Subtlety Is No Longer A Dirty Word In My Kitchen

More butter…more cheese…more salt…more oil…that’s the mantra in many kitchens, both commercial and home. And admit it, it is an easy way of improving the taste of a dish. Not clever, and it requires very little skill, but it works. Yes, I am as guilty as the next cook of adding a few more of whatever seems like it will give me the biggest bang for my buck, or spoon, or whatever the tangled saying is.

But, it can backfire, as it did with me a few weeks ago. I enjoyed my first attempts at smoking meat, and carefully followed the suggestions (from just about everyone and everything I had read) about the amount of hardwood used to generate the smoke. After two successful smoking sessions I realized that I knew more than the rest of the world’s outdoor cooks, and decided to increase radically the amount of smoke. Brilliant! If some is good, then more is better! The pork butt was excellent, because the surface to volume ratio is small, and no matter how smoky the surface might get, it is mixed with the comparatively large total volume. The chicken, with a larger surface to volume ratio (I butterfly them for consistency), fared less well, but was still quite good.

And now we arrive at my Waterloo, my Yorktown, my Thermopylae, my 2004 ALCS. The pork ribs, with their large surface to volume ratio, were perfectly moist and tender, and had a beautiful glaze and slight firmness, almost a crunch. And they would have been marvelous, had they not tasted like, well, smoke. And not much else. All of those hickory chunks that I carefully put into the coals over a span of several hours had done their job; the smoke flew thick and fast, permeating the surface of the ribs and imbuing them with the not-so-subtle flavor of burned hickory. And in measured quantities this is a desirable thing, but my not-very-clever moronic modification of a technique that has worked for hundreds of years resulted in perfectly cooked ribs that tasted like the ashes at the bottom of the smoker.

There is a happy ending to this sordid story. I smoked some wonderful ribs this weekend, perhaps my best effort. Apparently there is something to the idea that balance and subtlety in cooking is a desirable thing.

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