Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Iron Chef of Kentucky

Summer's here, and that means it's time to don my loose-fitting Tony Soprano fat-guy shirts, and minister to every man's most sacred temple, the back yard grill.

Mr.Soprano's grilling preference ran towards pork sausages and ribeye steaks, but I'm a New York Strip man, and lately have been fixated on skirt steak, which is increasingly a hard cut to find. Fortunately, the good folks at the old-school Kingsley's Meats in Louisville provide me with any and all cuts I request. For many months now, I've been on a Cuban cuisine jag and at home I try to reproduce the Steak Chimichurri the way they do it at Havana Rumba.

But really, I'll grill just about anything. Plantains, peanuts, tater tots, Twinkies.

Though I haven't belabored it lately, I still hold the self-proclaimed title of Iron Chef of Kentucky, and that goes way back to the days of Chairman Kaga, when Iron Chef really meant somethin', man. My now out-of-print cookbook Kitchen Literature proved my culinary Bodhisattva-ness with all sorts of mysterious recipes - Appalachian Voodoo Hot Sauce, Chocolate Steak, Survival Biscuit Casserole, Rockcastle County Vampire Tonic, etc.

Pictured at the top of this entry are just a few of the potions, lotions and notions in my culinary arsenal. But if I had to have only one and no other, it's a no-brainer, I would keep the Cholula. It's easily my favorite hot sauce, to the extent that I really don't use much of any other kind. The Texas Champagne pictured above is wonderful stuff, but I use it and Tabasco primarly for kicking up side dishes like baked potatoes and beans. Cholula is the only hot sauce worthy of the honor of touching my meat.

I use sea salt a lot for everything you can imagine, but I also use plain ordinary iodized table salt too. The regular salt will dissolve and impart its flavor a lot faster, but the sea salt is added just before plating, to add its own flavor and texture. Two of my faves are pictured here - Napa Style Roasted Garlic Gray Salt (yes, it's really gray, like a salt oughta be. They have naturally reddish-pink salt from Hawaii too) and Bellamessa Smoked Sea Salt, which comes in honkin' huge flakes that are so tasty you can eat it right outta the jar.

And that's really a rule of thumb I use for all these products - can you eat a whole spoonful of it without choking? Frank Sinatra once said, regarding show-offs who try to turn drinking into a macho competition, "Why knock yourself out? Don't try to be a big hero with it. For what?"

I feel the same about hot sauce and barbecue spices. Liquor stores are filled with frat-boy hot sauces whose names and labels liken their products to nuclear waste, satan, hell, torture, pain, death, etc. and I think the whole trend is beyond retarded. Yes, I'm tough enough to eat any raw peppers that top the Scoville Scale, but I'm also tough enough to carve the Black Flag logo into my arm - but the question remains, why the hell would I want to? Why would I want to eat a hot sauce that leaves me unable to taste anything else for the rest of the meal? It's about as useful and desirable a practice as, say, huffing toluene. Which is to say, nil.

Locally-made Devil Dust comes perilously close to falling into that "stupidly hot for stupid people" bracket, but it IS very tasty stuff - tasty enough that I do use it as a rub, knowing that a lot of its incendiary power will get cooked off. Stubb's Chile-Lime rub is my favorite, but it's so tasty I use it as an all-purpose seasoning, not just a rub. It tastes so good I can eat it straight from the can, and I do. Etnia is more exotic and more expensive, but tastes about the same as Stubb's. Maybe a little more paprika in it. It's great, and comes in a cool bottle, but when it's used up, I'll probably stick to Stubb's. I kick up stuff with Safinter Spanish Paprika on my own anyway. Paprika works just fine for me as a stand-alone flavor in grilling and barbecue; I could do a whole barbecue using nothing but paprika if I had to.

The Weber Chicago Steak Seasoning is pictured here because it's the only bad choice I've made in awhile, or let's just say the stuff didn't suit me personally. It's too shrill and harsh for me, and just screams onion and sharp peppers without the necessary warmth that should go hand in hand with it. I no longer use it on meats, but it does make a good corn boil.

The Colman's mustard powder I mainly use on grilled fish, and vegetable kabobs. I also use it in some marinades. I never use store-bought bottled marinade, always make my own from scratch - I love the taste of scratch.

Cumin and beer are my secret weapons. Everything I cook has a little cumin and beer somewhere in it. Everything. Burgers. Chili. Cheeses. Green beans. No need to waste good beer on cooking - pedestrian stuff like Rolling Rock will do. I get my cumin - and also my garlic powder - in these giant sized Tone's containers cheap at Sam's Club.

Dammit, now I'm hungry. Gotta go out back. See ya.

- - JSH

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