"Most of my mother's family came from way out in west Texas in a little town called Lockney, which is somewhere close to Lubbock, but not too close to Lubbock--nobody likes to be too close to Lubbock."
Nanci Griffith, in between-song patter on her live album, One Fair Summer Evening
One key to making it through the winter, eating local here in The Frozen North, is not trying to eat too local. Though we may have our principles, this is not a contest, nor should we turn the celebration of local foods into a hair shirt of grim obligation and deprivation. While a hair shirt might provide welcome warmth, it's likely to be itchy. Pull on a nice cozy sweater, instead.
It's still the first week of the new year, but winter has been with us a fair while, already. Time for a little vacation to warm, exotic climes; spicy grill-smoked chicken wings can take us there. And we're not abandoning our principles, entirely: though the flavorings are foreign--lime juice, fish sauce, Sichuan pepper, non-local chilies--the chicken wings are local (Kadejan, in this case), and the carrots, too, and the leek is from our garden. You could make your own noodles, if you like, but we find it convenient to keep a few packages of Chinese egg noodles, thin and thick, in the pantry.
This was a treat on a cold, snowy evening. The wings are well and truly smoked--"Chicken bacon!", Mary exclaimed--as they are tossed with salt hours ahead of cooking. That cure allows the flavors of fish sauce, lime, chili, garlic, Sichuan pepper, etc., to penetrate the meat. Then add the applewood smoke, the char from the grill...oh, my.... I'm glad we made extra.
My sambal carrot salad, the carrots grated coarsely rather than shaved, made a crisp, sweet contrast. New Glarus bock, a fine Wisconsin brew, brought east and west together ably.
A bowl of extremely non-local guacamole whetted our appetites very nicely. No regrets.
Oh, and ma la, that's Chinese for numbing (from the Sichuan pepper) and hot (from the chilies), a classic Sichuanese formulation. This dish is not especially ma la. If you want it moreso, toss the wings with ground roasted Sichuan pepper and chili oil after grilling. We enjoyed the mild heat and spice, and interplay of flavors.
Smoke-Grilled Ma La Chicken Wings
3 pounds chicken wings, separated at the joints (save wing tips for stock)
¾ tsp salt
2 tsp fish sauce
1 ½ tsp sugar
Juice of ¼ juicy lime
½ tsp crushed black peppercorns
1 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 large cloves garlic, sliced
2 scallions, chopped
2 medium hot red chilies (jalapeno or Fresno), seeded, cut into quarters the long way
2 small hot green or red chilies, Serrano or cayenne, sliced
Mix all the above ingredients in a large bowl, and let sit several hours or overnight.
Natural chunk charcoal
Apple wood or other smoking wood of your choice
2 small leeks, cleaned and sliced in half lengthwise, or 4 scallions
Thin Chinese egg noodles, a bundle-and-a-half per person (sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, salt)
Light a fire of natural charcoal in your barbeque grill. Have another, smaller grill on hand to keep hot coals going. When the coals are hot, move 2/3 of them to the smaller grill. Move the remaining coals to one side of the grill (the front in a clamshell-Meco-type grill). Add some wood chips to the coals. Arrange the chicken wings on the grill away from direct heat. Close the lid and smoke for 45 to 60 minutes, maintaining a temperature of at least 200 degrees—I keep an instant-read meat thermometer in the top vent of my grill to monitor temperature. Check a couple of times to make sure the grill is maintaining heat, especially in cold weather. Turn the wings over halfway through. Add hot coals from the smaller grill as needed, and add charcoal to the smaller grill to keep a good supply.
Once the wings are smoked, carefully transfer coals from the smaller grill to the larger, so as to have a hot fire for browning the wings. Now grill the wings over direct heat, turning often. Cook until they are very well browned and crisped. Remove them to a warm oven as they are done. When you have room on the grill, add the quartered medium-hot chilies, and the leeks or scallions. Grill until they are browned and tender. Chop the leeks for easier eating after they are grilled.
Serve over Chinese noodles tossed with sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, and a bit of salt, and sambal carrots (but shred or coarsely grate the carrots rather than shaving them thin). Place bed of noodles in a large shallow bowl, top with some of the carrots, then wings on top of that. Drape a few shreds of leek over the top, and the chopped leeks around the edges, and the grilled chilies around the edges, as well. Serve with cold beer and paper towels to wipe your hands and greasy chin. Pretend you are at a street stall in some steamy south Asian city. Forget the hell about winter.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw