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The Virtual Gourmand 20: Three Dishes, One Smoker Full of Poultry

DSC00333Contrary to what you might think, barbecue is not the only thing I use my smoker to make. In fact, a smoker is a versatile tool that can smoke everything from poultry to cheese. I've even seen smoked butter, if you can believe that.

Similarly, gumbo is a highly versatile dish that can serve  4, 40 or 400. It can be made from virtually any meat. If I had to guess, I'd say gumbo was the foundation for that old Cajun saw, "If it moves, we can cook it. If we can cook it, we can eat it." Beyond a few simple ingredients, gumbo is a dish that can be customized in more ways than you can count.

The smoked turkey and andouille gumbo recipe I have was designed to feed a large crowd. The recipe begins with a 20 pound smoked turkey. Not only is that going to make much more than my family could consume in a month, but spring is not the best time to buy a turkey.

DSC00232The frozen specimens I shopped cost anywhere from $36 to $54. Right there, I had a problem. Fortunately, frozen turkey breasts were on sale, and I picked up a nice 10 pound breast for about $17. This is much better suited for a family of four. Even then, we'd be eating gumbo dinners for the better part of a week.

Most frozen turkeys, be they whole birds or breasts, are injected with up to 15% brine solution. This effectively does the job of brining the turkey, so I can skip that portion of Smoking Turkey 101. I do want to add some flavor and moisture to the interior, though. For that, I choose to inject the bird.

There are many injectable marinades on the market, and even more recipes for making your own. I've always had good results with the Cajun Injector Creole and Garlic marinade ( It's widely available at supermarkets across the country, or it can be ordered at the link above.

One step that you need to pay heed to, especially if you are injecting chicken, is to pour some marinade into a tall, thin glass before injecting. This allows easy access to the marinade without potentially contaminating the rest of the jar. (One jar is usually enough for two birds.)

DSC00231Firmly attach the needle to the syringe, and draw the plunger up in the glass of marinade to fill it. Plunge the syringe deep into the bird, and dispense about a third of the liquid into the bird. Withdraw it about 2/3 of the way out, and plunge it into the bird at a different angle. Dispense another third of the marinade in this injection. Then withdraw the needle again, and go at an angle in the opposite direction, emptying the barrel of the syringe. Repeat all over the bird until you are satisfied it is thoroughly moisturized. One clue is that when you poke the syringe in one part of the bird and depress the plunger, marinade comes seeping out of another hole you made earlier.

Beyond this, I am not going to rub the bird with spices, or even season it with salt and pepper. The reason for this is that the spices won't penetrate much further than the skin. And I'm not going to use the skin in my gumbo, so doing so would largely be a waste of spices and effort. Besides, I will adjust the final product for salt, pepper and other seasonings at the end.

DSC00230My smoker is what is known as an offset model, meaming that the fire chamber is separate from the cooking chamber, and has been dropped down half the width of the cooking chamber to ensure proper airflow and heat distribution. I have added a charcoal basket (made by a welder out of scrap), which allows me to pack the fire chamber with charcoal and wood chunks to keep me from having to tend the fire every 20 minutes. Instead, I can check the grill grate temperature (more about that later), and add new chunks and charcoal every 2-3 hours. This takes a lot of aggravation out of running an offset smoker, and allows me to do more than just sit by the fire to tend it.

As you might guess, a single turkey breast isn't going to fill even a third of my smoker's capacity. I never run the smoker unless it is full, prompting me to call friends in advance and ask them if they have some meat they want to be smoked (if I have room left over). In this case, I am going to smoke a 10 lb. bag of chicken leg quarters to make up the rest of blog. In the recipes below, I used this chicken to make the last 2 dishes.

If you are making a smaller batch of gumbo and have turkey left over, you can easily substitute turkey for the chicken in the recipes. As with the turkey, I am not seasoning the chicken leg quarters with salt and pepper, as the seasoning will be adjusted at the end.

If you decide to do the chicken and the turkey, there's one more step you need to do to prepare them for the smoker - remove the chicken backbones. This will make it much easier to clean the bones and provide the material for a nice chicken stock for your gumbo.

DSC00259Flip the chicken pieces on your cutting board skin side down. With a boning knife, start at the junctures of the legs and thighs, and trim the excess skin and fat towards the backbone. Using your fingers, locate the cartilage of the joints – it will feel like a little knob. Cut around the cartilage, through the thigh joint and out through the bottom. With a little practice, you will be able to remove the backbone with a single cut. For quarters from the other side of the bird, reverse the process. Put your back bones in a zip top bag and refrigerate them until ready to make stock.

Poultry doesn't respond to low and slow cooking as well as pork and beef do. It responds better to much higher heat. This will crisp the skin, as well as cook the poultry in a manner that will be inhospitable for any bacterial growth. Many people have their own ideas of what constitutes the ideal temperature to cook poultry at. But for me, the ideal temperature range is 275 to 375 degrees F.

DSC00279Measuring grill-level temperatures is easy. Using a flexible probe thermometer, insert the probe through a small potato, and place the potato on the grill grates as far away from the firebox as you can without it touching any metal. Plug the probe into your monitor and deactivate the alarm. This will give you a reasonable idea of what the grill grate temperature is, and a way of knowing when it is time to add more fuel to the fire. Don't be alarmed if your grill temp rises above 375 when your fire settles in. The temperature of the product is going to lower the grate temp dramatically when you add it to the cooking chamber.

Assuming your fire is settled in and is producing either very thin, blue smoke or little or no smoke at all (gray or billowing clouds of smoke coming out of the stack indicate a fire that is smoldering rather than achieving full combustion – which will make your meat bitter, black, and may even contain compounds that include cyanide), remove the pop-up timer from the breast (if it came with one).

DSC00280Arrange the breast on the end farthest from the firebox, and set the chicken between the breast and the fire. Close the lid and walk away for a few minutes. Check the temperature to see where it settles, and note the time. Cooking shouldn't take more than 4 hours and 2 loads of charcoal and chunks (I'm using hickory chunks this time). However, each piece of meat is different and will cook differently. The chicken should be done in roughly an hour to an hour and a half (likely not that long, even), so set a timer to 45 minutes and have a probe thermometer ready to test the temperature in the thickest part of the thigh away from the bone.

When the chicken reaches an internal temp of 165 degrees F, remove it and allow it to cool. Test the turkey breast in several places. Rotate/readjust its position in the cooking chamber so that the cooler portions are closest to the fire.

DSC00313Now, an important point that must be considered when deciding whether or not the turkey is ‘done enough’… If you are going to use any or part of the turkey breast for another dish besides the gumbo, cook the breast until it reads an internal temperature of 165 degrees F – maybe a little higher. If, however, you are only going to use it for the gumbo, you can be a little more forgiving on the final temperature, shooting for 155 degrees or so. The turkey used in the gumbo will be cooked again as the gumbo simmers, reducing the need for it to be cooked through completely on the grill. Make this decision before you pull the bird from the smoker and follow it accordingly.

When finished, allow the turkey to cool. If the skin is crispy and your cholesterol levels can tolerate it, by all means, skin the bird and eat the skin as a cook's treat while it is still crispy and delectable. If not, discard it.

DSC00326Once it’s cooled, place the breast on a cutting board with the wishbone facing you. Using your boning knife, cut down on both sides of the breast bone. When you get to the top of the wishbone, follow along it with your knife to the right, staying as close to the ribcage as is possible. Cut back away from you, freeing the meat from the top of the ribcage. With the tip of your knife, slice in short strokes along the ribcage, preserving as much meat on the right lobe as is possible until you come through at the bottom, removing it as one piece. Repeat the same process on the left side, rotating the bird 180 degrees if it helps you accomplish the task by reversing it.

Once the lobes of the breast are free of the bone, take the remaining carcass and put both it and the chicken back bones in a large stock pot. Cover them with water, and bring them to a boil, and then simmer the stock for at least 4 hours. This will provide the stock that adds richness and flavor to your gumbo.

DSC00328Laying each turkey lobe flat on your cutting board, slice it length-wise – parallel to your cutting board – into approximately 1/2 inch slices. Slice the breast perpendicular and across the length into 1/2 inch strips. Dice the strips into 1/2 inch cubes across the width of the lobe. Repeat on the other lobe. If you are going to use half the turkey in another recipe, reserve it now.

Peel and dice 2 large onions, 2 small bell peppers (use red, yellow or orange if you want to add color to the dish) and 3-4 ribs of celery. This will give approximately a 3:2:1 proportion, and can be adjusted to taste. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a 6 quart Dutch oven and sweat the vegetables until they begin to soften, about 4-5 minutes. Add 3 T of chopped garlic and sauté until it becomes fragrant (about 30 seconds).

DSC00329Now, we need to discuss roux. Roux is an equal mixture of flour and oil that is cooked, stirring constantly until it reaches a dark chocolate color. This isn't as easy as it might sound. First of all, to make it the classic way takes about 45 minutes to get the mixture up to about the 400 degrees F. Additionally, if it isn't stirred constantly (and even more importantly in the outside edges of the pot), it will burn. One speck of burnt roux ruins the whole batch, and it must be thrown out and begun again from the beginning. My Cajun wife tells me that the first thing kids are taught in the kitchen is how to make a roux. It is the foundation many Cajun dishes are built upon.

To my mind, making a good roux serves several other purposes. It requires a level of patience that cooks must have to be successful in the kitchen later in life. It also requires an attention to detail, knowing when enough is enough, and when too much is achieved. It weeds out the kids that just want to be in the kitchen with Mama from those who are serious about learning how to cook. I think ultimately, the process of learning to make a roux keeps the kid in one spot out of the way and busy, so they stay out of Mama's way while she cooks.

Chef Paul Prudhomme has a clever method for making a roux more quickly. He heats up the oil in his pan to 400 degrees F, and then adds his flour to it, stirring it constantly in a skillet until it reaches the desired color. That method is certainly quicker, but it can go from perfect to burnt in a matter of five seconds. So it pays to be familiar with what a perfect roux is before you attempt it.

There are yet two other alternatives that are publically derided as cheating by Cajuns, although they will admit in private that they use them too – jarred and powdered roux. Tony Chacherie makes a roux powder that is easy to prepare quickly ( People I know prefer this method. Personally, I preferred jarred roux. Three brands are available along the northern Gulf coast in supermarkets: Richard's ( and Savoie's ( are two I have used in the past with good results. I used to make my own, but my Cajun wife would complain about the color of the roux or if there was too much or too little roux in the gumbo. Since I've been using jarred roux, I have had no complaints. You want to make my life easier by not wasting 45 minutes making a roux? Here, twist my arm, I'll stop!

You are going to want to add about 4 tablespoons of the roux to the pot. Stir it frequently and do not let it to stick to the bottom of the pot and burn. You may not melt or dissolve it all in the vegetables, but don't worry about that. Just don't let the roux scorch or burn.

DSC00331Using a fine-mesh sieve, pour the liquid from your stock pot over the vegetables, filling the pot about 2/3 of the way. Add your turkey meat and bring the mixture up to a full simmer, stirring every so often. After about an hour, slice your sausage and add it to the pot. I prefer to use andouille sausage, a Cajun spiced sausage that is mostly made from the pork loin rather than the shoulder. It tends to be spicy but not very fatty. Aidell's is a national brand widely available in the sausage section of most supermarkets. I am fortunate enough to have a Cajun butcher shop here in Atlanta that imports andouille and tasso (a Cajun spiced ham) directly from Comeaux and Breaux Bridge, LA.

Don't forget to add 4 tablespoons of Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce and 2 tablespoons of dried thyme to the pot.

From here, it is a creative exercise. I like to add corn on the cob that has been cut into 3/4 inch slices across the cob. Some people like to add okra at the end to give the gravy a bit more body. My wife is the only person in my house that can stomach okra, so we usually don't go that route. There's an old Cajun saying that you can't serve gumbo with both okra and file (ground sassafras leaves) or it will become stringy. Nonsense! I've done it, and it does no such thing. I do, however, serve my gumbos with file powder at the table so each person can add it to their own taste (or omit it altogether).

It is customary in Cajun country to serve potato salad with gumbo (almost as much as it is to serve rice in the bowl along with the gumbo). Everyone has their favorite recipe for potato salad. There are probably as many recipes for potato salad as there are cooks who make it, and nobody else's tastes quite right to anyone but themselves. Just to be fair, I'm including the recipe for my favorite version. I grew up on a similar recipe of my mom's, and she now claims she likes mine better than her own (a supreme compliment).

6-8 medium russet potatoes, boiled in their skins until the largest can be probed with a knife with no resistance

6 hard-boiled eggs (see below)

3 tablespoons sweet pickle relish

3 tablespoons Creole (or your favorite stone-ground) mustard

1 rib celery, diced finely

3 cups salad spread (like Miracle Whip)

1 large shallot, minced

Peel the boiled potatoes once cool. Dice into roughly 1/2 inch pieces. Peel and dice the hard-boiled eggs. Dice celery and mince shallot. Add these ingredients and all others into a bowl and stir until thoroughly combined. Cover and refrigerate until serving. The salad is best the second day after the flavors have married in the bowl.

A tip about perfectly boiling eggs: place your eggs in a saucepan and bring up to a boil on the stove. When the water starts to boil, remove it from the heat, cover and let the pan sit off-heat for 10 minutes. Put the pan under a faucet and run cold water over the eggs until cooled. This will result in perfectly cooked hard-boiled eggs without a trace of green around the yolks.DSC00333

If you've elected to use half of your turkey, you can skip this next section and go straight to the recipes.

Remove the skin from six chicken leg quarters (a 10 pound bag of leg quarters should yield about 12 quarters). Separate the thigh from the leg with a quick twist and remove the meat, first from the thigh and then from the leg, being careful not to include any cartilage or tendon. Repeat for the other 5 quarters. Dice the meat roughly. You want it to be in larger pieces, but not above bite size.

DSC00320Add to your turkey or chicken:

1 large shallot, minced

1 rib of celery, minced into a 1/8 inch dice

(2) 12 oz. jars of major grey's chutney (Crosse and Blackwell seems to be a universally available brand)

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup green onion tops, sliced on the bias for color

1 cup cashew halves and pieces.

DSC00322Stir until thoroughly combined. Refrigerate until ready to use. On the plating photo, I have served it on toasted nine-grain bread with alfalfa sprouts and sliced tomato. This is how my wife likes to eat it. She also likes it with avocado slices instead of tomato sometimes, but you can plate it any way you like – even in a lettuce leaf cup without any bread if you desire. I call this Chicken Salad with Chutney and Cashews.

The other recipe is for ‘pulled’ barbecue chicken sandwiches. Prepare the chicken (or turkey) as for the chicken salad, except you want to dice it finely. I recommend that you prepare the meat, place it in a bowl and prepare each portion separately according to taste. There are three basic types of barbecue sauce, depending on the region of the country you live in: vinegar-based, tomato-based, and mustard-based. Whichever style you like, put a portion of the meat in a smaller bowl, toss with the sauce of choice, and heat in the microwave before piling on a toasted bun with some red onion. Personally, I prefer a mustard sauce in this recipe, taking whatever mustard sauce you can find at the store (Cattleman's, Bullseye and Sticky Fingers all have mustard sauces that are available nationally, in addition to local variants you might find as well). Again, I like to mix my mustard sauce with some of the Rooster Brand sriracha sauce, and pile it on the bun along with some slivers of red onion. You can make it anyway you like. That's the beauty of it. DSC00321

A smoker is much more than just good barbecue. If you have one, play with it and see what creations you can come up with yourself.

CW Publisher, Editor-at-large and Executive Chef Jason Clabaugh (BigO) hails from a suburb of north Atlanta.
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