Thanksgiving

We held our Thanksgiving dinner on Friday this year. With an extra day to work with, I thought I’d try taking the bird apart, making the gravy and sides dishes in advance, and then grilling turkey first thing the next day.

The problem I have with roasting a whole turkey is that while the white breast meat is done at 160°F internal, the dark meat is still pretty chewy at that point. Legs and thighs really need to go to at least 180°F to be tasty. By separating the dark and white meat, and by placing the dark meat closer to the heat, I was hoping to get both done perfectly.

Taking the bird apart was the hardest part. I started with an 18-pound, natural bird. Working just with a good chef’s knife, I first removed the hind quarters by pulling the drumstick away from the turkey and then cutting through skin between leg and body down to the joint. I pushed the thigh flat until the joint popped, and then cut through the joint.

I removed the wings by cutting all the way around the joint until the wing came free. Next, I removed the breast by inverting the body and cutting down through the ribs on each side until I cut through the shoulder. A clever might have come in handy here, but my dear wife’s childhood memories of cutting up freshly picked chickens helped, too.

The breast and hind quarters got coated with some olive oil and a heavy dusting of Tasty Licks BBQ Turkey Rub courtesy of Fred’s Music & BBQ Supply. I put them in the fridge overnight uncovered to help crisp the skin.

The wings, back, neck and giblets got coated with some olive oil and sea salt and went into the oven to be roasted at 375°F until golden brown and crispy (about 2 hours) and then into the stock pot with some water, herbs and veggies to become the base for the gravy.

It was a cold and snowy start on Friday. Just 17°F when I shoveled a path across our deck and fired up the Big Green Egg. But within 20 minutes she was at 500°F, and once I got the temp adjusted she sailed along at 350°F for several hours.

I set the grill up for an indirect cook, using a plate setter to diffuse the heat. I put the breast in the center of the grate and arranged the hind quarters around it.

The breast hit 160°F after 1-1/2 hours on the grill. I checked the hind quarters and they were at 190°F and 195°F, so I took all the turkey off the grill and let it rest for 10 minutes before carving. Here it is served with all the usual suspects.

And for dessert we had my dear wife’s gluten-free version of Noble Pig’s Pumpkin Cheesecake.

The Verdict: ★★★★★
I’ve been grilling turkeys for 10 years, and this was the BEST bird ever – very flavorful with a just a hint of smoke. The breast was so moist the juices ran all over the cutting board when I carved it, even though I’d let it rest awhile. The thighs and legs just about fell apart. Wonderful.

The cheesecake was also outstanding – rich and tangy. My dear wife substituted gluten-free gingersnaps and flour, used black walnuts instead of pecans, and baked it in a 9×2 spring-form pan.

Thankfull

We’re doing Thanksgiving here with my folks tomorrow, so today has been mostly cooking and cleaning, but I wanted to take a minute to reflect on just how lucky we are.

A couple days ago my dear wife told me that we had a “problem” with freezer space because we’d gotten a load of beef from her brother and didn’t have room for any of the Thanksgiving supplies. “We’re so lucky,” she said.

Too much food, a roof over our heads, four spoiled cats, and (soon) a house full of family. Ain’t those nice problems to have?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Smoked Salmon

Whenever I ask what I can bring for holiday parties, everybody asks for smoked salmon. Usually I’ll blend it with cream cheese and serve it as a dip, but this time I just chunked it up into bite-sized pieces and served it with a store-bought cheese spread and crackers.

1 salmon fillet (1-1/2 to 2 pounds), preferably wild-caught
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon Chesapeake Bay seasoning

Combine all of  the dry ingredients in bowl, mixing well. This is the cure.

Put the fillet flat in a zip-top bag. Cover both sides of the fillet with  the cure mixture. Seal the bag and place in fridge for at least 12 hours, but no more than 24 hours. Turn the fillet over every 3-4 hours.

Remove the fish from cure, rinse well in cold water and pat dry. Place the fish skin-side down on a rack. Move to the fridge to dry until surface is dry but slightly sticky to the touch – 1 to 3 hours.

Set up your grill for a 3 hour indirect cook at 225°F. Add your smoking wood (I used apple for this batch) and smoke until the fillet starts to flake – about 2 hours.

The Verdict: ★★★★★
Sweet and salty and smoky – everything a holiday appetizer should be. I really like the complex flavors that the Chesapeake Bay seasoning adds. Next time I might even give it a light dusting of extra seasoning before smoking it.

Holiday Anxiety

© King Features Syndicate, Inc. Written by Francesco Marciuliano and drawn by Craig MacIntosh.

With Thanksgiving approaching and all of the other holidays coming quickly behind it, lots of folks have huge anxiety about entertaining.  Some may let fear stop them from hosting a big food event. That just can’t happen – anyone can do this. Here’s a guide to pulling it together and pulling it off for the holidays:

The Head Game
I know – your in-laws are super picky eaters, your Uncle Fred is a bit of an ass, and your sibling practically channels Martha Stewart – and they all want to come to your house for the holidays! Having the confidence to cook for others grows with time and experience. Go into it with a sense of humor and remember what it’s all about – food and fun (oh, and fire).

Nobody is going to be as critical of the food you make as you are, so give yourself a break. And if someone is, you don’t want those kind of friends anyway. As for Uncle Fred, you’ll find a way to deal with him :}

Perfect is for Martha, and she probably has a staff of about 400 and a prison tattoo. There is no reason you need to try and compete with her. Relax, enjoy the ride and your company.

Decorating
Not everything has to match; you don’t have to have the perfect house. Shabby chic is in right now, with mixing dishes up to make a pretty table. Or, if you’re just starting out, consider plain white dishes. They’re very versatile and make food look delicious.

Less is more – guests won’t be roaming the entire house, so focus on the dining table, the entryway, the bathroom, and the living room. Make sure it’s clean, and a bouquet or two of grocery store flowers gives a big punch for not a lot of cha-ching.

Get Your Mise En Place
You don’t have to do it all, but you do have to be organized. Think through the meal, what you want to make and what you can ask others to provide. Lists are your friend. When a guest asks “What can I bring?” don’t be a hero – take them up on their offer!

If you’ve not made Thanksgiving dinner before, consider starting with a pre-holiday meal, say the weekend before, with a few friends as a warm up. Your friends will appreciate the effort (and the food) and it’s a great chance to try out some new recipes.

Ask about food allergies and preferences early on. Having Celiacs, I can’t tell you how much easier having a pro-active host makes my life. If you need to accommodate some serious dietary issues, have them share a favorite recipe or bring a dish that they can have.

Clean out the fridge early so you have room to store everything for the big day. I know it’s boring, but do go through your recipes ingredient by ingredient a few days before to make sure you have what you need and sufficient quantities – you’ll save yourself unnecessary stress.

Do as much pre-cooking as you can – cook the potatoes, chop the veggies, assemble the relish trays, etc…  Set the table ahead of time so you won’t be digging for the water glasses at the last minute.

At least at our house, the meat is the star (oh, and gravy too). If you can get a properly cooked hunk-o-meat on the table and hopefully nail the gravy, nobody is going to bitch about the cranberries. Go with good but simple sides that can take some reheating. Stuffing is better if you let it sit uncooked in the fridge overnight and casseroles don’t care when they get cooked. Line a cooler with some beach towels and use it to stash dishes that are finished cooking and just need to stay warm.

Hosting
Make your guests feel welcome and useful, and keep them out of your hair until the food hits the table. Put somebody in charge of greeting folks at the door and putting coats away. Provide noshies and beverages that encourage guests to help themselves as they arrive, so you can focus on last minute prep.

As the host, do have a special few words to say at the beginning of the meal, and encourage your guests to share a thought. It’s good for everyone to take a minute of (painful?) reflection before digging into 5000 calories.

Guests enjoy being able to contribute their specialties, and it’s a great conversation starter. For example, asking the guest who brought an amazing salmon dip “So, you say you caught this salmon yourself?!?” led to amazing stories about Alaska trips like I’ve always dreamt of doing!

And, I’ve met no one that will turn down a care package of Thanksgiving leftovers on their way out the door. That is, if there are any.

When it’s all over, congratulate yourself on a fun experience and go take a nap. The dishes can wait!

Roughing It

Dinner by lantern light.

Our first snow storm of the season dropped 8 VERY HEAVY inches on us Saturday and knocked our power out for 22 hours. No biggie. We pulled out the extra blankets, dug out the camping equipment, and got a nice fire roaring in the fireplace.

Now that's live fire cooking.

My dear wife roasted some huge hot dogs, I made up mac and cheese, and we snuggled in for a evening of chatting and watching the fire.  Not at all bad.

Beef Short Ribs

We get some really nice beef from my brother-in-law and you’ll see it featured a lot on this site. When we ordered up this last quarter of a beef from him, the butcher asked if I wanted the ribs. Of course I did. So when I started loading meat into the freezer, I expected to come across a big ol’ pack of dino-ribs.  Nope, just a half dozen little packs labeled “Ribs.”

Hmmmm… must be short ribs. Now I’ve eaten short ribs, but never cooked them before. I quizzed the fine folks at the Egghead Forum and Fearlesskitchen pointed me to his version of Adam Perry Lang’s short ribs. They looked so promising that I decided to use it as a starting point for my own version.

Mustard Rub
8 pounds bone-in beef short ribs
3 tablespoons yellow mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Your favorite brisket rub (I went with Tasty Licks Black Bart’s Brisket Rub courtesy of Fred’s Music & BBQ Suppy)

Combine the mustard, Worcestershire, and vinegar. Moisten all sides of the ribs with the mustard mixture, then dust the ribs heavily with the rub. You can do this right before the cook, but I like to do it the night before to let the rub melt into the ribs.

Set your smoker up for at least a 6 hour indirect cook at 300°F. On the Big Green Egg this means filling the firebox with lump charcoal and using an inverted plate setter to diffuse the heat and a drip pan with a little water in it to catch the fat. You are going to smoke the ribs first to give them that wonderful flavor and render out a lot of the fat, and then braise them in aluminum foil to make them tender.

Once the smoker is up to temp, toss in your smoking wood (I used pecan), and arrange the ribs bone side down on the grate. Close the lid and let the smoker do its magic for 4 to 5 hours, or until the ribs reach 160°F internal.

Wrapping Mixture
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup beef broth
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 tablespoon butter

This is for the braise. While the ribs are cooking, prepare the wrapping mixture. Start by pouring the beef broth into a small saucepan and bringing it to a boil. Let boil for about 10 minutes, or until the broth has reduced to about 1/2 cup. Reduce the heat to low and add the sugar, honey, Worcestershire, vinegar, and butter. Stir and cook just until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat.

When the ribs are ready, lay down a sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil in a 9×13 baking pan.  Add the ribs, meat side down, pour the wrapping mixture over them. Put another sheet of aluminum foil on top of the ribs and crimp to seal the two sheets together.

Put the pan full of ribs back on the smoker for an hour, or until the ribs reach 190°f internal. Remove the meat from the smoker, and allow to rest in foil for 15-30 minutes.

Serve drizzled with pan juices or your favorite barbecue sauce.

The Verdict: ★★★☆☆

These were some very tasty ribs – rich and peppery with plenty of smoke.  The Black Bart’s added a bit of background heat from the cayenne and a good bit of back pepper spiciness up front. This is a great beef rub.

The 3 stars are my fault. I ran short of time and didn’t leave the ribs on the smoker long enough and didn’t return them to the smoker after the braise like Lang suggests. As a result – I didn’t render out as much fat as I should have and didn’t cook the ribs long enough to make them really tender. They were good, but if I had done them right they should have just melted on the plate. Better luck next time.

Suck Creek WFR Hot Sauce

I take my hot sauces pretty seriously and have amassed a respectable collection, limited only by my dear wife’s desire to have room in the fridge for actual food and my desire to remain happily married.

In their application, I tend to take the terroir approach – sauces from a given region goes best with foods from that region. So Louisiana-style sauces (Crystal, Frank’s, Trappey’s) go with southern cooking like jambalaya or biscuits and gravy, and Mexican sauces (Cholula, Valentina, Búfalo) go with tacos, enchiladas, etc… I do a little mixy matchy (Valentina with a little mayo is killer on sushi), but have yet to find a single hot sauce that really works to compliment a wide variety of foods.

That said – I take my hat off to Suck Creek WFR Hot Sauce.

The Verdict: ★★★★★

This sauce complements everything I’ve tried it on. So far, I’ve had it on eggs, in my cherished biscuits and gravy, and as a way to brighten up some beef stew. I’ve used it to add some heat to my wing sauce, tacos, and ranch dressing. It has a nice, tangy base of warmth that’s wrapped with black pepper and herbs, and then finished off with a straight up habanero heat.  It’s not as vinegary as Crystal, nor as hot as Marie Sharp’s. The heat is considerable, but not overwhelming. It does, however, build and linger for a while. It may be a bit much for some folks, but’s that’s their own fault. I can see it as my “go-to” heat source for barbecue sauces and marinades.

The versatility of the sauce means that a bottle of WFR now sits on our dining table right next to the salt and pepper. My only wish is that it came in a bigger bottle ;).

Chicken Soup

This is what love looks like.

I came down with the crud over the weekend while my dear wife was out of town. When she got back the first thing she did was to whip up a big batch of this oh-poor-baby-this’ll-make-you-feel-better-soup. No exotic ingredients, no food styling, no tricky cooking techniques – just chicken, veggies, and love.

I’m feeling better already.

Election Day Teriyaki Kabobs

Don’t think that you can grill up something quick and tasty after throwing the bums out and electing new ones to take their place? Yes you can!

Boneless/skinless chicken thighs have largely replaced breasts as my “go-to” white meat. They pack a lot more flavor and can take a lot more heat without drying out. If you start marinating the chicken and chop the veggies the night before, these kabobs come together in just a few minutes. It’s a great way to make a tasty, simple weeknight dinner on the grill.

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
3 cups vegetables, chopped into 1 1/2 chunks (I went with 3 bell peppers)
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons Sriracha Chili Sauce (homemade this time)
6-8 skewers (if you’re using wooden ones, soak them in water for at least an hour before grilling with them)

Combine the soy, sugar, vinegar, oil, and sriracha in a small bowl. Stir until the sugar dissolves.

Put the chicken in a zip-top bag and cover with half of the teriyaki marinade. Reserve the other half for the veggies. Toss to coat. Squeeze the air out of the bag, seal it, and put it in the fridge to marinate for at least 4 hours, overnight is better.

Put the veggies in a container with a lid and cover with the reserved marinade. Give them a shake to coat. Let them marinate while you get the grill ready.

Set your grill up for a direct cook over high (450°F) heat.

Remove the chicken and veggies from their respective marinades and thread onto skewers. I grill the veggies separately because they tend to be done long before the chicken is. Grill the veggies about 5 minutes per side. Grill chicken about 10 minutes per side.  In both cases you’re looking for some crispy bits on the outside without overcooking the food.

I served the these over brown rice and topped everything with a drizzle of sesame oil.

The Verdict: ★★★★★
Hot, tasty, fast, and easy! Now those are some serious American values. Also, it’s hard to get any more fiscally responsible (chicken thighs are cheap and tasty) or more diverse (the Rooster Sauce sriracha that we all know and love was created by a Chinese immigrant living in southern California who was inspired by Thai cooking).

BTW – my homemade version of sriracha has mellowed nicely and added some heat and a lot of complexity to the marinade. I’ll definitely try another batch when this runs out.