My brother has a cabin way up in the woods you see. A humble conglomerate of shingle and cedar. A manly outpost on the edge of all things, in rhythm with the earth and sky. Maybe even a last vestige, perhaps, of solitude in a world surely gone mad. You need only to get in your truck and go there. Out past the city limits, indeed way yonder past that. Past the wind-swept prairies drifted high in waves of granulated white. Over the frozen river and through the woods, where the brown, crisp leaves of the red oak trees still tremble in a winter’s wind. Past the next hamlet and the one after that. Down the winding gravel road you must go. Keep going past all these places, until you reach where the stately white pines rise up and anoint a beautiful, blue sky, and the Blacked Capped Chickadees cavort with a contagious enthusiasm. To where the morning sun dapples on an earth seldom trampled. And here, where the wood smoke curls serenely from a lone chimney stack, on a hill just up from the lake, you will find my brother’s cabin.
I haven’t been to my brother’s cabin in some time now. And I guess the misery of it is, neither has my brother. Oh elder brother is fine and all, it’s just that the wretched noose of society hath wrapped it’s callous coils around his neck again, refusing ever to let go. It’s called work. And responsibility. That’s the high problem of the city life. The city, by it’s very nature will try to pin you down and hold you there, wriggling like a worm under an angler’s thumb. It is it’s most favorite thing to do, seems like. For all the social postures we thus escape, and still to maintain a reasonable and untrammeled urban profile, well, it’s some trick. Some kind of way yonder too big a trick.
So I think of my brother’s cabin now, as I put these chicken thighs to flame. Listening to them sizzle over a hot cast iron grate, with pecan wood buried into the coals. The interesting thing is, every time I light the grill, and smell the wood smoke pillar into the air, even here in urban America, it triggers something, and I cannot help but to recall a vast gamut of recreational fires past, and elsewhere, all over the country in part, and some of those, yes, at my brother’s cabin. That’s the wonderful, under-stated, glory of wood smoke and memories. They are linked in a symbiotic dance. And my how it brings you back. Oh how I fancy to be there right now, under that old, squeaky roof, towering with snow, to hear the crackle of pine and the cedar pop in his portly, old wood stove. A kettle of orange tea simmering quietly there. The sweet, radiating heat of the fire, glory be how it feels like Beethoven incarnate on your cold feet. And I would tarry in the chair there, just because, sipping from an old tin cup, and gaze out across the frozen lake to the far distant shore where the Bald Eagles perch. Drinking in the quietude set aside for thee. Yup, I miss that place. And you need only to get in your truck and go there. And we might, iffin it weren’t for this whole earning a living thing.
This post is turning out rather anemic concerning the things of BBQ, and for that I apologize. I guess I’m engaged in a bit of what you might call, “day dreaming”. It’s just that the winter wears long in these parts, and to a man, we haven’t felt the sun on our face in some five billion years, feels like. Those of you blessed with eternal summers, patron to the good southern life, I do not know for certain if you feel our kink here. Of how long a winter can ride. Or how giddy we can get at the mere thought of spring. For let it be said, it’s that time of the year again, where all that we do, and all that we ponder on, is the promise of spring. Well seems like, anyway. And we pace at the edge of night, with a cup of hot tea in hand, fire crackling in the old wood stove, listening to the cold sleet tapping against our window panes. In the paraphrased words of Jim Klobuchar, “we tingle and ache, waiting for the exploding sun”.
Yes indeed we do that.
Pecan Smoked, Grilled Chicken Breast, varnished in a light but tangy BBQ sauce. Man! Can you smell it people!
Every time we light our fires, we kindle also those quaint fires past. Those smokey memories impressed on the tender fabric of our souls. That and we usually get something good to eat too! Just another couple of reasons to cook outside and revel in it. Amen.
I love to loiter, it’s true. On my patio, next to the faithful Weber kettle, smoke curling serenely from its old damper. It soothes me. Leaning back in the grilling chair, with a manly beverage in hand, what a pleasure it is to watch the world gently spin there, circling about thee. Oh I could do other, more productive things I suppose, but I don’t want to. Not today. Right now as the Spruce rise blackened against a pale western sky, with this beautiful bed of coals residing pit-side, well, this is all that I need. This and a few moments more patron to the pit. Moments where the Canadian geese engage in their dutiful and seemingly daily fly by, with those large, magnificent wings slicing through the cool, autumn air. And then there is the poetic turn of foliage, of once green and hardy leaves, now tinted with orange and yellow and red. Now fluttering to the earth in a showy submission to the likes of gravity and sweet time.
I fasten another button on my smoking jacket, and turn up the collar as I poke at the coals in the fading light. I find myself lingering there, staring into the fire. Loitering. Absorbing the ambiance of waning daylight, and relative warmth, and the sight still of green grass. For we northern patrons of the pit, we are quietly keen to the slow-ebbing path of the sun. We know it’s plotted course, its time to shine and when it goes dark. We are acquainted indeed with the diurnal rhythms at hand. And we see it coming now, just around the cosmic bend. The day we will be grilling supper in the dark again. The day we usher our BBQ pits over to the dark side of the moon. A campaign that up in these parts can last almost half a year. Say what you will, but this is why I loiter now. This is why I tarry in the tapered light.
On the pit tonight, mesquite smoked chicken breasts. It’s easy to do, and oh so very tasty. Join us won’t you, and we’ll tell you more about it, and how it came to be.
Simple. That was the motto tonight. I didn’t want anything too complex you see, that it would interfere with my prospect of loitering. So what we did was take two portly chicken breasts, with the bone-in of course, and oiled them up a tad to promote a more crispy skin come the end game. You’ll never regret choosing bone-in meat, people, if you have the choice that is. There is a wonderful and undeniable flavor with meat on the bone, courtesy to the marrows and other things residing with that perfect marriage in protein. Yum! It’s how man was always meant to ingest meat! On the bone, with juices running down your fore arm. Anyways, the seasoning also was pert near as simple as it gets – a sprinkle of garlic salt, and an equal dash of onion salt. Many a time I have enjoyed this simple combo with more enthusiasm than some elaborate spice rub I have concocted in the kitchen laboratory. As one of our heroes, the late, great Dick Proenneke said, “I eat simple food seasoned with hunger“. And that’s about how we rolled tonight. Simple. And hungry.
Thus atop a beautiful bed of orange-glowing coals, we tossed on one small chunk of mesquite wood, no bigger than a golf ball, to christen this meat benefactor of the smokey realm. We laid the breasts carefully over direct heat, intensely searing them there, this to get the skin good and crispy, and maybe a little charred. Flipping the meat at your pit master instincts, give the other side some time over the direct heat too. It only takes a minute or two if your fire is good and hot. Once the skin was crisp and tight, we escorted the chicken back to the cooler side of the pit, indirect as they say, opposite the hot coals. This then is where we put the lid on, top damper over the meat, where the draft catches and the wood smoke began to curl.
Glory, but these are moments a pit jockey craves, aside his faithful cooker, aromas of meaty plunder dancing in the air, mingled in mesquite. For a moment at least, and maybe even longer than that, we are exactly where we wish to be, doing precisely that which is well with our soul. And may the clouds idle by then, and the sun hold still in a gorgeous sky, it’s warm rays cast upon our shoulders, and through the dappled leaves. The simple pleasures, people, and good times patron to the pit. So when you see your favorite pit boy loitering by a good bed of coals, remember there is probably more going on there than just meat and flame. There is joy also. And this is usually the case. Amen.
Mesquite grilled chicken breasts with a crispy skin, sided with hot buttered corn, dashed in pepper, and touched in salt. Simple food seasoned with hunger. Man!
“There is just something emancipating about putting meat to flame, and declaring that it is good. Something poetic, yet raw. Something in the simple act which tugs on tender strings that which tarries deep in our souls. And the cold is no governor of this, tho the weatherman might say otherwise. “-POTP
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all the weathermen said it would get mighty cold. One said 14 below for these parts, and even colder still, up way of the frigid tiers across northern Minnesota. Wind chills would plummet to dangerous levels, they warned. And children should be kept inside, the elderly too, swaddled in warm blankets and faced with hot mugs of steaming cocoa cocoa. Machinery didn’t fare much better. Automobiles were going down like black hawk helicopters today, and you could see their cold carcasses scattered and abandoned in apocalyptic fashion along many a roadside. Why did Gramma have to live over the river, and through the woods too! It got so cold, in point of fact, that the chemicals the city put down on the roads for to melt the ice there, were at best, ineffective, paltry attempts at ice management. Things would just have to wait, the weatherman said, for a heat wave of about ten degrees or so. Things would have to wait indeed. Everything that is, but my supper this night. Which off-hand and by the way, was out smoking on the pit. So turn up your collar and let’s go have a look.
There is nothing quite so fine on a frosty winter’s eve than flames rocketing out of one’s pit. And when the mercury levels have dropped out of sight, and you are to question your very sanity, oh how sweet the British thermal units are which radiate from that fiery kettle. In other words, and to the point, the heat from the pit felt dang good! Moreover, I had two portly chicken breasts on the grill tonight, opposite the hot coals. Each one dusted nicely in a, spicy Cajun rub. Heat people. A patron of the pit will take it in any form or incarnation, on sporting nights such as these.
You all know how to grill chicken. There is nothing special here about the process. In-direct, flipping frequently, and cooked until the juices run clear. We did add a bit of apple wood for good measure, because that is how we roll. The rest, by and far, was left to the grilling fates. Indeed, sub-zero grilling is always an interesting time. In case of point, I had finished washing my hands, like BBQ people often do, and went out to the pit to check in on the evening’s plunder. Let it be said, and re-stated here, that super-chilled aluminum tongs and slightly wet hands provide a moment of clarity in sub-zero weather. Not as humbling as licking frozen steel, which is a rite of passage for a Minnesotan it seems, but genuinely notable, none-the-less. It took a little thawing out over the BBQ before the tongs peeled off my hand. Glory! Not that the victory endured tho, for soon the keen northern winds had in turn seared my left eye lid shut, which might have been my only inconvenience, had not I also had a wind-chill induced ice cream head ache coming on. Son!
Ah yes, winter grilling. Why would any one be so daft, you might inquire.
Because there is ambiance in the coals, I suppose. Camaraderie in flame. It is not like we don’t have a perfectly acceptable heat source out there, bellowing forth its glories anew. Oh we do indeed. And we embrace it all the more. It’s just the line is much sharper, tracing that hallowed ground between fire and ice. Between life and death. And you are drawn unto it with an enlarged capacity to appreciate it, nay to revel in it. And where the apple smoke gently rises there too is also peace. There is just something emancipating about putting meat to flame, and declaring that it is good. Something poetic, yet raw. Something in the simple act which tugs on tender strings that which tarries deep in our souls. And the cold is no governor of this, tho the weatherman might say otherwise. Amen.
As the winter tempest barrels across this mighty country, I stoke the coals in the grill, banking them to the side of the old kettle. Plumes of heat bellow forth and feel good on my face, and my old wool smoking jacket feels “just right” as I place a small piece of hickory on the fire, which dutifully ignites, as if on queue to a higher calling. Hands to my pockets, I pause momentarily, to fancy the fire some, and to consider the day. To inhale that cool winter air, and declare that the moment is well here at the pit. It’s only like 30 degrees, which compared to what it has been, well, I may as well be grilling on the white sand beaches of Waikiki. Balmy! But a wall of snow approaches steadfastly from the East, as it sweeps across the northern states, leaving a wreckage of automobiles marooned in it’s wake. There are times when it is good to leave the house, and times when it is not. Times to build a fire and hunker down, as they say. We Patrons of the Pit, we know just what to do. It is our second nature. Thus, on the grill tonight: Bone-in Chicken Breasts, and some Bacon Cheese Onion Buds. As my fellow patron is fond of saying, “Bam!”
Start with the onion first, one of them big onions bout the size of an ostrich head, as it needs about an hour on the grill. Slice it like a blooming onion, or in a checker board pattern, going almost, but not quite all the way through. You want the onion, like so many rock bands we’ve grown to love, to just stay together. Next order of business is to dash it with a smattering of your favorite seasoning. I used some Cajun flavors I had laying about, but you can use what ever. Then lay two or three strips of bacon on top, because bacon is good, and should never be considered otherwise. Gently set the onion monument on the grill, over in-direct heat of course. Rotate once or twice in the next hour, at the discretion of your pit master instincts and beverage levels. The bacon will of course baste your onion as only bacon can.
Twenty minutes into the cook, put on the chicken breasts. I used the succulent bone-in sort, which renders the meat with more flavor I believe. The rub this time around was of the home-made variety, a sweet and salty concoction with just enough heat to make it interesting. Anyways, I thus dusted the breasts liberally and then seared them first over direct heat, to crisp them up, and then tucked them back by the onion for the rest of the cook. Lid on, dampers cracked nicely, and a light blue smoke, patron to smoldering hickory, wafting into a gray, Minnesota sky, with blizzards, and white-out looming distinctly on the horizon. It don’t get much more pleasant than that.
The last step, after about of hour, is to chop up the bacon and sprinkle it back over the onion with a whole lot of cheddar cheese! Glory! And pass the cardiologist!
Hickory Smoked Chicken Breasts and Bacon Cheddar Onion Buds hot off the grill.
No finer way to hunker down for a winter storm than that. Bam!