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Smokin' sensation

Play with fire for smoked curry lamb

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Note: Indy food critic Aaron Retka doesnt - usually grill - with a bag over his head. But were not about to reveal - his identity. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Note: Indy food critic Aaron Retka doesnt usually grill with a bag over his head. But were not about to reveal his identity.

Smoking is one of those culinary pastimes usually relegated to die-hard barbecue nuts, insane gourmands, Southerners or a select few considered all of the above. Used in pre-refrigeration days as a method of lengthening meat's shelf life, smoking is now all the about the flavor. It tenderizes, imparts character and can turn even a bargain-basement cut of meat into a glorious meal.

You don't need a fancy $2,500 smoker to do it, either. A garden-variety Weber charcoal grill can work wonders, even for a yutz like me, whose experiments with fire often pose dangers to myself and my community.

Here's a relatively simple recipe for a smoked curry lamb that just might place you among the pantheon of the Gods of Smoke.

To start, round up the following ingredients:

1 4-5 pound roast of lamb 3 tablespoons yellow curry powder

(Madras works best)

2 tablespoons paprika 1 tablespoon chili powder 1 tablespoon ground cumin 1 tablespoon ground coriander 1 tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon Kosher salt 2 tablespoons dry mustard powder 2 fresh chili peppers, cayenne or Thai, seeded and chopped

Sprigs of fresh thyme, coarsely

chopped

Combine all the dry ingredients in a glass or ceramic dish. Don't use aluminum -- it'll give the meat a nasty tang. Massage the rub onto the lamb, coating it evenly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least eight hours. (Overnight is ideal.)

Now to the guts of the operation: the fire. With smoking, a carefully regulated temperature is key. This means you'll need to keep a close eye on airflow in the grill. A breezy, even windy, day is a good time to experiment.

View the grill as if it's the face of a clock. The windward side should be at the 12 o'clock position, meaning the wind is blowing from 12 to 6 o'clock. Build your fire at 12, using about one-third of the total space in the bottom the grill. Open a lower vent on the fire's side and another at the opposite end to ensure airflow in the right direction. Place a shallow aluminum pan at 6 o'clock to catch drippings that might otherwise catch fire.

For this and most smoking recipes, you want a temperature of about 220 degrees inside the grill. A thermometer probably will be helpful.

While your coals are heating, assemble a packet of wood chips. They should be finger-sized and soaked in water for 30 minutes or so. Two good handfuls should do. Tuck them into a double-layered envelope of foil and fold tightly. Perforate the top to allow smoke to escape. You may want to have a few extra packets like these on hand; depending on the heat of your fire, they may get charred and will need to be replaced.

The type of wood you use is crucial. For this recipe, applewood with a pinch of mesquite works well. The general rule is that the wood will impart a flavor similar to that of whatever fruit the tree produces. Hardwoods usually work the best, and you definitely want to steer clear of any sappy or resinous woods.

When the coals are gray, place the wood packet directly on top of them. Replace the rack on the grill and put another aluminum pan, this time filled with a few cups of water, in either the 9 or 3 o'clock position. This will help maintain a bit of humidity within the grill and keep your meat moist.

Once your fire is nearly ready and the meat has steeped in the rub, remove the roast from the fridge and rinse it lightly under cold water. Set it aside and allow it to air dry for 30 minutes to an hour.

What you're looking for here is something called the pellicle, a glossy sheen that will appear on the surface of the meat as it dries. This means the dry cure did what it should have: let the salt and sugar content of the rub seep into the meat, subtly altering its chemistry and priming it for smokin'.

Put the roast directly on the grill rack at the 6 o'clock position. Lamb is best when it reaches an internal temperature of about 155 to 160 degrees, so again, a thermometer will be helpful.

By this time, smoke should be pluming out of the packet, and if you played your cards right, it should be headed from the fire to the meat. Now here's the deal: Cover the grill and leave it alone.

The lamb will take four to six hours to smoke. Keep an eye on the wind, the temperature inside the grill and the temperature of the meat, but don't check on it every 30 seconds. I recommend you lounge outside and gracefully receive compliments from neighbors who stop by to tell you how good it smells.

Once your wait is over, remove the lamb and serve with a simple sauce of fresh chiffonaded mint leaves, vinegar and confectioner's sugar. Smoking after the meal is optional.

-- Aaron Retka

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