It was seven below the zero mark, iffin it weren’t colder. And I think it was. Nobody was outside anyways, to tell me otherwise, not even the tweety birds. No one save for me, that is. And it was cold alright. The keen wind cut through the pond-side spruce with all the compassion and loveliness of a pit bull getting his favorite parts snipped off. The snow on the patio squeaked underfoot. And your breath, if you had any, spiraled like exhaust from an old diesel truck, and carried in the breeze a fathom and half over snow encrusted fields. Indeed, the day was cold against your face. My fellow patron and I were to discuss it, and we surmised that the odds were high, and probably accurate even, that I likely was the only humanoid within a hundred mile radius, out of warm doors right then, putting meat to flame on the BBQ. Oh how the neighbors must all roll their eyes every time they see my smoke rise, whilst the wind-driven ice crystals tap over their window pane. No matter, we Patrons of the Pit are a curious group by default. Not one for common thinking and none such. Forsaking oven and stove to cook instead over charcoal and wood, outside, and under random skies, we stand stalwart and proud at our pits, with our collars up and trimmed towards the tempest. BBQing in the cold is just what we do. What we have to do. Unless, I suppose you live, say, in Ecuador.
We have a reader amongst us, a long-time subscriber if you will, and an all-around good guy. Formerly of Minnesota, now roosting in the tropical climes of Ecuador. We have watched his blog, John and Mary Living it up in Ecuador, over the years, and admired their strange adventures, and knack for good living. If the winter draws long for you, do yourself a favor and check out their wonderful blog. It will warm you up, both inside and out. But the old boy there has a sense of humor, I must say, one that I often ponder in vain whilst I’m manning the smoker on sub-zero days like these. You see, he likes to chime in, and reminisce of what Minnesota in the winter was like. To nonchalantly act like he is in your corner. To recall fondly snowstorms in April, of football on the frozen ground, and of course, the cold. And then all too often, he likes to end his comments with some thing like this, and I quote “ I have to admit that I now usher in winter with a nice dip in the pool or the warm Pacific Ocean and a nap on the beach covered in SPF-30” John from Ecuador likes to rub it in that way. And we’re not just talking about his sunscreen. So it’s 7 Below. Lets smoke some ribs! We did this rack fairly simple. First rubbing it down with a little brown sugar, then hit it with a spicy rub I had sitting about. A little something to usher in the heat, if you can call it that. We placed the rack “bone-side” down on the pit, over a steely bosom crackling with orange glowing coals and two fist-sized chunks of hickory. Because it was so cold, no water was added to the water pan of the WSM. It didn’t need any help keeping them temps low today. Lid on. Damper tweaked. A nice pillar of blue-tinted smoke was soon in curl. And as nice as it was out there, I don’t mind admitting none, I sidled it back inside to my easy chair, and pulled a Grandma blanket up to my chin. Glory be! Feet propped up towards the fireplace, my socks hanging off my toes like Stan Laurel in his prime, oh what sheer pleasure it is to bandy with one’s favorite blanket and fire whilst smoking pork ribs on a frosty winter’s day. And as per most rib smokes this side of perfection, I may or may not have dozed off in turn. At hour three, we went ahead and foiled the ribs with another patting of brown sugar, a few dollops of butter and a shot or two of honey, just because. It smelled good enough to tear into right here, but like a good pit boy, I resisted. My elder brother says patience comes to those who wait. I think ribs probably aren’t far behind. A good hour or so in the foil, smoker running at roughly 257 degrees higher than the outside ambient temperature = 1 rack of authentically procured BBQ ribs. The real thing, people. Oh buddy! Varnish with your favorite sauce if you please, and ingest accordingly and at your will or whimsy. SPF-30 optional, at least for some of us. Amen. Four and a Half Hour Hickory Smoked Pork Ribs . Yum! A touch of heat and bunch of sweet. Another way to pass a northern cold snap with a wee bit of class, and patron to the pit. Grill on!
I saw the grass today, and it was glorious. The amber beams of an evening sun striking a patch of it, and every soul within sight of that grass paused to rejoiced. I immediately fell prostrate, poking my nose through the wilted, brown and resilient green blades, sniffing through it like an old coon dog, reveling in the earthy aromas there. I know you southern tier folk are just shaking your head, wondering what the big deal is. You see grass every day. In point of fact, you’re probably tired of your grass. But let it be said, to a winter-locked Minnesotan, after a span of a half-year embedded in snow and ice, just the very sight of their grass sends their soul straight to church! It stirs a person by the heart-strings, and gives them hope. Hope that there is another season, one of milder inclement, and warmer evenings in front of a pastel sun. Glory!
The waft of hickory smoke came my way, whilst I was frolicking in my patch of grass. A gentle reminder that the pit was probably ready now for supper. That other tasks were on hand, besides admiring a plot of sod. Cheeseburgers! Were taking it easy tonight, nothing grandiose or elaborate, but like a sunny patch of grass after a winter eternal, delightful, none-the-less.
Three portly third-pounders hit the hot cast iron grate with a trademark sizzle. I had some hickory wood on the coals too, just for good measure. For seasonings tonight we used a liberal dose of Famous Dave’s Steak & Burger Seasoning, a tasty pantheon of flavor concocted by local BBQ genius, Famous Dave Anderson. It’s pretty good on any cut of beef, burgers in particular. We cooked the burgers in-direct the entire time.
Putting the burgers opposite the hot coals does a couple of things really well. One, it cooks them a little slower. Pit keepers as a rule are never in a hurry, less entombed in heady throes of competitive BBQ. But indirect cooking, like we’re doing tonight, first thwarts the odds of morphing your plunder into blackened rubble, and thus gives the wood smoke more time to do its high magic. Slowing down via in-direct cooking also gives a person covetous slots of time in which to take up the proper BBQ posture, pit-side, feet propped up, hat tilted just so, left leg crossed over right, with a manly beverage close at hand. These are the moments we grill jockeys live for. Moments where we can study the coals, and watch the smoke curl. Admire the interesting cloud shapes as they parade over-head. Listen to the tweety birds and feel the gentle breeze on our face. A time at last we can be still, and just watch the world spin. And how yonder, the golden sun falls upon a lone patch of grass. The simple things to be sure. And every one of them, patron to the pit. Amen.
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.
The first major snowfall of the winter hit the Twin Cities a little while ago, and it was the usual commute scene, by and far. With little cars spinning their aluminum wheels in vain, across unruly intersections, with all the get-up-and-go, it seemed, of hamster balls in peanut butter. And if they got through that, they generally were OK, until they got home that is, and found themselves at once mired at the end of the driveway. It was that kind of day. Most folk were able to make their way along well enough, slow and steady, like smoking a good brisket. Except, I suppose, those over-eager souls who stared glumly at their steering wheels from the bottom of ditches, cell phone in hand. Suffice it was a crummy day to drive around in Minnesota, but dare I say a glorious one in which to light the BBQ, and toss on a couple of steaks! That is what we did anyways. And if you have a moment, and a hot chocolate handy, I’ll tell you a little more about it.
By suppertime, the snow which had been falling all the day long, seasoning the land so beautifully, had also conveniently tapered off into a scattered few serenely falling flakes. And the usual Alberta clipper, fraught with bone-penetrating cold, and icy gales, had not yet descended from what frosty latitudes once conceived. Hence a moment of grace in the blizzard time line had presented itself, and given enough time and wit, a patron of the pit will usually muckle onto such windows of opportunity, and exploit it. Like a lab monkey to the happy button, we exploit it indeed.
Whilst the neighborhood softly bustled under a gray sky, with the sounds of snow blowers and shovels grinding over iced concrete, I placed a lovely rib eye steak over the coals, followed by a thick porterhouse. Nothing like putting meat to flame to greet the winter, meeting it halfway, as they say. A sort of gesture unto the thrones of ice, stating to yourself I suppose, that tho the wintry tiers may be advancing, long be it before you hang up your tongs. Besides, I like steak. And I liked how they sizzled in the relative hush of a snowy night, and how good the heat felt bellowing out of the pit amid a world where snowy spruce bows gently bent. I flipped the steaks, searing the other sides over the pit’s fiery bosom. Tossed on another chunk of cherry wood, then hit the beef with a little garlic and onion salt. I know we keepers of the pit are known for our fancy rubs and intricate marinades, but with a good steak people, this is about as clever as we get. There is something very satisfying, and primal, about keeping it simple where steak is concerned. And at the tail of a tempest, simple seemed the way to go.
Tucking the old cow indirect, and putting the lid on, I slipped my hands into the familiar pockets of the smoking jacket, and watched the evening transpire. I enjoyed the warm light peeking out through grill damper, and how the wood smoke accompanied it, in soft, aromatic tendrils. And tho the tweety birds were all hunkered down, a small squadron of Canadian geese honked and chortled overhead, southbound, their feathery wings stroking through the still, night air like paint brushes to canvas. I liked that. I fancied greatly the way a sound wave traveled this eve, hushed and intimate, and with great touch, the way it always does after a fresh snow fall. There is a serenity found at the end of a snow storm, whence the last flakes have waned. A golden hour of acoustic magic, and a white splendor to tug the soul. A giddy expanse of time where even a grown man will recoil into a youthful state again, and for a moment, when the neighbors aren’t so much looking, frolic as if he were ten again.
And the wood smoke gently curled.
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!
Why is it when us Patrons of the Pit become giddy as a kid on Christmas when we know a snow storm is in our forecast? Why is it we contemplate our next meat choice in the grocery store as the weatherman predicts a cold and heavy snow. Why do we bundle up and head out into the tundra as we know the rest of the world stays inside? As the winter wonderlands blow across our patios we hold our tongs in hand waiting to add another chunk of hickory to the flame. Our neighbors gaze out the window and question what we are up to next. Our wives sip hot coco and smile knowing that they will get a meal out of our insane obsessions. While the whole time we sit in peace. As snowflakes falling on our stocking hats and ice crystals collect on our whiskers. We breathe in and out, taking in as much of the aromatic mixture of smoke, meat and spice rubs. It’s natural…it’s poetic.
Yes, to all of those affected by the storm this weekend. Let your grill smoke away. Let your meat slowly fall apart on the hot grate, when only 1/16th of an inch away, Winter hammers the lid of your smoker with its fierce cold. When you sit at your dinner table, fork in hand and BBQ sauce in the other, smile at your accomplishments. Laugh at yourself knowing you have performed an act that most people in their right mind never would. Then eat!
Over a steaming cup of tea, I glance out the window at the pit, watching spindrift swirl off the house in a fashion suitable maybe, for the weathered, icy, flanks of Everest. The mercury gauge read a sporty 5 degrees F, but the weather man said it felt more like minus 15, and I guess believed him. You kind of have to believe him I concluded, when it feels like your parking brake is engaged when you back down the driveway in the morning, only it isn’t Yeah, it was cold out there alright. A vintage January day in Minnesota. The kind of day where you put on two or three shirts in the morning, and then you go about the business of getting dressed. I curled my toes in my warm socks, fingers cradling the hot, porcelain cup , and after a dash of consideration, I decided to do the only sensible thing I could think of – to go outside naturally, and ignite the Snow Weber!
Robert Frost postulates in his poem the virtues of world destruction either by the fire or by ice, figuring either, if we had to, would be pretty nice. I wonder tho if he ever grilled in winter, or knew that the two forces could harmonize together for the betterment of his tummy. Because they can. And so it was, with pork chops in hand, I stepped out onto the wind-swept patio, and at once my left eye lid seared tight from the keen northern wind. I love it! Tenderly I placed the two chops on the hot grate, and admired them there for a spell. The previous owners of which I’m sure knew each other back on their farm. Perhaps routinely getting together for morning slop, to discuss their lives, their hopes, and their dreams. Maybe they even aspired to make it on to this blog one day. Hmm. I shook off the thought, and dusted the chops with some Louisiana Fish Fry Cajun Seasoning instead.
After a while, and maybe even longer than that, I felt the compulsion to put the lid on, and go think about my life. Nothing quite so fine as repairing out in the yard with a 15 below cross-wind, whilst two pork chops sizzle on the snow grill. Glory! The art of winter grilling, if your wondering, is not to fight it. But to embrace it. To make the proverbial glass of lemon aid out of it. To meet it on it’s terms and not your own. That, and a degree of lunacy doesn’t hurt none either.
And supper is served, courtesy of, and inspired by:
Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.