Smoking Hot Summer

This summer has been a scorcher!  If you’re like me, you have probably hunted down your lucky friends who have access to a pool.  This inevitably leads to the tradition of firing up the grill to take part in our country’s favorite summer past time – barbecuing!  For a change of pace (and flavor), I suggest incorporating smoke into your routine.  Just a hint of smoke can enhance meats and other foods greatly.  So take a stab at impressing you friends and family with this classic cooking technique.  If you practice now you’ll be a pro in time for the holidays!

Smoking Then and Now

Smoked scallops, smoked salmon and Bloody Mary!

Smoked scallops, smoked salmon and a Bloody Mary!

Prior to modern refrigeration, smoke was used to preserve meat and seafood.   Today smokers are used by novice cooks and professional chefs, not so much to preserve food, but rather to impart that wonderful smokey flavor.  It should be noted that most “smoked” foods are not smoked in the true sense of the word, but rather they are “cooked with smoke.”  Wood chunks, chips or pellets are added to charcoal and the protein cooks fully in the heat while absorbing the desired smoke flavor.  True (cold) smoking can take hours, days, or even weeks, depending on the size and thickness of the protein.

Smokers have become more mainstream and have worked their way into many backyards, typically taking a backseat to the reliable gas grill.  eHow states that in 2009 57% of grills sold were gas, while 43% were charcoal.  That being said, it’s hard to beat the flavor from a charcoal grill, but the convenience of a gas grill is definitely a benefit.  Regardless of the type of grill you own, you are only a few minutes away from incorporating smoke into your meal without the expense of a separate smoking unit.

Simple Smoking with a Grill

Smoking pork butts on Weber charcoal smoker

Before: Pork butts smoking on Weber charcoal smoker

There are a variety of methods to enhance your meal with smoke.  The cheapest way to do this is to simply wrap some small wood chips (see our wood smoking chart below) in aluminum foil, poke a few holes in the top and add to the gas or charcoal grill.  The chips will begin to smolder after a few minutes and the smoke will adhere to the food.  Please note that using a smoking device in a gas grill will cause a slight buildup of soot, but don’t let this dissuade you!  If you prefer to step up to the next level, you can purchase an inexpensive smoke box from any of your large hardware or outdoor living stores – many are less than $15.  Over the course of the last 15 years, I graduated from smoker box to electric smokers to stand alone charcoal smokers (I currently own two well-used Weber smokers).

How to Smoke with a Gas Grill

Below are simple steps to apply smoke to your meal using a gas grill.

Chopped BBQ with jalapeno cornbread and homemade pickles

After: Chopped BBQ with jalapeño cornbread and homemade pickles

  1. First, wash your meat/poultry/seafood in cold water.
  2. Pat dry and apply salt, pepper and anything else for your desired flavor.  Water acts as a barrier to the smoke, so drying the meat is important!
  3. Allow the meat to come to room temperature (10 to 15 minutes, possibly longer for red meat).
  4. While you are waiting, crank up all of the burners and place the foil smoking pack (with the wood chips inside) on the hot grill, close it and wait for it to start smoking.
  5. Once smoldering, turn one side burner off and use your tongs to move the smoking foil to the now unlit side.
  6. Lightly oil your grill and pat your protein dry again.  Salt will cause moisture to leach out of the protein, so drying the food limits the chance that it will stick to the grill.
  7. Place your food on the grill and close the top.
  8. Cook the food as you normally would on the grill.  The smoke will not speed up the cooking process.

Wood Smoking Chart

Wood Comments
Apple Produces a mild smoke that is great for chicken, duck, dove, cornish game hens and quail.  This wood is commonly used to smoke bacon.
Alder Traditionally used in the Pacific Northwest to smoke salmon.  Imparts a mild smokiness that works well with most seafood.  Try this wood when smoking scallops.
Cherry Another mildly sweet smoke that enhances fish and poultry.  If you are using a cold smoker, this wood is a good choice when smoking fruit (apples/pears) and cheeses.
Hickory One of the most widely available and used woods.  Perfect for ribs, pork butt and turkey breast.  This wood may be used for any cuts of meat that require a long smoking time.
Maple Excellent choice for hams, fish and poultry.
Mesquite Produces a very strong smokiness.  Prolonged use of this wood may ruin food, so it is best used for items that cook quickly, such chicken breasts, ribeye/strip steaks and flank steak.  Try using this wood in a smoker box while grilling.
Pecan A great choice for fish and poultry, especially trout.
Oak Another excellent choice for items that require a long smoking time.  Perfect for large cuts of beef, such as brisket or prime rib.

Important Smoking Rules!

Never use:

  1. Wood that has been chemically treated, painted, stained, etc.
  2. Wood purposed for industrial or commercial use (pallets, siding, flooring, construction site scraps, etc.)
  3. Pine or other conifers (the sap may ruin the food and/or make you sick).

There are many types of fantastic woods available for smoking including peach, pear, apricot, nectarine, hazelnut, grape and even coffee.  Experiment with them all and most importantly, have fun doing it!

Happy smoking,

Chef Ryan

A Chef in the Garden

Some of my fondest childhood memories took place in and around our garden.  The 20 x 30 foot fenced in plot behind our house served as our personal farmers market when we were cooking at home.  Tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, eggplant, peas, beans, yellow squash, corn and a variety of peppers were the staples each year.  I remember checking the garden each day to search for ripe cherry tomatoes and sweet peas, which I would usually just eat off the vine.  Our garden salads were true to the word and the experience of watching the veggies grow and picking them at their peak of ripeness was something that I will always carry with me.  These days the garden is smaller, but it’s still a part of my life.  I am lucky enough to have a nice 10 x 10 garden where I grow my cooking essentials.  It consists of a blend of herbs and vegetables that I use on a daily or weekly basis.  It is truly a pleasure to harvest and share homegrown produce with friends and family.  And starting a small garden is easier than you may think.

Black raspberries ripening

Black raspberries. Photo credit: Ryan Kalooky

A Practical Herb Garden

Many of us simply do not have the time to maintain a garden at home.  If this sounds like you, I encourage you to start a basic herb garden.  Many herbs are easy to grow, add great flavor to dishes and are expensive to buy on a regular basis.  You can plant them in the ground if you have space, in pots on your deck or balcony, or even indoors on a windowsill that gets some good sun.  You don’t have to plant a little bit of everything – my advice would be to plant what you like and what you will use regularly. The table below lists some of my favorite herbs that are very simple to grow.

Basil A must for fans of Italian food.  An annual, but easy start from seed and to root from cuttings.
Chives Add to scrambled eggs or accent a seafood dish.  Be sure to use the blossoms, which are a great garnish for soup!
Dill Add small sprigs to your salad or add to a buerre blanc for a salmon or trout dish.
Mint Excellent for summer drinks, spring rolls, or combined with garlic, ginger and cilantro for a unique salad dressing.  Once you establish your plants they will come back each year.  Also very simple to root from cuttings.
Oregano A versatile herb that I use throughout the year in sauces, seafood dishes, and in salads.  Easy to grow and root from cuttings.
Parsley The flatleaf or curley varieties are excellent for adding a “green” flavor to any dish.  Use the entire unchopped top of the sprigs in salads for a refreshing, clean change of pace.
Rosemary A powerful, “piney” herb that compliments pork, beef and chicken.  Chop up and add to roasted potatoes or use the leftover woody stems as skewers for chicken kebobs.
Sage Use this excellent, unique herb with scallops or roasted chicken.  Try frying whole sage leaves for an inspiring garnish.  It’s not just for Thanksgiving time!
Thyme My favorite perennial herb – add to eggs, pan sauces, stock, and marinades.  Pairs well with garlic, onions, and potatoes.  Incorporate into compound butter.

Tips for Cooking with Herbs

So you’ve planted your herbs, allowed them to grow and mature, but simply can’t find the time or enough occasions to use them?  Below are three simple suggestions to help stretch your herbs throughout the year:

Aromatic oils – add a tablespoon of your favorite chopped herbs, 5 or 6 black peppercorns and a bay leaf to about a cup or two of olive oil. Heat until simmering, strain, and allow to cool to room temperature.  Once cool, you can put the oil in a small container, label it and pop it in the fridge.  Use a spoonful to sauté veggies or to enhance a salad dressing.  Allow a few tablespoons to come to room temperature and add a pinch of salt for a fast, simple and tasty dip for fresh bread.

Compound butters– let two sticks of unsalted butter come to room temperature.  Fold in fresh herbs, garlic and freshly ground pepper (or any combination).  Roll up in plastic wrap (in the shape of a dowel – about the diameter of a half dollar or quarter) and place in the freezer.  When needed, you can cut “coins” off the roll and use for cooking.  This is a great method for inserting butter under the skin of poultry since it will hold its shape and not melt immediately in your hands like refrigerated butter.  The compound butter will keep for months and is great for finishing pan sauces or for a quick and tasty topping for a baked potato or steamed veggies.

Stock – don’t throw away those herb stems!  If you have leftover thyme, sage, or a few cloves of garlic, you can make a quick vegetable stock using a few scraps of onion, carrots, and celery as a flavor base.  After you simmer the veggies and herbs for 30 or 40 minutes, strain, cool, package and freeze.  You can easily make a few pints of stock for future use – most importantly, you won’t have to buy expensive stock from the grocery store next time you make soup.  I routinely make chicken stock and vegetable stock.  Make sure to label (name and date) your stock, as it will lessen in flavor the longer it’s left frozen.

Rosemary plant

Rosemary. Photo credit: Sean Kalooky

Happy cooking,

Chef Ryan