It is something primordial, a song that calls to us from deep within our collective soul: When it is Memorial Day, we hit the grill.
The holidays of summer demand the kind of culinary goodness that can be found only in grilled meat. It’s the most essential of cooking styles, the way mankind first learned to make meat more tender and flavorful, and it’s still one of the best.
At this time of year, there may be only one thing better than meat cooked over a fire: meat smoked over a fire.
Or, if you want to be a completist about it, meat smoked over either a fire or an electrical element that simulates the experience of a fire by slowly charring chips of wood to create smoke.
Either way, if grilled meat is great, smoked meat is spectacular.
Think barbecue. It’s long, slow cooking at a low temperature, transforming a tough piece of meat into something delectable and mouthwateringly tender. The protracted low heat creates the texture, but it is the smoke that makes the magic.
Barbecue is the ultimate expression of smoked meat, so for my Memorial Day celebration, I started out with ribs – St. Louis-style ribs, naturally. I’m afraid I did not know what makes St. Louis ribs different from baby-back ribs, but I have now learned that they are fattier (and thus more flavorful) and come from the bottom part of the ribs. Baby-back ribs are higher up on the pig, closer to the back.
Whichever type of rib you get, the idea for cooking it is the same. You’ll want to coat it in a rub, preferably overnight, and then cook it between 225 and 250 degrees for several hours. During that time, you’ll want to slowly infuse it with smoke (I used hickory) from a smoldering, slow-burning source.
Much of the flavor comes from the rub, a mixture of dry spices. Masters of smoking all have their own secret recipe for a rub, but in general, you need salt, brown sugar, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder and any other spice you care to add.
When my ribs were nearly done, I hit them with a vanilla-brown sugar glaze. You don’t have to, of course, but why would you not want to coat ribs with a vanilla-brown sugar glaze?
I spread some of the leftover glaze on buttered toast, incidentally, and it was heavenly. And I have no doubt that it would be equally good over ice cream.
The recipe for this glaze, as for the whole dish, is from Steven Raichlen’s brand-new book, “Project Smoke.” Raichlen is the undisputed master of the grill; his 27 cookbooks include 10 devoted specifically to grilling. Of all his recipes that I have tried, I have never encountered one that failed to impress.
And most were not just impressive, they were superb, worthy of serving to guests. It’s not just that he apparently understands every possible element of grilling and smoking, it’s that he also intuitively knows what kind of flavor combinations go best with grilled food. A vanilla-brown sugar glaze, for instance.
Or, for that matter, Asian spices to go with grilled lamb. I next made Raichlen’s Smoke-Braised Lamb Shanks With Asian Seasonings, and its flavor was even more satisfyingly complex than the ribs.
This recipe is genius. You begin with lamb shanks, which, after a long cook at low temperature, are rich, meaty and meltingly tender. But these aren’t cooked in the smoker’s dry heat alone; while they smoke, they also simmer in a broth of soy sauce, sesame oil, orange peel, rice wine or sherry, brown sugar, star anise and cinnamon sticks.
The resulting flavor is unlike any you have ever had. The meaty ribs are lightly sweetened with the braising sauce and scented with the perfumes of cinnamon and anise. Once you’ve made it, you can’t wait to make it again.
Because Raichlen is so successful at picking sauces to go with smoked or grilled meat, I indulged in a third selection from his new book, Smoked Chicken With Horseradish Sauce. Here, you begin by smoking a chicken, which is easy to do and relatively quick.
It is also unfailingly delicious. Poultry in general takes well to smoke; think of a smoked turkey leg or, even better, a tea-smoked duck. Chicken can be bland, or at least simple in taste, but smoke adds a most welcome touch of complexity. It also makes the skin wonderfully crispy.
As a foil to the unadorned flavor of smoke, Raichlen serves this chicken with a sauce made from mayonnaise and cider vinegar, with additional bite from prepared horseradish.
Finally, I smoked a prime rib roast with a recipe from my colleague Gary Hairlson, who is himself something of a Steven Raichlen. This recipe was perhaps the easiest of all.
Unlike the lamb shanks and pork ribs, a prime rib roast is not a tough piece of meat that needs a long exposure to a low temperature. A prime rib roast is essentially a very thick ribeye steak. It does not need low, slow cooking to make it tender; it is already blissfully tender enough as it is.
So I just put Gary’s rub on it and cooked it over indirect heat in my grill. Indirect heat turns your grill into an oven, but with tastier results; you put the fire on one side and the meat on the other so it can cook for a while without burning. For the smoke, I placed a chunk of soaked wood on the coals, creating just the right amount of hickory smoke.
I usually grill a standing rib roast – it’s the same cut of meat, with bones – for special occasions, such as Christmas and New Year’s Eve. And this is what I learned: The only thing better than a rib roast cooked over a fire is a rib roast smoked over a fire.
ST. LOUIS RIBS WITH VANILLA-BROWN SUGAR GLAZE
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
4 racks of St. Louis-cut ribs, 2 1/2 to 3 pounds each
3/4 cup brown sugar, divided
1/4 cup sweet paprika
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1 1/2 tablespoons cracked or coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon pure chile powder (such as ancho)
1/2 tablespoon ground cumin
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 to 4 tablespoons water
Remove the membranes from the ribs if your butcher has not done so for you.
Combine 1/4 cup of the brown sugar, paprika, garlic powder, salt, pepper, onion powder, chile powder and cumin in a mixing bowl and mix well. Break up lumps of brown sugar, if any, with your fingers.
Sprinkle both sides of ribs with the rub, rubbing it into the meat. Use enough rub to coat the ribs; store any excess for up to several weeks in a sealed jar away from heat or light. Cover the ribs with plastic wrap and cure overnight in the refrigerator; this step is optional, but preferable.
Set up your smoker according to manufacturer’s instructions and preheat to 225 to 250 degrees. Add the wood as specified by the manufacturer.
Place the ribs directly on the rack in the smoker, rounded (convex) side up. Smoke the ribs until they’re very tender and the meat has shrunk back from the end of the bones by 1/4 to 1/2 inch, about 3 1/2 to 4 hours. You should be able to pull the individual ribs apart with your fingers.
Meanwhile, make the glaze: Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the remaining 1/2 cup brown sugar, honey, vanilla and 3 tablespoons water. Bring to a boil, stirring well, until the sugar has melted and the ingredients are well combined, 5 minutes. The glaze should be thick but pourable; add water if needed. Brush the ribs all over with the glaze 5 minutes before the end of cooking. Before serving, brush the ribs with glaze a second time and serve the glaze on the side.
Per serving (based on 8): 1,201 calories; 95 g fat; 32 g saturated fat; 314 mg cholesterol; 58 g protein; 30 g carbohydrate; 25 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 1,728 mg sodium; 95 mg calcium.
Adapted from “Project Smoke” by Steven Raichlen.
SMOKED-BRAISED LAMB SHANKS WITH ASIAN SEASONINGS
Yield: 2 servings
2 lamb shanks, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds each
1 to 2 cups water
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup rice wine (shaoxing), sake or sherry
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons Asian (dark) sesame oil
4 strips orange or tangerine zest, 1/2 inch by 1 1/2 inches
3 whole star anise, or 1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
2 cinnamon sticks, 3 inches long
Using a sharp, slender instrument such as the probe of an instant-read thermometer, pierce each shank all over, about 20 times. Place the shanks in a large aluminum foil pan.
Place the water, soy sauce, rice wine, brown sugar and sesame oil in a bowl and whisk until the sugar dissolves. Add the orange zest, star anise and cinnamon sticks. Pour over the lamb.
Meanwhile, set up your smoker according to the manufacturer’s instructions and preheat to 225 to 250 degrees. Add the wood as specified by the manufacturer.
Place foil pan containing the lamb and its braising liquid in the smoker. Smoke until the lamb is dark brown and very tender, 8 to 10 hours. Turn the shanks with tongs every 30 minutes so they brown evenly. Add water as needed (1 to 2 cups) to keep the liquid level over 1/2 inch. Try not to add any water during the last 30 minutes or so to avoid diluting the sauce. Add fuel and wood as needed.
When ready, the lamb will have shrunk back from the end of the bone and will be tender enough to pull apart with your fingers. The internal temperature on a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the shank, but not touching the bone, will be 195 degrees.
Transfer the lamb to a platter or plates. Skim any visible fat off the braising liquid and strain it over the shanks as a sauce.
Per serving (using all the sauce): 699 calories; 31 g fat; 7 g saturated fat; 78 mg cholesterol; 25 g protein; 62 g carbohydrate; 62 g sugar; no fiber; 5,096 mg sodium; 68 mg calcium.
Recipe from “Project Smoke” by Steven Raichlen.
SMOKED CHICKEN WITH HORSERADISH DIP
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
2 chickens, 3 1/2 to 4 pounds each
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and pepper
2 cups mayonnaise
1 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup freshly grated horseradish or prepared white horseradish
1 to 2 teaspoons of your favorite hot sauce
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/4 cup bacon fat or 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, melted
Remove the backbone from the chickens (cut on both sides with poultry shears or a knife), then cut each bird through the breastbone to create two halves. Rinse under cold water and blot dry with paper towels. Generously season both sides with salt and pepper. Clean the sink to avoid cross-contamination.
Make the horseradish dip: Place the mayonnaise, vinegar, horseradish, hot sauce, lemon zest, 2 teaspoons salt and 2 teaspoons pepper in a deep bowl and whisk until smooth. Refrigerate until serving.
Set up your smoker according to the manufacturer’s instructions and preheat to 225 to 250 degrees. Add the wood as specified by the manufacturer.
Arrange the chicken halves skin side up in the smoker. Smoke for 1 hour. Brush the chicken halves with bacon fat or butter. Continue smoking until the skin is bronzed and the meat is cooked and tender, 165 to 170 degrees on a thermometer inserted into a thigh, 1 to 1 1/2 hours more.
Pour half of the dip onto a deep platter. Place the chicken halves, skin side up, on top and let steep in the sauce for 3 minutes. Serve the remaining sauce on the side.
Per serving (based on 6 and using all sauce): 1,231 calories; 97 g fat; 21 g saturated fat; 270 mg cholesterol; 76 g protein; 9 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 552 mg sodium; 63 mg calcium.
Recipe from “Project Smoke” by Steven Raichlen.
SMOKED PRIME RIB ROAST
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 (3-pound) prime rib roast
2 tablespoons Dijon, grainy or yellow mustard
2 tablespoons kosher salt, sea salt or table salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons dried rosemary
1/2 tablespoon crushed red pepper, optional
1 to 2 tablespoons coarsely ground or cracked black peppercorns
1/2 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
A night or two before serving, rinse the roast and pat dry. Clean your sink to prevent cross-contamination. Cut diagonal slices into the fat cap to make diamond patterns. Coat the entire roast with mustard. Mix together the salt, brown sugar, paprika, chili powder, oregano, rosemary, optional crushed red pepper, peppercorns, cumin, garlic powder and onion powder; rub this mixture into the meat (any remaining mixture may be stored away from light or heat in a sealed glass jar). Cover meat in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 to 2 days.
Set up a grill for indirect heat (place hot coals or turn on gas on one side only). Add a chunk or a handful of chips of soaked hardwood, such as hickory, to the fire. Place the meat on the part of the grill away from the heat, and cover. Open the top vents about 1/3 of the way.
Cook until desired doneness; begin checking temperature after 1 hour. A meat thermometer stuck into the middle of the meat will register about 115 degrees for rare, 120 degrees for medium-rare, 125 degrees for medium and about 135 for well-done (the meat will continue to cook after it is removed from the grill at these temperatures and will heat up to the desired doneness). Allow meat to rest at least 5 minutes before serving.
Per serving (based on 8): 559 calories; 43 g fat; 18 g saturated fat; 110 mg cholesterol; 30 g protein; 12 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 1,618 mg sodium; 63 mg calcium.
Recipe by Gary Hairlson