Friday, July 3, 2020

Smoke is in the air

With grills, it’s either propane, natural gas (if you have a connection) or charcoal.  To me, nothing beats a real fire, so I prefer charcoal and the flavor, though I have a large gas grill.  There are lots of gas grills out there, and everyone knows the 900 pound gorilla, in a good way, is Weber, whether propane, or charcoal kettle…they do it right, since the 1950s, and they really stand behind their grills.


If you want to get involved in smoking, then there are an enormous number of smokers, both size, and type.  There’s the offset smoker, which really just burn wood, and look like barrels turned on their sides, there’s ceramic Kamado (a Japanese design) that burns natural hardwood lump and wood chunks, there are pellet grills which are really becoming popular and burned compressed wood pellets for fuel, and bullet-style smokers, that look Sputnik (Weber makes the leading version of this-the Smokey Mountain).  To get started, people should consider the Smokey Mountain…low-cost investment and short learning curve…with one of these, you’ll be smoking in no time.

Here's what a Primo Kamado (ceramic smoker) looks like

Primo Oval XL with BBQ Guru Temperature Controller


With so many different types of smokers to choose from, when you’re ready to move up from a bullet smoker, what’s next?  My choice was a ceramic Kamado.  With this, you loan natural lump charcoal and wood chunks or small logs in the bottom and light the fire.  Above the fire are deflector plates that absorb and deflect the heat and smoke, and above that are grates for the food.  Temperature can be controlled quite exactly with upper and lower dampers.  And because of the insulating properties of ceramic, you can hold a low temperature around 225F for well over 24 hours.  You can also sear at high heat on these…they are very flexible and I’ve had mine for 18 years and it still looks as good as the day I got it.  Some leading brands are Big Green Egg, Primo and Kamado Joe, though I prefer my Primo over all others.


If you really want to step up your smoker game, you can go with a traditional offset smoker…a lot of people on the competition circuit use these and the flavor cannot be duplicated other ways, but they require enormous effort, but pellet grills/smokers are really coming on strong these days.  With pellet smokers, you buy 20-40 lb bags of compressed wood pellets made from different varieties of wood, like oak, hickory, maple and cherry.  Dump the pellets into a hopper, set the temperature and an auger automatically feeds the fire with pellets to maintain temp and impart smoke.  While the smoke flavor won’t be as strong as some other methods, this type of smoker is available at mass retailers and becoming quite popular.


Easy bbq recipes:


Grilling and smoking are forgiving cooking methods, so why not experiment.  I stumbled into a recipe that is a big hit whenever I make it, and I make it fairly frequently on the smoker: Eric’s special smoked cabbage,


Take a large head of cabbage and chop it roughly.  Cut up a few onions and toss both into a large disposable baking tin.  Add some chopped garlic, salt and pepper, and toss it all with some olive oil.  Throw a few dollops of margarine or butter and toss the tin in the smoker…I like to let it go for about 6 hours.  If you’re smoking beef ribs or brisket, you’ll have plenty of time…take it out, mix it up, and serve…stand back for the accolades…this even works on a gas or charcoal grill for about an hour on medium heat.  You won’t have the smoke flavor, but it will be mighty tasty with nice caramelization.



Also, hot smoke a hunk of salmon…this will cook the salmon, not cure it like lox.  I take a piece of salmon, sprinkle a little salt, pepper, paprika and brown sugar and toss into a smoker for 45 minutes.  It will be sweet, savory, smokey and you’ll be a smoking hero…I also cook this same recipe on the grill, but putting a piece of foil under the fish to protect the fatty fish from getting burned by the flames.


In any event, this isn’t baking or rocket science…get out, have fun and  and have a smoke!

Grill tips...and equipment

I always make time to tune up my grills and smokers, getting them ready for use.  With a gas grill, I light it up and let it burn at the hottest setting for a half hour.  Shut it down, let it cool, and take the grates out of the firebox.  By doing this, you’ll be able to scrape out some of the residue, sweep out the ash, and change any replaceable parts (like the drip pans).  When done, coat the grates with oil and light up for another 15 minutes.  That will keep the grates stick-free and ready to go the next time you want to light up.


Speaking of grates, there are a million grill grate brushes available on the market, but if there’s any tool you don’t really need, it’s a grate brush.  The easiest thing to do is crumple up some aluminum foil, hold it with some tongs, and rub down the grates, they’ll conform to the grates, get in between the rods, and do a terrific job cleaning.  They’re great grate cleaners.  Save yourselves some money and try this.  And you’ll avoid small times of metal coming off the brush and getting lodged in your food, and maybe your esophagus…something to avoid using a simple piece of foil.

One of the most important pieces of equipment you need is an instant read thermometer or a remote thermometer...a vital piece of equipment that allows you to do things around the house, but yet keep track of what's happening in your grill or smoker.  The thermapen is the best instant-read thermometer I've used, and I have a bunch of remote thermometers...

As I’ve mentioned before, to smoke or grill, you don’t need anything fancy…with a little effort, even a basic kettle grill can work well.  But if there’s one thing I recommend, even for basic grilling…use natural hardwood lump charcoal.


Charcoal comes in quite a variety, but can broken down into 2 categories-briquettes and lump.  Everyone is familiar with Kingsford…the classic square briquette.  Lump is just wood that has had the oxygen burnt out of it and all you’re left with is the pure carbon, but with the essence of the wood still there.  Using lump, you are able to grill at high heat for longer periods of time, and impart some of the essence of the smoke flavor into your food.  Briquettes will give you a nice, stable, even burn, but I only use natural hardwood lump, mostly from oak wood, in my kamado ceramic smoker.  The low ash production and wonderful wood smell can’t be beat.  This type of coal is available at big box retailers and local shops…I even had some delivered from my local hardware store…give it a try.  Nothing beats the taste and smell of wood smoke.

Next up, let's talk smokers!

Not quite a beach read...

If Lin-Manuel Miranda can come up with a hit show like "Hamilton" by reading a biography, I figure a musical based on the world of bbq-ing and smoking meat could be an even bigger hit...right?  Playing to an audience of one, worldwide...

In any event, as we enter grilling and barbecuing season, 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 my favorite springtime pastime, reading bbq cookbooks…and maybe, just maybe, I'll come up with a hit musical...


Any fan of BBQ Pitmasters on the Destination America Channel is familiar with Myron Mixon, allegedly the most winningest man in bbq.  He has gone into “teacher mode” with his newest book “BBQ & A”, where he answers some very basic questions about how to start smoking meat and shares some of his Georgia wisdom.  Myron is a character, but he’s won the most money on the BBQ competition circuit and he has a lot of knowledge-that comes through in his book. 


Not a brand new book this summer, but new to me, is a photo-essay book by renowned photographer Wyatt McSpadden.  Wyatt is the go-to photographer for a lot of bbq books, and he’s published his own coffee-table style book showcasing a variety of different bbq joints…from high-end, to low-end, or as the subtitle says “From small town to down town”.  If you want to get a taste of what the environment at a Texas bbq joint looks like, this will take you there.

Michael Symon of the Cooking Channel’s “Burgers, Brew and Que”, and a James Beard Award winning chef has a book from last summer, “Playing With Fire”…if there was ever a book that encourages you to play with meat, this is it.  With beautiful pictures and simple, yet delicious recipes, this is a must-have book on any cookbook collector’s shelf. 


Another book I mentioned a couple of years ago, and still has me going back to try new recipes, is Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling, by Craig “Meathead Goldwyn”. Meathead has been running a phenomenal bbq-ing website,, for years, and this book is 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 can talk about that at another time.)  Amazing employs several people with PhDs…and the website, and this book is for meat and science lovers.


Steven Raichlen is at it again.  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 joined us on WBZ, Newsradio 1030 back in 2016 to discuss the release of his companion book.  Now he’s back with “The Brisket Chronicles”, a beautifully written and illustrated book with great pictures and easy to follow recipes.  This is not just for smoking, but with new recipes for braising the holiday roast, as well as a recipe to make your pastrami…I’ve purchased the ingredients and ready to buy myself some rye bread and brown mustard…I have spent a lot of time deep in this book…but the cover alone sets you up with a mouthwatering picture of a perfectly smoked brisket  You can’t go wrong with this book, whether novice or an advanced smoker, or just a chef in a kitchen.


Lastly, Andy Husbands and Will Salazar, owner/chefs at The Smoke Shop with multiple locations in and around Boston published a new book this Spring: The Smoke Shop's Backyard BBQ:Eat, Drink, and Party Like a Pitmaster.  The pictures are spectacular, and the book is broken down into recipes for a backyard bbq, a cocktail party, a fancy dinner, and more, all incorporating smoked meats into the menu.  This book continues to solidify Andy as a leading chef and cookbook author here in the Boston area.

Next up "Brisket, the Musical!"


Something's Cooking...

As we reach the summer time, nothing beats a backyard bbq, whether for yourself or socially distanced with family and friends.  With bbq-ing and smoking as my avocation, I thought I’d offer some of my tips.


a.             Don’t be afraid of charcoal.  I dare say most people here use a gas grill.  Turn the propane on, hit a button and hopefully the grill lights.  Most people complain that charcoal is messy, or mostly it takes too long.  Using a chimney style starter, which is essentially a big can with a handle, can get the charcoal burning hot in 10 minutes, without the need for smelly or foul-tasting lighter fluid.  These are available at every big box store or on your favorite on-line retailer; 

b.             Use natural hardwood lump charcoal or briquettes.  Kingsford is the big player in charcoal, but you get a nicer, smoke-wood flavor, by using natural lump, which is just real wood burned down to coals.  The pieces are irregular, but burn hot and long, and impart a delightful smoke flavor.  If you want consistent shape, there are some brands that make natural hardwood briquettes.  Some of the more popular brands of natural lump are Cowboy, or Royal Oak, both of which are usually available at local big-box retailers.  These start easily in a chimney starter without lighter fluid;

c.              Make sure you start with a clean, hot grill.  I always pre-heat my gas grill for 10 minutes, then I scrape any residue off, and I lightly oil the grates with a paper towel with some canola oil on it.  If I’m using my charcoal grill, I do the same, and let the charcoal get the grates really hot;

d.             Learn fire management.  Whether on the gas grill or a charcoal grill, have different heat zones.  I have a big pile of burning coals on one side, and a lot less on the other.  This allows me to move the food away from the fire if there are flare-ups or cooking too fast.  Same in a gas grill, where you can have one side hot, and the other off, or on low, giving you a place to move the food;

e.             Use the grill like an oven.  I love the flavor from the bbq.  In the nice weather, and sometimes not so nice, I love cooking whole meals on the grill.  Many gas grills have multiple burners, so you can create a convection oven at a specific temp by turning on a couple of burners and placing food over the “off” burners.  This allows for indirect cooking with hot air circulating around the food…I cook holiday prime rib roasts this way, which imparts a slight flavor of grilling, and leaves the mess outside;

f.               Season.  Many people complain that their food is burned after grilling.  The secret to prevent that-avoid saucing until the end.  Most commercially prepared sauces, especially bbq sauce, have very high sugar contents.  Sugar burns easily and will burn long before the food is done.  The secret is to sprinkle spices liberally on the meat, called “rubs”, cook, and sauce them at the very end, and let it set for a couple of minutes on the grill…just to add a little glaze.  If you watch carefully, you’ll get great results without the burnt meat;

g.             Try “smoking”.  Everyone has seen the bbq shows on TV that are becoming so popular.  For a real treat, people should try smoking.  If you have a kettle grill, you can smoke by building a fire on one side, getting some wood chucks, like oak, maple or hickory (available at big box retailers) and placing them on the smoldering fire.  Chicken will only take a couple of hours, and while longer than regular grilling, will be well worth the wait.  If you want to engage in the hobby in the more serious way, purchase a Weber Smokey Mountain (“WSM”), the best entry-level vertical smoker.  The Smokey Mountain has a very dedicated following, and there are several fan websites including the Virtual Weber Bullet, with everything you need to know about the WSM-check it out here;

h.             Don’t forget your veggies.  Vegetables grilled are a fantastic treat.  I toss peppers, baby carrots, mushrooms and onions in a little olive oil and salt and pepper and throw them on a disposable perforated grill pan (to make sure things don’t fall through the grates) for a while.  You can also do potatoes, but I usually steam or microwave them for a while before grilling, to make sure they get cooked through;

i.               Grill your fruit!  Pineapple, banana, apples…slice, sprinkle with brown sugar and grill for a few short minutes.  Surprising delicious!

Next up, a little light reading...


The airwaves are open

Hello kind readers...I'm happy to be back on the airwaves on Boston's Newsradio WBZ (1030 on your AM dial, or 98.5 HD2 on your FM dial), or at, streaming live on the internet.

Being a contributor to Connoisseur's Corner with host Jordan Rich is a distinct pleasure, and my thanks to Jordan, a tremendous talent in the Boston radio market, and a good friend.  Jordan once told me, after a live show many years ago, that being on the radio and being able to talk with people from all walks of life is one of the greatest jobs.  I always enjoyed being on the live shows, and I appreciate these occasional appearances and being to reach you listeners.  It's great to be back, and the new spots start rolling any day now...

And so...once again, I am back on the airwaves, as bad as ever.  As before, we talk barbecuing and smoking (meats), and as before, I thought I'd publish my notes for the spots, so in case you missed them, you can come back here and refresh your memories...some of this information has appeared in this space before, but updated for our current times...and now, thanks to Covid-19, recording from my desk at my office, instead of the studio at Chart Productions.

Desktop Yeti

First up, Grilling and Smoking...

With the proliferation of BBQ shows on TV, and with a patio covered with four different barbecuing devices, I have frequently been asked “smoker v. grill?”   The answer…“depends”.  Depends on whether you have time, or you want to cook fast. 


I enjoy smoking foods.  I have a couple of specialized smokers…a ceramic oval “Kamado”  and vertical, gravity feed charcoal and wood smoker.  But you don’t need to invest in any real equipment beyond a kettle grill.  With coals on one side and the meat on the opposite on the top grate, you have a makeshift smoker.


Before the pandemic, time was such a precious commodity, most people didn’t embrace the idea of a smoker because the culture of smoking meat is based on the concept of “low and slow”.  Low temperatures take a looooooooong time to cook food--but that’s how the magic happens.  Low temps over long periods of time renders fat and breaks down the collagen in meat, making the toughest cuts of beef tender and melt in your mouth.  With life slowing down a bit, now’s the time to get involved in smoking meat.


To me, there’s nothing better than dining on succulent meats kissed by smoke, but we’ll talk more about hot and fast grilling next time, after the break...


Here's an example of one of my cooking implements...more to come.

Assassin vertical gravity-fed smoker


Grilling speaks for itself, and it's what we do mostly up here in Massachusetts in the summer.  If you want to cook a thinner cut or meat or vegetables quickly, there’s no better way than over a hot bed of coals.  I have a gas grill (Weber), but I also have a Weber kettle charcoal grill.  I hear people complain all the time that it takes too long for charcoal to heat up, but that just isn’t true; letting a gas grill heat up for ten minutes is about the same time it takes to heat up a full chimney of charcoal. 

Usual Northeasterner's gas grill


For those that don’t understand the concept of a chimney starter, I have covered this in other discussions, but imagine a large coffee can filled with charcoal.  Light some newspaper in the bottom, and let the fire build from the bottom.  In ten minutes, those coals will be ready to go; just dump into the grill and get cooking.

Weber Performer with Chimney Starter

In any event, and regardless of the cooking vessel used, grilling or smoking allows you to enjoy the primal experience of cooking meat over fire.  In my world, there’s almost nothing better and now is the perfect time of year to get into that!

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…