Sunday, July 02, 2006

Grizzled Gastronomes Guzzle NYC BBQ

I’ve taken part in lots of good large dinners. So cooking the main dish for 23 people deserves a pat on the back and makes me feel OK to not help clean up in the end. But it isn’t actually that noteworthy. It’s not even that unusual for Tamara to call me up and tell me I have to grill for 23 people.

But this dinner was special. Because is was BBQ. Real BBQ. Smokey slow-cooked goodness. I’ve grown up in awe of good BBQ ribs. And I know it’s an art. And I know that there’s lots of mediocre BBQ out there. And I know there is no good BBQ in New York City. And I’ve never made barbeque. Or attempted to barbeque. Growing up, I always left that to Hecky Powell. I love Hecky’s BBQ. And his sauce is the best.

No matter where I’ve lived, I’ve always had a bottle of hot Hecky’s sauce with me. (Just as Marylanders live with a jar of Old Bay in their cupboard no matter where they are, I’ve got Hecky’s sauce in my kitchen. Old Bay, too. But I don’t really ever use the Old Bay). My friend Pep even had a case of the sauce shipped in to Amsterdam for his wedding dinner. Alas, the Dutch don’t know the first thing about BBQ. But with enough Hecky’s, all ribs are good.

So Tamara calls me Friday and tells me I’m making BBQ ribs for 23 people the following day. I tell her they’ll be best ribs I’ve ever made. I also think they’ll probably be the worst ribs I’ll ever make. I’ve never made BBQ. And we don’t have a smoker. Other than that, no problem.

I’m also thinking it can’t be that hard, because BBQ is simple redneck cooking. And how hard can something done by drunk rednecks be? But then I think about how hard it is to get good BBQ and I start to worry.

For what it’s worth, I’m firmly in the Chicago/Mississippi Delta camp for BBQ style. And boiled-tender slip-off-the-bone ribs are nasty.

On Friday night we eat dinner at Queens Hideaway. They make some good food there. And Millicent knows how to BBQ (she also knows pastry, but that’s another story). She explains to me the essentials:
Indirect heat.
225-250 degrees for about 6 hours.
Wood for smoke and a nice steady heat base.
Charcoal for heat.
Regulate temperature with air flow.

They even let me take some of their wood, which I fill my bike with and off I go.

The following morning I get to Tamara’s around 11:30, about 90 minutes later than I was hoping. She’s off buying 14 slabs of ribs.

I dump out the sludge in the grill and start a fire on one side. Millicent told me not to be afraid of lighter fluid. I’m not.

Then I go off to the hardware store to fix the grill. Problem number one is that our actually grill plate, the thing the food goes on, is not rigid and therefore can’t support much weight without falling into the grill. Problem number two is that we’ve never actually tried to grill with a closed top.

The grill is a 50 gallon steel drum cut in half by our friend Joel. But there is nothing to put the two halves together. I was thinking about putting a hinge on the two halves. But because I got a late start and needed to start the fire right away, I can’t put on a hinge because I can’t work on a burning grill.

At the hardware store I discuss my needs. I decide on rebar for grill support. There are 3 foot and 6 foot rods. The problem is that the grill is 34 inches long and I’m afraid of the bars slipping in to the fire. I’m thinking of getting the 6 foot bars cut down to four feet. But they’re like $20 each and I would have no use for the extra two feet. One of the guys at the Walt’s Hardware shows me some wire clips. I’ve never seen wire clips before. You put them on with pliers and then they stay clamped around the metal rod. And little ends stick out that I’m thinking this will attach the rods to the grill. Seems perfect. I go for the 3 foot pieces (buying three, but I used two). I also buy two metal handles so I lift the top off. It all costs $45. Walt says, “that’s a lot of money for dinner. I hope it works!”

I pick up two bags of charcoal at the butcher. It’s hot and I haven’t eaten or drunk anything yet today. I need a little food and I really want a nice big frappe.
Tamara’s neighbor Yianni makes nice frappes. And even has plastic to go cups to put them in. I’m rarely at Tamara’s so early (noon) and forget that there’s still direct sun till the afternoon. It’s hot. With some pain and difficulty, I get the wire clamps on the metal bars. A few of them fly off never to be found. I should have bought more. The don’t span far enough to anchor to the grill. But I can use the clamps to anchor the bars onto the drum, so they don’t slid.
The grill goes on top the bars. It works great. The bricks are in there to hold heat. But I remove the cinder block in the middle thinking it might hinder air circulation.

Then, like an angel, neighbor Yianni appears over the fence and I beg him for a frappe. Before he agrees he demands I admit that his are better than mine. I hedge a bit, but I’m in no position to argue. He brings me one and it is good. And I eat a tamale that Tamara brought back. I love Astoria.

I realize that the half of the drum we don’t use has a bigger hole in the side than the one we normally do use. I want that hole for air intake. So I shovel the burning coals from one half to the other and with Tamara’s help swap the two halves off and on the I-beam base.

Yianni brings his drill and I attach the handles to the metal drum.

In what turns out the be essential, there’s this great remote thermometer that Karine gave Zora and me for our car/solar cooking at Burning Man. It wasn’t too useful there. But man it saved the day here. I put it the grill, place the top of the barrel on the bottom, and watch the temperature climb. The grill, to put it mildly, a not tight fit. The temp levels out at around 170 degrees.

I fan the flames and more charcoal. The temp gets up to 275.

I put the ribs on at 1:30pm. Tamara has rubbed the ribs with a mixture of salt, pepper, sugar, red pepper, paprika, and cumin. They’ve been marinating in that and attracting flies for about an hour.

About this time my normal partner in grilling, Karl, gets out of bed and says hello in his bathrobe. I insult him and he whines about how he had to work till 6am or something.

There are too many slabs and the ribs end up stacked three and four deep. I don’t like that. So I use a brick as a bookend and stack them sort of vertically.
For some reason I think that’s much better. I have to decide where to keep the thermometer probe. Beneath the ribs? Inside top of the drum? I don’t know. But of course it makes a big difference in temperature. I settle for resting on top of the ribs, because I guess that’s where I want to know the temp.

I add a little more charcoal and there’s a moment of panic as the temp keeps rising. I seal off the grill as best I can with Aluminum foil. A lot of it. The temp hits 380 and I call red alert and dump half my beer on the coals. The temp drops instantly. One beer later, the temp is down to 250 and I start to play with the air flow. It’s actually pretty easy to keep the heat steady. But it is a bit of an art. One pour of beer takes off 10 degrees. Opening up the air intake lead to slow but steady rise in temperature. Closing the air intake (by jamming foil in) slows the rise, but doesn’t really cool things off because there’s lots of ways for air to get in.
But when things are kind of sealed, the air intake goes down. And as the wood and coals burn, the temp gradually goes down.

Things are under control. I sit and read and drink and watch my remote thermometer. 242 degrees. Puuurfect.

About every half hour the temp drops below 225 or rises above 250. Then I talk off the top (instant drop of 100 degrees) and rotate the ribs, moving the two slabs closest to the heat to cooler side.

There’s no basting. Because the ribs are all packed together, they stay moist. As the ends cook and start to burn. I cut them off and eat them. They taste great and I know things are going to work out.

This was a Sunday dinner, on a Saturday. But the spirit of Wednesday Night Dinner lives on.

The crowd gathers. The tables come out. At 7pm all the ribs have made the cycle in the grill. They’re cooked, look great, and I say ready to eat.

That pink layer running on top of the rib (vertically on the right side of the picture) is pure smoked goodness!

I brush some Hecky’s on each slab.
(no, not with Zora’s tongue). Going light on the sauce, I’m surprised to find that one pint jar of Hecky’s is just enough for 14 slabs.

Thank you, Hecky. “It’s the sauce!”

The ribs are good BBQ. Smokey, tender, delicious. I’ve very pleased.

Men eyeing meat.

Tal and Karine.

I don’t know who thought we needed 30 pounds of sliced squash.

It was a beautiful scene.

At night, the scene looked positively cinemagraphic.

All that was missing was a few slices of squishy white bread


Anonymous said...

other than squishy white bread, I was missing too! AND I am one of 3 that has the W branding ( me, matt and the bbq smoker!)

WhiteTrashBBQ said...

Damn, your post made me hungry.

Fotaq said...

Man, I haven't BBQd since that post. Those ribs were fucking great. We've lost the smoker, to moving and age. But we'll get our act together again.
I'm hungry too.