The perks of being a food writer don’t generally run to the glamorous. You get to work at home, at any hour, in your underwear. You don’t have to worry that your coworkers notice that you’re wearing the same jeans for the fourth day. You can write off your chicken feed.
Every now and then, though, somebody cares enough about what you write to invite you on a trip. The purpose is to introduce you to a place or product in the hopes that you’ll write about it. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to go to a salmon farm in British Columbia, a food festival in Reykjavik, and a guest lodge in Yellowstone.
You can’t do it in your underwear but, hey, I can adjust.
I must be living right, because the people at Kingsford charcoal have invited me to Kingsford University, with its curriculum of barbecue education, not once, not twice, but four – count ‘em, four! – times.
Part of the reason they keep inviting me back, I suspect, is that I’m a true believer. I used to think charcoal was just charcoal – I mean, really, how different can the various brands be? But all it takes is a line of grills, each with a different kind of charcoal, to see that the difference is remarkable. If you think I’m just drinking the corporate Kool-Aid, try it for yourself.
This time, Kingsford University was in Las Vegas (Kingsford is a NASCAR sponsor, and they brought us to the track). I was there with about twenty other writers from around the country, and we spent a couple of days with people who really know grills, food, and how to bring them together.
Chief among them is Chris Lilly. If you follow the competition barbecue circuit, you know Chris because he wins all the time. If you don’t, but you’ve been to Decatur, Alabama, you know him because he’s the proprietor of Big Bob Gibson’s, a barbecue joint good enough that Kevin, when he was driving across the country back in January, planned his route via Decatur.
Competition barbecue is to my barbecue what those NASCAR cars are to my pick-up truck. The pros use huge, expensive, elaborate cookers that have lots of ways to regulate smoke, temperature, and airflow – and cost tens of thousands of dollars. We use a regular Weber kettle grill, and we think we’re all that because we retro-fitted it with a thermometer. Sometimes, if we’re going really high-tech, we accessorize with an aluminum roasting pan with holes cut in it.
So what if we don’t have a thirty-thousand dollar trailer with three kinds of cookers and a giant TV? (The one we used was made by two crazy Mexican barbecue enthusiasts named George and Victor, the brain trust behind Pitmaker.) The principle is the same. You need heat, either direct or indirect, and sometimes you need smoke. The rest is temperature, humidity, and timing.
Chris took us through some of the standards, like brisket and ribs, but what he really focused on was what wasn’t standard. We were thinking outside the meat cooler. Grilled lemonade, anyone?
Marcus Wang, from Kingsford, started with a pan of honey with a couple of sprigs of rosemary in it. This he put on the grill to warm and infuse while he tackled a big box full of lemons. He sliced them in half, dipped them in sugar, and put them on the grill. He left them there just long enough to soften and char just a bit, and then he took them off and squeezed them.
He poured the juice over ice to both chill and dilute it, and sweetened it with the rosemary honey. It was genius. Also delicious, either by itself or as the base of a cocktail. (The people from Four Roses bourbon were there, and they didn’t have much trouble convincing us that bourbon and grilled lemonade were a fortuitous combination.)
Chris made a Tex-Mex style lunch where just about every element, including the guacamole, came off the grill. I think I ate a whole jar of the grilled pickles all by myself. The pico de gallo with grilled tomatoes, peppers, and onions was great with my single favorite dish of the weekend: Loaf-Pan Chicken.
It’s a simple recipe from Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book. Take a chicken, rub it with an applesauce/Worcestershire mixture in about a 4:1 ratio. Then rub it again, with the dry rub you like with chicken – just make sure it has sugar and salt. Paprika’s good, too.
Put the chicken in a standard loaf pan, breast side up. Put it on a grill over indirect heat, at about 300 degrees. (You can add wood chips for smoke, or not, depending on your preference.) Cook until it’s done (about 165 degrees, or when the leg twists fairly easily), about 2 ½ hours.
The combination of the dry heat from the charcoal and the liquid that collect in the pan makes for a moist, fall-of-the-bone bird. I’m going to try putting chopped collards in the bottom of the pan, the way I do for my clay pot chicken.
Kevin and I will be doing a lot of outdoor cooking this season, and we’ll be using Kingsford’s newly launched site, www.grilling.com, for reference. It’s got some of Chris’s recipes along with the rundown on burgers, ribs, vegetables, pork, and just about anything else you’ve ever considered grilling or smoking. I’ll also be turning to the site of my new friend Meathead, of Amazing Ribs. He’s been experimenting, backyard-style, with grilling and smoking for many years, and he’s funny to boot.
As the weather warms, Kevin and I will be playing around with charcoal, wood, and some of the ideas I picked up over the weekend. And, operating under the principle that what happens in Vegas should be disseminated far and wide, I’ll keep you posted.
Meanwhile, I’m on my way home, and I just can’t wait to get out of these clothes.