Where There's Smoke
Cooking trends tend to pick up on and reflect cultural aspects of a region or a particular type of food. None of them are static. Every new chef, every new generation, every new outdoor cook adds, removes, reconstitutes what is known. It’s all part of the evolution of taste and just plain eating dinner. It is fun to image exactly how some of the very earliest practices found there way into being. Smoking, for instance, is a process of adding flavor, browning, drying and preserving food by exposing it to smoke from burning material, mostly aromatic wood. The prevailing theory is that someone hung up a haunch of something high over a smoldering fire so that the rising smoke would keep off pests. This led to the discovery that foods handled this way had a distinctly better flavor and lasted a whole lot longer.
We’re all probably most familiar with bacon. However, all manner of things are smoked for consumption, including: beef pastrami; pork ham, bacon, salamis, ribs and chops; lamb; fish and fish roe; shellfish such as oysters and mussels; Gouda and Gruyére cheeses; nuts, spices, particularly salt and paprika; and even eggs. The Chinese smoke tea leaves over a mixture of uncooked rice, sugar and tea in the process of preparing lapsang souchong tea. Europeans tend to prefer smoking with alder wood, though oak and beech are also used. In North America the preference is hickory, mesquite, pecan and maple woods. In recent decades there has been a resurgence of interest in smoking with fruit tree wood. It is commonplace in New Zealand to smoke fish with the sawdust from the wood of manuka trees. The oddest material found used for smoking fish, lamb mutton and whale comes to us from Iceland, where the smoke is derived from dried sheep dung. Think I’ll pass.
Speaking of things that smoke: a “smoking gun” is defined as an object that is a conclusive element of evidence of a crime or misdeed. What is the difference between a smoking gun and a smoked rib? The answer is not much if said rib is dangling from the mouth of your very unashamed cat. Thieving cats aside, our house is reputed to have begun its life as a hunting lodge. Which may account for the number of stone barbeques and the stone, beehive shaped smokehouse which remain around the property. Though we have never tried to use them, we like the fact these physical memories of another time and a different life remain with us.
There are four basic methods of smoking food. In the “cold” smoking process the food is smoked at a temperature between 68 to 86°F. Here the food remains raw throughout the processing and must be cooked before consumption. The “warm” smoking method raises the temperatures to 77 to 104°F for sufficient time to partially cook the food, though added time will cook food through. Foods smoked in the “warm” method frequently go through another cooking process such as barbequing. The “hot” smoking technique keeps the temperature between 126 and 176°F. Most fully cooked hams are smoked in this way. The final method is “liquid” smoking. In this approach, various smoke compound are liquified with water, sometime abetted with an alcohol such as bourbon, and then sprayed or brushed on the desired food as it is grilled. All of this falls under the heading of the pursuit of flavor.
We have often talked about interesting and unusual flavor combinations such as savory and sweet blends. Among such recipes on our website you will find Maple Bourbon Barbequed Spareribs, Maple Bacon Ice Cream and Rhubarb Bacon Jam. This week our recipe combines the classic maple and bacon flavors again, this time to make a very adult candy called Maple Bacon Toffee. Candy for breakfast anyone?
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