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Extraordinary grilling (for ordinary people)

September 8, 2010

Labor Day shouldn't include a lot of work. It is, after all the one day were most of us get the day off in honor of our work.

Tradition dictates that this is not really just a one day event but a three day weekend that also brings about a symbolic end to summer.

Some of us will spend a day, or two, maybe three on the golf course. If the weather is warm, it might mean a trip to one of the public pools that are still open or even the lake.

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Labor Day is one of the best holidays to have a cookout. Whether you are using propane or charcoal, making good food taste even better is only a match strike away. One of the best and easiest meals for grilling is chicken.

This is also, one of the last times of the year may people will be firing up their grills for the season. Me, well I've been known to light my grill during a blizzard, but that's not the case for most people.

With that said, why not make the best of it.

When it comes to grilling, I'm a purist burning natural lump charcoal but not an elitist. Clean and efficient propane works fine too. Personally, I like charcoal because it think it gives the food a better flavor and with the addition of a hardwood, like apple or hickory, you can add even more flavor.

I also like to make my holiday cookouts something a little more special. After all, having the day off means I don't have to rush to get to the finished product.

Too often the labor day menu consists of the same old hamburgers and hotdogs fine fare indeed, and perfectly acceptable, especially if you've invited more than just a few friends over to the homestead for a cookout.

But even if you've invited half the block to your homestead, you can still break from the ordinary with a small effort and take the leap into something bigger, tastier and a lot more time consuming like real barbeque.

Now, this might seem like a tall order and if it doesn't, then you are likely confusing grilling with barbeque. There is a world of difference, but with the right equipment, it's not overly difficult.

Barbeque, is really nothing more than "hot smoking" or cooking with smoke. The same principles need to hot smoke a salmon fillet can be applied to a hunk of pork. The biggest difference is time. While it usually takes me two to three hours to smoke a salmon, pork shoulder takes me between 12 and 14 hours, depending on the size, but the nice thing about this is it gives the BBQ master time to sit, relax and drink a cold beer or 12 while tending to a fire from time to time. Invite a few buddies over and it's practically a party in itself. Plus, it's cheap and can feed a lot of people.

Still, seems like too much work? Well, it's not, but it is time consuming. Ok then, skip the pork shoulder and buy a vacuumed pack pork tenderloin. It's smaller, but if it's pre-seasoned, then you can also skip soaking the pork in a brine and cooks in less than half the time.

Of course, this method requires some equipment. I'm not sure if it would work with a regular propane grill, but a vertical propane smoker, you know, one of those upright dome grills that look a bit like R2-D2. should be suitable for such a project.

Then there is a charcoal grill. Mine happens to be a smoker/grill with a firebox on the side which makes the process much nicer. I start off with a buck of charcoal, put it in the firebox to preheat the grilling chamber and when ready to start the pork, throw in a little bit of hard wood chucks. Hickory and mesquite are readily available at most grocery stores and even hardware stories. Those with access to locally grown hardwood will find apple wood and is great with pork.

Still, if a standard grill, table top and even an electric counter top grill, then I recommend chicken barbeque chicken to be exact. Now, barbeque purist always point out that chicken can't be barbequed. Well, it might not be true barbeque, but lets face it, slather it in a Kansas City style sauce and you've got something that sure taste like barbeque.

The biggest mistake I've seen with barbeque chicken is with how people cook it. I'm a strong believer in marinating, even chicken that is going to get covered in barbeque sauce, but a simple brine (salt and water) with a few other favoring agents, like rosemary, is all you need. Some people think that you need to soak the raw chicken in the barbeque sauce and then grill it. The problem with that is, the sauce burns before the chicken cooks. I always grill my chicken and about 10 minutes before it's done, I brush on the sauce and close the lid. This gives the sauce time to set to the chicken and pick up some of the smokey flavor.

When it comes to sauce, I like to make my own, but have no problems with picking a bottle or two off the store shelf for convenience. Personally, I like honey-hickory smoke sauce when I buy a bottle.

I'd given you my homemade recipe, but since I make it to taste, I can only give you vague directions. I'm also constantly tweaking things and trying to get different flavor combinations to keep things fresh.

One thing I can write is that I always start off with ketchup as the base of my Kansas City style sauce. I then add a little yellow mustard and some Worcestershire sauce until it starts to get a barbeque sauce taste. I then sweeten it up. Table sugar is ok, but I prefer dark brown sugar. Sometime I use turbinado sugar, which I also use in my homemade rib rub (another column), but then I add molasses. Honey is another that can be used by itself, or in a supporting role. And don't think I'm crazy, jellies from grape to pepper are excellent.

A few herbs will go into my sauce. I always use rosemary, because I think it goes great with chicken. Thyme is another good one.

I then thin out the mixture. Beer is my first choice and I usually used a full bodied lager, never a light beer for this. Cola is another great choice and adds as a backup player for the sweetening ingredient. Dr. Pepper or any of the various generic versions works great too as can a shot of coffee.

Once the sauce is thinned out a little bit, put it in a pan and reduce the mixer to thicken it back up. Why do this and not just skip the thinning process to begin with? Well, for one thing it adds flavor. By adding some heat to it this gives any sugar a means to dissolve and extracts the oils from any herbs.

And speaking of heat, spicing up the sauce is easy too. A few dashes of hot sauce works. Adding some crushed red pepper, a few drops of the brine from jar of jalapenos or some jalapenos or even diced up chipotles is good with me.

You really just have to experiment a little to see what works for you.



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