SMOKING LESSONS: MOUTHWATERING CIDER-BRINED PORK LOIN FROM CHEF CONNOR RANKIN

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I’ve been on vacation with the boys this week at beautiful Jekyll Island, Georgia. I love Jekyll for its slow, easy pace, its pristine beaches, and its natural tranquility. On the marsh on the west side of the island, the Jekyll Island Club Hotel and surrounding cottages — once host to America’s most influential families — are carefully preserved for visitors to enjoy, and the island is fantastic for bikers, shell seekers, and photographers.

The best part of coming to Jekyll though is the proximity to family and friends. My dad made the two-hour drive from my hometown, where he still lives; my cousin and her beautiful daughter came over from Brunswick to hang out with us, and my old roommate brought her kids down for a beach day.

My cousin, Connor Tift Rankin, is a chef at the Half Shell, a seafood restaurant on neighboring St. Simons Island.  Besides his incredible talent in the kitchen, he’s one of my favorite people. We come from a huge, sprawling family – our fathers are two of eight siblings — but  I’ve always been particularly close to Tift, who prefers to be called Connor now that he’s all grown up.

We ate the Half Shell the night we arrived, enjoying strawberry cilantro margaritas and a really special shrimp and pasta dish, and on another evening Connor took us to the Tramici, an Italian restaurant that makes its own pasta and specializes in local, fresh ingredients. There the star of the evening was a really fantastic braised short rib and goat cheese ravioli, followed by an equally stunning lemon pound cake with blueberries.

Best of all, Connor came over to our vacation rental to school us on how to smoke a perfect pork loin.  Back at home, my husband is the  anointed grill master, so I’m afraid I was, until Tuesday, a complete novice.   Here are some of Connor’s tips:

1.  Brine the pork loin the night before you plan to smoke it. We brined a five-pound boneless pork loin in two cups of apple juice, a cup of apple cider vinegar, several peppercorns, a gallon of water and half a cup of salt. Brining prevents the loss of moisture during cooking, resulting in a juicier finished product. When developing your own brine, remember the four s’s: salt, sweetness, sour, and spice.

2. Use a rub. Connor is launching Crankin Spice Rubs, which will offer spice blends for grilling, smoking, and barbecue. We used his BBQ Butt Rub. The exact contents of the blend are a closely guarded secret, but you can hit him up on Facebook for a sample, or you can find recipes for  other, slightly less awesome rubs here and here.

3. Use lump hardwood charcoal instead of briquettes. They’re both made from scrap lumber, but the lump charcoal burns hotter and imparts the essence of the wood its made from (we used hickory) to the food.

4. Smoke the meat.  Connor placed the charcoal on the right side of the grill and placed the pork loin on the left, cooking it at between 150 and 200 degrees for about four hours. The cook time and temperature are actually pretty forgiving – ours fluctuated because midway through we had a heavy downpour. The meat should reach a minimum internal temperature of 155 degrees.

5. Glaze the pork loin with barbecue sauce.  About 10 minutes before finished cooking,  brush on a vinegary barbecue sauce. We used some that Connor made himself, but you can find a recipe for killer barbecue sauces here and here.

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