The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke
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Memorable Memorial Day Weekend - Part 1

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Saturday was my mothers birthday and I wanted to make a special meal for her. When folks get into their 80’s you don’t know just how many more birthdays you’ll celebrate with them. One problem is my mother doesn’t ask for much. I offered to make her anything she’d like and she picked hamburgers. Now she does really like hamburgers, but I also think it is a case she doesn’t want me to do what she perceives to be a lot of work. I think she sometimes forgets that her “work” is my pleasure-at least most days. This blog entry will detail the process I went through to make this special meal and also discuss a couple interesting things that happened along the way. This includes a mistake that could have turned out far worse than it did.
 

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The smokehouse burgers were cooked in a different way. They were first seared using high direct heat (left) & then finished indirectly (right) with the burners unlit directly under the burgers. My test run caused me to adjust the heat & time down a bit

So my mom just wanted a hamburger. I decided I’d try to make it the most special hamburger I could. I’d seen a recipe in COOKS ILLUSTRATED SUMMER GRILLING GUIDE 2010 (See Blog entry) for a SMOKEHOUSE BURGER modeled after one served by a restaurant in Texas. The recipe’s author described it as the most memorable burger she’d ever tasted. It was a huge burger that had a charred spicy crust, a juicy flavorful inside and tasted of smoke flavor inside and out. The smoke on the inside was from BBQ sauce and on the outside it was from wood smoke. I figured this would be as good a way as any to try out my newly refurbished grill’s smoker drawer. This burger was intentionally big, 1/2 pounds (1/4 Kg) worth. All the better to help hold the smoke flavor without seeming over smoked. The patties were cooked directly to start and finished indirectly. Now when I am serving a special meal for people, such as a holiday or birthday dinner, I like to do a dry run ahead of time if it is a recipe I haven’t made before. I want the event to be about good food and good company, not about a culinary disaster. I decided to make the burger during the week, together with a new spicy recipe for grilled corn on the cob. It was from the same source as the burgers and was called GRILLED CORN WITH SPICY CHILI BUTTER. I wanted to see just how spicy it was. My mom loves spicy, the spicier the better in fact, something I’ve only found out in the last 15 years or so. I knew this would be right up her alley. My dad on the other hand plays it safe and does not go too far down the spicy path. I needed to see just how spicy the corn would be.

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The test run of the corn prompted me to ask my dad if he would like just plain buttered corn, which he did. Above we have one of the two buttered ears on the left and four of the chili buttered ears

The last item on the original menu was also from the Grilling Guide 2010 and were called COWBOY BEANS. My mom loves beans and she used to bake her own all the time. Saturday nights growing up was always beans & franks, later to be replaced with steak and beans. Even though I’d never made my own beans before (or even thought about it for that matter) I decided not to make a batch of these ahead of time. They didn’t seem difficult and I’d come to trust the folks at America’s Test Kitchen to have thoroughly tested out the recipes and work out the kinks. This decision not to make a test batch turned out to make for some anxious moments on Saturday, but I am getting ahead of myself. On Tuesday night I made the burgers and corn. One of the things I like about doing a test run is I get the timing of things down, so on the day I am serving the meal to guests I can have the food come out right on time. I also can get the cooking technique down so the final version can be just the right doneness. This meal used big one inch thick burgers and cooked them directly and indirectly and I definitely wanted a test run to get the grill temperature time equation solved. One problem I am trying to deal with is the whole they say high heat, but what do they really mean thing? You see my grill has 6 burners and with all the burners set to high the temps inside the grill will hit 600 degrees (315 C) on a normal day. On a hot day when the propane pressure is high the grill can hit 800 degrees (427 C). The other thing I’ve started to see is if your high is too high, you can get flareups because the fat inside the burger or other food melts too fast & comes pouring out.

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The Cowboy Beans used a lot of tasty ingredients, but oddly no molasses. Was this why the beans were coming out so pale for so long?

For the test run I used high heat like the recipe called for, and did get some fat flareups. Also the indirect phase time was given as about 3-5 minutes and I’d gone with the full 5 minutes. I was concerned that the 4 minute per side sear time and the 5 minute indirect time seemed short to fully cook a one inch thick burger. Another reason for my test run. The test run proved it’s worth since I was able to adjust my times and temps downward slightly based on my real world results. I did get some flareups, particularly on the second side. While the insides of the burger were still juicy, the doneness of the burger was medium bordering on medium-well and not the medium rare I was shooting for. The barbecues sauce and other add-ins to the meat had done their job and helped keep the burger moist. For the final run I decided to reduce the temperatures to Medium-High and take one minute off the indirect phase. I figured this would also help the corn which had flared up quite a bit on high heat. The other thing I didn’t like was the type of cheese I’d picked-an imported Swiss. It just didn’t go with the other flavors and I would need to change things here. The cheese was my addition to the recipe. I love cheeseburgers. The corn was actually a bit if a surprise on two fronts. The first was the lime juice did a good job of toning down the spiciness of the chili powder and cayenne pepper added to the butter. The second was the corn itself. This week was the first week this year where corn was available in quantity, but since it was not yet native corn I didn’t have high expectations for it. Now I don’t know if they are getting better with the packing or shipping techniques for out os state corn or what, but this corn was very, very good. There was a flavor that escaped me at first until I realized it was sweetness, something I had not expected in this non-native corn.
 

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The jalapeno corer made quick work of coring out the jalapenos (left). The jalapenos are stuffed (right) and the implications of their sitting lower in the rack hadn’t dawned on me yet.

So armed with the information gathered during my test run, I was confident about Saturday. I went to the store Friday and grabbed everything I needed except the corn. I was really glad I’d tried the corn ahead of time and found it to be unexpectedly sweet. The sweetness in corn is a fleeting thing and I wouldn’t have expected it from corn from outside of not just Massachusetts, but New England. If I thought there was no chance of getting sweet corn, I would have picked it up on Friday along with everything else. Instead I went to the store late morning on Saturday and also did some research on maintaining the sweetness of corn. I wanted to see if it would be ok to husk the corn an hour or so ahead of time when things were less busy. According to my research: Taking the husks off didn’t seem to affect the sweetness of the corn, but the interesting thing I found is refrigerating the corn really helps. Several articles mentioned storing the corn at room temperature is not good. Makes you wonder why the supermarkets do it, but I digress. So anyway Friday was the first shopping trip and I bought my beans so I could soak them overnight. By getting everything I could on Friday, including a propane refill, the stores would be far less crowded. Saturday morning dawned and I discovered there was a marathon of Stephen Raichlen’s BBQ University and Primal Grill on the Create Network. Since I didn’t have to start anything until after lunch I settled down to watch the shows. On one of the Primal Grill episodes he made JALAPENO POPPERS which looked really good. As mentioned, my mother loves spicy and I figured I could serve these as a surprise treat with the corn. I was actually at Williams-Sonoma the day before and had one of the racks used to hold the jalapeno peppers in my hands. I’d decided not to buy the rack and was now regretting that decision. The nearest Williams-Sonoma was 30 minutes away and didn’t open until 10:00AM so it would be cutting things close. I decided to be on their doorstep right at 10:00 and then swing by the market on my way home to get the corn and also now jalpeno chilies. When I got home it would be time to start the beans.

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The beans were soupy when they first went in the oven (left). As they continued to cook the amount of liquid reduced, but the beans were still pale white with an hour to go (right).

This is where things began to get interesting. When I got to the supermarket, instead of a basket brimming with large jalapenos, I was greeted with an empty basket and none to be had out back. This was not good, since this market had the best produce in town. Plus I was really out of time. I decided to try the nearest supermarket and if they didn’t have any jalapenos that was it. The good news was they did have them. The bad news, which I was blissfully unaware of at the time, was the jalapenos were a bit small. Originally I’d planned to get home and check out a few other recipes for jalapeno poppers, just to see if there were any tips, tricks or gotchas to look out for. Due to the jalapeno shortage I’d only had chance to watch Raichlen do the jalapeno poppers earlier on Primal Grill, plus I had pulled up the recipe online while I was watching him. So armed with that one recipe it was time to head for the Kitchen. Originally I had a 30 minute cushion built in to the baked beans. If the beans finished on time I would hold them on the stove using low heat. If they ran a little long I could keep them in the oven. This was now gone and the beans would finish up right at suppertime.

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To my great surprise the peppers had flared and several has dropped out because they were smaller than I would have hoped for (left). Luckily as it turned out Stephen Raichlen was right when he said that you can’t burn grilled peppers too much. I will indirect grill next time though.

My first task was to get the beans going. Unlike many bean recipes where you throw everything in a pot and start baking, this one had about 45 minutes worth of sautéing and heating done on the stove. I heated some oil in the Dutch oven and began to brown the bacon. While that was going I chopped up the garlic and onion. While the bacon and onion were sautéing I gathered and measured out the other ingredients. After 45 minutes, the initial prep was done, the Dutch oven was covered and off to a 300 degree oven for 2 1/2 hours. Next up was to core the jalapenos and prep the ham and cheese fillings. I had picked up a “one trick pony” gadget at Williams-Sonoma that cored the jalapenos. It did indeed make quick work of coring the jalapenos and since jalpenos are fairly small, there wasn’t a whole lot of work cutting the matchstick slices up for the fillings. With the jalapeno fillings in the fridge, I next shucked all of the ears of corn and had them back in the fridge too. Next on the list were the burgers. I gathered and mixed the ingredients for the patties and used my scale to help divide the meat for the patties into 4 equal sized portions. I formed the equal sized balls of meat into patties, applied the rub to both sides and had them back in the fridge. It was around this time that things started getting interesting with the beans.

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During the last hour uncovered in the oven, the beans finally started to darken in color. The last step was the addition of some more BBQ sauce which I hoped would help the color too.

During the first 2 1/2 hours the beans were to be in the oven, they were in a covered Dutch oven. I’d been stirring them every 30 minutes. When they first went in, the beans looked like soup: All liquid and no sign of the beans. Gradually the proportion of liquid to beans was changing. What wasn’t changing at all was the color of the beans. They were still a pale white. One of the things that surprised me when I first read the recipe was the lack of molasses. Now I’ve never made baked beans, but I did know molasses are typically used in this neck of the woods to make Boston baked beans. I was getting a bit concerned about the lack of color of the beans. I’d copied this recipe into Yummy Soup, my recipe software, and was working from the version on my computer. There was always the possibility I’d left something out or gotten a quantity wrong. I reread the original recipe to make sure I’d copied it correctly and I looked at the picture on my camera of the gathered ingredients to make sure I hadn’t forgotten something earlier during prep. It turns out there were no molasses called for, I’d typed the recipe correctly and I’d added all of the ingredients. At 3:30, one hour before I was planning to eat, I was beginning to get nervous that I should have made a batch of these beans in advance. The beans were to spend their last hour in the oven with the cover removed on the Dutch oven. While the liquid had become darker and had reduced somewhat, the beans were still pale white. At this point there was nothing to do, but I was beginning to be glad for the big bag of potato chips I had also come home with. They might end up being Plan B.

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To my great relief the beans I put on the dinner table looked normal in color. Even more importantly these beans were the best any of us had ever tasted.

I lit the grill and then began assembling the jalapeno poppers. This is where not rehearsing this recipe started to bite me. Not all of the jalapenos fit in the rack. Some were simply too small and slipped through the holes, so I didn’t use them. Others sat quite low in the rack almost touching the counter. The pictures showed on the jalapeno holder box showed the chilies sitting up high 2/3 of their body above the rack and 1/3 below. The situation was reversed for me with only 1/3 of the body above and 2/3 below. At this point chilies slipping through the rack concerned me more than the height. But it was time to get these started as everything else fell in place based on the jalapenos. The jalapenos would be direct grilled for 20-30 minutes using the same medium-high heat the corn and burgers would use. Raichlen had actually cooked his Jalapeno Poppers on direct high heat, but I wasn’t worried. I figured I could just leave them in a bit longer if need be. I would add the corn on the grill when the poppers had 5 minutes to go. I could pull the poppers and let them cool for a few minutes while the corn finished. Once the poppers were on the grill I ran back into the house to melt the butter and make the chili butter sauce for the corn. My parents arrived at 4:00 and I wasn’t surprised when my dad said he’d like his corn with just regular butter. That would have been my guess anyway. I decided to check on the jalapeno poppers at the 20 minute mark. I figured I’d have at least another 5 minutes to go before adding the corn. Instead when I walked outside, I was greeted to the site of smoke coming out of the grill. Since I wasn’t adding the wood chips until after the corn was cooked, this was not a good sign. When I opened the lid I was greeted by flareups, jalapenos with charred bottoms, others where the cheese had oozed out of the tops and had melted into a gooey mess on the top of the rack. Even worse several of the smaller jalapenos had shrunken a bit more in the heat and had fallen through the holes in the rack and onto the grill grate. These 3 dropped jalapenos were a lost cause, now just shriveled petrified lumps.

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The Smokehouse Burgers need no condiments except for the sliced vidallia onions called for in the recipe. The Cowboy Beans were the perfect side dish

As I was racing inside to get the corn, three thoughts crossed my mind. The first was WTF? Raichlen did these on high and I used Medium-High. Secondly I though this is what you get for not testing this out first. My last thought was more hopeful. I can remember Raichlen saying one time that you can’t burn grilled peppers enough. As I was grilling the corn with the lid up, I put the jalapenos back up on the warming rack to help hold them. The corn turned out great. Reducing the heat to medium-high had cut back on the flare-ups and the corn looked great. As I was bringing the corn and jalapeno poppers in, I thought at least I have the corn. It would have been a disaster if I just had one thing to serve and had to throw it away. Everyone was curious and dug straight into the jalapeno poppers and were some making noises about how good and how spicy they were. My mother absolutely loved them which made me very happy. As I bit into one I was surprised that you couldn’t tell the jalapenos were charred, the spiciness of the jalapeno simply drowned out that flavor totally. The grilled corn was as good and as sweet as the batch from earlier in the week. Once again my mother loved the corn. She liked the chili butter lime combination and loved the surprising sweetness of this early season corn. Relieved that the jalapenos had been a success, I excused myself to go add wood chips to the grill and get back to cooking.

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Grilled Sweet Corn & Garlic Butter (left). Smokehouse Burgers (right)

While the wood chips heated up, it was time to start collecting the burgers, buns and cheese. Based on my trial run I’d switched from Swiss cheese to a sharp cheddar. At this point I was afraid to peek in at the beans - what would be would be. The burger cook was uneventful. One thing that the folks at America’s Test Kitchen did that seemed to work well, was soaking the would chips for only 15 minutes for short cooks like this. Most directions call for you to soak the chips in cold water for an hour. On my grill this gives you a controlled smoke that lasts about 45 minutes, before the remaining chips begin to actually flame up and burn away. The 15 minute soak gave you a more intense smoke that lasted for about half the time - perfect for a short cook like these burgers. The lower heat did help with the flare ups as hoped and I took a minute off the indirect time. With the burgers back in the Kitchen having a 5 minute rest, it was time to face the music and remove the beans from the oven. All that was left was to add some BBQ sauce to the beans, season them with salt & pepper and serve. As I opened the oven I was stunned to see the beans had finally turned brown. The sauce had reduced to just about the perfect consistency too. Now the beans still weren’t quite as dark as Boston baked beans, but the color was fine. I served the beans and the burgers and both went over extremely well. I couldn’t have asked for more for my mother’s birthday. After one bite, my mother quickly said these were the best baked beans she had ever tasted. My dad chimed in to say they were the best he’d ever had too. Now I am a tough critic of my own work, but after my first taste I had to agree. I may have had beans that possibly were as good, but none better. Talk about a swing in fortunes and emotions. One hour ago I was looking at these pale white beans and was thinking I was glad I happened to come home with a big bag of chips. We might need them to go with the burgers instead of beans. Now an hour later my first attempt at homemade baked beans were as good as any beans I or more importantly my guests, had ever tried. The burgers went over almost as well too. My dad wanted to know what he should put on it besides the onion slices. I told him to try it plain first and with one bite he said it didn’t need a thing. The BBQ sauce helped keep the inside moist. In fact today’s burgers, cooked for a minute less, were a nice medium and even more juicy. After my mother’s first bite she said she could never eat all of this burger, but she was going to take the other half home. As for me: I was so happy that my attempt to make a special meal for my mom’s birthday had succeeded beyond my greatest hopes.

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This is what was most important to me about this day. It was a special birthday meal for my mother & she enjoyed every bit of it.

In terms of a post mortem, a few things stand out. Even though I am getting better at this whole grilling thing, it still pays off for me to try something ahead of time, before trying it out on friends and family. If you think about it, the two items I had trouble with were the beans and the jalapeno poppers which were both first attempts. As for the beans I don’t know why it took as long as it did for the beans to go from pale white to a medium brown, but the results speak for themselves. Still I might have relaxed a bit if I’d tried these in advance. The next time around when it is time to take the lid off the Dutch oven, I may just throw them on the gas grill to finish off with indirect heat & some woods smoke. That is the only thing that would make them any better. The jalapeno poppers are a more interesting story. For the recipe I watched Raicheln had direct grilled the jalapeno poppers on high while cooking some steaks. The next day I searched out more recipes for jalapeno poppers. It turns out that was the only recipe that didn’t do the jalapeno poppers indirectly, and not directly. In fact Raichlen, who now makes a jalapeno popper cooking rack himself, includes a recipe where he also cooks them indirectly. I had this misfortune of trying the one recipe that was not the norm. My usual habit when making something new and different is to look at other similar recipes to pick up additional tips. Had I done this, things might have turned out differently. In the future I will continue the practice of checking out several recipes. But all in all I have no complaints. I somehow wonder if the BBQ Gods didn’t just cut me some slack since I had an honorable goal of making a special meal for my mom’s birthday. Two days later she is still talking about the meal, so I couldn’t be happier.
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SOME RELATED LINKS:
Here are some links for the Picture Entries for the items described here.

  SMOKEHOUSE BURGER Burgers Picture Entry
   GRILLED CORN WITH SPICY CHILI BUTTER Veggies Picture Entry
  JALAPENO POPPERS Appetizers Picture Entry


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