Greeted by a wall of freshly drifted snow against the patio door, I carefully slid it open and got to work. You know you have a lot of snow when the first couple of shovel loads can be done whilst still standing inside the house, but that is how it has been this winter. It has been common place indeed. In point of fact, Minnesota is currently courting a hallowed slot in the top ten, coldest, most snowiest winters on record. Least wise in our state this is so. Over 40 days now, below the zero mark. 60 plus days if you live up north. It has been a deep, penetrating sort of cold that which has never ceased. Squirrels have fallen from trees and young boys have fused their tongues to subzero steel. And if you have invested in snow blowers this year, you are a wise soul. Seems like every day you hear their guttural rumble somewhere, echoing through the neighborhood. Reaching for records indeed. And I guess I believe it, as I finally shoveled enough snow out-of-the-way to shut the door behind me. Brilliant sunbeams sparkled over mounds of white, drawing mine eyes unto thin, uncanny slits. The air is fresh and cold, the way it always is the day after a good blizzard. And the snow it stands ever deep, and even deeper still where it has drifted between the old spruce trees just off the patio. I like how their stately boughs humbly bend in submission, selflessly playing the hand it was dealt, yet somehow attain even more beauty because of it. Nice trick. I do fancy those trees. They are the faithful ambiance patron to the pond-side pit, and have seen many winters. Many blizzards. Many BBQ’s. Such is the case today, under clear, and what seems eternally cold skies. And after I finish digging out here, and take a nap perhaps, I’ll cook up some supper and tell you about it.
On the pit tonight, something a little different. A little southwestern fare to warm a winter-locked, Minnesotan’s soul. Chicken quesadillas on the grill. If you can make a grilled cheese sandwich, you can make one of these. And doing them on the grill will at once transport this classic appetizer to a whole new realm seldom found in your local restaurant, courtesy of rising wood smoke. The first order of business is grill up some chicken. Any cut will do. We seasoned ours in some spicy Cajun seasoning to introduce a degree of heat to the flavor profile, and placed them on the pit over medium indirect heat. The cold poultry immediately sizzled upon contact with the hot iron grate. A lovely sound on a hushed winter’s eve. I rummaged around in the resident wood pile and plucked out a tennis ball sized chunk of hickory wood, and added it to the coals. Flipped the meat over and plopped on the old, black, enameled lid. Hickory smoke soon was in draft, and wafting serenely out of the pit damper. A smile on my face, I slipped my hands into the warm pockets of my smoking jacket and considered the evening before me. That brilliant sun of earlier has long since slipped down into the west, and the tweety birds have all went to roost, snug together in feathery balls. And the heavenly stage hands have pulled clear the cosmic curtain for what soft star light falls on fields of snow. And a toe nail moon dallies over bending spruce. What a privilege it is, even this side of the zero mark, to smell the wood smoke rising on a wintry eve such as this.
When the chicken is done to your satisfaction, bring it inside to chop it up. Get yourself two flour tortillas and butter one side of each, and assemble your quesadilla like you would a grilled cheese sandwich. Sprinkle a manly amount of shredded cheese on it, along with the smoked, chopped chicken. And then maybe add some more cheese! Lots of folks at this point, will toss all matter of things into their quesadillas. Things like: onions, peppers, mushrooms, chives, tomatoes, bacon, and so forth. And it’s all good. Make it however you like. But if all you have is cheese and chicken, like we did, that is perfectly acceptable too, to a hungry belly. Once assembled, bring your creation back out to the pit. You have a nice bed of coals going there after all, so why not do it right!
Place your quesadilla opposite the hot coals. Yes, our old kettle grill is half-entombed in a snow bank. You can’t even see its legs anymore. Its top poking out of the snow like an black flower in a sea of white. Didn’t I mention we’ve had a real winter up here! Anyways, put the lid on and let it bake spell. After a few minutes, you will want to turn the quesadilla 180 degrees for even cooking. Whence it has toasted up some, and the tortilla on the bottom has become crispy, affectionately flip thy spoils over, like a first pancake, and cook the other side in equal fashion. Here is a cook where we cannot assume our standard posture of BBQ, belly up in the easy chair, for we must keep an eye on our intended plunder, lest the burning fates fall upon these tender tortillas with scant remorse. Indeed, we must stand abreast the pit like men were born to do, on guard and with lovely beverage in hand. For this is our moment, our gastronomic beach-head for to establish culinary harmony between pit and home. Be ever mindful then, and parlay your spoils with great effectiveness to the dinner table. A dollop of sour cream or salsa, and your tummy you will find, just took a trip a south, past old and leaky borders, to where the sun stills holds stalwart, hemorrhaging over fields of green. Amen.
Hickory Smoked Chicken Quesadillas hot off the grill. Crispy, gooey,cheesy, smokey goodness patron to the pit. Man! You don’t have to endure an epic winter to appreciate this sort of thing, but it helps!
If you are from the northern tier states, and you have lately and by chance poked your nose unassumingly outward of warm environs, well it is no secret that it is butt-cold out there. In your face, nothing-you-can-do-about-it, butt-cold. The kind of cold that which penetrates the crust of a person’s finest attitude, slaps them strong across face, and can have them cowering on the ground in matter of sheer minutes. The fellow on the morning news said a given face, pretty or not, had in his estimation, about five minutes out there, before frost bite would latch on to your epidermis and ruin your day. Upon waking this morning, it was 21 below in Minneapolis. Schools statewide were canceled, the educational system’s white flag tossed onto the ring of battle, where upon it promptly froze to the ground. And the common sense sort of people in town stayed home if they could, curled up under old grandma quilts, nursing hot teas, and mused headlong about the weather out there. Others of us tho, carried on as normal, went to work, and when duties were done, came home and promptly lit the BBQ as if it were the middle of July. Yeah, it’s just what we do!
On the grill tonight, a simplistic respite from the complexities of the smokey arts, whilst also a gentle parlay towards classical american succulence – the chicken thigh. Thighs are one of our most favorite parts of the chicken to grill. High fat content keeps this dark meat moist and juicy, and if married with the right rubs or seasonings, it is a real treat. Our rub of tonight was Famous Dave’s Rib Rub. It says on the bottle to use it on every thing, not just ribs. So we did. It provides an easy but not over-powering heat, and some other spices too that just seem to work on a variety of meats. Old Dave is famous for a reason I guess. Anyways, we dusted the thighs over pretty good whilst the coals matured out on the pit. Then doffed the old woolen smoking jacket and made haste out into the deep, penetrating cold.
Banking the hot coals to the back of the pit for in-direct cooking, we placed the seasoned thighs over the cooler regions of the grill, which is real easy to do, don’t you know, when the mercury scraps the minus 20 mark. Mercy. The heat from the coals bellowed up out of the pit in stark contrast to the frozen world beyond. I tossed on a couple of chunks of apple wood, watched them quickly catch blaze as I tucked my hands into my pockets. I gazed at the fire for a moment, and enjoyed how the light felt against my face. What a pleasure it is, tho quaint in size, to be in the good company of fire and flame on a night such as this. A night where all the world bends on knee to the authority of a merciless cold. Where would we be if it were not but for the spoils of fire. Of glorious and unabridged heat. The energy that which drive our days, and caters to our nights. It would be mighty cold chicken thighs tonight indeed, with out this, a simple fire.
I put the black enameled lid atop the old kettle grill, and the draft caught soon enough, and ushered out a lovely wood smoke through the top vent. We were up and cooking, and there was contentment in the pit. I might have dallied some there, dreaming of summer BBQ’s past, of cool, green grasses and song birds serenading from atop wavering willows, but the peculiar feeling of my left eye lid fusing shut sort of snapped me back to reality. What ever! I sidled inside, unashamed, and drew a hot beverage there. I got to watching the evening news, which I seldom do, with a hot brew cradled in my hands. The weatherman said that today was a special day here in Minnesota. He said that at one point during the day, for a moment anyways, that Minnesota was colder than even the north pole. In point of fact, he added, Minnesota was colder than anywhere. He said, sort of proudly, that this was the coldest place on earth, today. And I believed him.
I smiled sharply as I gazed out at my faithful pit, puffing stoically away on the patio. It’s a good pit. A faithful stead. And it knows not the inclement of weather, nor some days do I think it even cares. Who says you have to hang up your BBQ tongs when the mercury plummets! Indeed, with but a degree of mild lunacy, the grilling season may be extended the calendar long. And rewardingly so. And if you’re really lucky, you can even claim to have grilled your chicken thighs in the coldest place on earth.
Delving into the smokey arts with any degree of abandon, sooner or later you’re likely going to find yourself with a sincere desire to smoke something peculiar. Oh its starts innocently enough with the usual gamut of savory meats. But before you know it, and if you’re not careful, you may catch yourself trying to smoke such oddities as vegetables, fruits, and even nuts. And in the back of your mind, where brain thrusts often copulate, you no doubt will have the curious yet lingering urge to set smoke to your favorite block of cheese. No worries. Such thoughts are common place among the brotherhood of the pit, and not soon to be ashamed of. Indeed, fret not, for this is the pleasurable bane of many a pit keeper, of whom’s patron plumes of mesquite and smoldering apple are not just for meat alone, but a bevy of nourishment to that which benefits from the aromas abiding in the soft, tendrils of rising wood smoke. But then you ask yourself, because you’re a learned mind, how might I smoke thy cheese and not melt it all to copious goo? Good question. And luckily, it’s all been figured out for you. Its called cold smoking. And here is how you do it.
Cold smoking is not what you see nervous blokes on their lunch breaks doing, out the office back door on blustery, winter afternoons. No, cold smoking is more fun than that. It’s the rather unique condition in the BBQ experience where wood smoke fairly bellows from your cooker, but if you were to lay your finger to it, it would be quite cool to the touch. Because it is. Cold smoking done proper, you see, does not exceed 90 degrees, and sometimes, it’s even less than that. Most cheese begins to sweat at around 95 degrees, so if you can keep the heat lower than that, you will be doing well for yourself. The winter months are clearly then the prized slots on the calendar year. How one gets good smoke without the heat is often times accomplished by building a very little fire in your smoker, like 3 or 4 briquettes, and setting some wood chips on it to smoke. It can be a fickle experience, hard to regulate, and fleeting perhaps, but cold smoke can in fact be had. Or you could spend hundreds of dollars on some apparatus designed for the legion of pellet grills out there. Or, if you are a tinkerer, by golly, you could make a cold smoker out of various odds and ends laying about the homestead. We were not much in the mood to screw around, however, and just used our A-MAZE-N cold smoke generator instead, generously filled with their own pit master proprietary pellets. Simply light one corner of the little contraption, and the pellets burn like a fuse, following the maze as it goes. And a cold and wondrous smoke bellows forth.
In the big Weber Smokey Mountain, deep in the recesses of its enormous fire bowl, we placed the lit smoke generator, paying keen attention that it was receiving adequate airflow there. It puffed away contentedly, like an old steamship sidling out to sea. We then put a block of medium cheddar on the top grate, gently placed the lid on, and settled in for a wee bit of smoke watching. Cold or not, watching smoke curl is something that comes disturbingly easy to a patron of the pit. We are at once smitten for the ambiance. Drawing a lovely beverage, and taking up residence in the BBQ chair, legs crossed like a gentleman of leisure. Glory be, but this the speed of life worth living! Clouds aloft like soft, white, pillow innards, drifting across a beautiful, blue sky, whilst a woodsy, aromatic smoke idles up out of the cold, enameled pit. The green leaves of the Cottonwood trees murmur in the soft wind, kissed by golden sunbeams cast from on high. And of course, the token family of Canadian geese which milled about on the lawn, like geese do, pecking through the steely, green blades there. They seemed equally as content as I, with the high rigors of cold smoking a hunk of cheese. Maybe even more so, in point of fact. And we both went about our business there, engaging the day, whilst the smoke gently curled.
After a couple of hours, all of which were sufficient for my pit-side loitering, I closed up the outdoor kitchen for the day. Bidding a farewell to the geese which still loitered in the cool grass. As I motioned inside the house, a pleasant aroma of lightly smoked cheese tarried with me. I swaddled the block in plastic wrap. Smoked cheese benefits from a long rest in the fridge, they say, sealed in plastic. Giving it time to do what ever it is cheese does after encountering smoke. That might be so, but let it be said, it also tasted mighty fine later that night, sliced, and in the good company of a few of your favorite crackers. Amen.
So next time you’re looking for a something different off the grill, or a good holiday treat, try cold smoking yourself up a block of your favorite cheese. The company of geese recommended, but optional.
*Here are a couple of amazon links for the two products we used today. The Weber Smokey Mountain, and the Amazen pellet smoker. Both top notch equipage that we’re proud to endorse. We are an amazon affiliate for these products, so if you purchase either, it helps fund this site a little. Thank you very much for your continued support!
Looking out the frosted window and the wind-driven snow mounting there, and noting the mercury is reading in the single digits now, wind chill of 7 below, and the longest night of the year has settled upon the land, there is a curious tug upon the soul I find, to light up, and put some meat to flame. A true Patron of the Pit knows no such convenience as the off season. Nor would we harbor ever the thought, to throw in the towel upon such a game as we have come to love. The reason why is this. If we had to wait for a nice day – a day of smiling weather, warm sunbeams, and song birds twittering from the Dogwoods, well, up here in Minnesota, on the 45th Parallel, we might be waiting for six months then, to grill. And that’s just not right. No meat geek worth his tongs should abandoned his sanctioned grilling post for that long, less he morph into what we’ve heard is a normal person. And so yesterday, just because, and neath the moon and the stars which shimmered above, we grilled. It was 5 pm.
Turns out many miles away, cross the wind-swept and frozen land, my fellow patron had his new smoker fired up as well, in sort of an upward raised middle finger to the inclement of weather. Bless him. Were were probably the only two blokes within a 100 mile radius to be grilling this frigid eve, impassioned by our craft. A deep, penetrating cold pressing over a hot bed of coals. The glorious interface of a winter grill master’s lofty ideal. The proving grounds. The cusp between light and darkness. Between fire and ice.
I took the wings, John took the legs, and together and apart, we grilled. Hands in our pockets, huddled over our appointed stations, the ambiance of our fires flaring; crackling in the frozen night. The smell of hickory a’waft in the wintry air. The star fields sprinkled over head, like diamonds cast over a blackened canvas . Glory! And the neighbors all glare at us from behind their warm looking windows, aglow in artificial heat, just shaking their heads. They do not understand that which they are missing.
Intrepid, no. Crazy, maybe. Impassioned, absolutely. To those who grill, and have seen it’s joys, it is our privilege to aspire towards it. To bundle up and put ourselves out there, where the metal meets the meat. For grilling is simply too much fun, and too well with our souls, to forsake it for the seduction of a warm easy chair. In the air of what the good mail men used to chant; neither snow, nor rain, nor heat – we Patrons of the Pit heed the creed, holding it near to our hickory-scented jackets. Perhaps the mail service never intended it for the Brethren of the Flame, but we latch onto as if it were our own, and lavish accordingly in our intended spoils. A victory not soon extinguished it seems, from snow, or rain, or heat, nor, as it turns out, even the gloom of night. Amen.