27 July 2011

Cooking Improvisation

Cooking isn't so much about being able to follow a recipe as it is being able to make do with what you've got and work around the complications that arise. I know people that have refused to cook a certain dish because they had everything except for a quarter teaspoon of ground nutmeg. I prefer a more improvisational approach.

Case in point: I felt like smoking some chicken quarters, and had everything I needed. Yet when I got a chance to start, I realized that I'd mistakingly bought a bag of lump mesquite charcoal. Unlike the compact briquettes pressed from charcoal dust, lump charcoal is made using chunks of wood that have been cooked in an oxygen-free environment. I like the flavor of mesquite, but it's much better for grilling (over flame or hot coals) as opposed to smoking (using indirect heat over a longer period of time). If you do a long smoke on mesquite the food will be nasty. Some woods work better than others for smoking, and if you use pine you deserve the ass-kicking your dinner guests will surely deliver.

So... I wanted to do a slow cook because I was using thigh/leg quarters of chicken, but only had lump mesquite and an assortment of chips (hickory/oak/alder/etc.). What to do? I took about two kilos of lump mesquite, prepped it in the chimney starter, and built my fire in the trusty old Weber kettle. The chicken quarters were marinated in Wicker's* for a while, and then I used a combination of grilling and smoking, including a set of old ceramic grill briquettes** that I've got from way back when. Hot fire, chicken is browned over flame, and moved to cold side of grill. Wood chips in a foil pouch are added, and then the whole mess is covered for a while. Flip, baste with more Wicker's, and then smoke a while longer. I did about 90 minutes of alternating grilling and smoking, just enough to get some good flavor without getting the resinous bitterness of mesquite. Then it was time to take a baking dish and the chicken and cover it with foil, and drop it in a warm oven for another hour. This isn't cheating--it's a common tactic, prompted by weather or the need to kick up the heat and grill something over high flame or you've just run out of fuel and can't finish it all on the grill/smoker/etc. (There's a fun trick involving an ice chest, towels, and hot bricks, but we'll save that for another post.)

I was very happy with the results, but during the final roasting I felt the need to make a slightly unusual sauce. In most of the US, barbecue sauce is basically ketchup and corn syrup with some added seasoning. Often it includes liquid smoke so that those without testicular fortitude can pretend that they've cooked something using the most ancient of methods. Some regions have thin vinegar-based sauces, North Carolina has a yellow mustard sauce, but I decided to go with northern Alabama's weird white sauce, made from mayonnaise and vinegar and some other goodies. It's a classic with BBQ chicken, though the sauce itself is odd: it's not a cream sauce, it's not one derived from béchamel, and it's not ranch dressing. It is its own unique little snowflake. But if you've ever had Buffalo wings with bleu cheese sauce, you're most of the way there. It is really tangy, and some preparations go as far as a 1:1 ratio of mayo to vinegar, sometimes with some added lemon juice to boost the acidity.

I served the chicken simply with some greens and fruits/vegetables, and the white barbecue sauce plus the chicken juices made for a delicious dressing for the greens. Try it out sometime--you've probably got the ingredients lying around the kitchen, and it might be a creative solution sometime when you're dans la merde.

*I have to give additional mention to Wicker's, made in Hornersville, Missouri. That's where my great-grandparents settled, and where my grandmother and my great-uncles were born. My father spent part of his youth there, and I have many happy memories of that small town of barely 700 people. Wicker's marinade is made of "vinegar, salt, spices". Nothing else, and it's been a mainstay in our family for decades.

**Gas grills often use lava rocks or ceramic briquettes in the bottom of the grill. The idea is that the stone retains and radiates heat, resulting in more even cooking. With a good setup you can turn down the flame quite a bit so that most of your cooking is coming from the slow roast of the stones rather than the direct heat of the flame. I've thrown some in the bottom of my charcoal grill to serve the same purpose. It's a very energy efficient method, but don't use random rocks from your yard--they might contain dangerous elements or can even explode when heated.


Joe said...

Bama white fan here. Hope you threw some prepared horseradish in there as well.

I've never heard that ceramic briquette trick before. How many do you put in the Weber?

Benito said...


Definitely had horseradish in it. Plus a dash of hot sauce, some good quality black and white pepper, Dijon mustard, a few other odds and ends.

For the ceramic briquettes, I've got about a dozen in there, and they're about the same size as a normal briquette. They won't make any difference for grilling, but for smoking it helps with heat retention and even temperature. Think about the effect you get with a good brick oven or a ceramic smoker (like the Big Green Egg), and you're working off the same principle on a smaller scale.

Some people use stone tiles or bricks in their indoor ovens for the same reason--just put them on the lower rack and then you've got a great environment for bread baking, braises, or all sorts of things. Takes a bit longer to pre-heat, but it can be worth it.


Joe said...

Yeah, I keep the pizza stone in my oven at all times. Evens out the temps.

I'll credit Alton Brown for that one. Before he jumped the shark, 'twas the last bastion of credibility for the Food Network.

Do Bianchi said...

you're food writing is always awesome, man...

Benito said...


Thanks as always, and in any event I consider wine food, so it's all the same subject. :)


Anonymous said...

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