The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke

Mega Meal

On the occasion of my parents 55th wedding anniversary I wanted to make a special meal where I cooked all of the items. I had several reasons for this: First and foremost I wanted to give my mother the day off. She usually offers to make one or more veggies or the salad and for this particular meal I wanted to give her the day off. Secondly I wanted to attempt a good old fashioned meal where I made everything from scratch including the main course and all of the veggies. No instant potatoes, no gravy in a jar, no microwave steamer bags of veggies, no store bought rolls but fresh baked. It was an ambitious undertaking since it involved using the grill, smoker, stove and oven together and more than one person told me I was crazy in those words or a more politically correct version of that.

The main dish was to be Classic Roast Beef & Gravy which is a slow roasted roast beef & homemade gravy

The main dish I planned was CLASSIC ROAST BEEF & GRAVY a dish I saw on the Cook’s Country TV show. Now if I’d stuck to the recipe as shown it might not have been as difficult. On the TV show the roast was seared in a Dutch oven and then removed and placed in a 275 (135 C) degree oven. But Steven Raichlen often says if something is good cooked one way it is even better grilled or smoked. The relatively low cooking temperature of 275 (135 C) made it doable on the smoker and I felt the addition of the smoke would indeed make a great improvement. The gravy was started using the left over brown bits remaining in the Dutch oven after searing the meat. The gravy was far too ambitious to move to the side burner of the grill, even if it wasn’t going to be only 39 degrees (4 C) outside. Once you get into simultaneous indoor and outdoor cooking you run the risk of getting into situations where you need to be in two places at once. While you might be able to stir two pans at once on the stove, you can’t work out at the grill and stir those pans at the same time. As I saw things the main key to this meal was planning ahead so the “Two Places at Once” scenario didn’t happen.

Alton Brown’s Perfect Mashed Potatoes have proven to be just that whenever I’ve made them in the past. They take about an hour total but there is some time flexibility in when you do some of the steps.

For the side dish I was originally going to make just the Alton Brown’s Perfect Mashed Potatoes. These take about an hour total, but you aren’t always actively working on them during that one hour. Also they are somewhat flexible in that they can be made a little ahead and held till dinner time using low heat, plus the potatoes themselves can be peeled ahead and put in cold water. The other thing I knew I was making were homemade artisan rolls. These are the type of rolls you get in a fancy restaurant where the rolls have a thin but crispy outer layer, and a soft but slightly chewy interior. I had made a dry run of these rolls on Wednesday to practice the techniques required and to make sure the rolls weren’t too chewy for my parents to eat. I brought the cooling rolls over to their house to try out. On that visit I also picked up some onion soup my mother had made for one of our other meals together that we didn’t end up using. The meal had been cancelled due to an illness and the soup was frozen for use with a suitable future meal. Since I could take this soup off my mother’s hands ahead of time it fit into my rule she do no work this day. I could bring the soup home and on Saturday I’d just need to reheat it, toast the bread & melt the cheese etc. An unexpected item we learned taste testing the rolls was they were extremely filling, “dense” if you will. This got me to thinking a second vegetable wasn’t going to be needed since everything else we were having was quite hearty.

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Homemade Artisan Dinner Rolls were also on the menu.

Just before I went shopping on Friday I had second thoughts about a second side dish. I looked in my new WEBER 0N THE GRILL - CHICKEN & SIDES cookbook to see if there was a suitable side dish. I found GRILLED CARROTS which had a simple prep and at 6 minutes were a very quick cook. When the roast was finished it had a 20 minute rest. There would be just enough time to make the glaze for the carrots and cook them before the roast was ready to carve. So the menu was now set, I just had to figure out how to make everything and have it all finish at once. The big trick was time management so that I wasn’t supposed to be at the indoors at stove and outdoors at the smoker at the same time. While it is sometimes possible to do two things at once, it is a law of physics that you can’t be in two places at once. Actually my “Everything finish at once” statement wasn’t quite true. I wanted to have the French onion soup heated and topped and the rolls ready 30 minutes before the meat was ready. And for that matter the potatoes could be held for a short period of time to little ill affect.

Grilled carrots became a last minute second side dish.

On Saturday morning I took a sheet of legal paper and made a time chart. The chart had 5 horizontal time lines, one each for the roast beef, potatoes, carrots, rolls and a fifth axis called “Other” for things like heating the onion soup, setting the table etc. The chart was done freehand and I didn’t use a linear time line. When there was a lot going on in a short period of time I expanded the time line to fit and when not much was happening I shortened the timeline. I started with the roast as a the item that was fixed. It was the main event and had the second longest cooking time, plus it had to be on the smoker at a fixed time to finish on time. The gravy and the veggies had flexibility - some of their prep could be done ahead and held. The rolls on the other hand did not have the same flexibility. They had a series of rises with minimum rise times. While you might extend the rise time a little, you really don’t want to shorten it. So the rolls were the second item on the list. Next came the potatoes and carrots where I had some flexibility in certain aspects of the prep. Lastly I added items to the “Other” axis. At this point I had a finished version of the chart. It was quite messy where I’d needed to make several adjustments and there were lots of crossed out times. All in all it looked doable and surprisingly had more places where there appeared to be breaks where I would have free time. In checking closer I was “amused” to find while I had the roast covered, I’d neglected to add the prep and cooking of the gravy. After adding the steps involved in making the gravy the breaks suddenly disappeared.

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Two blown up details of the cooking chart I made. On the left you can see each food item is color coded. The active items show bars on the chart. If the item is active but only required supervision the bar is shaded and below the bar (right). If the items require active hands-on participation the items are above the line and hatched. Critical times are shown as dots with the time below.

This “amusing” oversight caused me to decide make a new chart, this time on the computer. I had several reasons for this: Although I the flexible length time line helped in the initial planning I wanted a constant timeline this time around so that during the heat of action I wouldn’t be scared off or lulled into a false sense of security by an axis that was expended or compressed. The second reason for using a computer is I could group fixed portions of the tasks or the entire task, so I could shift them simultaneously on the time line with less chances of error. A third reason was the computer allowed me to use colors for each task and hatching to represent wether the process I was looking at was inactive (dough rising) or active (kneading with the mixer). With colors and shading I could quickly glance at the chart even from a distance and tell what was going on. I put large dots on the time axis at critical points in the prep as well as a time marker. I used ArchiCAD to do the chart since that is the program I know and I know it could do what I needed. I’m sure there are other programs much better suited to this type of task, but I went with what I knew. It took about an hour to make the chart. Originally I planned on just printing it on legal sized paper, but I decided to plot it out at 24” x 36” (60 x 92 cm) where I could simply hang it on the wall and look at it from anywhere in the Kitchen. This is where the graphical nature of the chart actually proved more useful than I expected.

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The rolls were the longest item this day, taking 5 1/2 hours from start to finish. The ingredients were simple (left) consisting of bread flour, wheat flour, water, honey, yeast and salt. The dough was mixed initially for 5 minutes (right ) after which the dough went through a series of hour long or 30 minute long rises. The dough would get folded over & recovered between rises.

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After 3 hours of rises the dough is ready to be turned out (left). The dough gets turned out onto a floured silicone rolling mat (right).

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The dough is divided into two using a bench scraper and then the two pieces of dough are stretched into 16” (40 cm) long logs (left). Next the two logs are divided into 8 pieces.

It is often said a successful outcome is actually guaranteed in the planning stages as long as the plan is executed correctly. So how did it go? Quite well actually, but not exactly as planned. I found certain things went better or faster than planned and others not so well. I will explain in a bit more detail in a moment, but for me the real key was having that chart to help keep me on track and let me make little adjustments on the fly. The chart allowed me to quickly ascertain what items were fixed and HAD to be done at a precise time in order to assure the proper finish time and others that could be moved around a bit to suit the needs of the moment. Rarely do things ever go totally as planned and knowing where I had some flexibility was key. I got off to a bit of a late start which cut into my preliminary prep time for the rolls. Since I had already made these
RUSTIC DINNER ROLLS rolls once before, I was able to improve on the prep time and get back on track. Once the rolls were in their first one hour rise I was able to do the first round of cleanup, set the table etc. I also took the time to do the smoker prep sooner rather than later, which proved a smart move. The rolls had a series of rises followed by brief times spent mixing and folding the dough over. The gravy prep to cut and chop all of veggies came next and ran 10 minutes long. I elected to finish this task before lighting the smoker. At this point I wasn’t concerned because past experience with the Kingsford Competition Blend Charcoal has shown it lights faster, and it takes about half the time I allowed to come to temperature.

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The pieces of dough are floured and rolled into balls & put in a cake pan. After a 30 minute rise the balls are sprayed with water & placed into a 500 degree (260 C) oven for ten minutes (right).

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After 10 minutes the dough is separated & placed onto a sheet pan and returned to a 400 degree (205 C) oven (left). After 12 more minutes the rolls are done, except for a 1 hour rest where they develop their final texture (right).

I knew the Kingsford Competition Blend would rise faster in the smoker, I just didn’t know how long it would take to rise an extra 50 degrees to 275 (135 C) vs. my normal 225 (105 C). Another concern was the the temps were in the 30’s (2 C). Based on the low temps and the need for speed, I decided I’d also light a little more charcoal in the chimney to help get the smoker temps rising faster. When I lit the coals the smoker was already prepped and ready to go, originally I was going to do it in the time the charcoal chimney was heating. My earlier than planned smoker prep allowed me to make up for the longer gravy prep time. Back inside I started browning the meat which took 4 minutes, not 3 minutes per side. This was going to cut into the time I’d allotted to peel the carrots and potatoes, but I was able to multi-task and do that while the meat was browning. While I lit the smoker a little late, the Kingsford had it up to 275 (135 C) degrees in 30 minutes as hoped and not the 45 minutes allotted. All in all the meat was only 5 minutes late going on the smoker and I was looking at a 2 hour smoke so I was pleased to note I was pretty much back on track. Now in an ideal world I would only have to run outside to add more hickory chips half way in and make any temperature tweaks required to hold 275 (135 C) - and the fewer of those the better. I could monitor the temps of the meat and the smoker from the Kitchen. As it turned out on this day it was an ideal world: The CG stayed within plus or minus two degrees of 275 (135 C) for the entire cook. So I only had to make one trip out to the smoker to add the wood chips and one more to collect the meat.

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The top sirloin roast is browned and off to the smoker in the first picture (left). The Dutch oven with the brown bits left from browning the meat is used to start the gravy (right). In the series of pictures that follows the various vegetable are sauteed in batches. The pan is deglazed using wine, then the beef broth is added in and allowed to thicken

Once the meat was on the smoker it was time to pull the risen dough out of the oven and form the rolls into balls for more final rising in a greased cake pan. I was going to start sautéing the veggies for the gravy at the same time, but I decided to deal with the rolls first as this was one of those fixed tasks in terms of time and the veggies for the gravy were flexible. Once again a quick glance at the chart told me what I needed to know. Since the gravy prep ran late, it now overlapped with heating the water in two pans for blanching the carrots and to bring the potatoes to a boil. This was the type of multi-tasking that was quite doable since all three processes were done at the stove. During this time it was necessary to put the rolls in first a 500 (260 C) degree oven in two cake pans for 10 minutes and then separate them and put them on a single sheet pan 10 minutes at 400 (205 C) degrees. My mid-week test run of these rolls had proven that the 10 minutes at 500 (260 C) might have been a bit too long. I made spur of the moment decision to change to 9 minutes at 500 (260 C) degrees and add the extra minute in on the 400 degree (205 C) side of things. While the rolls were baking, I was able to get back to the stove and keep things moving forward. I breathed a sigh or relief once the rolls were done. They needed to cool for an hour and would be ready to eat together with the onion soup. All that was left was finishing up the gravy, potatoes, and carrots.

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The roast reached 125 degrees (52 C) around 10 minutes early, so I extended the rest time by 10 minutes so I could join the others enjoying my mother’s onion soup.

It was time to light the fourth and last burner on the stove and start heating the glaze ingredients that were to be brushed on the carrots. At this point the gravy was simmering, so it was low maintenance and the carrots were blanched and needed to be drained and doused with cold water. The potatoes needed to be drained and milled and my mother said she would heat the onion soup for me, so things were actually winding down. There was only one slight hiccup: the meat was finishing a little early. I’d been so busy during the last 30 minutes I hadn’t really paid much attention to the remote read meat thermometer. I had a decision to make: I’d originally planned on the roast being ready when we’d finished enjoying the onion soup during the 20 minute resting time I could take care of the grilled carrots. I could either skip the soup entirely and take care of the carrots, or let the meat rest an additional 10 minutes, enjoy the soup with my family then deal with the carrots. I elected to do the latter, my mother knew onion soup was one of my favorites and that is why she originally made it. The onion soup was even better this time around where I’d bought some Gruyere cheese to try for the topping.

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The meal was ready, Mashed potato and gravy on the left, smoked roast beef , grilled carrots and artisan rolls on the far right. The picture on the right shows my plate and I am guilty of not being shy when it came to my portions.

Once the soup was done it was off to the grill for the carrots and when they were done all that would be left was to strain the gravy & carve the meat. Fortunately the meat didn’t seem to be harmed by the extra 10 minutes rest. It sliced wonderfully and was still warm and moist. When it was finally time to eat, everything looked great. More importantly it all tasted great. The rolls had turned out perfectly after the slight tweak I made to the initial 500 degree (260 C) cooking time. My test batch of rolls on Wednesday had proven very useful. Alton Brown’s Perfect Mashed Potatoes are the best mashed potatoes I’ve ever tried and this batch was no exception. The roast beef, gravy and carrots were the wildcards here. As expected the smoke flavor was a wonderful addition to the roast beef and the meat had great flavor. The roast beef was truly excellent, I can’t imagine it being any better. It reminded me of a great prime rib. The gravy had wonderful flavor too, though I need to work on getting it a bit thicker the next time. In retrospect I think the low fat beef broth I had around that I used was the culprit. While the prep for the carrots was simple enough, the taste didn’t reflect it. Everyone loved them too and I was asked to make the carrots again soon. All in all the meal was a great success. While the meal was special and my parents said so, what was even more important to me was the meal I made for them made them feel special. They’ve given me so much in my life that is special, this was my small way of paying them back.

The special meal I made for my parents made them feel special. This picture taken right after the meal shows how happy they were. When all was said and done this is what made the day for me.

In terms of wrapping up the technical aspects of this cook, I think the main key to doing it successfully was having a good schedule. The schedule identified the critical path items, critical times and identified areas where there was some flexibility. My approach produced great results for me and while it is the way I like to work, this approach may not work for everyone. While you may not need to create the type of detailed schedule I did, the more items you are making the more pre-planning of one kind of another is required. This is particularly true if the cooking has you both indoors and outdoors. No matter how good you are, no one can be in two places at once. My pre-planning prevented this type of major screw up because left to my own devices I can be far from perfect. Just to prove this point, I will tell an amusing story about myself. Just as we were plating all of the food to serve, I heard a voice in my head say: “By the way, what did you do for dessert?”. In a brief Malox moment I realized that despite all my complex scheduling I’d managed to completely space dessert. Fortunately everyone loved the main meal. They took larger than normal first portions or seconds or both and no one even had room for dessert.


Here are links for the two new picture entries from this meal

  GRILLED CARROTS Veggies Picture Entry
  RUSTIC DINNER ROLLS Baking Picture Entry


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