Great indoors

The other day, I just couldn't shake the thought of slow-smoking some ribs. I was in the mood for Memphis-style baby backs, the meat fall-off-the-bone tender, a simple dry rub tantalizingly complicated with deep hickory notes, the flavors drawn out with a tart vinegar-Dijon mop.

There's a primal wonder to smoked food -- that such depth of flavor can come from so simple a technique. And then, of course, there's the lure of the sunny afternoon spent in a lawn chair with a cold beer while you're waiting, patiently, for the Weber to work its magic.

But then it started raining.

The audacity of winter. Even in Southern California, we have our seasons. I took a good long look at my kettle grill through the kitchen window as it rained, but those ribs wouldn't stop dancing through my head, like a song that just wouldn't let go.

Of course, not all smoking needs to be done outdoors, and I was not going to let the weather get in my way. Before long I was rummaging through the cupboard, looking for my large roasting pan. I grabbed a cooling rack, some heavy foil and a baking tin for a makeshift drip container and soon I was ready to smoke. Right in the kitchen. Right on the stove top. Rain or no rain.

Stove-top smoking is certainly not a new concept: Scatter some wood chips in a roasting pan, put the meat on a rack to sit above it. Loosely cover the pan and heat. Watch for the chips to start smoking and cover tight, then smoke to desired doneness. Voila.

There's nothing complicated about stove-top smoking and I'd even argue that it's probably easier to master than smoking outdoors. You don't have to mess with charcoal or vents, deal with chambers or manage chips or pellets for hours on end.

On the stove top, you regulate the heat by adjusting the burner knob. It's easy to set up (make a smoker from kitchen odds and ends as I did, or buy a commercially made one). And though you'll smell the smoke, most of it should be contained within the pan (you may get a faint wisp, but nothing to set off the fire alarm).

But like everything, stove-top smoking does have its limitations. First is size: Since the smokers have to be small enough to fit on the stove, you may not have the surface area you get with a regular smoker.

Further, because the smoke is tightly contained, stove-top smokers can impart flavor quickly, so you'll need to keep a careful eye on them to make sure food doesn't come out smelling like a campfire.

And, of course, you may miss the glory of getting a sunburn as you wait for that brisket to finish.

The day before

I cleaned my rack of baby backs and massaged a dry rub into the meat. I then refrigerated them, uncovered, overnight to form a pellicle (that tacky surface you want so the smoke -- which is particulate -- will adhere).

The next day I gently smoked them using no more than a few tablespoons of fine hickory chips smoldering over moderately low heat. After an hour the ribs were nicely smoked, the meat mostly done. I moved the rack to a baking dish and poured over a little of my "mop," covered the dish tight and continued to steam the ribs in a low oven until tender (I knew they were done when the meat tore easily from the bone).

To finish the ribs, I uncovered the dish and broiled them for just a couple of minutes to crisp the edges. I had my smoked ribs -- almost as rich and flavorful as anything I could've smoked outdoors.

It's amazing the depth of flavor just a little smoke can impart to a dish. But there's more to it than mere "smokiness." You'll find a great variety of character, depending on the type of wood used and its intensity.

Woods range from assertive hickory to delicate apple. Cherry is pronounced and pecan lends a fragrant nuttiness. Mesquite can be either delicately sweet or overwhelmingly assertive depending on how (and how much) it is used. It's not hard to find alder chips (popular in the Northwest) or corncob (possibly best known in the Northeast). Or try flavored hardwoods -- say, wine casks or bourbon-soaked oak.

For stove-top smoking, look for small chips or shavings; they smolder more readily than larger chips.

Experiment with different woods, and try blending. Like spice blends, smoker blends can impart distinct, layered flavors and lend amazing depth to a dish.

Try adding aromatics to the blend, such as herbs, spices or citrus peel. I recently smoked beef short ribs using a blend of hickory and oak chips to which I added fresh minced rosemary. I smoked the ribs for an hour to flavor, then finished them in the oven, braising them with garlic and red wine. The result was a richly complex dish, full of depth and flavor.

You can even smoke without any wood at all. I've tried riffing on classic tea-smoked duck with other birds and seasoning blends. I love game hens for their great flavor -- and they're small enough to make perfect single servings. Dry-brine the hens with a little five-spice powder, brown sugar, fresh grated orange peel, ginger and garlic. Roast them until they're almost done, and then smoke the birds over very high heat using a wok (some pans and commercial stove-top smokers may not be suitable for smoking over high heat) for just a few minutes (too much smoke, and all that flavor turns to bitterness).

I've tried a variety of teas, including Lapsang s ouchong, which smokes beautifully. I've also tried tea-smoking combining the leaves with a blend of rice and sugar; the rice lends a wonderful earthy nuttiness to the flavor, and the sugar lends a sweet caramel finish and rich color to the dish. Out of curiosity, I tried smoking with fragrant jasmine tea -- the flavor is amazingly delicate and sweet, subtle and flirtatiously aromatic.

Hot and cold

Stove-top smokers are, by design, "hot" smokers, meaning they smoke and cook over higher heat; "cold" smokers, on the other hand, transmit smoke from one chamber to another over a distance, so that the meat is smoking but not cooking.

With the stove-top smoker, I found that I was able to regulate the temperature fairly easily, heating just enough to smolder the wood chips while maintaining a low (225- to 250-degree) temperature. (I started at a moderate heat, then reduced the heat when the chips began smoking.) Inserting a probe thermometer makes it easy to check and adjust the burner as needed.

That control makes it a breeze to smoke even the most delicate items. Recently, I tried scallops. I seasoned them with just a touch of salt and pepper and smoked them over a couple of teaspoons of alder chips until they were just barely opaque and cooked through, less than 15 minutes. To complement the smoky flavor and brighten the dish, I served the scallops over a tart fennel salad, dressed with a little olive oil, shallot and lemon juice. Simple flavors but a rich composition.

Of everything I've smoked, though, probably my favorite is pork belly. Marinate the meat in a simple brine with maple syrup and a little bourbon for a few days in the fridge. Then gently smoke the pork belly over apple wood for about an hour, until it is tender and the smoke has had a chance to infuse its flavor. Slice and serve it right away (it's basically hot-smoked bacon), or add it to stews, hash or eggs.

And you can't beat that aroma -- there's nothing like the smell of apple-wood-smoked bacon perfuming the house. As it smokes, I can't help but reach into the fridge for a cold beer. Now if only I could fit a lawn chair in my kitchen.

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Alder-smoked scallops with fennel salad

Total time: 45 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: When buying scallops, look for "diver" or "dry-packed" scallops; these scallops are fresh with no added liquid, and their flavor is noticeably sweeter. This recipe calls for a commercial stove-top smoker; a heavy-duty roasting pan with a rack and lid can be substituted. This recipe uses small hardwood alder chips; the chips are available at select cooking stores and are widely available online.

1 large head fennel (with fronds)

2 teaspoons minced shallots

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

1/4 cup lemon juice (about 1 lemon)

Coarse salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

8 large scallops, about 1 pound

1 blood orange

Small hardwood alder chips

Toasted slivered almonds

1. Trim the fronds from the fennel and mince. Measure one-half teaspoon and place in a medium bowl (discard any remaining fronds, or save for another use). To the medium bowl, add the shallots, lemon zest and juice, one-fourth teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Whisk in the olive oil slowly to emulsify and form a dressing. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as desired.

2. Trim the fennel and quarter it lengthwise. Slice the fennel lengthwise into paper-thin strips; if possible, shave using a mandoline. You will have about 3 cups. Place the fennel in a large bowl and toss with enough dressing to lightly coat. Taste and add additional dressing if desired. Cover the fennel salad and any remaining dressing with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

3. Remove the scallops from the refrigerator and set them out to warm slightly while you slice the orange.

4. Supreme the orange: Slice the top and bottom from the orange. Using a sharp paring knife, slice lengthwise between the flesh and rind to remove the peel, rind and outer membrane. Slice the flesh of each segment from the center membrane, so each segment is "skinless."

5. Season the scallops with a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper on each side.

6. Prepare the smoker: Spread about 2 teaspoons wood chips in the center of the base of the smoker, directly over the burner. Place the drip pan (if using) over the chips, and a rack on top of the drip pan. Place the scallops on the rack (place them off to the side, not directly over where the chips will be smoking), leaving enough room around them so all sides smoke evenly. Place the lid on the smoker, leaving about 2 inches uncovered.

7. Place the smoker over medium heat just until the chips begin to smoke. Cover the smoker entirely with the lid and reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue to smoke the scallops just until they firm up slightly and are barely opaque in the center, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and uncover the smoker.

8. Divide the fennel salad between 4 chilled plates. Place a few orange segments over each salad, and top each portion with 2 smoked scallops. Sprinkle a few almonds over each, and drizzle any extra salad dressing around each plate. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 240 calories; 20 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 11 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 37 mg. cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 360 mg. sodium.

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Tea-smoked game hens

Total time: 1 hour, plus overnight marinating time for the hens

Servings: 4

Note: There will be considerable smoke at the end of the recipe when the lid is removed; open a kitchen window or turn on the exhaust fan. This recipe calls for a lidded wok; a commercial smoker or roasting pan can also be used, provided it can be used over high heat. Five-spice powder is available in the Asian section of well-stocked supermarkets. Lapsang souchong and Earl Grey teas are generally available at well-stocked and Asian markets.

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon five-spice powder

4 teaspoons brown sugar, divided

Finely grated zest of 1 orange

1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

4 (1 1/4-pound) Cornish game hens, thawed if frozen

1/2 cup black tea, preferably Lapsang souchong or Earl Grey

1/2 cup uncooked white rice

1. In a medium bowl, combine the salt, five-spice powder, 2 teaspoons brown sugar, orange zest, ginger and garlic to form a dry rub. Set aside.

2. Wash and dry the game hens. Divide the dry rub between each of the birds and massage it onto each of the birds (use most of the rub on the outside of the birds, but be sure to season the cavities as well).

3. Place the birds, uncovered, on a rack on a baking sheet and refrigerate for 24 hours.

4. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove the birds from the refrigerator and leave at room temperature (still on the rack on the baking sheet) for about 20 minutes while the oven heats.

5. Roast the birds until the meat is firm and a thermometer inserted in the thigh near the hip reads 160 degrees, about 30 minutes. Rotate the tray halfway through for even roasting.

6. While the birds are roasting, prepare the smoker. Line a 14-inch lidded wok with foil (this will help with cleanup). Make sure the foil tightly lines the pan or the tea mixture will not smoke. In a medium bowl, combine the tea with the rice and remaining 2 teaspoons sugar. Place half the tea mixture evenly into the bottom of the wok (over where the burner will heat). Place a round rack over the tea mixture.

7. When the birds are roasted, remove from the oven and immediately place two of the birds on the rack in the wok (keep the remaining birds warm on the baking sheet). Loosely cover the wok with the lid and set the wok over high heat.

8. As soon as the tea mixture starts to smoke, cover the wok tightly with the lid. Smoke the birds for 5 minutes. Carefully remove the lid (it will be smoky) and move the birds to a platter. Carefully remove the foil with the tea mixture (it will be hot), and set aside until it cools before discarding.

9. Repeat with the remaining tea mixture and birds, lining the wok with foil, spreading the tea mixture and smoking the birds. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 717 calories; 60 grams protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 49 grams fat; 14 grams saturated fat; 351 mg. cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 1,433 mg. sodium.

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Maple-bourbon hot-smoked pork belly

Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus 3 days brining time

Servings: 8 to 10

Note: Pork belly can generally be found at Asian markets. Make sure the rind (skin) is removed before marinating. This recipe calls for a commercial stove-top smoker; a heavy-duty roasting pan with a rack and lid can be substituted.

3 pounds pork belly, rind or skin removed before weighing

2 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt

1/4 cup maple syrup

1 tablespoon toasted and crushed mustard seed

2 tablespoons bourbon

Black pepper

Small hardwood apple-wood chips

1. Wash and dry the pork belly. Place the pork belly in a large, sealable plastic bag.

2. In a small bowl, combine the salt, maple syrup, mustard seed, bourbon and several grinds of black pepper to form a marinade.

3. Pour the marinade in the bag, massaging it into the pork belly. Seal the plastic bag, pressing out all of the air.

4. Refrigerate the pork belly for 3 days, turning it once every day.

5. Remove the pork belly from the marinade, wiping off any excess and cut it in half.

6. Prepare the smoker: Spread about 3 tablespoons wood chips in the center of the base of the smoker, directly over the burner. Place the drip pan (if using) over the chips, and a rack on top of the drip pan. Place the pork belly in the center of the rack. Place the lid on the smoker, leaving about 2 inches uncovered.

7. Place the smoker over medium heat just until the chips begin to smoke. Cover the smoker entirely with the lid and reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue to gently smoke the pork belly until a thermometer inserted in the center reaches at least 150 degrees, about 1 hour. Remove from heat and uncover the smoker.

8. The pork belly is fully cooked. Slice the pork belly and serve immediately, or cool to room temperature, then cover tightly and refrigerate (or freeze) until needed. The pork belly will keep for 3 to 5 days, refrigerated, or up to 3 months frozen.

Each of 10 servings: 712 calories; 13 grams protein; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 72 grams fat; 26 grams saturated fat; 98 mg. cholesterol; 1 gram sugar; 245 mg. sodium.

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Hickory-smoked baby back ribs

Total time: 2 hours, 20 minutes plus overnight marinating time

Servings: 4

Note: This recipe calls for a commercial stove-top smoker; a heavy-duty roasting pan with a rack and lid can be substituted. This recipe uses small hardwood hickory chips; the chips are available at select cooking stores and are widely available online.

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon celery salt

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon New Mexico chile powder

1 tablespoon cumin

2 tablespoons garlic powder

2 tablespoons sweet paprika

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 rack (2 to 2 1/2 pounds) baby back ribs

Small hardwood hickory chips

1/4 cup distilled vinegar

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the kosher salt, celery salt, black pepper, onion powder, dried oregano, New Mexico chile powder, cumin, garlic powder, sweet paprika and brown sugar. This makes about 1 cup dry rub, more than you'll need for the ribs. Place the rub in an airtight container and store in a cool place away from direct sunlight; it will keep for about 2 months before the flavor starts to fade.

2. Peel the silverskin from the rib rack (the membrane on the underside of the rack). Rinse the rack under cold water, and pat dry with paper towels.

3. Drizzle a small handful of rub evenly over each side of the rack to give it a good coating; the surface of the ribs should be tacky, and the rub should adhere easily. Pat on the rub to make sure the ribs are entirely covered, and gently shake to remove any excess. Place the ribs on a rack on top of a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate overnight.

4. The next day, prepare the smoker: Spread about 3 tablespoons wood chips in the center of the base of the smoker, directly over the burner. Place the drip pan (if using) over the chips, and a rack on top of the drip pan. Place the ribs in the center of the rack and cover with the lid, leaving the smoker open only a couple of inches. (Halve the rack if the whole rack won't fit, and smoke half at a time.)

5. Heat the smoker over medium heat just until you see smoke escaping through the opening. Close the smoker entirely and gently smoke for 1 hour. Depending on your stove, you may want to reduce the heat to medium-low so the ribs do not cook too quickly, or they will be tough.

6. Shortly before the ribs are done smoking, heat the oven to 250 degrees. In a measuring cup, combine the vinegar, water and Dijon mustard, along with 2 tablespoons of the rub and whisk together to form a "mop."

7. Place the smoked ribs in a baking dish and drizzle with the mop (pour over half the mop if smoking in two batches). Cover the ribs tightly with aluminum foil and bake until the meat is tender (you will know they're done when you bend the rack and the meat easily pulls away from the bone), about 1 hour more. For a crackly surface, uncover the baking dish and place the ribs under the broiler just until the surface crisps.

8. If smoking the rack in two batches: While the first half-rack bakes in the oven, smoke the second rack in the same manner as the first, using new wood chips (the first batch of wood chips should be reduced mostly to ash and can be washed down the sink; if they're too big, cool them completely before throwing away). Bake the second rack after smoking.

9. Serve the ribs warm.

Each serving: 468 calories; 28 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 34 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 134 mg. cholesterol; 5 grams sugar; 1,015 mg. sodium.

noelle.carter@latimes.com

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