Friday, May 4, 2012

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Getting a Grip on Smoke: an Idea from Chip Flanagan

Chip Flanagan is on my mind today. Flanagan is executive chef at Ralph's on the Park, a mid-city restaurant directly across the street from City Park in New Orleans. Catching a breeze on the upper story's wraparound porch after a meal is a thoroughly civilized — and mighty enjoyable — way to keep cool on sultry Summer evenings. Helps to have some whiskey in hand (which the bartenders downstairs will happily supply).

But it's the not drinks, the view, or the architecture that's got me thinking of Ralph's; it's what Flanagan has been doing with smoke that's got me mulling options for our new place in San Diego.

Smoked pork belly at Ralph's
Back in December, we bought a 1914 Craftsman house. The sellers had hidden the pad for the original garage out back under a layer of new mulch next to loquat and lilly pilly trees. It was well disguised and we took nearly a week to discover the deception.

The options, as I see them, are two; (1) keep it or (2) get rid of it. The area gets a lot of sun. If we rip it up, I can plant avocado or citrus trees in the 180 square feet. If we keep it...what to do?

And then I remembered Chip Flanagan: I could turn the pad into the foundation for an outdoor kitchen, starting with a smoker. From little more than an old proofing box and a couple of hot plates, the chef has rigged a respectable smoker that he showed me when I was visiting. At the time, a few pork bellies hung within, each slowly acquiring a mahogany mantel. Not long afterwards, I greedily tucked into some of that unctuous, soft, sticky swine.

A flare up in the smoker
Yeah. That's what I want.

Smoked meat is the birthright of every Kansas City native and ever since I was a kid growing up in that town, I've wanted a smoker of my own. When we lived in places a smoker was either impractical or illegal, visions of home-smoked hams, sausages, bacon, chickens, and more have kept me up at night — but the obsession over smoked meats didn't abate. Now that I own the ground under my feet, it's time to decide not whether to build one, but what kind to build. Flanagan's steel box is a compelling design — it's simply a bakery proofing cabinet with the electrics removed and it's on wheels already, so it's mobile(ish). Flanagan uses old skillets with wood chips heated on portable hot plates and for the smoke. The thing would have to have vents to control the flow of air. Add a few cross bars for hanging meats, maybe a wire shelf for smoking cheeses or salt, and we're on to something.

That's it.

With such a simple box, the chef makes great stuff for the restaurant. There's the smoked belly, of course, but also cauliflower, which he uses in soups, salads, and custards. Right now, he's got an oak-smoked pork chop on the menu and he also sometimes cold-smokes tuna with hickory.

Tonight, I'm picking up a little bullet-shaped smoker from a guy who's never used it. That will hold me until I figure out whether I take the Flanagan route or take the plunge and build something more substantial.

But mark this: come Monday, we'll have smoked chicken gumbo for the first time in many years.

Ralph's on the Park
900 City Park Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70119
(504) 488-1000


randall said...

Oh hell yeah!

Do the hot plates create enough heat to cook with or is more like a cold smoking rig?

Actually I may have answered my own question in my head...yes...if they can get a pot of water boiling then that is probably enough wattage/btu's get something up bbq temp.

Matthew Rowley said...

Bingo, Randall ~

But without a smaller door through which to replenish wood as needed, the only way to get more wood in is to open the door, losing heat. If I take this route, I may want get a torch and cut out an access port at the bottom. I may also have to bribe my neighbors to hush about the smoke with sausages and bacon...

randall said...

No doubt about the neighbors. Especially during the Santa Ana's. You don't want an errant spark burning down San Diego.

Matthew Rowley said...

I've already seen the area on fire once. That was enough. The Supermoon was nothing compared to the huge, pendulous red sun that hung so low in the sky that ashy day.

randall said...

How's the brinkmann working out? I used to have a bullet smoker, took a little while to dial in, but once there it was good eating off of that thing.

Matthew Rowley said...

Let's say that it was worth the $11 investment. My dad's got a bullet smoker which works fine, but it's a two-tiered affair with a door that allows wood to be added without lifting the lid. This one's a single tier and its design limitations are few, but manifest. I smoked some chickens, but had to finish them on the grill. Tasty (quite) but not exactly what I wanted. This'll do until I get a proper model.

Anonymous said...

Get yourself an old fridge, rip out the plastic (optional) and put two hotplates in the bottom. Voila! awesome smoker. You really don't lose too much heat opening the door. I do pork butt, ribs and brisket with this set up all year long in the Great White North.