Get off my lawn.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Just have to laugh

I stumbled across this picture today, and I keep cracking up every time I look at it.

Monday, June 18, 2007

BGE, Day 2: Steak

After a long delay of 1 day after getting my Big Green Egg (see earlier post), I finally had a chance to grill some steaks and follow an actual procedure for searing them.

Searing a steak is supposed to make it really good, although I'm not exactly sure why. I figure it must have something to do with the sealing of juice inside the meat by cooking the outside of it so fast the juice can't escape. Never having eaten an explicitly "seared" steak, I couldn't say for sure. But I had a recipe, and the hardware available to execute on it, so I did it. I looked forward to the part where I threw the steaks on the grill with it red-hot. I wanted to see what would happen.

It was better than I thought it would be. The recipe I used was given to me by Jason Winter, and goes like this:

  1. Take some good steaks and let them sit at room temperature for several hours, thawed out.
  2. Rub some coarse salt and coarse-ground pepper into them.
  3. Start the BGE and run it up to full speed, somewhere north of 700 degrees.
  4. Lay the steaks on the grid, 90 seconds per side.
  5. Remove the steaks.
  6. Turn the BGE down to 400 degrees.
  7. Wait 20 minutes.
  8. Put the steaks back on, 5 minutes per side (at most).
As I anticipated, the best part of this process is the point where you drop the steaks on the grid with the fire going like crazy underneath. There's a lot of crackling and smoke, and the smell is pretty good.

I guess the point of the 20-minute wait is twofold: It lets the meat tenderize some more, and also gives the BGE a chance to cool down. Jason suggested it's the most important part of the process (besides, I assume, the grilling itself).

In any event, the steaks were the best I've grilled. They were juicy, the insides were pink, but the outsides had some crunchy black stuff on them, and a nice arrangement of stripes.

I think I'll try some chicken next.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Big Green Egg

The Big Green Egg (BGE) is the ultimate BBQ grill. Think of it as the Power Mac of BBQ devices.

Powered by lump charcoal, it functions as a grill, a smoker, an oven, or (based on my limited experience, perhaps) a coal-fired death ray. It even looks a little like a nuclear reactor vessel. It's made of ceramic material, and weighs close to 200 lbs. It's essentially a modern variant of the Kamado, a ceramic cooking vessel used ever since man figured out how to make ceramic stuff, and cook. You can use it to cook basically anything except maybe soup; Meat, vegetables, bread, pizza, etc. Even though it's charcoal powered, you can control its temperature to within 2 degrees, and startup time is roughly equal to that of a gas grill. It's also pretty efficient; If you use it 5 times per week, a 25-lb bag of charcoal will last about 2 months. Considering I can get those bags for $5, I think that's a pretty good deal.

Anyway, I had been telling my wife I wanted to replace our Weber BBQ with one at some point, but I was in no hurry since the Weber was at least another year from rusting into a useless heap of junk. (It was only 12 years old, after all.) But yesterday, I went to pick up my son at summer camp. When we returned home, there was a new BGE sitting on the deck, with a bunch of accessories sitting around it. I was totally suprised. We had just gotten a new set of deck chairs. I was led to believe these were my Father's Day present, but they must have just been a diversion. Anyway, the whole family had known about the suprise for a few weeks, and I had no idea. My wife is pretty darn cool.

So, I spent the afternoon playing with it (the grill, not my wife). Here are my impressions:

As for quality and packaging, I'm impressed. The BGE is made out of 2" thick ceramic material, and the outer coating is some kind of induction-hardened baked-on carbon-fiber space-age material that can withstand 1800 degrees of heat, not to mention rain, hail, and other elements. It's green. The various parts are attached to each other with big steel bands. It's possible to break a BGE, but you'd have to try pretty hard. Drop a bowling ball into it, and you might crack something. Pick it up and drop it on concrete, and you'd definitely have a problem. But you'd have to be the Incredible Hulk to do that, since it's so heavy. It looks like it will be around and fully functional 25 years from now.

I never used to give out-of-the-box packaging any thought, until I bought something made by Apple. Those people know how to put something in a box, let me tell you. Everything is nice-looking, thought-out, and arranged perfectly. When you buy it and open it, you get the sense you got your money's worth. Actually, you kind of feel bad tearing open the packaging on an Apple product, because it's so nice. The packaging for the BGE is kind of like that, albeit with a more countrified "cook yer meat" vibe. The manual isn't one of those 30-page ones with 2 pages in English and the other 28 in 14 other languages. It's a real manual, full of instructions and recipes in English. There are loads of accessories for the BGE; extra grids, plate setters, cooking stones, alternate top draft controls, "grill grippers", rib racks, etc. They're all color-coordinated, too. There's even a vinyl cover available for the BGE, which I guess is analogous to the leather case I keep my iPod in.

One of the more fundamental accessories is an odd-looking "ash tool" (included) that's designed to hang from the handle on the lid (aka the "dome"). You use it for everything from stirring the coals before startup, poking around at various things at runtime, to lifting the grid out of the top. Operating the BGE is kind of a two-fisted affair; use your hand to manipulate the things with wooden handles, the tool for everything else.

Startup is pretty simple. Fill it halfway with charcoal, put some small fire sticks in the charcoal, light them, and wait about 10 minutes. Lighter fluid doesn't seem to work at all. I don't know why. The fire sticks work fine though.

You control the temperature by opening a draft door on the lower front to varying degrees, and one on the top. With some practice, you can get it to the temperature you want pretty easily. Once there, it stays there.

Just for fun, I thought I would see what it would do at full throttle. Here's what it does: It gets HOT. I opened the drafts all the way up, and the temperature gauge started climbing. In about 10 minutes, it was at nearly 800 degrees. I toasted a piece of bread in 10 seconds by holding it on a stick next to the exhaust port! I looked carefully into the port, and was impressed by what I saw. Remember the scene in "20,000 Leagues under the Sea" when the submarine captain is showing the other guy the engines on his ship? The guy looks in the hole through a protective visor, and gets this "Holy... Crap..." look on his face. I don't know what that guy saw, but I bet it would be great for searing steaks, as what I saw surely will be.

Interestingly, at 800 degrees internal temperature, I could still touch the outer skin of the BGE. It was definitely warm, but not enough to burn. I wouldn't exactly want to lean against it.

I played with the drafts, and was eventually able to get it to stabilize at any temperature from 100 degrees on up. It seems to heat up a lot faster than it cools down. You can jump from 200 to 400 degrees in a couple of minutes, but it retains so much heat that it takes awhile to get back down to 200. The nice thing is, once you get it to the temperature you want, you can pretty much shut it completely down and it will stay at the same temperature for a long time. You end up cooking food without using any fuel.

The lid has hi-temp felt gaskets around it, so the container is practically airtight when closed down. What this means is that at high temperatures, you want to be careful opening the lid. Under those conditions, a starving inferno lurks inside and it will burst out around the lid if it gets a sudden rush of air. There's a page in the manual that warns about it. It mentions things like "massive fireballs" and "grevious injury". My brother, a BGE veteran, warned me about it. He lost two perfectly good eyebrows, some arm hair, and some knuckle skin opening the lid quickly once. He (and the manual) said the trick is to open the drafts for 15 seconds and then open the lid SLOWLY. A supposed side effect to the pain and terror associated with quick-open flashback is that you usually let go of the handle, causing the lid to slam shut, which can break it or the grill. I plan to work out a system of counterweights and hydraulic rams to guard against this. I hope I get it figured out and installed by the time I forget his warnings and burn the crap out of myself.

Another small feature I should mention alongside the precision control and hubs-o'-hell heat is the way the BGE seems to handle actually cooking food. Kamados are known for producing good-tasting food. I know this, because the owner's manual said so (Big suprise!). They're known for retaining a lot of moisture and not drying things out the way a gas or charcoal grill can.

For a test, I grilled some brats and some kind of low-fat beef hot dogs my wife picked out. I dialed up 350 degrees, and put the dogs n' brats on. Several minutes later, I checked them. I opened the lid (SLOWLY), and was startled by the sheer hot-dogginess of the smell coming out of the grill. On my Weber, there's no such smell, and brats don't seem to be ready to eat until they've split open. I have to rotate them so each one of them gets a turn over whatever hot spots there are in the fire. When you eat them, they're not all that great. This was rather different. I just lined all of the weiners up side by side. They all cooked at the same rate, they didn't burst, and they smelled like food. When we ate them, the brats were juicy and tasted better than the same brats cooked on a lesser grill. The all-beef hot dogs, not so much. They are essentially pulverized beef jerky stored in edible hotdog-shaped tubes (most likely made of biodegradable plastic). I doubt there's much moisture in them to start with, and there certainly isn't anything in them that tastes very good. I suspect Gordon Ramsey and a case of spices and butter would be hard-pressed to turn these things into something you would want to put in your mouth.

One thing about the BGE is that it's shaped like an egg, and it sits low on the floor. It's only about 3 ft. tall. It's better to have a table to set it on. I went to Sutherland's today and bought some lumber and made a table for it. I worked fast, and managed to build a big table 7 ft. long that holds the BGE in one end, provides storage for all the accessories below, and room for serving on the top, in about 4 hours. Andrew helped me hoist the BGE up and over the top and into the hole. Anyway, I ended up doing construction all day instead of Father's Day activities. (Sorry kids. I'll make you a nice seared steak at some point to make up for it.)

Friday, June 01, 2007

Mower Surgery

I had a little trouble with my mower this evening.

It's a Honda, the kind that always starts the first time you pull the rope. I've had it for about 5 years, and I had noticed it wasn't quite the same smooth-running quiet Honda Accord of a mower it was when new. Over the past couple of seasons, I had noticed the engine had taken on kind of a metallic "ping" sound at cruising speed. (I had put a "Type R" sticker on my mower based on the advice of a teenager in a Honda Civic, who said that doing so would add horsepower. I figured the pinging noise was just the extra horsepower making its presence known.) Not only that, but the life of a mower at my house consists almost totally of being ridden hard and put away wet. I change the oil sometimes, and try not to run it into walls, but other than that, my mower's not exactly something I pull out and wax every weekend. Besides, it's very easy to start. I figure if you can start a mower on the first pull, it must be in pretty good shape.

Except that tonight, it didn't start on the first pull, or any successive pull, up to about 100 of them. I pulled and pulled, and it just sat there, not even trying. There are few things as annoying as a pull-start engine that won't start. It's not like you can just sit there cranking it with a key, going "Come on... COME ON!" like they do in movies. You have to work at it, which is a pain in the butt.

Not only would it not start, but it was also making strange belching noises and puffing white smoke ever so gently out the exhaust pipe. I checked for spark, which it had. I checked for fuel supply, which it had in spades. When I removed the air cleaner and tried to start it, it was blowing air out the intake, and sucking it in the exhaust. Once, a ball of fire shot out of the carb. The only thing left that I hadn't looked at was the valve timing, which I reasoned must be hosed up somehow, since the engine was basically pumping air through itself backwards. "Valve timing" sounded serious, kind of a "take the engine apart" kind of thing. But for some reason, I felt like screwing with it.

I found something out on the internets that described the procedure for checking the valve timing. As it turns out, it's really easy: Take 3 nuts off the top cover, pull the cover off, spin the flywheel until the arrow on it points at one of the 3 mounting bolts (to arrive at TDC), remove the spark plug, pull the cam cover off, and make sure the two alignment marks on the cam drive sprocket are lined up with the edge of the block. It took all of 2 minutes to take it apart and check.

I noticed that the timing marks on the sprocket were on the opposite side from where they were supposed to be. So I slipped the belt off, spun the sprocket 1/2 turn to line the marks up, put the belt back on, and then fretted about the fact that I had made a 180-degree adjustment to something that couldn't possibly have gotten that far out of whack on its own. But cycling the engine through its 4 strokes by hand and watching the valves and flywheel, it looked like it was working the way it's supposed to work. Everything happened in its proper sequence when I looked at it in slow motion.

While I had it apart, I checked the valve lash adjustments. The nominal clearance on a small engine is about .005". The exhaust valve on this one was more like .125"! At TDC, it was hanging there loose, and would make a clanking noise when you moved it with your finger. I realized where the loud pinging noise had been coming from. The poor rocker arm had been beating itself to death.

So I adjusted the valves, bolted everything back together, (another 2 minutes), pushed the throttle up, and pulled the rope. A big cloud of black smoke came out the exhaust pipe, it spun up, and ran like a top. It was also quiet, like it was when it was new. I ran it around the yard in the dark, and it sounded like it was mowing (I couldn't see anything, but I'll know tomorrow).

I just told Craig and Doug today that I don't like tinkering with engines, but I really kind of enjoyed doing this.