“If music be the food of love, play on” – or is it the love of food? Whatever. Summertime in Orange County brings free concerts in the park, sounds of sweet music under the stars, and glorious picnics to accompany the melodic strains. But what’s in your basket?
Barbecued chicken is an obvious choice, but experienced grillers are embracing the hottest trend in outdoor ‘cue: smoking! (And this is one form of smoking that doesn’t require a proposition on the ballot to approve it).
“Smoke evokes primal memories of cooking around a campfire, an experience that was extremely pleasant in our childhood and essential in the evolution of humankind,” said Steven Raichlen, author of “Project Smoke” (Workman, $22.95). And he should know. When it comes to grilling no one tops Raichlen, author of a veritable library of award-winning cookbooks, including “The Barbecue! Bible,” “How to Grill” and “Planet Barbecue” and host of multiple PBS series, and now with “Project Smoke” even a novice can learn how to smoke meats, poultry, fish, vegetables and, believe it or not, desserts, as well as how to choose your smoker and smoking method, source your fuel and light your fire.
New to the game? Beginners should look for an affordable smoker that is easy to operate and doesn’t take much space, recommends Raichlen, such as “a kettle-style charcoal grill or other grill with a tall lid, a water smoker, a ceramic cooker or an upright barrel smoker.”
Just why does smoke taste so darn good? “Wood smoke contains hundreds of flavor-enhancing compounds,” he explained, “among them: creosol, responsible for a peat-like flavor one associates with Scotch whisky; isoeugenol, responsible for the clove and other spice flavors in smoke; and vanillin, source of a vanilla-like sweetness. I call wood smoke the umami of barbecue. Like umami in Asian foods, it accentuates the intrinsic flavor of meats and seafood and gives them more character, but when done right, it doesn’t really camouflage their taste.”
And don’t be confused by the huge selection of woods out there. “The wood variety matters less than how you burn it,” advised Raichlen. “The flavor of the smoke varies from wood to wood, but it varies subtly, and it’s certainly not literal. That is, cherry wood smoke doesn’t really taste like cherries, nor does maple taste like maple syrup.
“What’s more important is dosing the wood and smoke gradually. Soak wood chips in water, then drain, to slow the rate of combustion. I add fresh chips every 30 to 45 minutes and wood chunks once an hour. When you do it right, you get a pale blue smoke, which kisses and flavors the food without overpowering it.”
One of the pitfalls to avoid is what he calls the “guy syndrome,” namely, “thinking that if some smoke is good, more is always better. Too much smoke makes food taste bitter. Another is trying to smoke on a gas grill. There, I’ve said it. You can get a mild smoke flavor on a gas grill, but for a deep, authentic smoke flavor, you must use a charcoal-burning or wood-burning grill.”
Don’t rush to carve. “Give it a rest. Let large cuts of meat, such as brisket, rest in an insulated cooler for 1 to 2 hours. This relaxes the meat, making it tender and juicy.”
And don’t be concerned about cooking chicken at 375°F. “Yes, I know, this is higher than traditional low-and-slow smoking temperature,” he explained, “but higher temperature crisps the skin.” Note that rather than running the rotisserie spit through the chicken cavity, Raichlen suggests running it through the chicken from side to side (as shown in the photo) so the bird will spin head over tail evenly. “Why head over tail? You’ll get a juicier bird with crisper skin,” he said. “I can’t explain the physics, but most of the world’s grill cultures spit roast chickens this way, and it works.”
You can make this succulent chicken in your smoker too. “Set it up following the manufacturer’s instructions,” advised Raichlen. “Preheat to 375°F or as hot as the smoker will go if less than that. Smoke the chicken for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, or until cooked as described below.”
1 whole chicken (3 1/2 to 4 pounds)
3 tablespoons barbecue rub, or to taste
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 Set up grill for spit-roasting following manufacturer’s instructions, and pre-heat to medium-high (375°F).
2 Remove giblets and large lumps of fat from inside chicken. Place 1 tablespoon rub in neck and main cavities. Tie legs together with butcher’s string or pin together with bamboo skewer. Fold wing tips back and under body of chicken. Sprinkle remaining rub over outside of chicken. Drizzle bird with olive oil, rubbing over skin on all sides. Run rotisserie spit through chicken from side to side so bird will spin head over tail evenly. Tighten nuts on rotisserie forks.
3 Affix spit with chicken on rotisserie. Place aluminum foil drip pan under bird. Toss wood chips on coals or otherwise add wood as specified by manufacturer. Turn on motor.
4 Smoke-roast chicken until skin is dark brown and crisp and meat in thigh reaches 165°F on instant-read thermometer (inserted into deepest part of thigh but not touching bone) 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.
5 Transfer chicken to cutting board; let rest 5 to 10 minutes, then carve.
Smoked Potato Salad
Boiling potatoes, less starchy than bakers, work best. Good options include Red Bliss, Yukon Gold, or slender fingerling potatoes like French rattes or Russian banana potatoes.
2 pounds boiling potatoes (preferably organic), scrubbed with stiff brush
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Coarse salt (sea or kosher) and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup mayonnaise (preferably Hellmann’s or Best Foods)
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, or more to taste
2 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
2 green onions, trimmed, white parts minced, green parts thinly sliced crosswise
8 pitted green olives or pimento-stuffed olives, thinly sliced or coarsely chopped
8 cornichons (tiny tart French pickles) or 1 dill pickle, coarsely chopped (about 3 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon drained capers, or to taste
Spanish smoked paprika (pimentón), for sprinkling
1 Cut any larger potatoes in half or quarters; leave small ones whole so all pieces are bite size, about 1 inch across. Arrange potatoes in single layer in aluminum foil pan. Stir in olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
2 Set up smoker following manufacturer’s instructions, and preheat to 275°F. And wood as specified by manufacturer.
3 Place potatoes in smoker and smoke until tender (a bamboo skewer will pierce spuds easily), 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or as needed. Stir a couple of times so potatoes brown evenly. Remove potatoes and let cool slightly (they should be warm).
4 While potatoes smoke, make dressing: whisk mayonnaise, mustard, and vinegar in large bowl. Whisk in chopped eggs, dill, green onions, olives, pickles, and capers. Cover and refrigerate until potatoes are ready.
5 Stir warm potatoes into dressing. Correct seasoning, adding salt, pepper, and vinegar to taste; salad should be highly seasoned. Serve warm or chilled (cover and refrigerate, or quick-chill over bowl of ice). Transfer to serving bowl; dust with smoked paprika before serving.
Source: “Project Smoke” by Steven Raichlen
Jlife food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.
Great chicken deserves a great side. “No barbecue is complete without potato salad,” observed Raichlen. “Here’s my take on what may be the most soulful potato salad you’ve ever tasted.”