noun: a large meal, typically one in celebration of something
verb [ intrans. ]: eat and drink sumptuously
The importance of cooking for those that you love (or just like a whole bunch) is the basis for a feast. Planning, scheming, and turning out food for a large crowd is thrilling, vexing, exhausting and supremely satisfying. The latter half of 2009 started and ended with large scale feasts, one in Los Angeles and one in San Jose. This is the second of two posts covering these events in detail.
“It’s a New Braunfels Bandera offset smoker.”
Many years ago, my friend Tom had been researching Texas Barbecue and landed upon this unit as a potential (holy) grail for home barbecue. Looking over at the matte black finished smoker with its squat firebox and tall chimney, I immediately wanted one. The problem was availability. New Braunfels was a small Texas company with growing pains that didn’t allow them much in the way of left coast sales. But with 40+ phone calls and two months later, I located one. Two weeks later I had done my first smoking run with a few racks of St. Louis style cut pork ribs.
Every three or four years since then, my wife Janet and I put on a giant-sized Texas barbecue. We do it because it’s fun and we love Texas-style barbecue (low and slow) and frankly, the same amount of wood is used whether or not the smoking chamber is filled with meat or not. Barbecue travels well and leftovers last a long time. Most importantly, our friends always have a good time. Billed as “Bill and Jan’s Texas Barbecue Party”, we have been upping our game every time out for the past 12 years. The first official one had about 20 people and maybe 40 pounds of meat. Second one was 43 people and 86 pounds of meat. With the 2009 version, we were out to set a personal record. Here’s how it came together…
The standard meat menu for our parties is brisket, pork ribs (St. Louis cut, not baby backs), pork butt (the butt-end of the shoulder for pulled pork), chicken, and homemade sausage. Past years have seen beef ribs and pork baby back ribs. We usually do some smoked barbecued beans (that actually go inside the smoker for 4-5 hours) and have done wild things like smoked cheese-stuffed jalapeños and smoked, brown-sugar coated pineapple spears. Because there were close to 80 people on the invite list this year, we planned to fill the smoker completely with meat and do the beans on-stove.
Food prep begins about three days before the event. Two desserts that always make their appearance here are some sort of fruit cobbler and a cornbread and chocolate bread pudding. Cornbread is easy enough to bake off and freeze so that’s in the bag. Making sausage needs a day’s worth of lead time, to marinate and develop flavors. A meat run is done at one of the best local butchers, Dittmer’s in Mountain View, then sausage stuffing and rib trimming usually happen on same evening.
The rest of the meat prep is done in the morning on the day before the event – the ribs, brisket and pork butt are treated to a dry rub or just salt and pepper. Beans are usually washed and soaked then as well. Everything else, including salad and appetizer prep, cooking off dessert and getting the chicken into a flavored brine, gets done on the day of the event.
We smoke meats all night, the night before, and up to the start time of the party which is usually 3 pm the following afternoon. That means the fire gets lit some time around nine in the evening. The firebox gets starter chimney full of mesquite at first because it burns hotter and gets the entire smoker up to temperature very quickly. That takes about 45 minutes.
Once the smoker chamber/chimney gets to about 180°, the meat starts to go in and the first hardwood is put on the mesquite coals to slowly smolder its flavor into the meats. We usually cook two briskets, minimally trimmed, between 13 and 15 pounds each. The fibrous cut lends itself to long cooking either by braise, boil or slow roasting at a low temperature and typically takes the longest to finish – this year we shot for a 17 hour version. (By unwritten Texas barbecue law, meats should ought to get to an internal temperature of 185°, pardner…)
Once the briskets are in, the pork shoulder is next. The standard supermarket trimmed pork shoulder is about four pounds. We used to mess around with four to six pork shoulders of that size but found that it is much better to take an entire shoulder, not broken down into family-sized pieces. A whole pork shoulder, bone out, is between 16 and 18 pounds, in two pieces, so that size cut is going to benefit from low and slow too.
We tend the fire overnight and feed the firebox every 90 minutes or so trying to keep the internal temperature of the smoker chimney to between 180° and 220°. We take turns napping, checking temps and adding wood when needed. Leisurely prep of black lentils, small dice turnips and carrots (for the lentil salad) takes place in the wee hours of the morning alongside some spirited drinking of beer, wine, bourbon and/or single malt. Anticipation of the day ahead makes it so “tired” never really sets in. We just think of it as the best all-nighter one can do.
With the smoker humming right along for about 11 hours, the party morning light allows us to set up the dining, sun and living rooms with chairs and landing spaces for plates and the back yard with the drink table – Jan is completely in charge of the libations, alcoholic and not. Every year she features a specialty drink, mixed Janet-style (i.e.,strong). Last time it was fresh lime and garden mint mojitos. This year, by popular request, Lynchburg Lemonade.
The chicken and sausage are meats that pick up a ton of smoke and don’t take that long to cook and they get put into the smoker mid-morning. Salads are finished, cobbler (fresh berry this year) and the bread pudding with plenty of large chunk chocolate get finished and baked off. Much running around getting beer, wine, plates and utensils ensues. Sometime after noon, our helpers show up – this year it was Les, Andrea, and Howard doing barbecue duty.
And we usually make two sauces: a mustard-based one for the pork and a tomato-based one for everything else. Of course, Texas barbecue means that sauce is merely and add-on…its the low and slow smoking that gets the top billing, flavor-wise. The sauces are always one-of-a-kind creations the recipes of which only reside in imagination.
As was mentioned, we usually put a cast iron pot of beans in the smoker for our version of smoked beans. We had so much meat in the smoker we had no room. Janet took point on the beans this year and proceeded to rip…it…up with bacon, onion, pepper as a base and a murder’s row of sauces and seasonings along with the soaked beans. (I wish we had taken a picture…they were a thing of beauty and were the first to disappear from the serving table.)
As the meat finishes (gets to temp), the smoker starts to empty out an the kitchen cutting boards start filling with large, fragrant slabs of meat. Barbecue doesn’t have to be served at blazing hot temperatures so we just put it into an unheated oven for a little while. The insulation in the oven keeps it plenty warm. Apps are put out and drinks checked. Janet makes sure her “bar” supplies are ready to do and we usually test flight a few of her cocktails d’jour. That gets us fully lubed for the frenzied push to the dinner bell.
One of the more interesting (and borderline painful) tasks is to pull the pork shoulder apart. A cut of meat this big really retains the heat so rubber gloves are needed to prod and pull the meat apart. Even with the gloves, the heat of the tender meat causes some pretty red and hot hands so you have to pull FAST. (This is also one of the best jobs in the barbecue kitchen as tasting is mandatory – thanks to both Les and Howard for diving right in.)
Our party is a truly Texas “come early, stay late” affair and guests slowly start arriving ’round 4 pm or so. Everyone wants to know if they can bring something and we request that they bring only their appetites. If they feel that they must bring something we ask that they bring a bottle of wine so we get LOTS of wine from this party! We always target 5:30 to have everything out so pork is pulled, chickens gets cut into serving pieces, brisket sliced, sausage broken apart, and ribs cut by then. Sauces, salads, beans, and sliced bread get staged as well.
Once all the meats are “trayed” (the jumbo family-style version of “plated”) everything hits the table and the dinner gong is rung…well, ok, we just usually shout that the food is ready. But since everyone is usually hanging around the kitchen anyway, not much prompting is needed. The feasting goes on into the night and desserts eventually make their way to the table with three or four half gallons of premium ice cream. Its non-stop for hours! This year the house was rocking ’till late in the evening with the last folks leaving about 11 pm.
So, what about that personal record, you’re asking? This year we had 53 guests and cooked over 110 pounds of meat (uncooked weight, ‘natch) which beat the last time out by quite a margin. (The leftover meat poundage was just over seven pounds which means everyone ate roughly two pounds of meat each. Yeah!) We also served up several pounds of salads, beans and bread, and a boat load of beer, wine and Lynchburg Lemonades.
We show our appreciation to our next door neighbours by assembling a few plates if they cannot make it, if only to thank them for putting up with the smoke. We offer our couches and carpeted floor to anyone who either is inebriated by food or alcohol or both. Everyone has a great time, everyone leaves happy, and bringing leftovers home is encouraged. After a quick check to take care of any perishables, we collapse sometime after the last guests leave.
Clean up the next day is a chore but we’re always so stoked that so many people showed up that things go quickly. We’re just glad that we were able to share some hospitality with them. And that’s what cooking for those you love is all about.