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…