Just One Day

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

This rather stuffed bread rack was the result of just one day of bread production in the CIA’s test kitchen. The light next to the enormous deck ovens is already dark-ish in the daytime and even more at 8:30 in the evening when this shot was snapped.

(Although you really can’t see them, the cool hand-written script on the masking tape labels for each of the bread is courtesy of the super-cool Melissa Landa…)


Baguettes 101

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

Remember those crispy, crackly, loaded-with-holes-inside baguettes that your local baker turns out by the bushel full? Yeah, me neither. There are very few bakeries that really turn them out like that. Granted, some are better than others, and some are really awful.

There are so many factors that go into the making of a truly great baguette that it is a difficult thing to pull off. Since I’m right in the middle of an artisan bread class at the Culinary Institute of America and starting to recognize the difference in preparation of dough for baguettes, it is truly stunning just how much thinking needs to go into producing a baguette that you and others will crave to eat.

So far, we have made baguettes for three straight days (among a large set of other breads) while playing with yeast and hydration levels, the number of “folds” – what used to be known as “punching” the dough – over the course of a few hours of fermentation, and the method of shaping and proofing (and skinning).

It turns out that higher yeast levels give a great rise but add way too much of “yeasty” taste (a slightly astringent, “feety” scent and taste) and it really tends to homogenize the “crumb” (the internal texture of the bread). Baking off the baguettes shows the higher yeast content as well with the slashes, cuts made in the top of the dough to get that final baguette “ears” shape, tearing out of their narrow position in the very 1/2″ middle of the top of the loaf. (BTW, the French say you should be able to pick up a baguette but it’s “ears” after it is baked.)

The first two days had both straight yeast and yeast and sourdough starter varieties of baguettes. And both versions showed signs of over-yeasting. The bread itself was passable but ultimately disappointing. That led directly to the baguettes in production on day three that had a drastic reduction in leavener.

baguetteytop

crusty top with slashed ridge “ears” (photo by wm. christman)

Sam, one of the students in the class who also works in the CIA’s Greystone Wine Spectator Restaurant, was tasked with the baguettes this day. He reduced the yeast by 50%, and instead of using the entire amount of sourdough starter, he made a “poolish” the day before (a poolish is a slurry of flour and water with a tiny amount of yeast and stored at around 75° overnight) and used that in a 50-50 ratio with the sourdough starter to make up the total amount of flavored “starter”.

Due to the reduced leavener, the dough was slower to rise, a bit more difficult to shape, and slower to proof. You might think that this would be a bad thing but bread baking is all about timing. And waiting and judging exactly “when” a dough is ready is key to great bread.

baguette-style crumb - the texture inside the bread (photo by wm. christman)

baguette-style crumb – the texture inside the bread (photo by wm. christman)

The results of all this tinkering with the formula for the baguettes? Much, much closer to that crusty/crunchy thin crust with a treasure trove of air holes in the crumb inside. You can see from the pictures (above) the crumb and crust structures.

And the taste? Taste-wise, this was more dead-on baguette-like for me. So much so that I got to take two of this day’s baguettes with me to have something to show in this posting. Let’s be frank though, I was all about eating these baguettes for breakfast and lunch the next day, they were that good…the photos were just a bonus.


Back in The Fire

“Man, that’s a lot of bread…”

This was Chef Aaron Brown’s comment during last night’s evaluation on the second day of the CIA’s The Art and Science of Artisan Bread Baking course, in session this week in St. Helena, California.

Although there are no visuals this time around (no cellphones in the test kitchen, please…), there was a seven-shelf, steel rolling Metro shelving unit (6 feet tall, 10 feet long) that had every shelf filled with ciabatta, pugliese, boule, and baguette. The 100+ loaf baking frenzy started at about 4pm and ended three and a half hours later, each loaf crackling as it hit the 72° kitchen air.

It was a day of experimentation with what is known as “baker’s percentage” and varying hydrations for starters. If you haven’t already caught on, this is the “science” part of bread baking.

The “art” is how and what you use for flour (of the myriad of varieties), what your dough looks and feels like when you “fold” it and when it is “proofing”, how you shape it, and how you bake it off. It all adds up to one heck of a lot of bread.


Sea Change

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

One of the few constants is my life is my “to-read” book pile which is constantly four and a half feet high. Displaying signs of under-use, it is semi-caked with dust and some of the books in it are a couple of years old from when they were purchased. I just have a notorious habit of buying books that I just can’t wait to read then put them on the pile. And guess what happens next? I schedule time in my mind to read that book soon, i.e., somewhere down the line, i.e., when I’ve got nothing else to do… er, i.e., practically never.

It is brain-dead stupid and I know it. But when I finally get around to reading something truly inspiring (or entertaining) plenty of self-ass-kicking happens. This was definitely the case with Michael Ruhlman’s “The Making Of A Chef”.

As it turned out, India was the perfect place with periods of “nothing to do”. Between work and researching food, I had a chance to finally crack the cover on this book. And what I found was a perfectly inspiring tale of a writer who fell so far into researching his subject – the Culinary Institute Of America and what makes it and its students tick that he ended up virtually making it a second career. (Ruhlman is also the writer of the ultra-beautiful French Laundry Cookbook plus several of his own books about chefs, the CIA, food, he is also the creator of one of the best food blogs on the internet called Michael Ruhlman; Translating The Chef’s Craft For Every Kitchen.)

The validation of the line that is drawn between the familiar and reality is inspiring. To wit: I worked for several years with Tom, a CIA student who took a three month leave from his work at Apple Computer to pursue his hobby, and ended up being a lead sous chef for him and the twice-a-year dinners he put on. In those moments, I had an inkling but didn’t truly know how a professional kitchen operated or what it felt like.

Ruhlman’s descriptions of the methods, trials and tribulations of the 60 year old institution created for me moments of out-and-out laughter and tears, recognizing that the familiarwas reality. Confirmation that we did run Tom’s kitchen in a very similar manner was powerful. The book also recreated, over and over again, the exhilarating rush of my week’s worth of working in the CIA’s Greystone Campus’ large, bustling kitchen late last year.

If you have ever wanted to know what makes some chefs and food-folk tick, this book fills that need completely. For me, the inspiration that this book created has forced a long-overdue sea change, and a major one at that. At this very moment I’m almost 100% sure of the direction but am still filling in the minute details. And Ruhlman’s book will come along for the ride as a reminder of some truer purposes in life.


Texas Barbecue Party

feast |fēst|
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.

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

“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.

the beast, at night... (photo by wm. christman)

the beast, at night… (photo by wm. christman)

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.

"rubbing" butts and briskets (photo by wm. christman)

“rubbing” butts and briskets (photo by wm. christman)

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.

one chicken after a four hour soak in brine (photo by wm. christman)

one chicken after a four hour soak in brine (photo by wm. christman)

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…)

as it needs time, the brisket goes in first... (photo by wm. christman)

as it needs time, the brisket goes in first… (photo by wm. christman)

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.

pork butt after eight hours in smoke...the brisket below is the one you see in the picture above this one only several hours later... (photo by wm. christman)

pork butt after eight hours in smoke…the brisket below is the one you see in the picture above this one only several hours later… (photo by wm. christman)

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.

hot pork meat means pulling fast and furious, else your fingers get pretty toasty... (photo by wm. christman)

hot pork meat means pulling fast and furious, else your fingers get pretty toasty… (photo by wm. christman)

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.

hungry barbecue freaks, mommy! (photo by wm. christman)

hungry barbecue freaks, mommy! (photo by wm. christman)

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.

pulled pork, ribs, chicken and sauces above... (photo by wm. christman)

pulled pork, ribs, chicken and sauces above… (photo by wm. christman)

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.

more! (photo by wm. christman)

more! (photo by wm. christman)

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.


LA Summer Grill

feast |fēst|
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 perfect reason 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. The next two posts will cover those events in detail.

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

The usual modus operandi when I go to Los Angeles is to get together with Les, who is my one of my best friends down there, and proceed to spend two and a half days visiting as many interesting restaurants, food trucks, farmer’s markets and bars as our stomachs can handle. Usual (dietary) caution is thrown to the wind as we exist for one thing during those times: feasting.

In June of 2009, as we were planning another weekend of sheer gluttony, we decided to take one of those days and cook for handful of our LA friends. Since it was in the middle of a sweltering LA summer, it seemed natural to do a Mediterranean-themed summer grill.

And as most of our feasts go, we over-planned with the expectation that we’d scale back anyway. The initial menu had items like fig and prosciutto flatbread and beer-can chicken but as we planned shopping and judged time those seemed to over-complicate the theme. So we settled on a majority of cold apps, some excellent locally baked bread from the Village Bakery in Silverlake, two or three different kinds of marinated and grilled beef and chicken with potatoes and herbed grilled vegetables. Wine, bread pudding, ice cream and fine bourbon rounded out the deal.

Instead of the usual Friday afternoon fly-in start, I drove down to LA on Thursday morning with a trunk full of cooking gear, nearly all of the dry ingredients we’d need, and a challah and hangerdried cherry bread pudding (on ice, ‘natch) that I had cooked the night before. That allowed us to fully flesh out our menu that evening over a selection of sushi and afterwards, several glasses of bourbon. Friday morning was allocated to shopping and Friday afternoon was prep. We already knew that early Saturday afternoon was going to be hectic.

On Saturday, a morning diversion to 2009’s Erotica LA convention (the “other” reason for being in LA that weekend) preceded our actual kitchen blitz, but by 2pm we were in full-on work mode. Meats got our first attention. We spatchcocked four whole chickens and dunked two of them into some flavored brine and dry-rubbed the others with a garlic-lime mix.

fresh habañero rubbed hanger steak (photo by wm. christman)

fresh habañero rubbed hanger steak (photo by wm. christman)

For the beef, we bought two beautiful looking hanger steaks and two skirt steaks. The day before, we picked up some nice looking habañeros at a local supermarket and those got diced up and mixed into olive oil with a bit of salt and then spread on one of the hanger steaks. One of the skirt steaks received a soy-garlic paste marinade. The other two pieces of beef got a simple dusting of coarse salt and cracked black pepper.

a lesson in knife skills...the Mediterranean salad (photo by wm. christman)

a lesson in knife skills…the Mediterranean salad (photo by wm. christman)

Getting the meats done led to the next mountain of work: chopping, dicing and assembling a multi-multi-multi ingredient Mediterranean salad, then putting together a tomato and garlic dip, plus a bowl of hummus The salad was problematic and it was clear that there were way too many vegetables for the bowl. I think the knife work and assembly took nearly an hour and we started to lose track of time. The end result was worth it but we nearly blew our entire schedule on that one dish. The tomato and garlic dip was a straightforward puréed production as was the hummus.

colourful smashed potaoes, ready to grill (photo by wm. christman)

colourful smashed potaoes, ready to grill (photo by wm. christman)

Once we were clear of nearly everything that went into the cold dishes, we got to the outdoor grills. We fueled and lit all three in succession and checked on the next door neighbours, who took on the cheese plate, potatoes and grilled vegetables. They were in much better shape than we were. They had everything done: sliced and oiled crooknecks and giant zucchini, purple and golden pre-smashed potatoes, and lightly sugared wedges of pineapple. All ready for fire.

Parmesan and thyme pâte à choux...soon to be gougères (photo by wm. christman)

Parmesan and thyme pâte à choux…soon to be gougères (photo by wm. christman)

The last bit of business were cooking off some Parmesan and thyme gougères which are always a hit and fun to do. Since they’re best fresh from the oven, baking them off was planned for just after the meat went on the grills – chicken first then beef 15 minutes later. That way, the 20-30 minutes of baking they required timed out the chicken to be close to done and beef to about medium rare.

cheesy and puffy... (photo by wm. christman)

cheesy and puffy… (photo by wm. christman)

A quick, five-minute prep of butter, water, flour and egg (with cheese and thyme) for thepâte à choux was completed and the gougères were piped for baking. We got all the apps out when the gougère production hit the oven so they’d arrive as a high note to the apps. The meat was well on its way, and the veg was in full grill mode. Within 30 minutes meat was rested, sliced and plated along with the potatoes and veg, bread was sliced, wine poured, and the main event was on. We had achieved our summer grill…ah, feasting.

the finished grilled habañero hanger steak (photo by wm. christman)

the finished grilled habañero hanger steak (photo by wm. christman)

For dessert, the challah bread pudding was a pretty standard production with egg-rich challah, reconstituted dried tart cherries, eggs, cream, sugar and butter. We just put it into the switched-off oven just before all of the mains hit the table. By the time it was just heated through, the group had plowed through a good portion of what we prepared and just needed something sweet to push them into the bliss of a food-coma nap. The bread pudding with vanilla ice cream filled that niche nicely.

The end result? A bunch of full, happy, and sated folks enjoying a comfortably warm Los Angeles evening. And that continued to stoke the fire for the rest of the evening which was filled with tipsy after-dinner bourbon, European herbal aperitif, and single malt boozing and extra snacking on the leftovers; the perfect end to another LA feasting weekend.


Chili Dogs To The Stars

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

After almost two decades (really!), I finally made it to Pink’s. LA’s classic hot dog institution eluded me through the sublime and the ridiculous. The former being a nigh-on-cool spot to see and be seen in and the latter as fodder for the myriad of “gotta-eat-more-insanely-over-loaded-and-spiced-food-than-anyone-else-ever-could” reality sport-eating shows (paging Mr Richman, paging Adam Richman…white courtesy coronary bypass phone please…).

My best friend in LA, Les, chided me for not having ever gone. “But, but…I thought it was chili dogs as deep and as wide as your head…and I’m scared…”, I whined. He shook his head then put his Freud hat on and told me that sometimes a chili dog is just a chili dog. And it just so happened that Pinks’ version was pretty tasty.

So as part of my January 15th 50th birthday celebration (thanks Janet!), I finally went to Pink’s. And it was very, very good. They source their own hot dogs and make their own chili. Even standing in line for 20 minutes was worth it. And I didn’t walk away with any sort of bloat. In fact, I felt just shy of full. Perfect.

And as a native Californian, I hang my head in shame for not going sooner.


Please Don’t Eat The Plate

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

Mark K. of Kihei, Hawaii writes, “Are we going to hear anything about Indian food??”

Well Mark, yes and no. As it usually happens with good food, the actual item disappears before any pictures can be taken. And what is a …but the devil… posting without a delicious looking photo to (hopefully) make you drool?

And so it happened on my current business trip to India with the carrot halwa at Chennai’s Eden, a restaurant with a modern Indian bent started by some local hotel management graduates.

I got the chance to click a few photos of their carrot halwa before the table’s still-hungry occupants licked the plate clean. This version is moderately dense and carrot-y sweet. The condensed milk pushes the richness over the top. In smallish spoonfuls it’s really good…and you’ll go on tilt if you slurped up the whole thing in one go. Not that I haveever done that.

You can see a recipe for carrot halwa here or just go ahead and Google “carrot halwa”.


The St. Louis Cut

ribs-00

(photo by janet christman)

Say “barbecue” to just about anyone and you’re likely to get “ribs” as a response. I have been doing barbecue, in various forms, for years. And while one could endlessly debate the different methods of barbecue meat prep, technique, rubs and sauces, I prefer my rack of ribs cut in a “St. Louis” style.

Janet and I recently hosted our “once-every-three-or-four-years” Texas Barbecue Party and as I was doing prep for the chicken and ribs, I grabbed the camera to document the technique that Tom Dowdy taught me many years ago.

The St. Louis cut (also known as the Kansas City or SLC cut) takes a side of ribs minus the chine bone (the connector that goes to the spine of the animal) and reduces it to a squared-off rack and a meaty strip of ends. (Conveniently, the squared shape of the rack of ribs fits cleanly into the smoker.)

ribs-01

ready for trimming (photo by wm. christman)

The first few cuts are more clean-up ones that involve trimming stuff on the bone side (the side that faces in to the inner cavity of the pig). You’ll be removing a flap of meat and stripping the membrane that hugs the ribs on that side.

the flap of meat on the bone side will vary from one inch to nearly three inches on healthy sized hogs (photo by wm. christman)

the flap of meat on the bone side will vary from one inch to nearly three inches on healthy sized hogs (photo by wm. christman)

The flap cut is easy. You just run your knife parallel to the surface of the ribs to remove it. Lifting it as you cut takes it off easily and cleanly.

cut parallel to the bone side (you can see the pleura just below the knife) (photo by wm. christman)

cut parallel to the bone side (you can see the pleura just below the knife) (photo by wm. christman)

Next is probably the biggest pain in the butt with this cut: removing the pleura (membrane) from the bone side. The pleura is tough and very difficult to chew and for those reasons alone, you want to remove it. It also contracts when heated and will cause your rack of ribs to develop the equivalent of culinary scoliosis.

I usually use a strong bamboo chopstick and a kitchen towel to loosen and remove the pleura. (You can also use a paring knife to ease the pleura away from the bones.) Using a shallow poking motion, you ease the chopstick underneath a piece of the pleura near the short end of the rack – this may take a few attempts, it can be pretty slippery and tough.

Once you get underneath a piece of it, wiggle the chopstick back-and-forth horizontally until you start to lift the pleura away from two or three of the small ribs. When it starts to lift off the bones, the pleura will make a slight sucking sound, not unlike slurping coffee.

working the pleura up and away (photo by wm. christman)

working the pleura up and away (photo by wm. christman)

Once you’ve got it separated like this, grab a kitchen towel, wrap it around your fingers and work it under the separated pleura. Then use the towel to rip it off in one long strip. In a meat processing plant, the action of breaking down the primals that make up the ribs will nick the pleura and it won’t come off in one clean piece. Just repeat the chopstick poke and wiggle then towel rip until you get most of the pleura off.

The rest of the St. Louis cut is easy. Turn the rack meat side up so that the curved edge is at the top of your cutting board. The tops of the rib bones are about 1/3 the way down from the top edge of the ribs. Feel around on one side to see where they begin.

running along the top of the bone and though the cartilage (photo by wm. christman)

running along the top of the bone and though the cartilage (photo by wm. christman)

The slightly deceptive thing about this is that nestled up against the tops of the bones are equally vertical pieces of cartilage that extend close to the top edge. Just put the edge of your knife where it seems less hard and start to make a horizontal cut along the top. Then with downward pressure, pull your knife in a straight line through the meat and cartilage. It is generally good to leave a piece of the cartilage in the finished rack so don’t too close to the top edge of the bone. You can always trim more off if you need to.

the finished St. Louis cut with ends and scrap (photo by wm. christman)

the finished St. Louis cut with ends and scrap (photo by wm. christman)

Then trim up the vertical ends to square off the rack. When you’re done, you should have a nicely shaped St. Louis rack, a thick set of rib “ends” and few random scraps to add to the pork stock bone bin (pork stock makes a great base for barbecue sauce, by the way…).

Rub them up (and the ends too!) with your favorite spices or just use coarse salt and pepper, let them rest a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator then get them to the smoker for a couple of hours of quality time in the smoke.


Long Time Gone

It’s been a long time comin’
It’s goin’ to be a long time gone.

“Long Time Gone”, Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young)

Though the passion for food remains constant, life remains seated squarely in the fast lane. When that happens, time just rolls on and on like you fell asleep and like all of a sudden, it’s months later.

So, a belated Happy New Year to everyone who stops by …but the devil sends the cooks. As before, this year will be full of challenges in grabbing enough time in the day to sit down and write about food, where it might be going and how it fits into life.

And it doesn’t take the Amazing Kreskin to say that 2010 will also be a year of wild and somewhat unpredictable change. For the dedicated handful of folks who stop by, thanks for following along.