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Up on smoke
Looking to barbeque this summer? You sure that's what you're doing?

I used to scoff at the exception my Southern-born friends would take at my suggestion of having a summer barbeque. What I wanted to do was simply throw some patties and hot dogs on the grill, over some Kingsford charcoal. What they wanted to do was smack me upside the head for suggesting that what I was doing was anything more than just plain "grilling." And until I began to barbeque in earnest, I mean really barbeque, I refused to admit to my own ignorance.

You canít really blame us New Englanders for getting our phraseology wrong. We grew up in a world where smoke-shacks and pits are, for the most part, a novelty. Until relatively recently, New England Barbeque was a myth, whispered in corners of Massachusetts and even Southern Maine but unrecognized by the South. Down there, smoking and slathering is unquestionably part of the social fabric that has been woven for more than 200 years. So when Mainers cook steaks over fire and smoke in our backyards, itís as close to real-life barbeque as many of us get in a lifetime.

But, history aside, I guarantee you one thing: If you ever take the time to actually smoke some ribs, chicken, or brisket in your backyard, mopping the blackening meat with baste and simmering some sauce with 125 ingredients over the stovetop, youíll see what those offended Southerners mean. Itís a culinary project, a study in relaxation, and a social function all in one. Smoking some ribs takes about four hours; a brisket takes from six to 10. So start early. Invite your friends. Get a case of whatever fermented beverage you want and break out the lawn chairs. And save the grilling for the hamburgers . . . youíre dealing with real meat now.

Smoking, originally used for preservation, has been around for longer than written history can tell us. The smoke itself is an amazingly complex material made up of around 200 chemicals, acids, alcohols, toxins, and even trace carcinogens. Itís precisely these compounds that destroy harmful bacteria and settle into the absorbent fat of the cooking meat, preventing spoilage through oxidation. Smoke also imparts complex flavors that vary depending on what wood you are using: hardwood, like hickory and mesquite, burns long and has strong, distinctive flavors, and serves hardier meats. Fruitwood, like the ubiquitous applewood, cherry, and plum, imparts lighter, sweeter flavors and is best used for chicken or fish. Also used are corncob chips, grapevines, lilac clippings, and juniper boughs . . . almost anything that produces distinctive and nice-smelling smoke.

There are two types of smoking methods: cold smoking, where the meat is smoked at 70 to 90 degrees for up to 30 days (for a huge hunk of meat); and hot smoking, which burns between 100 and 250 degrees for a much shorter time. For backyard smoking, stick with the hot kind, or else your guests might resort to cannibalism after week three.

As far as meats go, pork is a favorite because its rich meat absorbs the flavor of the smoke so well. Chicken is great if smoked for about two hours, and a nine-hour beef brisket might be the disputed champion (there isnít much in barbeque that isnít hotly debated) of the smoker. In barbeque, itís best to use the cheapest, toughest cuts of meat. The slow and low cooking melts the fat and hard stuff (like a self-basting turkey), and the result is fall-off-the-bone tenderness. Stick beef tenderloin in a smoker for four hours, and you have the most expensive jerky this side of anywhere. And hereís a tip: When getting ribs, skip the baby backs. Their popularity resides solely in yuppie kitchens and Chiliís commercials. Get St. LouisĖstyle ribs, the big olí messy-looking racks. They smoke better than those other ones do, and usually cost significantly less.

For my back yard, I have a water smoker. It looks like R2-D2, with a grill down bottom to keep the burning charcoal and woodchips, and a grill up top to keep the meat. In between sits a pan of water, which steams and keeps everything nice and moist. You can get these for pretty good prices at lots of hardware stores around here. If you donít want to get new equipment, you can also use your old kettle grill for smoking by just building the fire off to one side, and keeping the meat on the other for indirect cooking ó putting the meat over the flame for that long a time will surely burn it.

I highly suggest you purchase a real-deal barbeque book for sauce and dry-rub recipes and more detailed directions (head up to Uncle Billyís BBQ for their own cookbook), but hereís basically how it goes: Start a charcoal fire in your smoker, using lump hardwood charcoal. Soak five or six handfuls of woodchips in water for about a half hour. Throw a handful of chips on the embers, and the ribs on the grill. Keep the temperature so that you can hold your hand above the grill for about five seconds before it getting too hot. Keep the embers going by tossing more chips and charcoal on every hour or so. After four hours of intermittent peeking and boozing, remove the whooped-out (the worse looking the better) ribs from the grill, and serve to drooling onlookers.

Youíll never misuse the word "barbeque" again.

Andy King can be reached at dinnerwithandy@yahoo.com

Issue Date: June 11 - 17, 2004
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