St. Mary’s Sausagefest

Out here in north Texas, when the Fall hits we get to take our choice of festivals every weekend.  From cooking competitions to fundraisers and heritage celebrations, we get a decent selection of weekend activities within  a quick drive for just about anyone in all of the north part of the state.  One of the best you can find is right in Young County held every second full weekend in November.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church started making homemade sausage in the 1970’s after one of their parishioners who had a German family recipe for sausage came up with the idea for a fundraiser.  Originally, they harvested the pork in the local fields as hog hunters would provide the meat.  As it grew, though, the church had to go to a more reliable source of pork.  Decades later, the annual fundraiser lives strong, and the entire church turns out to lend a hand to pull off the impressive event.  The church will feed 1,200-1,500 people hundreds of pounds of homemade sausage made over a weekend.  Named “Sausagefest” (funny name acknowledged), folks from all over flock to the church to eat lunch on Sunday and buy the uncooked sausage for their freezer so they can have it all year long (or at least until summer when they run out). Here’s a little tour behind the scenes.

The week before the festival, the pork roasts arrive in boxes.

The roasts are then taken out of the boxes and cut up into small chunks by volunteers.

The church has a large commercial kitchen in its annex where all the magic occurs.

The chunks of pork are loaded into large tubs, which are stored in a refrigerated storage container, retrofit with a large air conditioner.

The chunks are then fed thru a commercial grinder not once but twice.  The pork is dusted with the special secret seasonings that includes cayenne pepper and garlic before the first grind.  The smell is overpowering when you walk into the kitchen.

There’s a guard over the grinder to avoid injury.

The pork after the first grind:

And after the second grind:

And here’s the grind:

Then the casings have to be filled.  What are casings?  Well…if you don’t know, it’s probably best I don’t explain it.  Let’s just say that the sausage is all natural.  The casings are soaked in warm water:

Then loaded onto PVC pipes so they are easier to push onto the sausage filler…

And then the casings are filled.

The sausage filler is pretty ingenious.  You load the barrel with the the ground pork

Which is powered by a water hose attached to a water faucet outside.  It’s a pretty cool system…the pressure on the water builds up, you slowly release the water into the barrel and the sausage shoots out of the cap:

The casing is loaded on the spout and the pressure inflates the casings with delicious spiced pork.

Want to see it in action?  Check it:

The sausage is then moved to tubs…

…and then hung in the refrigerated storage container to cure for a couple days before it’s cooked.  The sausage is hung on 1″x1″ boards that run the width of the container.

Outside the kitchen is a commercial smoker with 12 rotating racks.  On Sunday morning, the sausage will go on and given the perfect combo of heat and Texas smoke from wood cut down and seasoned locally, usually a combo of oak and mesquite.

And lo, we have sausage.

It’s a delicious bite all the way thru with the perfect blend of spice and flavor.  The ladies in the church also make a special secret recipe of sweet mustard, as well as fresh cobblers for the crowd.

And there you have it…St. Mary’s Sausagefest. You don’t want to miss it.

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WGD Brisket Sauce

Out here in Arcadia, a local group hosts an annual event called the Wild Game Dinner every December. We have a lot of hunters out here anyway, but the WGD is a celebration of our hunting heritage. Over 1500 people are served a variety of wild game dishes, including venison, birds, pork, BBQ brisket, beans, and chili. It’s an impressive show, and takes about three months to prepare.

One of the best kept secrets is the brisket sauce we use. Right here and right now, you are going to see how this tasty sauce comes together.

It’s called “brisket sauce” because it’s not bbq sauce. It’s soupy, almost like tomato soup with a kick. The other main point is that you have to use the drippings from the brisket you are cooking. That’s important so you are able to blend the flavors of your meat with the sauce that’s going on it. The marriage is unmistakable…if you are going to do sauce, this is the way to do it.

What you’ll need:


-3/4 cup of drippings (or as much of the drippings you can get, and filled with beef broth to ¾c

-2 cups of Heinz tomato sauce, brand specific

-1/4 c Worchestershire

-1/4c fresh lemon juice (don’t get the bottled stuff…squeeze it yourself)

-1/3 c apple cider vinegar

-1/3 c brown sugar (dark or light, your choice)

-1 tsp of onion powder

-1/2-1tsp cayenne pepper (your choice…1/2 tsp has a nice kick. Be careful on this, though. It will sneak up on you if you get it too hot)

As you collect the drippings, you’ll have some “stuff’ left over in the juice. Get a metal strainer and run all of the liquid thru that strainer (except the ketchup). You’ll pick up a lot of the flavor by running it thru the strainer, and can smash out the good stuff w/o the pulp.

Start with the drippings. If you don’t have ¾ cup, then supplement with beef broth.


Lemon juice


Apple cider vinegar:


Worcestershire. In Texas, we say “wore-stir-shur”, but the correct pronunciation is “wore-CHEST-uhr-shuhr”. It’s rotted sardines with water and salt, clarified. No shit. The Vietnamese have a similar product called “Nuoc mam” that’s the same thing, but much more fishy. Another topic, another day.


This is our liquid:


Pour the liquid into a sauce pan. Add 2c of ketchup.


Add your onion powder and cayenne (just do 1/2tsp at first. As it blends, add more if you like, but take it easy at first. Don’t ruin the sauce by trying to be tough).


1/3 cup of brown sugar. I’m using light brown sugar here so it’s not so sweet, but dark brown sugar is fine if you like more of molasses flavor. The difference is somewhat negligible.


Heat this over medium heat. We want it hot, but not rolling. If you get it too hot, it will break and separate, and then you’ve got a mess. The consistency we are looking for is runny drips that coat the back of a spoon.


When it gets hot, turn off the heat and let it start to cool.


I love these containers for serving sauce. You can get them for about a buck at Bed, Bath, and Beyond or any other kitchen store. Use a funnel to avoid a mess.


This sauce will be kinda thick, so when you cut the tip off the nozzle make sure you cut it deep so you don’t have to squeeze really hard for it to come out, but you want it restricted enough so the sauce doesn’t just fall out.


If you are going to sauce your brisket, this is the way to do it. WGD Brisket Sauce.

Dad’s Mustard Brisket

Of all the things I cook, the most requested recipe is brisket. As a Texan, it should be required in order to graduate high school to know how to properly cook a brisket. It doesn’t have to be smoked, but right before they hand you a diploma, if you can’t answer “slow and long” to the question of how a brisket should be cooked, they should send you back to class.

My brisket is a world-stopper. You’ve never had BBQ quite like this, and the key is yellow mustard. Not fancy brown or Dijon mustard, but plain ol’ French’s mustard. Here’s my secret, though: This isn’t my recipe. It’s my dad’s. When he first told me how he was doing his brisket, I just about squeezed my eyeballs out of my head squinting at him. Sure enough, though, he was right. He’s right about a lot of things that I challenge him on, but none moreso than mustard brisket. Here’s to you, dad.

I’ve never officially gone thru this procedure before because of one major component, and we might as well tackle it head-on right out of the chute. To properly cook a brisket, you’ve got to dedicate an entire day to doing it. Not a “day” as in “when the sun is up”, rather a full 24 hours. An entire rotation of the friggin Earth. If you aren’t willing to put in the time, sacrifice some sleep, and do this right then don’t bother with it. Go get yourself a nice margarita and rent Brokeback Mountain. When you get started on this, take notes of time and do it right. Don’t come bitching to me if you pull this thing after the sun goes down and it tastes like shit. Not my problem. You’ve been warned.

Your timeline is:

Day 1: Brine for 4-6 hours, up to overnight

Day 2: Marinate overnight

Day 3: Smoking

4-6 hours unwrapped

12-14 hours wrapped

4-7 hours in the cooler

Example:

1) Put the brisket on at noon unwrapped

2) Wrap it at 6pm

3) Put it in the cooler at 7am

4) Serve at noon.

24 hours.

Good so far?  Good.

Now that we have the unpleasantness of the requirements out of the way, let’s get to the basics of Texas BBQ beef. The brisket was just a trash piece of meat until just a few decades ago because no one knew how to cook it right. For reference, picture a delicious bovine:

The brisket is the cut just above the front legs. Think of it as your chest if you were to get down on all fours. Because of where it is, more than half of the entire body weight of the animal sits on this piece of meat. Therefore, it has to be strong, long meat fibers that are filled with fat and connective tissue. In addition, there are three different muscles that come in, and therefore three different meat fiber directions. This makes things really difficult to manage, especially when it comes to cutting the finished roast.

Ranchers would just toss this thing because it was so hard to cook. There’s an entire cap of fat on one side, and all three muscles are separated by  layers of fat and membranes that are really deep and hard to get to before it’s cooked. Even then, you can easily mess up the presentation by cutting it wrong. The direction of the cut is almost as important as how it’s cooked. About 50 years ago, though, ranchers started noticing that their Mexican hands were taking the briskets and making incredible dishes with them. They figured out that what they were doing was cooking it over low heat for a long time in a braise. They took the braised meat and cooked it over dry heat, and the modern Texas BBQ was born.

Now that I’ve officially scared hell out of you for cooking this thing, let’s get things prepped. We’ll need:

-an untrimmed brisket. UNTRIMMED by the butcher, that is. Don’t get a trimmed brisket.

-Bottle of Allegro marinade

-French’s yellow mustard (generic will do; I’m using French’s here so you see it’s not anything special)

-An oven bag

-Your favorite BBQ rub

That’s it. Not a whole bunch to this thing. Your brisket needs to be untrimmed. Competition BBQueers will try to tell you to trim a brisket, but that’s just because they are trying to skip on time. Keep it untrimmed…we are going to need as much fat as we can get. What size?  Hell, I don’t know.  About this big will do:

Doesn’t really matter. When you go to pick it out, what you are going to be looking for is a solid cap of fat on the backside of the brisket (they always put the label on the opposite side because it’s prettier). I had someone tell me one time that they went to Central Market and bought a “prime” brisket. I’m not sure that it even exists. This is meant for trashy cuts of beef, so the sinewy-est, fatty, marbled up slab of brisket you can find is perfect. If you spend more than $2.50/lbs for your brisket, you got taken. Look for it on sale, and buy it when it’s around $1/lbs and freeze it.

Take your brisket out of the plastic and rinse it under water to get off all the extra blood. Let’s examine:

You see the long meat fibers here? They lie just under that membrane on top of the meat. Don’t peel it off…I just want to point out how the meat runs for later. We are going to cut AGAINST the grain when we serve.

I pulled back that membrane a little bit to get a good shot. See how the direction of the fibers curves away? When we start cutting, we’ll need to look for that, and stop when we get to the point where we aren’t cutting against those grains.

The fat cap:

One of my favorite tools is the Reynolds turkey bag. They are just plastic bags that you can marinate/brine your meat in. Take one out, and put your brisket in, with the fat cap side DOWN.

I like to put it into a pan in case there’s a leak in the bag, and there’s always a leak in the bag.

Now, take that Allegro marinade and pour in enough so that it comes up about halfway up the brisket.

Make sure that it’s the fat cap side that’s down, and not the meat fibers. What we are trying to do is use that salt and acid that’s in the Allegro to break down the fat and the muscle fibers around the fat. If you brine this with the meat side down, you are going to turn the meat into mush, and we don’t want that. Seal up the back and put into the fridge for 4-6 hours, up to overnight.

When you are finished, pull it out and lay it into a pan big enough to hold the whole thing. This is key…you are going to be flipping it in just a bit. Start with the fat cap side DOWN.

Get your yellow mustard out and squeeze LIBERALLY all over this thing, and then smear it with your hands so that it’s thick all the way around. Go ahead and rub it in kinda hard into the cracks and crevices where you can get your fingers. I always start mine out right:

Coated:

When you get a good thick layer on it, grab your favorite bbq rub and sprinkle it LIBERALLY all over. You don’t have to use the Arcadian Rub, but you want to make sure you use one with some brown sugar, salt, and spicy cayenne. You know what? Just use the damn Arcadian Rub.

Flip it over and get the other side as well (fat cap back down). DON’T RUB IT. Just sprinkle on top of the mustard. If you’ve disturbed the mustard coating, make sure it’s even and then re-sprinkle to cover.

A close-up:

Now, we need to put this back into the fridge overnight. Don’t skimp. Needs to be overnight. If you put it in unwrapped, though, your fridge is going to smell like this for weeks, so grab a new trashbag (unscented) and put the whole thing in, pan and all. Seal it up and let it sit in the cold.

After a night in the fridge, poke that bad boy’s head out and take a look. The rub has gotten wet with the mustard and has made an incredible coat around the meat. That will be important for the next few hours as we slow smoke this

Close-up:

When you take it to your smoker, make sure you’ve let your smoker go enough so you are regulated to about 225deg constantly. Don’t try to singe this or sear it at first. It’s totally unnecessary, despite what you may hear from BBQ “experts” on tv. Just make sure you have a hard rolling smoke going, and your temp is around 225deg. 250deg at the highest.

I’m using mesquite.  Not pecan and especially not oak, which is good for firewood and that’s about it.  Use mesquite wood on your beef.  I could almost accept someone mixing in some pecan, but it’s not needed.  Just use mesquite.  Stop asking questions.  Use mesquite.

Put it into the grill with the fat cap UP. UP.

There are differing opinions on whether or not you should smoke fat side down or up. The folks who say “down” say that it helps keep the meat from charring. However, it you run your smoker right, it should never char since we aren’t getting above 250deg. Also, if the cap of fat is up, then it will melt down inthru the meat fibers, coating them with the delicious fat and Allegro brine. Does it matter? In the long run, probably not. However, this is how I do it and I know it works. Try it this way and see if it’s not good. If not, do it however you want to do it. This is America, baby.

After 4 hours:

After six hours (with a couple of sweet potatoes thrown on to smoke for dinner):

You notice how black it is? That’s GOOD. We call that “bark” in the BBQ world. It’s the blackened layer right around the outside that has all the seasoning flavor from the mustard mixed with our rub. After six hours, we need to wrap this. You can go a little longer if you like, but I think six hours is plenty.

Get your handy prep table out, and lay two layers of heavy duty foil (the long package). Lift your brisket right out of the grill and onto the foil.

Fold the first layer of foil around the briskets. Fold it TIGHT and do it so that all corners are covered. I start at the bottom, fold across like you are putting a diaper on a baby (old style diaper on a baby, that is).

Do both ends, tucking in each loose piece, pinching them together, and making sure they are sealed up TIGHT.

When you get it all sealed up, a nice fold or pinch will keep it together. Just like a good marriage.

You might have some spots left exposed after the first wrap. No worries..we’ve got three more layers to go. Second layer from the bottom:

After both bottom layers go on, take another large piece of foil and wrap all the way around the top, covering that hole at the top, tuck under, but make sure you fold corners so that it fits like it should. Do that twice. You should have used four sheets of foil so far.

Then you’ve got your tight wrapped brisket, ready to go on for the long burn. Again, make sure you are watching your fire constantly and keeping it between 225-250deg.

Back on it goes. Let’s add up the time so far:

-Allegro brine (4-6 hours, potentially overnight)

-Mustard and rub down (overnight)

-4-6 hours on the smoker at 225-250deg.

Up next, this needs to go for 12-14 hours wrapped at the same temps. Crazy, right? Yeah, just trust me on this.

After the smoker has done it’s work, the pretty foil will go from a nice golden yellow to a dark brown.

After 12-14 hours, take the entire brisket and place it in to your BBQ Cooler and let it rest for up to seven hours.

Do NOT open the cooler or disturb the foil until you are ready to cut.  That’s important.  Let it rest, and the rest is just as important as the other steps.  Don’t skip on this…let it rest.  Up to 7 hours max, no less than 4 hours.

When you are ready to carve, here’s a little trick.  You’ve got the fat side up still, so reach into the cooler and either rip the foil with your fingers or take a knife and cut the foil open.  You should be able to pick it up from underneath and flip it out onto your carving board.  However, get a pan so you can collect the drippings before you flip it out.  I use the same pan that I used to marinate the brisket.  Just tip it so the drippings run out, flip your brisket out onto your board, and then collect as much of the drippings as possible.  If you have some drippings that come out onto the board, go ahead and try to rake those into your pan also.  It will make the carving so much less messy.

Big ol’ slab of beef.

From the bird’s eye view:

When you start to cut, keep in mind how the meat fibers run.  Again, we are going to cut against the grain.  There’s a little secret to make sure you do this correctly.

a) start at the “skinny” end of the brisket

b) start on one corner, where you think you need to start

c) cut off the top of the corner on a bias (or on an angle) to make sure you are starting right.  If you chose the wrong corner, you can easily go to the other corner w/o too much of a do-over.

How do you know if you’ve cut it against the grain?  The part you cut should fall apart, with the meat fibers being really short.

I like to use an electric knife.  Honed steel is good, but don’t foresake the precision of an electric knife here.  Start making about 1/4″-1/2″ slices along that same line that you started on just a bit of a bias.

Excuse the blurriness, but you get the idea.

This is what I’m talking about being “against the grain”.  See the short meat fibers now that seem to fall apart?  That’s what you want.  This will be so tender that the meat will literally fall apart when you try to pick it up.

Here’s your brisket slice, about as whole as you can get it.  It’s ok if it falls apart.  It’s going to be so good and tender, it doesn’t matter if it stays in long slices.

Continue on until you get to the point where the meat fibers begin to turn.  You’ll know you are there when you get to the big thick part of the brisket, and your slices look like they are slanted.  Then, turn the brisket 90degrees and start cutting right across the top, which will now be against the grain.  You’ve got two different muscles in here, but they’ll both be going the same way.

A close-up of the muscle, with a thin membrane separating.

Here are the long meat fibers.  Cut against then so your knife is perpendicular to the muscles.

Close-up, of the slices.

When it’s all sliced up, you have should be able to peel some of the extra fat off and keep it in a pile up at the top.  Plus, you have tons of extras left over.

There’s all the brisket cut up.

That fat still has tons of potential to it.  Let’s not throw it away.

If you take your fat trimmings and put them into a skillet, you can start to render some of the extra fat off.  Brown on both sides for a bit…

Then add a little beef broth or some of the drippings back to the pan and let it suck as much of the fat out as possible.

Then take that hot grease and drippings and pour it right back over the sliced brisket.  Cover it with foil, put it into the oven at 170deg for a few minutes just to keep warm until it’s time to serve.

Presentation on the plate:

In the pan, you’ll have this deliciousness:

I’m not opposed to putting sauce on this, but if you are going to use sauce, let’s use the WGD brisket sauce and not just some sugary sweet crap off the shelf.

That’s it.  My dad’s mustard brisket, cooked for a full 24 hours and about as perfect as Texas BBQ can be.

Shiner Bocker Beans

You know what I like? Beans. You know what else? Shiner Bock. You know what’s REEEEEEL good together? Beans and Shiner Bock. Your life as a bean-eater is about to change. For the better. Bocker better.

A quick glance at the ingredients:

-2lbs of dry pintos

-a medium yellow onion (I’m using a fresh one here with the greens still attached, right out of the garden)

-a tomato or two, homegrown if possible

-a juicy ripe jalepeno, homegrown if possible

-pork (I had a hambone from NYD that I needed to get out of the deepfreeze)

-SHINER THUMS UP BOCK

Pour the dried beans into a colander and rinse them off really good under cool water.

Get your best stock pot out and put a few cups of water in, just enough to cover the beans. A thick bottom on your pot will keep the beans from scorching. It makes a difference because we are going to be cooking for a LONG time. Add some salt when you turn the heat on. The salt will soften the water and flavor the beans.

Pour in the beans and bring the water to a boil. After the water boils, let it go for 10 minutes and then cut the heat off and cover the pot. It will need to sit for an hour in the hot water.

After an hour, strain the water off the beans back into your colander. Don’t rinse the beans…just pour the water off.

Add enough water back to the pot to cover the beans plus another inch and then add the beans back in. Throw the heat back to the beans and bring them back to a boil. Add a little bit of salt, but not too much if any at all. We’ll add our seasoning later on.

Now…before we go any farther, let’s discuss pork and beans. Pork is good, too. Pork is real good. I save all my bacon drippings in an Illy Coffee can. It’s perfect for storing bacon grease so I can use it for cooking. Nothing other than bacon drippings goes into this can. No vegetable oil or olive oil or butter…just pork fat. I’d drink this in a pinch if I had to. Add a couple of good scoops of fat to the pot.

I mentioned my New Year’s hambone. I make a ham every NYD to go along with my blackeyed peas and cabbage. That’s also my birthday, so I get a pineapple upside-down cake, too. When I’m on death row, that might be my last meal. Anyway…(tense)…back to the pork. If you don’t have a spare hambone laying around your freezer, get some hamhocks from the grocery store. They are a close 2nd place on the pork scale for me when it comes to beans. Hambone is the way you want to go if possible, though.

I like to leave a bunch of meat on the ham when I carve it just for the reason that I know that at some point in the next few months I’m going to make beans, and the ham in the beans will send it over the top. If for some reason you don’t have a hambone and have to use hamhocks, it’s ok to get a couple of slices of country ham from the meat counter at your grocery store.  Don’t use deli sandwich slices…the ham you add needs to be thick cuts.  If you are using a hambone, make sure you take off all the cloves and you’ll want to separate the joint, but other than that just pitch all that pork into the pot.

Heat. Cover. Go.

After it comes to a boil, set it to simmer and uncover. It’s going to slow simmer ALL DAMN DAY. 5 hours at least. After it starts to simmer, let’s start putting in some flavor. Take an onion and quarter it. If you are lucky enough to have a whole fresh onion, go ahead and rough chop the greens, too.

While you are at it, throw in 5-6 cloves of garlic, peeled but whole. The simmer: (note the delicious fat on top)

The vege mise en place:

In they go:

Stir it in well, and let it simmer again. For an hour. Uncovered. UNCOVERED!!!! WHOOOOOP!!!

After an hour or so, cover it back up but make sure you lower the heat so you don’t burn it. The onion and garlic will break down and leave you with a nice full body of flavor. Plus, the starch will start leaking out of the beans and the fat and connective tissue will start melting from the pork. It all leaves you with a delicious brown color and a thick gravy.

Now we are going to start adding flavor. Remember the Arcadian Rub? Let’s sprinkle in 2tblspns.

Now we are starting to resemble real live beans. Make sure every 15 minutes or so, you give them a good fold. Try not to stir too hard and break up the beans…just a gentle fold.

You should be to the point where you can see the line along the side of the pan where the liquid started. We’ve lost a lot of liquid so far from the beans soaking it up and the constant simmer evaporating the water out. If you ever get to the point where you are running low on liquid, you need to add some back in. And that’s where the Shiner comes in.

I set a bottle out at room temp so I’m not adding cold beer to the beans and ceasing the simmer. Pour it in slowly…it will foam up as the carbonation fizzes out.

The foam will subside pretty quickly, but be careful so that it doesn’t overflow onto your cooking surface.

While you are here, go ahead and throw in a quartered tomato or two. If you like it spicy, pitch in a whole jalepeno. Don’t pierce it or cut it up. Just throw it in whole. Any real Texan will tell you that the Jalepeno not only packs a solid wallop, but it also has a delicious fruity flavor. Let it boil for a while…if you don’t want it too spicy, take it out after 30 minutes, bifurcate the pepper and remove the seeds and inner membrane with a spoon. That’s what makes it spicy. You can then throw the pepper back it so it can continue its purpose in life.  If you like onion or think that it needs a bit more of the onion flavor, you can throw in another quartered onion.

All along the way, you should be tasting this to see how it is coming. I like a lot of cowboy in my beans, so after an hour with the tomato and the jalepeno I’ll add Arcadian rub every 5-10 minutes and taste. If the spice/flavor is there, but you want it a bit more salty go ahead and add some fine grain salt like table salt. Pull the beans from the heat and let them rest for a few minutes, covered. Then you are ready to serve ’em right out of the pot.

The essence of Texas ranch-style beans. Serve straight up or with some of momma’s cornbread like a good boy/girl. Congrats to you; you are the proud new eater of the Shiner Bocker Beans.

Burgers with Bacon and Blue Cheese (The Great BBB)

Everyone loves a burger…everyone (with the exception of my wife) loves it more when it has bacon and blue cheese on it.

There are only two cooking methods for a burger: flat top or grill. The both have their merits. Today we are cooking on the grill. Your George Foreman grill is not a grill. Return it.

Start with good ground beef.

Scratch that…start with a drink:

Then, move to the ground beef.

Season well with smoked paprika, some shots of cayenne, and Cavender’s Greek Seasoning.

Form a patty. I use this press for consistency.

Cook the bacon. Save the fat.

Fire up the grill. When the grill is hot, grill the buns. Use good buns…seriously. You need to put some fat on the buns beforehand. You can use butter or bacon fat (from the bacon you just made). As I am very health conscious, I use both.

When the buns are done grill the burgers. A little extra seasoning on the burgers at this point is a good idea.

Leave them alone on the grill…play with them too much and they will fall apart.

Get your blue cheese.

Remove the burgers from the grill (medium is perfect).

Turn on your oven’s broiler.

Assemble the burgers (bun, burger, bacon, blue cheese) on a baking sheet.

Place them under the broiler until the cheese is melted.

Garnish and consume with the beverage of your choice.

The Smoker Project – Rehabilitating a Backyard Cooker

When you decide that you want to get into cooking as more than just sustenance and more of a hobby, one of the things you have to do is evaluate your gear. You don’t have to have the best gear and you may not have the money to spend on the most expensive equipment, but you need to have the right tools for the job. One of the things I love to do most is to smoke on a good smoker. The flavor of smoke combined with the caramelized flavors from your rubs and the “bark” of the meat is an art. Competitions around the country for smoked meats begin and end with the competitors trying to outdo each other on their rigs, and quite often they rip ideas off from each other to make the most complete cooker possible.

The question I get most from my friends who I cook for and are interested in getting into the hobby is, “What kind of ____ should I get?” People will try to skip a few steps in the learning process and go straight to overbuying for their skill of cooking. You have to spend time learning how things are cooked to really understand what kind of gear to get, although you never want to go with the cheapest thing you can find.

It’s like playing guitar. Sure, you can go out and buy the most expensive guitar you can find, but you won’t really appreciate it if you have no idea how to play a guitar. Most teachers will tell you to get as much as you can afford when you are starting out, then upgrade as you begin to know the difference. Always try different pieces, but most important is to get as good as you can get on your own, then try out other people’s instruments when you can and figure out what you like more/less about yours compared to theirs.

Now then…with all that out of the way, there is something that you should know: despite what hobby you are getting into, you should always try to minimize the amount of work you have to do in order to get the best results.  That goes double for cooking food.  Furthermore, if you don’t mind being a little bit creative and once you get your feet under you, then you should take the opportunity to use what you’ve learned and put it to practice. In regards to any smoker, these are the things you need to have as a constant:

-regulated temperature that’s not hard to control

-good airflow from intake (where the air comes in) thru flue/chimney (the “exhaust pipe”) and out the vent (where the smoke comes out)

-no flames directly on the meat

I don’t care how big or small your smoker is, if you don’t have those three things you won’t have a good experience. There are many other things you need to do, but those three are constants.

In regards to our backyard smoker project, we’ll keep those same things in mind. I had a smoker that was about five years old. I mainly kept it at my house for quick meals and I can use it as a pit because the firebox (where you build the fire) has an area for me to put a grill rack in for direct grilling. However, like any smoker off the rack, it’s not exactly built for heavy-duty use. After a few years, the paint was gone and rust sat in. Sometimes meals turned out good, sometimes they didn’t, mainly because it’s hard to control temperature on a smaller rig.  If you are handy with a welding rod, you can do some amazing things.  So, off to the Arcadian Ranch we go to do some metal fabrication.

This is what we are working with:

It’s just your standard smoker. This one is manufactured by a company called New Braunfels, and I think it came from Academy for $150. Nothing expensive…just a typical little smoker that definitely has its place in the world.  When you open it up:

You have decent access to the grill, which is actually pretty good sized. You can put a whole brisket in there and probably a rack or two of ribs at one time. That’s crowding it, though because:

The hole that goes to the firebox lends itself to direct flames on the meat. Direct flames create carbon, which is NOT GOOD TO EAT. A closer look at the firebox and the hole that goes to the smoking chamber (where you put the meat) shows the inefficiency of the design:

I took one of the grill grates off so you can see. The hole is so big that once you get a fire going, there’s nothing to stop the fire from attacking your food. Also, note that ash and cinders that are picked up in the airflow will be carried directly into the smoking chamber without anything to slow it down. Ash on food is NOT GOOD TO EAT.

The firebox design is pretty good, all things considered. You have a hinged door, a nice long handle to move the smoker, and a way to control your airflow.

Speaking of airflow, let’s go ahead and look at the basic design flaws that we are trying to remedy. First of all, airflow is key when you are trying to smoke. One of the basic principles that people fail to learn early on when taking on the hobby is how to make the damn thing work. You have to open up the vent (where the smoke comes out) and adjust the intake (where the air goes in) to regulate the temperature. Never, ever, evereverevereverevereverEVER close down the vent on the top. Creating an area that has stagnant airflow will result in building up a creosote, and creosote is NOT GOOD TO EAT. This particular smoker is originally designed so the air flows like this:

That’s a great design if you want to be able to get this thing fire engine red and cook the ever living shit out of anything within about a five foot radius. The suction from the intake is so strong you can actually feel it if you put your hand down there. As well, the air almost feels like it’s being propelled by a fan coming out of the vent. That’s just not what we are looking for if we want to keep our temp around 225-250® for 6-20 hours at a time. What we want to do is keep the good airflow but minimize the exposure to flame. To do this, we are going to need to put a plate inside the smoking chamber right under the grills over that giant hole. We want the airflow to be more like this:

This will:

-allow us to keep the temperature down (much lower than before)

-keep good airflow to reduce the risk of creosote

-eliminate the food in the smoking chamber from direct flames

Boom. That’s our design. It’s the design that any smoker should have. You can add on modular pieces, like a warming box or even another stack so that it’s easier to get the fire started to begin with, but we want the smoke to travel under the grill for heat and then across the meat for flavor and then out as soon as possible.

Let’s start with the plate running across the bottom. I didn’t take pictures of the welding itself, but you could imagine how hard it is to weld on thin metal that’s rusty, especially when you are welding it to brand new sheet metal. There are actually two pieces of sheet metal here that we’ve overlapped for strength. By placing the sheets directly under the lip of the smoker, we’ll have built in stability. As well, we need to tack a few spots along the side to keep it up. You could put in a brace underneath for stability, but once the weld should hold them in place. There won’t be any weight on them other than the drippings from the meat.

As well, we need to put a level on the plate and make sure that it’s tilted down towards the hole where grease falls out. Otherwise, you’ll have excess buildup that could create a flame.

Once we get the first plate on, we’ll slide the other one on and attach it both to the smoker body itself as well as the first plate we put down.

It doesn’t have to be air tight, but it does need to direct the airflow down the chamber as well as keep flames from licking the bottom of the food.

I have to move that chimney over to the other side of the smoker chamber. I stuck a piece of cardboard up to the hole from the inside and traced the hole with a pencil. Then, I cut the hole out and cut a hole into the chamber on the exact same spot on the opposite side of the back of the smoke chamber.

Now, I need to seal up the original chimeny hole.  I just took another piece of sheet metal and cut it into halves, putting one section on the outside and one on the inside, making sure they covered the hole completely.  Using the same bolt holes as before, I bolted the sheets on.

That creates the perfect path for smoke/air to flow so that I achieve my three constants of not being able to control my heat easily, not having stagnant air, and not having flame ups.  Once it’s all finished, I took a product called Ospho and coated the outside.  That kills the rust and it’s now ready for high heat paint.  (The two pictures above are post-Ospho)

After the paint cures for a couple of days, then go ahead and fire it up and get it hot.  With a spray bottle of oil, cover the outside and let it season.  Same on the inside…you need to spray it down when it’s hot with oil from time to time to make sure it keeps its season.  Once it’s seasoned, you can go ahead and cook on it.

There she is…my little backyard smoker.  I will add some other modifications down the road, like a more stable brace and bigger wheels, but as for now it’s ready and functional.  As they say in the Army and in prison:  smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Texas Prairie Martini

There’s a part of me…a rather LARGE part of me…that loves a nice cold glass of liquor. The best alcoholics choose vodka as their boisson de choix, and who am I to argue with the experts?

There’s nothing like an ice-cold martini. Some prefer the Xmas tree lingering taste of gin, some like a little bit of vermouth; it all depends on the mood and most importantly depends on the drinker. That being said, there’s an equal if not greater part of me that’s North Texas white trash pedigree with a palatte for food that is hard to describe to most normal humans. We like our taco burgers, our Pittsburg Hot Links, and our pickled eggs. You put the two together and you have this incredibly dynamic mix of either delicious cocktail greatness or just a country washboard glass of goodness.

Up north of the Blackland Prairie where I grew up is the beautiful town of Muenster, Texas. If you want to throwback to the best of anything north of Dallas, you’ll find that this little town has it all. It’s a German town of about 1,500, and these people keep their town as clean as they can. There are two schools, one 2A school and one Catholic school (Sacred Heart ISD). The two schools are literally across the street from each other. Muenster hosts their annual Germanfest celebration, a half-concert/half-food festival in the last week of April every year. We don’t miss it in our family…I think we look forward to it more than we do Christmas. If you get a chance, you should make a day or even a weekend out of Germanfest in Muenster, Texas.

In downtown Muenster, there’s my favorite grocery store on the planet: Fischer’s Meat Market. Not only do they have a great selection of beer, wine, and Affiliated Foods groceries (the gears in any white trash family in north Texas), they have an incredible butcher counter (the back part of the store is also a slaughterhouse where you can take your beef to be dressed out), fresh German bakery items, and an entire row of canned/jarred food items that any north Texan would fall all over him/herself over. You can get apple butter, Hot N Spicy mustard, pecan pie in a jar, or any type of jelly you can think of including jalapeno jelly, muscadine jelly, or peach preserves. Right in the middle of this goodness is one of my favorite things in the world…pickled eggs. And not just any type of regular old pickled chicken egg; they have pickled quail eggs. This is the inspiration to this drink: leaning back on Lake Nocona on the Texas Prairie and sucking one of these down is as close to nirvana as possible (without the heroin).

First of all, to make a proper martini, you’ve got to chill the glass. Fill a martini glass with ice and then water and let it sit for a few minutes.

 

In the meantime, let’s review the ingredients list:

In that Aggie pub glass, we’re gonna throw in a few cubes of ice, three fingers of vodka, and another finger of the olive juice. That’s a pretty dirty martini…you can cut down on the olive juice if you prefer it to be sweeter and less olivey. What is a finger? Hold your finger up to the side of the glass and fill it up to the top of your finger. Then dump it all into the silver shaker, cap with the pub glass and shake three or four times to get it all mixed together. Dump out the ice water in the martini glass and clean out the extra water. Strain the vodka into the glass.  If it’s short, pour a bit more vodka into the glass, but don’t worry about stirring…that will come later.

Now comes the fun part. At Central Market, you can find a white cheddar called Isle of Mull. It’s incredibly sharp, but absolutely delicious. Take a bamboo skewer and run a couple of pickled eggs onto it. Then break off a hunk of cheese, and then top it off with a single olive. Break off the extra part of the skewer, but leave just enough to be able to hang onto it. Holding the broken end of the skewer, swirl the cocktail swizzle around in the vodka a couple of times to mix in the extra vodka (if necessary) and then serve with it across the rim of the glass (so the cheese doesn’t fall apart).

Voila…a Texas Prairie Martini, the perfect white trash cocktail and an awesome way to enjoy your cold liquor.