Trying to talk about serious barbecue in Eastern Oregon might draw a hearty guffaw from folks in Texas and across the South where they are firmly convinced they have an absolute corner on the subject.
Granted, we don't have a rib joint on every corner and a fleet of entrepreneurs with names like Fat Larry, Bubba and Big Mike, but we have our share of experts on the subject who dish up their specialities in somewhat smaller quantities - generally from a backyard grill rather than one of the monsters that sit alongside places like The Smokehouse, Jim's Pit, or Chez Porky's.
And while we aren't going to crown the barbecue king or queen of Eastern Oregon, we would want to point out that those serious about the subject have probably touched base with two of the regional experts - Ron Reimann and Jimmy Naughton at Zimmerman's Hardware.
There, squeezed in among the thousands of items displayed in a style unique to Zimmerman's, is an array of floor models and shelves of supplies that turn ordinary grilling into a gourmet adventure.
Actually, it isn't just the equipment that makes this stop essential for those making the scene with barbecue. It's taking time to have a serious conversation with Naughton and Reimann about the intricacies of the art of outdoor cooking.
They don't just talk about it, they have been known to demonstrate their craft right behind the store - something they sometimes do several times a week, but mostly when the mood strikes them.
Equipment key to quality production
As we noted in a column last fall, Reimann is one of those individuals whose eyes light up when you begin to talk seriously about the subject of barbecue. He looks at the performance features and accessories of a Weber grill like a car salesman would extol the virtues and options of a Lamborghini.
And like those who are serious about the various fluids, additives, products and treatments that enhance the performance of precision automobiles, Ron can get equally excited about the rubs, sauces and seasonings that turn ordinary outdoor cookery efforts into memorable grilling excursions.
Both Reimann and Naughton are proud of the line of barbecue accessories that help separate the amateur from the professional in much the same way a gourmet cook might remind the casual diner that food somehow tastes better when prepared using Le Creuset cookware versus something considerably more affordable.
Naughton prefers to talk about the recipes and having the courage and ingenuity to stray from the standard to the extraordinary. He also prefers flat cooking while Reimann is more likely to use his rotisserie.
Jim Naughton has been at Zimmerman's since he was a child. Reimann has been there for the past nine years. Both see their jobs as more fun than work and the barbecue aspects of the operation add another measure. And both barbecue at home more often than they utilize conventional cooking methods.
Reimann does a little chicken, but mostly pork. Occasionally, he grills burgers and steaks and also likes to grill vegetables - sometimes five at a time.
"The vegetables are like a timed event because each vegetable cooks at a different rate," he said. "That's what makes it so interesting."
Where to go with fish
The word on fish is to use a cedar plank and certainly to get rid of the aluminum foil. The cedar plank provides a little larger window of when the fish is just right.
The key to salmon is patience and olive oil instead of foil, according to the experts. This improves the flavor. If you take the salmon off too soon, there's one way to tell you should have cooked it longer - it sticks to the grill.
For pork loins, which are low in fat and have a tendency to dry out, cooks use a good hot sear and then back the heat down to let it simmer. That keeps the juices in, they say.
A little veneer of olive oil also helps keep pork loin moist. Also, if you add olive oil to turkey, it provides a golden color. Again, the key is to focus on convection effects rather than too much heat. Reimann also points out that mesquite smoke and turkey are, in his words, a marriage made in heaven.
For those who like their steaks well done but still juicy, the hint is to use high heat across the grill, which cuts down on cooking time.
As both Reimann and Naughton point out, outdoor cooks sometime focus just on the cut of meat and the rubs and sauces, forgetting that learning to master the capabilities of the equipment is equally important. Learning to adjust the controls in order to maximize the effectiveness of the barbecue can make a big difference.
But while they differ on method, they agree whole-heartedly on one thing - if its worth cooking, it's worth barbecuing.
While it's hard to argue about the spectacular experience of enjoying a prime rib roast or a New York strip fresh from the barbecue, that's not where the real art of barbecuing began, according to EO barbecue consultants Jim Naughton and Ron Reimann.
The two grilling greats agree that barbecuing really began with people of limited means who had to come up with creative ways to use cooking methods and spices to make low-end cuts of meat edible.
Both men say the people who had to make do with the cheapest and poorest cuts of meat literally invented the concept of barbecue by experimenting with ways of adding quality, taste and value through sheer ingenuity.
That's why slow-cooking methods, the creative use of heat, the addition of spices and the development of savory sauces have become a part of the barbecue culture. They have since been added to finer cuts as well, but it was the poorest cuts that provided the foundation.
Naughton, in particular, refers to beef brisket, noting most of that product goes into corned beef where it is "boiled to death" in order to make it more palatable. Brisket also is one of the staples of barbecue - with cooking expertise and the use of sauces, it's transformed from tough to tender.
Naughton and Reimann talk in the story at left about some of their favorite methods of barbecue, but point out those are the kinds of practices best applied to a weekend event where time is available.
They report that most barbecuing takes place during the week and that real enthusiasts like to make a quick trip by the store after work to find out what's on sale or available that day and experiment with methods of turning it into something special as quickly as possible.