Minimalist Ribs

Every so often you just need to break a recipe down to the basics. I make some fine ribs (if I do say so myself), but I think I’m starting to get mired down in all the bells and whistles – mustard slather, spice rubs, misting, foiling, 3-2-1, saucing, blah, blah, blah…

In an attempt to pare down the ribs to their smoky/savory/tender essence, here’s my minimalist recipe:

3 racks of baby-back ribs
Fresh-ground sea salt
Fresh-ground back pepper

I set the Big Green Egg up for a raised direct cook at 300°F. I didn’t use a plate setter to diffuse the heat, but did use a Woo2 extender to raise the cooking grid up about 4 inches further from the heat.

While the Egg was getting up to temp, I seasoned both sides of the ribs with the salt and pepper. Yep – nothing but salt and pepper. And just a moderate coating, as you can see, they weren’t caked with seasoning.

I put in a good sized chunk of apple wood for smoke, and when the smoke changed from white (bad) to blue (good), I put the ribs on bone side down for an hour, then flipped them and let them go for another hour.

I figured it would take about 3 hours at 300°F, but when I flipped them at the 2 hour mark they were already showing signs of being done – the slabs started to crack when I picked up one end with a pair of tongs and the meat had also started to pull back from the bones. I left them on, bone side down, for another 30 minutes. By the time they hit the 2 1/2 hour mark they were so done that it was tough to take them off the grate in one piece.

I let the ribs rest for 10 minutes and served them dry with some Honey Hog Sauce on the side.

The Verdict: ★★★★½
I gotta admit, I was surprised at how good these ribs tasted right off the bone – no sauce or anything. They were smoky and tender and very flavorful. They even had a pretty good bark (that crispy crust on the outside) from just the salt and pepper.

Would the ribs have been better if I had slathered/rubbed/basted/foiled/glazed them? Sure, but not necessarily a whole lot better. The ribs and smoke are bringing the majority of the flavor to the party all by themselves. The rest is mostly window dressing. Tasty window dressing, true, but simple recipes like this sometimes show you just how little tweaking and fussing the basic ingredients really need.

I knocked off half a point because the doneness across the ribs was a little uneven – the leaner flat end was pretty crispy while the fatter curved end could have used another 30 minutes on the grill. This might have been from using raised direct heat, but it also might have been from using smaller ribs that showed a big difference in thickness from one end to the other.

The Nutrition:
While ribs won’t ever be diet food, these weren’t that bad – 460 calories for 8 ounces of meat (4 to 6 bones worth), 12 Weight Watchers points. Leaving out the sugary rubs and serving them dry with the sauce on the side helped to cut a lot of carbs. Rather than the traditional sides, we lightened it up with corn (frozen from this summer) and cauliflower fauxtatos – look for a pre-Thanksgiving post on this great (borrowed) idea.

Cottage Bacon

This is my take on old-timey country bacon that’s made from the meatier pork shoulder roast (aka pork butt). It’s like a cross between country ham and traditional bacon – smoky, salty, and just a little sweet. I like to make up a big batch of this and freeze it off in breakfast-sized portions.

2 pork butts (pork shoulder roast), boned and trimmed
1 tablespoon Morton’s Sugar Cure per pound of meat
1 teaspoon white sugar per pound of meat
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons ground black pepper

The meat needs to cure before it gets smoked. This takes at least a week and preferably 10 days. These particular butts were both just under 8 pounds, so I cured them separately because I didn’t have a container big enough for both of them.

Place each butt in a large zip-top bag. Combine the black pepper with 1 tablespoon Morton’s Sugar Cure and 1 teaspoon white sugar per pound of meat (so each butt got 1 tablespoon pepper, 1/2 cup Morton’s cure, and 8 teaspoons sugar). Rub the cure all over the butt, making sure to cover all sides. Pour 1/4 cup of maple syrup over each butt, and turn to coat.

Seal the bags and store the butts in the fridge. Liquid will begin to collect to collect in the bags, indicating  that the cure is working. Cure for 7-10 days, flipping the meat over once a day.

After the butts are cured, remove them from the bag and soak in cold water for 3 hours to remove some of the salt. Let them drip dry on a rack while you fire up the grill.

Set your grill up for an indirect cook at 300°F. On the Big Green Egg this meant filling the firebox with lump charcoal and using a plate setter and drip pan to diffuse the heat. When the cooker is up to temp, add some chucks of wood for smoke. Apple or hickory work great here.

Smoke the butts until the internal temperature hits 140°F. That took about 5 hours for these butts. At this point the meat is cured, but not fully cooked. Stash the meat in the fridge to cool, and then slice to your desired thickness.

I ran the butts through my Chef’s Choice 610 Electric Food Slicer at about a 1/4 inch thick setting.  This is thin enough that the meat will fry up quickly but not so thin that it starts to fall apart.

The Verdict: ★★★★☆
This batch of cottage bacon had some great flavor. I like the addition of maple syrup and how the sweetness plays off the saltiness and bits of pepper. Pork shoulder has a good amount of fat in it, but not nearly as much as the belly meat that bacon is usually made with, so it fried up nicely on the chewy side of crispy versus chewy.

These butts had had the bone removed when I bought them. That makes slicing them a lot easier, but the meat wasn’t as compact as I would have liked and some of the little bits that stuck out got overcooked during smoking. I would tie up the butts (oh, that sounds wrong) with butcher’s twine next time.

Pulled Picnic

Normally when I’m doing pulled pork I use Boston butt, but when we ordered our pig, I made sure ask for the picnic as well. Contrary to their names, these cuts come from the front leg of the pig. The butt is the shoulder and the picnic is the foreleg.

Because these cuts do the hard work of moving the pig around, they have big bones running through them and are full of connective tissue, fat, and multiple muscle groups. Doesn’t sound like anything that anybody in their right mind would want to eat, right? But that’s the joy of barbecue – taking something cheap and chewy and turning it into something tender and tasty.

I had a request from some friends to cook for a small party, so I went with 2 butts (on the right) and 2 picnics. I seasoned them with a healthy dusting of Dizzy Pig’s Dizzy Dust.

Normally when I do pulled pork it’s low ‘n’ slow – 225°F for 16-20 hours until the meat hits 210°F internal and starts to fall apart. But I’ve also had good luck cooking the butts at a higher temp and then finishing them in foil. Due to weather and logistics, I decided to go the hot and fast route this time. I set the Big Green Egg up for an indirect cook at 350°F. This meant filling the firebox with lump and using a plate setter and drip pan to diffuse the heat. When the cooker was up to temp, I added some chucks of apple wood for smoke.

I put the butts on the bottom grate and the picnics on top of the extended grid and let them cook for 5 hours at 350°F, until they had developed a nice dark bark on the outside and had hit 160°F on the inside.

At this point the meat was done, but it was nowhere near tender. To get to tender I needed to break down all of that connective tissue into melty collagen. That’s where the foil comes in.

To braise the meat, I removed it from the BGE and put it into a large roasting pan. I added 2 cups of apple juice, sealed the pan with a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil, and loaded it into the oven set at 250°F.

I baked the meat for 3 hours, until the internal temperature of the biggest butt hit 210°F. I removed the pan from the oven and let them cool for an hour. When I removed the foil the meat was so tender I could barely get it out of the pan.

I set the first hunk o’ pig in the middle of a large jelly roll pan and started to pull it apart using a pair of bear paws. As I do more of these multi-butt cooks, I’ve started to refine my pulling technique a bit. The first pass with the paws was just to remove the bones and any large pieces of fat, and to start to separate the muscle groups.

Then I set up a second pan and started working by hand to to remove all the inedible bits and move just the meat into the second pan. As I did this I started to open up the muscles and separate the meat fibers.

When all the butts and picnics were done (I kept them separate for pulling so that I could compare the difference between the two cuts) I put the meat into a large roaster with a bit of finishing sauce mixed with pan drippings and went through it one more time with the paws to finely shred the meat.

The Verdict: ★★★★☆
I saved a bit of the picnic for me (testing purposes, of course) and sent the rest on with our friends. They reported that the reunion went well and everybody liked the pork.

The picnic was good, though a little drier than I would have liked. It had good smoke flavor with a decent amount of smoky, chewy bark. The picnic meat was noticeably different from the butt – darker with more and thicker stands of meat. It didn’t pull as finely as the butt, but seemed moister. I’d definitely try it again, although next time I’d like to try a picnic shoulder (a whole shoulder with the butt and picnic still attached to each other) and do it low n’ slow.

Flashback Friday

Pulled Pork Shortcut (April 16, 2010) – a year ago I was trying to figure out exactly how I was going to get 8 pork butts cooked for an upcoming graduation party. This first attempt wasn’t bad, but I eventually went with a hotter & faster cooking method that let me get all the cooking done in one weekend.

Gluten-Free Egg Rolls (April 12, 2009) – two years ago my dear wife helped me make up these treats. They were tasty, but a bit putzy and didn’t freeze well. I’d like to try them again, but fry them this time and then freeze off the extras.

Bacon – Buckboard and Canadian-style (April 15, 2008) – three years ago I took my first shot at curing my own bacon. It was such a hit that nowadays I regularly make 15 pound batches and freeze it off for later.

Smoked Salmon Dip

I am pretty much forbidden from visiting my dear wife’s family without a sizable tub of this dip in tow. Call it a hostess gift. Call it a bribe. Call it a get-out-of-jail-free card. It always gets us in (and generally safely back out of ) the door.

As smoked salmon can be awfully pricey, the only way I can afford to keep the outin-laws happy is to buy fresh salmon when it goes on sale and smoke cure it myself.

The Salmon

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 (I use Penzey’s, which is a blend of paprika, salt, mustard, celery, ancho, black pepper, red pepper, dill, caraway, allspice, horseradish, cardamom, thyme, ginger, bay, mace, cinnamon, savory and cloves)

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

Put the fillet flat in a large zip-top bag. Cover one side of the fillet with half of the cure, working it in with your hands to cover. Flip the fish and repeat on the other side. Squeeze as much air out of the bag as possible, seal, and lay flat in fridge for at least 12 hours, but no more than 24. Turn the fillet over every 3-4 hours.

Remove the fish from cure and rinse it well in cold water. Let soak in fresh water for 30 minutes.  Remove from water and pat dry. Place the fish skin-side down on a rack (I use a small baker’s cooling rack). Move the fillet to the fridge until surface is dry but slightly sticky to the touch – 1 to 3 hours.

This semi-gloss finish is called the pellicle, and it helps the fish hold both moisture and smoke.

Set up your grill for a 3 hour indirect cook at 225°F. Add your smoking wood (I used guava) and smoke until the fillet starts to flake – about 2 hours. Remove from the grill and let cool to room temp. Package and store in the fridge overnight so the flesh gets a little firmer and the flavors get to know each other.

I’ll often smoke several fillets up in advance, vacuum seal them, and freeze them for later. I’ve not noticed much loss in quality and it’s a ton cheaper than buying store-bought smoked salmon.

The Dip

1 smoked salmon fillet (1-1/2 to 2 pounds), skinned and de-boned
24 ounces cream cheese, softened
8 ounces sour cream
4 ounces mayonnaise
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon fresh ground horseradish
1 teaspoon Chesapeake Bay seasoning
1 (3.5-ounce) jar capers, undrained
Fresh ground back pepper to taste

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine everything but the black pepper. Blend until smooth and almost paté-like (you can add more mayo or sour cream if the mixture is too dry). Season with black pepper. Store in a sealed container in the fridge. Top with more capers and/or a few pomegranate seeds scattered on top before serving. It goes great with almost any dipper – crackers, pita chips, corn chips, baguette slices, even sliced veggies.

The Verdict: ★★★★★
This dip is always a monster hit – smoky and rich with just enough tang from the capers to keep everything in balance. This recipe will make a good 2 quarts and we can finish it off during the course of a long weekend just hanging with my brother-in-laws and their families. Sometimes I’ll just make the smoked salmon and serve it as an appetizer with a fancy cheese log.

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.

Superior Planked Salmon

Bayfield, Wisconsin is one of our favorite places to vacation. When we are there we often take the ferry over for a day trip to Madeline Island.  We love to kayak the lagoon at Big Bay Town Park, tour the island for a bit, and then hang out at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe.

So I was very excited to learn about Superior Planks on Madeline. The grilling planks come from trees that are sustainably-harvested, hauled out by draft horses, run by hand through their bio-diesel saw-mill, and shipped in 100% bio-degradable packaging. These guys are so green they make Kermit jealous.

I ordered up a 3-pack of their maple planks to give them a try. First up – wild Alaskan salmon!

I soaked the plank in water for 2 hours, then set the Big Green Egg up for direct cooking at medium-high heat (about 450°F).

I oiled the skin side of the salmon and seasoned both sides with a just little sea salt and a grind or two of black pepper.

I put the plank on the grill by itself for about 5 minutes, just until I could smell the wood smoke coming off the plank. I put the salmon on the plank, closed the lid, and let it cook for 10-15 minutes. I like salmon when it’s on the  medium rare side, so I took the fillet off when it started to flake, but was still a little translucent red inside – about 130°F internal.

The verdict? While cedar is traditional for salmon, I also liked the sweeter, more subtle taste that the maple brought to the party. It enhanced the flavor of the salmon without masking it.  I think it would be great for a variety of foods, particularly pork. The planks themselves are very nice (and at $4 a plank, they had better be). They’re a good 1/2 inch thick and tightly grained. Twenty minutes on the grill barely charred the back side. I ought to get plenty of use out of these and it’s fun to be able to cook with something from a place we enjoy so much.

Making More Bacon

bacon_012010P1010328

Our local Mega-Mongo-Mart had a sale on full pork loins, so I decided to cure a couple and replenish our dwindling supply of Canadian-style bacon.

Ingredients

2 boneless pork loins (8 to 10 pounds each)
1 tablespoon Morton Sugar Cure (Plain) per pound of loin
1 teaspoon white sugar per pound of loin
2 tablespoon black pepper, ground
1 tablespoon Dizzy Pig Raging River
1 tablespoon Dizzy Pig Red Eye Express
4 tablespoons maple syrup
4 tablespoons molasses

Instructions

Trim any excess fat from the pork loins, then cut them in half.

Just to jazz things up a little, I made up 2 batches of cure, one for each loin.

For loin #1:  combine the Morton Sugar Cure, white sugar, brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of the pepper, and Raging River. Mix well. Place 2 of the loin pieces in a large freezer bag and coat with the cure. Rub the cure into the meat, covering all sides. Add the maple syrup, and turn the loins in the bag to distribute it. Squeeze the air out of the bag and seal.

For loin #2:  combine the Morton Sugar Cure, white sugar, brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of the pepper, and Red Eye Express. Mix well. Place 2 of the loin pieces in a large freezer bag and coat with the cure. Rub the cure into the meat, covering all sides. Add the molasses, and turn the loins in the bag to distribute it. Squeeze the air out of the bag and seal.

Place both bags in the refrigerator for 5 days, flipping the meat over once a day. Liquid will begin  to collect in the bag almost immediately, indicating that the cure is working.

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On the 6th day, remove the meat from the cure and soak in cold water for 1-2 hours to remove some of the salt. Dry off the meat and refrigerate uncovered for an hour – this helps the meat dry and form a pellicle, or glaze, to keep moisture in and help hold the smoke.

Set up your grill or smoker up for an indirect cook at 250°F for at least 4 hours. Once the cooker is up to temperature, add your smoking wood (I used pecan for this recipe).

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Put the loins on the grate and cook until the internal temperature of the loin hits 160°F. Remove from the smoker and let cool before cutting into slices. I ran this batch through our food slicer and made both 1/4 inch slices for breakfast as well as some deli-thin ones for pizza topping and sandwiches.

Double-Smoked Ham

ham

I made this for our stuck-at-home Thanksgiving. Double-smoking and glazing the ham is a great way to really bump the flavor up without going to a whole lot of work.

1 spiral-sliced, fully-cooked ham
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice

Combine the honey, vinegars, Worcestershire, and spices in a small sauce pan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat and set aside.

Set your grill up for 5 hour indirect cook over medium heat (325°F). On the Big Green Egg this means using about half a fire box full of lump charcoal, an inverted plate setter to diffuse the heat, and a trivet to set the pan on. I added a good-sized chunk of pecan wood for smoke.

The spiral cut hams are cured, and fully cooked, so all you need to do is warm the ham to 140°F internal. For boneless hams, figure about 20 minutes per pound. For a bone-in hams, about 12 minutes per pound. Place the ham, flat side down, in a small roaster (I used a 9×13 cake pan). Close the lid and cook the ham for an hour.

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Baste the ham with 1/3 of the glaze. Close the lid and cook for another hour. Glaze again, and continue cooking until the ham reaches 140°F. Glaze one last time and remove to a cutting board.

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Let the ham rest 10 minutes before serving. The pan drippings were a little too sweet for a gravy, so I skimmed the fat off and served it as an au jus. My wife said it was so delicious she didn’t even mind too much being stuck home with me ;).

Smoked Peppers

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We ended up a with just a small crop of jalapenos and habaneros this year. Not enough to pickle or make hot sauce from, but more than what we’d go through before they’d spoil.

I washed our harvest, and (wearing gloves) trimmed off any bad spots, slit the pods lengthwise, and laid them out on a perforated pizza pan.

I set the Big Green Egg up for an indirect cook at low heat (200°F) with a couple of pecan chunks for smoke. I smoked them for 3 hours and then moved them to the oven at 170°F for 5 hours. I turned the oven off and let them sit in it overnight.

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I the morning I tossed my little leathery bits of heat and smoke into a glass jar for storage. I see them lighting up a batch of chili and staring in some jerk marinade in the near future.