Sunday, July 15, 2012

Atop Smokey Mountain, All Covered in Cheese

Remember that first season Simpsons episode when Homer bought Marge a bowling ball for her birthday? I may be accused of similar trickery when I bought Matt the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker for his birthday, which arrived last week. A big barrel-style smoker that slow-cooks over wood and charcoal, the best-rated choice amongst those hardcore barbecuing enthusiasts who make such proclamations we should listen to. Did I want Matt to have a happy birthday? Of course. Was he thrilled? Naturally. But I really wanted some damn ribs.

Yesterday we (he) set up the smoker in the backyard, which once we get the grill back there from its garage winter home, will be the Outdoor Cooking SuperStation. Wait, wasn't TBS the SuperStation for a while? I seem to remember that dumb tagline. Since you invest a bag of charcoal, some nice wood chunks and the better part of a day into smoking anything, we decided to make the most of it and smoke on both racks: baby back ribs to eat for dinner, and a chicken for later in the week. I went on a rub bender yesterday at Whole Foods, and Matt brought back Texas rib rub from his trip to El Paso. I rubbed the meats down the night before our smoking so they'd have plenty of time to soak up the flavor infusions. And then get a big crazy dose of smokey! So basically, taste insanity.

It was a lovely day in Portland (and areas slightly further removed like Hubbard) yesterday. A little warm, but I fixed that by putting on my swimsuit for the first time in two years and running through the sprinklers. Smoking makes you stay outside, to ward off fires and make sure the temperature gauge doesn't do anything nutty, but this leads to all sorts of nice stuff like finishing the best book you've read in 18 months ("Tiny Beautiful Things" by Cheryl Strayed) and drink enough lemonade and vodka cocktails to make running through the sprinkler seem like a good idea. It truly is, by the way.

As the work kept chugging along outside, I went inside to make some side dishes. I got some fresh organic white-and-yellow corn during the spice rampage, and I was also planning on making some spicy macaroni and cheese. This is what I want to talk about a bit, because I can't tell you too much about making ribs. It's not so much a recipe thing as it is an equipment-and-technique sort of thing. But I can tell you about making the best freaking macaroni and cheese I have ever put together. It was inspired by the stuff they serve at Famous Dave's on their criminally-overpriced plates of barbecue. A little bit of rib, a cornbread muffin that's great, a meat portion that fits within Weight Watcher guidelines for skinny girls eating brisket, and if you so choose, a very small cup of some seriously delicious spicy mac. I didn't have the recipe, but I did have a few aces:

1. Cougar Gold
My little bro is heading in less than a month (!!!!) to move into his freshman college dorm at WSU in Pullman. Little Zach! The guy I left for Portland almost a decade ago with his mushroom haircut and Harry Potter Legos. Now he's all registering for biology and picking out shower caddies at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Hence time is cruel and I'm fucking old. WSU is a great university for quite a few reasons I'm sure, but not the least of which is its on-site creamery that makes the best cheddar cheese you will Ever. Taste. So piquant and flavorful, it doesn't get lost in dishes like some more pedestrian cheddars.

2. Secret Aardvark Sauce
What's in Secret Aardvark Sauce? Where do I find it? These, you see, are secrets.

Well, okay. I can at least help you find it.

Secret Aardvark is made locally in Portland, and is generally the most perfect hot sauce I've ever experienced. Not too spicy, never overly vinegar-y, just perfect heat that truly enhances anything it touches.

Forgive me sriracha, for I have sinned.

If you don't live in Portland, where it's sold at Whole Foods, New Seasons and other more locally-inclined purveyors, you can get as much as you'd like shipped right to your doorstep: Tell them Tabitha sent you. They'll have no idea who the hell I am, but they should still know.

3. Those little green smoky chiles in cans
You've seen these, right? Tucked in the Hispanic foods aisle at any grocery store you've ever been in? Screw you, canned chipotle. Culinary weaponry!

I made a bechamel for the macaroni and cheese while the noodles cooked--a half n half mix of elbow macaroni and wheels. Why the wheels? Because I challenge you to name a noodle that makes you happier. Also they have a strange quality to make me feel as if I'm eating something much more special than I am. Back in like 1990 when I was tagging alongside my mom at the grocery store, Kraft introduced blue box macaroni IN WHEELS! It was inexplicably way more money per box, but I used to request it all the time--"can we get the wheel macaroni?" Mom tried to logically explain that there was less noodle per box in this version, and it cost way more, but I still equate those noodles with sheer, exotic luxury.

After the sauce had thickened I mixed in the cheese, paprika, chiles and a little cayenne pepper, plus salt and pepper to taste. I topped the whole casserole dish with Secret Aardvark and leftover cheese, then let it cool until baking to serve alongside the meat.

Yes, the ribs were incredible. All applause and credit to Matt and Weber. But what I could not stop compulsively picking at, even though I had eaten far more than I should have already, was that crazy-good macaroni and cheese. I immortalize it here as much for my own benefit, to go back and make it for a hundred barbecues in the future, as for you, dear reader, to try.

Now if I could only make $30 a plate like Dave does...

Spicy Smokey Mountain of Yum Macaroni and Cheese
1/2 lb dry pasta noodles (elbow, wheels, penne, farfalle, whatever)
3 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons butter
3 1/2 cups milk (I used 2%, which is about as low as I'd go as far as fat content)
3 1/2 cups Cougar Gold cheese, shredded (or any really good, high-quality melting cheese like gouda, raclette, Beecher's Flagship, Kerrygold Dubliner)
1/2 cup pancetta, diced and skillet-fried until crisp
1 4 oz can diced roasted chiles
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Secret Aardvark Sauce

In a large pasta pot, boil salted water and cook noodles to package directions. Drain when the noodles are still al dente--cooked, but with a toothsome bite. They will cook for additional time during the bake. Reserve noodles, and keep the pasta pot handy.

In a deep-bottom saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and whisk together, continuing to whisk until the mixture forms a golden-hued roux, about five minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly, and bring to a slow boil. As soon as the mixture begins to bubble (about an additional 5-7 minutes), remove from heat. Mix in 3 cups of the grated cheese, paprika, garlic powder, cayenne pepper and salt and pepper. Mix until the cheese has melted into the hot mixture.

Place the reserved noodles back into the pasta pot, then add the pancetta, chiles and cheese sauce. Mix thoroughly, then spoon into a 9"x9" casserole baking dish. Top the dish with Secret Aardvark to taste (my idea of a good spicy layer is 4-5 squirts of sauce, ensuring each scoop of macaroni and cheese served will have at least a few drops), and with the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese. Bake at 375 for 35 minutes, when it will be bubbling and too good to resist.

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