Jul 14, 2014

Summertime at the Home Office

At the heart of it, my job is about improving quality of life: whether it's "just" a garden that's pretty to look at, or a landscape that invites — or even compels — us to spend more time out in the fresh air and sunshine. And while spring and fall are particularly easy on the eyes, summer can't be beat for truly living outdoors.

Kitchen island with gas grill and Big Green Egg © Verdance Landscape DesignIronically, though, summers tend to be my busiest time of year, with work following me around like a hungry (but sooo cute!) dog six or even seven days a week. So I particularly cherish the days that I get to live in my own landscape; and today I'm looking forward to enjoying one of my outdoor kitchen's custom features: my built-in Big Green Egg smoker.

My BGE sits in a well I designed into the island. (Hey, at over 250 lbs the thing isn't going anywhere anyhow, right?) This gave my granite fabricator fits, but it's a great look and complements the fast-but-clinical cooking of my gas grill with the Egg's slow-n-soulful flavors.

Today's project: a couple of racks of St. Louis pork ribs snagged on sale from Whole Paycheck a few days ago, cooked in the "3-2-1" method that's popular among Big Green Egg enthusiasts ("Eggheads"). Last night I rubbed each rack down with a different rub: one with Bruce Aidells' "Spice Rub for Pork or Beef" from The Complete Meat Cookbook:

  • 2 tablespoons paprika, preferably Hungarian 
  • 2 teaspoons chile powder, preferably Gebhardt 
  • 1-2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons granulated garlic or garlic powder
  • 2 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar [I use dark for its deeper flavor]
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard, preferably Colman's
  • 1 teaspoon ground sage
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 cup salt [I use Diamond Crystal kosher]
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

  • I like this mix because it's low in sugar. The second rub isn't: this is the "Fullback BBQ Ribs" recipe I tore out of a "special advertising section" in an issue of Food and Wine (I think — I managed to leave behind all the credits, and can't find it online):

  • 1-1/2 cups dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup chili powder
  • 1/2 cup paprika
  • 1/2 cup cumin
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder [this got left out because I didn't have any]
  • 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 cup olive oil [this got left out because it just seemed unnecessary]

  • After their little spice massage and an overnight nap in the fridge, the ribs came up to room temperature this morning while I fired up the BGE. For some reason, today that became a Thing: the lump charcoal got too hot when I wasn't paying attention, and I just couldn't get it back down even with the Egg's vents closed up tight; ultimately I had to kill the fire with wet paper towels and relight it.

    Big Green Egg lower vent 225 © Verdance Landscape DesignBig Green Egg daisy wheel vent 225 © Verdance Landscape DesignThe second time, now an hour behind schedule, I watched the temp the way the toy store owner watches my kids, and pinned it solid at 225°F, where it would hold for the next three hours with each vent open just a sliver.

    bourbon whisky macerated apples © Verdance Landscape DesignThe Egg uses a ceramic "platesetter" to create indirect heat, and I put the ribs bone-side-down on the cooking grate on top of the platesetter and said au revoir for a few hours. In the meantime, I prepared a little braising liquid for the next phase of the cook: a few unripe Pink Lady apples fallen out of my mini-grove, mashed up and macerated in bourbon.

    Since the ribs had such a slow start, I left them on the grill naked for an extra hour (making this a "4-2-1" cook). Then I took them out, put them on a pan atop the macerated apples, wrapped the whole mess up in a foil tent, and put it back on the grill for two more hours to steam the ribs to a fall-off-the-bone consistency.

    ribs after cooking 2 hours wrapped in foil © Verdance Landscape DesignAt this point the chef may be receiving queries from the other diners in the household, underscoring why we must plan ahead for these sorts of projects: no one actually enjoys waiting for dinner, no matter how promising the results or how lovely the evening.

    However, a glass of wine or two later I unwrap this beautiful scene: The meat is pulling back from the ends of the bones, and the racks are getting floppy, so I goose the BGE temp up to 250°F and put the ribs back directly on the grate for the last hour of cooking. This, I'm told, will create a lovely crust or "bark" on the ribs. In the meantime, I return to my wine and compose a little blog post.

    my backyard office © Verdance Landscape Design
    By the way, here's my office today. My soundtrack is the mockingbird next door along with the occasional whirr of hummingbird wings as they sneak sips from the Galvezia blooms behind me. My view is my apple grove, golden yarrow mingling with purple heliotrope, the setting sun washing the treetops around me in gold. The scent of those ribs wafts over on the evening breeze. And with another sip of wine I feel… joy.

    And this is the heart of what I do: I create joy. Not only for me, and for the family and friends who get to spend time out here too and get to dine on the meats of my labors, but also for that hummingbird; for the honeybees hard at work on my lavender; for the squirrels waiting for more apples to fall; even for the oak tree that gets to grow in a naturalistic ecosystem rather than being drowned in a sea of lawn. This joy, this life is what landscapes facilitate that no other design discipline does.

    Not bad for a day's work.

    platter o' ribs © Verdance Landscape Design