One pass-time my wife and I enjoy that the economy has been chipping away at, much to my chagrin, is the Art and Wine Festivals that seemed to be so prevalent in my area, not so long ago. Seems the cost of permits and booths is up, attendance is down and discretionary income has fallen to the same rate as your job security and 401k balance!
Nonetheless, we did find one locally, this past weekend, where we didn't have to wear a silly bracelet and could by drinks with cash instead of tickets. That means at least two fewer lines to stand in when it's 90 degrees outside! This one was held in a small town, nearby, where they could reasonably block off the street for two blocks, adjacent to some greenery, where the bandstand was set up, playing "classic rock", which I guess made us feel like classics, instead of "old". It does kind of make me wonder what my grown kids will be listening to at fairs, thirty years from now. Probably the same "classic rock"!
Since we've been doing art fairs for some number of years, we always like to look for some of our favorite artists, photographers, toe ring, wood carving, pottery, food, oil and spice purveyors because it's kind of like bumping into old friends on the street. You can linger and chat and catch up, or beat a hasty retreat, without anyone taking offense! I, personally, like to discover new trends or unique artistry and am quite comfortable talking about the different aspects of light, shading, grain, heft, smell, taste, etc., without ever worrying about the guilt of slinking away. The way I figure it, the artists, et al., are bored and want to share, hopefully to make a sale, and usually, if they're occupied talking to me, others don't feel as shy wandering in, looking around and listening in on the conversation.
While the wife was off smelling candles and tasting dipping sauces, I happened upon a vendor I hadn't seen before: The Smokestack Co. - Culinary Seasoning Smoke. Being the barbecue guy that I am, I was curious about their smoke-in-a-can concept. Truth is, everybody who grills and barbecues, whether it's gas or wood, electric or charcoal, loves to get some smokey richness in their meat, but it truly is a pain in the butt to achieve. You can soak chips and put them on your coals, but they burst into flames after the water has steamed off, or you can foil pouch and play around with where to put the pouch in your gas grill, but if you haven't figured out how to grill indirect on gas yet, you're not going to figure out smoke! You can use lump mesquite charcoal or cedar planks, but those are pretty heavy flavors and too much will ruin even a good rack of ribs.
The concept behind this seemed simple enough and appealed to the how-come-reverse-engineering side of me. I always love it when a product fits in with my own concept of what was generally wrong to begin with and how it can logically be fixed. Doesn't mean I'm going to fix it...but I can appreciate that someone else did! Most people don't like to fuss. Most people don't know how to get wood to smoke, not burn. Most people don't want to store different types of wood and ruin meals playing with flavors. Most people couldn't care less about the mechanics of grilling, they just want the food to taste great! That's who Brant at Smokestack caters to: most people!
Brant took all the problems out and condensed the result into small cylinders with a can on top. The cylinders contain wood chips: either hickory, alder, mesquite or applewood. The chips are then mixed with a couple of complementary herbs and spices, like rosemary and dill, thyme and fennel, oregano and celery seed, or sage and ginger, and each has some vintage oak in it as an enhancer. The top of each cylinder has a can, about two inches deep, with a removable lid and a small hole in the top. Put the wood chips of choice in the can, set it on or near the heat source, and leave it alone. No water, no fussing.
Well, it all seems logical, I told him. Eliminate the oxygen in the can and the chips will smolder, like tobacco in a water pipe, and the smoke will puff out the hole for about twenty to forty minutes, depending on the heat, permeating the meat. So, I told him I was a blogger and had the biggest barbecue group on LinkedIn (Gourmet BBQ), and if it worked like he said, I'd give him some free publicity.
Well...apparently it worked, 'cuz here I am writing about it (and, no, he didn't give it to me for free!) We came home from the fair and were planning on grilled lamb chops for five. Lamb can be a little finicky and if you don't get it right (which usually means you overcooked it) it can taste a little gamy. That's why Zinfandel goes so well with it. So, my lovely offered to run off to the store and I told her what we needed: three chops per person, Greek salad makings, tzsaziki, white rice and some bread for our new chipotle oil dipping sauce, also from the fair.
She returned with some beautiful lamb, prepackaged, so I suspect it was from New Zealand. Four packages of four perfectly trimmed, one inch thick chops. I like to prepare them simply, with olive oil and some Mediterranean sea salt. We also have a rosemary bush, so I cut off some of the fresher sprigs and laid those across the top. You can burn them for the smoke, but it's tedious and short-lived, so I just prefer to set the sprigs on top of the meat while it's grilling. I prepared my fire, then set my can of applewood smoke on top of the grill, above the coals. I figure one can should do it, and after about five minutes, smoke was burping out of the top hole. I closed my barbecue's vent holes to hold as much of the smoke in the grill as I could.
Lamb is dense and fatty, so you're better off grilling it indirect, if you don't want an inferno on your hands. I'm a charcoal guy, so I like my fire at about 300 degrees for this and flip the chops a couple of times, rearranging them so that they've all had equal time and distance (not far) from the coals. I carefully replaced the rosemary sprigs on top of the meat, after each flip. About twenty-five minutes in, I figured we were ready: firm on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside. A perfect medium rare. I threw the rosemary sprigs directly over the heat and they gave me one last burst of fire and smoke and then we hit the table.
It's outdoor dining season in my yard, so with the sun setting, the fountain burbling and the fire-pit flames lapping at the cooling night air, a hungry gathering of my wife and I, my daughter, her boyfriend and a good friend of mine, whom I feed pretty regularly, sat down to our Mediterranean feast. The lamb was perfect, with just a hint of the applewood, sage and ginger, mixed in with the rosemary. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed. Lamb can be overwhelming, so it may not even have been a fair test, but the Smokestack passed with flying colors. The salad of tomatoes, kalamata olives, red peppers and feta cheese was cool and crisp with tzsaziki on top; lightly seasoned white rice cleansed the palate from the spice of the chipotle oil dipping sauce. The whole meal, like the day itself, was delightful, accompanied by a Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, 'cuz I'm not much of a Zin guy. My daughter's boyfriend, who happens to be a sous chef at Maggiano's, was pleased enough with his first plate to announce without hesitation that, he was goin' for full-on seconds!
So, if you want the flavor of smoked meats off your grill, but don't want to deal with all of the fuss, check out The Smokestack Co. and find a retailer or download an order form and fax it in. Brant will set you up with a gift pack of all four seasoned woods for $25, and each cylinder will do up to eight barbecues, bringing you in at about sixty cents a pop. Great concept, great product, great price. Like I always say, come gift givin' time, you can't go wrong with barbecue stuff or wine. Go ahead...prove me wrong!