Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Fired up for summer
The Arkansas Times this week gets its annual jump on the hot season with a roundup of articles about summery things, plus a clip-and-save list of the can’t-miss activities of this summer in Arkansas.
We fire up the grill for starters, slake your thirst with sangria, provide a handy beach retreat and otherwise entertain with a report on skinny dipping in the, well, Natural State, and an investigation of the latest in swimsuit fashion. But first:
Advice from the pros on perfect barbecue
It’s coming on summer, which means it’s time to break out the lighter fluid, charcoal and “Kiss the Cook” apron. While most anybody can whip up a fairly decent hamburger or hot dog (remember: outdoor chefs in Arkansas get bonus points just for braving the chiggers), most folks are a little scared to try their hand at smoking — that slow, eye-watering art that can leave you with either a perfect rack of ribs or (if you’re not so talented or lucky) a smoldering prop from “Alien Autopsy 4.”
Never fear, citizens. The Arkansas Times is here to take the anxiety out of your adventures in smoke. To that end, we enlisted the help and advice of two of Little Rock’s barbecue masters: Ron Blasingame, one of the founders of Whole Hog Cafe, and Mary Rose, owner of Mr. Mason’s Pit Bar-B-Q. Together, Blasingame and Rose dished their secrets on how to make that hunk of meat into a backyard treat.
Blasingame on perfect pulled pork and ribs
When he and two friends started Whole Hog Cafe, little did Ron Blasingame know how far his knack for cooking perfect pork would take him. From the original location on Cantrell Road, Whole Hog has grown to a chain with seven locations in four states, including outlets in Santa Fe, New Orleans and Memphis. New locations in North Little Rock and northwest Arkansas are in the works.
Without further ado, here are some of Blasingame’s tips for cooking that plate of perfect ’cue.
First, go shopping: When buying a smoker, Blasingame said the first thing home barbecuers need to consider is what they plan on doing with their new toy. Will you be cooking meat to feed your family? Your extended family? Your church? Your kid’s little league team picnic? “Consider what you’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “Be sure to choose a cooker that you can cook enough product on.” Beyond that, Blasingame said he has seen workable cookers made out of just about everything (as proof, he showed the interviewer pictures of his first rig: the Trash-be-Cue, built from two galvanized garbage cans).
Practice, practice, practice. Once you’ve got your cooker, Blasingame said, don’t expect to be turning out perfect fare overnight. “Don’t get in a rush. It’s a tool,” he said. “You’ve got to practice on it until you learn how to use it.” Part of that learning curve, he said, is figuring out the location of your smoker’s “hot spot,“ the place in every smoker where the heat from the firebox makes things several degrees hotter, thus cooking the meat in that area faster. Once you know where the hot spot is, you can rotate your meat in and out of it to minimize the effect.
Don’t cheap out on the meat. With the pork served at Whole Hog, Blasingame uses only baby-back ribs and Boston butts, as opposed to the cheaper St. Louis style ribs and pork shoulders. “The better the quality of the meat you start with,“ he said, “the better the end product is going to be.”
Fat is flavor: Don’t be afraid of fat. Pork fat renders through the meat and gives it flavor (Whole Hog, they cook their ribs “curl side up” for just this reason).
Put the “aid” in marinade. While most people think of mysterious liquids when they hear the word “marinade,” Blasingame uses the term when referring to both wet and dry rubs. Whole Hog exclusively uses dry rubs, with a different mixture of salt and spices for beef, pork and chicken (sorry; Blasingame said they’ve been having them made in bulk so long that he’s long-since misplaced the recipe for anything approaching a size you might use at home). Though a dry rub provides flavor, it’s mostly used to reduce any toughness in the meat. “I wouldn’t cook ribs that haven’t been marinaded for a minimum of 24 hours,” he said. “It just takes that long for the meat to break down and give the marinade a chance to do its thing.”
Get wood. Any hardwood can be used for smoking, with each species lending its own particular flavor to the flavor. Nut and fruit woods are usually preferred. Green wood is better for smoking, Blasingame said, though drier wood can be soaked in water ahead of time. Whole Hog uses only pecan wood to smoke meats. In competition cooking, Blasingame said he starts with pecan and finishes with apple wood chips.
Lay off the sauce. While Blasingame said Whole Hog applies a glaze in the final moments of cooking meats, you should never use any form of barbecue sauce while the heat is on. For one thing, Blasingame said it’s his opinion that well-cooked barbecue doesn’t really need sauce in the first place. For another, most sauces contain some amount of sugar or molasses. Subjected to high heat, that sugar can burn, leaving your prized chunk of pork looking — and probably tasting — like a meteorite fallen to earth.
Finally, don’t clock-watch, cook. “A lot of people make the mistake of cooking by the time,” Blasingame said. While Boston butts are fairly forgiving (Whole Hog cooks them for 15 hours at 250 degrees), ribs are much more temperamental. With ribs, Blasingame said, there’s really no substitute for going in and checking to see if they’re done. The best way to do that, Blasingame said, is to take two adjacent rib bones and try to pull the meat between them apart. “If they’re rubbery, they’re not done,” he said. “They may look dark, they may be black almost. But until they come apart easily, they’re still not done.”
On cooking the mysterious brisket, by Mr. Mason’s Mary Rose
While pork shoulder and ribs are fairly forgiving for the backyard chef, more daunting for the beginner is the third member of the Holy Trinity of barbecue: the beef brisket. As anyone who has ever sought advice on how to cook a brisket can tell you, some people’s methods border on voodoo, with long soaks in strange concoctions, sprinklings of herbs by moonlight, and odd constructions of tinfoil.
Even with all the advice on brisket cooking floating around out there on the web and elsewhere — and even though the pros routinely make it look easy — the amateur is likely to end up turning that lovely chunk of beef into an object falling somewhere in consistency between “tennis shoe sole” and “charcoal briquet.”
Time for some advice from a master — or would that be mistress?
Born on a cattle ranch in northeast Texas, Mary Rose is understandably big on brisket. Since opening in 2002, her restaurant, Mr. Mason’s Pit Bar-B-Q on Capitol Ave., has made a name for itself by serving up Little Rock’s best beef — moist and tender, with a wide pink smoke-ring and a flavor that will make you want to sing the Aggie fight song. In a state where pig is king, Mr. Mason’s brisket has converted many to the Zen of Moo.
Though Rose said people tend to shy away from the brisket, thinking it a temperamental meat to cook, she said success is possible, even for the home chef. A big part of perfect brisket, she said, is how you trim it. “Brisket by its nature is a fatty piece of meat,” Rose said. “And in order to get the leanness, there’s a certain amount of preparation that has to happen.” That means finding a knowledgeable butcher. When you do, the magic words are: “I want it nose-off and lightly trimmed.” If your friend with the apron and the big knife knows what he’s doing, this should result in several pounds of waste being removed from your brisket, while leaving a flavorful cap of fat around an inch thick on one side (allow a half-pound of raw meat per person).
Next, comes the brisket’s all-important date with the heat. After a thorough massage with rub (the rub Mr. Mason’s uses on their brisket is a closely guarded secret, but Rose said good recipes can be found on the Internet) and a 24-hour, plastic-wrapped sojourn in the fridge, Mr. Mason’s cooks their meat for 14 to 16 hours at 125 degrees, fat-side up, so the juice can render through the meat.
Though Rose has used everything from sassafras to grape vine for custom smoking, the restaurant uses a “base wood” of hickory with chips of peach or pecan for flavor (for extra smoke, she said, you can soak the chips in water and freeze them ahead of time). While cooking, Rose said, time and temperature are key, with moisture coming in a close third, so keep the water pan in the smoker filled, the radio on and a bottle opener handy. “With smoking, you just have to drink a lot of beer and relax,” she said.
After all that time spent getting everything right and your mouth no doubt watering, Rose’s next tip might seem a little disappointing: Put away the carving knife, and break out the plastic wrap. Rose said that one of the “trade secrets” Mr. Mason’s uses to getting moist, flavorful brisket is to first trim off any of visible fat that remains (“It’s done its job,” she said) and then wrap the unsliced meat tightly in clear plastic film. Leave it wrapped like this for several hours, letting it cool all the way down.
“It’ll weep its juice,” she said. “Then, as it cools off, it will suck the liquid back up in there.”
When ready to serve, remove the plastic film and reheat to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Slice diagonally — against the grain of the meat — to enhance the tenderness.
A great venison recipe from Mary Rose and Mr. Mason’s:
Mr. Mason's Grilled Venison with Au Jus
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tablespoons cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon rosemary
1/4 cup dried Porcini mushrooms, ground to a fine powder
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Combine all in a blender or food processor to form a thick, fairly dry paste. Take one saddle of venison (tie two together if the saddles are small). Rub the paste made above all over the meat, coating evenly. Wrap in plastic film and refrigerate overnight.
Pre-heat grill for 15 minutes. On the coals, place a couple handfuls of Pecan wood chips that have been soaked in water.
Remove the saddle from the refrigerator and dispose of the plastic. Cook on the hottest part of the grill, turning every five minutes until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 120 degrees F for medium rare, 130 degrees F for medium, or 140 degrees F for medium well to well.
Allow the meat to rest 10 minutes on a slotted cutting board. Slice diagonally, against the grain and drizzle with Olive Oil and balsamic vinegar.
While the meat rests, cut 1-inch thick slices of large, sweet onions. Allow two onion slices per person. Sprinkle the onions with a pinch of sugar and kosher salt. Grill until caramelized on both sides, but still firm and holding together.
Plate the onion steaks, top with slices of venison, and finish with a drizzle of au jus from the cutting board.