Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
“Time to light a fire . . .” That’s what celebrity chef Roger Mooking proclaims on every episode of “Man, Fire, Food” as he is about to light the coals. Although nature’s thermostat has moved several degrees higher these past few months, that is the only proclamation I need to light a fire and get back to mankind’s earliest method of cooking. I usually tell readers on the continent that the 50th has only two seasons: a very hot summer that lasts from September through May and an unbearably stifling summer from June through August. During those dog days of summer, it’s time to light up those grills and smokers. After all, if you can’t beat the heat, join ’um by creating even more heat!
Is It Barbecue?
To barbecue — or barbacoa from the Caribbean Taino culture —refers to meat, often as a whole animal slow-cooked over an open fire or sometimes in an underground pit covered over with maguey leaves. The leaves are part of the agave family (made to produce tequila and mescal) — they provide moisture during the long cooking period.
The original barbacoa process is similar to the Hawaiian tradition of cooking a pig in an imu — an underground pit — with the pig covered in banana leaves and stalks. The end result is the same whether Taino or Hawaiian: moist, slightly smoky meat that literally slides off of the bone.
As this style of cooking moved stateside, the fire pits turned into cooking chambers with a heat source that was placed either right below or next to your protein of choice. The cooking philosophy was still the same. It used lower temperatures — usually no more than 275 degrees — and cooked for long periods to essentially dissolve tough connective tissue, resulting in succulent, tender, smoky meat. If you’re in a rush, barbecuing isn’t for you, unless you’re doing takeout.
Once the barbacoa tradition spread stateside, each region developed its own cooking style. In Texas, beef is king, especially beef brisket. Barbecue sauce is forbidden — that’s like asking for ketchup on a Chicago hot dog. In South Carolina, whole hogs rule and sauce is required. Mustard-based sauces are their favorite condiment. North Carolina is known for both whole hog and pork shoulder — the eastern part of the state favors whole hog with a vinegar and red peppery sauce, while the west side favors pork shoulder or Boston butt in a tomato and vinegar-based sauce. Kansas City’s barbecues are a combination of beef and pork with a thick tomato-based sauce, like those in your local supermarket. Finally, Tennessee’s style features cuts of pork served both sliced and pulled — it’s the star of “May in Memphis,” one of the most prestigious barbecue competitions in the United States.
Or is It Grillin’?
The cooking that most folks in the 50th engage in is grilling, whether it’s on an old-school hibachi, a Weber kettle grill or a multi-burner propane grill. Grilling is meant to be fast — a quick sear over very hot coals or stainless steel heat grids.
There’s nothing wrong with grilling. A quick meal can be prepared for many diners in a short amount of time, especially if you purchase proteins that are already marinated. You can still get some of those smoky flavors when fat drips down on the coals and flares. There’s also a special flavor when a protein marinated in a shoyu sauce hits a hot grill.
Cooking directly over hot coals is Santa Maria BBQ’s specialty. Their famous tri-tip is cooked over indigenous red oak for the Central California paniolo, or vaqueros, and served with the traditional side of long-simmered pinquitos, or small, indigenous pink beans. The Santa Maria style is somewhat of a hybrid between southern barbecue and Hawai‘i style grilling. The Salt Lick in Driftwood is considered classic Texas style barbecue by connoisseurs worldwide. The meats are cooked over an open pit while most pit masters smoke their meats in closed cooking vessels. Kaua‘i ex-pat Hisako Tsuchiyama Roberts, who died earlier this year at age 104, was a master of both cooking traditions.
Ryan’s Smokin’ and Grillin’ Table
I have more smoking and grilling contraptions than any amateur chef needs: a Weber propane grill, Char Griller charcoal grill, Meco stainless steel upright bullet smoker, horizontal Char Griller offset smoker and Dyna-Glo offset upright smoker. And yet, I don’t think I’ve perfected either my smoked beef brisket or smoked pork shoulder at this point. My multiple cooking contraptions have more to do with trial and error and realizing the first device isn’t big enough for certain cuts of meat, or that a horizontal smoker requires a fan to circulate both the smoke and the heat evenly over what’s being cooked. I still have my eye on that electric Pit Boss pellet grill/smoker available at the big box home improvement stores. A guy can always dream . . .
You can create this standard kitchen staple in a slightly unconventional manner with any standard smoking vessel. It takes long to cook (smoke), but the flavors are several leagues above your standard Stove Top stuffing and ground beef meatloaf.
RYAN’S SMOKED MEATLOAF
4 lb. ground beef (80/20)
2 packages Lipton onion soup mix
1 ½ cups milk
1 cup bread crumbs
½ cup BBQ sauce
Fresh ground black pepper
Salt to taste
Mix Lipton onion soup mix with milk. Add to ground beef and then add the rest of the ingredients and mix thoroughly. Place on an aluminum roasting pan and shape like a traditional meatloaf. Place in the smoker at about 225 degrees and smoke for two to three hours or when internal temperature registers 155-160 degrees.
So even if the temperature for the next few months will be a bit south of the sun’s surface, like the sayin’ goes, “If you can’t beat ’um, join ’um” . . . by firing up your smoker and your grill.
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”