Garden Report 2018

We’ve been growing plants and herbs at the house for a few years now (but not as many as I wish we had in retrospect). But, as far as I could find with a cursory search, I’d never done an end of summer summary of how the growing season went for us. I know there are still somewhere between a few weeks and a couple months before first frost, but I don’t expect anything to radically change between now and then.

This year we planted the following plants:

  • 3 x sweet basil (from a hardware store)
  • 3 x tomatoes (from a hardware store)
  • 2 x thai basil (from a hardware store)
  • 1 x thai basil (mother-in-law planted from some I bought at a grocery store)
  • 1 x rosemary (from a hardware store)
  • 1 x thyme (from a hardware store)
  • 1 x chili (from father-in-law)
  • 1 x mint (from in-laws)

The ones I planted were done around the beginning f the planting season – around when they started being sold at a hardware store (I honestly can’t remember if this year it was Home Depot or Lowes). The ones from my in-laws were around mid-July. We also had mint in the front yard (planted last year) and some fig trees and a persimmon tree that have been with us for around 5-6 years at this point.

So, how did it go this year? Let’s start with the failures and move our way up.

The biggest failure: the front yard mint. Once upon a time it grew so prodigiously that a groundhog thought it made a great place to hide. I was giving away mint at work so it wouldn’t go to waste. Then we had two things back to back from which it has never recovered: a power-washing of our house’s walls with some kind of “organic” soap and the need to dig up the area around it to put some rocks near the porch to stymie future groundhogs. Since then we get maybe one stalk. There are two possibilities – one is that the front yard tree has grown so large that not enough sunlight reaches the area and the other is that I need to put more nutrients into the soil. Or a combination? Or neither? I haven’t really nerded out about horticulture like I have with cooking, computers, and photography. This year I think we got 3 leaves. Pathetic.

One of the tomato plants
One of the tomato plants

Next up were the tomatoes. Every time I talk to anyone else who grows tomatoes they always say they get more tomatoes than they know what to do. Never the case with me. Despite watering the plants twice a day, after their first time flowering, they tend to falter. Right now they barely have any leaves doing well. Over the three plants I harvested MAYBE 12 tomatoes.

 

Sweet Basil
Sweet Basil

About somewhere in the middle is the sweet basil. Being able to go out to the garden to grab it whenever we wanted to make a red sauce or salad was the impetus to start our garden in the first place. Just like the tomatoes, it seems to need lots of water. (Although when we had a straight week of rain, that seemed to be way too much water and the plants seemed to respond badly to that as well) Unlike the tomatoes we’ve had a fairly decent harvest. We never seem to get the enormous basil bushes or two-foot tall plants I always read about, but we seem to mostly have about as much basil as we need at any one time. I might prefer four plants next year and just get creative if things get a little too bountiful. Overall, this is our first successful set of plants on this list.

thyme
thyme

Then we have a tie between thyme and rosemary. With barely any maintenance they’ve both grown beyond my expectations. It may help that recipes for free rosemary and thyme are relatively rare. But I do like how much I get out of it without very much work at all. I may make use of it along with some of the mint for some lamb before the summer grilling season ends. (Not that the end of the season really stops me) I’d like to get one rosemary and one or two thyme plants next year. Fresh thyme just tastes so much better than dried.

rosemary
rosemary

 

mint
mint

Another tie between the backyard mint and chilis. For having been planted so late in the year, both are giving good yields. And, I’ve already harvested some mint before when I had some summer rolls. Will definitely go for a pot or two of mint next year. As for the chilis – my chili needs tend to be very small. A couple poblanos here and there. May a habanero for a recipe. It doesn’t make sense for me to grow any. But if my father-in-law wants to “sublet” some growing space again next year it’s no big deal.

chilis
chilis

 

The winner of the backyard plants is also the one I’m growing for the first time this year: thai basil. Much less fussy about water than basil and the leaves don’t get too much smaller if you let the flowers grow. It has grown so much, that my mother-in-law split some off from one of the plants and replanted it. I wanted to have some on hand because every once in a while we just up and decide to make some phở or other dish and to get thai basil we have to do a 30 minute round trip to the asian market. So I just wanted to have some outside. It’s been more than worth the time and money.

thai basil
thai basil

As for the trees, the fig trees seemed poised to produce a lot this this year, but then we had a freak dip in temperature early in the summer that seemed to kill off a lot of the flowers. It’s been a relatively low yield year for the figs. By contrast, the persimmon tree is producing so many that some are falling to the ground to decay.

 

So, for next year I’d like to do:

  • 1 x tomato – the wife wants to see if we can figure out yield issues
  • 4 x sweet basil
  • 1-2 x thyme
  • 1 x rosemary
  • 2-3 x mint
  • 2 x thai basil

 

I’d also like to do some research and see if I can figure out why the mint isn’t growing in the front garden. Also, and this is quite possibly not going to happen this year, I’d like to toy around with building a gadget to measure soil moisture and see if that can help with the more finicky plants.

My CHILDHOOD!

I think it’s hilarious that they way they’re capitalizing on my nostalgia for computer games is by turning them into card games.

New Food I Cooked in June 2018

Just a small image gallery of food I tried cooking for the first time in June.

Thunderbird Chicken Scratch

Last time I was in Florida my mom took me to a specialty BBQ store, Just Grillin, off of Dale Mabry in Carrollwood. I didn’t know such places existed. I thought everyone just bought their grills at a hardware store, Amazon, or direct from the company. It was a pretty great to be able to see and touch Yoders, Weber Summits, and other high-end BBQs. They also came by with some chicken they’d cooked in the back using a variety of rubs they sell. Oh yeah, the entire wall behind the register was full to the brim with rubs and sauces – most (if not all) of them local or competition group rubs. Any rub you wanted to try would be poured into a tasting cup. Sure, it’s not the same as having the rub on some food, but it’s certainly better than the blind buying we have to do with supermarket rubs. As a gift, mom said she’d get me any rub I wanted to try, so I picked up Thunderbird Chicken Scratch. Then a bunch of travel meant I had to keep waiting impatiently until I could finally try it. Last night I finally got my chance.

I asked the wife to get me some boneless, skinless thighs and legs from Costco. Boneless for faster cooking and skinless because no one in the house but me eats the skin. I checked the rub ingredients and it already had salt, so I would dry brine the thighs and legs with the rub. A couple hours before I was planning to grill, I patted the parts dry and I placed them onto a baking sheet. There I generously seasoned them – as in put rub over the entire surface by shaking it over the food. I wasn’t looking for pork shoulder-level coverage, but I wanted to make sure every bite had rub on it. Then I put the chicken into the fridge uncovered. I had been planning to cook them on the gas grill for a faster start, but the rub’s label stated it was developed to be eaten with smoked meat, specifically pecan. So half an hour before I wanted to start cooking, I fired up the kettle and placed a couple small chunks of pecan on the coals. I wanted a medium heat, so I spread a chimney evenly over the grill, leaving only a small area for flare control, even though I wasn’t expecting it to be an issue.

Pecan wood in the charcoal
Pecan wood in the charcoal

I grabbed the chicken from the fridge and used a silicone brush to paint some canola oil onto both sides of the chicken. Five minutes later, the grates were hot and I was ready to go. After throwing the chicken on, I left the bottom vents completely open and closed the top vent halfway. This measured 350ish on the dome thermometer which I know is inaccurate, but I note for consistency. I don’t usually bother with accurate measurements when I’m grilling chicken, only when I’m cooking indirectly. After 7.5 minutes, I flipped the chicken – it was looking quite beautiful.

Chicken on the grill
Chicken on the grill

After closing the lid again, I noticed the temp had dropped to 300 (one of the pitfalls of closing the lid with the coals spread everywhere is that it reduces flow from the bottom vent). So I reopened the top vent and it bounced back to 350 and stayed there. After another 7.5 minutes the chicken was at 165 or more on all but 2 pieces. So I left those on the grill with the lid open while I went to the kitchen to get a loaf of bread to throw on the grill. By the time I came back, the chicken was measuring a safe temp and so it joined its brethren in the cassarole dish loosely tented while I raked the coals to one side to create a smokey “oven” for the bread. Ten minutes later food was ready.

The chicken had a nice, seasoned taste with a little bit of a kick. I’m in love with with spicy – I eat Indian spicy, Korean spicy, and only Honolulu Thai spicy was a bit much for me. The inredients list has three types of hot peppers, but they’re in a ratio that provides a heat that doesn’t linger. It says, “hey there, tongue!” and then is gone in the next bite of salad or bread. The chicken was incredibly juicy (I wasn’t sure how it would be – I usually brine in a soy sauce concoction that my wife has adapted with various herbs to suit fajitas, lamb, chicken, and ribs) and I loved sopping up the chicken juices and bits of rub from my plate. I’m not sure how easy it is to get this rub outside of this store in central Florida, but I highly recommend it if you’re bored of your usual chicken taste. (Also endorsed by: my wife, my mother-in-law, and the guy at work that I talk to BBQ about and had a bite of the chicken)

Chicken is Done
Chicken is Done

Some Self-Portraits from Sept 2017

I had been experimenting with a Van Dyke and I would soon be shaving it off, so I took a few self-portraits with the facial hair. First a straight-forward one:

Self-Portrait with Van Dyke

Then I couldn’t decide between a high key (which I rarely do) or a straight-forward black and white, so here are both:

Self-Portrait with Van Dyke (High Key)

 

Self-Portrait with Van Dyke

Steakhouse Burgers

Continuing my summer of learning to cook new dishes, I decided to tackle steakhouse burgers. I’d already mastered diner burgers, so I wanted to work on these. I didn’t follow Meathead’s directions 100% in that I didn’t create ground beef out of a nice cut of meat. But I did follow his recipe for using 2 zone cooking to make good-tasting, thick burgers.

Steakhouse burgers on indirect heat
Steakhouse burgers on indirect heat (with some on direct heat)

Now, it’s possible that it’s because I crowded my burgers (18″ kettle, not much of a choice), but it took WAY too long to come up to temp. After 20 minutes it was not anywhere near 155. Since it was getting late, I just moved them to the sear side to speed up the cooking.

Finishing up the steakhouse burgers
Finishing up the steakhouse burgers

So, in the end it was more of a char than a sear (which is what I was trying to avoid). I’d like to give it another chance, but it’s tough when everyone in the house prefers the diner burgers. I think even if I got the steakhouse burgers perfected, that would still be the case, but I still want to try. We’ll see when I get another shot.

Alabama Birds with White Sauce

Part of the fun of being into BBQ has been trying new things. As I’ve mentioned before, when I was growing up “BBQ” was what we called grilling and it MOSTLY consisted of burgers and hot dogs. Very occasionally it would be something else. Lots of lighter fluid and mediocre results. But now I know about low and slow and smoking and 2-zone grilling. And once I mastered ribs, chicken, and brisket it was time to experiment. So I tried Meathead’s recipe for Alabama Birds with White Sauce.

smoking the chicken quarters
smoking the chicken quarters

I threw the chicken on the smoker as he recommended. Then I using some direct grilling (I had some corn grilling on the Weber Kettle), I crisped up the skin.

Finished chicken
Finished chicken

Finally I added the sauce:

smoked white sauce chicken
smoked white sauce chicken

The sauce had a nice piquancy to it. It was milky and spicy – I’d say if you like to mix your cole slaw with your chicken while eating BBQ, you’ll likely enjoy this sauce. In fact, I had some leftover cabbage from another meal and I poured the leftover sauce from the chicken meal onto the cabbage for a makeshift coleslaw.

Also, surprisingly, my mother-in-law was really into the sauce and took the recipe home.

Baking Bread for the First Time

I’d never made bread before (not counting pizza dough), but I recently got a dutch oven on sale on Woot.com and was looking for some things to make in the device. Then I came across this recipe for No-Knead Dutch Oven Bread. It seemed really simple, so I figured it’d be a great activity to do with Scarlett. She did in fact love working on it.

Started off with this small amount of dough
Started off with this small amount of dough
Which inflated to this much dough!
Which inflated to this much dough!
After 45 minutes with the lid on
After 45 minutes with the lid on
Cutting into the bread
Cutting into the bread

Lessons learned – the crust looked fine after 45 minutes and I already cut the time with the lid off to 10 minutes. Next time I might just take it out after the 45 minutes if the crust looks good. Other than that, it’s very delicious and tastes amazing with butter.

Pizza on the Weber Kettle

In the past few years I’ve been moving away from seeing pizza as junk food towards seeing it as another food that is sometimes made with care, skill, and love and sometimes make in a hurry for a buck. I can’t remember the exact timeline and can’t be bothered to search for photo evidence, but the two restaurants that changed my mind on pizza were Two Amys in Maryland and Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn. Two very different styles of pizza, but Grimaldi’s cooked in a fire-based pizza oven and authentic Neopolitan at Two Amys. So now there was a new measurement against which to measure all pizzas: the wood-fired pizza.

Naturally, when I found out that a wood-fired pizza oven could be approximated on a Weber Kettle, I was intrigued. As usual, Meathead was my first stop for anything grilled or BBQ’d. I got myself a pizza paddle and a pizza stone.

pizza paddle
pizza paddle
pizza stone
pizza stone

For my first outing I didn’t want to do my own dough in case it turned out badly. I didn’t want to have also wasted time making dough. So I bought a couple pounds of dough from Wegmans. Then I set up the coals in a rough U shape around where the pizza stone would go.

coal setup for pizza on Weber Kettle
coal setup for pizza on Weber Kettle

I left the dough out for the amount of time recommended on the package, but it was not fully defrosted. That made working with it very challenging.

First pizza for the Weber Kettle
First pizza for the Weber Kettle

Here’s how the first one came out:

First pizza cooked on Weber Kettle
First pizza cooked on Weber Kettle

Not the prettiest, but when it’s not a perfect circle we call it rustic. I got the comment that it wasn’t quick as cooked on the top of the dough as would be preferred. So I went from 10 minutes to 15 minutes – rotating every five minutes.

Second Pizza from Weber Kettle
Second Pizza from Weber Kettle

Better crust and better cheese distribution. By this time, though, the temp in the kettle was getting low. I started with one chimney of coals. So I added some more coals above the already lit coals. This was a huge mistake as it ended up WAAAAY too smokey:

For some reason, it seems that having unlit coals underneath (or in a snake or fuse method) doesn’t cause a noticeable amount of white, acrid smoke. But adding coals on top does have the smoke issue.

Final Weber Kettle Pizza

It was pretty delicious, but actually, I found  them to be tastier the next day heated up in the toaster oven at work. But that’s generally the way I feel about pizza.

So lessons learned:

  • Pizza may need to cook for 15 minutes
  • Wegmans dough takes longer to defrost than it says on the bag
  • use a rolling pin if it’s cold or the dough will keep trying to bunch back up
  • Do not add more coals on top if the heat is getting low – have more coals already on the bottom or wait until the smoke clears again
  • Overall, it has a good pleasant taste
  • May need to use less cornmeal on the paddle or warn people about the “sandy texture”

To try next time:

Putting a mild wood like post oak or whatever they typically use in pizza ovens and see how that affects the flavor.

Smoked Chicken

Do you know why a lot of people don’t BBQ that often? Because they always make the same thing and that’s boring. So I’ve been going through all the recipes in Meathead’s book (and other sources) to see if anything else is tasty to my palette. This time it was smoked chicken. I cut the chicken in half.

I took the skin off because Danielle was going to take off the skin anyway and since this was a rub-based recipe, that would remove all the flavor as well.

Meathead's Memphis Rub on chicken
Meathead’s Memphis Rub on chicken

This time instead of Simon and Garfunkel rub, it was Meathead’s Memphis dust. I threw it on the smoker with the skin on the side to crisp it up, but I didn’t realize I was supposed to stretch it out, so I just ended up throwing it out after the smoke.

chicken smoking on the Weber Smokey Mountain
chicken smoking on the Weber Smokey Mountain

When it was done, I had a smoked chicken sandwhich. It was OK. Danielle definitely does not want this recipe again. She said it doesn’t break up the taste of the ribs and/or pork shoulder since it’s all the same rub. I do agree with her on that front. If I made this chicken, it wouldn’t be as part of a meal with Meathead’s Last Meal Ribs or a pork shoulder with his Memphis Dust.

Smoked Chicken Sandwhich
Smoked Chicken Sandwhich

Cooking Kansas City BBQ Sauce

I’d tackled all the major BBQ meats. It was time to try and make my own sauce. So I assembled all my ingredients and followed Meathead’s recipe. It’s supposed to be like KC Classic, which I’ve never had. I also went with the secret optional ingredient of Tamarind paste.

Tamarind Paste for the BBQ Sauce

Then I finished cooking

Cooking up the Kansas City BBQ Sauce
Cooking up the Kansas City BBQ Sauce

And canned it while it was still hot:

Kansas City BBQ Sauce completed
Kansas City BBQ Sauce completed

So what was the verdict? Again, I’ve never had KC Classic. My favorite commercial BBQ sauce is Trader Joe’s Kansas City sauce and that’s nice and sweat. This sauce was very tangy. While it has grown on me over the past couple months, it’s definitely not my favorite and my wife doesn’t like it at all. I want to try one more time, this time tweaking it to be a sweeter sauce. Also, I want to see how it changes when caramelized, something I haven’t had a chance to do yet. Still, it was fun to make my own and add it to my other BBQ/smoke creations.

My First Brisket!

I had been wanting to do brisket for a very long time, but I couldn’t find anywhere convenient to buy a whole packer brisket. But right before I was convinced I was going to have to go to a butcher, Costco decided to carry them.

Brisket at Costco!

Yeah, it was 20 lbs, which is ridiculous for what was essentially going to be just 3 adults, but it was USDA Prime for only $3/lb! I had no choice. I put it in my shopping cart and resolved to deal with the consequences later.

After I got home I realized I had a problem, it was too long to fit in my 18″ Weber Smokey Mountain. So I had to cut off some of the flat. (I ended up using that to make some beef phở).

cutting off some of the flat

Then I had to trim the fat. There was a pretty good amount to take off.

trimming the fat off the brisket
trimming the fat off the brisket

I put on a Dalmatian rub and put it into the fridge to dry brine.

brisket dalmation rub

The next day I fired up the smoker and got to work on the Texas mop sauce.

ingredients for the Texas mop sauce
ingredients for the Texas mop sauce

Instead of vegetable oil, I rendered some of the brisket fat:

rendering brisket fat
rendering brisket fat

I should have cut it into smaller pieces to increase the rendered fat to fried fat ratio, but there’s a first time for everything. And here’s my completed mop sauce:

Texas mop sauce
Texas mop sauce

The taste reminded me a lot of my mom’s carne con papa sauce or a ragu. I think a bit over 20 hours later, the brisket was finally done smoking:

Smoked brisket
Smoked brisket

I used Kingsford coals with the minion method and some hickory as the wood. I always think it’s so funny the smoked food looks burnt until you cut into it and get that delicious food. But first I had to put it in the cooler for four hours.

waiting for the brisket to cool
waiting for the brisket to cool

and then finally was able to bring it inside:

ALMOST TIME!
ALMOST TIME!

then FIRST CUT!

Even the lean part was ridiculously moist. The whole thing was practically falling apart.

more brisket cutting shots!
more brisket cutting shots!

Here’s a look at the point where you can see muscle grains going in two different directions:

a cut from the point
a cut from the point

And here was my dinner that day:

Brisket dinner
Brisket dinner

A week later this is all that was left:

And after searching fo what else I could do with my brisket, I made brisket tacos!

Brisket tacos!
Brisket tacos!

So, what were my lessons learned from my first brisket? Basically, I was a little too focued on getting to 203 when I should have checked for probe tender at 195 and every few degrees after that. I ended up with an overcooked (although moist, not dry) brisket that just fell apart a little too much. Overall, it was good, but I also realized I’m just not that into brisket compared to other BBQ foods. I prefer ribs or chicken. I’ll make brisket again, but only if I’m cooking for a group so I don’t need to eat 10ish lbs of brisket over the course of a couple weeks.

Second Smoked Pork Shoulder

This past winter I smoked a pork shoulder for the first time. I learned some lessons, continued to work on getting better with my kettle, and decided it was time for pulled pork again.

Unfortunately, the price of pork was up $1.49/lb from $0.99/lb this winter.

I cut the pork shoulder into roughly equal halves. I had three things I wanted to experiment with:

  1. Would it cook faster?
  2. Would it be nice to have twice as much bark?
  3. I wanted to try a Mexican-ish rub on one to have pulled pork tacos.
The larger pork shoulder half
The larger pork shoulder half
The smaller half of the pork shoulder
The smaller half of the pork shoulder

In my opinion, for a long Weber Kettle cook you can’t beat a snake. If it’s going to go VERY long, it can be a pain as you have to move the water pan to continue the snake. But for medium-long cooks, it’s a nice, perfect way to have a consistent temperature throughout the cook.

Snake or fuse method
Snake or fuse method

This time around I went with Apple wood chunks to see if I could taste the difference from Hickory. Well, without them side-by-side I couldn’t really tell the difference.

Charcoal setup with the apple wood chunks
Charcoal setup with the apple wood chunks

Used the Weber Spirit as a safe place to light the first ten coals.

Lighting the charcoal
Lighting the charcoal

We were expecting rain, so I also setup my umbrella.

With the fire going, I set about to putting the rub on the pork shoulders while waiting for the kettle to get to 225 F.

Pork shoulder rubs
Pork shoulder rubs

It was quite windy and I ended up keeping the lower vents mostly open for most of the smoke.

And here’s a shot partway through the cook.

Two shoulders was just a bit too much side-by-side on the Kettle if you’re leaving enough space between them and keeping them away from getting direct heat from the snake/fuse. Here’s the graph of the smoke:

Pork Shoulder 20170506
Pork Shoulder 20170506

The fajita rub was off the fire first:

Fajita Rub Pork Shoulder
Fajita Rub Pork Shoulder

About an hour later, the Meathead rub shoulder was done:

One pulled pork and one freshly plucked from the kettle
One pulled pork and one freshly plucked from the kettle
Both pulled pork shoulders
Both pulled pork shoulders

First I created a pulled pork fajita:

pulled pork fajita

It was quite delicious! Then it was time for a pulled pork sandwich:

Pulled Pork with Shealy's BBQ Sauce
Pulled Pork with Shealy’s BBQ Sauce

I was reading through Meathead’s sauce page on AmazingRibs.com and saw that Shealy’s was the best South Carolina Mustard BBQ sauce. I ordered some from Shealy’s and …. I did not like it. It just tasted like mustard to me. However, as time passed and I tried the sauce with other pork dishes, I came to taste the subtle difference between this sauce (which is mustard, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce) and regular yellow mustard and I like it quite a bit now.

Finally, my wife had some pulled pork nachos:

Pulled pork nachos
Pulled pork nachos

This time the bark was perfect and my wife loved it. Not sure what’s different. The main difference is that it’s spring now and not winter and Meathead does say that humidity can affect cooks. It’s also possible I overcooked it last time. I’m not 100% sure. Either way, it was a resounding success and I had fun trying all sorts of different dishes with the pulled pork. Also pretty awesome (but I didn’t get a photo) was my pulled pork breakfast burrito.