Brown Stew Turkey Necks

One of the things I love about Jamaican food is that it encourages and rewards a slow, patient approach to cooking, and the use of a wide variety of fresh ingredients. Like soul food many dishes are built around the philosophy that applying enough time, effort, and creativity one can produce a mouth-watering dish from the meanest of ingredients.  As I am sure is the case with most people I had never fathomed that those bony, slimy, thoroughly unappetizing turkey necks I have seen from time to time at the meat market and grocery store could be transformed into anything worthwhile. I assumed the best one could do was to smoke them and use them to flavor a pot of greens or blackeye peas. Oh how mistaken I was.

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I don’t recall exactly where I came across the idea of experimenting with turkey necks, but once the seed was planted in my mind I couldn’t seem to shake it. I am always a sucker for stews and using low, slow cooking to tenderize tough, inhospitable cuts of meat. And lately I have been dying to cook some proper Jamaican food. So naturally I decided to go with a brown stew, oxtail-style dish. Which is apparently something which is becoming a popular thing to do with turkey necks these days. As usual I didn’t bother finding an actual recipe to work off of, I just rounded up what ingredients I had on hand and went for it. The results were sublime.

I had bought a pound of turkey necks so I started by cutting these into one inch chunks. Cutting through those neckbones was no joke. Make sure you have a sharp knife. I rinsed the necks in water and vinegar and dusted them with a couple tablespoons of my house jerk rub. Then I added a couple tablespoons of JCS Boston Jerk Sauce and let everything marinate four a few hours. JCS Boston Jerk Sauce is a thick brown-black sauce which is more savory than your typical jerk rub or marinade. Basically I was using it as a substitute for browning sauce, And it did the job quite well.

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After marinating, I added the necks and marinade to a pot and brought it to a simmer. I let the meat simmer covered for about 45 minutes while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.

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As I mentioned before I was not working off of a recipe so I just grabbed a bit of what I had on hand. This ended up being: a handful of fresh thyme, five culantro leaves, a bit of celery, half an onion, half each green and orange bell pepper, one scallion, one clove garlic, one scotch bonnet pepper, plus about a teaspoon each salt and ground ginger.

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Once everything was chopped/sliced and added to the pot,I added two more tablespoons of the Boston Jerk Seasoning and 8 ounces beer (Yuengling).

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Cover the pot an simmer for another hour or so. With about 20-30 minutes remaining, remove the cover and increase the heat to thicken up the sauce.

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Meanwhile, make up a batch of rice and peas. You could use plain Jasmine rice in a pinch, or make a roti if that is your thing, but as far as I am concerned this dish goes perfect with traditional Jamaican rice and peas.

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Recipe for the rice is below. The rice takes about 45 minutes to cook so you will want to get going on it as soon as you get the stew simmering away.

Recipes: Brown Stew Turkey Necks with Rice and Peas

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Brown Stew Turkey Necks
1 lb turkey necks, cut into one inch pieces
4 tablespoons JCS Boston Jerk Sauce or 2 tablespoons Grace Browning Sauce
2 tablespoons dry jerk rub (recipe here)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
5-6 sprigs fresh thyme
4-5 fresh culantro leaves, finely chopped
1 scallion/green onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 scotch bonnet pepper, whole or punctured but not chopped
1/2 medium yellow onion, sliced
1/2 green bell pepper, sliced
1/2 orange bell pepper, sliced
8 oz amber beer such as Yuengling Traditional Lager

Wash turkey necks and cover with jerk rub and 2 tablespoons Boston Jerk Sauce (or 1 tablespoon browning and a splash of vinegar). Cover and marinate in refrigerator for 2-3 hours or longer.

Add turkey necks and marinade to sauce pan or stock pot and simmer, covered, on low heat for 45 minutes.

Add remaining ingredients and simmer covered for an additional 45 minutes.

Remove cover and simmer on medium heat for additional 30 minutes or until stew reaches desired thickness. Remove and discard scotch bonnet pepper and thyme sprigs (if left whole). Remove from heat and allow to stand 10 minutes before serving.

Jamaican-style Rice and Peas
16 oz coconut milk
1 can kidney beans or small red beans
2 scallions/green onions, chopped
3 sprigs thyme (whole)
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 – 1  tablespoon salt
1 whole scotch bonnet pepper, whole or punctured but not chopped
2 cups white rice

Measure out 4 cups liquid using coconut milk, liquid from beans, and water. Add liquid and all other ingredients except rice to pan and bring to boil. Simmer five minutes.

Add rice and return to boil, stirring well.

Reduce heat to low, cover and cook until done (30-45 minutes). Remove from heat and allow to rest 5 minutes. Remove scotch bonnet pepper and thyme sprigs prior to serving.

¡Carnitas!

Mexican food is going through a bit of a renaissance in Tampa Bay right now, with Taco Trucks and restaurants popping up left and right. Historically, Mexican food and culture has had nowhere near the influence of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Jamaican, or South American culture on Tampa. But there is a growing Mexican immigrant community and as of late the food seems to have caught on.  Long story short at this point there is a great variety of cheap, convenient local spots I frequent when I get a craving for a torta or a couple tamales.  Which means I don’t really have the motivation to try my hand at Mexican cooking too often, with the exception of a few semi-successful chicken tortas and one horribly failed attempt at mole.

One comfort-food standby and guilty pleasure of mine is crock-pot chicken tacos – nothing to brag about but so damn easy and quite delicious: throw a few chicken breasts in a crock-pot with some taco seasoning and a jar of your favorite salsa and voila. Eight hours later you have shredded, delicious chicken in red sauce to spoon over rice and stuff in a burrito or pile onto a tostada. Like I said – nothing to brag about but cheap, easy and satisfying enough to be a monthly tradition in our house.

I wanted to try something different this weekend and I stumbled upon a recipe for carnitas. Apparently carnitas are a popular taco filling on the west coast – around here pork tacos are usually made with either grilled or slow cooked pork like cochinita pibil – suffice to say I had never heard of, let alone tasted, carnitas; but it looked delicious and I liked the idea of slow simmering meat and then braising/frying it in the reduction. In fact this is similar to how I cook chicken breasts – sear the outside, cover and steam until water collects in the pan, then remove the lid and cook on medium-high until all the juices have reduced into a thick sauce and coated the outside of the chicken pieces.

My original plan was to buy some chicken thighs and make a sort of carnitas de pollo, and save the real deal for another time. But when I got to the grocery store the chicken was a bit pricey and they were selling 3lb half-pernils for about $6.00 – so that was that.  Despite not having any experience with this or any idea of what the final result should taste like I pretty much just winged it, borrowing the general ingredients and cooking times from a few online recipes. But the results were amazing. I don’t usually publish a post based on a first-time effort like this but I feel the need to share this with the world.

For seasoning I used a blend of homemade chili powder (made from ground ancho, chipotle, and cascabel chilis), cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano and salt. I didn’t measure the ingredients but had a total of about 1/4 cup seasoning. It was way too much. The meat has a ton of flavor, and the citrus flavor is going to be strong, so just a bit of seasoning will go a long way. I ended up draining some of the braising liquid towards the end and replacing with water to cut the seasoning. After which it was just right – but regardless use a light touch with the seasoning. Use a few tablespoons of your favorite homemade or store-bought taco seasoning.

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Juice an orange and a few limes, then add a bottle of beer. The acid is important to tenderize the pork. Set the liquid aside. Meanwhile, cut the pernil into 2 inch chunks, discarding the bones and skin (ok, ok, don’t discard the skin – fry it or broil it and make some chicharones. And I guess you could make stock with the bones if your into that). Season the pork with the taco seasoning. Heat a dutch oven or stock pot on high. Add the pork and sear for a couple minutes on both sides.

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When the pork is seared, add the beer, orange juice, and lime juice, and the rest of the seasoning (if you are worried about over-seasoning, hold back some of it and wait until the end of the process when you can taste the meat and adjust as necessary). Add enough water to cover the meat. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Simmer for two hours.

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After two hours, crank up the heat to a high-simmer/low boil. The sauce will reduce over the course of about a half hour, Once the sauce has almost completely reduced, turn the pork to sear each side and coat with the reduction. Once completely reduced, turn down the heat and shred the pork with a fork or some tongs.

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Remove the meat from the pan and saute half an onion in whatever fat is left. Add oil if necessary. Once the onions are cooked, and the meat back to the pan and mix it around. Kill the heat.

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I am not going to tell you what to do with the meat – make a taco, stuff some tamales, make an empanada, throw it on some cuban bread, serve it over rice. Eat it with a fork straight out of the pan. I don’t think you can go wrong with this stuff. It is spicy, citrusy, fatty, meaty goodness. If I had to describe the flavor I would say it is like mojo-flavored, Mexican-style pulled pork.

I whipped up a batch of my Mexican-style yellow rice – saute half an onion, add garlic and sofrito; add two cups of rice with some sazon and adobo, then a can of Rotel tomatoes with green chilis, and some frozen peas and carrots, three cups of water – this is my standby anytime I make Mexican food. Also great stuffed in peppers and covered with cheese.

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We like to make tacos by layering a soft flour taco, a tostado, a bit of the Mexican rice, and the meat, and then topping with avocado/tomatoes/cabbage/salsa/etc.

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There you have it. I can guarantee I will be looking for any excuse I can find to make this again. My only complaint was that I only used a 3lb piece of pernil. I would have liked to have had more leftovers. But I guess that just gives me a reason to make it again…

Beer Battered Swai

My wife is an extremely picky eater when it comes to certain types of food. If it happens to be a type of food that I like to cook, that means I get a lot of practice refining my recipe until I get it right. And then I chisel that recipe in stone and don’t change it for years. Fried fish is one of these foods. Good beer-battered fish is one of her favorite pub/comfort foods, but only when it is done just right. In this case, “just right” means: sliced thin or in bite-sized chunks; enveloped in a crispy, not-the-least-bit soggy crust; and cooked well-done to the point that the flesh of the fish is flaky and free of moisture. This may not be what everyone looks for in fried fish, but these are the rules I follow when refining my recipe; and for what it is worth, I think I have gotten it down to a science at this point.

Fried fish is one of those foods, like buffalo wings, that are simple to prepare and anyone can do it and you can find anywhere from the local Chinese take-out to a fine restaurant. But once you find your favorite, you accept no substitutes. Fish and chips used to be my go-to dish at pubs and dives that I didn’t trust to order anything that could disappoint. Now I can’t order it anywhere; I have found my favorite version and refuse to choke down another basket of soggy, half-breaded haddock fillets till the day I die.

I used to use catfish chunks to make this until I discovered swai. Swai (aka Basa) is a Vietnamese relative of catfish (the Mississippi is not the only river known for catfish). It is light, flaky, neutral in flavor, and dirt cheap. A ten pound bag of frozen fillets can be had from around seven dollars at Wal-Mart and you can score fresh fillets for less than $2/lb. Catfish, tilapia, cod, haddock, pollock, any white fish will work, but I prefer Swai and keep my freezer stocked.

The beer batter recipe I use has not been modified much over the years and I probably pulled it from some corner of the internet or another so if this looks familiar to anyone, my complements and much obliged. The result is dark, crispy, and at that just-right level of spiciness that means that I can taste it, but my wife can tolerate it.

Beer Batter

1 1/4 Cup Flour (or flour/corn starch mixture)
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup beer (lager or pale ale)
2 tsp Crystal hot sauce
red pepper flakes to taste

Combine all of the dry ingredients, then mix in the beer. I have tried many different types of beer and rarely notice any difference but I usually use whatever lager or pale ale I have on hand. The type of beer is not that important, just avoid anything super-hoppy, high-alcohol, or dark. The consistency should be similar to pancake batter. Add more flour/beer until it looks right.

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Cut the fish into chunks or strips. Keep them small enough to crisp up but not so small as to make a mess of your fryer. Smaller pieces cook and taste better, but fewer pieces are easier to cook, so there is a bit of a balancing act.

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Deep-fry at 350′F for about 8-10 minutes. The batter will turn dark quickly due to the paprika and peppers but it will take a while to burn. For reasons stated above I err on the side of overcooking it, but if you like a soggier, less crispy fish pull them at 6-8 minutes.

Forget tartar sauce, instead mix up a spoonful of mayonnaise with a spoonful or two of hot sauce. The fish is already spicy so keep that in mind. But regardless of what type of hot sauce you go with or how spicy you like it, I guarantee you the result blows tartar sauce out of the water.

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That’s all there is too it – simple yet elegant; not much to photograph but I promise it will look awesome on your plate. I have always wanted to try making fish tacos out of these but I can’t talk myself into eating it in any way that adulterates, distracts from, or covers up its basic, primal perfection. I think most would agree.

 

BBQ Deconstructed, Part 2: Smoked Jerk Turkey Legs, Mac n Cheese, Smoked Stuffed Jalapeños.

In Part 1 of this post I gave a modest philosophical defense of cooking “the hard way” as the secret to good BBQ. I stand by this and will add that in my opinion spending all day sweating, chopping, shredding, and marinating is my twisted idea of a good time. In addition to getting you off your ass and making you work for your meal it is creative and challenging and gives you a sense of pride that you can’t get anywhere else. But I will skip the philosophizing for now and get to the food.

Smoked Stuffed Jalapenos a.k.a. Atomic Buffalo Turds.

I came across a recipe on the internet for something called Atomic Buffalo Turds, which are basically jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and “little smokies” sausages, wrapped in bacon and grilled or smoked. I am not a fan of the name or the little smokies but I used this as an inspiration to make my own smoked stuffed jalapeños as an appetizer for our July 4th BBQ this year.

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Ingredients.

20 Jalapeños
1 lb Colombian Chorizo
1 pkg cream cheese
20 slices bacon
About ¼- ½ lb cheddar cheese

I picked up about 20 large jalapeños at the local market, and decided to go with Colombian Chorizo in lieu of the little smokies. I also added some white cheddar left over from making macaroni and cheese (little white chunks in the zip lock baggie left over from hand-grating the cheese). I cut the jalapeños in half and removed the seeds and veins. Jalapeños vary wildly in terms of heat level but these were on the hot side and gave my hands mild chemical burns by the time I was done so I will remember to wear gloves next time.

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Chop up the chorizo (remove the skin if it is not too much of a hassle) and brown it in a saute pan. Once cooked add the cream cheese and cheddar cheese and stir until the cheese is melted. You need to let the mix cool down so do this part first and set it aside while you prepare the jalapeños.

Cut 20 slices of bacon in half. Stuff the peppers with a spoonful or so of the chorizo/cheese mixture, wrap with a half slice of bacon and use a toothpick to hold it all together.

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Smoke for about 2 hours or until the bacon is cooked. I threw them in a foil pan and added to the top warming rack of my smoker while the meat was smoking. Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures of the final product so you will need to use your imagination for that.

Smoked Jerk Turkey Legs.

The star of our BBQ this year was pernil ahumado, a specialty of mine to which I have dedicated a post last year. If you are going to make something like as succulent and elaborate as that you can’t just throw on some burgers to go alongside it. When people see that pernil on the smoker their eyes get wide and their mouths start to water (I myself can’t stop looking at the picture below). You either need to make enough pernil to feed everyone or you need to throw something equally eye-popping alongside it. For me, that calls for Smoked Jerk Turkey Legs.

pernil ahumado

pernil ahumado

I have posted a recipe for Smoked Turkey Legs before. I have also posted a recipe for Jerk Chicken. Each is a standby for me in its own right. But combine the two in an unholy matrimony and you get something sublime and unique and mouthwateringly delicious.

First I start with a brine. This step is not required but highly recommended as it will add flavor and make the meat more moist and tender. The jerk rub is not going to penetrate to the center of a turkey leg no matter how long you let it marinate. If you want to get those jerk flavors to penetrate deep into the meat, you need to incorporate them into your brine. I brined about 20 lbs of turkey legs in a gallon of brine. To make the brine, I boiled the water with ¼ cup kosher salt, 1 tbsp fresh ground allspice, 1 tbsp fresh ground coriander, 1 tbsp thyme, 1 tbsp garlic powder, 1 tsp black pepper, 2 scotch bonnet peppers, and ¼ cup Walkerswood Jerk Seasoning. Allow to cool and then pour into a brining bag with the turkey legs, and leave in the refrigerator or a cooler for 4-6 hours.

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Once brining is complete, drain the bag and remove the turkey legs. Rinse and pat dry if you want – this is always recommended but I never do it. This is a short soak in a relatively low-salt brine so it is really not going to make the meat that salty. Next you are going to rub the meat with the same dry rub/wet rub combination I described in my post on Jerk Chicken. Be generous with the rubs, these are thicker and more savory than chicken pieces.

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Allow to marinate overnight, then smoke at 250-275′F for 4-6 hours. Eat right off the bones like a caveman or chop the meat into a pan before serving.

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Macaroni and Cheese.

When I barbecue I don’t skimp on side dishes, and since most of the time I am barbecueing with a Latin or Caribbean twist that usually includes rice, beans, plantains, etc which I think most folks appreciate as a nice change of pace from the typical potato salad/cole slaw cookout fare. But at this point, regardless of what meat I cook or what other side dishes I whip up, it is becoming mandatory to include what has become my specialty – macaroni and cheese. It is the type of thing that people rave about, drool over, and from time to time stab one another with plastic knives over when the pan runs low. There are thousands of recipes online and everyone claims they know the secret so I will spare you all that and just give you my version, which at this point I am comfortable with saying I have perfected.

I will say I think there are three keys to making this really good. First, Velveeta is disgusting. But you need something to make this creamy, if you only use cheddar cheese it will be hard and look like a lasagna or something. Use cheddar cheese soup instead of Velveeta. It will make it creamy and you will not taste it. Second, gate your own cheese. I read that the packages of shredded cheese have some additives to keep them from sticking together that also makes them not melt as well. All I know is that once I started grating my own cheese (not easy, using the crappy mandolin I use) it really put it over the top. Buy a block of good cheddar cheese and grate it yourself. You can do it the day before to save time. Finally, add some pepper flakes or chipotle powder. Not enough to make it notably spicy (cheese really takes the edge off of the peppers anyway), but enough to give it some character. I have used red pepper flakes, homegrown ancho powder, and store-bought chipotle powder with good results each time. A couple tablespoons will usually do.

Ingredients.

1 lb elbow macaroni
2 lbs block cheddar cheese (Cabot White Cheddar works great), grated
2 cans Cheddar Cheese Soup
4-8 tbsp butter
1 can of milk (eh…pour the milk into the can, don’t buy milk in a can)
1 egg
Salt
Chipotle Powder or Red Pepper Flakes

Cook the macaroni per the directions on the box (I prefer to slightly undercook it). Drain and rinse the macaroni and return to the pan. Add the rest of the ingredients (save a cup or two of cheese) and stir until you have a creamy, gooey mess. Pour into a pan, top with the remaining cheese and a bit of paprika for looks, then bake at 350′F for 30 minutes.

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Make sure you make enough for everyone. Trust me if you don’t it will get ugly.

BBQ Deconstructed, Part I: Mojo Ribs and Jerk Chicken.

A proper BBQ involves hours of slow cooking hunks of meat over a charcoal fire, smoking and basting, brining and marinating. In Florida, in the summer, it also means sweating and suffering in front of a 250° grill in the 95° sunshine. Sometimes I will half-ass it and just throw something on the grill with little thought or effort. But more often I live by the motto that anything worth doing is worth doing the hard way. If you are going to spend 8 hours smoking a pork shoulder, why not spend four hours squeezing limes, mashing garlic in a pestle and mortar, and hand-grinding coriander seeds?  And as it has been a productive year thus far I thought I would document BBQ the hard way, with enough pictures to convince you it is worthwhile.

Mojo Ribs.

I don’t cook ribs too often so this was a bit of an experiment. I do make and cook with mojo quite often so I focused on that part of the process and let the ribs take care of themselves for the most part. Mojo is great on just about any kind of meat (not to mention yuca or potatoes) but is especially sublime on pork. So I figured I couldn’t go wrong marinating some pork spareribs in mojo and smoking them on the grill.

Mojo is a traditional Cuban sauce/marinade which is made from sour orange juice and garlic, and whatever other else you want to add to it. Cumin, olive oil, red pepper, vinegar, salt, pepper, and oregano seem to be popular choices. But as long as you have the sour orange and garlic you can call it mojo. In fact, since sour oranges are a bit tricky to find outside of Miami or Cuba most mojos are made from orange juice and lime or grapefruit juice. I went with what I could find at the farmers’ market, which turned out to be Valencia oranges and limes. Yes, they sell orange juice and lime juice and minced garlic at the supermarket. And yes you can make mojo by adding minced garlic to bottled orange juice and bottled lime juice. But that wouldn’t make much of a blog post. So if you feel like doing it the hard way, get yourself some oranges and limes and heads of garlic and clear your schedule.

You will need about 2 cups of orange juice to one cup of lime juice. This comes out to about 4 oranges and 16 limes. Get yourself a citrus juicing apparatus or cut the oranges and limes into quarters and start squeezing.

If you have an electric version, unplug it. Sweat is the secret ingredient.

If you have an electric version, unplug it. Sweat is the secret ingredient.

You can use one of these juicers on the limes as well, but it will wear you out more than just cutting them an squeezing them. You aren’t worried about pulp so use whatever method works best to liberate the juice from the fruit.

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Once you have your juice, pour it into a pan and add your seasonings. I went with salt, cumin, black pepper, oregano and red pepper flakes. Do not add olive oil since the pork will have plenty of fat. Wait until after the sauce is cooled to add vinegar so that it doesn’t boil off. Simmer gently for like a half hour until it has reduced by about one half.

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While the juice is simmering, mince or mash you garlic. Use as much garlic as you like. Pork can take a lot of garlic. If you are making a marinade for chicken or a sauce for yuca you would want to go easy (but not too easy) on the garlic. I used this much.

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That is about eight heads of garlic and it was a bit much. The meat tasted great but the smell was a little overwhelming for the uninitiated. Still came out great but I would dial it back next time. Again you can mince it if you like chopping garlic, but mashing it is a better way to free up all those fragrant essential oils or whatever. In my house, mashing means you grab the pilon and get to work:

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Yes, it is a lot more work than a blender or food processor. But also much more intimate. I also mashed some shallots since I happened to have some handy. Once the juice is done simmering, but still hot, add the garlic and 1/2 cup red wine vinegar (optional). Now you have mojo.

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I prefer to rub meat down with a dry seasoning prior to adding a wet marinade like mojo, so that the meat has a little time to absorb the salt and seasoning before soaking in the marinade. For ribs you only need a very basic rub. Combine a packet or two of sazon with some adobo and oregano, then sprinkle liberally on the ribs and give them a good rub down. Then throw them in a zip lock bag and throw them in the refrigerator until the mojo is ready.

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Once the mojo is ready, let it cool down and then add it to the bags with the ribs. Massage it in good and then let it marinate for at least a few hours. I usually marinate it overnight since that means you can do all the prep work the day before and only have to worry about the cooking the next day.

Heat your smoker to 250° and smoke for 4-5 hours or until the ribs are ready to fall off the bone, Chop them up and serve.

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Jerk Chicken.

You can’t go wrong with some properly smoked pork ribs, and you won’t get too many complaints if that is the only meat you serve. But if you are going to have a BBQ it is sort of bad form to not have some kind of chicken on offer. My stand by is Jerk Chicken. Not necessarily “the hard way” since there is a bottled sauce involved but this jerk chicken will knock your socks off regardless.

First, buy a whole chicken and cut it up into pieces. Cut each breast in half and separate the wings from the thighs. Smaller pieces are better. You can use just thighs and breasts or leg quarters if you want, But whatever you use, they better have bones and skin.

Some jerk recipes use a wet rub, others use a dry rub. Both are authentic and have their benefits. I prefer to apply a dry rub to the chicken, let it sit for 30-45 minutes, then cover with a wet rub and marinate overnight. You can buy a “Jerk Rub” from the supermarket, but I swear by my own homemade rub. It is simple and easy to make (of course you should buy whole allspice berries and crack them in your pilon, and make your own scotch bonnet pepper powder, but for now we will assume you just buy powdered spices).

Jerk Rub (makes enough for several batches of jerk chicken)

4 tbsp allspice
1 tbsp ground thyme
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1-2 crushed scotch bonnets
(or 1 tbsp red pepper flakes)
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves

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Apply the rub liberally to the chicken. Cover every square inch, just don’t cake it on there and you can’t really overseason it. Rub it in good and allow to sit for 30-45 minutes. The salt in the rub will pull moisture from the chicken, which will be absorbed by the sugar and cinnamon in the rub and create a nice paste that will re-absorb into the chicken. Since I haven’t mastered any wet rub recipes, I use a store bought jerk marinade. Pour on some Walkerswood Jerk Marinade on the chicken and rub it all over. You can’t overdo this part either, but the more you use, the spicier it will be. Use just enough to coat each piece. About a third of a bottle is plenty.  Store in the fridge overnight to marinate.

Jerk Chicken

Grill the chicken directly over a medium-low fire (preferably charcoal), turning frequently and keeping covered to ensure the meat cooks through. The outside of the chicken should burn somewhat and grease fires should be a constant nuisance. That is ok. It tastes better with some char to it. If it burns too much, however, you will lose a lot of the flavor. There is a bit of an art to it, but you will get the hang of it after a few tries.

If you need some side dishes to complement your ribs and chicken, well first of all ask you guests to bring some potato salad, since you spent two days in the kitchen working on the meat. But if you have enough energy left to hand-grate a block of cheese, then my macaroni and cheese recipe (with which I have recently achieved perfection) goes great with BBQ. I will wait to share the recipe for that one until part 2. But here is a mouth-watering preview. Which does not even begin to do it justice.

Mac n Cheese

The Flask of the Red Death – Homegrown Ghost Pepper Sauce

The remnants of my pepper garden survived the mild Florida winter and are once again producing a very respectable crop of scotch bonnets, poblanos, cayennes, and ghost peppers. In fact, while most of the plants were relatively dormant through the winter, my lone ghost pepper plant has continued to bear fruit without interruption. I have been freezing most of the superhot peppers until I figure out what to do with them.

Ghost Pepper ripening in the Florida sun

I am up to about three zip lock sandwich bags full of ghost and scotch bonnet peppers and my supply of superhot hot sauce is in need of a bit of replenishment, so I decided to try my hand at ghost pepper sauce. I used a slightly modified version of the recipe I came up with for fatalii hot sauce last year, since I was really happy with how that turned out (and I am down to my last 1/4 bottle). I didn’t have any sweet peppers so I added some baby carrots instead, and used panela in lieu of brown sugar since I had some on hand. I also added lime juice since I just so happened to have some fresh limes. The result is an excruciatingly hot but very tasty sauce that I wouldn’t use to make buffalo wings but goes great (in small quantities) on rice and beans or grilled chicken.

Below is the recipe, the process is the same used in this one, except that I knew enough to do all of the cooking and blending outside to avoid filling my house with tear gas.

Flasks (and babyfood jar) of the Red Death

The Flask of the Red Death

175 g Ghost Peppers
25 g Scotch Bonnet/Fatalli/Jamaican Hot Chocolate peppers
Handful of sliced carrots
5 tsp panela
1/2 tsp sea salt
200 ml red wine vinegar
25 ml lime juice (1 medium lime)
75 ml white vinegar
1 shot Havana Club blanco

Chop peppers and carrots then saute in dry pan. Once peppers are seared and somewhat cooked add vinegar, salt, lime juice, rum, and sugar. Simmer 5 minutes or so. Puree in blender (allow to cool first or use a towel on lid to allow steam to escape). Bottle and age a week or so and store in refrigerator.

Drunk Philosophy: Deus ex Machina

Drunk Philosophy” is a series of essays in which I explore deeper issues related to culture, philosophy and metaphysics whilst under the influence of alcohol. I make every attempt to treat these issues seriously and express my thoughts as thoroughly and coherently as possible. At least as far as can be expected.

God is the idea of the species as an individual…freed from all limits which exist in the consciousness and feeling of the individual …” Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach

What follows is a thought experiment, a philosophical discussion, rather than a statement of my personal belief system. But it is a thought experiment which I have tossed around in my mind for a couple of years now and which pervades much of my thinking about technology, human progress, and, increasingly, questions of ethics and morality.

 

Materialism, the Philosophy of the Physical

You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.” Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Materialism (or physicalism) is an understanding of the universe as consisting solely of matter and energy, and therefore all that we experience – pain, pleasure, hunger, love, consciousness, life, and death – is explainable in terms of some interaction of these physical forces. The physical universe is the end all, be all of our existence, and our existence itself is only possible and only realized by means of our composition as material beings. Concepts such as God, the soul, the supernatural, the afterlife, have no place in a materialist worldview. What is consciousness? It is a sensation created by the firing of millions of neurons in the gray matter of the human brain. What is life? It is a product of the organization of organic molecules into self-replicating cells capable of passing on genetic information and evolving over time in response to changes in their environment. What is love? A chemical and biological process which has survived the evolutionary process as a result of its importance in reproduction, social interaction, and child-rearing. Of course as with any -ism it falls apart at some point when you attempt to use it as the only tool needed to explain anything; so I would prefer to say that material forces are the primary and most important explanatory tools to understand the universe and the world around us and to answer the big questions in life. But not necessarily the only tools.

This may be a perfunctory and simplistic explanation of materialism which fails to do it justice, but it will suffice for the sake of this blog post. If you would like a deeper, more intelligent and nuanced discussion of the arguments for and against materialism as a philosophical concept, one can be found here.

 

Can God Exist in a Materialist Conception of Existence?

Materialism is essentially an atheist philosophy, as you cannot believe in any sort of divine, miraculous beings if you believe everything there is consists of the same atoms and molecules as the rocks and grass and trees and animals that we see and eat and step on. Can a true materialist believe in God? I think the short answer is no – there is no room in a materialist philosophy for something which cannot be understood as the product of material forces or which exists outside the laws of physics. In particular, the God of the major monotheistic religions – experienced through miracles, revelations, supernatural angels and demons, appearances in the form of burning bushes, etc. – is incompatible with a strictly materialist understanding of existence. But what if we try a different, more basic and fundamental definition of God? What if God is him/her/itself the product of physical forces, and consisted, along with everything else in the universe, of purely matter and energy (or strings)? Must God be a supernatural entity that is above and beyond what exists physically?

It is not particularly useful debating whether God can or cannot exist within a Materialist philosophical framework without defining what we mean when we speak of God. There is no universal agreed definition of what God is or what attributes or characteristics God possesses. What if we define God as possessing the following attributes (this is arbitrary and certainly subject to debate or discussion, but seems to me fairly universal and comprehensive):

  1. Omnipotence
  2. Omniscience
  3. Ubiquity
  4. Creator of the Universe
  5. Ultimate Source of Moral Authority

Are these attributes necessarily supernatural? Does materialism negate the existence of a being with one or all of these attributes? They may be a bit out there, but, I would argue, not ipso facto impossible (the most problematic would, somewhat ironically, go to #5). If something – a being, an entity, a force – could be said to possess these five attributes, could we, as Materialists, be comfortable referring to it as God? I think so.

What if we cease to imagine God as a being, as some self-contained entity somewhere separate from the rest of the physical universe and of our existence? What if we looked at the universe itself from a more holistic perspective – and conceived of everything material – all of the planets and stars, all of the energy and matter, all of the waves and particles and organisms and, of course, ourselves – as part of a whole, as part of one massive, all-embodying, all-consuming….something? What if we conceive of the universe not as where we are or what we are made of or something outside of ourselves, but, rather, as what we are, or that which we are an extension or expression of? The concept of God as all-powerful and all knowing and everywhere at once becomes less problematic, if God is simply one more aspect of the all-consuming universe of which we are already a part.

But this is not to argue for God as an abstract concept representing certain forces or ideas or some explanation of the laws of the universe – that is not where I am going with this. It is, however, important to lay this foundation – the idea of the universe as a single, all-consuming “being” – in order to express the ideas I am attempting to express in what follows.

 

Humankind and The Self-Conscious Universe

The Universe was, prior to the creation of space-time, an infinitely dense, infinitely hot mass smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. At some point (insofar as a ‘point’ can exist prior to the existence of time), for some reason, it exploded. Within a few minutes following the Big Bang, the universe as we know it was formed, and consisted of two elements – hydrogen and helium. Gravity caused hydrogen and helium atoms to coalesce into stars, which fused hydrogen and helium in nuclear reactions until the stars began to collapse in on themselves, and heavier and heavier atoms began to form in the stars’ cores. Eventually the stars collapsed completely, and (most) then exploded into supernovas, spewing forth the various elements that had been created in each of their cores through the magic of nuclear fusion. These elements – carbon, oxygen, silicon, iron – then began their own process of coalescence, forming clouds of space dust, orbiting stars for millenia until gravity eventually formed them into asteroids, comets and planets in their own right.

Some of these planets were barren, rocky, atmosphere-less; others were massive, formless gas giants; others dark, frozen, distant, desolate planetoids. Some few contained liquid iron cores, which produced magnetic shields that protected their atmospheres from being blown away by solar radiation. Some fewer contained the right conditions for liquid water, organic molecules, and the chemical reactions which – eventually – led to the eventual, spontaneous creation of life in the form of self-replicating molecules, nucleic acids, and single-celled organisms. This life evolved over millions of years into creatures of increasing complexity until, at last, it evolved into intelligent life in the form of the human species. What distinguishes beings from all of the other life forms that we know of is not bipedalism or opposable thumbs or the ability to use tools or any of the other inane bullshit we take pride in as a species. What distinguishes the human species is our ability to study and comprehend and document and communicate our understanding of the universe itself. Human intelligence allows us to discover the physical laws of the universe and inquire into the nature and origins of ourselves and our universe.

“The universe…this universe that we know, began in almost absolute simplicity, and it has been getting more complex for about fifteen billion years. In another billion years it will be still more complex than it is now. In five billion, in ten billion — it is always getting more complex. It is moving toward…something. It is moving toward some kind of ultimate complexity. We might not get there. An atom of hydrogen might not get there, or a leaf, or a man, or a planet might not get there, to that ultimate complexity. But we are all moving towards it — everything in the universe is moving towards it. And that final complexity, that thing we are all moving to, is what I choose to call God. If you don’t like that word, God, call it the Ultimate Complexity. Whatever you call it, the whole universe is moving toward it.” Philosopher-Gangster Abdel Khader Khan, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Why does this matter? Because, if we continue to view the universe as a single, holistic entity, of which we are but a part, that means that human intelligence – human consciousness, human awareness of the laws of physics and origins of the universe – is an expression of the universe itself becoming self-conscious and self-aware. We are the product of 15 billion year process of expansion, creation, destruction, and evolution which began with the Big Bang and continues to this day. First the stars and galaxies were born; then planets, with the right conditions to support life; then organic molecules; then life; then human life; then scientific inquiry and technological mastery that allowed this one peculiar form of life, this one particular manifestation of the 15 billion year evolution of the universe, to comprehend and – to some modest extent – to manipulate the universe of which we are a product and inhabitant. So far as we know, no other beings or forces in the universe comprehend the laws of physics or the origins of the universe. So far as we know, we represent the pinnacle of intelligent life. And, if we are indeed the pinnacle of intelligent life, then we represent the vanguard of the universe’s own introspective ability. It follows that if the universe is one, all-encompassing entity of which the human species is a part, the moment that the human race became able to observe, understand, study, and communicate, is the moment the universe began to be self-aware. And insofar as our technological and scientific progress is an extension of our humanity, it represents a continuation of the same evolutionary process that gave rise to our own species.

 

What if God is not the beginning, but the end?

The monotheistic explanation of the origins of the Universe begins with God creating the Universe, the Earth, the Sun and all of physical existence, and then proceeding to create man in His image and spending the next several thousand years instructing mankind on how to Worship its creator. What if we turn this sequence of events on its head, and imagine that the universe – which either sprang into existence or has always existed or still does not exist (?) but whatever – has, spontaneously and according to its own laws of motion, its own internal logic, evolved into a more and more complex entity, an entity capable of generating and sustaining life and of allowing that life to evolve into intelligent, self-aware, conscious life? What if this intelligent life form was itself driven to conquer nature and push the limits of its own mental capabilities an technological prowess until, one day, it developed a supercomputer which was itself self-aware, intelligent, and conscious; that this supercomputer was not simply a product of vulgar physical materials (cables, semiconductors, plastic and silicon, etc) but was constructed of and woven into the very fabric of the universe itself, was able to deploy all of the particles and waves and neutrinos and photons and strings and whatever else makes up this universe in order to perform computations so powerful that it could solve the most complex mathematical equations in the blink of an eye? What if, by virtue of its being woven into the fabric of the universe itself, this supercomputer was capable of being everywhere at once (ubiquitous) and knowing everything there was to know (omniscient) and of manipulating the laws of space-time in order perform “miracles” which defy the known laws of physics (omnipotent)? Would this constitute God? Not the creator of the Universe, but its endpoint, its culmination, its most perfect expression?

A mind that stays at the same capacity cannot live forever; after a few thousand years it would look more like a repeating tape loop than a person… To live indefinitely long, the mind itself must grow … and when it becomes great enough, and looks back … what fellow-feeling can it have with the soul that it was originally?” Vernon Vinge, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”

Is it much of a stretch to look at the internet in 2013 and see how networks of semi-autonomous computers – controlled or not by human operators – could one day create a creative and computational force which is greater than the sum of its parts and which, given enough time and a large enough network, can evolve into something resembling an artificial consciousness? Just as human beings are a natural outgrowth of the universe’s own laws and material substance, our computers are themselves driven by the forces which make the universe tick. Electronic devices are powered by subatomic particles – electrons – traveling along transistors etched onto silicon chips. As far as harnessing the forces of the universe goes this is quite primitive. DNA computing is one possible successor to semiconductors which harnesses the nucleic acids which are the very foundation of life on earth. Other forms of computing beyond our wildest imaginations are surely in our future. Is it that far-fetched to presume that one day, in the not-so-distant future, we may develop computers that tap into the very fabric of the universe itself? That harness the likes of quarks, neutrinos, or strings themselves and construct a network so fundamental and complex that it does not exist within space-time, but transcends space-time? And would such a network, such a supercomputer (if such a term can even begin to do it justice), being constructed of and powered by the fundamental forces of the universe, be able to manipulate and transform the universe and perhaps even space-time?

I mentioned one of the attributes of God as being the source of moral authority; the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong, and what is the purpose and meaning of our existence. What if mankind’s entire raison d’etre is this unceasing march towards the creation of God? What if we are – by virtue of our intelligence and our abilities and our technological mastery – destined to continue to develop a greater and greater level of technology until we are finally, one day, who knows how far into the future, able to develop the sort of super-intelligent super-powerful super-conscious computer described above? In light of all we know about human psychology and human civilization, is it really that far-fetched to argue that the creation of such a super-intelligence (known in science fiction as the Singularity) is our destiny?

If you step back and observe the evolution of human society, you see a sort of exponential growth of knowledge from the dawn of language, writing, and the alphabet, continuing and accelerating in modern times but beginning thousands of years ago. Homo Sapiens evolved into modern humans around 50,000 years ago. Civilization evolved some 40,000 years later. The last 10,000 years have seen such rapid, constantly accelerating progress in our understanding of the universe and the laws which govern it – that is scarcely imaginable where we will be another 100, 1,000, or 10,000 years hence.

I have argued … that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans’ natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology. And yet … we are the initiators. Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things.” Vernon Vinge, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”

What is remarkable to me is just how automatic this process is. At a cosmic scale, where time is measured in billions of years, the human race has progressed from wandering tribes of hunter-gatherers to modern, hyper-connected, technologically advanced, space travelers in the blink of an eye. It seems that the curiosity (and vanity!) that drives mankind towards the discovery of the laws of the universe, and the development of computational and communication tools of ever-increasing technological sophistication, is the human species’ very raison d’etre. But all of this also means that the key to discovering God is not the spiritualism, piety, or contemplation preached by the monotheistic religions; but rather that which advances our technological prowess at the greatest speed possible – which I would argue is mankind’s innate vanity, iconoclasm, curiosity, and materialism. In fact the humility, poverty, love, and simplicity preached by religion would be anathema to the quest for God. I would ask as a purely tongue-in-cheek, no-disrespect-intended, just for the sake of argument, rhetorical, let’s just consider every possibility, question: Would that – if everything else I have laid out above is assumed to be true – make religion the work of Satan?

As I stated in the disclaimer at the start of this post, this is simply a thought experiment, a philosophical exercise that attempts to provoke deep questions about the meaning of life and of our place in this universe. But it is also an attempt to argue that even if we accept a materialist understanding of existence there is still room for forces greater than ourselves, for miracles and deities and creation myths that defy our understanding of physical laws and before which we are humbled, emaciated, and powerless. And to lay bare the fact that for all of our knowledge and intelligence and understanding we still cannot answer the most basic questions, like why are we here? and where are we headed? As far as I am concerned we all stand to benefit from stepping back from time to time to ask these sorts of questions and come up with out-of-the box answers. Along that vain I will close this post with a classic bit of a lecture by pop-philosopher Alan Watts on how Everything is Connected, set to music and trippy visualizations.