Sunday, January 27, 2008

2008 Competition Season

Now that January is almost over, it's time to start looking ahead to the competition season.

Entries have been submitted for Q Haven to compete in two contests:

The first is the "Freeze Your Butt Off 2008" at Jiminy Peak Ski Resort in Western Massachusetts. This will take place the first weekend of March. The Saturday part of the contest is just a People's Choice Wings contest. Sunday will be a KCBS style BBQ cookoff, with some kind of "Iron Chef" fifth category. This contest is not KCBS sanctioned, but it is sanctioned by the New England Barbeque Society, which means it will count towards the 2008 Team of the Year.

The next is the Snowshoe Grilling Challenge in Abingdon, Massachusetts on Saturday, March 29th. This is a one day grilling contest, with the categories of fish steak, sausage fatty, beef of any kind and grilled vegetable. I attended this contest last year and it was a lot of fun. Gary and Michele Taft of the "Lunchmeat" team do a great job putting this event on. This was where Q Haven got its first ever call for grilling, a 5th place for fish. It was also the only time I have ever done a competition completely solo. It was challenging, but fun nontheless.

After Snowshoe, it gets tricky.

Memorial Day weekend brings two area contests. One is Grillin' On the Bay, which will be on the shore in Brooklyn, NY. The other is at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, CT. We will be at one of these.

I will not be competing at the New Hampshire Rock-n-Ribfest in June this year. This is for a few reasons. One is that I have a fundamental problem with an event that charges $5 a person for admission, draws around 20-thousand people over a three day event, then only gives two-thousand-dollars in TOTAL prize money for both grilling and BBQ. Sure, I understand and support the concept of raising money for charity, but that is a joke. But they would not have an event at all without the competition teams, and feel they treat us as an afterthought.

Also, they have decided to go ahead without NEBS sanctioning because they don't want to pay a $50 sanctioning fee. It's silly and petty.

We also will not be cooking at Lake Placid this year either. This one I'm really bummed about. I love the town, and the event has been a blast each of the last two years. But Sheila will be more than eight-months pregnant by then, and it's a six-hour drive for us. We just can't do it.

Hopefully we will be able to do Peter's Pond in mid-June. But, again, Sheila will be very pregnant by then, so this one will have to be a last minute decision.

Since Sheila is due July 22nd, that will likely mean that Harpoon and New Paltz will be out too. I hate to miss Harpoon, especially since it is so hard to get into the contest in the first place. But really there is no other option.

Hopefully we will be able to do one of the September contests, maybe Lowell or Harvard. Since we have the camper with AC and a furnace, we could easily bring the baby. It's best to get them started on the circuit young!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Pork Pics

I promised pictures from last weekend's pork cook, so here they are.

Sauce on the side!

It was my first long cook on the Backwoods, and I learned a lot. I am still learning about the air flow and the amounts of charcoal to use, but I'm pretty confident that I will be ready to use it as my main competition cooker this year.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Black Eyed Sally's

Went to the Hartford Wolf Pack vs. Worcester Sharks AHL hockey game tonight with my friend Fred. We bartend together at the New Haven Country Club, and he's a great dude and a BBQ fan.

Fred and Ted

We decided to go to Black Eyed Sally's, which is located about a block from the Hartford Civic Center (now called the XL Center). For those who have not been to Hartford in a while, the civic center is no longer located in a mall as it used to be. They knocked the mall down and built a slick luxury apartment tower. But I digress. I'm stalling because I am about to hammer the food we had at Black Eyed Sallys.

I had eaten at Black Eyed Sally's once before, and had a very dry pulled pork sandwich. I work in Hartford, and have heard people around town say their BBQ was pretty good, so I went in with an open mind. It's a cool joint to visit for drinks, and I have been many times for happy hour with co-workers, but had never ordered dinner before.

I was excited to see "our famous, fall off the bone Memphis style ribs" on the menu. I have not had ribs in Memphis yet, but I can't imagine they are like this.

I ordered the pork ribs, beef burnt ends and chicken, $16.95. Fred had the ribs and crispy catfish combo, also $16.95. The ribs were from the short end of a rack of spares, maybe three bones, definitely not "fall off the bone" tenderness. The only smoke flavor was from the liquid smoke in the sauce. What meat there was tasted old and dry. There was no smoke ring. Fred agreed that these ribs were subpar.

The chicken part of my dish was a small drumstick and part of a thigh. It tasted more boiled than smoked. Very little meat. It was pretty moist though, but utterly flavorless.

The burnt ends were very hard chunks of beef, four of them. Average.

I was extremely disappointed to find the only place that sells BBQ in downtown Hartford represented so poorly. I would be stunned to find a smoker anywhere in the kitchen. Their sign on the door touts "BBQ and Blues." I hope the blues are better than the BBQ.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sunday Cook

It's gameday, as the New York football Giants are taking on the hated Dallas Cowboys in NFL playoff action this afternoon. To honor this occasion, I have two pork butts going in the Backwoods. I'm working on a new pork recipe for the upcoming competition season, and this is the first real test.

I also have a pot of chili going. That will be ready during the game, the pork won't be until afterwards, because I wasn't able to drag myself out of bed until 7AM to start the fire.

I'll try to throw some pictures up when everything is done.

Go Giants!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

"Freeze Your Butt Off 2008"

I'm not sure if that is the actual contest name, but a competition has been announced for the first weekend in March at Jiminy Peak in Western Massachusetts. We already know that Sheila will be away on business in Reno that weekend, but I am planning to cook this one anyway.

With a baby on the way, the number of contests I will be able to do this year will be limited. I need to do as many early season events as I can. It feels great to have an event coming up. Time to do some serious practicing!

NEBS Annual Meeting

Attended the New England BBQ Society annual meeting Monday night in Maynard, Massachusetts. This was the first NEBS meeting that I have been to since joining the group in April of 2006.

There were around 30 people at the meeting. The meeting was run professionally by NEBS President Steve Farrin. Not sure what they do at their regular meetings, but this was a very open session. It was clear that everyone there could have their voice heard if they had something to say. I wasn't there to opine on any issues really, just to observe.

Like any organization, there are going to be disagreements. The "elephant in the room" on this day involved a dispute over whether contest organizers should pay a listing fee to have their contest placed on the events list on the NEBS web site. I'm not going to interject myself into the debate on this one. I will say that I voted with the majority to support the requirement that organizers pay the fee in a non-binding vote that was held to gauge member support.

Otherwise, there weren't any other major or controversial issues addressed. Steve Farrin was reelected board president, and Gary Taft of Lunchmeat will become vice president.

It was also good to see some of the people from the competition circuit. Two friends from the circuit were joining the board at this meeting, Mike Boisvert of Lakeside Smokers and Brendan Burek of Transformer BBQ. Congrats fellas!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Connecticut BBQ Crawl

This past Sunday, I accompanied Gary Goldblatt of and Mike Boisvert pitmaster of the competition team Lakeside Smokers on a Connecticut BBQ crawl.

"What is that?" you ask.

It's when a bunch of guys hit the road and try some of a region's BBQ offerings. Like a pub crawl with excessive eating instead of excessive drinking. Sometimes excessive drinking too I'm sure.

Since Gary is a veteran of these trips, we deferred to him to select the restaurants. Gary made it really easy for me, as he picked Big Bubba's BBQ at Mohegan Sun Casino, Chester's BBQ in New London and finally, Bank Street Roadhouse, also in New London. I live minutes from Mohegan Sun, so the choices were perfect for me. Mike and Gary carpooled down from Massachusetts and met me at our condo in Norwich.

Gary Goldblatt is clearly the preeminent BBQ reviewer in the Northeast. He gets all over New England and New York, and has a very organized and well written BBQ site. Gary is very passionate about BBQ, much the way Mike and I are about being BBQ competitors. He's very knowledgeable and also judges BBQ competitions. I'm sure he would be a great competitor if he decided to go that route. We had been trying to go out for BBQ for around a year, and I was glad to finally get the chance to go.

Mike Boisvert and I have become friends since we met on the circuit. We both started competing at around the same time. He's one of my favorite people to talk Q with, and has become a great friend. There he is below.

I got us started with some ABT's and a beer before we hit the road for our first stop, Mohegan Sun. We got to Bubba's and we got a table immediately.

We decided to start with slow smoked chicken wings and a quartered Big Bubba Burger. The wings were probably the best thing I ate all day. They were nicely marinated, rubbed and smoked. The sauce was somewhere between buffalo and BBQ. They were complete wings with the tips still on. I really enjoyed these wings. Don't let the $9.99 price scare you away here, there were seven huge wings in the order.

The bayou burger was served with a slice of ham and cheddar cheese, and seemed tasteless after the wings.
We finished up with the main course, the Big BubbaQue ($24.95). This grand order includes BBQ ribs, chicken, brisket, pork and hon link sausage, two sides and cornbread. Sometimes my wife and I come and order this to share, and always end up bringing home leftovers.

We convinced our friendly and accommodating waitress to substitute the link for extra ribs, and she also agreed to have both spares and baby back ribs included.

The massive platter provides a really good sampling of all of the restaurant's fare. I've reviewed Bubbas twice before (8/24/06 and 9/19/07), and really covered most of the meats there. But being so close to home we have been to Bubba's many times, so I was curious to see how Mike and Gary felt about the food.

I thought it was interesting that Mike preferred their baby backs to the spares, because he is someone that usually likes spares better. He later noted how much he liked the jalapeno cornbread, which is always one of my favorite things at Bubba's.

We all agreed that the pork was rather forgettable on this day. Mushy. The brisket was good, maybe a little dry. The baby back ribs are my favorite too. They're served without any sauce, and that is how they are best. Spares were good too.

We barely touched the chicken, or the onion rings we added for good measure. Just too much food.

I definitely learned that on a BBQ crawl, you really need to pace yourself. But despite the feast, we pressed on, driving around 10 minutes to Chester's BBQ in New London. That part of the trip I already reviewed the other day, see it HERE.

The final leg of our journey brought us to Bank Street Roadhouse in the Bank Street bar district in downtown New London. This place had previously offered a few BBQ items, but had recently removed all of them from the menu. That was actually good news, because we were all pretty much stuffed.

Fortunately, it was only a short ride back home for me, where I was passed out on the couch minutes after arriving. I feel for Gary and Mike, who must have been zonked for the drive back to Massachusetts. Sorry guys! But thanks for a great day!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Chester's BBQ, New London CT

As part of our Connecticut BBQ crawl on Sunday, Gary Goldblatt of, Mike Boisvert of Lakeside Smokers and I visited Chester's BBQ in New London. The restaurant is located on Bank Street in New London, several blocks away from the Bank Street bar district, in a commercial/industrial area near the shoreline.

The place is tiny, a true BBQ "joint." There are only three tables in the small customer area. Fortunately, only one of the tables was occupied, and we were able to get the biggest of the three tables.

We went to Chester's after having visited Big Bubba's BBQ at the Mohegan Sun Casino. We ate pretty heavily at Bubbas, but we did save some room for a wide sampling at Chester's. The person at the counter wasn't the owner Chester, but was one of his employees named Shawn. He was very cooperative and when we explained that our goal was to sample a wide range of items, he provided us with three individual cups of each dish.

We started with the brisket chili. This was my favorite item of the Chester's meal. It was very flavorful, not overly spicy, and was loaded with large chunks of brisket. The chili was loaded with beans. I prefer my chili meat only, but the beans were very good. The chili is a winner.

The second item in our initial wave of food was a hot link, which I thought tasted like a very spicy hot dog. I don't eat hot dogs so this isn't something for me, so I'm probably not the person to pass judgment on this item.

The first wave also came with the brisket. Chester's brisket served by itself was very moist and tender, but it really lacked flavor. I didn't taste a whole lot of seasoning in the bark, and it didn't have much smoke flavor.

The brisket sandwich, however, I liked a lot better. It came with the second wave of food, along with the spare ribs and cornbread. The little bit of sauce on the sandwich added to the meat, along with the serving on untoasted, thick cut white bread, really made this dish. I recommend this to anyone who visits Chester's.

The spare ribs puzzled me a little bit. They have two smokers at Chesters, both are Cookshacks and both are electric. While it's clear the ribs were cooked in the smoker, there was very little smoke flavor and no smoke ring at all. They were pretty good though, and like the brisket did not have a whole lot of flavor on their own. I did not try them with any sauce. I bet a little splash of sauce would bring these from my personal rating of fair/good to a good/excellent. I will visit again, and I will try the ribs with some sauce.

I only took one bite of the cornbread. Seemed moist, good flavor.

They have a bunch of other smoked meats on the menu that we didn't try this time, including baby back ribs, chicken, pulled pork, wings and turkey. We didn't have any of the sides except the cornbread.

Overall, I enjoyed our visit to Chester's. The food on the whole is good, and the prices are among the best values I have seen in a Q restaurant.

My main thought is that the BBQ probably would be top notch if it was cooked over charcoal and/or wood. To me, it has to be the electric smokers that take away some of the real BBQ flavor I crave and try so hard to create myself. I do understand that it is not easy to cook with wood and charcoal in a storefront restaurant, and there may be zoning restrictions that make it impossible. But to me that is what will keep Chester's from being great instead of good.