Smoked Chops

When I was younger our summers always meant smoked pork chops.

I didn’t appreciate it much at the time, but my father had access to bulk buy cases of delicious, thick chops direct from the local processing facility. He did this once per year, ensuring that in our chest freezer lived a cardboard box containing about forty of these special treats, setting our family up for seven or eight really great summer meals.

Then I moved away, went to University, lived my life, started a family, and…

It turns out that these specific smoked meats are not as common in the local grocery store as my easy access to these delectable slabs of not-quite-pork chops seemed to be in my youth.

It also turns out that my wife had a similar experience growing up. Her family also caught the summer vibes of a slab of smoked pork. Her youth was also one of barbecued pink meats and camp meals made from this exclusive, elusive delicacy.

The ties that bind us, eh?

What’s up with smoked pork chops anyways, you ask?

Well, imagine a regular pork chop, but infused with a subtle smoky flavour resembling bacon, edging towards the succulent tenderness of a slice of ham, and all grilled over the hot flame of a barbecue or to a tasty crisp finish in a cast iron pan. Moist. Aromatic. A piece of meat nudged towards the perfection one imagines from a great barbecue, but heated and ready to be eated in less than fifteen minutes.

For some reason we were lamenting our inability to find these chops locally in recent a family conversation. Then last week it was my wife’s birthday. Not thinking anyone remembered that first convo, well, it turned out I was wrong… in a good way. Her folks showed up and (jokey gift kind of people that they are) cracked open a cooler full of smoked chops.

It turns out that if nostalgia could set off the smoke detector as it cooks in a thin layer of hot oil, my nostalgia would be shaped like a pork chop.

It was as good as I remembered. And I appreciate it now.

Backyard Ribs: Part Two, The Cook Up

This past Saturday morning I woke up at 6am and (after letting the dog out and setting the coffee to brew) I went to work making dinner. That is to say, I peeled open a family pack of pork ribs and mixed up a dry rub.

I wrote about it in part one of this article, an article that concluded unsatisfyingly with said ribs being wrapped in plastic and left in the fridge to rest.

The results, and admittedly my first attempt to cook something as delicate and finicky as ribs on an open campfire, were decidedly mixed.

The Cook

Here’s how things went down between the application of the rub and the parade of meat to the kitchen table.

The ribs rested for about seven hours in the fridge with the rub. Dinner plans, the clock, and impatience go the best of me, and I extracted the experiment around 330pm.

Foil-wrapped and suspended on a wire rack over a baking sheet, the whole batch went into the oven on 250F for two hours. I had debated on the full outdoor cook approach versus the oven/fire mix and decided for my first attempt I’d focus on fire-smoked finish over battling with raw pork outdoors. Plus the weather had started to look a bit sketchy.

At about 430 I set up the outdoor fire in the pit. This gave me lots of time to not only get some nice hot coals built up in the floor of the bowl, but I was able to run another full round of seasoning on the two cast iron grill plates that came with the fire pit. I’ll write about that later.

Around 530, I pulled the ribs from the oven, brought them outside and started the finish cook over the fire.

What Went Wrong?

First, let me just say again that I was working off a lot of foundational cooking approaches here. I didn’t do a lot of research, made a few assumptions that I assumed would translate between gas grill and open flame, and got a little stubborn about sauce. Much of the advice out there is geared for people with expensive smokers or equipment I just don’t have… yet.

So what went wrong?

For one, the ribs had a lot more fat than I was expecting. I’m not sure if it was meat quality or if I should have knifed in a little better at 6am to trim some of the visible white stuff. I was hoping more of it would render off during the oven cook, but not everything did. As a result, the drippings would almost continuously fall into the lovely glowing coals below and flare into a small grease flame. At one point I actually moved the fire over so it was not directly below the ribs and tried to work off radiant heat but even the heat from the fire pit floor was causing flare ups. Suggestions for improvement came in the form of a comment on one of the photos I posted to a family chat where my father suggested using yellow mustard as a pre-coat to the dry rub. “It’s what the pros do to avoid flare ups.” He offered.

The texture also wasn’t great. I was hoping for something closer to the tender meat one associates with ribs, but again, either something was off in my cook or the quality of the meat just wasn’t as high as I’d hoped. The results were a little bit chewier than I planned. This may require a little more prep of the meat for next time, an examination of my slow cooking approach, or just springing for some better quality meat.

Another flaw was moisture. The rub provided a nice flavour, but a bit of char and my reluctance to cover up the rub flavour with a cheap barbecue sauce meant that the final results were on the crunchy and dry side. Next time I’m going to plan for a sauce or a glaze (but not one that comes from a bottle.)

What Went Right?

All that said, the meat was actually not terrible. It wasn’t the knock-your-socks-off-amazing was hoping for, but a solid 7 out of 10, family restaurant quality rib meal.

Apart from the dryness, the rub brought a very nice flavour to the table. I’m catering to a spectrum of tastes, from my own personal like-it-spicy preference, to a teenage daughter who turns her nose at any spices that stray from basic salt-and-pepper or plain garlic toast levels. Compliments on that front all-round.

Also the meat was cooked evenly. I have a probe thermometer that is one of those how-did-I-live-without-this tools and I made sure that the meat was actually cooked through to the appropriate temperature before serving. The mix of oven cook and fire finish helped no one get food poisoning. High praise for any meal, huh?

It’s still barely May and the outdoor cooking season is barely begun.

I’m loving my outdoor firepit and the bit of suburban firecraft I’m able to take on out my back door. Not every cook out is going to be amazing, but as I told my wife while we nibbled our fire-cooked ribs on Saturday evening, practice makes perfect and by the end of this summer I’m going to make sure I’ve had a lot of practice. Stay tuned!

Caged Flame

It was Saturday afternoon and for the first time in a week there was nary a spot of snow in my backyard.

We had some pork loin marinating in the refrigerator and my wife was all “I was just going to cook it in the oven but if it’s nice enough out there you could barbecue.”

“Or I could try it over a fire.” I offered.

“You could.” She was skeptical. “But you’re the one who has to sit out there and tend to it.”

Despite the snow there have been a number of fire restrictions in place across the prairies.

No open fires. No fireworks. But carefully tended pits are fine… provided certain rules are followed.

Rules, such as using a fire screen cover atop your fire pit.

Caging your flames.

I cracked open a beer as the fire burned to a good base of hot coals. I’ve been working my way through a Grizzly Paw sampler pack since we visited the mountains last month and I picked up the beer right there at the microbrewery in Canmore.

This afternoon’s selection was called the Three Sisters Pale Ale, named for the triple peak mountain range that stands guard over the townsite below, down where the beer is brewed.

It was a fitting spring drink to complement the first burn of the new batch of firewood and a reward for hauling a cubic meter of logs from my driveway to the storage space behind the shed earlier this week.

Let’s also call it the small makeup drink from the alcohol-free hangover I endured on Thursday, the morning after joining club AstraZenenca and priming up my immune system against a future COVID invasion. No regrets, but that vaccine wasn’t giving free rides to many.

My caged flames burned down to a smoky bed of embers and I cautiously added a bit more wood and some charcoal to maintain the heat level.

My low-smoke firepit and the so-called clean burning cedar is belching smoke into the neighbourhood and likely annoying my neighbours.

I should really focus. Tend those wild flames and pay a little less attention to my can of cold, crisp pale ale brewed in the mountains.

I should. It’s fine though.

“The smoke smells kinda nice.” My wife says as she comes outside to check on the progress of the cook and his fire. “Better than that pine we had before.”

“I guess.” I say, but smoke is smoke even if it smells less bad than other smoke.

I would just invite the neighbours over for a beer. No one minds smoke as much with a beer in their hand. But that vaccine doesn’t really kick in for a couple more weeks and even more restrictive than the local fire rules are the pandemic ones.

The pork loin hits the hot cast iron grates and the sizzling, spicy sounds fill the backyard and for a few minutes as I turn and prod and manage the heat against raw flesh I forget. Forget it all.

The smoke.

The neighbourhood.

The disease ravaging the world.

The cage is off, the flame unleashed, so that I can just cook.