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In Memoriam: Hollis Coffman Smith (1921 – 2012)

24 Jun

On June 16, 2012, my dad Hollis Coffman Smith passed away. He was 90 years old and had been ill for over a year. His passing was not unexpected nor was it un-planned for. My brother, mother and I all had made peace with the inevitability of his death some time ago. Still, his death was sudden and despite the expectations and planning, it still was a shock for my family. When word came from the nursing home were Dad had lived for the past 16 months, my brother and I started scrambling to get from where we were to where we needed to be. I was able to get to the farm late the next afternoon, while my brother made it in the following afternoon, thanks to packed flights and perhaps less than helpful airline personnel. Still, we managed to get to the farm, spend time with Mother, make the arrangements and plan a funeral service, then greet friends and family. It was a long and stressful week. Still, being together in the place we grew up with our respective families was soothing for brother and me.

I knew on Sunday when I got to the farm, there likely wouldn’t be anything thawed for dinner and there isn’t any place much to eat out in the country near the farm. I also knew that we would need to feed family and friends and that there would be a lot of food delivered to the house over the next few days, there was something I needed to cook. So, on my way to the farm, I grabbed some steaks out of the freezer and stopped to buy a couple of Boston butts.

My plan was to cook the steaks for my Mother and nephew Sunday night, then cook the butts on Monday to have at the house for the rest of the week. Now, one thing I’ve never had to worry about at the farm is having cooking appliances for smoking and grilling. My Dad was a life-long collector of grills and smokers – so I come by my habit honestly. At the farm, there probably are a half dozen grills, at least three smokers in various sizes and of various designs and perhaps a dozen “potential” grills and smokers. These “potential” grills and smokers are large and small metal fabrications that once served another purpose but which my Dad, in his eye, could see the potential for the conversion of the item into a grill or smoker. Add to that about a half-dozen or so “fish cookers” designed to heat oil with propane for frying fish and you get a pretty good idea of the way Hollis collected grills.

To my Dad, no cooking device was beyond salvation. He had for many years two Weber “Smokey Joe” mini-kettle grills that were abandoned in campgrounds because the sockets where the legs attached to the bowl of the grills had rusted out. Dad figured out that the little grills would fit perfectly into metal milk crates that used to be plentiful on the farm, so he sat them into the milk crates and they continued to cook campground dinners as Mom and Dad traveled in one of their Airstreams for years to come. One of my Dad’s smokers, a 30+ year old “bullet” smoker, has a pan in the bottom of the lower section that holds the charcoal. When I went to use it a couple of years ago, I notice that the bottom of the bowl had rusted out. No problem: Dad simply fashioned a replacement bottom out of some ultra- heavy sheet aluminum to cover the rusted out spots in the charcoal bowl and never missed a beat.

From my Dad, I acquired my love of the grill at an early age. I have photos of my Dad grilling steaks in his trademark low-back overalls on a little cast-aluminum kettle grill. I don’t remember the brand-name, but had a chance to buy one out of a lady’s front yard a few years ago and didn’t do it – I wish I had. I loved watching Dad grill steaks – he only turned them once – and burgers. These were the most frequent grilled menu items at our house, and I looked forward to those nights with an anticipation that can hardly be described in any terms other than “drooling.” The steaks were almost always sirloins – and not the “top sirloin” cuts that you see in stores now, but full-cut sirloins, with a piece of tenderloin attached and with bones that ranged from small and circular to perhaps four inches long. The meat nearest the bone was always the most tender, and I loved it when I got to “gnaw” the bone! I also learned from my Dad that steaks should be served medium-rare. Burgers were thick, with plenty of fat and would come off the grill with a crisp and tasty crust, cooked no more than medium. Add a Sunbeam bun, a health slice of sweet onion and fresh tomato from Dad’s garden, and there was little on earth that could compare to that the taste of those burgers.

Indeed, Dad was a grill sergeant. He was confident and poised around a grill, was constantly experimenting and I only recall one – exactly one – grilling disaster, and that was not his fault. George, the white German Shepard that was my constant childhood companion, once swiped a sirloin off Dad’s grill when he came inside to refresh his bourbon. We laughed about that for years to come – although it was not quite so humorous that night when we had to stretch one sirloin to feed the family and a couple of special guests!

Dad also cooked more than his share of Boston butts over the years, often with his greatest of friends Homer Neal Lewis in the carport of the Lewis’ house in Auburn, Alabama the night before an Auburn football game. There weren’t any thermometers on the 55-gallon drum grill that Neal kept on his carport, and nobody owned a Thermapen, either. Everything was done by instinct and feel and smell. The cooking was “hot and fast” and the barbequed pork always had a crisp and tasty bark that softened just enough when tossed with Neal’s wife Eloise’s homemade BBQ sauce. The meat was served on game day – we didn’t tailgate then like we do now – at the Lewis house and a dozen or more guests, family and friends would always rotate through the house before the game and more still would come by after the game. The menu was always the same, was always delicious and there was always plenty to eat.

Perhaps, however, Dad was most skilled at cooking barbequed chicken. There was no shortage of chicken cookers, depending on the size of the crowd he was cooking for. The “pits” ranged from the aforementioned bullet smoker/Weber Smokey Mountain wannabe to a couple of heavy metal “box” pits that Dad had made in the welding shop at the vocational school where he was the director. Those box pits are still in use (and one of them will be the subject of an upcoming post) and could cook a dozen or more chickens at a time. The cooking was low and slow with the chickens. They were cooked in halves and they cooked for about 4 hours over Ole Diz charcoal (always Ole Diz charcoal – I asked him why Old Diz once and he replied “because it’s cheap!”) and near the end of the cook, when the chicken halves were almost ready (when the leg would turn freely in the socket), Dad would take each half chicken and “dunk” it in a large pot containing Momma’s version of Eloise Lewis’ barbeque sauce. The chicken would then go back on the smoker until the sauce set. Sometimes, the chicken would get just the slightest bit of char on the skin, which made it especially tasty. My beautiful wife, Melissa, now a vegetarian (go figure) says to this day the best chicken she has ever eaten was cooked on Daddy’s back porch on the bullet smoker with the assistance of Dad’s longtime friend Dan Lott.

One of my favorite memories of Dad’s barbequed chicken was from my high-school years – more precisely, from my Junior Prom. My date and I both were wearing white. She was wearing a long white dress with some colorful stitching on the front while I was wearing a pure white tuxedo – we were stylin’. Mom and Dad offered to cook dinner for us before the prom and because I was perpetually broke in those days (bagging groceries at Winn-Dixie did not prepare one for a fancy dinner on the town), we quickly accepted. I was so busy making preparations for the prom and working the day of the dance, I didn’t pay any attention to the menu for the evening. When my date and I arrived for dinner, we discovered that Dad had cooked – you guessed it – Barbequed Chicken, just dripping with tomato based barbeque sauce. I think we covered ourselves with t-shirts or football jerseys or something so we wouldn’t end up wearing our dinner to the prom because as anyone who has eaten barbeque chicken can attest, if you aren’t wearing some of it on your clothes afterward, you didn’t do it right.

These stories go on-and-on – sometimes, my wife might say “on-and-on-and-on-and-on” and she might be right. But the memories are precious to me, and from these few stories of my Dad and his grills, you might be able to see where I got my love of grilling and collecting.

God Bless You, Daddy. We love you and we miss you. May you rest in peace and may all the Saints in Heaven enjoy your barbeque chicken with Eloise’s barbeque sauce as much as we did here on earth.

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3:00 am and all is well

28 May

I am so far behind on chronicling my grilling and BBQ adventures that I may never tell all of the stories of the past month. That, however, is not why I am posting at 3:15 a.m.

Indeed, I am up at this hour because my biological clock had me up at 2:00 a.m. and I took the opportunity to check the temperature on The Professor’s small Big Green Egg, on which we had deposited a decidedly large Boston Butt, 4 hours before after my arrival from Turk Lake, Michigan. The temperatures had dropped below my comfort zone, which was not totally unexpected since the Professor had eschewed the Minion Method of lighting the lump charcoal for this Smith Boy’s Memorial Day Butt Cook, and had instead dumped a chimney starter of lit charcoal into the Egg. So, the charcoal supply in the Egg was exhausted a bit sooner than normal. No problem. I just sat the grill grate on the chimney starter, removed the plate setter with the help of some welding gloves and replenished the charcoal supply with a healthy dose of unlit lump. The temperature inside the Egg quickly recovered, and the Smith Boys are once again on the proper path to BBQ Nirvana.

I am a bit curious where the Professor’s charcoal grate has wandered off to inasmuch as the charcoal is resting on the bottom of the firebox, but the Kamado-style cookers can be very forgiving and versatile tools so the cook appears no worse off at the moment for the absence of the charcoal grate. Still, we need to find that rascal.

Now that I have discovered the iOS app for WordPress, perhaps my adventures can be more timely posted on my humble blog.

So, 3:30 and all is well in the BBQ world. I think I will head back to bed. The Egg has settled back into cooking temperature and that big ole’ butt has a ways to go.

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Update: the butt went into the foil at 5:30. The internal temp was about 185, which was higher than I would have estimated for a butt of that size, but Thermapens tell no tales. At 7:30, the butt was at 202, and the Thermapen probe fell into the meat. “Done!” The Egg is steady at 180 after closing down the vents, so we are using it as a cambro until time to pull the pork. Happy Memorial Day to all, and especially to our “cousin” Capt. Kate Hinds, USAF. Come home soon, Kate.

Been a while – but pork butts were delivered….

5 Feb

It is the middle of “show choir” season in the Smith house. For those who are not familiar with this obsession, show choir is a popular musical performance genre for high school students – very talented high school students – in which they perform in a group of singers and dancers – 35 to 50 in number – in a high energy, over the top, dazzling display of vocal and physical gymnastics. Think Broadway Musical meets Le Cirque. It is “Glee” amped up a few notches. Our daughter is a member of Homewood High School’s “The Network” – a “Large Mixed Group (Boys and Girls together)” show choir, which currently is one of the top-ranked show choirs in the country. Am I a little proud? Nope – I am a LOT proud. The contest days start early to mid-morning on Saturday with a drive of anywhere from 90 minutes to 7 hours to the contest site and end whenever we manage to drag ourselves home in the wee to not-so-wee hours of Sunday morning. Since this week’s contest was only about 90 minutes away, we managed to get home at the relatively early hour of 1:30 a.m. As for the contest, The Network won Best Vocals, Best Choreography and Grand Champion with some VERY stiff competition from other groups of equally talented and well-directed high school kids from around the Southeast. This is a very entertaining obsession.

But then again, so is BBQ! This week was not without BBQ activities! Older daughter is a junior at Auburn University where she is Director of Community Outreach for the AU Student Government Association. Sometimes I think she is majoring in Student Government Association. In any event, this weekend, daughter and her staff of other over-achieving, energetic and community-minded students organized Auburn University’s inaugural AU Dance Marathon benefiting the Children’s Miracle Network hospitals. Darling Daughter “volunteered” me to provide BBQ for the hospitality room set up for members of families that were benefiting from the funds raised by the dance marathon. It was a pretty straightforward and simple order – pulled pork BBQ for about 40 folks.

I decided that three nice eight pound butts would be enough, along with some simple sides and dessert, so I picked up two-two packs of butts at the local Sam’s Club on Thursday afternoon after work. I have a friend just finishing up radiation and chemo who needs some nourishment and needed something to “snack” on during today’s Super Bowl, so the fourth butt would round out the cook. The cooker is going to be fired up so might as well fill it up!

The butts were prepared with my usual “catering” treatment: a slather of yellow mustard followed by a healthy coating and rubdown with Bad Byron’s Butt Rub. I like Bad Byron’s because it has a nice spicy bite, seems to promote a tasty “crust” and I can buy it locally in large bottles at an affordable price. Occasionally, I will mix up a large batch of “Big Bob Gibson’s” rub from Chris Lilly’s excellent “Big Bob Gibson’s Cookbook” but since this was an overnight, during-the-week cook, I opted for the commercial rub.

I fired up the Traeger Texas Grill Elite (BBQ 075) about 6:30 in the afternoon and let the pellets get fired up and the temperature come up to about 200 degrees (a good smoke temperature for the Traeger, I’ve found – no fear, the temp get’s bumped up later). At 7:00 p.m., the butts went on the Traeger and I went about my business. About 10:00 p.m., I topped off the pellet hopper and bumped the temps to 225 for the overnight cook. I used BBQr’s Delight’s excellent Pecan Pellets for this cook and near the end, added some BBQr’s Delight charcoal pellets to continue the heat.

I checked on the butts about 2:00 and they were looking, well, like butts. When I got up at 5:30, they were in the 180s and looking, well, like butts. I bumped the temp on the Traeger to 250. After coffee and my morning social networking, they had come up in temps to the low 190’s by about 7:00. I wrapped the butts in foil and got dressed for work. By 7:45, they were all north of 195 degrees, so I put them all in a cooler with some bar towels and went to work.

At lunch, I came home and pulled the four butts. These were the nicest looking butts I’ve cooked on the Traeger. The combination of the Pecan pellets and the long, low smoke on the front end resulted in a wonderful, dark pink smoke ring and the butts had held plenty of moisture without being greasy. Lunch on Friday was my “samples” from the pulled butts – got to sample each one for quality control purposes!

I pull each butt apart into a foil half-sized hotel pan then I sprinkle in a healthy dose of Saw’s BBQ Sauce. Saw’s is the product of Birmingham resident Mike Wilson (proprietor of the EXCELLENT Saw’s BBQ on Oxmoor Road in Homewood, Alabama – I mean, this guy knows how to do it and does it right. Quite possibly the best commercial BBQ I’ve ever eaten). Saw’s is a vinegar-based sauce with just the right balance of vinegar, sugar and tomato and brings a mild but tangy acidic bite and a hint of sweetness to the pork that perfectly compliments the BBQ.

The pork was delivered on ice to daughter Friday night with instructions for re-heating – which essentially was “give this to your sorority sister who is going to culinary school and ask her to re-heat it. She’ll know what to do.”

The report from the AU Dance Marathon was that the event broke the national record for first-year CMN events by raising over $65,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network and that the BBQ went over VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY well.

So, it was a good weekend for our Smith daughters – a show choir win, and a big win for the Children’s Miracle Network. And I’ve still got two pounds of that pulled pork for the Super Bowl!

Cosmos Restaurant – Orange Beach, AL – BBQ, Esq. Review

16 Jan

I am traveling on business tonight in Orange Beach, AL. At least when I’m away from home, and missing the opportunity to cook and eat Missy’s wonderful cooking, I get to try local restaurants. When I’m at the beach, I try to find places that feature locally harvested seafood and that are something a notch above the usual fried shrimp basket storefronts (not that I don’t love a shrimp po-boy or a basket of fried shrimp!).

Tonight I had dinner and a cold beverage at Cosmos Restaurant in Orange Beach, and posted this review on Yelp.

Cosmos Restaurant Review: http://www.yelp.com/biz/cosmos-restaurant-and-bar-orange-beach#hrid:137Z-wF-LVfGXfJTEPDq7A

Check out the review and if you are in the area, check out the restaurant. If it is “tourist season” go early – the restaurant is very popular. If you’re here in “snowbird season” go late, after the snow birds have headed home after happy hour!

Friday night means……

10 Dec

Sabor Latino night! “What,” you may ask, “is Sabor Latino Night?”

Well, that’s a bit of a story. For the last several years – we’re not real sure how many years because nobody can remember quite when or how the tradition started – Missy and I, along with the Amazing Daughter Duo, have been having dinner on Friday nights (almost every Friday night) with a group of friends – numbering at any given time between 2 and 14 – at a local Mexican/Latin restaurant called “Sabor Latino.”

The deal is this: if we are in Homewood, Alabama on Friday night and there is no pressing special event (football game, child’s concert, vacation, etc.), we got Sabor Latino at 6:00 p.m., and whomever else in the group is in Homewood on Friday night does the same. There are no engraved invitations, E-Vites or Outlook Meeting Requests sent, and if you happen to come as a first-timer, don’t expect an invitation to come back – once you come, that’s all the invitation you need to come back. The owner, Linda (who owns the restaurant with husband Manuel) greets the first to arrive at the door and asks “How Many?” The answer generally is “I don’t know – maybe 12?” Linda asks: “Usual table?” Answer: “Yep, that’s fine.”

Whichever of the wait staff draws our table for the night already knows the drink order of each of the supper club members and generally just confirms the drink without really asking. The requisite tortillas and salsa are delivered, along with each the group’s member’s favored appetizer – cheese dip, bean dip, guacamole, or whatever. The scene is repeated as each group member arrives. The seating is men and sons on one end of the long table (talking sports, guns, computers and gardening); women and daughters at the other end of the table (talking about – well, the men don’t know what the women are talking about because the impose a virtual curtain between the tables). At times, the teenagers and college kids leave the table and commandeer a nearby table, far enough away that they can converse without adult ears hearing the scoop, but not so far away that the waiter can’t get kid’s order at the same time the parent’s orders are taken, ensuring that the children’s food is on the parent’s tab.

After two, three or more drinks, cheese dips, bowls of salsa, or whatever, the waiter will wander over and wait for the sign from somebody that its time for orders to be taken. We’ve all been to Sabor Latino, or “Sabor” for short, so many times that menus are optional and, like the drinks, the wait staff, more often or not, can predict our order before we ever speak. We all are so familiar with the menu, in fact, that we instantly notice if there is any change to the restaurant’s offerings. I noticed a change several months ago when I picked up a menu to decide between the six or so dishes I generally rotate between when I spotted a new addition: Peruvian Roasted Chicken.

Now, normally, I’m not going to get too excited about a roast chicken dish. After all, I’ve got a pretty good arsenal of roasted, smoked and grilled chicken dishes of my own, and I seldom find anything coming out of a commercial kitchen that can match  what my collection of Webers, Big Green Eggs/Kamado Joe/Primos, Traegers  and cast iron skillets and Dutch Ovens can produce. Still, there was something curious about the dish so I decided to give it a whirl.

The chicken is served with a salad and a garlic and lime dipping sauce/dressing and fries.  The first time I ordered the dish, I was served a leg/thigh quarter – which is fine with me since that’s what I prefer to cook and eat – and the first bite of the chicken thigh I tasted, dipped in the accompanying sauce, lit up my taste buds like fireworks on the 4th of July. Wow! I judge competition BBQ and cook some pretty fair meat but this stuff was, in every way, outstanding. The skin was tender and bite through. The meat was flavored all the way to the bone and had a slightly smoky taste and the dipping sauce added a touch of citrus tartness and a pungent bite from the garlic. This chicken was, pretty much, the best chicken I could recall ever eating. And in my neighborhood Mexican/Latin restaurant, no less!

I immediately found Linda and began to rave about the chicken. After all, who would have thought that what many people think of as the “khaki chicken” dish on the menu would turn out to be the star attraction of the restaurant! I was certain that, as long-time and frequent customers of the restaurant, Linda would share at least the rudiments of the recipe. I was wrong about that! Instead of offering up the dish on the dish, Linda just smiled and said “you like?” Yeah, I like! I finally got out of her that the chicken was brined (Natch) and that one of the flavors was a Peruvian herb that she grew in her garden at home. Beyond that, I was on my own!

I kept ordering the chicken week after week, always requesting the dark meat, and kept working on figuring out the flavor profile. In the meantime, the chicken kept coming out the same every time: moist, tender and flavorful with a slightly smoky taste and thin, pliable bite-through skin that any KCBS competitor would give up his BBQ Guru to replicate. One night, the waiter accidentally brought me a breast quarter instead. He realized his mistake and started to take the breast back, but I stopped him and told him “no” – the breast was fine. I decided to see if the normally drier, less flavorful breast benefited from the Peruvian treatment. The breast was served “airline” style – with the wing still attached. I carved up a few pieces of the breast and could instantly tell that the skin was just as tender and the breast meat just as moist and tender as the leg quarter. The taste was fantastic as well, and since then, I’ve not specified what “color” chicken to bring me – I just let the kitchen surprise me and scarf down whatever comes out.

All of this to report that tonight, we made our weekly appearance at Sabor Latino, and it was, in my individual meal rotation, the night for roast chicken. I was NOT disappointed. You won’t be either. If you happen to be in Homewood, Alabama on Friday night, come by – we’ll be at the big table in the back. If you’re not there on Friday night, stop in whenever you can – tell Linda and Manuel, or daughter Lilliana or son-in-law Gustavo that the Friday night crew sent you. Then order the roast chicken….. you won’t be disappointed!

Daughter Number 1 of the Amazing Daughter Duo comes in from The Loveliest Village on the Plains (Auburn) tomorrow, so it’s time to think about what I’m going to cook. I’ll let you know what I decide……

Special Day Trip

1 Dec

After a few hours at the office this morning, I headed to Decatur, Alabama to meet my brother and nephew for a special and long-awaited day-trip to Lynchburg, Tennessee. Although normally I would have been excited to go to Lynchburg to tour the Jack Daniels Distillery, that would have to wait. Today was much more special than that – after all – they give the tours almost every day!

No, today was a day I had been waiting for for a while: the day I went to purchase my Primo XL Oval Ceramic Cooker!

A little background here – the Jack Daniels Invitational BBQ Championship, held each October in Lynchburg, brings in a number of Primo XL Oval cookers for use by the contestants in the grilling contest on the Friday night of the contest, as well as for use by the international teams in the competition. After the competition is over and the dust has had a chance to settle and the employees recover, these once-used cookers are offered for sale at a substantial discount from the full retail price (and with factory warranty).

This was attractive to me on a couple of fronts. First, these are wonderful cookers. Kamado in style, but oval and larger than the standard large sized kamado cooker. The oval design allows for a divided firebox, useful for indirect cooking without a plate setter. Secondly, the cooker is Made in the U.S.A. – in Georgia to be exact, and this appeals to me. I already had decided back in the summer that I wanted a Primo and was willing to liquidate some other cookers to make room for the cooker in the grill garden and, as with my original Weber grills, the “Made in the U.S.A.” label meant something to me. When I learned I could get a “slightly experienced” Primo at a great price, I got fired up.

After “the Jack” was over in October, I generally made a pest of myself to the nice people responsible for the contest until I got a call from Judy at the Craig Street Jack Daniels warehouse that the cookers were available and I was free to come to Lynchburg and pick one up. Today was the day!

My observations so far – (1) these things are a BEAST (big and heavy – which is good; (2) the design and construction are exceptional; (3) I am going to want some accessories, such as the extended cooking grate, indirect set up so I can use the entire cooking grid for indirect cooking and the firebox divider; and (4) I need some help getting the grill and it’s cart to my patio so I can fire it up, and soon!

As for the trip to Lynchburg, we still had a few minutes to wander the town square and although Miss Mary Bobo’s was closed, we still had a great lunch at the BBQ Caboose, and decided that we would make a trip back very soon for the distillery tour.

One thing: being in the vicinity of all that fine sippin hootch will make a guy thirsty, which is tough in Lynchburg because the distillery – were the most popular whiskey in the world is made – is located in a dry county!