The year 2000 was an interesting one for me
It was the year I would turn 50. I went around quoting Eubie Blake on his 101st birthday, "If I'd known I was gonna live this long, I would have taken better care of myself".
The year before, my doctor had finally decided to put me on blood pressure medication. And of course, my weight was steadily climbing. So, in the summer of '99, I got serious about cycling again. I kept a log, started out slowly on the training rollers. By the end of the year I was doing 4 rides per week, at least one of those on the mountain bike up into the mountains above the house.
On January 9 of 2000 I went riding up into a very steep canyon with my wife and son (then 10). The last couple of miles of this ride are extremely steep. When I made the top, without getting off, it was one of those "Rocky" moments. I had been losing weight, my wind was coming back, I felt great. So great, in fact, that when we headed back down I opened her up. No brakes, man I was flying. Looked down at the computer to see my speed, edging up to 45, and looked a little too long. Operator error. When I looked back up I realized that I had misjudged the distance to a slide of large rocks across the trail. Not too many options. I didn't want to hit the rocks and destroy the bike. I laid hard on the brakes, locked the front wheel, and launched. I disconnected from the bike, flipped partially over in the air and landed on the other side of the rocks. Landed hard on my right shoulder and side of my head. Shattered the helmet (saw stars) and broke my collarbone in three places just above the shoulder joint. Scared the bejeesus out of my wife and son.
So I spent the first 6 weeks of 2000 dealing with orthopedists and physical therapy. I went back to work after 5 weeks feeling pretty good, and wanted to start riding again. The doc told me no riding for at least 18 months. Another fall, he said, would mean surgery.
So I was feeling pretty low when my 50th birthday rolled around in May. My wife said that for the milestone, I should get myself something special. I was avoiding even thinking about bikes at that point, so I really didn't have anything that I could think of.
Then, one day I was in the backyard, contemplating rebuilding the ancient old CharmGlow gas barbecue. I had already done two rebuilds in the previous 12 years, and I was sick of the thing. So that's what I decided to get, a new barbecue.
Now, in California, cooking outdoors is practical for a couple of reasons. The climate here in the southern part of the state is congenial for grilling for at least 11 months of the year. In the summer, it gets so hot here that cooking on the barbecue helps to keep the house cool. It is not unusual for temperatures to top 110 in the afternoon for as many as six weeks. Using the oven, or even the stove just makes the house uncomfortable.
I had been q'ing on natural gas for the years we had been in this house. I have a natural gas line piped out to the edge of the patio. Of course, this is grilling not barbecuing. I was hoping to find a unit that would use charcoal as well as gas. No luck. All the Home Depot type stores were strictly gas grills unless you went for a Weber, and I wanted something a bit more substantial than that. But after a month of hunting the hardware and patio stores, I had given up. I even searched the internet, but could not find what I wanted. I finally decided to settle for a gas grill in the $700 to $1000 range. This might sound high, but high end units I looked at were from $3000 to $5000.
One night I tried searching on E-Bay, and came up with the most peculiar looking rig called a Kamado. I went to their web site and was totally hooked. It was everything I wanted and more. It's made of 1.5 inch thick ceramic. The top is shaped like a dome, so when it gets hot the heat radiating from the walls acts somewhat like a rotisserie. Designed for charcoal, it had an optional gas burner. It can hold low temps down to 200 or even a little less, and when fired up with a full load of coal, I've hit high temps of 800. This makes it excellent for steaks (which we never eat), but also pizzas and bread. You can do authentic Indian tandoori. But the best is the low and slow cooking that is real barbecue.
My favorite is pork shoulder, done over wood charcoal with fist-sized chunks of wood (apple, hickory, mahogany) mixed in, at a temperature of 200 to 225. I start it in the afternoon and it goes all night, generally 15 to 20 hours. I prepare the meat by cutting deep slits and filling them with minced garlic and hot peppers. Slather the outside with cheap yellow mustard and dust with a great rub. When it come off, it is literally falling apart. I wrap it in heavy duty foil and then in an old towel and leave it for up to 3 hours. Then it is removed from the foil, shredded by hand, stripping out the fat. What remains is the most delicious, smoky, spicy meat in the world. It can be used for anything, burritos, tacos, chili, stir fry, or tossed with pasta and olive oil. But the best is to make some great cole slaw and homemade barbecue sauce. Take an onion roll, put on a bunch of pork, ladle on some bbq sauce and top with cole slaw, and finally the top of the roll. Absolutely the best Carolina style pulled pork sandwich on earth.
Another of my favorites is cedar plank cooking. Soak the plank overnight, get the barbecue really hot, place the meat on the plank, season and place the whole assembly on the grill. Works great with salmon, and, I found, with ribs. The meat gets smoky and stays extremely moist.
I use the Kamado for the Thanksgiving turkey also. Great flavor, and the gravy made from the smoky drippings.........well, you just have to eat it to believe it. Whole chickens, and lots of fish have made their way through this beauty. I've smoked albacore and salmon on it, using ceramic stones to deflect the heat. It is without a doubt, the most versatile cooking device I've ever used.
The manufacturer is located in Sacramento, CA. I picked mine up at the factory, no mean feat, as it weighs 400 pounds. It's a great, small company. A bit scattered, customer service is sometimes lacking. But what a product! Each one made by hand, no big production lines here. They make it when you order it. There are numerous styles available now, in different price ranges. With a cart, stainless steel fittings and a gas burner, mine cost $800.
The web site supports a forum where I learned a lot of the techniques for using it. Great recipes for any kind of grilling, lots of friendly members with advice.
The thing that most surprised me was that I had forgotten how good outdoor cooking was when done over charcoal. Twelve years of cooking with gas had made me forget. The difference in flavor is fantastic.