Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sell the Sizzle or the Steak?

Some folks go through life selling the sizzle instead of the steak. Here's why the steak is so much more important than the sizzle.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Building A Whelping Box

I'm very biased about many things. One of my core beliefs that I will not waiver on is that the Labrador Retriever is the best breed of dog. Now, my black lab, Steeler (as seen above), is a family pet but she's much more than that. She's a constant companion and does a great job retrieving the ducks and pheasants my friends and I harvest. She's very understanding and the old adage, "May I be half the man my dog thinks I am," rings true with her.

As it turns out, she's due for her first litter of pups on February 23rd. Now, Steeler is 4 years old. The name Steeler is something I also will not waiver on as I feel they are the best football organization in the history of the NFL. Some folks will make an argument for other teams and a pretty good argument can be made. However, my beliefs are my beliefs and I'll never waiver from them. With this being her first litter of pups, I needed to build a whelping box for her to deliver them in.

There's really not much in the way of building them and I refuse to pay for something that I can build. Additionally, being unemployed limits my opportunities to do any buying of much. But, I was not going to let my current work situation affect the quality of care that Steeler deserves. One of my best friends, Tim, brought up some supplies that he thought would help in my quest of building a functional whelping box for Steeler. (On a side note, if you have a friend like Tim, guard him. They don't come along very often and a great friend is an invaluable gift)

I was really more concerned with function than form on building this box, however, I knew the pups would be spending a lot of time and thought the bigger I could build it, the better for them.

The first step in building the box was basically to frame out the bottom of the box. I wanted this whelping box to be 6' x 6' so it was large enough to accommodate the pups but still small enough that I could fit it into a cramped, heated garage. This time of year the weather is so unpredictable in northern Indiana and I did not want the pups to be born outside.

I started with two 4' x 8' pieces of tongued plywood. I cut the plywood to specifications and joined them together with the tongued end. I secured the two pieces together with some scrap wood so that the plywood would stay joined and then took some scrap pine that was 1" x 12" and boxed in the plywood so that the base of the box looked like this:

After framing it out (you want to make sure there are no sharp objects anywhere on the inside of the box), it's time to add some posts to all four corners as well as to frame out a door. Now, with the sides of the box being 12" high, I'm not afraid of the pups being able to get out of the box for quite some time. However, I plan on fencing this all in as once the weather gets better, I'll move the box and place it outside for the pups to spend some time outdoors. I'll also cover it at that time to keep a beating sun or any other weather off of the pups.

Here is the box with the posts (the posts were basically 1/2" x 3" pieces of wood that were 8' in length. I cut these down to 5'-2" in length as the fence material I had was 4' and with the height of the side walls being 12", this would allow a little length left over.

Once this is done, it's time to fence it all in. This was the hardest part of building the box. I recommend having someone around to help as the fencing can be extremely difficult to handle by yourself. My 10 year old son (Cayden) and 8 year old daughter (Kennadee) helped but really two adults would have made this much easier. It was fun building the box with them and describing how things were going to be happening with Steeler soon, though. I simply used staples (hard-core staples; not your office supply type) to attach the fencing to the posts.

I simply wrapped the fencing all the way around the box and stapled the fencing both to the posts as well as the box to ensure there weren't any openings. The fencing material is simply caging that could be used for a chicken coop. After attaching the last piece of the fencing to the last door post, I simply rolled out more fencing to fit the door opening and attached a handle to the piece of fencing that would act as the door. I then attached a latch to the door allowing it to stay tightly closed when latched.

As I wanted to keep the cost down to a minimum, I decided to use pine shavings as the base to keep it warmer and soft for the pups. I contemplated cedar shavings as I felt that would help keep the odor down some but thought that pine would act better in absorbing puppy messes. I still may get a small bag of cedar to add to help with odors.

The last item I wanted in there was a heat lamp. Now, my garage is heated and with the pups being out of the wind, I'm not really that concerned with the temperature as the dogs will be kept warm by Momma. However, I'm the type that would rather have something and not need it than to need it and not have it. I simply hung the lamp from a hook in the ceiling of my garage.

I don't think this box is the prettiest or the best that's ever been made. I was certainly more worried about function over form. However, I think this whelping box is great for its intended purpose. I am nowhere close to being a construction-type of guy and if I can do it, I believe it can be done by anyone. Now, all I have to do is sit and wait for nature to take its course. There definitely is something about the circle of life that makes this part of the circle extremely exciting.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

You Are The Apple of My Eye..........

Apple can be a very flavorful ingredient to work with. Making your own powder with it is an entirely different beast altogether. However, with a little bit of work, it can be accomplished and can add an exquisite taste. I use this mostly for pork but will also use it on poultry and fish as well.

You'll need a couple of things for this. First off, I recommend any apple that works well with cooking. With some apples, the sugar breaks down much too quickly to be used in cooking. The types of apples I will use with this include Rome Beauty, Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Jonathon and Gala. The types I stay away from for this are Red Delicious and Macintosh. You will also need a decent mandolin slicer. A dehydrator will work really well for this procedure but they can be done in the oven as well.

Once you've selected your apples, peel and core the apples. I don't want any apple skin or seeds in the mixture; just the fruit. After you've done this, I slice the apples at a maximum of 1/8th inch or preferably, 1/16th inch. Once you've sliced the apples, place them in the dehydrator or oven at 135F (if your oven won't go this low, place at the lowest setting and keep the door cracked open a bit). Check them periodically to test their doneness. In the dehydrator, they took about 6 hours to get to where they were dehydrated enough that they would be able to be ground into a powder. In the oven, it may take a bit longer if there is no airflow.

Now that you've gotten the apple slices dehydrated enough, I simply place them in a container (with no lid) and rest for a day or two in the refrigerator. After a day or so, I like to break up the pieces by simply crushing them with my fingers and then throw them into the burr grinder. The apples will come out as a pretty fine powder. You will probably notice a little bit of stickiness in the powder from the sugars of the apple. At this point, I like to add 2% of silicon dioxide (an anti-caking agent) to the powder to keep it flowing pretty freely. I also store this powder in the refrigerator as I feel it helps with the stickiness from the sugars.

Your powder should look something like this when finished:

The clumps of powder break up easily with a little pressure from your fingers or a fork.

That's really all there is to it. Some words of advice when using this powder. If you're planning on using this as part of a rub, it is easy for the apple to get overpowered by other spices. Either make this the largest portion of your rub or compliment it with other spices that are not overpowering. You can also use this as a dusting after the meat or vegetables are finished. You also might want to try adding some brown sugar or a minimal amount of cinnamon when dehydrating the apples. This will add another layer of flavor to compliment the apple and the dish you're creating. Sometimes, I'll also use some lemon zest to really play up the citrus component of this spice.

They say that variety is the spice of life; I say spice is the variety of life. There are many things out there that lend themselves to being used as spices. We're limited only by our imagination.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Who cut the cheese?

This normally pre-adolescent phrase is routinely bellowed from my lungs at all hours of the day. And I know what you're thinking.........but you're wrong. When you live in a house where you do your own smoked foods, sometimes phrases take on a totally different meaning. This is one of those phrases.

I usually know the answer to this question prior to me yelling it out for the entire house (and sometimes, county) to hear. My 8 year old daughter, Kennadee, could teach a thing or two to mice. She's stolen more cheese from my stash than an army of mice could do in a year. I usually try to make her feel bad about it, but only because it makes her hug me and tell me how sorry she is. If for nothing else, it's a way for me to hold on to those few precious moments before she becomes a teenager and discovers there are other men out there besides her dad. But enough of the mushy stuff, this post is about cheese and more to the point, smoking cheese.

I believe that cheese was one of mankind's greatest discoveries. Do you think they knew when they stored their milk in the stomach of goats and sheep that they would turn milk into one of the greatest comfort foods man has ever known? I think not. I also think that out of great tragedy (curdled milk) comes a great discovery (cheese). Sometimes, I think for all of human intelligence, it's good to have something great come out of failure. It keeps us humble. Sometimes, however, it's hard to be humble when you're family adores you for your smoked cheese. I'd love to be known as the type of father who is adored because of who he is and what he's done. However, I'm not that guy. As much as I try, I'll never win the father of the year award for my lovely disposition. Sometimes, you've got to forget about your weaknesses and play to your strengths. It's even better when your strengths (smoked cheese) play to other's weaknesses (smoked cheese). And that, in my opinion, is one of the greatest equalizing factors of life. My wife says I ramble on a lot and maybe I do. However, sometimes the greatest things in life are not the destination but the journey that got you there. If you haven't figured it out yet or are reading my ramblings for the first time, I'm more into the journey than the destination. Smoking cheese is about both the journey and the destination.

So, you want to smoke some cheese? I try to do this at least 10 times per year as the cheese usually doesn't last very long in the house and it's also a great gift to give or to bring along for a party. The type of cheese usually doesn't matter. Cheese, in and of itself, is a wonderful comfort food. Add smoke to the equation and you take cheese to the next level. Smoking cheese is a very simple task to accomplish (assuming you have a smoker or access to a smoker). Your greatest enemy in meeting this goal, however, is the ambient temperature. If you live in an area conducive to high heat versus an area that is colder in nature, it can still be done but with a little more planning. I live in northern Indiana which is an area that is pretty decent for smoking cheese. Ideally, I like the ambient temperature to be around 60F or less when smoking. The reason for this is rather obvious. If the temperatures inside your smoking chamber get above 90F, you won't have smoked cheese, you'll have smoked cheese soup. I try to do everything I can to keep the temperature in my smoking chamber at or below 80F. At this temp, I do not have to worry about melting or even sweating the cheese. Sweating the cheese is when the natural oils in the cheese are released due to the temps of the cheese getting too high. It is a precursor to melting. Additionally, I believe that when the cheese sweats too much, it affects the taste as well as the consistency. I, however, am not an expert on cheese. That's simply from my observations of being a life-long admirer of cheese.

So, you've got a smoker and the ambient temperatures are perfect for smoking. The next logical question is "What type of cheese works best?" The answer to that is all of them. In my opinion, if it's cheese, it can be smoked. Now, I've never tried to smoke ricotta, but it can also be done. But, I've run the gamut of cheeses through my smoker and there's really only one rule I follow when selecting cheese. If I don't like the type of cheese unsmoked, I will not like it simply by adding smoke to it. That is my only guideline when choosing cheese. If I like it unsmoked, I like it smoked (and I like it more smoked).

If you live in an area that is blessed with an abundance of cheese (Vermont or Wisconsin, for example), you usually have a run of great cheeses available to you. Living in Indiana (which is not known for its cheeses) can be somewhat of a challenge in finding good quality cheeses and even more of a challenge finding them at an economical price. I'm a little lucky that I live by one of the largest indoor farmer's market in the Midwest (it's actually the world's largest wood peg structure) and it has an abundance of fresh Amish cheese available at all times of the year.

I'll usually grab some Horseradish, Jalapeno Cheddar, Habanero Cheddar, Farmers Cheese, Havarti Dill, Onion and anything else that strikes my fancy. This is how my lineup usually looks when I've selected the cheese and am about to get to smoking it.

At this point, with my Bradley Smoker, I have the smoke generator on and heating so that when the bisquettes hit the burner, the smoke will start rolling. There is no heat in the tower at that time with the exception of what is being generated by the smoke generator. When I smoked this cheese, the ambient temps at the time was in the single digits, so there was no need to set up the Bradley for a cold smoke. My next post will be centered around the Bradley, so this may make more sense after I post it.

Now that I've got the cheese and my smoke generator is running, I like to slice the cheese for a couple of reasons. First, I believe that you'll get a more thorough some adhesion with smaller pieces (thus a much better smoke flavor throughout) and it also makes slicing the cheese for consumption much easier and a much nicer presentation.

I've got it sliced up now (I left some pieces whole as I was going to shred these pieces and use for cooking) and ready for the smoke. Additionally, if you've got extra room in the smoker, I like to throw some garlic in and smoke it as well and use the smoked garlic for recipes calling for fresh garlic. I simply strip down most of the paper covering the garlic and brush lightly with olive oil to help with the smoke adhesion.

Because I wasn't using a cold smoke setup (I didn't separate the smoke generator from the smoke tower), I simply added ice to the water bowl. The spent bisquettes from the Bradley are extinguished in the water bowl. The ice helps keep the temps inside the tower down in the quest to keep the temperature from rising above 80F.

Now, the question for amount of smoke needed arises at this point. As the Bradley produces smoke differently than a traditional smokeburner, the time of smoke is much less than the traditional way of smoking. However, I've found that smoke taste is truly a personal preference. I like a lot of smoke flavor with just about anything I do, so I tend to go with longer smoke times. What I've found is that on average, I will do 3 hours of smoke on the cheese and usually use a lighter type of wood (primarily I use apple or cherry or a combination of the two flavors). I've also found that harder cheeses will have much more smoke adhesion quicker than soft cheeses. So, if I'm doing a combination of hard cheeses and soft cheeses, I'll pull the hard cheese out prior to pulling the soft cheese. Usually after 2 hours and 40 minutes of smoke, I'll pull the hard cheeses and after 3 hours and 40 minutes of smoke, I'll pull the soft cheeses.

Here are some more pics of the cheese while it's smoking:

The wire you see running down in the first picture is my Maverick ET-73 remote thermometer. It simply reads the temperature inside my smoker and transmits the temps to the receiver inside the house so that I can monitor the temperatures from the comforts of my home. It truly is a great way to make the smoking process more user friendly and keeps you a lot warmer while smoking in colder temperatures.

This is what it will look like when the smoking process has completed:

The first thing you'll notice when smoking with the Bradley is that the cheese doesn't necessarily develop that really dark smoke skin that you would normally see with smoked cheese. However, that is simply due to the way the Bradley produces smoke. The flavor is the same; you just don't get the same visual effects on the cheese that you would with traditional stickburner smoking.

Now that the cheese is done smoking, it's time to package and then let the cheese rest. I always use a vacuum sealer when packaging the cheese for it's rest period. If you don't have a vacuum sealer, you can simply wrap tightly in a plastic wrap (usually a double wrap works well). You don't want to taste the cheese when it comes right out of the smoker. Because of the great concentration of smoke adhesion to the surfaces of the cheese, the cheese at this point will taste like an ash tray at this point. This is kind of like telling a kid not to put their tongue on the frozen flagpole. I know someone will do this because I said not to but do so at the risk of your own taste buds. I let the cheese age for a minimum of 10 days and like to go 2 weeks before I open up a package of smoked cheese. During this rest time (in a refrigerator, of course), the smoke flavor will infuse throughout the cheese and also mellow a bit. The taste is worth the wait. I've even gone two months before opening the package and believe the longer the wait, the better the flavor. However, the only way I can keep it that long is by hiding the cheese from the family in the refrigerator in the garage. If you haven't tried to smoke cheese before, give it a try. It's very easy and makes cheese even better.

Now you know why I'm yelling "Who cut the cheese?" That googootz 8 year old is always sneaking into my cheese stash. Oh well, they're only young once and if I can pass the tradition on to my children, it's worth the loss of lots of cheese to do so.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Homemade Smoky Chipotle and Smoky Habanero Powder

Now, I like a little zing when I'm smoking foods (or in my gravy; for non-Italians, that's spaghetti sauce). However, I believe the key to a good zing is when the concoction starts out a little sweet and is then followed with a little burn. Not enough of a burn that sends you screaming through the house looking for some milk, but enough of a zing to make you go, "Ahhhhhhhhhh."

In my quest for some zing, I knew what I wanted and figured I could do it myself. With some help from a friend (Greg), I set off on my quest to make my own smoky chipotle and habanero powders.

The local grocery store was having a sale on peppers, so I stocked up on some. I picked up some jalapenos, habaneros, yellow hungarians and poblanos. It's a pretty cool color show and the heat ain't too bad either.

The first thing I wanted to do was to take the stem and heads off of the jalapenos and habaneros and then slice them in half. I left the poblanos and hungarian wax peppers intact as I was only going to hit with some smoke and then dry just a bit. I then would mince them up and store in vacuum sealed bags in sizes that would be perfect additions for chili and other dishes.

Now that they're in the smoker, it's just a matter of what type wood to use. The Bradley (I'll do another post on this type of smoker) actually uses bisquettes that are pretty much compressed wood chips with many different types of wood for smoking. In this instance, I used a combination of hickory and oak, as I wanted a strong, smokey flavor with the powder. I did not use any heat within the tower except for the heat provided by the smoke generator. It got to about 95F in the smoker. I put on 3 hours of smoke.

After 3 hours of smoke, I put them into the oven at 170F. This is the lowest my oven will go, so from time to time, I simply opened up the door to let the heat escape. Now, this is the part that lends itself to a little advice. Do not do this in the house! The fumes from the peppers, which is really capsaicin will take over your house and your eyes will get extremely red and watery and you will find it extremely hard to breathe. I suppose if I had ever been in an immediate threat of being attacked by a grizzly, this would have come in handy. Fortunately, for me, I was the only one in the house at the time. However, I did suffer flashbacks from my basic training days of going into the Disco Hut. The Disco Hut was the room where they threw tear gas into a bunch of hot lava rocks while you were inside with your gas masks on. That didn't bother me at all. It really bothered me when they ripped my mask off and made me answer questions while I was gulping this stuff in. But, it was also a fun time. I was platoon leader, so I went first. After getting out of there, I waited outside for the rest of my platoon to depart the Disco Hut (they also played loud, blaring music with strobe lights in there. I wasn't sure what they were hoping to glean from that but I did get the feeling that being a POW would subject me to hours and hours of endless Donna Summer music, which should have been against the Geneva Convention, in my opinion). The funnest part about that day was that someone in their infinite wisdom had planted a tree many years ago right outside the exit door. This was a huge tree and when you've got tears in your eyes and snot running out of every other orifice, it's hard to see that tree. Many didn't, which is what made the day fun for me. So, long story short, either do these in a dehydrator outside or in the garage. It could lead to a divorce if you do these in the house and the spouse gets wind of it.

After a while, your peppers will start to shrivel pretty good and then it's just a matter of testing them. I pulled them out every hour once they got to the point where I thought they were getting close to being done. I would feel them and see if they felt soft and try to bend them. If they had any give in them, I put them back in the oven. If they were hard and no flex to them, I pulled them out. The habaneros got done much quicker than the jalapenos because the skin of the habaneros is much thinner than jalapenos. With 3 hours in the smoker and 3 hours in the oven, they were all done. It took 3 hours in the smoker and 7 hours in the oven for all of the jalapenos to finish up. In addition, I pulled the pablanos and hungarian wax peppers after 3 hours in the smoker and 2 hours in the oven.

I then threw the pablanos and hungarian wax peppers into the freezer for about 1 hour so that I could dice them up and save as much liquid as possible. After dicing them up, I put about 2 T of each into their own vacuum sealed bag and threw them into the freezer for use in later dishes. I let the jalapenos and habaneros rest for two days in a container (with no lid) to ensure they were completely dry. After that, they simply went into the burr grinder (do this outside as well and try to stay upwind when doing it) to make the chipotle and habanero powder.

After all was said and done, I got about 3 oz of each powder (which is plenty for use; most times I never use more than 1/4 t of the habanero and 1/2 t of the chipotle).
A very important life lesson was learned. Either use gloves while handling or be very sure to wash hands thoroughly (and I do mean thoroughly). It goes without saying that washing hands after using the restroom is an absolute must. However, when working with peppers, it is an absolute must to wash hands prior to using the restroom. And when you think you've scrubbed them good enough, scrub them again. Otherwise, you'll end up like me and you'll be doing some type of crazy Bjork dance while your Nether-regions are on fire. You don't want to learn this lesson the hard way.
This powder is excellent. I just finished a brand new BBQ rub that I have been working on for a while and the habanero powder was perfect for the finishing touch. It provided the exact amount of punch that I was looking for and it also works real well when making gravy for adults.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Homemade Garlic Powder

If you're anything like me (and be thankful you're not very much like me), I like creating things instead of buying things. As a certified gumbah, I absolutely love garlic. I don't even care about it's heart-healthy components. I just love garlic......the flavor, the aroma, the pungency. So, I decided I could make my own garlic powder. Usually, I would have smoked these first, but as this was my first run with garlic, I decided to save myself the time and bisquettes for my Bradley Smoker and just run with plain old garlic powder.

The first thing I did was to remove the papery skin of 12 heads of garlic. This was by far the most time consuming aspect (from a manual labor point of view) of the project. But, in life, you must take the time to stop and smell the garlic! Here are the individual cloves ready for the dehydrator:

Now, I'm not sure what nationality your ancestors are from, but where I'm from, that right there is a thing of beauty. Sweet Halitosis, this is the mecca as far as I'm concerned.

Once you've got the garlic naked, simply place in your dehydrator. If you don't have a dehydrator, you can use the oven. Simply set the oven at 150F and let it go. Just a word of caution here: the garlic will take a long time to dehydrate to the point where you can grind it up. So, if you can't take having the oven tied up for a couple of days, get yourself a dehydrator. You can get some rather inexpensive ones that'll do a great job for this. Additionally, if you share your house with a signicant other, make sure you have their blessing. The aroma will be quite strong throughout the house. This was a battle I knew I would not win (this goes back to my jalapeno and habanero "incident"), so I dehydrated the garlic in the garage. When I post my smoked jalapeno and habanero powder experiment, you'll understand a little better!

It took about 51 hours in the dehydrator for the garlic to get dry enough to be ground into powder. You'll notice what appears to be an outer shell and a "pith" inside. All of this will be ground into powder.

I usually let the garlic rest overnight in the refer before I take to grinding it. I feel like it allows any of the moisture left in it to escape. However, do not cover the garlic as that will keep in any moisture that might still be around and allow the garlic to reabsorb the moisture.

When it's time to grind the garlic, I use a Cuisanart burr grinder. I've stolen the one my wife used for coffee and convinced her that grinding her own coffee was both time-consuming and more expensive than purchasing it pre-ground. Now, if you're better half is into saving money, this is an easy argument to win. If they're not, you may have to buy one that can be used exclusively for spices.

Prior to hitting the garlic with the burr grinder, I like to give it a quick once-over with the old pestle and mortar. This isn't absolutely necessary but I find my burr grinder works better with smaller pieces rather than the whole clove. Plus, sometimes, it's therapeutic to crush the snot out of something.

So, now you've hit your garlic and are ready to throw it in your grinder. Just throw the pieces in you grinder and grind away. I like to set my grinder at its largest setting so that the powder comes out as close to granulated garlic as I can get it. The size that you choose when grinding is really best left to what you plan on using your garlic for when cooking or spicing up a dish.

I'm planning on using this garlic for some pork and beef rub, so I want the size of the garlic when ground up to match the other spices I'll be using for the dry rub.

This is how it should look when done grinding. The lumps you see are just powder stuck together and break apart like dry mustard or any other type of powder. I do like to strain it to keep the garlic uniform and then add silicon dioxide (2% to weight of powder) to keep it from sticking together and then put into a spice jar. The 12 heads of garlic yielded approximately 8 oz of garlic powder. In future posts, I'll be doing smoked garlic salt, smoked hot garlic powder and a smoked garlic lemon pepper spice. Stay tuned!

That's it for my first blog. Give this a try and you'll like it. It'll give you the feeling that you can do more and when your garlic powder is better than store bought, you'll never go back.

Opening Soon

La Cosa Smokestra........the blog about smoking, spicing and all thing deemed relevant by me will soon be appearing!