Okay, here is a seriously random blog entry from Memorial Day weekend. No serious discussion or insights into the soul or political fight picking this time. Just something to memorialize an experiment I undertook this week while on vacation. So this is an “old school” entry – about cooking.
I make some seriously good smoked pork barbecue. It’s my one cooking claim to fame, and I am proud of what has become a reliable touch after years of tweaking things. Over the years in addition to pork butts, I have also managed a number of hams, lamb roasts, turkey breasts, sausages, chickens, and a few briskets. (The Mount Everest in front of me this year is to finely try to plank-smoke fish.) Although I have long since customized my own rubs, sauces, and woods for various cooking projects, virtually all of my initial forays into various smoked meats were guided by the instructions of Chris Allingham, master of The Virtual Weber Bullet website . Chris is a recipe god for the smoker. His tried and true approaches inspire me when I want to cook, keep me calm when I am uncertain whether I am on track, and keep me hungry to try to do more.
In my barbecue dreams, I see myself in my retirement days, now eight years away….. making Q on the weekends, selling it in a food truck during the week. Or better yet, wholesaling it to a food trucker and let HIM sell it during the week while I play golf and chase Kim around the house. I know such ideas are not likely to come to fruition, but they are fun to think about. But even if I never make my Q for more than family and neighbors and the folks at church (I cooked 150 pounds of pork for a fund raiser last year) I know I am doing something well. That knowledge is something I treasure.
Recently, I have become really interested in other uses for the smoker and other ways to prepare the same meats to achieve different results. I mean, pork butt doesn’t get much better than smoked to BBQ perfection. But take the lowly brisket, pride of Texas BBQ, which has been a source of some consternation for me. I have made good brisket BBQ, but have found that unlike pork butt it freezes rather poorly after the initial serving. So with it being onloy Kim at me at home, I haven’t made much brisket over the years. Over last winter I began to study up on various ways to make homemade pastrami. There are injection methods, and brining methods, and salt curing methods, and quick methods, and why not just got to the local deli and buy the stuff methods. (I’ll stop there, lest I begin to sound like a scene from Forrest Gump.) Why did pastrami capture my attention? Who knows? It was another use for brisket. It was there. And I have never talked to anyone who has actually made their own before. So of course I had to.
After spending time looking at the various roads that arrive at pastrami, in the end I came home to Chris Allingham’s recipe for dry curing the stuff. After all these years, I have come to trust his techniques on other things, so “go with what you know” seemed to be prudent. So here goes nothing.
I made one critical mistake before taking even the first step – I told people at work what I was doing over my stay-at-home-vacation. So of course, with a dozen of them being fans of my BBQ and ALL of them being worshipers of Kim’s cooking, I had ready demands for tastings once the pastrami was ready. Nothing like pressure the first time out! Alas, it was a self-inflicted wound. But this meant, in my mind, that I had to start with two briskets instead of one, in order to have enough to share, and also to hedge my bets in case one turned out and the other crashed and burned. As Chris points out in his recipe narrative, a lot of cheaper pastrami is made from bottom round, but the best pastrami is made from the flat portion of a brisket. So step one – I bought two brisket flats, one weighing 7.9 pounds and the other weighting 5.5 pounds. I tried to buy them with good fat caps as instructed. One had a great cap, the other not as much.
The first instruction is to trim the fat down to 1/8 of an inch. As you can see, I went ape-s*** and took off way to much fat. One of the briskets (the one with the best cap) gave me a fit trying to trim it, and after an hour I found that I had gone too far. The other did not start with much fat, and was cleaned up in fifteen minutes. Again I overdid this one as well.
So Anxiety #1 – too much fat removed. But as I told Kim, I am approaching this the way many parents approach their second child – with a degree of perspective that replaces the sheer panic of the firstborn’s arrival. My crisis of birthing my “firstborn” -- smoking my first pork butt -- is well documented much earlier in one of these blog entries. So an over-trim of my latest project was not going to excite me overly.
I applied a rub consisting of Tender Quick, garlic, pepper, coriander, and light brown sugar (didn’t have the dark in the pantry that the recipe calls for). I made it in the proportions called for, but found that I had used ¾ or more of it on the first brisket and so I had to make more for the second one. So insert Anxiety #2 – too much rub, perhaps. I wasn’t as comfortable with this, because Tender Quick is a curing salt and I didn’t know what the impact of too much of it might me. But it couldn’t really be helped. After the rub, I put the briskets to sleep in the fridge, each in its own 2.5 gallon Hefty bag.
Chris’s recipe calls for the bagged briskets to be turned over and squished around twice day for three or four days. The fluids drawn out of the meat by the curing rub supposedly become a slurry that marinades the meat. The first morning after bagging (15 hours or so into the cure) I went to turn them over and discovered a mess. The Hefty bags – BOTH of them – had not closed properly. They are the zipper type, and upon checking them they had opened behind the closed zipper, and no amount of zipping back and forth resulted in them closing. What DID result was all that raw meat fluid drooled all over the shelf of the fridge. So quick clean up and sterile wipe, double bag the briskets, lots of muttering under my breath at Hefty, and keep going. (I did send a complaint to Hefty. They deigned to ignore it.)
Chris’s recipe says by day two I should see a goodly amount of fluid/slurry. Beyond that first night of drool, each turn of the brisket yielded more and more concern – not a drop of additional fluid was to be seen (until the last morning, and even then it was de minimis.) So Anxiety #3 – had I done something wrong?
At last smoking day arrived. The meat had been in the rub for 3 ½ days. So after a thorough rinsing, they were each put into a cooler full of water for two rounds of soaking, Kim had been a dear and bought me two new styro coolers since the meat would be in there all naked. These coolers were the new earth-friendly stuff. How was I to know that this meant they were water-permeable? I had to laugh as the water started visibly weeping through the coolers in a million little spots and started rolling across the kitchen floor! So quickly each cooler into its own side of the double sink, and then a mop up and then several judicious refills of the soak water to keep the meat submerged for an hour.
Finally everything was ready! After an application of a cooking rub (no Tender Quick or brown sugar this time) the briskets went onto the smoker. Two chimneys of coals and three large chunks of pecan wood.
Now, Chris’s site not only gives you recipes, it also provides a helpful cooking log of of his experience as he smoked the meat he's explaining about. This is very helpful when I am hours into a smoke and wondering if something is supposed to be taking as long as it is. His log for the pastrami said that during his smoking the meat reached the desired 165 degree internal temp in about 3 ¾ hours. This provided a good sort of guide for my planning. Mine was getting close at about that time – 150 degrees. So I figured it wouldn’t be long. I started checking every thirty minutes or so. Four hours. Five hours. Still the meat was holding at 155 degrees. What the heck was going on? The thermometer on my smoker was reading a constant and perfect 245 degrees, and it had never misled me. So was my meat in some sort of a stall? (This happens with pork butts in a smoker as the collagen breaks down, at about 165 or so, only to start climbing again after an hour or two. But Chris’s recipe didn’t mention it happening with briskets at this low a temp.) At the six hour mark, the meat temp had dropped to 145, but the smoker temp still said 245. Something was definitely wrong. So I grabbed Kim’s instant read thermo-gun and began shooting the various surfaces. Sure enough the internal temp of the upper smoker was about 150, not the 245 it continued to promise. So the kettle thermometer that had stood by me for six years had apparently gone gaga in its old age. I fired up another chimney of coals and added them to the smoker. The meat was done in another 30 minutes or so. But the extra time on the heat – how dry had I rendered these poor briskets? (Anxiety #4 giving way to Depression #1.)
As I pulled the meat, I realized one step that Chris had mentioned that I hadn’t followed – I had left a portion of the “point” muscle of the brisket attached to the flat, so it was much fatter on one end. I mentioned it to Kim, who said oh well, even if that portion is under-cooked it won’t affect the rest. Gotta hand it to her for her pragmatism. So with a sigh, the finished meat was wrapped in foil and placed back in the now-dry hippie coolers for two hours’ rest.
Now, this stuff was supposed to be done by early afternoon. It was NOT supposed to drag on til four family members arrived to eat dinner with us. A dinner that had nothing to do with pastrami. But after all this effort, I was not going to wait to see what the results were. So we stood there and carved it in front of all of them, while they awaited a more traditional meal. Here is a pic of the finished product:
The verdict: I think it looks great! This recipe yields firm and tasty pastrami. All of the mistakes sort of smoothed themselves out. It is moist and spicy from the rub, but not overly so. The flavor is strong but not over-cured, the smoke is gentle. Now, of the four family members who watched us slice it up, one loved it, another liked it, another tasted it and couldn’t get rid of it fast enough, and another acknowledged that although she likes pastrami, she didn’t even want to taste this stuff. If you factor in Kim and me for liking the result, and the vote of confidence from my wonderful neighbor, I am will to rate this as a qualified success. Is it better tasting than commercially prepared pastrami? I’d say it has a comparable flavor, with a bit more peppery-ness. Kim says it tastes much better than anything from a deli. But Kim loves me. Cost-wise, it’s probably only a little cheaper than buying the comparable weight from the deli. But it is homemade. By me. And it doesn’t suck. YAY!
So yes, a very boring blog entry. But at least it is not an unpleasant topic like politics or the upcoming Washington Redskins season. Now, let's see how the hordes at work like it tomorrow!