Saturday, June 24, 2017

Now that’s a fire…

Fire…the tender ballet of the flames and wisps of smoke, set only to the musical snap, crackle and popping of the air pockets in the wood.  Give me a fireplace, pellet stove, fire-pit, chimney starter but mostly, my smokers…any of them will do.

 The most vital aspect for a bbq grill or smoker is the fuel.  Without proper fuel, you can’t maintain temperature or proper burn rate or smoke level.  When you’re cooking something low and slow for 12-15 hours, consistency of the burn is a key factor.  Holding temperature for a long, long time, and not having to re-fuel is of the keys to success. 

The quality of the charcoal and wood doesn’t just affect heat and length of burn…it’s the base flavor profile.  When you’re “smoking”, not only are you cooking with the heat, but also flavoring with the smoke wafting around the meat.  As is obvious, you need quality charcoal to satisfy these various elements.  To that end, I am constantly searching for the “perfect” charcoal. 

There are several types of charcoal on the market, and hundreds of manufacturers.  There’s the common briquette, Kingsford, both standard and “blue bag”, which is a more natural, and meant for “professional” grillers or smokers.  Competing in this realm is a variety of natural, hardwood briquettes, without chemical fillers: Weber, Royal Oak, Stubbs and store-branded bags from Trader Joes, to name a few.  These briquettes are consistent, as they are all shaped the same.  Using Weber, Stubbs and Trader Joe’s, you’ll discover that they are made strictly from natural hardwood, and have a natural, “campfire” odor.  This type of charcoal, the briquette, is my preferred and recommended type when using a Weber Smokey Mountain cooker, or my Assassin 28.  For my eggs, I prefer natural lump, which is just pieces of hardwood burnt down into coal.  But in the quest to find just the right fuel source for the gravity fed, Assassin 28, I am pleased that I stumbled into Original Natural Charcoal.   

I am not the type of person to click on Facebook ads…because if you do, the next thing you know, your feed and targeted ads are loaded with ad for similar products.  But something caught my eye and compelled me to click on the link…it’s charcoal click bait!  Facebook knows me too well…  The next thing you know, I’m buying a few bags of the natural lump hardwood charcoal and some charcoal logs.  After a few emails with the owner, I also was getting a couple of bags of the natural hardwood briquettes…could it live up to the hype?  Would I be stuck with bags of useless coal?  At least some of my non-Jewish friends could use it next holiday season if their kids are bad…nothing like a stocking stuffed with natural hardwood lump charcoal!

Well, I am pleased to tell you that the charcoal did not disappoint.  Just as advertised, it lit fast, moved from white/gray smoke to a sweet smelling light blue smoke quickly, and burned for a long time (14 pounds burned at 275F for about 20 hours in the draft-controlled Assassin 28 cabinet smoker!!!)  The temperature was consistent the entire time, and after smoking chicken breast, cabbage and some meatballs, I was delighted with the sublime essence of smoke flavor imparted on the food.  No harsh taste, low ash production and a long, stable burn make this charcoal a winner n my book.

Caveat-while fantastic, it is really not available for local purchase (I ordered through their website, and had it the next day, with free shipping (!!), and it is expensive: ~$3 a pound, which is 3x as expensive as Weber Natural briquettes, which until now, had been the gold standard of briquettes for me).  I can’t say I’ll use this all the time, but for a long-term smoke for a special occasion, it is definitely worth the investment.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Ladies and Gentlemen, children of all ages…

from The Childrens Museum of Indianapolis
I remember when I was 8 years old, my parents took my sister and me to the Boston Garden.  I’m talking about the old, filthy, smelly Boston Garden, where legends were made.  And what did it smell like?  Elephants!  Why elephants?  Because the circus was in town!

The lights, the noise, the costumes and the animals mesmerized me, long before I understood how the animals probably didn’t enjoy the spotlight.  The utter spectacle…it never left me.  Many years later, as a member of the Northeastern University Commencement Orchestra, I entered the “Garden” through the service entrance, and we walked up a huge ramp.  As we walked through the entry door, the guard said, “you guys have more trouble getting up the ramp than the elephants”.  I was walking up the very ramps used by the circus!

Sadly, Feld Entertainment announced that Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey circus would cease operations after 146 years, and this past Sunday marked its final performance.  While it is no surprise, with so much competition for the attention of families, the reduction of the use of animals, and the increased cost of doing business, and it was only a matter of time.  With or without the animals, you could always count on the circus to provide thrills, and wholesome family entertainment.  The announcement of the cancellation has left emptiness in my soul…another terrible victim of the passage of time in the era of technology. 

The circus is part of our DNA.  What child didn’t think or threaten to run away to the circus?  “The Greatest Show on Earth” won the Best Picture Award in 1953.  While the elephants were moved out a few years ago, and I the remaining animals will be sent out to pasture and well-cared for in their “retirement”, there’s a certain sense of sadness, not for myself, but for the generations to come, who will never know the thrill of the Flying Walendas or Gunther Gebel Williams. 

Can we question the merits of forcing animals (and clowns) to perform for our pleasure?  Sure, but does it matter anymore, now that the circus is closing up shop?  The Big Top is coming down permanently, and rather than moving on to the next town, being packed away for good.  But for now, for the last time, please turn your attention to the center ring…nothing to see here…


Sunday, May 22, 2016

The spots are running and the smoker is lit...

Back on WBZ Connoisseurs Corner and here are some highlights.

Primo XL with Pitmaster IQ120
1:00a.m. on May 22, 2016
If it ever gets warm here in Massachusetts, we will enter grilling and barbecuing season, and like every year, there is a proliferation of equipment, books and other items that tend to capture the imagination of the grill master; I thought we would talk a little bit about one of my favorite springtime pastimes, reading all the new bbq books…(Full disclosure-I do NOT benefit in any way of you purchase these books, whether through the Amazon link or otherwise.  I promote them because I think they are worthy of your time, but I receive nothing in return, other than your satisfaction with the recommendation-If you read any of these, I’d love to hear from you at 

Steven Raichlen and me
Project Smoke” by Steven Raichlen is a great book released May 10, 2016.  Steven is the host of “Project Smoke”, broadcast nationally on PBS and has written New York Times bestselling books on barbecuing and grilling, including “How to Grill” and “Planet Barbecue” and now smoking.  He has won multiple James Beard awards, and actually will be joining us on WBZ, Newsradio 1030 to discuss the release of this new book, a beautifully written and illustrated companion book to his television show, with great pictures and easy to follow recipes.  Tune in on June 18 at midnight for this mouth-watering interview.

I have spent a lot of time deep in this book…but the cover alone sets you up with a mouthwatering picture of beef ribs.  The book really educates the reader about the science of smoking, and teaches you about the flexibility of the craft, from smoking vegetables and tofu, meats, sides, dessert and even cocktails.  You can’t go wrong with this book, whether novice or an advanced smoker.

Any fan of BBQ Pitmasters on the America Channel is familiar with Myron Mixon, allegedly the most-winning man in bbq.  He has gone old school with his book “BBQ Rules”, where he teaches us how to build an old-fashioned brick pit, burn down our own coals, and shares some of his Georgia “wisdom”.  Myron is a character and that comes through in his book.  If you want to know how to cook a whole hog, with some nice action photos, this is the book for you.

Will Budiaman, a writer for Bon Appetit and, has written his second book, “Be a BBQ Pitmaster”.  I think this is an interesting book for recipes, some traditional like beef ribs, and beer can chicken, to barbecue nachos and banana nut pie.  While it doesn’t have a lot of photos, and we eat with our eyes as much as our mouths, it does has a lot of detailed text, written in a light style.

We are lucky that right here in Brookline is the home of the great PBS show, “America’s Test Kitchen” and their publishing arm.  As any fan of the show knows, they test, and re-test, and test again any recipe they promote, and wrap it all in a big bundle of science.  When they produce a cookbook, and there are many, you cannot go wrong and though dense, the recipes are usually fool-proof.  So I was excited when they published this years “Master of the Grill”.  The book features great recipes, step-by-step instructions (some with step-by-step photos), a lot of explanations and plenty of reviews of gadgets and gear.  This is a must-buy for your griller or pitmaster.

Another book I am excited about is Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling by Meathead Goldwyn. Meathead has been running a phenomenal bbq-ing website,, for years, and has published a book that part review, part science, part recipe, and all-out fun.  I strongly recommend Meathead’s website and book for anyone interested in smoking and grilling, and learning what equipment is important (instant read thermometer) and what is not (a grill brush-we will talk about that later.)  Meathead’s book is for meat-lovers.

Until next time...keep it meaty!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The buffet has closed...

As you may know, my father passed away from complications relating to Alzheimers and dementia back on March 16…it’s been a month now, and I want to share a few words about him.  This is not my normal post...if you're looking for a review or a rip-job, come back soon. For now, please indulge me. 

My dad was a simple, yet complicated man, but obviously, these few words cannot do justice in explaining him.  In fact, I’m not sure after 50 years I even could begin to adequately describe him.  He really was “indescribable”.

He was a man that could cook and bake…an entrepreneur and a restaurateur, a dreamer and a driver. A man with just a high school education, but a master Bridge player.  A storyteller that liked to be alone, and a man that liked a fine meal and lobster, but LOVED a Chinese buffet.  He was a man that listened to Verdi operas, Glenn Miller, The Gatlin Brothers Band, Earl Scruggs and Frank Sinatra (a perplexing taste in music). 

My father had some hard years, but was a man who could often be heard saying, “I feel good.  I’ve had a good life”.  These words were a frequent refrain in his recent years, before the disease really ravaged him.  My sister and I take some comfort that he truly felt that way, even though from the outside looking in it didn’t always appear to be so.

Many of you had the pleasure of knowing my dad.  Even though he was a storyteller, he was also someone who could not be told anything.  He was a man many people turned to for advice, though I always thought I knew better (but occasionally did not).  Many of his own friends asked him over the years to speak with their kids, if they felt those kids were coming off the rails a bit; my dad could guide those kids along the right path, because, I believe, he saw himself in them, and knew how to talk to them.  He really had a way with all kids…and dogs.  He used to say:  the key is, get down on their level.

My father would also not take “no” for an answer if he felt otherwise.  I recall that when I was being sworn in after passing the bar, I was only allotted two admission tickets, and I was already married.  Elayne was given one, and of course, with a Jewish mother, she got the other.  I felt terrible, and I called other friends who would be getting admitted that same day, but couldn’t score a ticket for my father; it was worse than high-holiday seating.  My father never seemed upset or bothered, and it was no surprise that he showed up at Faneuil Hall for the admission ceremony.  As we walked past the ushers/guards, my father walked right past them, and said “I’m not missing this just because I don’t have a ticket” and he kept on walking.  He never planned on missing it, just as he would never plan on missing any of our events.  We celebrated well when I passed the bar and Elayne passed the CPA exam; he took genuine pleasure in those accomplishments.  

My friend Hugh humorously refers to my father as “The Great Philosopher Gil Weinstein”; my father was never short on commentary and advice, and a lot of schtick-there a few that stick with me to this day.  When opening a fortune cookie, he would always say “help, I’m being held prisoner inside a Chinese fortune cookie factory.” (as if there are any other fortune cookie factories…) Then he would flip it over and say “never mind, I escaped”.  As Hugh would tell you, he would always say that kids don’t want your money, they want your time; despite whatever was going on in our lives, he gave us just that-his time.  From Y Indian Guides, to Cub Scouts, TBA Basketball, drum corps, my sister’s acting and dancing classes and recitals, he was there.

In his later years, he did become softer and mellower.  No longer was he eating 19 lobsters in one sitting (yes, it’s true, at Rusty’s Custy Scupper in Rhode Island), but he still did enjoy his Chinese buffet…you might say he became addicted to them, hence his nickname as “The King of the Chinese Buffet”…no matter where he was, he could find them.  Once, on the way to Missouri moving me out for law school, he told me to “pull over at the next exit”.  When I asked why, he said “I want Chinese, and I think there’s a place at the next exit.  I can sense it”.  Sure enough, even though I thought he was full of crap, we pulled over the there it was…a Chinese buffet.  And it wasn’t too bad.

Though he had job loss, failed businesses, family deaths and divorce…he was resilient.  He took figurative punches but never let them bring him down.   Was he easy to live with?…not really.  As kids, we called him Gestapo Gil...but it was an iron fist in a velvet glove. 

He loved to see his grandchildren, just loved to make sure they were ok.  Sometimes would drive over, say hello and leave...a 2-minute visit, precisely; but that was satisfying to him…to see them for those two minutes, and to know they were ok.  That’s all he needed because he reveled in their wellbeing.  That was “wealth” to him.

My father enjoyed that I, along with my high school friends, had turned out ok (in his opinion).  He was proud that Hugh became a surgeon, especially after Mr. Buell, our sophomore biology teacher, told us that we wouldn’t amount to anything; “The world needs garbage men too”.  He was proud that I, along with other friends like Lou, became lawyers.  He was proud that all my friends were good people and enjoyed knowing I still had many of my childhood friends in my life…

Among my father’s most important professional accomplishments (to him) was his small role in the space program.  After seeing action in Korea, he got a new billet in Natick, MA, at the Army labs, where he became a member of the “Climate Commandos”, a team of human guinea pigs, put through extreme physical challenges, while testing the first space suit liners, boots and the like.  His picture, as part of this unit, with the Mercury Project astronauts, was in the Smithsonian, and my father was immensely proud of his small role in American history.  He truly believed that this is the greatest country in the world, put his life on the line to protect it, and loved that he helped, in some small way, expand our horizons into space (maybe that’s why he enjoyed “Star Trek” so much… “Space, the final frontier…”).  Given the chance, I think he would have re-enlisted in his 70s…and that’s why he is buried in the National Cemetery in Bourne, MA.  Because when it is all said and done, and there’s nothing left to say and nothing left to do, by his choice, my father will rest with others that gave of themselves in ways that many of us can only imagine and admire.

Like most fathers, there were many lessons implicitly taught by him:   work for yourself but work hard; always do your best; and don’t expect someone else to a do a job that you wouldn’t do yourself, and he had a little poem he would recite at opportune times: “As you ramble on through life, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut, and not upon the hole”. 

My father was a depression-era baby, and like many people of that generation, was not afraid of hard work, or doing what was necessary to make ends meet.  He was tough as nails, and could not be embarrassed easily, and would never be ashamed of doing anything if it meant putting food on the table…but always looking ahead. 

My father, in his favorite position-in line, at a Chinese buffet-2009
So he was a man who had plenty of “holes” that could have derailed him at any time, but he didn’t focus on the negative…he put his head down and plowed along. Yes, he did it his way, but he made sure that we learned by his example.  He would want us all to do the same now…when things are tough…there is no embarrassment or shame…work hard, do your best, and plow through it.  

So plow along, we will, but for now, the buffet is closed.