Friday, August 19, 2022

Backyard Bosses Are Fired Up

Summer means vacations, swimming, outdoor adventures … and the backyard grill.

We sat down with some of Centre County’s best backyard chefs—masters of grilling, barbecuing, and smoking. In a nutshell, they explain, grilling means cooking over a fire, hot and fast. Barbecue means low and slow, and smoking means cooking something with smoke—also low and slow.

Whatever terms or techniques they use, the result is mouth-watering brisket, chicken, steak, pulled pork, and more, all served up for lucky family and friends.

Nabil Mark: Texas knows best

State College’s Nabil Mark loves to cook, but he stops short of calling himself an expert.

“I would say that I really enjoy cooking in general and especially grilling. I like experimenting and playing with the food,” he says.

Mark grew up in State College. However, he didn’t really develop a knowledge of what true barbecue was until he went to college in Texas.

“That really opened my eyes and expanded my food horizons, especially into barbecue. Texas is basically the mecca for barbecue,” Mark explains. “I lived in Texas for 10 years and just really got a taste for it.”

In Texas, he learned that there is a big difference between barbecuing and grilling.

“Around here, people say, ‘We’re gonna have a barbecue.’ There, barbecue means low and slow, indirect heat with real wood on a smoker. It’s just a whole different world, and I really got into it and just enjoyed it. I didn’t even know what brisket was. Now, it’s one of my favorite things,” Mark says.

When he returned to central Pennsylvania, he couldn’t find the authentic Texas barbecue that he craved, so he took matters into his own hands. For a wedding gift, his wife had a custom smoker made just for him.

“It had a Texas Longhorn on it. I started playing around and experimenting. I bought a bunch of books on barbecuing,” Mark says.

But Mark doesn’t focus solely on barbecue. He also likes to grill and has even tried grilling “caveman style,” which entails throwing the meat directly on hot coals.

“During COVID, I built a fire pit in the backyard just so I could cook over an open fire,” Mark says.

As far as his favorites are concerned, he likes to cook pork (for pulled pork) and ribs on the smoker. When he grills, he tends to favor a simple steak, like a ribeye.

“I love brisket, but it’s very time consuming. Ribs and pulled pork are easy to crank out,” Mark says. “It’s a little more manageable.”

According to Mark, anyone can become a great backyard chef. Read up, watch some videos, and experiment, of course.

“I watch cooking shows a lot, even when I’m exercising,” Mark says with a laugh. “It’s been really cool. I live in a great neighborhood, and my house has become the go-to barbecue spot.”

Chris McKim: Don’t forget the prep

Bellefonte’s Chris McKim loves to smoke meats. Like Mark, he doesn’t consider himself an expert. In fact, he just started smoking meats a couple of years ago.

 “Right now, my favorite meat is pork. I’ll smoke a pork shoulder,” McKim says. 

For really good, authentic barbecue, preparation is key, he says.

“You have to prepare. Trim the fat off the meat, make sure it’s perfectly round because when you put it in that smoker, you want it to be perfectly even. You want the smoke to absorb into the meat. Sometimes, if there is loose meat or loose fat, it will burn,” he says.

Chris McKim shows off his wood-pellet-fueled smoker. (Photo by Chuck Fong)

McKim is a big fan of rubs and currently uses a salt, pepper, and garlic rub on pork.

“I put that on … very heavy, because when that smoke gets in there, you really want to be able to protect that meat on the outside and create that ‘bark.’ That still allows the smoke to penetrate without overcooking it,” he explains. “When you smoke something, you want to do it low and slow so the smoke can really penetrate the meat.”

He employs a “user friendly,” wood-pellet-fueled smoker to smoke all of his meats.

For McKim, smoking meats started out as a hobby.

“This is something that friends of mine had talked about for a long time. I actually started with an electric smoker. Last year, I purchased a Pit Boss, the pellet smoker,” he says.

As far as meats are concerned, McKim says there is no reason to go to an expensive butcher shop or order online. In fact, he says, some of the best cuts of meat he has found thus far have come from a local big box store.

“Generally, some of the better meat we get is from Sam’s Club because they cut and process all of the meat right there. They usually tend to have a bigger selection, too,” he explains.

With a large family to feed, pulled pork will do the job nicely, McKim says.

“Pulled pork will feed the entire house and it’s inexpensive right now,” he says. “A $25 pork butt will last us an entire week.”

Nick Salerno: A legend in the ’hood

If there was one benefit to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was being forced to cook at home more, at least according to State College resident Nick Salerno, who headed for the grill.

“With all the restrictions, we kind of stopped going out to eat,” Salerno explains. “Then, all the neighbors were around. I got a pellet grill and I got really into the preparation, marination, all that kind of stuff. My whole mentality was to keep it simple and try to get people together to eat.”

The hobby took off and Salerno found himself grilling and smoking whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Salerno says that inexpensive meats—especially chicken—lend themselves to turning out great on the grill.

Nick Salerno is famous for his feasts. (Photo by Chuck Fong)

“Chicken wings, drumsticks, chicken thighs, all that stuff is really fun to grill,” he says. “Living here, we have a lot of access to farm-fresh stuff and you can’t replicate it. It’s phenomenal.”

One of Salerno’s favorite things to start on the grill—believe it or not—is tacos.

“We’ll do marinated flank steak, chicken, marinated shrimp, veggies, veggie kebabs, we’ll just smoke all that. We’ll dice it all up and you make your own tacos or taco bowls,” Salerno says.

Another thing he loves to make is a “chicken lollipop.”

“You take a chicken drumstick, cut off the tendon, and pull it down so it looks like a lollipop. Through the smoking process, the bone chars, and to eat the chicken you just eat it like a lollipop,” Salerno says.

Although he still has a propane grill in his arsenal, Salerno says that he mostly uses his smoker and his Green Egg, which is fueled by charcoal and wood chips.

“It’s a big ceramic egg, basically,” he says.

Like Mark and McKim, Salerno loves to smoke his meats.

“It’s a more drawn-out process. It cooks slower, and it takes on the flavor of the smoke,” Salerno says. “But I have found that I like to keep things simple … it usually turns out best.”

Photos of Salerno’s backyard grilling adventures have made their way to foodie social media groups, so he’s become a bit of a legend online and in his own neighborhood.

“You always look for creative outlets, and this really became my creative outlet,” Salerno says. “This became a lot of fun. I just started looking things up online, we took photos, and the word just spread.”

Salerno’s spreads have become so popular that he has thought about starting a small catering business for Penn State football gamedays and such.

“I’d like to make it a side business, but that is probably years away,” he says. “Eventually, I’d like to do it to pay for an outdoor kitchen, something like that. I’d probably use the money to re-invest and just make more food.” T&G

Chris Morelli is a resident of Pleasant Gap and the news editor of The Express in Lock Haven.