The recent spell of warm weather persuaded me it was finally time to turn my attention back to that Big Green Egg that has been sitting unused under an eave on my back deck. I shoveled out last season’s ash and scrubbed off last season’s grime, and it was somehow looking better than new.
The Tucker-based Big Green Egg Co. makes the country’s best known kamado-style grill/smoker, based on a traditional Japanese design. This ovoid contraption looks quite like a seasick Humpty Dumpty sitting upside down. As the hardwood charcoal fire burns (or, rather, glows) inside, it sucks air in through an opening on the bottom, heats the food sitting on a grill over the flame, and sends the smoke billowing out through a chimney on top. The beauty of the kamado’s design – and the reason it has so caught on in the South – is that you can regulate the airflow easily and thus regulate the temperature. You can grill a steak at a blazing-hot 700 degrees or smoke ribs at 225 degrees for many hours before you need to replenish the charcoal.
I may get run out of Georgia and back to the land of nasalized vowels for saying this, but I like to do something in between. The Big Green Egg – or any adjustable kettle-style grill, really – does a brilliant job of making something I’ve started to call “semi-cue.”
Semi-cue is, essentially, a slow-roasted pork butt. It is ready in about five hours, still a touch pink at the bone, imbued with smoke and utterly delicious.
Now, I know some Big Green Egg geeks who have perfected pork barbecue. They take the same pork butt, rub it with spices, mop it periodically and spend up to 19 hours tending to it. During this time, the meat’s copious intra-muscular fat slowly melts from the inside as the smoke slowly penetrates from the outside. By the time they are done, they have a quivering little hunk of flesh that pulls into juicy threads of true, exquisite barbecue.
Did I mention that bit about 19 hours?
I am and always will be motivated by a certain degree of laziness in my cooking. Semi-cue goes onto the Egg in the early afternoon with one batch of charcoal sprinkled with water-soaked hickory chips, and once or twice during its cooking time I check the thermometer to make sure it stays below 300 degrees, and preferably below 275.
Now, here’s the second piece to my barbecue heresy. I stay completely away from spice rubs. Instead, I season the pork butt with gobs of crushed garlic, lemon juice, lemon peel, black pepper, salt and a small glug of olive oil. If I’m thinking ahead, I take it out of its wrapper the night before, give it a good rinse and let it marinate in these ingredients overnight in the fridge. I always make sure it comes to room temperature the next day. Then, I cut a few stems from our rosemary bush and put them on top of the pork as it smokes.
I know how totally bastardized this sounds, and I’m sorry if I’ve offended anyone of North Carolinian, Greek or Italian heritage. But I must thank you all for contributing to the invention of semi-cue.
The meat should reach about 165 to 170 degrees on a thermometer plunged into the thickest part. But, honestly, I usually just let it go for 5 hours and am always happy with the results.
I usually take the semi-cue off the grill, give it a good sprinkle of salt all over and tent a piece of foil over it to rest for 20 minutes or so before cutting into it.
Now, a pork butt is a complex conjuncture of meat, fat and bone. Different muscles come together – some darker in color or more tender than others. Pockets of fat will still separate these muscles, so I usually separate out the muscles a bit as I carve it. I find particularly toothsome, smoky chunks to feed to the children who are invariably waiting nearby.
The beauty of semi-cue is that does have that satisfying pink ring of smoke you get from actual barbecue. It extends a good half inch into the surface of the meat.
The other pinkness, that at the bone, may freak out those people who think pork should be cooked through. I find medium/medium-well pork delicious, and I don’t fear trichinosis from commercial pork. One can certainly cook it further, and I think it would be tasty, but at that point I’d say just keep going. Another eight hours and you’ve got the real deal – i.e., barbecue.