Tuesday, January 1, 2013


I have found a silver lining in colds: staying home to cook. 

This past week I’ve been laid low with a respiratory infection. While I’ve no compunction about going to the shop to mail already-packaged bread mixes, I draw the line at making fresh blend. No one wants my viruses. Therefore, three days out of the past four I’ve never left my house, electing instead to have fun with Christmas presents: an immersion blender and a stovetop smoker.
Leslie and the Christmas Tree

Both items were given me by my lovely wife, Leslie. The first is the longed-for tool of choice for making mayonnaise, and the second ...... well if truth be told I’d asked for it ‘cause I wanted to make pork ribs and fatback. 

But after Leslie was nice enough to find and buy the smoker, I realized I’d better expand my repertoire. She’s a vegetarian, and if I wanted to create something tasty for us both (sharing, after all, is half the pleasure of cooking) I’d better think beyond pig fat.

A bit of background: I’m crazy for smoked foods. When a BBQ crowd sets up in the picnic area of our lake club and those ribs start simmering upwind, my saliva factory goes off the charts. There’s few treats I enjoy more than smoked salmon, and a layer of oak-fire char on sweet corn is just incomparable. Ergo, I’ve lusted for and worked at smoking foods for years.

A great summertime way of smoking meat is to use a paper shopping bag. Build a small fire on a flat stone, smother the embers with damp hickory and oak shavings, lay a gridwork of green branches atop this, put the meat on the green branches then tent the smoking pyre with a shopping bag. If done carefully, the bag escapes conflagration and the internal temperature is just high enough to keep the meat cooking safely and slowly.

This is a good technique when one has the whole afternoon ahead. I do it when the woods have chanterelles or the lake is a good temperature for doing laps. Make the smoke tent, grab the collecting basket or bathing suit, go off to mushroom land and come back in a couple of hours. If the ribs aren’t done they can be finished on a charcoal fire. If they are done, so much the better. (One hitch: bears. Don’t try this in bear country.)

Bag smoking a rack of ribs in a modern apartment (read: one that has properly functioning smoke detectors and attentive neighbors) is a bad idea. Enter my lust for a stovetop smoker, which I’d read about in my friend Eugenia Bone’s book Well Preserved but which I’d never seen in any food gadget store. 

Leslie managed to track one down in the Chef’s Catalog, and it, as well as an ample supply of Alder, Cherry, Hickory and Oak chips, appeared under the Christmas tree. 

Burnt remnants on the drip pan. Cool-looking
but a misery to clean.
On a whim, the first thing I decided to smoke was butternut squash. Squash aren’t big hits with someone in this house (I happen to love them), so I’m always trying to either disguise one or find myself staring at stale remnants growing mold in the ‘fridge. We were having guests for dinner and I needed a seasonal vegetable course. Well, I thought, why not? If it didn’t work I’d make a bigger salad and pretend that’d been the plan all along.

To hedge my bet I used a familiar disguise: painting squash sections with maple syrup and wrapping them in bacon. As a little extra I tucked dried cherries under the bacon wraps. The smoker puffed fragrant clouds of Alder and I twitched with fear the smoke detector would start wailing, but it never triggered. I let the squash smoke an hour (The smoker instructions say its internal temperature is about 375 F), then peeled back the lid to discover one messy cleanup (maple syrup and bacon fat carbonized on the drip tray) and a load of amazing squash. I’ve never tasted a better vegetable, and was thrilled to watch my guests’ faces as they dug in. Even more impressive was Leslie’s - she ate seconds!

Since then, I’ve smoked potatoes (yum!), onions (so-so) and apples (super-yum! Leave the skin on.) And then I came down with a cold and found myself with extra time on my hands. It was then I decided to make baked beans.

Beans in their foil trencher.
There was no baked beans recipe in the smoker instruction manual. But then there was no winter squash recipe either. I felt pretty confident about winging it, even after I realized the basic structures of the smoker (drip pan, food rack, siding lid) would have to be altered in order to make this casserole-style dish. Luckily I keep a stash of heavy duty aluminum foil in the house. I used some to fashion a trencher that fit the device’s drip pan, making a container for the beans and the liquid they’d stew in. Finally, to expand the range of flavors just a bit, I lay four garlic cloves in the wood chips. 

Baked beans are cooked in a low oven for a long time, and the smoker produced temperatures I’d normally not use. I set the apparatus on a stove flame, per instructions, but after an hour pulled it off and put it into a 300 F oven. I reasoned the wood chips were consumed by that point and the beans were as yet not done. Two or more hours in the oven wouldn’t hurt.

Indeed I could have baked them longer. The flavors were wonderful - kind of like Boston by way of North Carolina - but the legumes were just a bit crunchy.

Ready for the table!
If you love BBQ, smoked foods, unusual twists for root vegetables, or have an abiding lust for meat, I say click on the link for this smoker and buy one today. I plan to keep experimenting with mine, trying out new foods (Venison liver! Bone marrow! Tamales!) and foraged hardwoods (Willow! Birch! Blackberry! Grape!). Someday I’m sure I’ll manage to trigger the building’s smoke detector, and end up with a stern warning from our super. But until then (well, even after then), let the smoke clouds fly.


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