Years ago my husband and I gave up trying to cook whole turkey for Thanksgiving, it was just too much trouble and not that tasty. We switched to whole chickens, which are cheap and easy to prepare. We don’t try to cook that kind of meat in the house, either, we have always grilled over indirect heat. But when a friend of ours picked up a barrel smoker at a yard sale, and started telling us about all the great meals he was getting out of it, my husband had a sudden inspiration for taking the usual doldrums out of Thanksgiving.
My husband did some research online and found the Southern Country charcoal barrel smoker at Lowe’s for a very reasonable price – $79. He had it put together and ready to go the same day. It had to be seasoned, so he fired it up – it was ready for meat within an hour. He wanted to give it a test run, so we used a simple salt rub on some bone-in thighs we’d just bought at Safeway for 99 cents a pound, pinned the skin together with a couple of toothpicks, and loaded them into the smoker.
How many times can you say, “OMG!” in one lifetime? This smoker promises plenty of “OMG!” moments. I’m sorry, but I think our Lord would like to hear about this, I don’t think I’m taking anybody’s name in vain here.
Four hours later we hauled out eight perfectly cooked chicken thighs. They were juicy, tender and delicious. The best thing was, we were able to cook a large quantity.
I’ve seen two articles in the past week regarding Americans’ eating habits as a nation. Apparently people are spending more and more money eating out, less at the grocery store. That’s too rich for me, every time we eat at a restaurant I can’t help making a mental list of the groceries I could have bought on the same tab. My husband and I might spend $50 on a meal out – for about $65, we get a forty pound box of huge chicken breasts at Cash and Carry. Thighs are usually less than $50 for a 40 pound box.
I know it seems onerous to come home from work and prepare a nice meal, but all it takes is planning. The first plan to make is how and where to buy food in practical quantities that achieve a discount. The second plan is storage and management. The third plan is how to make a meal that lasts at least two nights.
I’m not saying we’re perfect, but the more time we put into planning the less hassle we find in making the actual meal. An old contractor around here, Howard Slater, used to say, “for every dollar you spend on planning your project, you save seven in building it…” I don’t know if the numbers are still good, but I’d say that’s a pretty good analogy for meal planning.
It’s also nice to have staple meals that you do well.
I usually have cooked rice around the house because it is a component of my homemade dog food. The dogs get half the pot and then we have a nice bowl of rice in the fridge for whatever quick meal. Tacos are just too easy to make, we eat them a lot.
I just picked up a 10 lb bag of brown Basmati rice at Cash and Carry for about $8.50. You might think 10 pounds of rice is a lot but all you need is a couple of big jars or plastic bins and a space under your counter. I go through 10 pounds in a little over a month.
Something else we have been eye-balling at Cash and Carry are the Cornish game hens. My mom liked these when I was little and baked them in the oven like a regular size chicken. She marinated them with cheap white wine and called them drunken chickens. She treated them like the food of kings, so I always assumed they were expensive. Not so – Cash and Carry usually has them for $1.99/lb, and this week Safeway priced them down to $1.69/lb. The regular price on a whole chicken is $1.89 a pound, so we will probably be eating more of these little birds.
We bought four for Thanksgiving, for a party of six. They were frozen hard enough to bust the windshield out of a ’66 Peterbilt, so we had to set them in the fridge for a couple of days. When we had them thawed out, we divided them up between dry rub and wet brine and set them in separate zip lock bags all morning. By noon my husband had them in the smoker, and by 4 pm, they were done to a positively perfect turn.
My husband served up a plentiful meal out of the smoker, adding some salmon we also got on sale at Safeway, and some boneless chicken thighs, also divided between wet and dry brine. I added potatoes, beans and carrots and a green salad – pretty typical meal around here.
It was a long day, but planning made it come off without a hitch. We ate early, went for a family stroll into the evening darkness, looking for signs of life among our neighbors. Then we came home and sat around the old camp stove. I was shocked how long the kids were willing to sit there with us, they seemed happy to be together. All last week I worried about keeping them entertained – all it took was a meal and a fire.