Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Rub of it is...

I hear all the time "variety is the spice of life" but I disagree; I think SPICE is the spice of life.  I have a pantry full of spices and a windowsill of herbs, and they add a great amount of flavor to almost anything.  You’d be amazed how a few spices and herbs can turn a bland piece of chicken or pork into something magical.

My love affair with spices and herbs came about during chemo which severely dulls your sense of taste.  I couldn't taste the difference between an apple and a potato.  I did some research on nutrition for cancer patients and discovered that just a tiny bit of salt brought out the natural flavors of the apple and actually allowed me to taste things again.  Without getting into too much detail, researchers have found that salt opens up the taste buds.  If you’ve ever thought that people salting watermelon or other fruits was crazy give it a try.  Now some of you with borderline high blood pressure (like me) may wait till after the food is cooked to add salt thinking you'll use less, DON'T DO IT.  By properly seasoning food at all stages of the cooking process you actually use less than by adding it at the end after the food is cooked.  If you want additional salt and pepper at my house you have to ask for it, there aren’t any shakers on my table.  I will bring them out if requested but the quickest way to not get a return invite to dinner is dumping a bunch of salt on my carefully prepared food without even tasting it first (Rule #3).  One last thing about salt...throw out that iodized stuff we all grew up with, use a good kosher or sea salt and you’ll taste a world of difference, just decrease the amount you use by about 1/3 as it doesn’t take as much to add good flavor.

So now that we've covered salt let's talk about spices in general.  Whenever you can, buy whole spices in seed form, not already ground.  You can store whole spices almost indefinitely but once they are ground the essential oils that give them their flavor start to degrade.  Along that subject, just for fun go look at the bottom of your spices, check out the expiration date....I think you'll be surprised at how many of your spices are expired, whoever has the oldest (verifiable, no cheating) spice gets bumped to the top on the dinner invite list.  To grind whole spices I'll usually use a coffee grinder but if it's been a long day and I need to work out some aggression I'll pull out the mortar and pestle and just pound ‘em into powder.

So here are some of my favorite spices and herbs that I always have on hand.  If you have them in your spice rack and they’re not expired open ‘em up, take a whiff and see if they remind you of any dishes, just be careful with the red pepper, you don't want that up your me.

Cumin Seed
Smoked Paprika
Hungarian Paprika
Mustard Seed
Chile Powder
Bay Leaf
Crushed Red Pepper
Allspice Berries

If you've been to our house for one of our 40 person dinners you know that my pulled pork is a staple for every party we have.  There is a couple of reasons for this; no matter how much I make (last time was 15 lbs) it always disappears before any other main dish, even steak.  Second, I love to make it; there's nothing like getting started early in the morning with a cup of coffee and finishing it early in the evening with a glass of bourbon.  Another reason is because I can usually pick up pork shoulder for around $1.50/lb. which makes it ideal for large groups without breaking the bank.  How BBQ places can get away with charging $15-$20/lb. for pulled pork is beyond me.  The final reason is that it gives me a good excuse to use my friends as guinea pigs and tweak my BBQ sauce recipe.  People ask what the secret is to good BBQ pork and it’s pretty simple…it’s the rub.  I’ve tweaked mine many times and I encourage you to do the same but here’s the basic formula I started out with.

½ c. table sugar
½ c. light brown sugar
½ c. dark brown sugar
¼ c. smoked paprika
¼ c. Hungarian paprika
4 T black peppercorns
3 T mustard seed
2 T onion powder
2 T garlic powder
1 t whole allspice
1 t cumin seed
1 t red pepper flakes
1 t chile powder

Grind black peppercorn, mustard seed, allspice, cumin seed, and red pepper flakes in spice grinder or with mortar and pestle, then mix rest of ingredients together and store in an airtight jar for up to 3 months.  I don’t put salt in the rub so I have more flexibility to brine or not brine.  Make sure if you don’t brine you don’t forget the salt.  I use this rub on both pork and chicken. I usually put it on the day before after coating the meat in olive oil (helps penetration) and wrap tightly with plastic wrap to let it permeate the meat.

Early the next day I set up the grill with a smoker box over the ‘ON’ burners and I throw the butts on the grill with no heat underneath at around 200-225 degrees for 10-12 hours or until the internal temperature gets to 190 degrees.  Make sure you check the smoker box every hour or so and replenish with wood as necessary, I prefer hickory but you can use apple or even mesquite.  Once it gets to 190 I wrap it in aluminum foil and stuff it in a cooler lined with towels for 1-3 hours then shred using two forks or chop it like they do in Georgia with two cleavers, serve with sauce on the side, you don’t want to mask the flavors of all your hard work, the meat is the star here.
And there you have it, yummy delicious pulled pork.

Sometimes when I'm not sure what I want to make for dinner I'll just go in the pantry and smell the spices until  I get some inspiration, maybe it's garlic so I make pasta, maybe chile powder so I'll make tacos or empanadas. The smell of smoked paprika ALWAYS makes me think chicken or pork.  So next time you're not sure just go to your spice rack and smell the spice of life until something pops out at you.

Luckily Ber has never caught me in the pantry sniffing containers of spices...I'm afraid she might rethink that 'I do' comment.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How it started

I guess I should start at the beginning, but actually I’m gonna jump around all over the place because it makes more sense.  Back in ’99 when my wife, Amber (or Ber, as I call her), and I first met, I used to joke that sleeping and eating were a waste of time and money…I have since retracted that statement. 

In June of 2007 I had a problem…and knew it.  I can use WebMD, I know how it works.  I had narrowed it down to about 3 things, one being cancer.  However, what I didn’t know was how to tell my friends, my family, and my wife.  I agonized for months, I was scared, I was depressed, and I was stupid for waiting.  Finally, in October I could no longer hide my symptoms from her and had no choice but to tell Ber.  I went to my doctor who sent me to a CAT scan the following day.  The two days waiting on the results were some of the longest of my life.  One of the scariest things ever was hearing the doctor say ”yep, it’s cancer”.  Although I was already 99% sure it was, those words just leveled me.   I cried in the hospital parking lot for a good half hour.  Soon after I had my first of 4 surgeries intermingled with 3 months of chemotherapy.    Before cancer I had been 135 pounds for close to 20 years.  During chemo I went down to 120lbs.  Shortly after I finished the chemo treatments, I gained 45 pounds.  So, how’d that happen?

I’m glad you asked…Cancer made me fat!

Chemo, for those of you that don’t know is a lot better than it used to be, but it’s still awful.  Years after, I still have occasional bouts of what Ber calls ‘morning sickness.’  I wake up sick to my stomach because of the numerous poisons (that’s what chemo is) that can stay in your system for up to 7 years.   Nausea, lack of appetite, and a loss of the taste buds are just the beginning - but this is a food blog so we’ll stick with that subject.  I didn’t really experience a huge loss of appetite like some patients.  My problem was even when I wanted to; I couldn’t eat anything that didn’t taste like metal.  That’s attributed to one of the ‘cocktail’ drugs I was given; cisplatin.  I remember calling Ber at work in tears because I was starving and trying to boil an egg to eat and they kept breaking.  That’s when she told me you can’t throw an egg in water that’s already boiling (dozen eggs down the drain).  So here I was, hungry, and can’t find anything to eat that doesn’t repulse me…that’s when I started experimenting with different foods and spices and eventually  it hit me…I love cooking.  The art of making something out of nothing is nothing short of spectacular.

Food has always been a huge part of my life I just never realized it until chemo.  I remember Mom taking us to Sip’n’Dip in the mall and getting a chicken sandwich with a sweet BBQ sauce and lemonade that seemed to be the best thing ever.   I remember her taking my sister and me to Mister Donuts after school and getting this yummy strawberry ├ęclair (I haven’t tasted anything that good since it closed down).  I remember Poncho’s taco sauce, Los Portales chips, and so many other restaurants from my childhood that I no longer have access to.  I remember the smell of shelled peanuts roasted on a cast-iron stove that always greeted me at my grandfather’s farm in Mississippi or the countless holidays spent at my Uncle Charlie’s where there was always such a family feast.  I remember taking the motorcycles with my racing buddies to eat burgers in Henderson, ribs in Dyersburg, or anything at Corky’s or Rendezvous in Memphis.  I remember spending many a night with my friend and mentor Joe over steaks at Lone Star.   For our first date, Ber and I talked over fondue at Melting Pot which has become our anniversary tradition.   There are so many memories and friendships shared over food that I’m ashamed I took for granted.

By far my fondest memories though were supper with my family, always at the table, no TV or distractions (Rule #2), just quality time with people you love.  Mom was by no means a classically trained chef; no lobster or steak au’ poivre.  What Mom did, and did very well, was comfort food: Sheppard’s pie, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, the best stew you’ve ever had…just tons of delicious good stuff. I remember walking in the house every night and the smells and aromas of love filled my nose.  That’s good food.

 When Ber and I left Tennessee and moved to Las Vegas to start our new life, Mom handed me a box filled with all her recipes…they’re good and I use them frequently but somehow it’s just not the same.  What I have realized is that it wasn’t necessarily the food, but rather the company it is shared with. It’s spending time with those that will always be there for you. Fantastic tasting food is great but it’s the people you share it with that matter.   I enjoy spending 12 hours making smoked pulled pork on the grill, but it’s meaningless without friends and family. 

So there’s the beginning. The rest is going to be about things I make, why I make it, and much more upbeat.  I encourage you to take the ideas and play with them, make them your own, add smoked paprika, add saffron, or add escargot, whatever floats your boat…experiment. 

But most importantly…don’t forget to share it with those you care about and make sure you have us over for dinner sometime.