Saturday, June 12, 2010

Smoky Joe and the City Brisket

Living in the city often means limited space for grilling. Which kind of makes me sad, but also makes me appreciate friends who live in big huge houses that Ernest Hemingway used to live in who have the remarkable and much coveted Big Green Egg. My experience with the BGE is pretty limited, but I can say the results when I've used it, and when I've been privy to giant slabs of pork that have been cooked on it have been outstanding. Big smoky flavor, and the ability to cook long and low make for meltingly tender meat. Delicious.

This is not an ad for the Big Green Egg.

Instead, this is a report, in true FotD fashion, on getting some good smoking going when you aren't in the mood to pick up a thousand dollar grilling/smoking contraption, or when you feel unsure about your tiny city apartment balcony's ability to support a near half ton of ceramic firepower. Me, I've got a tiny little smoky joe, which despite years of service is starting to feel a bit small. But hey--cooking is, after all, putting food over a heat source, isn't it? So I picked up a slab of brisket at Gene's and set about smoking it with what I've got.
The brisket had a nice little fat cap on it to keep things moist and juicy as brisket, tough and chewy, takes a long time to loosen up. I got a fire going with some charwood, and rubbed the brisket first with whole grain mustard, then some sriracha, then a some salt, pepper, tumeric (hey--it was in my ever dwindling spice cabinet) and some dried oregano. Pretty heavy seasoning. I formed the coals in to a little ring, and put a tiny cast iron pan filled with water right in the middle of it to catch drippings and prevent them from burning, all the while creating a very aromatic and moist steam. The brisket went on the grates just above this, and hickory chips went right on the fire and everything was covered up with the lid. The goal here was to let this little guy smoke at a low temperature (like 250 or so) for as long as possible.
This is where the Big Green Egg would have helped. Due to the way it is built, it can maintain a nice, low temperature for a long, long time using minimal fuel. It's a little tougher on the smoky joe, and lots of adjustments need to be made relatively frequently. But I had spare time, and sometimes it's nice to get all smoky. So, for the next four hours, I'd check in on my precious city brisket, adjusting the air flow of the grill to moderate the temperature, and adding wood chips and fuel as needed. The brisket picked up a good deal of smoke in those four hours, and so did I. I sliced a tiny piece off just to taste, knowing it would require far more cooking time, and it was hugely smoky and the crust formed around the meat and fat was full of salty goodness. But I had reached my threshold of fiddling with the grill, and was satisfied with the level of smokiness in the meat, so I wrapped it tight in plastic wrap (yes, plastic wrap, don't worry about it), then foil, then put it into a 250 degree oven for another 4 hours or so.
Towards the end of the cooking process, my crazy, wild-haired friend came over and, after a few beers, we decided to taste the brisket. It had broken down considerably, and was as nice and tender as brisket can get (it'll never be like, say, pulled pork), so I wrapped it back up and let it hang out for awhile before throwing it in the fridge.

The next day, I sliced the brisket and dipped it in a sauce I had made maybe a week earlier, nice and mustardy and tangy, and put it on tiny little buns from Bennison's Bakery in Evanston that had been smeared with a horseradish and cheddar spread and topped the sandwiches with pickled cabbage we made for Memorial Day. We served them with some vibrant greens from said crazy-haired friend's girlfriend's parent's rooftop garden (which deserves it's own post--their set up is just amazing) that I cut earlier in the day, and crushed some mojitos made with mint from that same rooftop.

I'd say the smoky joe did just fine. It was a bit more high maintenance, but we rolled with what we had and results were great. Setting out with some sort of plan and understanding of what we are doing to the food--in this case, getting smoke into a tough piece of meat while slowly breaking down its rough fibers and connective tissues into something tender and still juicy--will up the success rate astronomically. Of course, given a spacious backyard, I'd probably make the Big Green Egg one of the first things I'd get. But until then...