The quickest way to make my heart jump a beat is to tell me that you like my cooking or my garden. Flattery is very flattering. A little cricket pushed one of those buttons, the food button, as I shopped on Sunday. I like reading about your food, she said. What are you cooking now?
I told her a pork loin was in the smoker, cooking low and slow, as we spoke. A spicy fruit salad was waiting in the fridge. You’ve never heard of a spicy fruit salad, I asked? Imagine one of those fruit spikes that are ubiquitous in Mexican and southeast Asian cities, pineapple and green papaya and mango and cucumber on a skewer, with a sprinkle of spices. Now deconstruct it, as the Food Network folks might tell you. Douse all of those beautiful fruits in lime, vinegar, ginger, crushed peanuts, tamarind and chili powder. Make sure you get some umami flavor in yours. Nam pla, Thai fish sauce, is my favorite source of the glutamic acid that epitomizes umami, but Ponzu and even soy sauce will do in a pinch. Let it sit for an hour or two and serve with well deserved anticipation. Let it sit for a day and laugh wildly over the rich flavor. It pairs well with grilled food.
A September evening in New England, sunny and warm, is a perfect time for putting meat over a fire. I love both types of “barbecue,” both high temperature grilling and the Southern low temp, slow style. I grew up with high heat grilling but ten years ago I ventured into the realm of low and slow. Much of this summer has been about low and slow barbecue cooked on my new toy.
I bought another slow smoker, my fourth, at the beginning of the summer. The remarkably inexpensive Brinkman rectangle stands just under four feet tall, with two wire cooking racks, a water pan and a charcoal pan, with two front opening doors, one for food and one for fuel (very important!!!). I can fill the charcoal pan and keep the cooking temperature at 200 degrees for three hours. Adding charcoal along the way let’s me bump the cooking time out another six hours, long enough for smoking anything smaller than commercial quantities of meat. Forty-five minutes produces a perfect rare piece of smoked salmon with a dry spice rub. Four hours gives up a pork roast redolent with smoke, moist and tender enough to cut with the side of a fork. Six hours turns a pork shoulder into honeyed meat. Ask me about my quickly-smoked gazpacho. Ooooh.
I always brine my pork roasts, the cut of meat that I cook most often. Brining is a must for the pork sold in the US, which our food scientists ruined as they engineered “the other white meat” (do you remember that ad campaign?), stripped of its moisturizing marbled fat. Our meat deserves a little marbling to keep it tasty. Don’t get me started on the way they turned the tenderloin into a soft flavorless cut of meat. The food scientists wrongly took away the marbled fat but I don’t really want the outer fat cap, so I trim most, not all of it. A twenty-four hour brining moistens a roast and lets its flavor show through. I boil a quart of water with a half cup of salt, a quarter cup of brown sugar and a mix of whole peppercorns, chilis, allspice, cinnamon sticks, anything that piques my mind, let it all cool, and give the roast a day long bath in a ziplock baggie in the fridge.
<Geek alert> Brining dissolves parts of the protein contracting filaments in muscle. It also increases the moisture holding capacity in muscle cells. Moisture from the brine moves into the meat and carries the spices and herbs into the meat. If you don’t care about the science, just note that it cuts in half the drying effect of cooking, which is especially important when smoking a cut of meat that lacks marbled fat. Even a short brining, an hour, will protect the outer parts of pork and chicken that are the first to dry when cooking. Brine all pork and chicken before you cook it, whether it is grilling, smoking or oven roasting.
After the brining, drain, rinse and dry the roast. Cover it with a mix of spices: brown sugar, salt, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, chili powder, star anise, anything. Curry powder. Old Bay. It is all good. Sear the surface and roast it in the oven, sitting on a bed of carrots, celery, onions, whatever, and it will taste very, very good. But it is summer and this is where my new smoker enters.
Cooking meat at a low temperature for a long time breaks down tough connective tissues in meat. It makes it tender. Doing it over a smoky fire adds deep flavor but it dries food out so I always use water in my smoking. A quart of water in the pan that sits nine inches above the charcoal pan moderates the temperature in a smoker and as the water slowly boils away it keeps the inside of the smoker box a bit moist. This year I determined to find a way to amplify that moisture.
My brined pork roast, blotted dry and covered in spices, is briefly seared on all sides in a shallow pan on the kitchen stove. Dry the roast before seasoning and searing it so the surface instantly reaches a high enough temperature to generate the Maillard reactions that generate the nice brown bits that taste so good. Water on the meat surface drops the temperature when it hits the pan, and steams it rather than sears it.
The roast-in-a-pan then moves to the smoker and an inch of broth or stock goes into the pan. The liquid drops the temperature of the pan surface so the meat can slowly cook for four hours at 200 degrees over the smoky fire. Every thirty to forty-five minutes the meat is turned in the pan. The “fond,” the lovely brown bits from the searing, and the flavor of the broth flow through the meat as it cooks. The smoke permeates the meat and is absorbed by the broth. It is like braising meat in a smoky fire, how we cooked in Italy, France, even colonial Massachusetts three hundred years ago. You could cook the pork forever as long as it is kept moist and it would become increasingly soft, but four hours is more than enough to fully cook and give it all sorts of smoky goodness.
So that is what I did on Sunday afternoon, when I realized I had a whole wire shelf in the smoker with nothing cooking on it. Not an efficient use of all that smoke, no, no, no. A ten minute trip to the local supermarket while the pork roast slowly cooked gave me a basket of goodies to fill that second shelf. And it brought me into contact with my food friend, the aforementioned Cricket in my ear.
I returned home and quickly broke down a rack of pork ribs, covered them in a wet rub heavy with mustard, chili and cumin, and put them on the second rack of the smoker. The ribs did not have the benefit of the braising liquid so I periodically opened the upper door of the smoker and spritzed them with a mix of beer and vinegar that I keep in a spray bottle in the fridge. Four hours was enough to cook them to that perfect state where your teeth leave a distinct mark on the meat but you don’t have to tear it from the bone – I want my ribs cooked but don’t want them the consistency of pudding. A head of garlic, rubbed with canola oil, only needed one hour on the rack, and two oiled onions got two hours each to turn them into smoky sweetness. Smoked garlic and smoked onions keep forever in the fridge and let you drop instant flavor into anything you cook.
And then there is the smoking water. The broth that the pork roast sat in while smoking starts as a tasty juice. Flavor from the pork and the spices add to the flavor. Smoke piles into it. When I take the roasting pan out of the smoker, I save the “smokin’ water.” It adds incredible depth to other dishes that call for water or broth. One cup of my smokin’ water in a big pot of red beans brings a simple dish to a level that ragin-Cajuns would enjoy. Look at my previous blog post about making bacon jam to see another use. The stuff just slays. I should bottle and sell it. Instead, I pour it into four ounce containers and put it with the other broths and stocks that fill my freezer. Like I said, this one slays.
There is a three pound pork roast brining in my fridge as I write these words. I will take it to my sister CoCo’s house tomorrow, season and sear it, and throw it in a smoker I gave her earlier this summer. This time the braising liquid will be beer and tomato puree (tomatoes are loaded with my friend, glutamic acid) instead of stock. It is another experiment. Ignore my mother, I tell people often. Play with your food. The roast will be ready when I have killed off the hosta invasion that CoCo’s home builder put in her back yard.