Seasoned with Smoke
Lately I’ve been playing with an assortment of wood chips and other smoldering materials, including dried corncobs, orange peels, and seaweed, to see which types of smoke have the most appetizing affinities for which kinds of food.
Here’s my latest favorite combination: a pork picnic shoulder smoked with pecan chips. I know the meat looks a lot like a ham, but --- strictly speaking --- a ham is cut from the hind end of a pig and then it is typically cured in salt and smoked by the producer/farmer before this little piggy goes to market. Instead, a picnic shoulder comes from a pig’s front leg and part of the shoulder. And while a ham usually requires only reheating, a picnic shoulder is often sold as raw meat and requires hours and hours of cooking at low temperatures.
Why low temperatures? This part of the pig gets a lot of exercise walking around the barnyard (or wherever), so it develops sinewy muscles throughout the meat. The long, slow cooking at temperatures hovering around 250˚F. breaks downs the sinews while also melting the twisted threads of fat, so your reward is tenderness more succulent than any ham can deliver.
I cooked this particular picnic shoulder for about 10 hours, with the grill’s lid closed for nearly all that time so the embers banked to one side of the grill wouldn’t burn too quickly. As important as the low temperatures were, the real key to this recipe was the quality of smoke. For years, I’ve taken pleasure in the Southern tradition of combining pork with hickory smoke. Both are abundant in the South and they lend credence to the old expression “What grows together goes together.”
This month I discovered the equally wonderful marriage of pork and another wood common to the South: pecan. The pecan chips cast a sweet, earthy aroma that is not as pungent as hickory smoke, which is great news for people new to smoking meat. Their biggest mistake is using too pungent a smoke for too long. Several hours of hickory or mesquite smoke can obliterate many cuts of meat. On the other hand, just a couple handfuls of pecan chips added each hour during the first couple of hours of cooking, when the pores of the meat are open and ready to absorb the aromas, can season your food with a true and subtle taste of the great outdoors.
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Seasoned with Smoke (03.01.06)
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