Thursday, June 29, 2006
Our next competition is coming up quickly. We will be heading to Lake Placid, New York and competing in the I love BBQ festival that is being held in the olympic skating oval July 3rd and 4th. This will be a smaller event than the New Hampshire competition where we won Grand Champions. There will probably be around 20 teams, as opposed to the 35 in New Hampshire. I'm really looking forward to spending a few days in Lake Placid, as I have never been there and have heard it is really nice.
I also am viewing this trip as a mini-vacation, which I desperately need. The last two weeks, I have been covering the court martial of a U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadet, who was accused of rape by his former girlfriend. The case was fascinating, but it was long hours and court started early each day, which doesn't agree with me. Also, the last two weeks, I have worked 5 nights each week at my part time gig bartending at the New Haven Country Club. While I like the job and the $$, working over 90 hours a week is a real mental and physical drain.
"OK, enough whining Ted."
It's all out of my system now. But I really am looking forward to the trip. Hopefully we can bring home a little more hardware for the trophy case.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Grand Champions, New Hampshire State BBQ Championship. It sure has a nice ring to it. But who would have possibly believed it would happen in our second competition? Not me, that’s for sure. Especially with the competition that was at this event, seasoned and well-respected teams like iQue, Lunchmeat and Lost Nation, among others. But somehow, we did it. But not without a little bit of adversity and a whole lot of mud.
Big trophies make it all worthwhile.
We arrived at the Anheuser Busch Brewery in Merrimack, NH Friday feeling like we were ready to have a good weekend. We had a competition under our belts, finishing third in a smaller field in Rhode Island. I bought two new EZ Up tents, which we figured would provide all the needed shelter from the rain we were expecting from the forecasts. Boy, were we wrong.
We got set up and had a leisurely Friday night, sampling some BBQ from one of the vendors and listening to the live bands play. However, at around 9:30 PM, the skies opened up, and the rain would come down in heavy doses for close to the next 24 hours. Instead of camping, we made an executive decision to spend Friday night at a nearby hotel. Good move.
The ground was already wet when we arrived, but once the heavy rains started falling, our entire camp turned into a quagmire.
The worst part is that we were all very unprepared, footwear-wise. Most of us were wearing sneakers, and before long Saturday all of our feet were completely soaked. In the afternoon, Sheila, Kim and Kathleen headed off to Wal-Mart in search of proper footwear. They returned with big ol’ rubber boots for everyone. This rejuvenated us and got us in much better spirits for the rest of the weekend.
Meanwhile, we entered the NEBS grilling competition for the first time. We had a practice cook the week before, and were pretty confident that we could do well. Overall, it wasn’t bad for a first time. However, we tanked our fish entry, scallops with a pineapple glaze, which the judges scored 22nd out of 26 entries.
We almost got a call for skirt steak, taking 6th. The other entries, grilled fruit and pork chops, finished in the middle of the pack. The fruit was bananas that we cooked in the skin with a brown sugar/cinnamon topping that took 12th. The pork chops had a great marinade Cristiaan came up with, but the pork was a little dry and that probably hurt us and we took 11th. We finished 12th overall out of 24 for the event. Not bad, we learned a few lessons and will hopefully improve next time.
Finally the rain stopped Saturday night, but camp was a mess. But everyone remained in good spirits, the prep for Sunday went well, and we all soldiered on.
To back up a little, our team is named Q Haven and consists of myself (the large one with the apron), my wife Sheila (Doors shirt), my brother Cristiaan (Jack Daniel's shirt), his girlfriend Kim (between me and Cris) and my sister Kathleen (Blonde on far left). Unlike Rhode Island, everyone took the weekend off and came up for the whole time, so I wasn’t alone for the overnights Friday and Saturday.
Sunday started very well. The smokers had held their temperature throughout the night so I didn’t have to get up and I actually got some sleep. More on the smoker issue. I use Weber Smokey Mountain cookers for all four BBQ entries. I also use a product called the Maverick ET-73, which is a remote smoker thermometer. The Maverick has a feature where you can set it to sound an alarm if the smoker gets too hot or too cold. The remote goes right next to me in the tent, so I can sleep knowing that if a problem arises the alarm will go off. Pretty cool product.
The WSM’s are cool too, because you can set them up to cook for long periods of time with very little maintenance needed. It really simplifies things, which is a plus if you’re a dummy like me. Many larger smokers need wood and/or charcoal added every hour. Large smokers are helpful if you are catering or cooking a whole pig, but I feel you don’t need all that cooking space (and expense) cooking for six judges.
More adversity. Around an hour before the turn ins were set to begin, I realized that I forgot the blades to my electric knife at home. Cristiaan and Kim went to buy a new one, and between having trouble finding one and finding a place to park upon their return, they didn’t get back until around 12:30. Cristiaan is the artist behind our turn in boxes, along with being the brains behind the grilling competitions and a tireless worker. We managed to complete the boxes for chicken and ribs without him, and they came out pretty well.
Chicken we scored 17th out of 34. However, I felt our scores were pretty good. They were mostly 7’s and 8’s with a few 9’s. Nine is the highest possible score, and six is considered the starting point for the judges. This being the first category, the judges must have been giving really high scores. Maybe they were hungry. Here is our chicken turn in.
I flat out tanked the ribs in Rhode Island. Made mistakes, got away from what I knew, and scored poorly. I decided to return to my old recipe for ribs, with one big exception. I didn’t use any downloaded rub recipes, I made my own on the fly. I also cooked 6 racks of ribs instead of four for more selection, and we took first place. Unbelievable! I was floored, did not expect to even place, let alone take first in ribs. Here’s the finished product.
Next was pulled pork. We decided to have a little fun with this entry. Everyone contributed to the creating of the turn in box. We had slices, chunks, and shredded pork in there. It scored ok, 13th place.
Brisket was where we excelled in Rhode Island, taking second. I used the exact same procedure this time, with a nearly identical piece of meat. However, when I cut into it, the meat seemed a little dry to me. The meat was really tender though, and it had an awesome smoke ring. Looking at the picture, the turn in box seems a little messy to me, but the judges liked the overall product and it took second.
The big scores in ribs and brisket carried us, and we took grand champion by two-ten-thousandths of a percentage point. What a great experience. This earns us an invitation to the American Royal in Kansas City and (possibly) to the Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee. Apparently there are two state championships in New Hampshire, which I think is ridiculous, but it’s out of our hands. If that second contest goes on and gets 15 entries, then whoever wins that event will be in a drawing with us to see who goes to the Jack. That event is not a big name event like this one so I guess that improves our chances a little.
Even if we don’t get to go to the Jack, it will not take away from this win. I knew I could cook a little, but never in my wildest dreams did I think we would have this much success so soon. It never could have happened without the great people around me, probably four of the people I know better than anyone else and was so glad to share this with them. They’re family, but also great friends and I hope they know how much I appreciate their efforts.
We also made some new friends this weekend. Ward from Hog Heaven was great to us, and his delivery of sausage/Vermont cheddar English muffins was a great way to start our Sunday morning. Also, Dave and his partner from Burnt Offerings and the Q Wannabe’s team were really nice to us, giving us beer and shrimp too!
Next up, Lake Placid. We’ll be BBQ’ing in the Olympic skating oval over the July 4th holiday. I can’t wait!
Friday, June 02, 2006
It turned out to be a great idea to do the Rhode Island competition. I chose that one to start because it was smaller, with only 21 teams participating. The idea was to get a little experience under my belt and not get trounced, as I had never done anything like this in my life. In fact, I had never even been to a BBQ competition before. My only experience was watching recaps of some of the big Q events on the Food Network, and from reading the many informative posts on the Virtual Weber Bulletin Board. Here’s a link to the board.
I stumbled onto that site a few years ago after Sheila showed me an article about beer can chicken that intrigued me. I Googled beer can chicken and came across the board. That’s when I began learning about “low and slow” cooking.
I had always loved ribs. Going back to my teenage years, there was a restaurant in New York City called “Rusty’s.” Rusty Staub, a former baseball player for the Mets and a few other teams, owned the restaurant. My father used to bring me there from time to time, and the guy’s ribs were out of this world. Nothing like any ribs I had ever had before in my life. I guess that’s what laid the groundwork for the current obsession.
Too bad he had apparently opened his joint with backing from the mob, and in the early 1990's Rusty's was gone.
I went to college at the University of Alabama. The school is located in Tuscaloosa, which is also home to world famous Dreamland Ribs. This also helped fuel the fire.
Once I learned a little about how real Q is made, I decided that I needed a smoker. My mother had one of those el cheapo Brinkman’s water smokers sitting in her garage that someone had given her as a birthday present a few years ago. I believe it was only used once. It was Thanksgiving, and I have no idea what she did, but the turkey arrived at the table and was as black as night. This was not bark, the bird was completely burned. She never used the smoker again.
I took the thing and began experimenting. Made ribs first, then a Boston butt, and both turned out pretty good. Then, a life changing experience occurred.
For my birthday in March of 2005, Sheila gave me a Weber Smokey Mountain cooker.
I had done my research and knew this was the most cost effective backyard smoker out there. With a WSM, you could smoke around 10 racks of ribs at once. This is when I began getting serious.
I had learned about a BBQ competition in Connecticut at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival in East Hartford in August. My goal was to smack together a team and the equipment and enter that competition in 2005. It was just too soon, and logistically it didn’t work out.
However, we decided to have a BBQ for friends and family that same weekend at our house in New Haven. We invited some 40 people and around 30 showed up. I cooked 12 racks of ribs, two Boston Butts for pulled pork, a seven-pound brisket flat and around 30 chicken thighs. I cooked the butts and brisket overnight, pulling them off the WSM at around 8AM, wrapping them in foil and putting them in an empty cooler wrapped in towels to hold until the bash started. That freed up the WSM for 10 racks of ribs (some in racks and some rolled) and used the old Brinkman to do the chicken and the extra two racks of ribs.
I used all my own rubs, and made all my own sauces. The food was a big hit, and proved to me that I would be able to manage the four categories in the same day if I decided to compete.
I started getting serious in the beginning of 2006. I bought a second WSM, and a 22-inch Weber kettle and began assembling all of the other things needed to compete. I bought tables, chairs, sanitation stuff and all kinds of other things that are necessary to enter a competition. We did well in Rhode Island, but that was largely because of an extremely strong showing in brisket, where we finished second. We just missed getting a call for chicken and took sixth, but did not do well at all in ribs or pulled pork.
We have a lot of work to do in order to have a strong showing in New Hampshire. There are more than 30 teams entered, and several top teams that were at Memphis in May when the Rhode Island contest was going on will be at this one. There is no room for error. Hopefully we won’t shoot ourselves in the foot.