Since opening his critically acclaimed Lillie’s Q at 1856 W. North Ave. in Bucktown seven years ago, chef Charlie McKenna has proved his acclaimed barbecue has staying power.
In May, McKenna was awarded first place for his signature slow-smoked pork shoulder at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis, Tenn., the world’s most prestigious barbecue competition. (The winning recipe is featured at his restaurant as a pulled pork sandwich or pulled pork platter.)
“You win some prize money, but it’s more than the trophy,” says McKenna, who opened his first Chicago barbecue joint in 2010 and has others at the French Market at the Ogilvie Transportation Center, in California and in Florida. “It’s knowing you cooked the best pork.”
With the Fourth of July looming, McKenna has some tips for the nation’s No. 1 grilling holiday, when more than 80 percent of us take to the grill.
“Keep it simple,” McKenna says. “Simple flavors, simple seasonings.Buy high-quality meat, the best available, the best you can afford. Talk to the butcher. Ask what’s great that day. What’s been fed to the cows or the pigs that it came from? Avoid meat with hormones whenever you can.”
The grill itself?
“If it’s a gas grill, learn the proper temperatures. If you’re working with a smoker, learn the correct wood to use, the correct techniques. Same thing for charcoal grills. Meat likes to stay at a constant temperature. So you need to control your fire and your heat. The worst thing is to let the temperature go up and down.”
“One turn, and that’s it,” McKenna says. “It’s the same for a burger or a steak. I don’t believe in flipping it over and over. On a steak or a burger, you want that brown, seared crust on the outside. You have to leave it on the heat just a bit longer to get that, and then flip it over. It’s caramelizing the protein. It’s the same thing like caramelizing sugar on crème brulee. And, yes, those grill marks matter!”
For burgers, McKenna recommends a mix of 75 percent beef and 25 percent pork — for turkey burgers, the same ratio. “And if you have time, bring the meat to room temperature before grilling. It makes cooking the meat at the right temperature a whole lot easier.”
He suggests using a meat thermometer to get those right temperatures: “Rare: under 120 degrees. Medium-rare: 121 to 125 degrees. Well-done: around 140 degrees.”
Not that he suggests grilling steak well-done.
“A well-done steak? It’s destroyed,” he says. “You’re killing all the flavor.”
As for seasoning, McKenna recommends salt — lots of it.
“Rib-eye steaks, for example, they’re thick, so you have to put a lot more salt on it than you think you would because you’re seasoning the outside to season the inside. As you flip it, you will lose some of the salt and pepper, too. People think I’m crazy when they see how much salt I put on a steak. And then they taste it.”
One last piece of advice:
“Grilling is supposed to be fun. Don’t be all serious about it. You will overcook things at one time or another. It’s happened to me! In Chicago, you get only so many days to grill, so enjoy it.”
Recipes from chef Charlie McKenna:
Oven-to-Grill Baby Back Ribs
1 3½-lb. rack pork loin back ribs
¼ cup yellow mustard
1 cup BBQ Rub
½ cup BBQ Sauce
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. With a pastry brush, spread mustard over both sides of ribs. Generously sprinkle rub over both sides, too. Place ribs in the middle of a double thickness of heavy foil — cut six inches longer than the ribs. Wrap ribs in foil. Bake 1½ to 2 hours or until tender (the two middle bones of the rack should start to pull apart easily).
Remove ribs to a tray (discard liquid in foil). Spread sauce over both sides of ribs. Grill on the rack of a covered grill directly over medium heat 15 minutes, brushing with sauce every five minutes, turning once. Adjust heat to prevent burning.
2½ cups packed dark brown sugar
2½ cups ketchup
½ cup yellow mustard
½ cup cider vinegar
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
Juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. onion powder
1 tbsp. garlic powder
1½ tsps. paprika
1½ tsps. black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
Dash liquid smoke
Whisk ingredients together in a large saucepan. Simmer, covered, 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool to room temperature. Cover and chill. Keeps up to two weeks.
1½ teaspoons celery seeds
1½ teaspoons cumin seeds
1½ teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
1½ teaspoons coriander seeds
¾ cup turbinado sugar
¾ cup dark brown sugar
½ cup paprika
3 tbsps. fine sea salt or kosher salt
4 tsps. onion powder
4 tsps. garlic powder
1 tbsp. chili powder
1½ tsps. dried oregano
1½ tsps. ground black pepper
Grind celery seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and coriander seeds in a spice grinder until fine. Mix with remaining ingredients.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
What you’ll need:
1 tbsp. Kosher salt
1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper
½ tbsp. paprika
½ tbsp. granulated garlic
½ tbsp. onion powder
1 2- to 2½-lb. tri-tip roast, fat removed
Soaked wood chunks or chips
Converting a your grill to a smoker:
Build fire on one side of grill. Put meat on the other. Or, with gas grill, light one side of grill, put meat on the other. To impart more smoke flavor, use hardwood chips (fruitwoods or nut woods). Soak wood chips in water at least two hours; overnight is best. Place soaked chips in a stainless steel container placed directly on coals or on burner under bottom grate of gas grill.
How to make it:
Preheat smoker to 225 degrees. In a small bowl, mix salt, pepper, paprika, garlic and onion powder. Coat tri-tip with the rub. Place on smoker. Cook until a meat thermometer in thickest part of the meat registers 135 degrees — two to three hours.
Remove from smoker. Let rest 15 minutes. Thinly slice the meat against the grain. Can be served as a sandwich or on a platter. Serve with barbecue sauce.
Mac & Cheese:
Yields 4 servings
1 lb. noodles
2 oz. corn
24 oz. heavy cream
8 oz. buttermilk
8 oz. whole milk
3 egg yolks
1 lb. white cheddar cheese
½ lb. American cheese
1 oz. salt
1 oz. black pepper
Heat liquids to 140 degrees. Whisk in cornstarch mix. Heat to 180 degrees. Pull off heat. Mix in cheese. Add salt, pepper.
1 lb. cavatappi pasta, cooked
1 cup breadcrumbs, toasted
1 cup Gruyere, grated
Drain cooked noodles. Place in mixing bowl. Toss with cheese sauce. Place in serving dish. Top with Gruyere and breadcrumbs.