh marjoram (I have bales of this stuff growing around the house, and have little idea what to do with it, other than a nice garnish and decoration once it blooms. It's like oregano--would that the oregano did so well--subtracted of flavor. I figured it wouldn't mess up the fish.)
- fresh thyme
- fresh parsely
- fresh-ground black pepper
- pickling salt (no iodine, which I understand can get you off flavors)
Add 25 Tablespoons salt (12.5 oz in your measuring cup) to 10 cups of water, and add one and a half sliced-up lemon for the brine. Soak the fish in there for about half an hour. In the fish's cavity, I put a generous sprig or bunch of each herb, two half-slices of lemon, and a nice twist of pepper. I smoked it over hickory for 1 hr 15 minutes (three smallish chunks, soaked in water while I got all the charcoal going and fish prepped). The four pounds of charcoal or so that I put in there wouldn't have gotten me any further.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
I had visions of these weekly experiments conducted joyously, an attempt to perfect something that was already awesome. I'll tell you though, it's possible to just have too damn much smoke. The hickory ribs were so strong with the stuff that they were nearly inedible. The chicken wasn't bad when you took the skin off, but it dried out even with the beer can. And yes, I managed to leave some beer in it. It was shitty beer. (Oddly, the meats were pretty good once they mellowed in the fridge for a couple of days. This step is not going to get adopted as part of the procedure, however.) The mesquite ribs achieved a good level of smoke flavor, but I didn't keep the damn things on there long enough, and they were unpleasantly tough. Going back on for a couple more hours did the trick, but my wife doesn't give me a second chance on that sort of thing, and so although the experiment earns a valuable data point, it still gets marked as a failure.
As for the rib eye roast, keep in mind that this is a boneless prime rib. Would you cook one of those over a campfire? And oak smoke, as any New England camper knows, is a nasty, acrid, almost chemical sensation when you get a faceful of it, and on a fine cut of meat, it's not much different. You could eat the stuff if you don't like throwing your money away (I made sandwiches for as long as I could stand it), but there's a reason they usually smoke brisket and ribs instead. What the hell was I thinking?
The little bullet smoker is designed to approximate the industrial versions, but I don't think you can really make up for the basic problem of volume ratios. In the small guy, you've got just as much smoke choked up all in a tiny cavity, really close to the wood. It's the slow heat, and it's steady application of a low-concentration flavoring in the big cookers that's so wonderful--the goal isn't to toxify it. Number one lesson has been that it's very easy to choke your meat to death in a white cloud. (And I also wonder how much Food Network barbecue I really want to eat after all. The green pill has me questioning gluttonous gospel. I repent!) Getting the balance right has got to be harder in that small and direct space, or at least it took me some trial and error to get it even to "pretty good." I didn't have too many more chances to whiff on this, but then on Sunday I did the trout...
For starters, it looked great. A whole fish makes a good presentation, and the skin and the stuffed center kept it deliciously moist till the end. The flavor came on strongest with salt and lemon and fish, and the herbs and smoke filled out the rest of it deliciously. I think the strong flavor of the trout helped calm down all the other intense elements, and I got a wonderful balance. A citrusy savignon blanc (or the local equivalent) makes a nice pair, and, after some consideration, a pitcher of mojitos (the marjoram only bows before the mint) did the trick too. Here's a plate, with some recovered garnishes, and the last scrap of early corn pulled from my complaining daughter's hands. (I gave it back after the photo.)
Smoking dopes can be good to you, at least after a few attempts. That trout was so tasty that I'm seriously considering taking up fishing.