Monday, December 31, 2007

Connecticut BBQ Crawl

Sunday, I went on a Connecticut BBQ crawl with Gary Goldblatt of the noted BBQ review site and Mike Boisvert, pitmaster of Lakeside Smokers. We had a great afternoon of BBQ, beer and friendly conversation.

We hit Big Bubba's BBQ at the Mohegan Sun Casino, Chesters BBQ in New London and finally the Bank Street Roadhouse, also in New London. We had a great time and a lot of laughs. I will be posting a review and more detailed recap of our day soon.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Video: Chef Terry Noyes of Bocca

This is normally just a BBQ blog, but I'm going to give a plug to my friend and former boss, Chef Terry Noyes, owner of Bocca in East Haven, CT.

We worked together in the mid 1990's at Terry's restaurant at the time, Armory Square Cafe in Milford CT, when we were both a lot younger and skinnier. I waited tables, and eventually was a manager at Armory Square. I credit Terry a lot for my interest in learning to cook. He used to blow me away with his cooking style, and I remember the two plus years I worked in his restaurant with him as some of the best times of my life. It was certainly the most fun I have ever had at work.

Terry appeared on Channel 8 in Connecticut for an entertaining cooking segment over this past weekend. Click HERE to watch the video.

Also, be sure to visit his restaurant in East Haven for some great food. It's a short drive off I-95 for you readers who may be passing through the area at some point. Here's the web site:

Hopefully we will be able to lure Terry to a BBQ competition this year!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hill Country, NYC

Every year, Sheila and I travel into New York City in December to kind of fire up the Christmas spirit. For me, NYC has a way of taking things and energizing them, and we have really come to enjoy our December getaway.

Last year, we tried Daisy May's BBQ during our December journey, so this year's dining choice was a no brainer. Hill Country. I was really bummed that the Brethren Bash at Hill Country last month took place while we were on vacation in California. So this was an easy decision.

We arrived at around 3PM. When you arrive they explain the market style ordering process to the rookies like us. You come in and go to the barbecue and sausage counter and order.
Then you go to another counter and order sides. At your table the waitress takes your order for drinks.

In order to get a good sampling, I ordered a bunch of meats. I got some pork ribs, one beef rib, some moist brisket and a jalapeno and cheese sausage. You bring a ticket up to the counter, they put the price sticker on it, then they give you your meats on butcher paper.

The brisket is carved to order, as are the ribs.

Now, I can see why some people could find this type of system a little confusing. But I found it easy to navigate, and a refreshing change from the restaurant norm. It helped that the staff were all very friendly.
I thought the moist brisket was fantastic. Sorry about the bad picture.

But my favorite was the pork ribs. They also offer lean brisket, which I did not try. They were spares, very tender and flavorful. We didn't use sauce on anything.

The sausage was fantastic, but I only took a couple of bites and brought the rest home.

The beef ribs were ok. I only got one and it didn't have much meat on it. Still tasted good. Beef rib below.

As a bonus, we were able to get a tour of the kitchen and check out the smoker area. They have three huge Ole Hickory smokers, each of which operate at different temperatures for different meats. The smokers are situated right behind the meat market counter, basicly the centerpiece of the place. Here are a few pictures from the smokers.

I even go to sign one of the smokers. I didn't make it on the celebrity wall but I did get a nice spot on the pitmaster side.

As we were wrapping up our tour, pitmaster Robbie Richter arrived for the evening.

It was good to see him again. We met at the Hudson Valley Ribfest in 2006, when the restaurant was still in its formulative stages. We had a long conversation as we were packing up after the event.

We had a great visit to Hill Country, and I cannot wait to bring my Texas sized appetite back to Hill Country for some awesome BBQ, Texas style.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Breaking News

We received some breaking (and very unexpected) news yesterday that will in all probability have a huge impact on our 2008 BBQ season.

Sheila is pregnant!

This was not something we planned, and in fact the timing could not be worse. Her projected date is July 22, which is right in the dead center of her busy season at work. It is also a few days before Harpoon. It will be unfortunate if I have to miss the birth because of Harpoon, but that's just how it goes!

Just kidding Sheila!

I have proposed having a midwife on hand at Harpoon and having the baby in the camper, but Sheila has rejected that idea.

Even though this was unplanned and unexpected, we are extremely happy and excited by this news.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Q Haven 2007 Year in Review

It's been a long year, and a great year, this our sophomore year on the BBQ circuit.

In 2006, we hit the scene with a pretty good splash. A no-name team from Connecticut, grabbing awards and even winning our second contest out of the box. We qualified for the Jack Daniels, which was our fifth ever contest. It all seemed so easy.

It's not that easy.

The competition is very stiff in New England, despite what many people across the country may think. I learned quickly that in order to remain competitive, you have to bring your A game to every contest. While we didn't win any contests in 2007, we did have some great showings and I hope to build on that in the off season and into 2008.

The 2007 unofficially started with the Winter Sizzler in Lincoln, New Hampshire in January. We were among a dozen or so brave teams who battled each other and the elements on a snowy weekend. We took 2nd place in pork and 2nd in chicken, taking reserve grand champions for the event. It was a great start.

Next were a pair of grilling events in successive weeks in March. I cooked alone at the Snowshoe in Massachusetts, getting one call for 5th place fish and finishing 7th overall. Ironically, the next week at Grilling on the Bay in Brooklyn, NY, we got one call for 5th place fish and finished 7th overall.

Our BBQ season finally got underway in late June with a flurry of activity. Complete with our brand new camper/toy hauler, we hit the New Hampshire Rock-n-Ribfest in Nashua, NH. We didn't get any calls for grilling, but in the BBQ event we were called for 2nd place ribs, 4th place pork and finished 7th out of 36 teams.

The next weekend, it was off to Lake Placid, New York and the I Love BBQ Festival. In the midnight grilling bash Friday, we took 2nd place for chicken and 5th overall. Saturday was a "buck-a-rib" contest, where teams were able to sell ribs to the public, and they voted for the best. We took 3rd in that contest. In the KCBS contest Sunday, we only got one call for 5th place brisket, but finished 4th overall among some extremely stiff competition.

After three weekends off, we competed at Harpoon in late July. While we didn't score all that well, we did get a call for 7th place pork and finished 7th overall for the event. We also had a ton of fun, and sold a ton of food. I cannot wait to go back to Harpoon in 2008.

After a week off, we decided last minute to cook the Great State of Maine Grilling and BBQ festival. This was an interesting contest, held on a sloping cornfield on a farm in Maine. We did pretty well overall for the contest, especially in grilling, taking first place for steak, second place for pork and 3rd place for blueberry dessert. After briefly being awarded the grand championship, upon further review we were actually third and had to give the trophy back. In the BBQ event, we got calls for ribs and pork, finishing 6th overall.

A week later, it was off to New Paltz, New York and the Hudson Valley Ribfest. Again, we excelled in the grilling contest, taking 2nd place fish and sausage and finishing 4th out of 41 teams. Then, tanksville, our best score was 18th place pork, and we finished 22nd overall.

Not wanting that to be the way we finished our season, I entered us in the Battle of the BBQ Brethren in Sayville, Long Island, NY. Again, we did great in grilling, with first place chicken wings and first place fruit, along with 5th place steak. Reserve grand champions. In the KCBS contest, we got calls for 5th place chicken and 8th place brisket, finishing 12th overall.

That's our season. We were 7th in the New England Barbeque Society team of the year standings, and finished towards the top in almost every contest we entered, picking up two reserve grand championships along the way.

We will head into 2008 with a new smoker, and with the same determination and competitive spirit that got us into this racket in the first place. I'm hoping that some kind of winter contest happens again, because I will not be able to say no. I'm ready to get back at it. In the meantime, the practicing has begun.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Memphis Minnie's

Monday, before we headed out of San Francisco, we decided to add a little BBQ to the trip. After renting our car for the drive to Carmel, we drove to Memphis Minnie'sBBQ Joint in the Haight-Ashbury district. We got there around 10:30 AM and the place didn't open until 11, so we waited in the car until they opened the doors. Once inside, we met a bunch of cool people who clearly take BBQ very seriously.

The staff were friendly, especially owner Bob Kantor. He was very open and friendly, telling stories about his decades of travel and practice that have led him to where he is today. He cares deeply about BBQ and it shows in his restaurant.

Ted and Bob
Here are a few pictures of the smoker they use. It's pretty impressive. Bob only uses wood in his Q, no charcoal and absolutely no gas.

I ordered the three meat combo with beef ribs, St. Louis spares and pulled pork. The beef ribs below had a super smokt flavor and were very tender.

The pulled pork was my favorite thing of the meal. It was perfectly seasoned with a delicious, smoky flavor.

Sheila had the brisket sandwich. Very moist and tasty.

Overall, we had a great time at Memphis Minnie's. It was a great place to spend our last hour in San Francisco. If you're in the city, take a little time and head over to Memphis Minnie's. It's real BBQ in a city where real bbq is very hard to find.

Monday Blues

We didn't end up going to anywhere memorable for lunch or dinner Monday. Everyplace we had on our radar was closed Mondays, so I'm just going to skip writing about the day. There are plenty of pictures of the sights we have seen in San Francisco HERE.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Seeing the Sights in SF

We spent most of our first full day in San Francisco seeing some of the touristy sights and hitting some great restaurants.

We started the day by heading to breakfast at the place ranked at the top of the city breakfast list in Zagat, the restaurant in the Campton Place hotel. When we saw the menu, we almost walked out because of the outrageous prices. However, we stayed, and didn't regret it.

I had the smoked salmon with bagel and cream cheese, and it was really good. Clearly superior salmon, no fishy aftertaste, and the bagel appeared to be homemade. Sheila had a waffle with pear, walnuts and whipped cream, which was outstanding too. Fortunately she didn't finish it, so I got around a quarter of it. We normally wouldn't spend 50 bucks on breakfast but this was worth it.
Next, we headed up to fisherman's wharf. We walked through the fresh fish markets, and trolled a few of the piers.
This is clearly a classic tourist trap, but we spent a half hour looking at the sea lions. They are really entertaining, and are alone worth the trip to the wharf. They reminded us of our cat Smedley, a massive cat who loves to flop around on his back the way the sea lions do.


Next, we went to the Ferry Building Marketplace. We went there because as fans of Anthony Bourdain and his TV show No Reservations, normally the first place he goes when he travels is to a local market to get the flavor of the place. No flavor here, lots of high end specialty food shops. Outrageous prices. We didn't stay long.

Next we headed to Chinatown, where we had planned to find someplace for dim sum for lunch. However, neither of us were prepared to walk in to sone place cold, as many of them looked a little shady. So we chickened out on the dim sum. Bourdain would not be proud of us.

We headed back downtown towards our hotel to find someplace to watch the Giants-Cowboys game. As a big Giants fan being able to see this game was important, and Sheila had agreed to set a little vacation time aside for the game. We ended up watching it at Lefty O'Doul's, an ancient watering hole with a cafeteria style buffet. I started going through the buffet, but chickened out. A little scary. But a nice, friendly place.

We ended up going to a place next door called the "Daily Grill"for lunch. Apparently a chain restaurant, and we ate at the bar. Food was ok, but bartender was extremely surly. I had a burger, Sheila had a tuna melt. Nothing memorable. Bartender should work at the DMV with that kind of attitude.

Since we had several drinks during the day, we went back to the room for some rest before dinner.

Dinner was the highlight of our day. We went to Frascati's on the recommendation of Brendan Burek of Transformer BBQ, who used to live in SF. The restaurant is in a quiet, mostly residential neighborhood right on the cable car line. We got there around 20 minutes early, and they were able to seat us immediately. Our table was upstairs, overlooking the kitchen below and the rest of the restaurant.

We started with an Artisanal cheese plate, which came with a cow's milk brie, a cave aged French roquefort, a Spanish Urgelia and a French goat cheese. Was a great start.

Next, we shared a Italian sausage risotto, which we both agreed was the best risotto we have ever had.
For dinner, I had filet mignon with a potato lasagna, mushrooms and root vegetables, and a red wine sauce. The beef was perfectly cooked, and the entire plate was delicious. Sheila had a half chicken with lemon oregano jus. I've never tasted chicken so moist.

We finished with a black and white chocolate bread pudding with hazelnut ice cream, caramel and chocolate sauces. I refused to finish this because I was so stuffed, but after such a great meal I wanted to at least try their dessert.

Thanks to Brendan for this recommendation. The rest of the dinners on our trip will probably not match up to this one.

Today, we are heading to Alcatraz in the morning, and the rest of the day is wide open. We had originally planned to go to Memphis Minnie's for BBQ lunch, and to Tommasso's for dinner, but it turns out both are closed Mondays. We should have hit Memphis Minnie's Sunday for lunch, because now we may not get there at all. We're going to try and hit it as we drive out of town Tuesday.

We have decided not to go to Gary Danko or the French Laundry, which are both highly regarded, but extremely expensive. Both got uneven reviews on Zagat, so we decided to turn our attention elsewhere. Lunch we will probably wing it today, and dinner stil is up in the air, but I'm sure we will find someplace nice.
For more San Francisco pictures click HERE.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

San Francisco

Sheila and I have embarked on a 10 day trip to California. It's purely vacation, with the goal being to see some touristy stuff, but mostly to eat in great restaurants and just have a good time. We have set a large restaurant budget for the trip and will surely exceed it. Here's the breakdown: We are spending three nights in San Francisco, one night in Carmel, three nights in Los Angeles and two nights in San Diego.

I normally just focus on BBQ in my blog, but have decided to turn it into kind of a trip journal for the week. We plan to hit a few BBQ places along the way too.

Yesterday was a travel day. We flew out of Bradley International Airport on a 2PM flight to Philadelphia, where we caught a connecting flight to San Francisco. I have never flown first class before, but being crammed like sardines for a six hour flight makes the huge first class price tag seem more than worth it. Flight was ok, very little turbulence.

We landed at the San Francisco airport at around 7PM Pacific time. Taxi to our hotel was around $40. It was dark and rainy, so we have seen nothing of the city at this point.

We are staying at the Serrano Hotel, a restored Spanish revival boutique hotel (Thanks Zagat)on Taylor Street near Union Station. The hotel is nice, but like in most cities, the rooms are extremely small. Very nice though, with some interesting and odd appointments. There is a yo-yo and a mini Etch-a-Sketch in the minibar. If I get bored later maybe I'll try to walk the dog for the first time in two decades.

Also, the rooms have leopard print robes.

We made a reservation for 10PM Saturday night at Ponzu, which is an Asian fusion restaurant located in the lobby of the hotel. We went down a half-hour early, and they were able to accommodate us and seat us right away, even though the place was pretty packed.

I am fighting a cold and was a little hazy during dinner. The place was loud, but I liked the decor, definitely an old school restaurant with lots of nooks and banquettes.

We started with chicken spring rolls with sweet chile pepper sauce. The chicken was ground and bland, but the sauce stole the show here, very spicy.

For dinner, Sheila had the grilled pork chop with a ginger pineapple glaze. This was excellent, very juicy, tender and flavorful.

I had the duck breast, served with duck confit, lardons of bacon and what seemed to be broccoli rabe, along with chestnuts. The duck breast itself was ok, but what blew me away was the duck confit part of the dish. It just exploded with flavor.

Overall, a good start to what we expect to be a week of great food, despite what I would call average service at Ponzu.

Today, we're going to head up to the Ferry Market on the bay, then possibly try some dim sum in Chinatown. Tonight, we are going to Frascati, on the recommendation of Brendan and Julie of Transformer BBQ. Well, the sun is up, time to go see the sights!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

First Backwoods Smoke

Sunday, I christened our new Backwoods Party.

I originally had planned to do my first cook Saturday, but the weather was really bad here in Southeastern Connecticut, so I pushed it back to Sunday.

I decided to cook two racks of spare ribs. I didn't want to try to do too much for the first time out of the box.
I trimmed the two racks down to St. Louis style.

Then, they were rubbed with Q Haven rib rub.

First, I listened to the advice of other Backwoods smokers and sprayed the entire cooking area with Pam cooking spray. I decided to start with a half chimney of charcoal briquettes to see how long it would hold temperature with a small amount of charcoal. I used Rancher (thanks Brendan!).

The temperature slowly rose to 225, and with very little air flow adjustment it stayed there. I added three chunks of apple wood and one chunk of hickory.

The ribs went on, and cooked for two and a half hours at 225.

The needle never moved from 225 for that whole time.

Opened after two and a half hours and sprayed the ribs with apple juice.

Back in the smoker for another hour. The temprature only went up to just over 200 after I opened it and sprayed the ribs. So I added another half chimney of Rancher and it quickly went back up to 225.

After three and a half hours, the ribs went into foil for a little more than an hour with apple juice. Temperature remained steady at just over 225 throughout this period.
Out of the foil, then back into the smoker for another hour. Then I glazed with sauce a couple of times and they were done.

We had some friends over, and the ribs disappeared quickly. I forgot to take pictures of the sliced finished product. I thought they were pretty good, but could have used a little more time in foil. They were a little tough. I'm trying to learn to cook good spares, but am finding the process difficult. They are much harder for me than baby backs or loin backs, but that's a discussion for a later post.

Anyway, it was great to use the Backwoods for the first time. Next, I will do an overnight cook with it and really "stretch her legs"to see how long it can hold temperature. Probably pork butts, as I am working on a new pork recipe for next season.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

New Smoker!!!

While many BBQ teams were returning home from the Jack Daniel's Invitational Sunday, I was on my way to pick up something we hope will help get us back to the Jack next year.

Finally, after months of planning, research, shopping, and pestering other teams to see their smokers, we have purchased a Backwoods Party with the fixed water pan and stainless steel doors. Here she is!

Ain't she a beauty!

We drove more than three hours Sunday morning up to New Hampshire, where Backwoods dealer Rick Surette of Seabrisket lives. We've been e-mailing on and off, back and forth for more than six-months as we shopped. Finally, after much deliberation, we settled on the Party instead of the Fatboy, which is the next larger size for those not familiar with their products. We settled on the Party (140 pounds) because is is much lighter than the Fatboy (270 pounds), and the party has almost as much cooking space as the Fatboy.

Also, the Party costs a grand less, which helped make the decision too.

Rick was awesome to deal with. I highly recommend him to anyone shopping for a Backwoods. His team Seabrisket has been very successful over the years, and last year they only cooked Memphis in May sanctioned contests. I hope to see them out on the KCBS circuit in 2008.

I can't wait to try it out. I would have cooked tonight but we got back pretty late and didn't have any meat. I immediately went to Home Depot and got some casters for it. They only had smaller ones that fit the smoker, but I got them anyway. The wheels will make it easier to roll it in and out of the garage during the winter as I practice on it. They will definitely need to be replaced, as these won't budge in the grass, which is where most of our competitions are held.

Since we have been competing, we have used Weber Smokey Mountain smokers exclusively. I will still continue to use them, as we will certainly need extra cooking space at certain competitions. They have served us well, and we are just one of many teams who have won competitions using WSM's. I highly recommend the WSM to anyone who is just getting started cooking real BBQ. Here are me and my WSM's.

But I am so excited to have this new smoker. I want the 2008 season to start tomorrow....

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Battle of the BBQ Brethren, Sayville NY

This past weekend, Q Haven competed at the Battle of the BBQ Brethren in Sayville, Long Island, New York. We had originally planned to compete at Dover this weekend, but after much deliberation we decided to head to Long Island instead. It turned out to be the right decision for many reasons.

The first had nothing to do with Long Island. Apparently there was a massive storm in Dover that caused major damage to team sites. I remember how scary the microburst was at New Paltz back in August, and by all accounts this was much worse. In Long Island, we got a lot of rain Friday night, but the weather was beautiful Saturday and Sunday.

Getting ahead of myself again....

Sheila and I decided that we would take the ferry to Long Island instead of driving the long way, down I-95 to New York City, then back up to Sayville. Even though it cost over a hundred dollars each way, it was well worth it, as getting the SUV and trailer on and off the ferry was a snap, and the drive was easy on the NY side.

We arrived at the site of the contest mid afternoon Friday. The contest was set in a park in the middle of a neighborhood. Will Breakstone aka Willie B greeted us and set us up with a nice site at the back of the contest area.

We only did a partial set up Friday because of the rain. However, we made a ton of ABT's, also known as stuffed jalapenos wrapped with bacon, for the planned potluck dinner Friday night. Unfortunately, a lot of the teams decided to either arrive Saturday morning or went home for the night because of the bad weather. That meant a lot of ABT's ended up in the garbage.

The good news was that there was a ton of food left over from the sponsor's dinner, so the teams were treated to a late night feast of prime rib. Very cool.

Saturday, the weather cleared up nicely, and the conditions were ideal for a competition for the rest of the weekend. High around 80 both days, no humidity, little wind. It was perfect.

Saturday was the grilling competition. Nineteen teams participated in the grilling event of the total of 29 teams entered in the contest. It was one of our finest events as a team, even though it was just Sheila and I doing the cooking, with assistance from Kris Eastman of Lakeside Smokers.

The first category was beef steak. I decided to cook filet mignon with bernaise sauce. The sauce came out really well, and the steak took 5th place.

Next came chicken wings. I've never had a call in chicken wings before spanning several grilling competitions. However, these came out awesome. I used Plowboy's Yardbird Rub and BBQ sauce, and the wings took first place.

Next was fruit. Sheila developed this recipe, which was grilled pineapples with chocolate sauce. Again, first place. Sheila rocks!

The final category was fish steak. We did the exact same recipe we used at New Paltz, swordfish with champagne mustard sauce, which came in second place out of 31 teams that contest. Not this time. The swordfish came in 13th.

When all the numbers were in, we were reserve grand champions, which is 2nd place. It was a great moment for us.

Saturday night was just a whole lot of fun. There wre a lot of friends at the contest. We were sited right next to Lakeside Smokers, who are our best friends on the competition circuit. On the other side, we had Wine and Swine, another Connecticut team who we had never met before. They turned out to be a great bunch of guys, with Merl and Jason working in the liquor business and Mike DeAngelo, who is a chef at Paul Newman's restaurant in Fairfield County.

We also got to spend time with a lot of friends from the BBQ Brethren, including Clint Cantwell (Smoke in da Eye), the Anchormen (sans Ray Depot), the grand poobah Phil who runs the Brethren web site, and many others.

Perhaps the weekend's most impressive showing was by Transformer BBQ. They decided that doing one BBQ competition in a weekend wasn't enough, so they cooked in Dover Saturday, then drove to Long Island and competed Sunday. They came in 20th in Dover among some fierce national competition, then finished 5th overall in Long Island. Brendan, Julie and JT are clearly a force to be reckoned with. They'll be at the Jack Daniel's sooner than later in my opinion.
Anyway, back to the cooking.

Unfortunately, our strong showing in the grilling contest didn't exactly carry over to the BBQ competition Sunday.

The first category was chicken. I didn't get the grill as hot as I wanted it, and I was having trouble getting the chicken finished. However, it finished just in time, and we got our first call of the season in chicken, taking 5th place.

Next were ribs. I decided to take a chance and marinate the ribs, something I had never done before in competition. Also, I bought the ribs at Restaurant Depot, which is a place I use for a lot of things, but not usually for ribs. Not sure if those things were really factors, but the ribs really missed the mark. 22nd place.

Missed with pork too. We thought this was our best turn in of the weekend. The judges disagreed. Also, 22nd place.

The final category was brisket. We thought brisket was our worst category of the weekend. Dry and tough. There must have been a lot of bad brisket turned in too, because we took 8th place.

Overall, it was a pretty successful and very fun contest. I wish the BBQ results were better but I recognize some key mistakes that probably cost us in ribs and pork.

The people who put this contest together did an awesome job. Especially Eric Devlin (motoeric), who despite a foot injury hobbled around from team to team on crutches every day to make sure everything was OK. Will Breakstone (Willie B) did a great job too, as did the too many to mention people who did little things behind the scenes that made the contest such a success.

Now, the long off season begins. Believe me there will be a lot of practicing.