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.


  1. Already, my favorite part about this blog is how clearly your own voice comes through in your writing. I love how you give a background before going right into your recipe. As someone not that fond of all day cooking, I normally find food blogs to be a bit on the boring side. Not true for this at all.

    Love it, love it, love it. Can't wait for the next one... :)

    (Oh, and unfortunately, I've just recently started cooking more often... so my spices are all up to date... still want an invite!!!)

  2. LOL good thing you're already a regular, the only one who has eaten here more often is Ber

  3. I think you got the "don't salt it before you at least taste it" from drives me absolutely crazy when people do that. I'm a big believer in enjoying prepared meals the way the one preparing the meals intends it to be enjoyed. :)  Great blog, baby!!!  I'm so very proud. ...and I don't think I would reconsider my 'I do' but I would probably consider insisting on therapy...  ;)

  4. Excellent article! As a certified salt-o-holic, I completely agree with kosher, I refuse to let that iodized stuff in my house. Also had some amazing Hawaiian sea salt, very tasty. I am continually amazed how a pinch of salt can enhance the flavour of pretty much everything.

    Oh and, dried basil from 1994.....I win!! The kicker is, you'll have to be able to read Japanese to verify it. Thank god we're in town next weekend so I can cash in on the dinner invite:)

    P.S. I HATE dried basil- it's fresh or nothing!

  5. I think we have a winnah!!!

    And really '94??

  6. Ber, I might have stolen that from you but it's still Rule #3 and I'm takin credit

    Shite, can everyone see this?

  7. Thanks to you,Rob, My spice cabinet is cleaned out and organized now. I also found crushed basil from 1996!!! OUCH!! I know that doesn't beat 1994, but I can't believe how many spices I had that were expired! Thanks!

  8. In all honesty, it was at the padres house in a box they forgot about when we moved back from Japan. I completely agree with going through all spices, canned goods and boxed items frequently to make sure everything is fresh. Rob- can't wait till we're in the same city and you and G can have a cook-off, Ber and I will drink and provide commentary:)

  9. I love reading your blogs Rob. Its like I'm having a conversation with you. :)

    So...when do I get to come over for dinner? ;)

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    1. This is AWESOME ROB! YOURE THE BEST!! YAY!!! GOOD BBQ! I can't wait to cook it and eat it with some Vinegar Slaw and Baked Beans!! I'm EXCITED!! :)