Monday, September 15, 2014

Make your Wine Chiller Chillier

I was working on expanding my outdoor kitchen recently, or as I like to call it, the Altar of the Succulent Sentients, because I recently introduced a new gas powered smoker (Camp Chef Smoke Vault) and since my charcoal barbecue grill rusted out, a new gas grill (Charbroil Commercial TRU Infrared) with a side grill that I thought would be useful for sauces or bacon, or whatever.  Everything looks great, works great!  No complaints.  The smoker is as "set-it-and-forget-it" as you could hope for, and once I got used to the TRU Infrared, I love that, too.

While I was figuring out how to make the new layout work, I decided I should really have a couple of storage cabinets, with stainless steel doors, and wouldn't it be nice to have a couple of small wine chillers installed, since we do a lot of entertaining out there?

So, I found a couple of highly rated Koldfront 18 bottle units that looked good, ordered them, took the dimensions and carefully created customized spaces for them to work in, as much out of the sun as I could manage. Perfect! Except...I should've done some more homework!

Wine Chillers are pretty - stainless steel and glass doors, built in dual temperature zones, soft blue LED readouts on the doors, nice handles and... inexpensive.  My mistake was thinking they operated like refrigerators.  Wrong!

Wine Chiller manufacturers got together with wine makers and decided that, as Europeans have long stated, Americans drink their white wines too cold and their red wines, too warm. So, they cleverly designed the wine chillers with a lower zone that only drops to 46 degrees F, and an upper zone that only drops to 54 degrees F.  Well, I don't know about you, but I've been drinking wine for about forty years, and I've become pretty used to my white wines at about 40, and my reds at room temperature.  So, not giving me the option of making it cooler was akin to a fine Steak Restaurant only serving medium-well-done steaks.  That's fine for some...but not for me.  I'll prepare your steak just the way you like it, not the way I want you to have it!

Plus, what I really wanted to do, was to use one of the chillers as a meat-aging fridge, which means I need to get the temperature down to 40 degrees F and keep it there for about six weeks. Well, I'm no electrician, as you'll see in a minute, and I'm not an appliance repair man.  I'm just a guy who thinks that wine chillers should get colder.  Maybe I want to keep my Champagne out there, or keep beer out there, or just white wine and not red.  Perish the thought of actually talking to consumers about what they want in a product and doing something as simple as giving you control over the temperature range!

So, I built my new cooking space, and was practically resigned to the fact that I screwed up.  The chillers not only won't do what I want, they won't do what they're supposed to!  Again...my fault.  Didn't do my homework!  Turns out, these very pretty, somewhat functional stand-alone units, require a LOT of ventilation and aren't designed to be built into any sort of enclosure.

You see, these units are powered by Peltier Thermo Electric Coolers (TECs), which work by running a current across one side of a ceramic-like tile, making it hot, while the other side gets cold.  So, they are designed with a fan and heat sink on the outside, sucking hot air away (and into whatever space you have feeding it, behind) and a fan on the inside, sucking the cold in.  They are really designed to operate at about 30 degrees F less than the ambient temperature. I was testing the units out in the open, using an extension cord, and at night, that was fine, but the sun is a heck of a lot more powerful than the TECs. So, once I put them in their enclosed spaces, I discovered that the more I cooled the inside of the units, the hotter the enclosed area behind them became, raising the perceived ambient temperature, so, as hard as the units could work, I couldn't get them cold enough to even act as a cigar humidor!

Now I was getting a little "frustrated". So, I increased the heck out of the ventilation, hacking away at my newly designed and tiled outdoor kitchen extension, and I got about another ten degrees of cold out of it.  Trying to figure out what lame-brain designed these things, since they obviously LOOK like built ins, I checked on the difference.  For about $1000 more, you could get built-in units that move the heat forward, out the front of the bottom of the unit, instead of the back.  That's a lot of damn money! Not going down that road... Any refrigerators that are the same size as chillers?  Not a chance.  How about a small, cheap compressor air conditioner to cool the air behind?  Noisy, expensive...stupid idea. Can I make one? Worse idea.

Know that part where I said I'd show you I wasn't an electrician?  I was running electrical from the garage to the outdoor extension, splitting off from a 220v outlet for the garage oven. (Doesn't everyone have a working spare oven and microwave in their garage?)  Well, as I discovered, there are a lot of ways to supply that oven, but not so many ways to split off 110v, and being the smart guy that I am, I left one of the chillers plugged in when I flipped the breaker back on.  Oops.  Fried both of the control boards on the plugged in chiller.  Now, doesn't that make you feel better?

Here I am, one fully functional wine chiller, that won't get anywhere near cold enough to do anything but act as a hamster cage, as far as I can tell, and one fried unit.  I tested the different boards, swapping power off the good unit, and found it was only the two main temperature control boards that were fried.  Everything else was good.  What to do?  Pack it up, send it back and say "Damn thing's broke, replace it!"  Not really my style.  My mistake, my loss.  I'll know better, next time.

But, at least now I have an opportunity to talk to the manufacturer and get some questions answered.  So, I called them up and talked to Service.  The replacement boards would run about $34 each, plus shipping.  Hmmm.  Seventy bucks. What are my options?  Is there a control board that will let me get the units colder?  Nope.  Can I bypass the pre-sets on the door to set the temperature lower?  Built into the logic...nope.  Can I change out the TECs to colder tiles?  Major modification, voiding warranty.  Not recommended.  Well, "not recommended" works a lot better for me than spending $70 just to get back to square one, so I said "thank you, I'll get back to you" and I started researching.

I consider myself a pretty good researcher, because I do my share of building websites requiring a lot of current information and content, but I gotta admit, this wasn't as easy as I thought.  After a little while, I discovered a series of videos from brew-masters and cheese-heads who like to use "temperature controllers" to keep appliances right where they want them.  Great!  But, all of the examples involved controlling temperatures inside the range of the appliance, like getting a freezer to operate at 40 degrees, or a refrigerator to operate at 55 degrees or a crock-pot to stay at a constant 195 degrees.  Nothing that would suggest pushing beyond the normal range.  And all of the videos were two-and-a-half minutes long, just showing that the controllers worked as intended. Nothing more.  Thanks. Let me make a video of me flipping on and off a light-switch so you can see I wired it correctly, but not actually how I wired it!

Johnson Controls has a unit for about $70.  Out of my range.  The STC-1000 temperature controller is only $13, but has lousy installation instructions, poorly translated from the Chinese.  No problem, the Amazon Q & A site has pretty explicit instructions.  File that away for future reference.

What about replacing the TECs?  Okay, now we're getting somewhere!  Adafruit has a video showing a TEC with heat-sink and fan, that gets 30 degrees Celsius colder than ambient temperature, for about $35. Now, I have a plan. If I install the new TECs in the top half of the chiller, because cold air is heavier than hot air, and I control the temperature with the STC-1000s, I only need one control board for each chiller, so no need to buy new boards.  Just spent the same $70, and solved my problem.  Great!

I ordered the new TECs and the temperature controllers (shipped from China...slow boat!).  The size of the new TEC and heat sink wasn't exactly the same as the original, so I did a few modifications to the chiller to make it fit.  The temperature controller works just like the thermostat in your house.  It's just a switch that is controlled by a temperature setting, which you can control down to 1/10th of a degree.  Before using the controller as a switch, I thought I'd just test the new TEC, wired through the chiller set up, and figure out how to control the TECs later.  Show me this baby getting cold!  I mean frosty!

Remember that scene from "A Christmas Story" when Ralphie gets his decoder ring and runs up to the bathroom to decipher the hidden message?  It was just like that.  Same result, too.  "Don't forget to drink your Ovaltine".  Dissappointed!

The new TEC didn't do any better than the old one. Perhaps even worse!  What the heck was the problem?  This thing should have been cranking like a blizzard in the Arctic.  Went back to the site.  Use with a 12 volt power supply, pushing 5 amps.  Checked the chillers.  Everything is 12 volts.  Checked the spec sheet.  1.5 amps.  Crap!  Maybe a power supply from Radio Shack, before they go under.  Nope.  Fry's...Best Buy...nope.  Adafruit?  $35 and I  need two.  Why is everything on this project always $70?  Lemme check Amazon.  Thirteen bucks.  Sold!  Ordered two and anxiously waited. Now I'm really invested in this project, time and money, and nothing is going to stop me.

The theory is good.  No reason it shouldn't work.  The supplies arrived and I figured out the best configuration for installation. Bought a $9 power strip at Fry's, that I thought would come in handy. The temperature controller requires 110v to operate, so it needs to go into the supply side of the power supply transformer.  For now, I won't use the temperature controllers as a switch.  I just want to verify that the temperature read out is the same as the chiller's door read out.

I cut the power supply cord and strip the sheathing, expecting to see black, white and green.  Red, blue and green. Why is nothing easy?  Turns out, red is hot, blue is neutral, green (which you don't need), is obviously ground.

Now the 12v-5A side, after the transformer.  Cut the cord, expecting to see yellow (12v) and black.  Red and white.  First time I've ever seen white used as hot, but it's true.  I'm sure some electrician can explain that. I saw a video that told me that the TEC wires and the fan wires can be wired together, and off the back of the unit, there is a red and black set of wires from the fan, and another red and black from the TEC.  Ganged all of the reds together, and connected the blacks to the red (hot) supply.  Plugged it in and it whirred into action.  Success!

These chillers are only 18 bottle capacity.  That's pretty small.  Do I need to run both top and bottom, or can I just remove the weather stripping on the door that creates the seal between top and bottom?  I pulled the seal and waited.  Top was cooling nicely.  Bottom was lagging by 21 degrees.  Had I created a weather chamber simulating a high pressure zone keeping a low pressure zone at bay? Crap!  Plus, when the top of the unit got down to 54, the preset lower limit, it started beeping at me and telling me I'm some sort of scurrilous wag for making modifications when I'm not qualified and I'll never win this battle!  Well, that's what it sounded like to me, anyway.

Everything on these units seems to be integrated.  How do I bypass all of that integration? Hmmm. Plus, the readout on the door is colder than the readouts on the STC-1000s.  Well, that's because the original thermometers are set up directly in front of the fans.  I don't care what temperature the air coming into the chiller is. I care that all of the air in their is the right temperature.  So, I ganged the original and new thermometer from the controller (which I fed through the rear fan compartments) together and screwed them into the lids of each compartment using a small wire harness.

What do I really need to use from the existing set-up, anyway?  Door readout, lights and interior fans. Bypass the automatic shut off. That's it.  Let's hook the other power supply up to the bottom, existing TEC.  The interior fans are also 12v and there's a yellow and black wire combination operating the upper, and a blue and black operating the lower.  Gang those (hot) black wires with the exterior fan and TEC blacks, and gang the red (neutral) and it should work fine. Now, the temperature controller can operate both inner and outer fans for one TEC at the same time, from the same power supply and temperature controller.

Let's test that.  Bingo!  Not only did they work as they should, but the bottom TEC was cooling just as fast as the upper.  What can that mean?  Stupid!  Increasing the amperage through the existing TEC from 1.5A to 5A  makes it colder. I spent $70 on new TECs and modified the opening for no reason!

Now, let's get clever about removing all of those new plugs.  I could put a bus in, and tie to the chiller power cord, so everything operates with one plug.  But I don't need to. The power comes into the chiller and splits to power the two separate boards at 110v.  I'm only using one board for the lights and door readout, so I can use the second feed to power my new supplies and controllers.  So, here's how the wiring ends up, from the incoming power, through the temperature controller to the power supplies, operating the fans and TECs. (And, just so you know, the slots for the wiring on the STC-1000 are pretty small, so gauge your wires accordingly.)


  • Main power to the chiller is red and blue, split on one board.  Red is hot, blue is neutral
  • Power from the new power supply cords is also red (hot) and blue (neutral)
  • The temperature controllers require 110v, and need to have a jumper to act as the switch.
  • Solder two new hot leads to the red (hot) power wire, coming in after the chiller splitter, one for each power supply
  • Solder two new neutral leads to the blue (neutral) power feed
  • Solder a jumper to each of the two new hot (red) power leads.  
  • Insert one hot (red) plus jumper into wiring slot 4 on the temperature controller.
  • Take the added jumper and insert into wiring slot 2
  • Solder each of the blue (neutral) wires together from the chiller supply and the power supply
  • Insert the blue (neutral) chiller supply with the blue power supply (neutral) into slot 3 
  • Insert the remaining red (hot) wire from each power supply, into slot 1 on the controller
  • Insert the thermometer wires in slots 5 and 6 (non-polarized)
  • Solder together your red (neutral) exterior fan wire and TEC red , with your yellow for upper interior fan, with the red (neutral) wire from your post-tranformer 12v-5A line for your upper
  • Do the same for the lower, using the blue wire as neutral. 
  • Solder all of the black (hot) wires together from fans and TECs
  • Dial in your desired temperature (HC mode>set)  and variance (CA mode>set)
  • Hit Set, and watch your fans and TECs power up
  • Wait until the unit reaches the desired temp, kick off, then kick back on when the temperature exceeds your variance.   


I removed the board that was no longer functioning, to create room for my power supplies and temperature controllers, which I attached with two sided tape. Since I ganged the thermometers, I have no need to see the controllers.  I'll know if they aren't working for some reason.

Would I recommend this project?  If you're good with spending $50 and if you like fooling around with this sort of thing and don't mind voiding your warranty on your wine chiller, it makes the chiller much more versatile.  

Just remember, the cooler you want to get, the more ventilation you'll need.  I just ordered two more power supplies and two more controllers.  I still have the colder TEC, heat-sink and fan, which were unnecessary, apparently, but it can't hurt to have a few spare parts.  One recommendation from a friend, was to also insert a 5 amp fuse before the controllers.  

Hey, as long as it's not $70, I'm good.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Craft Brews and BBQ


There's no denying the surge in interest and the proliferation of Craft Breweries around the country in the last couple of years.  America used to be a beer nation, but as wineries and importers expanded their taste and variety, they expanded their marketplace and finally, the US became a major world consumer of fine wines.  But, while the vintners cultivated their fields (and their profits), the beer industry started to evolve in the same way, crafting new tastes, textures and clientele to the point where you could almost say, beer is the new wine.


The evening's pairings, hand selected by Jeremy Eseroma, of Harry's Hofbrau fame.

 Having devoted several posts to wine and barbecue, some time back, I decided to rethink the process, based on some new friendships and some different sounding and tasting brews and had  the first of what I hope will be several, barbecue and craft beer pairings.

The genesis for the idea came from the fine work being done locally, by Jeremy Eseroma, chief brew buyer for Harry's Hofbrau in San Jose, Ca., which used to be the cold punchline to the joke, "Where does a good beer go to die?" Some would be shocked to find out that Jeremy is only 23 years old, because his demeanor, attitude and knowledge, far surpass his years.

Jeremy Eseroma
 He's been into craft brews for about four years (yeah, I  can add, too) and he convinced the owners at Harry's to give him a shot about a year and a half ago, because he seemed to know his way around a tap. As Jeremy tells it, his first big buy was about $8,000 worth of beer, and the owner went ballistic.  They had never bought more than $2,000 worth, before.  Jeremy allayed his fears, praying and after hosting a Killer San Francisco Craft Beer Week, they netted somewhere over $25,000 in profits and haven't looked back since.  When Jeremy came on, Harry's had eight taps and Kevin Olcese, the previous General Manager, was just laying the pipe-work to bring the restaurant into the Craft Beer Scene.  Now they have 29, and Jeremy hosts a beer event every Thursday, at the San Jose location on Saratoga Ave., tripling and even quadrupling sales over previous efforts, using social marketing, primarily personal Facebook Invitations and word of mouth.  (Click on Jeremy's name or photo to be taken to his page.  Friend up and maybe you'll get invited, too!)

As it happened, Jeremy reached out to me on Facebook, having enjoyed a few barbecue events at my house as a guest of my son, and invited my wife and I to a tasting.  Seeing him in action, matching customers to flavors, coaxing clientele to stay and try another taste experience, brought the idea to mind and the date was set for the Craft Brew and BBQ pairing night.

It was a "By Invitation Only" event and I sealed the participants at eight, bringing together some international wine palates, as well as a sous chef from Maggiano's Italian Restaurant, who is closely tied to the TapHunter group in San Diego, "relatively" speaking, and a bartender from some local establishments, both well versed in craft brews, themselves.

A week before the tasting, I provided Jeremy with the menu:  a variety of cheeses and garlic butter sauteed escargots to start, followed by rib-eye steaks, roasted potatoes, garlic bread and a medley of grilled snap peas, carrots, miniature bell peppers, mushrooms and, of course, bacon.  I picked up a 17 lb Prime Rib roast the day before the event and cut it into 20 oz. steaks, trimming some of the fatty cap off, then used a dry rub consisting mainly of garlic, sage, thyme, onion, various coarse Mediterranean salts and coffee. I sealed them in a pan and refrigerated for about eighteen hours, then marinated for about six hours prior to grilling, at room temperature. The stage was set.

We kicked off in the backyard around six p.m. with beautiful blue skies and warm temperatures.  Jeremy brought tasting glasses (no, not beer goggles), so we wouldn't get tanked as the evening progressed, and began his pairing of The Lost Abbey, Red Poppy Ale with the Triple Cream  French Brie.
This is what's known as a Creek Sour, referring to the brewing of cherries, aged in oak barrels.  The goal was to create a light acidic wash to counter the rich and creamy texture of the cheese.  The dark pallor and creamy effervescence gave way to a sweet nose with a balanced cherry tartness, like the afterglow of a a fresh cherry pie.  This is brewed and bottled by Port Brewing Company out of San Marcos, Ca. and has 5% alcohol by volume.

From there, we moved on to Heady Topper, an American Double India Pale Ale, to match up with the Italian Truffle Cheese, primarily a Jack and Mozzarella, infused with mushrooms.  IPA's are the backbone of the craft brew industry, and for many, it takes time and quantity to accept and eventually savor the bitter aftertaste.  This Double IPA boasts an 8% alcohol by volume, and there was considerable discussion about the instruction to Drink From The Can, prominently displayed.  From the can, to most it tasted bitter, fine for IPA aficionados. But, from the glass, it became light and fruity with tones of apricot and pineapple, and the cheese brought out more of the hops, which muddled the clarity and settled to the glass bottom.  Brewed and "canned" by the pint, by The Alchemist in Waterbury, Vt.

Having recently returned from Barcelona, we acquired a taste for Manchego cheese, which is dryer and somewhat more mild compared to some of its Italian counterparts.  This time, to counter the mildness, Jeremy broke out a Belgian Ale brewed with spices, Fantome Saison.  The nose is peculiar for an ale, reminiscent of lavender, of all things, putting you in mind of bouquets of potpourri.  The taste, however, had an earthy smokiness, evoking a spicy-sweet mix of hibiscus, nutmeg, and even acorn (really, really young oak!)  Fantome is brewed and bottled (750 mil.) by Brasserie Fantome in Soy, Belgium, and imported by Shelton Brothers, Belchertown, Ma.

Jeremy had never eaten sauteed escargots before, so he was punting when he brought out the Oude Gueuze, a special Belgian Ale, aged for three years.  Escargots are rich and succulent, soaked in garlic butter, so he did well, balancing the textures with the Lambic Ale, which was light and fruity with hints of green apple and grapefruit, somewhat resembling a tart apple cider, but with a 6% alcohol by volume kick and the slightly bitter lemon rind finish.  Brewed and bottled (750 mil.) by Hanssens Artisanaal, in Dworp, Belgium, imported by B. United International, out of Redding, Ct.

The aroma of the grilling steaks meant it was time to move on to bigger and better fare, and much like I had advised Jeremy that the seasoning should never overshadow the meat, he chose to start us off with a light palate-cleansing Berlin-Style Tart Wheat Ale, the Berliner Hottenroth Weisse.  At only 3.1% by volume, the tartness of the ale reacted nicely with the rich, melt-in-you-mouth steaks and the neutralizing acid complimented, rather than washed away, any residual fatty flavor, from the marbling of the meat.  Hottenroth is a tribute beer, brewed and bottled (750 mil) by The Brewery, in Orange County, Ca.

Admittedly, conversation was flowing as fast as the ale at the table, so tasting notes went by the wayside, but I do recall that the ales got richer as the plates were cleared and we paused to gather our senses before dessert went on the table. The Firestone Walker's Reserve, a robust, dark Porter with tones of chocolate, toffee and caramel, was an excellent transition from the lighter wheat ale, and made us want to spark up Cubans and head outside.  But, alas, Cubans are illegal, right?  So, we mellowed and meandered as the mixed berries, blueberry, blackberry and raspberry, appeared in bowls before us, with whipped cream begging for our attention. It did not go wanting...

So, what more fitting compliment than to pull out an Imperial Stout, Santa's Little Helper, again from the Port Brewing Company in San Marcos, Ca.  Aged in oak barrels, the aromas of bourbon and vanilla filled the nose, while the sweet, rich finish, left nothing to be desired.  It seemed as close to a wine as beer could get, so when it was done, we moved on to a Chilean red...spicy, yet...

The evening was pronounced a success and the decision made to continue on the path as often as made fiscal sense, which right now means we plan on doing this monthly, at least through the summer.  So, look forward to more reviews with different flavored brews, with different flavored 'Qs.










Monday, August 15, 2011

Smoking Meats - The Easy Way

One pass-time my wife and I enjoy that the economy has been chipping away at, much to my chagrin, is the  Art and Wine Festivals that seemed to be so prevalent in my area, not so long ago.  Seems the cost of permits and booths is up, attendance is down and discretionary income has fallen to the same rate as your job security and 401k balance!

Nonetheless, we did find one locally, this past weekend, where we didn't have to wear a silly bracelet and could by drinks with cash instead of tickets.  That means at least two fewer lines to stand in when it's 90 degrees outside!  This one was held in a small town, nearby, where they could reasonably block off the street for two blocks, adjacent to some greenery, where the bandstand was set up, playing "classic rock", which I guess made us feel like classics, instead of "old".  It does kind of make me wonder what my grown kids will be listening to at fairs, thirty years from now.  Probably the same "classic rock"!

Since we've been doing art fairs for some number of years, we always like to look for some of our favorite artists, photographers, toe ring, wood carving, pottery, food, oil and spice purveyors because it's kind of like bumping into old friends on the street.  You can linger and chat and catch up, or beat a hasty retreat, without anyone taking offense!  I, personally, like to discover new trends or unique artistry and am quite comfortable talking about the different aspects of light, shading, grain, heft, smell, taste, etc., without ever worrying about the guilt of slinking away.  The way I figure it, the artists, et al., are bored and want to share, hopefully to make a sale, and usually, if they're occupied talking to me, others don't feel as shy wandering in, looking around and listening in on the conversation.

While the wife was off smelling candles and tasting dipping sauces, I happened upon a vendor I hadn't seen before: The Smokestack Co. - Culinary Seasoning Smoke.  Being the barbecue guy that I am, I was curious about their smoke-in-a-can concept.  Truth is, everybody who grills and barbecues, whether it's gas or wood, electric or charcoal, loves to get some smokey richness in their meat, but it truly is a pain in the butt to achieve.  You can soak chips and put them on your coals, but they burst into flames after the water has steamed off, or you can foil pouch and play around with where to put the pouch in your gas grill, but if you haven't figured out how to grill indirect on gas yet, you're not going to figure out smoke! You can use lump mesquite charcoal or cedar planks, but those are pretty heavy flavors and too much will ruin even a good rack of ribs.

The concept behind this seemed simple enough and appealed to the how-come-reverse-engineering side of me.  I always love it when a product fits in with my own concept of what was generally wrong to begin with and how it can logically be fixed.  Doesn't mean I'm going to fix it...but I can appreciate that someone else did!  Most people don't like to fuss.  Most people don't know how to get wood to smoke, not burn.  Most people don't want to store different types of wood and ruin meals playing with flavors.  Most people couldn't care less about the mechanics of grilling, they just want the food to taste great!  That's who Brant at Smokestack caters to: most people!

Brant took all the problems out and condensed the result into small cylinders with a can on top.  The cylinders contain wood chips: either hickory, alder, mesquite or applewood.  The chips are then mixed with a couple of complementary herbs and spices, like rosemary and dill, thyme and fennel, oregano and celery seed, or sage and ginger, and each has some vintage oak in it as an enhancer.  The top of each cylinder has a can, about two inches deep, with a removable lid and a small hole in the top.  Put the wood chips of choice in the can, set it on or near the heat source, and leave it alone.  No water, no fussing.



Well, it all seems logical, I told him. Eliminate the oxygen in the can and the chips will smolder, like tobacco in a water pipe, and the smoke will puff out the hole for about twenty to forty minutes, depending on the heat, permeating the meat.  So, I told him I was a blogger and had the biggest barbecue group on LinkedIn (Gourmet BBQ), and if it worked like he said, I'd give him some free publicity.

Well...apparently it worked, 'cuz here I am writing about it (and, no, he didn't give it to me for free!)  We came home from the fair and were planning on grilled lamb chops for five.  Lamb can be a little finicky and if you don't get it right (which usually means you overcooked it) it can taste a little gamy. That's why Zinfandel goes so well with it.  So, my lovely offered to run off to the store and I told her what we needed: three chops per person, Greek salad makings, tzsaziki, white rice and some bread for our new chipotle oil dipping sauce, also from the fair.


She returned with some beautiful lamb, prepackaged, so I suspect it was from New Zealand.  Four packages of four perfectly trimmed, one inch thick chops.  I like to prepare them simply, with olive oil and some Mediterranean sea salt.  We also have a rosemary bush, so I cut off some of the fresher sprigs and laid those across the top.  You can burn them for the smoke, but it's tedious and short-lived, so I just prefer to set the sprigs on top of the meat while it's grilling.  I prepared my fire, then set my can of applewood smoke on top of the grill, above the coals.  I figure one can should do it, and after about five minutes, smoke was burping out of the top hole.  I closed my barbecue's vent holes to hold as much of the smoke in the grill as I could.

Lamb is dense and fatty, so you're better off grilling it indirect, if you don't want an inferno on your hands.  I'm a charcoal guy, so I like my fire at about 300 degrees for this and flip the chops a couple of times, rearranging them so that they've all had equal time and distance (not far) from the coals.  I carefully replaced the rosemary sprigs on top of the meat, after each flip. About twenty-five minutes in, I figured we were ready: firm on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside.  A perfect medium rare.  I threw the rosemary sprigs directly over the heat and they gave me one last burst of fire and smoke and then we hit the table.




It's outdoor dining season in my yard, so with the sun setting, the fountain burbling and the fire-pit flames lapping at the cooling night air, a hungry gathering of my wife and I, my daughter, her boyfriend and a good friend of mine, whom I feed pretty regularly, sat down to our Mediterranean feast.  The lamb was perfect, with just a hint of the applewood, sage and ginger, mixed in with the rosemary. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed.  Lamb can be overwhelming, so it may not even have been a fair test, but the Smokestack passed with flying colors.  The salad of tomatoes, kalamata olives, red peppers and feta cheese was cool and crisp with tzsaziki on top; lightly seasoned white rice cleansed the palate from the spice of the chipotle oil dipping sauce. The whole meal, like the day itself, was delightful, accompanied by a Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, 'cuz I'm not much of a Zin guy.  My daughter's boyfriend, who happens to be a sous chef at Maggiano's, was pleased enough with his first plate to announce without hesitation that, he was goin' for full-on seconds!

So, if you want the flavor of smoked meats off your grill, but don't want to deal with all of the fuss, check out The Smokestack Co. and find a retailer or download an order form and fax it in. Brant will set you up with a gift pack of all four seasoned woods for $25, and each cylinder will do up to eight barbecues, bringing you in at about sixty cents a pop.  Great concept, great product, great price.  Like I always say, come gift givin' time, you can't go wrong with barbecue stuff or wine.  Go ahead...prove me wrong!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Melting Pot

You gotta love this country!  And I, sure as heck, love the part of the country that I'm in...which is Northern California.

Apart from the temperate climate, in general (though we had the rainiest June since the 1860s and the temperature decided to jump to 95 instead of the usual 82), we're surrounded by the Sierra foothills and the mountainous coastal ranges, and the bay lowlands, which keep us cool in the evenings and, for some reason I don't really understand, virtually bug free.  No droning gnats, flies or mosquitoes to distract from the comfort of the cool summer and fall evenings.  And the low humidity means we don't need air conditioning, either and can enjoy the quiet of cross ventilation with open windows.

Maybe because of the climate, there's a relatively large and active Greek population, and that means, every summer we get to enjoy Greek Festivals.  Those that know my background, know that I hearken back to my education in Classical Archaeology and the many trips I took to Greece, including a six week stay in Athens, exploring the Acropolis, traveling out to Delphi, Mycenae and Corinth and a week on the island of Paros, when I was an impressionable seventeen, attending a study abroad program, before going off to college.

I love the culture, the architecture, the history, the language, the people...and the food!  That, of course, is why I love Greek festivals.  I get to show off the few phrases in Greek that I can rattle off, causing friends to mutter to my wife, "Why does your husband know Greek?"  But I get to lead us around, trying the dolmades, spanakopitas, pastitsio, souvlaki, gyros and Greek salads, stuffed with kalamata olives and feta cheese.

When I was younger, in Greece, there was Ouzo, Mythos beer, Retsina and Domestica, if you wanted wine in a bottle.  Now, the choices are so numerous in bottled exports, both beer and wine, I won't even begin to go into them here.  But suffice it to say, if the Greeks spend more time cultivating and exporting their newest beverage products, they won't have to worry too much about their austerity measures!

The sites and smells of the festivals are unparalleled.  Our local festival is held at an Orthodox church and tents are set up everywhere selling T-shirts, cook books and trinkets, before you turn the corner to the bazaar of spit-roasting lamb, pita bread, sausage, and the essential baked goods of baklava, dripping with honey, or our personal favorite, loukoumades; honey dipped puff pastries.  (My wife and I like these so much, that on our last Mediterranean cruise a few years ago, we walked what seemed an eternity, on Crete, searching for, what we thought, was a pastry as common as donuts are to us, here.  Not so.  Apparently, it's a specialty of only a few places, either because it's too much of a mess to make, too common for the locals to eat, or a lost art.  Take your pick.)

Regardless, after two or three hours of stuffing ourselves on tasty treats of all varieties and sampling as many wares as we could, while watching traditional dance to balalaika bands, we purchase a cook book and meander homeward, with the sweet taste of honey still on our tongues and the memory of the sky blue Mediterranean in our thoughts.