I lived in a fifth-floor New York City walk-up apartment with no yard when I started getting the itch to put food to flame. I was drawn to it like a moth, for reasons I couldn’t quite grasp, and which now smolder at the core of my food-loving soul.
Whenever my friend Ali was out of town, I’d let myself onto her back deck to fire up her kettle grill after watering her plants. Since I took pains to replace the charcoal and scrub the grate as cleanly as I could manage, she was kind enough to issue me a key.
There comes a time in every girl’s life — when she’s ripping open the long-braised skull of a short-lived calf in order to better wobble out its beer-marinated brain — that she smiles contentedly and realizes she loves her life an awful lot. Then she goes for the eyes.
Well OK, not every girl’s life — but at least those of a troika of squeam-free dames including Hill Country’s executive chef and cookbook author Elizabeth Karmel, Homesick Texan writer Lisa Fain and lucky, lucky me. And it all happened because of Twitter.
I’m stingy with my smoke.
Not in a "don’t bogart that can, man" way. Just that if I’m going to go to all the trouble of stoking a hardwood lump charcoal fire, obsessively monitoring its low-‘n-slow-ness for a goodly chunk of the day, feeding its greedy gut with beer-soaked mesquite and hickory chunks at half-hour intervals all for the sake of an albeit fabulous brisket or pork shoulder, I’m gonna want a bit more return on the investment.
Here’s where foil pans of salt, cherries and lemons come in. Since lid-lifting is anathema to efficient meat smoking, I use natural intervals — when I’m replenishing coals or chips — to slip trays of salt, halved lemons, limes or de-stemmed cherries onto the top rack of my Char-Griller barrel smoker. As I’m almost comically obsessive about not letting the temperature crest 225 degrees, there’s not much fret about losing juice to evaporation and the flesh and rinds pick up the deep, mellow flavors of woody smoke.
Sweet, smoked cherries lend a low, charred note to a perfect Manhattan and long-smoked Kosher salt on the rim of a Margarita glass creates a luscious, briny wash with every sip.
But when life hands you smoked lemons, there’s really just one thing to do.