Sunday, September 23, 2007

Lump Charcoal

For all my grilling years I've used charcoal briquettes as my fuel, as had my father before me, and his father, too. I played around with using lighter fluid and matchlight charcoal before settling on the charcoal chimney as the superior way to ignite the coals. This summer, though, I've turned to something new (new to me, at least): lump charcoal. And I couldn't be more pleased with the results.

Lump charcoal burns hotter and cleaner than briquettes and leaves behind fewer ashes at the end. This also means that it will burn faster, too. My first experience with lump charcoal left me surprised at how quickly the charcoal ashed over and was ready for cooking--about half the time as with good old Kingsford briquettes--and also how quickly the charcoal seemed to melt away into ashes. But, as I have learned, you can control the speed of burning by limiting the air supply to the grill, and I've had great success mastering the little rotating air vents to limit the burning without dropping the heat too low.

With lump charcoal gaining in popularity with barbecue nuts like myself, one might think that it was the Johnny-come-lately on the scene. But, it's actually older than briquettes, dating back to the 19th Century. When outdoor grilling first became popular in the 1930s and 1940s, lump charcoal was the fuel of choice, getting displaced sometime during the mid-1950s with the rise of Kingsford and other popular brands of charcoal briquettes, which were made by grinding up charcoal and binding them together with starch and other fillers into the now-universal briquette shape.

But now lump charcoal making a comeback, particularly among the hard-core competition barbecuers and grilling nuts. Such folks claim that, since lump is free of the starches and binders and additives of briquettes, it doesn't impart unpleasant flavors to the meat. While I can't attest to this for certain without a head-to-head taste test, the items I made with lump charcoal certainly had a very clean, nice wood-smoked flavor.

There are some other benefits, too. You can throw a handful of lump charcoal on top of burning coals and stretch out a fire without having to break out the lighter fluid or start a separate chimney of charcoal burning. Since it burns more cleanly, there's less mess to clean up at the end of a grilling session. But, the coolest thing about lump charcoal is that it tinkles while it burns. It's hard to explain unless you are there to hear it, but there's a definite tinkling, like a thousand tiny chimes as the lumps burn and settle into coals.

Long languishing in obscurity, lump charcoal is getting easier to find: I got my last bag at Lowe's, and I've even seen it popping up in grocery store aisles. If you don't use a charcoal chimney and are more the type to just quickly grill up some burgers or a steak, then it might not be worth the experiment. But, the last three or four times I've used my grill it's been with lump charcoal, and I don't think I'm ever going back.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Pork and Whiskey

There's a newish (since February) Charleston-based blog out there called Pork and Whiskey. In the last few weeks he (and I'm going out on a limb and assume that anyone who writes a blog called "Pork and Whiskey" and takes the penname "Rev. BigDumbChimp" is likely a male) has posted some great recipes, including one for making your own Tasso ham at home and a wonderful-looking Grilled Rubbed Pork Tenderloin with BBQ Sauce, Roasted Poblano Creamy Grits and Chipotle Slaw, which if it tastes even 25% as good as it looks and sounds must be one hell of a dish.

Give it a visit.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Chicken Under a Brick

One of my all-time favorite chicken dishes is Chicken Under a Brick, which is also known by its Italian name pollo al mattone. I'd never tried making it on the grill before, even though that is how the classic Tuscan version is traditionally cooked. My old faux-Webber kettle grill would never had stood the weight of the brick, particularly after one of the legs broke free from the rusted-out kettle bottom and turned the whole thing into a perilously-shaky contraption. Instead, I always made it inside using the stove and oven and a couple of cast iron skillets, until a combination of poor kitchen ventilation and an overly-sensitive smoke detector made it an off-limits recipe.

My new house has a similarly inadequate stove fan, but no matter. My fancy new barbecue grill with its cast-iron cooking grates is ideal for chicken-under-a-brick, as I confirmed last night. Here's my old favorite recipe, updated to use a grill rather than the stovetop:

1 whole chicken
2 tsp Kosher salt
1-2 cloves minced garlic
1 Tbsp minced rosemary
olive oil

First you have to prep the chicken by removing the backbone and splitting it so it will lay flat. To do this, use a sharp knife to cut along either side of the backbone from front to rear, removing it as a single 1- to 2-inch wide strip. Then, spread the chicken out flat in a large baking dish or similar pan.

In a small bowl, mix about 1 Tbsp olive oil with the salt, garlic, and rosemary, then rub the mixture all over the chicken--both the skin-side and the inside. Put the chicken in the fridge and let it marinate while you prep the grill.

Fire up the grill and prepare a large batch of charcoal. When it's ready, spread the coals, rub a little oil on the cooking grates, and place the chicken, skin side down, on the grill. Weight down the chicken with something good and heavy. I took a small concrete paving stone from the border around my flower garden and wrapped it twice in aluminum foil (much easier than trying to scrub the thing clean.) Place the weight directly on top of the chicken to flatten it out and keep it compressed while it cooks.

Cook the chicken at least 15 minutes skin-side down then, using a thick towel or oven mitts, remove the weight, flip the chicken over, and re-weight it. Let it go for another 15 minutes or so, then flip it again and finish it skin side down. This should take no more than 10 minutes, but, to be certain, pierce the thick part of the leg and make sure the juices run clear.

You can eat it straight off the grill or let it rest for up to 30 minutes.

I'm not sure of the mechanics of it, but cooking the chicken under the heavy weight seems to keep it moist and juicy inside while ensuring a fantastic crispy skin. We ate ours with a tasty pear-and-blue cheese salad and some roasted potatoes, and enjoyed spending a little time catching up with this old friend. From now forward, this will be an outdoor dish for me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Duck Fat

I picked up a pound of frozen duck fat at Ted's Butcherblock on Saturday. This may sound like a rather mundane event, but for me it was an important step forward. I've been meaning to go out and get my hands on some good duck fat for months, but for one reason or another I never seem to think about driving down to Ted's until it's Sunday afternoon, and the shop is closed on Sundays.

This past Saturday I finally managed to make it by, and this purchase has now allowed me to perfect the art of roasting potatoes.

For years roasted potatoes have been one of my absolute favorite side items. I make them at least once a week, and they go so well with so many different entrees, from basic roasted chicken to veal marsala to braised pork chops. Recently I've been tinkering with my old favorite recipe--nothing radical, just a few slight variations that make a great dish even better.

The key changes? Slice the potatoes thinner and cook them a little hotter. Rather than cutting the potatoes into inch-thick chunks (which usually meant quartering small baby red potatoes), I now cut them into about 1/2 inch slices. And now the most important improvement of all: roast them in duck fat.

The rest of the prep is simple--drizzle with about two tablespoons of melted duck fat, then sprinkle with salt, pepper, paprika, and chopped parsely. Lately, I've been roasting them at 425 degrees (rather than 350 degrees), and I stir and turn them more often--about once every ten minutes (I use my kitchen timer to remind me.)

I don't know what it is about the duck fat that adds so much to the potatoes, but they seem to come out just a little crispier and a little more tender on the inside and with a great punch of flavor that you don't get with olive oil or even chicken fat. Magnificence.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

My New BBQ Grill

When we moved to our new house back in July, my old Weber-style kettle grill didn't make the trip. After years of being left out behind the old house in the rain, it was shot--the plastic wheels shattered and useless, the bottom of the kettle so rusted out that one of the three legs was no longer attached. The grill had served us well, but it met an ignominious end at the city dump.

It's taken a little while for me to replace it. The Wife has a lot of curious notions, such as thinking that painting walls, upgrading bathroom fixtures, and buying a sofa for the new living room should somehow take precedence over seaching for a new barbecue grill. I find this baffling. Which of these invites sounds better to you: "Why don't you guys come over Saturday and we'll grill up some chicken in the backyard?" or "Hey, come over this weekend and we can sit on the couch." Seems like a no-brainer to me, but The Wife is immune to logic.

Finally, after two long two months without any means to smoke, sear, or char meats over an open fire, I finally went out and purchased my new grill. And I did it my way, too. The Wife, a long-time Consumer Reports subscriber, would have gone about it much differently--spending days researching the market, comparing product rankings, and settling on what the absolutely best make and model would be for her budgeted price range.

My approach is a little different. I headed down to the nearest home improvement megastore, figuring they probably had a pretty good selection, my mind completely unfettered by any sense of budget or brand preference. I perused what they had out on the floor and chose what looked like the best of the lot. Then, I took it home and, following a round of doubt and impending buyer's remorse, decided to look the model up on the Internet and make sure I hadn't bought a lemon.

Fortunately, my selection--the Char-Griller Super Pro--has gotten pretty good reviews on the barbecue enthusiast message boards, which was not only a relief but also confirms in my mind that I have a keen eye for grill detail as well as the general superiority of my method of shopping.

This time around, I avoided the Webber kettle and its ilk, having decided a long time ago they aren't really suited for grilling (since you can't adjust the height of the grill over the coals) nor for smoking (since there's not enough room in the kettle to really build and keep an indirect fire going). I also decided to not go down the path of the gas grill. There is a certain appeal to the gas grill: I could have shelled out two weeks' salary and gotten a chrome-plated beauty with indicator lights and shelves and cabinets and more amenities than my kitchen and lorded it over all my neighbors, which would be fun. And, in theory, I could come home from work, switch the thing on, and grill up a steak in about twelve minutes. But I know I never would.

It's not about convenience. The point of grilling in the backyard is that it needs to take time. You can have a beer while the charcoal burns down and chat with your friends and play with the kids. If you don't have a good two hours or more to relax and hang out in the backyard and just enjoy a lovely weekend afternoon, what's the point?

For the price of a low end gas grill, I went hog wild on a charcoal-burning model, including the side smoke box so that I can take on major barbecue initiatives. I also deviated from past precedent and actually read and followed the manufacturer's instructions.

Step 1: Assemble the grill. I have developed my own rating scale that measures the ease of assembly and quality of a product's instructions from 0 to 100, with 0 being the best score. The scale represents the number of swear words you utter while trying to put the &$#^@% thing together added to the number of times you tell the Six Year Old, "Don't tell your mother you heard me say that." The Char-Griller scores pretty well here--definitely in the single digits and well below anything I ever purchased the children for Christmas. It took about an hour, but soon the sleek black beauty was assembled and ready for action.

Step 2: Season it. I have been cooking with cast iron pans for years, so it was with great delight that I discovered the Char-Griller has heavy cast iron cooking grates that you season just like you would a cast iron skillet. (Note to The Wife: These are the kind of little joyous discoveries you miss out on if you do a bunch of research before buying a product.) In fact, the instructions recommend you season the entire grill. This means rubbing the inside of the grill with vegetable oil, and the cast iron grates with bacon grease (yes, bacon grease). Then, you light a fire inside, close it up, and let it go for 2 hours.

Step 3: Cook something.I had intended to do something dramatic for the first cooking, like slow-smoking an entire pork shoulder. But it was already mid-afternoon by this point, and a little quick math (5 pounds of pork @ 1-1/2 hours of cooking per pound) told me that unless I wanted to eat at midnight I'd have to scale it back a bit.

So, I went with smoked chicken wings instead. I marinated a big package of wings (about 16 of them) in lime juice and garlic while I prepped the fire, then loaded them all into the big drum and let them smoke slowly for about 2 hours. When I was ready to serve them up, I took the wings off, added some more lump charcoal to the grill and worked up a good hot fire, then returned the wings to the grill and gave them a quick searing directly over the flame to crisp up the skin.

The wings ended up even better than I expected, and they bode well toward a long autumn of fine backyard feasts.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Long Point Grill

I now have a new favorite lunch spot: The Long Point Grill. You probably won't just stumble across it driving around, unless you're driving a container truck. The Grill is down on the far end of Long Point Road just before you get to the Wando terminal. It's yet another restaurant created by Sal Parco (of The Mustard Seed fame), and while the name and location might suggest truck-stop fare, it's anything but.

The Long Point Grill has many, many problems. The dining room is too small. If you aren't there by noon you'll have to stand around with the rest of the crowd spilling out the front doors, waiting for a table. Parking can be a challenge too, since the lunchtime crowd quickly overwhelms the small lot and folks end up parking on the grass and along the side of the road. And, to top it off, it smells far too good when you walk inside the door, making waiting for a table all the more agonizing.

I suppose these are good problems to have.

But the biggest problem is that there are way, way too many good things on the menu. For an ordering-decision-challenged person like myself, it causes considerable lunchtime consternation because it's just too darn hard to narrow down my selection. I usually end up picking something with a random, eyes-closed finger poke, and I've yet to be disappointed by my selection.

The LPG Burger is one of my particular favorites--encrusted with crushed peppercorns and served with smoked cheddar cheese and delicious "cabernet onions", which I guess are sauteed in red wine. Other winners include the macaroni and cheese--which comes complete with bacon and onions mixed in--and the fried chicken "special"--not really a special, since it's always on the special board, but the side items and topping vary from day to day but are always wonderful, like creamy mashed potatoes and a rich tasso gravy. And, if there regular menu and the regular specials weren't enough, there's always several special specials to add to the indecision, such as Amberjack over polenta or a hanger steak topped with crawfish butter. (The pineapple slaw, one of the standard side dishes options, is fantastic, too.)

Which means I have to keep going back to keep trying all the new things.

With entrees in the 7 to 10 dollar range, it's solid, good cooking for a reasonable price--another hallmark of the Parco restaurants. It's kid-friendly, too, and you'll see a lot of younger folks there on Saturdays. Get there by 11:45 to beat the rush. LPG is open for dinner, too, Monday through Saturday.

Long Point Grill: (479 Long Point Rd, Mount Pleasant, 843-884-3101)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Open Table

An interesting article from the New York Times about the flip side of OpenTable (the online restaurant reservation site) that diners don't see. Like those "frequent shopper" cards you get from your grocery store, it turns out the reservation site is as valuable for the information it gives restaurateurs as it is for the diners who want to reserve a table.

Thanks to Sam at Becks & Posh for the link.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Kitchen Disasters I Have Known

If you're like me, you have at least one Disaster Dish in your past--a dish that sounds so good when you read about it that you think you just have to try it and, when you do, it turns out to be so completely awful that you toss it in the trash and whip together a pathetic turkey sandwich instead. And yet, a few months down the road, you decide to give it another go. And it's just a bad as the first time. And a few months later you think, "Maybe third time's the charm." But third time isn't the charm.

Unfortunately for me (or, to be more accurate, for my poor wife, who has to eat this stuff), I have quite a number of candidates in the running for my Disaster Dish.

Shepherd's Pie is one: ground beef, onions, and mashed potatoes cooked up together. How hard could it be? I try it religiously once a year, turning to a new recipe each time, and each one turns out pasty and tasteless and a complete loss. I even tried Pastisio, which I think means "Shepherd's Pie" in Greek, and it turned out to be the same horrid glop as the British version, albeit with a cinnamonny accent that didn't help things at all.

I absolutely love gnocchi and eat it at restaurants whenever I can because--to be honest--I simply cannot make it at home. I've read countless recipes, absorbed all the secret tips, and watched closely as television chefs turn out one flawless little potato pillows after another. In my kitchen I end up creating a sticky floury mess that coats every square inch of counter and boils to squishy mush in the pot.

Today I stumbled across another one: posole, a rich stew made from pork and hominy. This is a recipe I've been eager to tackle for quite some time, and when I noticed a big can of Mexican hominy in the grocery store the other day I decided to give it a shot. I made up a from-scratch chili sauce (using my tried-and-true recipe), then sauteed up some diced country-style pork ribs along with a little onion. Once the pork was well-browned, I simmered it for a good hour or more in the chili sauce and, upon tasting it, found it to be quite savory. So, I added in the hominy and the other ingredients and thirty minutes later--a sticky mess. So I let it go another half-hour, thinking the hominy needed time to soak up the chili sauce. Then another half hour. Finally I threw in the towel, picked out a few of the bigger pork bits and ate them, then dumped the rest of the mess down the In-Sink-Erator.

But this time I'm going to be smart. I'll leave posole to the pros and save my chili sauce for plain old chili. (Until next year at least!)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Anti-Bacterial Humbug

I've long suspected that anti-bacterial soaps were a bunch of hooey, so research findings like these, which conclude that plain old soap is just as effective in preventing disease as the antibacterial variety, don't surprise me in the least.

What I find amusing is how many journalists reporting on the findings (like the medical editor of the London Telegraph) immediate race to the flip side of the story and proclaim that antibacterial soaps just might, in fact, be bad for you, supposedly by helping build up antibacterial-resistant "super bugs".

If you read the studies' results closely, you'll see that no one has found real evidence that soap-inspired resistence is actually happening in the real world. Which makes sense. If the antibacterial compound in these soaps (triclosan) isn't in contact with your skin long enough to kill the bacteria then it's probably not around long enough to turn them into super bugs, either. One would think a reporter proclaiming the ineffectiveness of the soaps due to lack of real-world evidence would also insist on real-world evidence of soap-created resistance before running headlines about "Super Bugs". But one is often wrong.

In any event, I'm sticking with the old bar of Ivory next to my kitchen sink.

Popular Posts