Summer grilling experiments

I have a fantastic outdoor cooking system that grills and smokes over charcoal or propane heat. That means I have great ways to cook almost anything. In addition to the posts I have already shared with you, where I discovered the ease of making my own delicious nitrate-free bacon and impeccable home-smoked pastrami, I played around with a few other great recipes this summer.

One of my favorite smoker recipes is a beer-can chicken, and I have made them several different ways. They’re great with any type of beer, but they’re also very good with any liquid inside that beer can. I made a sangria chicken, which was tasty but red wine isn’t a very strong flavor compared to the wood smoke and chicken so the flavor wasn’t very strong; as well as a mimosa chicken with chardonnay and orange juice. But by far the best beer-can chicken I’ve made so far was with teriyaki sauce and pineapple juice in the can, and sliced pineapples stuck to the outside of the bird. Fantastic!

The next time I made a beer-can chicken, I just added coarsely-ground kona coffee to the beer (in the can) and stuck bacon slices on the outside of the chickens. The coffee actually brewed inside of the cans! That was a great one.

Another excellent recipe is poulet yassa, a wonderful Sengalese/ West African chicken dish made by marinating the chicken in lemon juice, mustard (it’s better when you use your own homemade mustard), oil, onions, vinegar, chili peppers and other spices. Try this easy recipe here, then grill it or cook it in a stovetop skillet.

Of course, summertime grilling doesn’t have to be all about meat. Dry-roasted corn is one of the best party snacks you can make, and it’s as easy as stripping the fine hairs from between the corn and the husk and placing the ears directly on the grill. Watch it carefully for flame-ups, and then consume as a healthy snack or as an ingredient in a fabulous corn dish like this one.

For an impromptu cookout, my favorite way to add flavor and pizzazz to regular veggies (like asparagus and portabella mushrooms) is to just add a little salad dressing, preferably a homemade vinaigrette. I also like to experiment with the variety of sauces and savory jams that I always seem to have in my refrigerator, and add them to plain ol’ chicken breast.

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Mimosa-mesquite smoked chicken

I’ve been experimenting with the concept of beer-can smoked chickens lately, because they’re delicious and easy to make, plus they provide for an extremely tasty stock once the tender, moist meat is all gone.

The idea is basically to oil and season the outside of the chicken, then sit it upright, stick a beer can up its you-know-what, and sit it vertically on a smoker while the liquid inside the can keeps the meat and the inside of the bird nice and moist. It’s excellent when made with beer (although ironically, it’s better with a cheap, domestic Bud Light sort of beer than it is with a dark and strong Guinness type), and it’s delicious with a sweet fruit juice, so I decided to combine the two ideas and use a more concentrated orange juice with a cheap chardonnay.

I found that the easiest way to prepare the chicken is to sit it on top of the beer can (in this case, an empty one), then season and oil the outside of the chicken. Once the chicken has been moved to the smoker, you can add the mimosa mixture or other liquid through the top of the cavity — you’ll actually be able to look inside the top of the chicken and see the beer can inside.

I smoked it over soaked mesquite wood chips, for 3-4 hours or until the chicken has reached an internal temperature of at least 165. Once the bird is cooked, it’s best to let it rest (put it in a big pot and cover with foil) to let the juices redistribute.

The meat is EXTREMELY tender and juicy. Plus, once the chicken has been picked clean of the meat, the carcass will make a smoky and delicious stock. I just put the whole carcass in a crock pot (or in a gallon-size freezer bag to make into stock at a later time), cover it with water and a few spices, and let it simmer until all of the meat has come off of the bones. This is an excellent way to use any chicken or turkey carcass, and it’s even better when the meat has been smoked!

beer can chicken recipe card

My $5 Slow-Food Challenge: Homemade Chicken Posole

I know I am a little late in taking up the trend of a slow food challenge, but once I found this awesome and delicious recipe, I couldn’t resist. They say you can’t eat a nutritious and homemade meal for less than you would pay for a junk meal at a fast-food joint, and a number of other bloggers have set out to take back the “value meal” and prove that sentiment wrong.

I didn’t just prove it wrong. I kicked that theory’s butt.

Luckily for me, surviving on less than $5 per meal it isn’t a daily challenge anymore, but regardless, there’s nothing that makes me happier than a great meal for just a little money. I was raised by my mother and grandmother, and we weren’t rich — but even if we had been millionaires, my grandmother wasn’t the type to be frivolous with the ingredients. She still would have gotten the cheapest cuts and made them delicious, instead of the best cuts and the easiest recipes. She took great pride in making a huge meal and feeding her entire family for a small sum. Grandma would have absolutely loved this one.

As it is today, I am a single girl with lots of single friends, and they will all love to come over and eat this. For less than $4 per person, 4 of my friends (plus me) can have a huge bowl and take some home for later.

The cost breakdown:

  • $4.80 … Chicken thighs (2 packages of about 4 thighs each)
  • $3.10 … 2 cans of salsa verde ($1.55 each)
  • $1.57 … 1 big can of hominy
  • $1.49 … corn tortillas
  • $1.31 … chicken bouillon (this is a pack of 8 and you only need 2 for this recipe — you’ve probably got some in your cupboard right now)
  • $0.91 … bottle of Tapatio hot sauce (you probably also have some hot sauce lying around but this is the cheapest)
  • $0.90 … head of cabbage (shred it)
  • $0.40 … bunch of radishes (slice them)
  • $0.50 … bunch of cilantro
  • $0.75 … two onions (dice them)
  • $0.45 … two limes

Total of $16.18, which works out to about $3.24 per quart. Not serving. Quart. Everyone can have a big bowl and take some home for later.

A couple of other notes about this extremely adaptable recipe:

  • You can make it even cheaper than this. Omit the chicken and make it totally vegetarian, or use a cheap cut of pork. It would also be slightly cheaper and just as flavorful to use a whole chicken (bones and all). You can also save money by making and using your own stock (chicken, pork, or vegetarian) or your own homemade salsa, or your own homegrown herbs, like cilantro, or vegetables.
  • You can stretch it out! There’s an old Mexican saying for when people unexpectedly show up at your house, that loosely translates to “put more water in the beans,” and that’s what comes to my mind with this great meal. You can make it for 5 people or for 25 people. Stretch out the recipe by making it in a huge stock pot and adding more chicken, water and bouillon, and pad the sides with extra vegetables to stretch it out and feed even more people.
  • You can also make this more expensively. Use a good cut of pork instead of chicken thighs (although a more expensive cut of chicken, like a boneless breast, might get a little dry, so I would stick with a thigh since it’s got the flavor from the bone and the fattiness of the skin), use a tomato-based (red) salsa instead of canned tomatillo salsa. You can also use store-bought stock instead of bouillon, or top it with gourmet cotija cheese and sliced avocado.
  • There are lots of ways to add extra flavor. I smoked my chicken, but that’s just because I used smoked chicken for my last chicken stock, and it was so maddeningly good that I swore I would never again make a chicken soup without smoking the chicken first. It adds a wonderful flavor to any soup or chili. 
  • Fancy tools aren’t necessary. Of course I realize that most families for whom eating for less than $5 a day is a true challenge probably don’t own their own smoker. Or their own crock pot, for that matter. You can add as much extra flavor by making the soup in a large pot on the stove and seasoning the chicken, then searing it at high heat for a few minutes, then adding the salsa, onions, hominy, etc.
  • Just because this is a cheap meal doesn’t mean it needs to be a flavorless meal. Add the flavors you and your family love to eat.

Posole (also spelled “pozole”) is an incredibly adaptable dish, and indeed some versions are particular to certain regions of Mexico and Central and South America.

Based on my preliminary research talking to abuelitas and tias I know, my understanding is that “traditional” depends on the location. It can be made with pork or chicken, with red or green salsa, with a clear or a vegetable-filled broth. Some regions near the ocean in Central and South America specialize in a fish stew, and some inland areas that are thousands of miles from any coast will have a chicken leg in a huge communal pot of vegetables of every type. It’s mind-boggling how many variations there are for one dish.

I also have heard that posole has the same restorative properties as menudo after a long night of drinking. I can’t get behind menudo no matter how many versions of it I try, but I have to say that I have enjoyed a bowl of this soup after a long day of watching a football game or three, and I can personally vouch for its ability to make you feel human again. But how could it not? Slow-cooked chicken and broth, and fresh, nutritious vegetables. This is an incredibly healthy and delicious meal.

The version that is my personal favorite is with chicken and green tomatillo salsa, then served with chopped cabbage, onion, cilantro, radish, a dash of hot sauce and a squeeze of lime. One day I plan to make this with pork, only I will smoke the pork beforehand. Imagine this delicious and spicy soup with chunks of deliciously smoked pork, with a lovely smoke ring, seasoned and smoked to a perfect crispiness. Mmmmm.

This is what it looks like after slow-cooking on high for a few hours. Take out the bones and skin, add the chilled toppings.

Hillary’s Smoked Chicken Posole

  • (see ingredient list above)
  • 3 quarts water

Step 1 (optional): Smoke the chicken for 2-3 hours at 200 degrees over hickory and mesquite chips.

Step 2: Place the chicken (with skin and bones still intact) into a 5-quart crock pot. Add onion, cans of salsa and hominy (drain the hominy first), then add two cubes of bouillon and water. Set slow cooker on high and let cook for at least 4 hours. You can let it cook longer than 4 hours — the longer the better, but if you cook it for more than 6 hours keep it on the low setting. (Note: I used one white onion and one red onion, and chopped them both. I added half of the chopped onions to the broth, and saved the other half for garnish. Again, this recipe is so adaptable, you can do as you prefer.)

Step 3: Before serving, I like to remove the skin and bones and shred the meat a little, but you can also serve a chicken thigh intact and surrounded by broth. Since it will be extremely tender by this point, the bones will come out very easily and shredding will be as easily as taking a fork in each hand and whisking them around for a minute. Then add the chopped cabbage, radish, cilantro and fresh onion, a squeeze of lime, and serve with a hot tortilla or two.

Plum Crazy, Part I — I still have all these oranges

I am lucky enough to live in San Diego, and to have a lot of friends with fruit trees. Really, most things grow well around here if you try hard enough, but even a tree that is neglected most of the year can yield some great fruit. Most of them yield more fruit than any one person knows what the heck to do with, but that’s a perfect time to experiment!

Fresh from the tree!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I now own a really cool smoker that has already proven its worth in smoking garlic, jalapenos, pork tenderloin, chicken, sausage and steak. I’m also a sucker for a good sauce. My first idea is for a smoky plum barbeque sauce, building on what I recently learned about smoking garlic. I’m also leaning towards something that isn’t jam — I’d hate to become predictable — and I found an amazingly good-looking recipe for a Christmasy plum chutney. I learned that chutney is best if you seal it and then let it sit for a few months, so this is a perfect summer recipe to be holiday gifts later. 

The first bag of plums had been picked a couple of days before, and were given to me late last night. It became clear that these would have to be made into something immediately, and that most were fully ripe, if not borderline mushy.  This calls for a liquor emergency! Brandy and large mason jars, stat!

And, let’s face it, I still have a ton of oranges from another friend’s tree. I sliced about 5 oranges, peel and all, and removed the peel totally from another 8 or 9 oranges. This jam will need to have a little bitter flavor to offset the plum and spices. I prepped the oranges (i.e., sliced them, covered them in water) and let them sit overnight.

The next day … the oranges have been sitting at room temperature for 24 hours. I open up this huge bag of gorgeous plums. Ok, first things first. I have to triage the plums into the too-far-gone for use (to the garbage bag — sorry fellas); the cutting board to have pits and blemishes removed, then the good parts scrapped for jam; and the ready mason jars for the intact and pretty ones.

First, for the brandied plums. Equal parts brandy and sugar (I started with 4 cups each and that was only enough for two large jars), and only fill the jars about halfway with plums so they all can freely move around in there. That was easy … and these will be EXCELLENT in a couple of months!

The syrup is equal parts sugar and brandy.

Next, the jam. I prepared these oranges the same way I did in the citrus jelly post, so that I won’t have to add a tonnage of extra (and unneeded) sugar or storebought pectin. After bringing the oranges to a boil and letting them simmer for about 45 minutes, I strained the liquid through a jelly bag, and used the liquid – equal parts liquid to sugar. Then I added it to a pot of already-softening chunks of plum, fresh orange slices, and cinnamon. It doesn’t look like much, but it makes the house smell like Christmas. 🙂

Check back for the next post! With the next sack of plums I get, I plan to make chutney and barbeque sauce.