Real Smoke in Cooking: From Burgers to Squash

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Smoke, real hardwood smoke, has an amazing effect on food.  Food that normally would be tasteless and lifeless take on a new flavor when you introduce hardwood smoke.  And this weekend we celebrated my nephews birthday at our house, which means I got to cook.

Now, there are some basic rules in smoking food.  First, don't use any wood that is either treated, or a soft, resin wood (pine, cedar, etc.) for smoke.  The resin burns, leave cresote behind, which can ruin the flavor of food.  You need to use a hardwood that is, well, just hardwood.  My favorite is to use fruit tree wood, but any hardwood is fine. 

Second, the food needs to be properly prepared.  I find using some fat and salt applied to the food draws in the smoky goodness.  If the food is already fatty (i.e., most grilling meats), then just salt.  If you use any ingredients with high sodium levels to add additional flavor to the food (i.e., soy sauce, worchestershire sauce, etc.), then you don't need to add salt.  But it does need to be properly seasoned before you can expect the food to absorb the smoky goodness. 

I started with building my own fire.  Some cooks like to use charcoal, but I find it more rewarding to start the fire from scratch.  So I pulled some pine needles, pine branches out, and laid some russian olive wood over that to get it going.  Now, I know what you are going to say!  I just said not to use pine, and here I am using it.  Well, I'm not using it to smoke the food, just to get the fire going and to build some coals.  Once I had some coals from the wood (about an hours burning), and all the pine had burned away, I put on a piece of plum wood cut from our plum tree last year.  This was my first experience using plum, but as it was a hardwood I was not too worried.

For the party, I made hamburgers.  Not the hockey puck patties you can get at the MegaMart, but freshly pressed from ground meat.  I added some paprika, pepper, and worchestershire sauce to the mix, and started mixing it together.  Once done, I brought out the mix and pressed them into patties just before placing them on the grill.  Once on the grill, I closed the lid and let it do it's thing. 

After about 7 minutes or so, I checked the meat, and then flipped it over.  another 7 minutes or so, checked again, and if necessary, flipped and let it cook yet again, to be sure it got up to temperature.  The smell was not much to write home about, but then with few exceptions hardwood smoke doesn't start to smell amazing until after it's cooled a bit (the one exception I've found is mesquite, though I'm sure there are others). 

But there was still a lot of heat and smoke coming up after the burger was done, and I didn't want to waste it.  So I pulled out some zucchini and some summer squash, sliced it into rounds, greased the exposed flesh with oil and added some salt, then threw it onto the grill.  The veggies actually took longer to cook than the burgers, but once done the smell was amazing, and the taste even better. 

Now, two days later, I brought the left-over veggies to work for lunch.  And all the way to work I smelled like Jerky, which is to say, very, very good!  If I didn't make several students hungry on the way to work, I would be surprised.

So that was my experience in smoking over the weekend.  What is your favorite wood to use in smoking, and what foods have you smoked?