Food Alone: Lamb Chops and the Return of the Hibachi

Another lamb led to slaughter lies in myriad pieces in my freezer. I have another 35 lbs or so of lamb to consume over the coming autumnal months. But slow-grilling season is quickly passing. There’s no way in hell that I will keep a grill going for 4 hours in my driveway while the temperature drops around me. The only solution that came to mind was a hibachi.

To tell the truth, I can’t remember to which decade hibachis– those small cast-iron grills — belong. I’ve been racking my brain, but the only thing I can be sure of is that their popularity predated the 80s. I’d love some input here. Somewhere in my past, hibachis became the rage. When? Why have they gone out of favor?

My enthusiasm for grilling has outlasted the season. When pondering my choices, the image of hibachis came to mind. I found one readily available on amazon.com for $25. I ordered it. It has arrived and tonight I put it to use. The results were very encouraging. A(n?) hibachi is very good for solitaires and couples. After tonight’s initial test, however, I see that there is a lot to learn. I grilled two lamb chops. They came out well. But let me start that story in its proper setting…

What I did:

To inaugurate the hibachi, I decided to make a dinner of two lamb chops and roasted eggplant.I have installed my new hibachi on a pizza stone set upon a wooden tray table that I can position anywhere I please on my deck.

I made a half-assed marinade of olive oil, a sprinkling of sherry vinegar, minced garlic, Malden salt, and ground pepper. I also put a big handful of wine oak-barrel wood chips in a bowl of water to soak. Wouldn’t the oak compliment the lamb?

Fortunately, my charcoal chimney just fits within the hibachi. I used hardwood charcoal to begin a fire on the coal grate while I prepared the sliced eggplant indoors to roast in my oven. The main question for me was how much charcoal would I need. I filled the chimney 2/3’s of the way up with charcoal. When the coals were bright red and shooting up flames, I slipped on my garden gloves and gingerly poured the coals evenly along the grate. Then I let them burn for a few minutes.

Just before positioning in place the two grill grates, I strewed some sodden oak chips on the coals to begin the smoke. Then I put the grates into position into the lowest slot. The amount of coal in relation to the distance of the lowest grate setting seemed right. Plenty of smoke, plenty of heat. I cooked the chops for 2 minutes per side. Only one instance of a flare-up caused me to reposition the chops.

As for timing, to cook the eggplant in the oven, after pre-heating the oven to 425, I sliced it into 1/2-inch rounds, slathered them with olive oil, pimentón, and a touch of ground cumin on a foil-lined baking sheet, and tucked them into the oven. Then I reduced the temperature to 375 and let them cook for about 20 minutes.

I put the chops on the hibachi too soon. I should have waited until the eggplant had roasted for 5 or more minutes. When I removed them from the grill, I put them in a pan under foil until the eggplant was ready. They were medium rare when I sat down to eat, but I would have preferred them just a touch pinker.

Timing apart, it was a good meal. It’s a simple, enjoyable meal to make for one or two people. The hibachi made me very optimistic. I have at least another 30 chops to go before this poor lamb has finished its course on this planet. Bring back the Hibachi!

What I Have to Think About Next Time:

Cliché though it may be, timing is everything. It’s clear to me that the hibachi is best suited for quick direct grilling. But I think, with practice, I may be able to do slightly slower grills with chicken and fish. That will require paying attention to the amount of coal. No cover and no way to easily introduce extra coals. But a higher mound of coal and inserting the grill grates in the second or third slots above may make it easier.

I think there’s a lot of potential here for slower grillings that don’t require covers. For one person, the hibachi is ideal. Disposal of coals the morning after may be a pain, but I am very happy with the first results of this experiment.

Anissa Helou’s Moroccan Kefta

from Mediterranean Street Food, pp. 166-67.

My summer project of learning to grill over a charcoal fire continues. Eating all the lamb in freezer also continues. Both goals have combined to send me back to the cookbook shelves for further ideas. I noticed this one, which has lain unopened for a few years now. The title is what made me buy it. I love buying things to eat from vendors in the cities around the Mediterranean Sea where I’ve spent time. But I have to admit I can’t remember if I’ve ever before cooked anything from this book. In any case, I decided to divide the pound and a half of ground lamb in half, cook Helou’s Morrocan keft tonight, and try her Lebanese kefta or Claudia Roden’s kefta tomorrow night. A weekend-long workship on grilling ground lamb.

Planning for tonight’s meal led me to a grocery that I’d heard about, doubted its existence and only discovered yesterday. Now that I’ve found the Mediterranean Market in north Sacramento, I can’t believe I’ve lived here eight years without it. It’s the only place in Sacramento I know of where you can buy various kinds of olives and French, Bulgarian, Greek, or Egyptian feta in bulk. The butcher is halel. It’s also the only store where I’ve seen fresh lamb tongue and sheep’s testicles.

I’ll never despair of finding obscure Middle Eastern spices again. Helou calls for a Moroccan spice combination called ras el-hanout. It was dumb of me not to write it down, because of course by the time I found the store on Fulton Ave, I’d forgotton exactly how it went. Fortunately, a fellow customer at the cash register where I asked about it helped out. In addition to correcting my pronounciation with a laugh, he said it was just the Moroccan Arabic word for Allspice. I have a feeling not Allspices are Allspices, so even though I had allspice at home, I bought twenty-five cents worth.

Helou’s recipe:

1 medium onion, quatered

1/4 cup cilantro leaves

1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves

8-10 mint leaves

1-2 Tblsp marjoram leaves

2 lbs ground lamb, preferably from the shoulder

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp paprika

1/2 tsp ground allspice

1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 tsp ras el-hanout (optional), available at Middle Eastern markets

salt

bread

tomato and onion salad

Preheat the broiler to high or start a charcoal fire.

Put the onion and herbs in a food processor and process until very finely chopped. Transfer to a mixing bowl and add the ground lamb, spices, and salt to taste. Mix with your hands until evenly blended.

Divide the meat into 24 equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball and wrap it tightly around a long skewer, preferably a flat one, squeezing the meat up and down to form a sausage 4 or 6 inches long. Pinch it quite thin at each end. Prepare the rest of the meat in the same way.

Cook the brochettes under the broiler or over a charcoal fire for 2-3 minutes on each side, or until done to your liking. Serve immediately with good bread and the tomato and onion salad.

The way I did it:

I liked the promise of Helou’s spices, so I followed her instructions — almost. Since the man in the market translated ras el-hanout as “allspice”, I decided to dispense with the allspice. How do I know Anissa Helou knows what she’s talking about when it comes to spices in Arabic? One allspice dose is enough.

But when it came to the meat, I followed the legendary Claudia Roden, who in a little contribution to Splendid Table here, recommended turning the meat into a paste in the food processor. So, I did that.

No doubt about it, the processed onion, herbs, and ground meat becomes a paste. I added the spices.

When it came to squeezing the meat around the metal skewers, things got a little tricky. Anissa and Claudia don’t tell you that the meat squeezed on metal skewers will fall off very easily. You’ve got to treat the kefta as if they were fragile. I got the meat wrapped around the skewers, but then I rolled them on to a cutting board to carry out to the grill. When it came time to put them on the fire, I had to carefully roll them, nudge them off the board on to the grill. But I’m getting ahead of myself

I made a hot fire of coals, which I spread over half of the bottom grate. I then put the upper grate on so that the grill ran perpendicular to the half-filled bottom grate of coals (see image above). When the coal had died down a little, I put the skewers on perpendicular to the grate (again see image above). I’ll tell you about the peaches in a minute. Two minutes on each side for the kefta was plenty. I let them rest a little longer, because I was dealing with the peaches, and I regret it. The trick, I know see, is to get them off before they dry up. Kefta apparently dry up rather quickly. After 4 or 5 minutes, I took them and the peaches off.

The peaches. My peach tree has turned out to be a magnificent beast. It produces deep yellow, firm-flesh, sweet fruit. Right now, I have a lot of them. So, I found a quick recipe for a reducation sauce on line that I used. I’ll give the proportions I used. You can double them.

While the coals are burning in the chimney, cut one peach in half. Squeeze lemon over it.

In a small saucepan, reduce on medium high heat the following ingredients:

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/8 cup brown sugar

the juice of 1/2 lemon

1/8 tsp ground black pepper

Reduce to a syrup. Take out to the grill. When you’ve put the kefta on the grill, put the two halves hollow side down on the grill on a cooler part of the grill but still near enough over the coals to feel the heat. When you turn the kefta, turn over the peaches and brush them with the reduction. Let them grill for a minute or two longer than the kefta.

Last thoughts:

I see now that the important point is to avoid drying out the kefta. I’d also slightly adjust the spices upward, except for salt. Maybe it does need an extra kick of allspice. On the other hand, maybe all those spices are overkill. The only spices Claudia Roden calls for are parsley and onion. Maybe she has a point. I’ll consider that tomorrow.

Steve Raichlen’s Memphis Dry Rub on Ribs Grilled According to Bruce Aidell

The rub is from The Barbecue! Bible, p. 194. The method comes from The Complete Meat Cookbook, pp. 176-78.

I feel as though I’ve graduated from high school. There’s college still to go, but at least I’ve completed my preliminary barbecue degree now that I’ve slow-grilled my first rack of ribs. A friend was coming over to share them that evening. After investigation, I decided to forego making a sauce and to combine elements of the two most appealing recipes I had. My friend and I were very happy with the results. I divided the slab of twelve ribs in half. I could only eat three out of six ribs, but he ate all six. Grilled ribs are a revelation. I had no idea how juicy and tender the meat could be. To tell the truth, I’m not sure why the ribs turned out so juicy. Maybe it was the drip pan filled with water under the ribs. Maybe it was the quality of the meat — organic pork. Whatever the reason may have been, the ribs were gloriously messy and delicious. Who needs sauce?

First, I prepared Raichlen’s rub from his Memphis-Style Ribs recipe:

3 racks baby back pork ribs (about 7 lbs) or 2 racks pork spareribs (6 to 8 lbs total)

1/4 cup sweet paprika

4 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

4 1/2 tsp dark brown sugar

1 Tbl salt

1 1/2 tsp celery salt

1 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1 1/2 garlic powder

1 1/2 tsp dry mustard

1 1/2 tsp ground cumin

Combine the paprika, black pepper, brown sugar, salt, celery salt, cayenne, garlic powder, dry mustard, and cumin in a small bowl and whisk to mix. Rub two thirds of this mixture over the ribs on both sides, then transfer the ribs to a roasting pan. Cover and let cure, in the refrigerator, for 4 to 8 hours.

Now, switch to Bruce Aidell’s recipe:

Slow-Cooked Barbecued Spareribs — The Real Way

Prepare a covered barbecue for cooking: light a mound of 20 to 30 briquettes on one side of the grate and open the bottom vent fully. Place a roasting pan on the other side of the grate and add about 2 inches of water — the pan helps to catch any drippings, and the water provides moist heat to tenderize the meat. Meanwhile, if using wood chips, wrap about 2 cups of soaked hardwood chips in a foil packet and punch holes in the top to let the smoke escape (wrapping the chips in foil helps to keep the wood from burning up quickly when placed directly on the coals.) Or you can place 4 or 5 hardwood chunks directly on the coals.

Once the coals are ready, lay the foil packet on the coals. Put on the rack and lay the ribs on it over the pan so that no meat is directly over the coals [(this is Indirect Grilling)]. Cover the barbecue, with the lid vent about half-open and opposite the coals, so that the smoke is drawn over the ribs. Stick an instant-read thermometer into a top vent hole, making sure that any plastic parts are not in direct contact with the metal lid, and leave it there. Ideally, you want the temperature to read 200 to 250 degrees F; initially it can be higher, but it should not exceed 300 F; it should drop down to the lower range within a half hour or so. If not, partially close the lower vent to decrease the heat. Do not close this vent all the way, however, as this would cause the coals to die out. Regulate the temperature by adjusting the bottom vent, keeping the temperature registered in the upper vent in the desired range. Every 45 minutes, turn the ribs over and switch their places on the grill so that you alternate their exposure to the hotter edge near the coals. Add another 2-cup packet of chips or 4 or 5 hardwood chunks to the coals if the hardwood has burned up. If the temperature drops below 200 F, open all the vents fully, top and bottom, and check to see if the coals have burned out or need replenishing. If so, add 5 to 10 more briquettes. Once these coals get going, you may have to close the vents partially to regulate the heat.

After 1 3/4 to 2 hours (1 1/2 hours for baby back ribs), check the ribs for doneness. When they are ready, the ends of the bones will be exposed and the meat will begin to pull away from the bone. If a rib is twisted, the should being to turn and come loose from the meat. The surface of the ribs should be reddish brown. When tested with the instant-read meat thermometer, the meatiest section should have an internal temperature of 165 to 175. (Because ribs are so fatty, they can be cooked to a higher temperature than other pork cuts.)

When they are done, place the ribs on a baking sheet, large platter, or baking dish, and cover them tightly with foil. Wrap the pan or platter with 10 to 20 sheets of unfolded newspaper and let the ribs rest for 20 to 40 minutes or up to an hour before serving.

Meanwhile, [if using a barbecue sauce], heat the barbecue sauce of your choice in a small saucepan. When you’re ready to serve, slice the slabs into individual ribs and brush generously with the sauce. Serve with more sauce on the side and plenty of napkins and cold beer.

How I Grappled with These Instructions:

To begin with, I had only one 12-rib slab of spareribs that weighed 3 1/2 pounds. Given that most people in this country with charcoal grills use a standard Weber, it beats me how they fit more than one slab of ribs on a grate of that diameter. In fact, the arrangement Aidell recommends worked perfectly for one slab.

The night before, I rubbed the spice mixture all over the ribs, put the slab in a rectangular pyrex baking dish, covered it loosely with foil and refrigerated it overnight.

About an hour before I started the coals, I took the ribs out of the fridge and let them come to room temperature. Also, I filled a bowl with several handfuls of hickory wood chips and covered them with water to soak until the fire was ready.

When I began the coals, I counted out 40 briquettes into the chimney starter, which was standing on the pizza stone, free and clear of everything combustible. While the coals were catching fire, I filled a large aluminum rectangular pan with water, about 2 inches deep and put it to one side of the bottom grate, where I poured about half the lit coals when they were ready. After putting the upper grill in place, I set the stand-up metal oven thermometer down on it and replaced the lid to let the temperature rise. All the vents were wide open.

Meanwhile, I put a few more briquettes into the chimney starter to have a ready supply of hot coals.

Eventually, the temperature reached 300 F and stayed there. So far, I am a complete failure at maintaining a low fire. I make sure the heat doesn’t go above 300, but I’m not very good at keeping it under 300.

I put the ribs on the grill. At first, I tried the soaked hickory wood in a foil packet, but it took too long for it to heat up sufficiently to produce smoke. So, I opened it and dumped the damp chips directly on the coals, which had the nice effect of lowering the temperature a little.

From that point on, I only had to check the fire every half hour or so. The temperature remained pretty constant. Every half hour or so, I threw in one or two more britquettes and a handful of soaked chips.

I turned the meat four times over 2 hours. The color deepened beautifully. After 2 1/2 hours, I removed them, placed them back in the baking dish, covered it with foil and wrapped it in newspaper. That was a great idea.

While the ribs rested, I put two unshucked ears of corn on the grill and covered it. 20 mins later, they were done.

Eating the Ribs:

As good as they were and as melted as the fat was, next time I’ll cook them for 3 hours. They were juicy enough that half an hour more would not have dried them out. Why anyone would put sauce on them I can’t imagine, because the rub had mixed with the meat’s juice to form a sauce on the surface. And they certainly were messy enough to eat with our fingers. I can’t imagine a gas grill producing ribs as delicious as these were.

Still, I’m not sure I would try more than one slab on a grate that size.

Update, 21 August 2008: With the help of a friend, I solved the problem of two slabs on the grate. As it should be clear in the second image I posted, I leaned the slabs up against each other to form a tent. This procedure solved a few problems. Now, I can cook two big slabs on a Weber grill grate. Second, the fat on both sides of the ribs drips into the pan. And I don’t have to turn the ribs over — or, at least, I don’t believe I have to. They are still on the grill with an hour to go as I sit here typing. This time, I’m cooking them a full three hours.