When Neil Gallagher decided to leave Memphis and follow his girlfriend north to Grand Island, he figured he could adjust to the cold.
Except for when he cooks.
Gallagher, The News' Cook of the Month for May, is a competitive barbecuer. He has honed his skills at cooking ribs and brisket and other cuts of meat for hours over low, smoky heat until their gnarly insides melt into savory juiciness.
That takes time, outside with your smoker, monitoring its progress. A whole brisket might take 18 hours to cook. "I had to figure out a way to do this without freezing out there, firing up my smoker during the winter," said Gallagher, who works for U.S. Customs and Immigration. "I love pulled pork, I love cooking it and having people over for it."
After some experimenting, Gallagher came up with a recipe that delivers most of the satisfaction of Memphis-style pulled pork without risk of frostbite. It's a bit of work, calling for wrapping the spice-rubbed pork loin in foil to simulate the humid interior of his offset smoker -- but the results are terrific.
When it's done Gallagher's way, the pork loin -- notorious for drying out in the oven -- can be shredded easily with two forks.
"Ninety-five percent of barbecuers will tell you they use foil," said Gallagher. "The other 5 percent are lying."
Having married Melissa in November, Gallagher said they trade dinner duty, with Melissa doing most of the baking. "I'll burn anything baking, but she's amazing at it," he said.
Gallagher first learned to cook in New Orleans, in the kitchen with his mother and outside with Dad, making blackened redfish on the grill.
When he was 9, his family moved to Memphis. The new town had its downsides, like the speech therapy sessions he endured when teachers found his accent indecipherable.
On the upside was barbecue. Serious barbecuers flock to Memphis each May for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, and Gallagher got his first taste at 13. Teams of devoted cooks spend days competing to make the best pulled pork, pork ribs and barbecued whole hog, and to win more than $100,000 in prizes.
The contestants decorate their cook sites, which can rise to three stories, with eye-catching decorations in preparation for the contest judges' visit. The cost can easily pass $10,000; most teams are underwritten by sponsors.
Inside the event with his father, he recalls, "I looked at him and said, 'One day we gotta do this.' "
His senior year in high school, his father found a place for them on a team, and in 2006 they started their own. Gallagher has been competing at the contest since then, having achieved some success, including first place in chicken wings and 21st in ribs. That might sound disappointing -- until you note that there are 250 to 300 teams.
Closer to home, he plans to enter four New York barbecue competitions this year. (In February, Gallagher won the inaugural Mark Twain Chili Cook-off at Buffalo Winterfest.)
His competitive cooking experience "definitely teaches you what to do when you have people over," he said. "The showmanship, the plating -- it's got to be all pretty when you plate it."
When he invited visitors in for pulled pork recently, Gallagher already had a platter lined with blue-green curly kale, as a garnish for the meat that would soon be served there. Another platter held ramekins of four different homemade barbecue sauces, including a chile version with home-smoked habanero and jalapeno peppers, one sweetened with local maple syrup, and another based on Starbucks French Roast coffee.
He's looking forward to warmer weather, so he can get his smoker out of storage and let the perfume of hickory and peach smoke start wafting down the block.
One thing about pulled pork is that there's always enough to share. "My neighbors love me during the summer," he said, laughing.
> Neil Gallagher's Easy Memphis-Style Pulled Pork
1 large pork loin, 7 to 9 pounds
1 cup water
1/2 tablespoon liquid smoke
8 tablespoons maple sugar
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons adobo seasoning
1 teaspoon Caribbean jerk seasoning, like McCormick
1 1/2 teaspoon Cajun seasoning, like Chef Tony Chachere's
2 teaspoons cinnamon
Your favorite BBQ sauce, for serving
Combine jerk seasoning, paprika, chili powder, adobo seasoning, maple sugar, cinnamon and Cajun seasoning in a mixing bowl and blend well by folding spices together with your hands. Make sure you crush up as many maple sugar chunks as possible. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 210 degrees. Cut three 28-to-30-inch long pieces of aluminum foil. Place 1 on counter, to protect counter.
Dump water and liquid smoke into bottom of roaster pan.
Unwrap pork loin over sink or trash to let liquid drain. Place pork loin on foil, fat side down.
Taking care to keep track of the fat side, rub spice mixture into meat. Make sure the entire loin is heavily coated, with no meat showing.
Leave foil behind and put meat, fat side up, on roasting pan. Let rest 30 minutes before placing in oven.
Cook meat at 210 degrees for 2 hours.
Set remaining two foil sheets on top of one another, and pull pan from oven. Turn oven up to 260 degrees.
Place meat on new foil, and double-wrap it snugly. (Fold long sides of the rectangle together, pinch them together and roll them down tight. Roll foil on each end to seal the packet. Put the foil-wrapped pork on the last sheet of foil and wrap it the same way.)
Place meat back onto pan and return to oven for 2 1/2 hours more.
Remove pan from oven. Get a bowl to hold cooking liquid. Poke a hole in the bottom side of the foil, and drain liquid into bowl. Let meat rest, wrapped, for 20 minutes.
Unwrap meat. Place loin in roasting pan or large casserole dish and use 2 forks to break apart meat. (Should pull apart and look like spaghetti.) Pour reserved juices over the meat and present on a tray.
Spoon some meat on a bun, pour on your favorite BBQ sauce and enjoy.
Name: Neil Gallagher
Dish: Easy Memphis-Style Pulled Pork
Residence: Grand Island
Mouths to feed: 2
Go-to-instant meal: Fried rice with vegetables and scrambled egg
Guilty pleasure: Beignets