Smoke & Spice: A Griller’s Guide by Shreveport’s Chef Blake Jackson
In late May, a fellow foodie friend reached out and suggested I get in touch with a young guy named Craig Smith, the owner and rancher at Smith Family Farms in Doyline, La. We talked on the phone briefly about products he had available for sale and then he made the offer. “Come on out and see the farm. We maintain a good quality of life for our animals, and it shows,” he said.
I appreciated that it was so important to Smith that I see the whole thing in motion. And I am certainly glad I made the trip. I pulled up to a picture-perfect vision of life on the farm. Sheep in the far pasture, chickens running around, a few pigs huddled under a tin lean-to and cows on cows on cows.
After two minutes of brief backgrounds and introductions, we figured it was best to cut the bull and walk out to the pasture and see his cattle. It was easy living out there for these cows; there was no anxiety. These were happy cows. And happy cows make happy products.
“Having access to a high quality local beef has turned me in to a meat snob,” Smith said, noting that even going out to eat has become a task. “The beef itself doesn’t compare in flavor and quality to the beef I get from the farm.”
Adobo Chili Marinade
4 teaspoons crushed garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup ancho chili powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
- Brown garlic in oil.
- Add remaining ingredients and let simmer for 8-10 minutes.
- Refrigerate, then use for overnight marinade.
Most local butchers break down primal cuts. That means the animal is butchered and broken down in to pieces that are easier to portion. Butcheries moved to using these primal cuts to avoid having too much unsellable product. But in cities where the demand is high enough, the whole animal butchery is making a comeback. One such butchery is Porter Road Butcher of Nashville, Tenn., with one of their stores led by native Shreveport butcher Wesley Adams. I recently visited Adams and had the chance to explore his shop.
Zero waste is the number one component to a place like this. All fat is rendered for later use, new cuts created to utilize every bit of meat, scraps and meats in less demand are used for sausage — even the bones are roasted to take home for the family dog. It really is impressive to see.
“A cow isn’t made of only ribeyes and tenderloins,” Adams said. “The tough cuts are the most flavorful. They demand patience but are graciously rewarding.”
Cows may have once been king, but in the south, pigs are encroaching on that title. Adams serves up several pork cuts, such as a pork skirt steak, or secreto in Italian, or even a pork tri-tip. Although much smaller than its beef cousin, Adams cut a pork tri-tip for me and I treated the meat to an adobo chili marinade and a hot charcoal grill. Oh my lanta — BEST. TACOS. EVER. The marinade could be used for chicken, pork or beef.
What to grill?
- If you are looking for the best meat flavor, stick close to the bone. Pork and beef ribs, T-bones and the like. But don’t be fooled, it is not the bones that add flavor. The edible love around the bones is comprised of connective tissue and fattier meat — which lend themselves to a silky texture and rich flavor.
- If you are in a hurry, think thin. Beef cuts like flank steaks and skirt steaks are great, meaty cuts that don’t require too long to take on the flavors of a rub.
- Shopping on a tight budget? Beef sirloin offers the same steak power at half the price. And pork chops are normally easy to come by.
- Seafood can be tricky, so stick with firm fleshed fish like tuna and salmon or things like shrimp that can be grilled directly on the grates. Make sure to oil your grates beforehand to reduce sticking.
- Searching for the right steak? Look for good marbleizing. Fat is your friend, but it should not be large chunks of fat, more so flecks of white evenly dispersed throughout the red muscle.
- When shopping for meats, try to head somewhere local, where a butcher or counter staffer can help point you in the right direction from selection to preparation. Places like Maxwell’s Market do a fine job of giving advice.
So long step two; we have picked our protein.
Fire it up. Grill enthusiasts have mixed opinions on the best way to sizzle those steaks. The biggest debate? Gas versus charcoal. For convenience, gas is hard to beat. With the touch of a button and roll of a knob, a gas grill is ready to cook on in five minutes. Not to mention, gas imparts no unwanted flavors and doesn’t produce carbon monoxide the way charcoal does. But taste brings the biggest argument for charcoal. That smoky, earthy char is not replicable on a gas grill. And with a variety of different natural lump charcoals now available from trees like hickory, cherry and mesquite, you can specifically add flavors using your charcoal of choice.
But sometimes, when the high heat won’t cut the mustard, it is time to drop the temp and pump up the smoke. Local grill and smoke enthusiast Andre “Gumbomaster” Dicharry, has a full line up, including charcoal grill, gas grill and a hardwood smoker at his disposal. Dicharry said his gas grill is the go-to for searing steaks, the charcoal grill is used for thicker beef cuts and ribs, and his smoker is used for chickens and pork butts. The smoker is one of his favorites.
“I firmly believe one does not have to spend a bundle on a good smoker. Yes, the Green Egg is nice and performs well. But the classic barrel pit can achieve the same outcome,” Dicharry said. “Know your smoker is my best advice: be aware of airflow, know your temperature readings, and use it regularly. A good smoker will allow you to maintain your temperature with little effort.”
We have chosen our weapons, and we are on to…
With our meat picked out, marinated, the grill is hot — it is time to get grillin’.
First things first, meat that is wet from a marinade is not always the best option. When we put wet meat on a grill or skillet, we are preventing the searing process from happening. That sear is creating a caramelization through something called the Maillard Reaction. In other words, searing helps form a seal and reduces moisture loss.
How long should I cook it?
It is vital that you properly cook your meats to eliminate any bacteria and other bad guys that are lurking in your food. Here are the proper temps for meats across the board:
Beef and Lamb — Rare: 115 to 120°F; medium-rare: 120 to 125°F; medium: 130 to 135°F; medium-well: 140 to 145°F; well-done: 150 to 155°F.
Pork — All cuts of pork, with the exception of ground pork, should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F. Ground pork needs to be cooked to a higher temperature of 160°F.
Poultry — Rare chicken could mean a hospital visit. For a safe internal temperature, the thermometer should read 165°F for all meat.
Fish — The internal temp goal for fish is145°F.
Honeys and jams can be used as glazes and are a great way to accent a piece of meat. Some people like to baste throughout the process as a way to keep the meat moist. But it is important to remember that most glazes and sauces contain sugar. And while caramelizing is good, flames can quickly create a not so tasty burnt sugar crust. Make sure to position your meat away from the fire when basting, either to a higher rack or the opposite side of the grill. And remember, marinades contain raw meat and CANNOT be use to baste.
So finally, we are all cooked. Every piece of meat on the grill has worked hard to become a tasty bite and will need a nap before dinner. That’s right, all of our hard work can be undone if we cut in too early and don’t allow those juices to settle down. Ten minutes of rest normally does the trick. For larger cuts, let rest a little longer.
A few other helpful hints:
- Grilling a large, uneven piece of meat — like a whole chicken — can be very difficult to cook evenly without burning. Our two options? The first is to smoke instead of grill. Smoking allows an even temperature to cook through the entire piece without burning the outside. But as long as you don’t have to serve for a crowd, it is easier to cut everything into pieces and use the grill.
- Boy, have I had a few too many dried out pork chops. Make a basic brine mix of 1 gallon water and 1 cup kosher salt to soak your chops in overnight. Feeling fancy? Add peppercorns, honey, orange peel or bay leaves to your brine. A little goes a long way.
- Don’t neglect your veggies. Gourds, corn, onion, eggplant, artichokes and mushrooms are all invited to the cookout. Toss in a little garlic oil with sea salt, minced parsley and a splash of lemon juice.