May it Please the Palate: Sweet smoke in the backyard

I have never smoked. But I am thinking of taking it up.

Having just concluded a tour of the finest BBQ joints in Washtenaw County and beyond, I became intoxicated by the woodsy sweetness of the outdoor smokers. I learned how a superbly cooked cut of meat will be charred on the outside, pink on the inside, and white hot at the bone. I tasted the sublime tender perfection of smoked chuck, and brisket that was tougher than shoe leather. I had it all, from locally and naturally raised meat, to stockyard pork that traveled thousands of miles; from an elaborately crafted homemade red sauce, to a congealed pool of Open Pit.

Or I should say "we"--this was my intrepid "Barbecue Odyssey" team. I assembled the finest and most discerning palates in the county, who joined me on a tour to rank the best brisket, pulled pork, and ribs in and around our town. We traveled to three or four restaurants per day, notebooks and score sheets in hand, getting down to the serious business of judging barbecue.

We ate in fancy restaurants, and in a shack so primitive I half-expected to see a chicken sitting next to me. We dined on hand-crafted dining tables, enjoying micro-brewed beer; to sharing a pulled pork sandwich on the trunk lid of my 2007 Dodge Charger. We improvised one impromptu picnic after leaving a "takeout only" establishment, that had neglected to provide plates and forks. We made do with the torn tops from the Styrofoam container, plastic spoons, and a sauté pan that magically appeared from someone's trunk.

In one restaurant, we ate on a porch area decorated with plastic trellises and flowers, and a window shot out with a BB pellet. The women's room had even more plastic flowers, while the men's featured hockey and pin-up posters ("Red" from "Mad Men," if you must).

I had long moments I swore I'd become vegan, and painful morning-afters ... and times where I'd vowed to build my own smoker.

One of my panel, a certified Kansas City Barbecue Society judge, has two such hand-crafted smokers in his yard. He invited me to sample a rack of trimmed St. Louis-style ribs that was just finishing up on the grill. The outside crust was brick red, with marbled cracks; the inside rosy and tender. I understood the difference between meat that falls off the bone, and meat that has a little give, and comes off the bone. (You want the latter.)

I can only give you a recipe. I cannot adequately convey a technique. It seems that every barbecue expert does it differently and swears theirs is the only way. I want to give the home cook, with no elaborate equipment and a day to fool around, an opportunity to "slow cook" barbecue indirectly with smoke. And this is what I came up with, from Chicago Tribune journalist John Kass, on how to turn your backyard Weber grill into an impromptu smoker.

You will need: ribs, cheap aluminum drip pans, wood charcoal, and a chimney starter (sort of a coffee can shaped implement that allows you to start a fire without lighter fluid. If you don't have one, Google "You Tube" videos on how to make one out of a large tin can).

In following the directions below, picture your kettle grill like a two-story house, with two rooms on each story, one room above the other. (Or if your inner vision is on the fritz, watch the video at chicagotribune. com/ ribs.)

(1) Have your ribs slathered with your favorite dry rub.

(2) Set up the kettle. On the lower grate where the live coals go, place a cheap aluminum drip pan to one side.

(3) Fill a charcoal chimney starter about three quarters full of wood charcoal, and light it using four sheets of newspaper coiled into paper doughnuts.

(4) When the coals are glowing, pour them onto the lower grate, on one side next to the drip pan. Add one or two chunks of dry hickory or pecan, bark removed. (The "lower floor" of your house is now complete.)

(5) Then put on the top grate and lay a meaty slab of ribs--thickest side toward the fire--above the empty drip pan.

(6) Fill an aluminum foil bread pan with water, and slide it over the top grate, next to the ribs, and just above the coals. (The water isn't for moisture, but to control temperature and redirect the heat.)

(7) Cover the grill. Leave the top vent open. Never close the top vent. Open the bottom vents, but after about half an hour, adjust the bottom vents to be open only about a third of the way.

(8) You'll have to check the fire every 40 minutes or so to add more coals through a hinged grate. It should take about 3-1/2 to 4 hours, or maybe more. They're worth the wait.

(9) There are other hints, including using the magic squirt bottle (olive oil and cranberry juice), and judging the ''flex'' of the ribs to know when they're done, but you'll have to watch the video--again, at chicagotribune.com/ribs.

No tips are given on how to eat them. I would recommend on the trunk of your car, underneath an artificial trellis festooned with plastic flowers, next to a chicken, and eating from an inverted Styrofoam lid with a spoon. However you do it, savor that smoky barbecue. Just make sure to dodge the BB pellets.

Published: Thu, May 10, 2012

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