Cold Smoke and Baby Steps

You’ve got to have hobbies. During the ever-shorter low season it is important to have things to do, especially for Yohos. Idle hands being the devil’s workshop (aka the Box on a Tuesday afternoon), you’ve got to keep those hands busy with productive endeavors, otherwise what keeps them occupied could easily turn out to be games of Threes with the bartender, Shake-a-Day, and a workout regimen that consists solely of lifting generous pours of bourbon. This was the starting point of a dialogue I was mapping out one autumn afternoon, “You know how it is this time of year. You gotta have hobbies…”. As I cast about for some kind of defense which I could lay out to the Fire Department for having to respond to calls precipitated by the backyard inferno which had earlier engulfed the beautiful edifice that had once been my smokehouse. I figured if I came up with something really good I’d get that nod of understanding working guys give each other after an understandable fuck up and maybe a small fine. Have I lost you? If you don’t know me well enough that I share my embarrassing stories with you then I probably have, so let me go back in time oh let’s say, maybe a decade.

There I was surrounded by meat with no idea how to proceed. If you are a vegan this probably sounds like the fifth level of hell, or at least a revolting predicament, but in my case this was something I had quite willingly brought on myself. A friend’s mother-in-law had a dairy farm up in Maine where she made cheeses. So as to not waste the leftover whey from the cheese production, she had taken to getting piglets every spring and feeding it to them, and then as autumn came, supplementing this diet with acorns and apples. This is a fairly common practice on many farms. After all, why waste unsalable produce when you can turn it into tasty pork? On a summertime visit to Nantucket she let it be known that when slaughtering time came in October, we could buy whole butchered animals direct from her. Yes and yes. So my friend and I made the long drive to Maine, gathered our very reasonably priced bounty, and oh man was it good! The meat came from the slaughterhouse butchered and packaged, and that was where the trouble-I mean hobby-began. You see in addition to all the cuts you get at the store (chops, spareribs, shoulder etc.) there was also a good deal of ground meat, fat back, leaf lard, and organs, all of which I had no idea how to use. Although “surrounded by meat” is a bit hyperbolic, I did have a chest freezer with a lot of packages that needed using up. Enter my wife.


The book that started it all…

If there is one person who knows the full measure of my ability to make time idly vanish, it is my wife. Just this fall I knocked out a few projects around the house; building a gate to the backyard, trimming the unfinished peak of the ceiling in our bedroom. Good stuff, right? Yes? No, you see I’d been looking at that unfinished ceiling and its $2 porcelain light fixtures hanging from exposed wire, for the last 18 years. The inertia which an incomplete project can develop is an excellent topic for an essay, which I know for a fact other much more talented writers have tackled (see waitbutwhy.com, The Procrastination Monkey). Where was I? Oh yes, so my wife bought me a copy of Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Pocelyn, and suddenly I had a new hobby: processing and curing meat.


The second of my two bibles.

Baby steps. They are called that for a reason; it is of course literally what babies do when learning to walk, but also it is a metaphor and caveat to those who think that they will somehow revolutionize a thousands years old art form the first time they try their hand at it. I’ve been that guy enough times to now know better so I started simple; curing bacon, and duck Prosciutto, then advancing, using a combination grinder/stuffer attachment for our Kitchenaid mixer to make fresh sausages. I already had been smoking bluefish and making barbecue for years and soon I was hot smoking my bacon and certain varieties of sausage. Instead of having the hogs cut and packaged at the slaughterhouse I began taking receipt of the whole animal and doing the butchering myself according to the Italian method described beautifully in

Fresh pork sausages.

Fresh pork sausages.

Charcuterie’s companion tome Salumi. Having turned down that avenue, I began producing dry cured meats and fermented sausages. The back hallway of my house turned into a middle-aged man’s Franco-Roman wet dream; a variety of salamis hanging with coppa, lardo and lonza, and below on their own rack the king of them all, proscuittos. Two rows deep, whole hams which having been buried in salt for a month dried for two years in the cool, drafty air of the stairway.

Salami curing in the back hallway.

Salami curing in the back hallway.

But there was something else, a waking dream, an idea that spent years forming in the back of my mind. I gleaned information from books that I can only describe as smokehouse porn. I studied on long dark winter sundays and the seeds of a plan were sown, a plan which I would spend the next few years gathering the materials to enact. I would build a smokehouse.

Hot smoking is to cold smoking as checkers is to chess. Perhaps more aptly, it is like beer is to whiskey; all of the same ingredients are used but by applying technique and time a far more complex and satisfying result can be achieved. Cold smoking meat has the same goal as salt curing, preserving meat and peventing spoiling but arrives there in an entirely different manner, by using smoke rather than salt to create an environment inhospitable to the formation of bacteria while the meat cures. Methods of preserving meat arose in every region of the world out of the need to keep the meat from large animals which could not be consumed immediately or smaller, more abundant ones edible for the times when such protein sources would not be available and they vary drastically according to the local climate. Smoking meats in the desert would be as much a disaster as attempting to dry cure in the northern latitudes. I am fortunate to live in a region where, if done carefully, it is possible to use either method.

A mix of fresh pork and chicken sausages.

A mix of fresh pork and chicken sausages.

The Platonic ideal of a smokehouse is a wooden structure but it can also simply be a barrel or if you are really ambitious, masonry. There must also be a place separate from the smoking chamber where a fire can be kept. These two elements must be connected by a pipe or tunnel of some sort that allows the smoke to travel and, most important, cool on the way from the firebox to the chamber. You don’t want the heat of the fire to cook the meat and that is why it should never, ever be less than eight feet from the chamber. If the temperature in the chamber exceeds 90 degrees fats in the meat will begin to liquify, which in addition to spoiling the finished product, can also, as will soon be revealed, have catastrophic results. I use an old airtight wood stove and because of the excellent control over the rate of burn one gains from such a device, it only raises the temperature inside the chamber 5-10 degrees above ambient outdoor readings; thus I can use my smokehouse even when the daytime temperatures reach as high as 75 degrees.

For the Germanic, Slavic and Magyar peoples of Northern and Central Europe cold smoking is what dry curing is to the Spanish, French and Italians. It is inextricably a part of their cultural identity so as I began to gather building materials I took my design cues from the photos I had seen of beautiful Polish, German and Czech smokehouses. Following the baby steps rule I did not attempt to construct anything too grand but I did want it to look cool, so when I got a carpentry gig replacing a deck I carefully removed and saved all the 1×4 cedar decking for use as sheathing. The firebox (the previously mentioned wood stove) had been cast off by a friend because it had broken hinges. I drilled out the old hinge pins and replaced them with modified 12 penny nails and had myself a nice firebox made of pure obtainium. The smokehouse had a 3’x4′ footprint and I set it on cinderblocks in the upper part of my yard. I framed it using old staging posts and planks, then sheathed it with the cedar. I sited the firebox on the patio in my lower yard and connected it to the chamber with 4 inch furnace pipe purchased at the Home Depot. Beside the furnace pipe, the only cash I laid out for the whole project was for 1 bundle of asphalt roof shingles, a 3″ exhaust chimney, hinge and latch hardware, and a thermometer which I set in the door to monitor the temperature inside the chamber. All told I spent less than 100 bucks and damn I felt clever.

Old Smokey. Made almost entirely of obtianium!

Old Smokey. Made almost entirely of obtainium!

What my mother calls “clever” is analogous to what the Greeks called hubris.

I finished the smokehouse in the fall just before it was time to butcher my Moors End Farm pigs so days after completion a fire was burning and meats were smoking. Salamis, sausages, salmon, duck breast, even a pork shoulder; whenever I finished processing something I couldn’t resist giving it a little time in the cold smoke because, you know, smokey flavor good. Cold smoking is, however, a slow process, especially when smoking large cuts of meat and three weeks along that pork shoulder was far from finished. This only mattered because my nephew Kevin was coming to visit and I wanted to roll out a special dinner for him that included said shoulder and that was when I committed the sin of pride. I had been so clever building the smokehouse on the cheap and everything I’d been making had been turning out so great that I decided to ignore the baby steps rule. If the shoulder wasn’t ready, I thought, I’d just speed up the process with some more heat. I couldn’t make the chamber hot enough to cook the meat, because of course the fire was eight feet away, so the solution was obviously to bring the fire into the smokehouse just like no-one had ever done.

A peek inside Old Smokey.

A peek inside Old Smokey.

I put a small charcoal grill inside the chamber and set some coals to burning. Soon the thermometer was reading a steady 200 degrees. Problem solved! I monitored the first batch of coals closely and when they burned down I added more to maintain the temperature. When the next batch burned down I felt that I had the situation well in hand so I added more charcoal and figured it was safe to go run some errands. Just before leaving I decided that I’d move a guanciale (pork jowl) which was also in the smokehouse to a position that was a bit closer to the coals in order to hurry it along to completion as well. That done I closed and latched the door and went about my errands.

One hour later my first floor tenant called to let me know that my chickens had escaped the yard and were out in the road. This was a fairly common occurence at the time because all the events described here pre-date the completion of the gate project I mentioned in the second paragraph. I rushed home and looked for the chickens in all the places they usually would go after escaping. They weren’t eating the tomato plants across the road, nor were they tearing up the mulch in the neighbor’s flower beds. After twenty minutes of searching and not finding them in any of their usual hideouts I figured that maybe they gone home of their own accord, so I went to check my backyard. Walking up the alley I began to notice some things that should, in retrospect, have registered as odd. There was charcoal scattered in the alley. The alley was wet and seemed as if water had recently rushed down it. The spare bits of fence and plywood I used to block the alley I lieu of a gate had fallen over. This last bit wasn’t actually odd, it happened on almost every breezy day but it did afford me a clear view of the upper section of my yard. Something was wrong but I couldn’t quite put together what it was until my gaze fell to the lower yard and I saw, smashed to pieces, the wet and charred remains of my smokehouse.

Um, yeah.

Um, yeah.

Looking back I know it must have been the guanciale. A pork jowl is almost entirely composed of pure fat and when I had moved it over the coals the fat most certainly began liquifying and dripping on them. The fat would have begun burning creating a feedback loop that was akin to adding two pounds of napalm to the small pile of charcoal. This basically unleashed a firestorm in a smoking chamber sheathed in 20 year-old sun dried cedar. Strangely though, despite the fact that the fire department had responded to a neighbor’s call, pushed over the fence, and bashed the shit out of the smokehouse with axes; they had then left the scene as soon as they’d finished dousing the blaze with their hoses. Not more than an hour and a half had elapsed from the time I left to run errands until I was standing in the alley realizing what I moron I’d been. Even stranger, or providentially if you go for that stuff, I found the pork shoulder, a bit charred but not much the worse for wear resting on the wall of the upper yard. Some fireman, who’s hand I’d like to shake, had removed the pork shoulder from the burning smokehouse before setting about his fire suppression duties.

Prosciutto for all! At the infamous Brendan Behan pub in Jamaica Plain.

Prosciutto for all! At the infamous Brendan Behan pub in Jamaica Plain.

This brings us back to the first paragraph where I was trying to think of things to say when the fire department, justifiably angry, returned. But they never came back. I expected to be issued a citation and charged a well-deserved fine in conjunction with a general what-kind-of-fucking-idiot-has-a-smokehouse-inside-the-city-limits verbal reprimand. It never happened. So I took the pork shoulder inside, trimmed off the charred bits and, as I should have in the first place, finished it in the oven just in time for dinner. We had a fine meal and after we ate I took my nephew, who’d been the first of many people to have a good laugh at my expense when I told the story, out to the backyard to see the debris. It didn’t bother me a bit that upon viewing the destruction he laughed his ass off again, I totally deserved it.

New Smokey, hard at work.

New Smokey, hard at work.

The chickens were traumatized. After all, a whole bunch of crazy shit had gone down in their little world. I found them huddled low to the ground under the shrubbery in the neighbor across the road’s yard. When I caught and brought them back to my yard they immediately ran into their coop and didn’t come out for two days. They didn’t lay any eggs for a week. My neighbors, I decided, were probably similarly traumatized and perhaps now a bit skeptical of smokehouses in a neighborhood with such small house lots. So I waited a year and a half for them to recover, for their lives to feel comfortable again, for seasons to come and go with the normal cycle of rituals, observances, holidays and anniversaries, then I built a new smokehouse.







The Pig Of The Sea

For quite a while I’ve wanted to write something about quahogs but haven’t felt properly inspired. I’ve had clams on the brain. To paraphrase James Taylor, in my mind I’ve gone to Rhode Island. This is not hyperbole. For me the quahog is where my recreational pastimes have intersected with my professional life and where my soul-sustaining love of being on the water meets my physical need for sustenance. The quahog is many things. These days we just think of it as a food animal but in the past it was a currency; it was used in an art form that told the history of the first peoples of New England; it was the foundation of Pre-Colombian trade networks which reached far inland to people who never saw the ocean; it saved the Pilgrims from starvation (maybe); and even today, the quahog gives Rhode Island a reason to exist. It is a beautifully efficient creature, turning the tiny organisms it has filtered from the sea into an ever expanding, self-sustaining fortress; living and growing and multiplying in defiance of its many enemies who seek the delicious salty flesh hidden within.


Try not to think about this diagram when eating clams.

The etymology of the term quahog is the subject of some dispute. If like me you have access to the Google machine, the kernels of factiness that follow are at your fingertips as well. The earliest citations of the word date to 1643 when Roger Williams, religious non-conformist, free thinker, abolitionist, student of native tongue and ultimate bad ass, made reference to the Naragansett word poquauhock which literally meant “horse fish”. In 1758 ur-taxonomist Linneaus dubbed it mercenaria mercenaria which he derived from the latin for wages, as a reference to the use of quahog shell-derived wampum beads as a means of exchange. Fun fact for all you parents who face having to pay tuition at a private college: Harvard University at one time accepted wampum in lieu of tuition! Suck on that Sallie Mae! I mean, I thought it was pretty cool paying half of one year of my daughter’s tuition by cashing in whisky futures but could you imagine rolling up to the comptroller’s office with a wheel barrow full of quahog shell? All kidding aside, woven belts of wampum beads contained pictorial icons and messages which had social, spiritual and historical significance far beyond its value as a currency. Thank you Google.


Yeah, it is that easy…

At my raw bar people often ask me, “Did you catch these clams yourself?”, and because of my juvenile sense of humor (that even catholic school failed to beat out of me) I invariably respond with something like, “Yes, but it was hard. They are lightning fast and if they pick up your scent the whole herd will be galloping away in an instant.” I will grant you, it is amazing I don’t get punched in the face more often. However, no-one who has been clamming would ever make it sound as if it was more of a hunting activity than one involving gathering. There is no stalking, cutting for sign, or sitting on stand when hunting clams, getting downwind is not an issue and there will never be any need to mask your aroma will that of quahog urine, which whether it exists or not, is perfect for my raw bar shtick. “What makes these clams taste different from others?” “Well ma’am the local quahogs are unable to process (a fake but real sounding mineral) in their urine so it builds up in their flesh creating the unique flavor profile you’ve noticed.” Anyway, the clams aren’t going anywhere, at least not very fast. They do have the means to self-propel with what we call their foot but not so much that hot pursuit is required, unless hot pursuit is what you do while drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. It’s all about figuring out where they live and then telling everyone they live somewhere else.

Off-shore dragger boats dredge up quahogs and their cousins the sea clam (artica islandica) in massive quantities to satisfy the needs of Red Lobster, Legal Seafoods, Dinty Moore and virtually everywhere else you will ever be served a dish purporting to be clam-based. It is necessary. It is hard to imagine a the number of guys who would have to be out with rakes to satisfy demand of the great mass of hooples out there. It wouldn’t make sense economically and most likely all the good spots in the shallows would be depleted. Thus the continued existence of Rhode Island.


A secret spot fills the rake.

When I talk about clamming I mean the kind that takes place near shore. Whether using a rake to scratch them up or finding them by feel with your toes and pulling them up with your hands, the satisfaction felt after filling a basket with clams is hard to beat. If it’s a warm summer day, digging up a bunch of quahogs with friends and eating them immediately builds bonds that making a bunch on bologna sandwiches could never match. Afterwards, cooking on a nearby beach, whether making chowder, linguine and clam sauce, deep frying in oil, it just tastes better and it never hurts to pop a few small ones to eat raw while doing so. It’s always good for the soul even when it’s not the nicest day. For every time out getting the vicarious thrill of digging up those first ones with newbies and kids there are an equal number of times when it’s windy and cold or the tide is wrong but i I’ve got a gig coming up and pride dictates that if possible I will be serving something I got myself and so I go.

One time, near Thanksgiving a friend and I decided we would treat our families to clams casino in the evening. We set out from Hither Creek on his boat and arriving at our spot discovered that not only had we gotten the tide completely wrong but it was in fact unusually high. After using science (touching the bottom with a clam rake) to determine the depth we judged that the spot was still clammable. Because it was cold we both had neoprene chest waders to wear, so we geared up and my friend went in first. The water level seemed well shy of his armpits but unfortunately it was choppy and water was immediately began sloshing over the top of his waders, filling the inside. Now if you’ve ever worn chest waders you know this is the worst case scenario, it’s like wearing a really cold  waterballon, you become like that girl in Willie Wonka who chews the gum that’s a meal, except instead of being a giant blueberry rolled away by Oompa Loompas, you’re brown and in danger of drowning. After I’d helped pull his waterlogged ass back on the boat, we had a drink of rum because, you know, boats and, thinking caps firmly fixed in place, both agreed that my additional few inches of height would keep me from meeting his cold, soggy fate, (which in retrospect he was a suspiciously strong proponent of) and having come so far loathed the idea of returning home empty handed. Kids, don’t drink rum and clam, at high tide, when it’s cold out.

my other car is a...

The Quahog is the pig of the sea. That’s the phrase that’s been knocking around in my head since this time last year. If the point of comparison is the sheer culinary versatility of the food animal, it is indisputable that none on land match the domesticated hog and that in the ocean, the humble little neck clam has no rival. It is a sure sign of my fading juvenile spirit that the best I can do anymore to make light of their similar names is this phrase; too much hog, for any one mouth , which completely lacks the winking, adolescent while still slightly transgressive charm (or so I thought until recently) I have always been fond of employing. But while distinct traditions of hog butchery and preparation have rich histories from Europe to Latin America, across the US to the Pacific Rim into Asia and well okay, everywhere, each making use of the animal in countless preparations; there is, due to the fact that the Quahog only exists in abundance on the Northeast Coasts of the US and Canada, only one Quahog cuisine.

Certainly there are sea creatures who can deliver a taste, one taste, more sublime than any individual quahog preparation, (the belly of the bluefin tuna springs to mind) but none come close to matching its versatility. Did I just mention toro sashimi? Well dammit a small littleneck clam served raw on the half shell is pretty good too. Squeeze a little lemon on there and maybe a drop of your favorite hot sauce but please, keep that cocktail sauce away! That clam didn’t spend years filtering thousands of gallons of sea water, turning itself into a robust flavor bomb for you to ruin it with ketchup. If you must have tomato and clam make a Clamdigger, a bloody mary with Clamato instead of tomato juice and shucked liitleneck floater. Bliss.



Clams can be baked in the oven. Shuck a mess of cherrystones add a pinch of chopped bacon, some bread crumbs and a nice compound butter then broil. When you bring out a tray of these tasty clams casino be sure to warn your guests against scalding their mouths by gulping them down to quickly. Not that someone won’t ignore you and turn the roof of their mouth into string cheese but at least you will be protect from litigation. What about stuffies? Remove the meat from a bunch of large quahogs and chop it, add bread crumbs and minced onion, celery, red pepper and whatever other veggies you like, stuff back in the shell and bake until brown. Two of them and you’re good Cap!


In a perfect world, booze and clams are as one.

Do you like Italian food? Few pasta dishes are as simple or classic as linguine and clam sauce. Boil your linguine to a firm al dente and put it aside. Get a good pile of quahogs and shuck them, reserving the liquor. Make a large saute pan really hot and cover the bottom with olive oil, add a good bit of minced garlic to sizzle but don’t let it get brown. Pour in half of the clam liquor. Let things get bubbly. Add a couple sensible portions of linguine and stir allowing the linguine to absorb some of the liquor, adding more if needed. It should be able to bubble without swimming in liquid. Add the chopped clam meat, stir for 30 seconds, throw in a handful of chopped parsley. Done. Serve topped with a nice parmesan cheese.

Years ago I got one of those cheap turkey fryers they have on sale at Home Depot for thirty bucks. Thanksgiving that year was a great success. A fully cooked turkey that is juicy on the inside and has crispy skin in a half an hour? Genius. The next summer another genius (I believe it was my wife) suggested that we fry a turkey on the beach. This was also a big hit. Later, while digesting, the obvious became clear, just because it’s called a turkey fryer that doesn’t mean you can’t fry other things in it as well, after all this is America! Soon enough that can-do spirit led to a brave new world of beach cooking: the fry up, and one rather obvious candidate for frying, the quahog, was both abundant and close at hand. My favorite way to fry clams is to roll them in flour, then drop the doughy nuggets in buttermilk before finally coating them in panko. The downside of this boom in frying was that it left our non-gluten tolerant amigos standing around wearing plaintive drooling dog expressions on their faces and no-one needs that. The arrival on the market of a gluten free baking mix called Cup 4 Cup has remedied this sad inequity and now all can enjoy the beach fry.


The quahog can grow to a size almost as large as a child’s head.

As I pointed out earlier the clam is the shape shifter of the sea, a bivalve Zelig, its only culinary limits being those of your imagination. I’ve eaten tasty thin crust pizza with a white clam sauce. You can put whole clams on the grill until they pop open and serve with melted butter for dipping or if you’re too lazy to light a fire steam them in a pot. It’s all good and for once that is actually true. Face it, any really good seafood stew whether it’s cioppino or bouillabaise or some weird portagee concoction from Rhode Island, it needs clams, but if you were going to pick the definitive clam dish it would have to be chowder. Making chowder on the beach is easier than it sounds, there apparently are even competitions where this skill is put to the test, where so-called chowder kings are crowned but it is hard to imagine that one could find a group of judges with the ability to discern a true championship chowder from the great unwashed mass of wannabes.

In any place that experiences a hard winter, summer is the indispensable season. A time to soak in the Vitamin D. A time to shake off the seasonal affective disorder, to put aside that suicide note you’ve been composing and get outside. In Hawai’i you always know, more likely than not, tomorrow will bring another beautiful day but when it’s summer in New England there is a sense of urgency, we get two months when, if we’re lucky, it might be nice out and so dammit, the forecast might say cloudy with a 50 percent chance of rain but we’re going to do something outside. For those of us who live on the coast the beach is our summer playground; surfing, sunning, swimming, volleyball and other sports, some too lame to mention like that one with the trampoline and the ball; a day at the beach is about all those those thing and more. It’s about cooling out under an umbrella having food and drink with the people you love. It’s about the secret spot, the place that you go with your family and your friends, the families with whom you form a tribe by consent. Sure, other people can go there too, there’s no stopping them, but because you’ve made it yours you’ll laugh amongst yourselves, while you sing and drink and prepare your meals, watching them flounder around with their shiny rakes and baskets 20 feet from where you just scored, knowing that enough clams to last the summer still lie there in the sand, silently filtering.

Toro, Toro, Toro

There are far worse things than coming back from a tuna fishing trip having been skunked. Certainly having it happen a second consecutive time meets all the criteria for being labeled as such. Even so, novelty cheapens at a slow rate when what is new involves heading 30 miles East of Nantucket on a perfectly calm morning in late June. As a result, I didn’t hesitate for a moment when Spongey asked me to have a third go at getting some big fish. Now, I will say that the whole let’s-get-up-2-hours-before-we-go-to-sleep part is a little bit lost on me because I feel fairly certain that people catch tuna at all times of the day and night, but hey, not my boat, so meet at 3:30am it is cap.

We met out on the west end at Madaket Marine at the turbid tail of hither creek and I swear I came very close to trying to get Jon to call the whole thing off because Striped Bass were flopping all over the place in the pre-dawn dark. When Jon pulled up in his truck and I saw his face there was no way that I could have brought myself to make the case for staying. He was just lit up with excitement, anticipating heading off East to the deep waters. It would have been like talking a small child out of going to the Magic Kingdom when you’re already in the parking lot at Disneyland 30 minutes before closing, so that you could go to the taco truck that you’d seen on the street outside to get some carnitas. You knew full well that no matter how hungry you were, those tacos weren’t going anywhere and if they did, you would probably pass about five more taco trucks on the way home. (more…)