Monday, June 11, 2012

Second To Last Meat Meal

My partners have been wanting to go vegetarian for some time.  There are many reasons for the change to our diet, most of them health related.  I highly recommend that anyone who has not seen it go out and watch the documentary Forks over Knives.  It explains a lot of why we are making this change to our diet.

In the mean time I have the final bits of an all organic meat share that we had to go through and the other night I made one of our last meat meals.  It was another smoked piece, and I'm taking these final meat preparation opportunities to try some cooking techniques I haven't tackled before.

I wanted to do a writeup on the second to last meat meal I prepared because it goes with my recent smoking interests, and produced some really excellent results.

I made smoked dark meat chicken.  It was a mixture of drumsticks and thighs.  I put together an impromptu rub of poblano chili powder, paprika, black pepper, salt, cumin, turmeric, paprika, garlic powder, and a little bit of brown sugar.  After smothering the chicken in the rub, and leaving it in the fridge to dry a bit and form a nice pellicle on the surface of the meat, I loaded all the meat up in my roasting pan.  It's important that you have it resting on a roasting rack, so the meat is elevated above the bottom of the roasting pan.  If you don't have a good roasting rack for this purpose I recommend loading up the roasting pan with vegetables that roast and smoke well, and laying your chicken on top of the vegetables.  If you roasting pan is large enough to hold a cooling rack you can also use an all metal cooling rack for this purpose.

I left a small area near the corner of the roasting pan empty to hold the wood chip container.  Then I set the oven to just about 200 degrees (which is kind of a guesstimate with my oven knob).  While the oven was preheating I covered the top of my roasting pan in aluminum foil and crimped it around the sides very securely.  I left the corner of the pan with space for the smoking chips uncrimped.  Then I started the chips going on the top of my stove.  I spoke about this process a bit in a previous blog post.  I use a small powdered sugar dispenser to hold my smoking chips.  Really all you need is a small stainless steel container that you can heat directly on your stove.  This works best with a gas stove.  Once the chips were smoking heartily I quickly stuck them inside the roasting pan with a pair of tongs and crimped the remaining corner of the aluminum foil shut.  Then I slid the roasting pan into the oven.  Then I set a timer for 15 minutes.  When the timer went off I pulled the roasting pan out of the oven, pulled the chip container out and re-lit it.  If you don't want to be getting up every 15 minutes for the duration of the smoking you can get away with refreshing the chips every 20 minutes.  I've found at 15 minutes the roasting pan is generally still fairly smokey, but the chips have gone out.  At 20 minutes the pan generally only has a few whisps of smoke when I pull back the foil to retrieve the chip container.

Now at this point I'd like to talk a little bit about the 200 degree mark that I set the oven for.  Most smoking recipes I've seen have targeted the smoker temperature at 250 degrees.  I aimed for 200 because this approach to smoking doesn't provide the constant high concentration smoke exposure that a commercial smoker provides, so I want it to be in the oven/smoker a little longer than if I were using a professional smoking rig to soak up as much delicious smoke as possible.

The other question I want to cover is "Why go to all this trouble?"  I'm not going to lie, this is a definite slow food approach to cooking.  It's not difficult, but it is a lot of hands on contact with the food.  For many people that will be a huge turnoff.  The big reason for me is that I love the flavor of slow smoked meats, and I live in an apartment in Uptown Chicago.  I don't live in a bad neighborhood, but I don't live in a great neighborhood and plenty of things have been stolen from the decks of our apartment building.  For people in similar urban situations a nice expensive smoker may just not be an option.   You can do this entire smoking technique in  your urban apartment/condo kitchen with no special equipment and get amazing results.

Then there is the ultimate advantage, that quite honestly would have me doing this even if I lived in the burbs and had an acre yard, the juices rendered from the meat.  When I completed the roughly 3 hours of smoking/roasting there was an amazing deep dark liquid that had rendered out of the chicken.  It was incredibly rich, and had enough gelatin to set at room temperature.  This stuff is pure culinary gold.  If you use a traditional smoker then this liquid is generally lost.  It depends on your setup admittedly, but the outdoor smoking setups I have seen do not save this rare and magnificent resource.  It is a full batch of incomparable chicken chili waiting to be made.  Or it can just be poured into the bbq sauce for the chicken and cooked down into near perfection.  I was blessed with a similar liquid in smaller quantity when I smoked ribs using the same technique.  Slow roasting meats at home, with or without smoke will generally render a liquid like this.  This is one of those cases where the food you make at home will ALWAYS render a superior result to what is accessible in a commercial kitchen.  Slow roasting meat this way is just not feasible in a commercial kitchen.  You can't oven roast enough meat to do to order cooking.  There may be a few Michelin starred restaurants that go to this length, but you don't want to know what a meal costs at these establishments.  The trick here is low temperature roasting, and a high walled roasting pan to protect the liquid from the direct IR heat being given off by the sides off the oven.  While using this type of "stock" requires an imaginative approach to cooking it's worth it.  You won't find any recipes that call for this ingredient, because it's so rare, valuable and can't just be purchased at a store.  It's highly concentrated and doesn't flavor quite like regular meat stock as a result, so roast or smoke up some meat and experiment.  Trust me it will make all the hard work seem more than worth the time.

Now that those mild asides are . . . well set aside we can get to the final step, the bbq sauce.  In my experience everyone has different tastes in bbq sauce.  I like mine tangy, terribly terribly overwhelmingly tangy.  In my opinion if any flavors really win out over vinegar in a bbq sauce then you're doing it wrong.  There should be just a touch of brown sugar to give some roundness, but not enough to make the sauce distinctly sweet at all.  I can't really tell you exactly what goes into my sauce, but I start with a base of tomato paste, some of the juice drippings I discussed at length in the last paragraph, a bunch of vinegar (generally unfiltered apple cider vinegar), chili powder, cumin, turmeric, salt, pepper, some oregano, a touch of brown sugar, a few splashes of Worcestershire sauce, and a few splashes of home made hot sauce.  Then I start cooking the sauce down, and I taste as I go.  The flavor will depend on the freshness of my herbs, my mood and the quality of the various ingredients.  I grab various bottles and futz with the sauce till it tastes right.  There really isn't much more of a recipe than that.  Common things that I add while touching up are molasses if it's sweet enough, but I want more of that deep roundness brought by the brown sugar, smoked salt if it could be smokier but I don't want to thin it down with more liquid, more vinegar, paprika, sometimes soy sauce, and very occasionally if I want a really round sauce I'll add some cocoa powder.  I don't generally add any normal salt until the rest of the flavor is just right, because some of the ingredients I might add have salt in them.  So the final adjustment I make is to the sodium.

Finally I take the chicken, smother it in sauce and consume it in the undignified way that is required of such food.  I try to redeem myself with copious napkins . . . but I have a beard.  It's pretty hopeless.

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