Confession No. 43 – Cheating isn’t always a bad thing, as it turns out
It seems no one likes a cheater. Or do they?
I’ve been cheated at blackjack, poker, pinochle, cribbage, Monopoly, Battleship, Chutes & Ladders and Life (the game); cheated out of the Little League Baseball trophy; and cheated on by my 9th grade girlfriend.
With the exception of James Bond taking the blood-weeping Le Chiffre for a multi-million dollar ride, I’ve always looked down my nose at con artists, hoodwinkers and bamboozlers of any type.
A few years ago, at my father’s home, I smelled beef and smoke. A brisket — slow cooking over hickory.
‘You smoking a brisket?’ I asked.
‘Yeah. For about 45 minutes,’ Dad responded.
‘Well, it smells good. Another 12 hours and y’all will be eating good.’
As it turned out, the brisket I smelled was in the oven. Dad put it on the smoker for a little less than an hour and finished it off indoors. I was disappointed in him. This was the man who taught me the rules of slow-cooking over a smoker. Now, all-of-a-sudden, he was in Betty Crocker’s court.
‘Dad. Are you seriously cooking a brisket in the oven?’ I asked, hoping against hope that he would tell me otherwise.
‘Yeah. Why not?’ he responded.
I’d spent dozens of efforts trying to perfect the slow-cooked, smoked brisket. I set my alarm countless times for 2 a.m. — to stoke the fire and add a couple of chunks of oak or pecan. My smoked briskets were always the subject of compliments. I owed all the credit to my father. And now he’d desecrated the craft.
A few years later, I learned that my favorite local barbecue joint was also cheating. This was the same place I recommended for consideration in Texas Monthly magazine’s annual BBQ issue during a conversation with one of their editors. Despite that a cord of wood adorns the front sidewalk, these so-called pitmasters use a large rotisserie-type oven (to cook several briskets at once) after parboiling the meat. And yes … my local joint made the publication’s best-of list.
As it turns out, timers, electricity, shrink-wrap and freezers are commonly used in barbecue establishments. But they wouldn’t find their way to my pit … until recently.
My own affair with modern amenities
I have a large custom barbecue pit with an offset wood box and a grate large enough to hold three large briskets. It was a housewarming gift from my godmother several years ago and required a tractor and a winch to get it into my backyard. Fortunately, I also have three pecan trees on the property — all of which drop limbs. (Pecan is among the best hardwoods for slow-smoking meats.) Over a 24 hour period, a lot of smoke crawls through the pipes that lead from the firebox to the cooking chamber. Like a fireplace, though, the smoker should be serviced once in a while.
I came to this realization after a 24-hour smoke. The 15-lb. brisket had been dry-rubbed and was going to be our dinner that Saturday, with a week’s worth of sandwiches to follow. The coffee-hued crust was so beautifully crunchy, I had to slice into it immediately and sample the goodness.
It was rare.
Brisket is somewhat of an anomaly. It’s one of the toughest cuts and truly requires slow cooking to become tender. But the consistency of the perfectly cooked brisket goes beyond that, with a slightly chewy snap that you don’t get with other tough cuts that have been slow-cooked. Still, no matter how long it sits in a clogged up smoker, the low heat is not enough to bring out the meat’s best qualities — or even cook it.
‘Why don’t you just put it in the oven at 200 degrees?’ my wife said. ‘We’ll grab a sack of burgers tonight and we can have the brisket tomorrow.’
‘Y’all might do it that way in New Jersey, but I can’t do that,’ I responded. ‘This is going back to the pit.’
‘Do what you want Adam, but it’s been on the pit since yesterday. ‘
Catherine was right. I’d need to allow the smoker to cool and clear the lines. I couldn’t do this in a reasonable time frame. So I went against everything I stood for (at the time) and put the brisket in the oven.
Remember when the Fonz was trying to deliver an apology? He kept saying ‘I’m s- ss- sss-’ because he couldn’t get the words out. This is how I felt that day — until the brisket came out of the oven hours later.
The half-smoked/half-baked brisket had all the flavor of being slow-smoked, with a consistency better than anything I’d ever achieved with fire alone. The meat — tender, with a perfect snap. The flavor — deep, as a ‘smoked’ brisket should be.
So would I reveal my secret?
Until now, no. And also — up to this moment — I haven’t put my cards on the table about my par-fried meat for stir fry (learned in a cooking class taught by Martin Yan); my ‘tenderized’ ground meat for Bolognese sauce (found in a cookbook by Marcella Hazan); or my ‘seared’ (and beautifully browned) scallops, a method I learned on America’s Test Kitchen. (Yes. I occasionally watch PBS.)
As it turns out, cheating is not always a bad thing. In fact, it can be pretty tasty.
Cheat alert: I use instant potatoes here to impart flavor into every bite. So far, no complaints. The Carnival Corn is a method used by my Scoutmaster and friend, Joe Smitherman. I first had this recipe on a Boy Scout camping trip when I was about 13. It’s still one of my favorites.
Potato Salad — BBQ Joint style
3 lbs. – Yellow potatoes
1½ cups – Mayonnaise
1 cup – Dill pickle juice
1 Tablespoon – Prepared yellow mustard
2 Tablespoons – Dried celery seed
1/3 cup – Jarred roasted red (sweet) pepper, chopped
½ cup – Dried potato flakes
½ cup – water
Slice potatoes in 1-inch cubes, boil until tender in salted water. Drain. Rinse with cold water until potatoes are cool.
Mix mayonnaise, ½ cup of pickle juice, mustard, celery seed and chopped red pepper. Set aside.
Mix potato flakes, water and remaining ½ cup pickle juice. Cook in microwave for about one minute. Allow to cool.
Mix about 1/3 of mayonnaise mixture with dried potato mixture in large bowl. The consistency should be like paste. Add cooled cooked potatoes and remaining mayonnaise mixture and combine. Cool for 3-4 hours, covered.
Season with salt and pepper, as desired.
Fresh corn, in husks
Salt & pepper, as desired
Peel corn and remove silks. Soak in water for at least an hour.
Spray or rub corn with oil. Sprinkle liberally with lemon pepper. Place husk back into place, covering corn completely.
Grill over medium heat for 15 minutes, or so, turning frequently. Husks should be browned and somewhat charred on the tips.
Butter and season. Enjoy.