As the weather starts to draw in, and you start to think about digging jumpers and coats out of the wardrobe, you might think it's time to pack the barbecue away. Although it's probably past the time of year for you to be standing in front of a blazing grill in your shorts and “Kiss The Chef” apron, you might still get a bit of traction out of that unused bag of charcoal yet.
Readership, you may recall that I have been playing around with the notion of smoking my food. Certainly, our recent trip to Seahouses and the beautiful kippers and smoked prawns that they served up sharpened my appetite for all things hot-cured. Let's not forget, autumn is a time of bonfires and woodsmoke. Why not use that to our advantage?
Now, my slightly cobbled together smoker is a testament to what can be done with an unassuming starting point–to whit, a lidded barbie from B&Q that we picked up half price a few years back. It's never really done the job, sadly, somehow managing to take ages to come up to heat. I'm an impatient man when dinner time is near, and it's very tempting to just slap that steak on my cast iron griddle, especially if I'm just cooking for the two of us.
But really, a lidded barbecue is all you need to start smoking. WIth the addition of a thermometer that gives you the optimum temperature for cooking with smoke, you're away.
Now, I mentioned that I'm not a patient man, but this method of cooking will teach you how important that virtue is. There are no shortcuts when you're smoking food. When you're cooking ribs or a pork shoulder, you need to be thinking in terms of 12 hours or so, 8 at a bare minimum. Fish or chicken won't take as long. Maybe six hours. The serious players in the US barbecue scene put their meat on overnight. The really dedicated guys sleep with their ovens, all the better to tweak the temperature or wood mix.
Slow and low, that is the tempo. The Beastie Boys said that, and who are we to argue? Do not allow your coals to go over 225 degrees (farenheit, that's about 110 celcius). I find it's best to just use one of those little bags of self-lighting coals, which will heat up and cool quickly, but hold enough residual heat to keep things ticking over nicely. If I need to change over, It's just a case of covering the meat in foil while I dump another bag in.
You'll need wood in there as well, of course, soaked for an hour or so beforehand so they'll smoke rather than burn. Some barbies have a tray in which you can spread the chippings. If not, just form a rough bowl out of a couple of sheets of foil and pop the wood in that, next to the meat or fish. A sturdy jug of water will help to keep the atmosphere in the oven nice and moist too, helping the smoke to permeate deeper into your dinner.
The choice of wood is yours, and most garden centres have a reasonable selection (or, of course, there are online resources). Oak's better for fish and chicken, the more robust flavours of mesquite work brilliantly with beef and pork. Play around, see what works.
IIt may sound perverse after you've got up at six in the morning and spent all day watching a barbecue puttering away, but it's really nice to char your meat a little on a grill once it's smoked. It's the double cooking that makes the end result so mind-blowing. We had some pork ribs recently that, after 8 hours smoking, I drenched in Sweet Baby Ray's (the one and only barbecue sauce, accept no substitute) and blasted on a hot griddle. The end result was full of smoky flavour, absurdly rich and unctuous. Even TLC, who normally won't go near a rib, had three or four.
It's early days for me with this technique, and I'm absolutely guaranteed to have messed something up (all advice, hints and tips welcome, drop 'em in the comments if you would be so kind). I haven't even touched on the complex subject of wet and dry rubs, marinades and sauces. Again, any suggestions are very welcome.
But I'm eyeing up the bag of chicken in the freezer, thinking about a big bag of prawns, maybe a side of salmon. And considering how nice the sharp autumnal air in my back garden is going to smell with the sharp tang of woodsmoke in it.