Summertime in my middle class childhood always meant shutting the oven down for three months and cooking mostly outside on the grill. My dad can barely boil water without screwing it up, and is awkward at best in the kitchen (which is why my mom has always insisted that he KEEP OUT.) But put that man outside in front of a grill and he turns into the BBQ master. In a Manistee Throw down, he’d kick Bobby Flay’s ass right back to New York City.
At his house in Florida, he even built his own fire pit in the back yard so he can cook over a wood fire. Of course if you’re gonna have your own fire pit, you have to fashion your own grill to go with it, which he has also done. A metal pole rises out of the pit and an industrial strength grate, about the heft of a sewer grate, attaches to the pole from an arm and an adjustable metal ring. I’m not nearly as adventurous, so I’ve settled for a really good charcoal grill. I hate cooking with propane.
My dad and I also share a passion for smoke cooking. Growing up in a commercial fishing community, we were part of the smoked fish capital of Upnorth Michigan. Many of the charter boat captains ran smoke houses on the side to earn extra money. Some guys ran smoke houses for a living. Not to be outdone, my dad, who does everything over the top, created his own smoke house right in our back yard. He picked up and old refrigerator from the junk yard, gutted it out, bore a four inch hole in the back, retrofitted it with extra metal shelves, and the Barnett Smokerator was born.
Although my parents couldn’t make it down to Flint this weekend, I channeled my father’s outdoor cooking prowess as I prepared a backyard BBQ for about two dozen of our friends. Like my dad, I like to go big, be different, and find unique ways to riff on an old American Classic. Instead of the traditional hotdogs, potato salad, coleslaw, and baked beans, I made recipes that turned all that on its head. My menu was Bratwurst, smoked, then grilled; spicy sweet potato salad, Alton Brown’s Asian Slaw, and Cuban Black Beans.
The adventure started when I pulled the smoker out of the garage. It was covered with dust and cobwebs because I hadn’t used it in at least six months. I think the last time I used it was to smoke a Thanksgiving Turkey which, by the way, is on par with Tator Tot Casserole. When I pulled my Brinkmann, two grate, electric smoker, into the light of the driveway, I was horrified at what I saw. Right in the middle of the lava rocks was a wad of shredded newspaper, and nestled in the middle of it was a giant mouse—with three babies!
After Alexis got a good look at them and ran off, I tipped the whole thing over in the underbrush to get them out. The mother ran off, and we were left staring at three little lumps of grey clay with tails and ears.
“Should we save them?" Philip asked.
“How the hell are we going to do that?”
Without missing a beat, he simply said, “We’ll tell them about Jesus Christ.”
By the time I stopped laughing, the little buggers had already burrowed into the brush, so we considered them officially “saved” and began sanitizing and sterilizing the smoker. I had to get new lava rocks, scrub it with scalding bleach-water, and dry it with my hand blowtorch, but in the end, it actually looked like a whole new smoker.
And it did a fantastic job cooking the bratwurst. For those of you not familiar with smoke cooking, it’s really quite easy. I soak chunks of wood in water for several hours, wrap them in aluminum foil, and lay them directly on top of the lava rocks. Above the heat source is a pan about three inches deep that I fill with water. Above that are the two grates that I place the meat on. The rest is just a matter of putting the lid on, plugging it in, and leaving it alone. Since I was going to finish the brats on the grill, I only cooked them for an hour, just long enough to get a deep smoky flavor. Then I put a nice char on them over the charcoal grill, and the result was a pile of smoke-grilled sausages that were gone within minutes.
I thought about writing up the recipes and sharing them with you, but since I pilfered them from the internet, I’ll just give you the links. These side dishes take some time to prep, and in the case of the Cuban Black Beans they needed almost four hours to cook on the stovetop, so if you try this meal, and you definitely should, leave yourself plenty of time to make it. I did it in two days.
Spicy Sweet Potato Salad: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Spicy-Sweet-Potato-Salad/Detail.aspx
Alton Brown’s Asian Slaw: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/asian-slaw-recipe/index.html
Cuban Black Beans: http://www.cooks.com/rec/view/0,1950,144182-255196,00.html