Sunday, July 3, 2011

Whiskey with a Splash of 'Que...What?

(photo by: Richard Pierce)

As promised in my earlier tirade, in which some of the wondrous culinary uses of smoke spilled forth from my charcoal-stained fingers like Budweiser from a frat party keg, I shall now commence a description of the most amazing drink I have ever tasted. If you are befuddled by the strange title of this post, please refer to "Grills and Smoke" for further clarification. You won't regret it.

Does anyone reading this live in Portland, OR? If you are, I am extremely jealous. Why? Portland is only home to Evan Zimmerman of Laurelhurst Market, the genius mind behind a drink recipe called "Smoke Signals."

Upon ever breaching the borders of Oregon, I'm immediately making a beeline to Laurelhurst. It appears to be the type of brilliantly constructed part-restaurant, part-meat market, part-watering hole conglomerates that one so seldom stumbles across in life. And when you do, you cherish it for years, and of course post rave reviews like this one on your yelp accounts, Facebook walls, and food blogs.

While the 'Que and Brew has relocated to Chicago (a thousand miles closer to Laurelhurst Market, ahaha), and though I have never actually been to Portland, I do attempt to keep up on new happenings in the world of quality grub, especially when it involves charcoal, grills, hickory wood, the freshest and best cuts of meat, and alcohol. Well Laurelhurst boasts of all of that and more. Their website header seems pretty self explanatory. "Steakhouse-Inspired Brasserie. Full Service Butcher Shop. Neighborhood Bar."

So I stumbled upon a recipe that was provided just short of a one-page spread in the April 2011 issue of Bon Appetit. Apparently the recipe is also available on Epicurious.

It is called Smoke Signals, and it is good. And I mean good, as in worth filling your house with smoke while cooking homemade syrup and buying the nicer bourbon whiskey just to make this drink happen kind of good. If you obligingly did check out the recipe you may have noticed it looks fairly complex. But if you follow the instructions precisely, using fresh pecans, fresh lemon juice, actual oak-aged sherry, and good whiskey, the drink is unmatched in flavor.

The components of this drink are amontillado sherry, fresh lemon juice, pecan syrup, whiskey, and (holy $#!%) hickory-smoked ice. I mean ice as in the solid state of water, not as a street slang reference to drugs. I only say this because a while back I mistakenly boasted to my old boss that "Oh my God, I smoked ice last weekend!!" Yeah not the best choice of words.

Most importantly, make sure you buy decent whiskey and sherry wine. Amontillado is expensive, so if the budget is tight just make sure to select a dry, oak-aged sherry, and if possible make sure it has a sweet and nutty flavor. With the whiskey, I'm sure you have a brand of choice in mind and if you are a seasoned bourbon drinker I am certain it will suffice.

Fresh lemons are crucial, make sure to squeeze the juice yourself. Also crucial is the pecan syrup, which must be homemade. Trust me.

To start a flavored simple syrup, add 2 parts water to 1 part sugar in a saucepan and boil. Depending on how many drinks you plan to procure the amounts may vary, but to start, try one cup water to 1/2 cup sugar. Simple syrup typically consists of equal parts sugar and water, but when another flavor component is added, the sugar influx must be reduced so that the other flavor component can come through.

Before boiling, make sure you have found FRESH, and I mean fresh, pecans. Please don't use leftovers from last Thanksgiving hors d'oeuvres bowl - the more stale the nut, the more bitter the syrup. Not to mention that stale nuts may cause a gross-looking film to form atop your beautiful syrup once chilled. Not cool.

Rough-chop 1 part pecans, or for the purpose of proportional accuracy as described in the above paragraph, 1/2 cup. Toast in a dry skillet until the aroma of pecans fills the air. Once the water/sugar concoction has come to a boil, add your pecans and reduce. Now comes the quasi-inventive part: you must strain the syrup. As at the time I was not equipped with a fine-meshed strainer, I opted for the built-in strainer that resides in my coffee pot. I firmly believe that this lent another layer of toasty warm goodness to the drink. I stored the mixture in a mason jar and chilled in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

So what is all this ruckus about smoking ice? Oh, only the perfect finishing touch to an otherwise smoky, nutty, and rich flavor. You can transform your regular old ice cubes either on the grill or in your kitchen. If you happen to already be cooking pork shoulder/tenderloin/London broil/kebabs/sausages/brats/steaks/beer-can chicken, well okay, or basically using your grill in any capacity, go ahead and add some moistened hickory wood chips atop your charcoal pile (if you have not already done so). Fill a loaf pan with ice cubes.
Here comes the fun part. Place the loaf pan in your grill and wait until the ice has melted. Cover the loaf pan and re-freeze until solid. I used plastic wrap and did this the day before. Warning: Your freezer will smell like a grill for weeks, which really is not such a bad thing. Insta-Air freshener.

At the time I wasn't grill-ready, so I braved the aftereffects of blaring smoke alarms and my dog making that weird cough-sneeze noise for hours, and smoked the ice cube-filled loaf pan over my kitchen stove. I used a tinfoil-lined broiler pan, with a layer of hickory wood chips, waited for the swirls of smoke, put the loaf pan in, and just waited for the magic to happen. Just make sure you have LOTS of windows open, and turn on your exhaust fan as high as it goes.

After mixing everything together? Delicious. After adding a hunk of hickory ice? Otherworldly, as if the grilling gods had descended upon my kitchen and revamped everything I thought I knew about the flavor profiles of whiskey. Please, I highly encourage, try it out. Or if you're lucky enough to be in the Portland area, go head over to Laurelhurst (Yeah. I'm jealous).

For anyone who also reads culinary magazines, and (sorry Dove) dreams in charcoal instead of chocolate - if you have another 'que-worthy drink in mind, share! And if you have tried this one...I'd be curious to hear your thoughts...

*Thank you to Bon Appetit for permission to cite this recipe.

**Thank you Laurelhurst and E. Zimmerman for being innovators, I hope to one day step across your threshold.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Down Home BBQ (and you don't even need a grill)!

Being left without a smoker or even a small grill for that matter has been tough.  No more weekend BBQ's, no more smelling charcoal when the water from a shower hits your hair.  But I've resorted to other methods of cooking my favorites and already it's starting to feel like home.

While you may never get the same taste out of a pork shoulder as you can by smoking it over an open flame for 15 hours, a slow cooker can deliver some pretty impressive results.  Here's what I have found to work best.

Depending on the size of your slow cooker you will have to be selective as to the cut of meat you are picking up at your local butcher shop or grocery store.  I use a 6 quart cooker and have found that a 4 pound shoulder fits very nicely.  You really need to make sure that you aren't overcrowding the pot though or you will have an overflow of juices after the fat starts to render.  Once you've selected your cut of pork, so begins the process.

First things first.  Any good BBQ is going to have a dry rub regardless of how it is being cooked.  On a smoker it will help lend a handful of flavors to the meat as well as harden and give it that wonderful blackened bark.  In a slow cooker, you won't achieve that bark but by letting the rub penetrate the meat overnight you will be infusing tremendous flavor into what will become a very tasty dish.  Let's start with the rub.

The amount of ingredients that you use is up to personal preference and I, by no means, am going to give away my secret, but you definitely need a few key ones to accent the already present flavor of pork and enhance it.  Here's a few to start with.

Dry Rub:

Onion Powder
Garlic Powder
Paprika (this is a must)
Sea Salt
Freshly Ground Black Pepper (please don't use that already ground stuff, it's already lost half of its potency)
Red Cayenne Pepper
Lemon Pepper (just a pinch)

Use this as a base and then add your personal favorites, just remember not to overdo it.  

Once you have your rub mixed together and where you like it you'll need to take that shoulder roast or Boston Butt out of the refrigerator.  To start, you need to rinse it off and then pat dry with a paper towel.  This gives you a good clean shoulder and a dry surface for the rub to stick to.  Once that's done, start applying your rub and don't be afraid to be extra generous with it.  We want the shoulder to be about as red as a tomato when it's marinating (hence all of the paprika).  When you feel like you have it set, go ahead and wrap it up and place it back in the refrigerator.  I let mine absorb the flavors for about 2 days, although 1 is fine and if you are in a hurry a couple of hours will do.

Alright let's take this process for a time warp.

Now, you've let the shoulder sit in all of its juices and the rub.  You have to take the meat out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature before you even dare think about starting to cook it.  By doing this we are letting the meats natural temperature raise so as not to "shock" the flesh by going from cold to hot too quickly.  Once you feel like it is where it needs to be, it's time for drawing the bath of this fine young thing.

Apple Cider Vinegar is your friend, foremost and always when cooking a BBQ.  Not only does the acidity help tenderize and flavor the meat, it adds an aroma to die for.  Mix in a little bit of ketchup (tomato paste works better if you have it on hand), mustard (I use Löwensenf, but that can be hard to find), about a cup and a half of water and bring it up to heat while mixing it together.  Once the slow cooker has everything in and heated up it's time to place that beautiful red shoulder you've been working on into the pot.  Place the lid on it and let it sit on the low temperature setting for about 8 hours.  Yes, 8 hours.  If you are working it will be fine as it is but if you aren't, try and get in there to flip it over about halfway through.

Alright so 8 hours later and what do you do?  Pull out a thermometer if you have one just to make sure the meat is done.  By all means it should be way over the safe temperature of 160 degrees (pork's sanitation temp.) and probably hovering around 190.  Once you see that it is cooked, you'll want to pull it out of the slow cooker and place it onto a cutting board.  This is where you can mess up a bit.  The temptation is there, I know, to just dive in and start pulling the pork apart.  Unfortunately, you need to let it sit for a good 20-30 minutes.  Doing this allows the fat and juices to drizzle back through the shoulder and re-moisten it if you will.  Once it has cooled a bit, then you take your forks and start shredding it like there is no tomorrow.

Now, the goal is to get all of those large chunks of fat away from the meat.  Pull out everything that look likes flesh and keep those large white chunks out to the side.  A little fat is OK to keep in with meat because it's going back into the cooker but those extra large pieces, they need to go.  This will take awhile but once you have this done, make sure that you have drained all of the liquid out of your slow cooker and toss it back in.

Now here comes the trick.  Toss the meat in and you want to help it with a decent amount of your favorite BBQ sauce.  I boil and reduce my own so I can't give you tips on that (other than SC style mustard based BBQ sauces are the best ;) , but pour it in, mix it together and watch magic happen.  We want to let this brew for about 2 more hours. Stirring occasionally to make sure the mixture is even and coated.

And there you have it, Down Home style BBQ and you didn't even need a grill.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jake Melnick's Corner Tap

So I'm walking down Superior Street trying to find something to eat. I'm seeing Gino's (with its usual line down the sidewalk), Giordano's has a decent wait, and I couldn't exactly get into the pizza mind frame. I turn around and BAM, there it is, Jake Melnick's Corner Tap.

Now I've read about this place and had been wanting to check it out, so it sounded like the perfect spot.

I walked in the door and knew that I'd made the right decision. That smell of smoke and BBQ hit me quick. Yes please. Let's have a seat.

I'm lightly perusing over the menu thinking that I was going to get wings. Um... this place has been rated "Best Wings in Chicago" for the past 2 years, why wouldn't you try them? My eyes are darting back and forth, taking in the variety... and then I saw it. The Smokin' Cue Burger. Um, Cue Burger?

With my taste buds already salivating, I read the description. "Oh God", I thought to myself, "I am definitely getting that." This thing read like a love poem to a hopeless romantic. Only the burger was the poem, and my stomach was the romantic.

And I quote: "Wrapped in BBQ spiced bacon & slow-smoked, topped with BBQ pulled pork, crispy beer battered onions, cheddar cheese & BBQ sauce."

I mean....whoa.

The waitress returned, and just like that, I've got a burger worthy of Devin Hester after running the opening kickoff back in Super Bowl XLI for 92 yards, a basket of wings, and a plate of fried pickles on the way.

So first things first, the fried pickles. The breading was crispy and well-seasoned and overall they tasted great. I just prefer pickle chips instead of the sandwich slice style. Oh well, no big deal.

Then that basket of wings arrived. Now Jake's only serves jumbo wings and man, these suckers are big. I had only ordered the spicy buffalo ones. With all of this food, I didn't want to ruin anything by trying the "XXX" wings. Yes. XXX. They make you sign a waiver due to the fact that they are made with the hottest chili in the world, the ghost pepper. No thanks. I enjoy feeling sensations while I'm eating.

So back to the wings. The flavor was tremendous, the heat was there, but I just didn't like the crispness of the skin, or should I say lack thereof. Maybe it's because I'm a grilled wing kinda guy, but it just didn't sit right with me.

Now to the real star of the show. That burger, that glorious, heavenly, mouthwatering, slab of perfectly grilled ground beef topped in pork, onions, cheese and BBQ sauce. I'm starting to think I should write the rest of this review on my iPad so I can take the L back downtown and grab another one.

This burger is massive and it comes with a side of fries that made me regret ever ordering so much to begin with. It comes in a 3 inch deep bucket. I mean you literally have to reach down and in, like bobbing for apples. Or in this case, bobbing for meat. I reach in, grab that thing, and take my first bite. I swear the waitress gave me a weird look because of the face I made. I seriously don't even know how to describe it. Bravo Jake's, you have left me speechless with that one. It's one of those things you just have to try for yourself. I only wish I would have thought about trying to cook it when I could still grill! The meat was perfectly cooked (they recommend medium or medium-rare), the pulled pork was on point, the BBQ sauce had just the right flavor and those onion rings were crispy enough to give it a good crunch. In the words of Guy Fieri, "Dude, that's outta bounds."

All in all, if you're ever in the Chicago area, stop in and give this place a whirl. You will not be disappointed.

Stay tuned for the next post, in which I'll go over making the perfect pulled pork from a slow cooker. I'm starting to get good at this without my grill around, haha.

Until next time.

P.S. sorry for the low res photos. I am going to start bringing my SLR with me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Real Purpose of BBQ

So I'd like to take a minute for a more reflective post. I'm going to skip the words "smoke" and "grill" and maybe even the word "pig". God help me.  If I get all the way through this without mentioning a savory, tasty, smoked on the grill to perfection pig, that will be a first.

Well, looks like I'll have to save that feat for another day.

Anyways, what I hopefully can grab your attention for a moment and get me to lend your ear for is something forgotten all too often these days. Friendship.

It's what every human being longs for and what a lot of us are good at creating.  When you do a BBQ and sleep from noon until midnight just so you can stay awake for the entire next day, there is a good bit more than just the meat, temperature, smoke ratio and weather on your mind.  It's one of those things that allows you to remember just why you decided to do this in the first place.  Well, that and possibly a little bit of whiskey or whatever your drink of choice may be.  Well, a drink or two.

After you've sat there and battled against the odds to saturate a slab of beef, pig, chicken or turkey with smoke, keeping it at the right temperature, locking in the natural moisture, all while battling off the neighbor's dogs and for that matter, the neighbors.  It's then when you realize that the whole reason you did this was because at some point in the middle of the day one of your friends is going to show up with a 12 pack.  And then another, and then another, and then a few more, and then before you know it you have a house filled with people all sitting back, relaxing, blowing off steam from the week and just having fun.

I've always said that BBQ is not something that you eat, it's something you do.  A time when cooking food becomes more about the experience and less about the taste.  Although from experience I can tell you, you better be able to do both because when you don't deliver, yea.  Short addendum, it's 30 percent about the experience, 70 percent about the taste (people don't like bad food).  All that being said, I never knew how true that statement might be until I moved to Chicago.  A place that, while littered with skyscrapers, amazing food and tons of nightlife, left me without the ones that I woke up and started a grill at midnight just to entertain.

This is a shout out to a few people that will always hold meaning in my mind from the days of southern outdoor cooking. 

To Ryan, my pit partner, we've done it all man.   We've taken shifts sleeping, we've stood there in the rain, and for that matter, the snow.  It's been a blessing and to you and your adventures in California, good luck brother.  Get those hours up quick so we can fly around the country at will.

To Sean, my eating partner, we've eaten it all man.  Well, I had my fill and then you kept going.  All in good fun man.  You've been the one to test everything and help guide me through the process.  If it weren't for those taste buds of yours, it wouldn't have been nearly as decadent.  Marry your woman, may you build a family that enriches your life more than you could ever imagine.

To Danny, my family steak partner, we've argued about the name of that cut of meat a good bit man.  London Broil, Top Round, ehh, you know what?  It's a good old fashioned Family Steak, best way to put it.  It's been a good ride man, all those late night talks over a good beer and much debate over Android vs. iOS.  Always been a pleasure man.

And last but not least, Chris, my boss, my "SC mustard based sauce is king and all of you NC people can shove it" partner.  What?  It's true.  Nothing better than SC style BBQ.  It's been awesome man.  From the Halloween party, to the Labor Day cookout, to a couple of my smoke-fests...  I have truly been honored to have you as a boss and a friend. 

Now don't get me wrong, this isn't a last goodbye, just simply a reflection.  I'll see all of you miserable bums come Christmas.  Yea, yea, don't get too excited now.  We Chicagoans don't do that mushy stuff.  This is the land of Al Capone for christ's sake.

So back to the point, whether you grill, smoke, roast, broil, pan sear, bake, boil, or microwave (Nick, just kidding man), love your friends, love the times you have with them and count down the days until you can see them again.

Stay tuned, I saw a place called Smokey Bear's BBQ House the other day in Irving Park and I'm definitely thinking a review is in order.

Keep the smoke rising...