Turning 40 was a bit of a reality check for Valerie Greenhill.
"I'm from southern Oklahoma and I grew up around a lot of people who smoked brisket," said Greenhill, chief learning officer for EdLeader21 in Tucson.
"I turned 40 and I thought, oh my, I don't know how to smoke a brisket. I felt like a loser," she said with a laugh.
So Greenhill decided it was time. She bought a brisket, cooked it on the grill as slowly as she could and invited friends to join her family for dinner.
That first attempt was - in her words - a disaster.
"It turned into a piece of charcoal," she recalled. "It was dry and tough and had a terrible texture."
OK, brisket - game on.
She and her husband, Andrew Greenhill, assistant to Tucson City Manager Richard Miranda, set out on a quest to create the smoked brisket Valerie remembered from her childhood.
Family and neighbors would come together to smoke meat in their backyards all day, then sit on folding chairs with paper plates in their laps, filled with tender brisket, beans and bread.
"I love smoked brisket," Valerie said. "I love the way it encourages you to have big groups over."
The Greenhills researched smokers, methods and recipes before plunking down about $600 for a Weber Smoky Mountain Cooker with all the accessories.
Four years later, they seem to have perfected the art of smoking meats.
Andrew did not grow up with smoked brisket. But he had an appreciation for it.
"Being Jewish in Brooklyn, it was all about the deli meats," said Andrew, whose grandfather owned Abraham Greenberg's Kosher Deli in Tucson at the corner of East Sixth Street and North Fremont Avenue in the 1950s.
While Valerie pursued her obsession with brisket, Andrew explored smoking chicken, salmon and turkey. They have settled on methods and recipes that result in delicious smoked meats that are all the rage at their backyard parties. Their girls - Sophia, 12, and Dylan, 10 - love having friends over for the festivities.
Valerie searched for recipes that she hoped would come close to the brisket at one of her favorite joints - Clark's Outpost Bar-B-Que in Tioga, Texas, the birthplace of legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry.
She tried several recipes for the rub before coming up with her favorite blend, rich in brown sugar, cumin, paprika, garlic and pepper.
In what has turned into a family ritual, Valerie starts her brisket the day before, using an untrimmed, whole brisket that weighs 13 to 15 pounds, at about $2.99 a pound.
She spreads it with mustard and her rub, and refrigerates the brisket for several hours. That night, the Greenhills prepare the smoker and the meat goes for 20 hours.
They researched several ways to fuel the smoker, and use the Minion Method. (Go to smoking-meat.com/minion-method-weber-smokey-mountain for all the details)
The couple tried different types of charcoal and wood and prefer Cowboy Brand Hardwood Lump Charcoal and chunks of mesquite or hickory.
Andrew soaks the wood chips in water, but other cooks use beer. The damp wood creates the smoke - the meat is never exposed to an open flame.
The Greenhills set their alarm and get up a couple of times during the night to bathe the meat in mop sauce - a thin basting liquid - check the temperature, check the water pan and reload the fuel. Valerie turns the brisket, which starts fat-side-up, after it has cooked for about 10 hours.
"Key to the whole thing is a good smoker that keeps the temperature at a stable 225 degrees for brisket and about 200 degrees for salmon and chicken," Andrew said.
When the meat is cooked, Valerie wraps it in foil and keeps it in a room-temperature, empty ice chest to rest. When it is ready, she uses her grandfather's Foster Bros. knife that dates back to the 1930s or '40s to slice the meat.
After the brisket comes out of the smoker, Andrew, who has carefully brined the salmon and prepared the whole chickens, loads them in the smoker to cook.
They serve the brisket with Stubbs Bar-B-Q Sauce and keep side dishes simple so the focus stays on the meat.
"Friends have seen the process evolve over time, and it's unbelievable how easy it is and how great it all tastes," Valerie said.
Chicken Mojo Criollo
This recipe is designed for a Weber Smoky Mountain or offset smoker.
• 2 whole chickens (3 to 4 pounds each) quartered
• 32 ounces mojo criollo marinade (Goya or another brand)
• 1/2 cup olive oil, plus extra to oil the chicken before smoking
• 1 lemon
• Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
Place each chicken into a 1-gallon zip-top bag. Shake the bottle of mojo criollo vigorously, and place 16 ounces of the mojo criollo in each bag. Pour 1/4 cup of olive oil into each bag, and squeeze half a lemon into each bag. Zip each bag shut and place them in a large bowl. Place the bowl in the refrigerator and let marinate for at least six hours, preferably overnight. Shift the bags around once or twice during this time to ensure that the marinade is distributed evenly.
When ready to begin cooking, remove chicken from bags and pat dry with paper towels. Brush chicken with olive oil and season with salt and black pepper.
Get smoker to a steady 215 degrees. Use hickory or mesquite wood for smoke. Make sure there is sufficient water in the water pan.
When the smoker is ready, place the chicken on the grate as close to the middle as possible without the pieces touching.
Close the smoker and don't open it for at least 90 minutes. Chicken is done when clear juice runs out upon puncturing, or when the thickest part of the meat reaches 165 degrees.
Source: "Low & Slow" by Gary Wiviott with Colleen Rush.
Valerie Greenhill's Smoked Brisket
Use 13 to 15 pounds of untrimmed brisket. For best results it should have both the "point" - the fatty part - and the "flat" - the lean portion. At least six hours and up to 24 hours before smoke time, rub the entire brisket with French's Yellow Mustard, then apply dry rub (recipe follows), cover with plastic and refrigerate.
Remove the brisket from the refrigerator one to two hours before smoking to bring to room temperature.
Start smoker and add brisket when temperature is stable at 225 degrees. Brush on the mop sauce as desired - two to three times during the 20-hour smoking period and more if your smoker does not have a water pan.
Cook for approximately 1 1/2 hours per pound (a 13-pound brisket will take about 20 hours).
Remove brisket from smoker and immediately wrap in foil and place in room-temperature ice chest. Let sit for at least 2 hours before slicing. Remove the brisket point from the flat before slicing and slice the brisket flat across the grain. Chop the point of the brisket to make chopped brisket.
Makes enough for 2 small (6- to 8-pound) briskets or one large (14 pounds).
• 2 cups kosher salt
• 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
• 1/4 cup cumin
• 1/2 cup paprika
• 1/2 cup granulated garlic
• 1/2 cup black pepper
• 1/8 cup cayenne pepper
• 1 16-ounce bottle Shiner Bock beer
• 1 cup apple cider vinegar
• 1/4 cup dry rub or salt and pepper
Fennel Smoked Salmon
• 1 1/2 pounds salmon fillets
• 1/4 cup kosher salt
• 1 bulb fennel
• Black pepper to taste
Place the salmon in a baking dish. Add enough water to a large saucepan to fully cover the salmon. Add salt to the water and heat until all the salt dissolves. Let the water cool to room temperature then pour over the salmon. Place the salmon in the refrigerator overnight.
Remove salmon from water when ready to begin cooking. Place salmon on a wire rack to dry for at least 30 minutes. Sprinkle black pepper on the salmon.
Get smoker to a steady 200 degrees. Use hickory or mesquite wood for smoke.
Slice fennel bulb into thin slices from top to bottom. When the smoker and the salmon are ready, place the fennel slices on the smoker grating, and place the salmon on top of the fennel.
Close the smoker and don't open it for at least 1 hour. Salmon should be done in approximately 90 minutes. It is done when it no longer appears wet, flakes easily, but is still moist.
Remove the salmon and fennel from the smoker. Chop the fennel and place alongside the salmon on a serving dish.
Simple Kale Salad
The Greenhills serve kale salad, bread and watermelon with the brisket, along with Stubbs Barbecue Sauce. Here's the salad recipe.
• 4 to 6 cups kale, stems removed and loosely packed (any variety)
• 3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• Sea salt and pepper to taste
• Juice of 1 to 2 lemons (to taste)
Remove stems from kale leaves, discard, then slice the leaves into thin strips. Place the strips in a salad bowl and add olive oil, lemon, garlic, salt and pepper. Toss and serve.
Brisket in brief
So, what is brisket?
"Beef brisket is a cut from the breast section of the animal," according to Better Homes and Gardens' website. It's a tough cut that lends itself to long, slow cooking.
These websites helped the Greenhills get smoking:
On Starnet: So you think it's hot enough to cook an egg on the sidewalk? How about a Sonoran hot dog? Check out what happens at azstarnet.com/video
Contact local freelance writer Gabrielle Fimbres at email@example.com