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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

BBQ, Bands & Brews KCBS Barbecue Competition

Saturday, June 23, 2012, I had the privilege of being a table captain at the first annual BBQ, Bands, & Brews KCBS sanctioned barbecue competition in Palmyra, Virginia.

It was a beautiful day for a barbecue competition; sunshine and relatively comfortable temperatures, especially in the shade.

Thirty teams competed cooking chicken, ribs, pork butt, and beef brisket.

As a table captain, I was busy managing my table of judges so I didn't get to score the entries, but I did get to sample some of them.

To whoever the team was that turned in that box full of barbecued chicken wings, I thank you! Those were some of the best chicken wings I have ever eaten!

This was the first year for this competition. It was run very well and everyone involved had a great time.

3Eyz Barbecue (Dan Hixon, Pitmaster) won Grand Champion. Deguello BBQ won Reserve Champion! Congrats to all who walked!

Friday, June 22, 2012

BBQ Pitmasters 2012 - Thoughts on Round 3

The new season of Barbecue Pitmasters is a lot of fun to watch. You can catch new episodes Sunday nights at 9/8c on the new Destination America channel. In each episode three barbecue cooks go head to head cooking barbecue to be judged by Myron Mixon, Tuffy Stone, and Aaron Franklin. In the third episode, round 3, Johnny Trigg of the Smokin' Triggers team went against Charles Wilson of C-Dubs Corruption BBQ Crew, and Chris Hart of the Wicked Good Barbecue team. They each had to barbecue turkey and bone in pork belly (pork belly with spare ribs still on). Spare ribs are cut from the pork belly which is the cut of meat on the hog where we get bacon.

SPOILER ALERT! - If you haven't seen this episode and don't want to know the outcome, don't read further until after you watch the episode.

Chris Hart and Charles Wilson both recognized the ribs still attached to the pork belly. However, Johnny Trigg at first thought the pork belly was a slab of beef ribs. Being from Texas, he doesn't cook a lot of pork and certainly not a pork belly. His wife finally recognized the pork belly as bacon and Trigg was then "back in the game" as he put it.

All three contestants cooked the pork belly and the spare ribs in a very similar way. They removed the ribs from the belly and cooked them just as they always cook spare ribs. The pork belly was pretty much cooked just like the ribs. After hearing Trigg brag about how good his pork belly smelled and how good it looked, his reaction to tasting it was pretty funny. He reached down and grabbed a delicious, juicy looking chunk, put it in his mouth and immediately declared "It tastes like $*@#!" So, out came the barbecue sauce. Later he called it "ungodly." Clearly, he doesn't like pork belly.

Each contestant had their own unique way of cooking the turkey. They had to turn in both white and dark meat. Trigg spatchcocked (Trigg called it butterflying) the turkey he cooked. Chris Hart separated the legs and thighs from the breast so that he could cook it all for different amounts of time because the breast is likely to dry out while waiting for the dark meat to get done. He also turned in part of his turkey with a Kansas City style seasoning and another part with a North Carolina style seasoning. Charles Wilson cooked his turkey whole.

Trigg rubbed his turkey with squeeze Parkay and his barbecue rub. Chris Hart injected his turkey with phosphates (they help the meat retain moisture) and rubbed it down with barbecue rub. Charles Wilson brined his turkey and then rubbed it and put it in the smoker.

None of the judges had a lot of good things to say about any of the pork belly that was turned in. But, they loved Trigg's turkey. Charles Wilson only turned in white meat because the dark meat he cooked was still raw. That cost him points. It also seemed that all of the rib entries were a little too tough. In the end, Johnny Trigg won. The judges commented on the turkey and the appearance of his pork belly/ribs box. So, congrats, Johnny Trigg! Trigg stated that he believed he won because he kept things simple. Hmmm, sounds like a familiar post right here.

There have been some who, after watching this episode, felt that the show was scripted. They claimed that the dialog was scripted, the way that all three contestants stepped forward when Mixon asked who turned in entry number 3 was scripted, and they even felt that the outcome was preordained. But, I don't get that impression at all. While there are some things that are "scripted" I don't believe that the outcome or the banter between the cooks is scripted at all. The people who run the show may encourage banter, but I don't think they give the contestants a script.

The only parts of the show that are clearly scripted include the times when the judges are judging the entries. One of them always announces, in a way that sounds as though they are reading cue cards, what the next step in the process is. Also, every time a judge mentions the number assigned to the entry they are judging, the contestant whose entry was assigned that number always says something like "That's me!" Clearly, the people running the show instruct the judges and contestants to do those things.

Some claimed that when all three contestants stepped forward after judging when Myron asked who turned in entry number three, that it was scripted. There is no way they all could have done that without pre-planning. However, according to one of the contestants, the three contestants discussed doing this with each other during a break in filming. It wasn't something anyone who runs the show told them to do.

Another thing that I have been reading about is the problem some are having with Johnny Trigg calling squeeze Parkay "butter." First of all, yes, Parkay is margarine not butter. I think everyone knows that, even Johnny Trigg. But, I think, there are two things that some people are forgetting. There are many people in the older generations, like Johnny Trigg's, who call margarine butter. That's just what they do. They know it's not butter but they do it anyway. Secondly, there are probably restrictions on what products the contestants can mention. If you will notice, the only brands mentioned on the show, that I have seen anyway, are Kingsford and Snake River Farms (it's not spoken but the logo is all over the packaging the meat is in that they provide the contestants). So, speaking of "scripts," I bet that Johnny Trigg was specifically told to not mention the brand name of his squeeze "butter."

And, in response to those who are crowing in blog posts and online "news" sites about how that margarine and phosphates have no place in backyard barbecue, all I can say is "Who are you to tell anyone what belongs in their backyard barbecue?" Where did you get your backyard barbecue cop badge?

Seriously, there are no rules for how you have to cook barbecue in your own backyard in spite of what the backyard barbecue police may say. Don't let some online blowhard intimidate you or make you think you are doing something wrong. The fact is, if you like how your barbecue turns out, it's the right thing to do. Cook what you like. Tell the barbecue cops to take a hike. Heck, I may just go out and buy some Parkay and some phosphates to cook some barbecue in my own backyard and email the pics and recipe to those people just to have some fun with them. I'll even taunt them and ask them if they are going to call me names and arrest me! Ah, good times!

Look, Barbecue Pitmasters is about fun and it's about celebrating the art of cooking barbecue. So, lighten up there, people!

Jerked and Grilled Veggies

Here is a great recipe for grilling vegetables. I cooked these to go with some pork chops that I was grilling but they are so good I thing they would be great with beef or chicken and even by themselves. Here is how I made the dish.

I cut some bell peppers, Anaheim peppers, and onions into little square like shapes about the size of a U.S. quarter. I also sliced some mushrooms and tomatoes. I cut some fresh pineapple into chunks. I put them in a large bowl and poured over a little olive oil. I used just enough to give all the pieces of the vegetables a light coat of the oil after tossing them in it. Then, I sprinkled on a generous amount of dry jerk seasoning and mixed well. I put the veggies in the fridge and let them marinate for about 2 hours.

I fired up my grill and got a really hot bed of coals going. I grilled the veggies long enough for them to get a nice bit of browning and "grill" marks. Then, I put them in an aluminum pan and sealed it up well with foil. You could use a plastic container with a lid, a bowl wrapped with foil, or even a zip lock, food safe plastic bag. I then let them steam from the temperature of their own heat while I grilled up the chops.

The vegetables come out tender and tasty!

Steamed Blue Crabs!

Steamed crabs are one of the best things about summer time! My family has steamed bushels of crabs for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to go with my Dad to go get a bushel of crabs. He would always head down to a little seafood shop in our town. I used to love going to that place. They had a huge horseshoe crab hung on the wall that I was fascinated with every time we visited. In fact, that big horseshoe crab and some large blue crab shells was about all the place was decorated with, if you can call that decoration. There were a couple of glass enclosed display cases where they held fresh fish and other kinds of seafood and the smell during crab season was incredible. All you could smell in the place was the delicious aroma of blue crabs being steamed to perfection. My Dad always bought crabs "green," meaning living and ready to cook. One of my earliest memories is of my Dad paying a whopping $6.00 for a whole bushel of crabs! Nowadays, a bushel of live blue crabs in my area costs quite a bit more. It all depends on whether it's a holiday weekend and/or the available supply.

My Dad also took me "crabbing" on occasion too. We would take chicken necks, tie them to twine and toss them over the side of the dock. We would wait until we saw something tugging at the twine and then slowly pull the chicken neck upwards towards the surface of the water. When it got close enough, you could easily see if a crab was taking interest. If so, we would reach in under the water with a net and scoop out the crab. It was also during a crabbing trip that I had my first encounter with an electric fence. Someone who lived near the dock where we were crabbing had some cattle and a donkey. My Dad also raised cows and I grew up near a dairy farm so the cows weren't of much interest. But, I had never seen a donkey up close and I couldn't help but go over and try to pet it. Well, as I was scratching the top of the donkey's head, I inadvertently touched the fence which, unbeknownst to me at the time, was electrified. I quickly learned everything I ever wanted to know and much more about electric fences on that trip! I couldn't get in the water for the rest of the day because the residual electricity on my body made my legs tingle when they got wet.

Here is how my father taught me to cook blue crabs. If you ever get the chance to cook these little delicious morsels of goodness, please don't pass it up.

First, you will need a large pot to cook them in. I have used aluminum turkey fryer pots and stainless steel beer kegs that had the top cut off for my crab steamers. The pot I use now is the one my Dad gave me. It's a large stainless steal pot that has cooked so many bushels of crabs over the last more than 5 decades that I can't count them. You will also need a fire. My Dad used to sit two cinder blocks side by side with enough room between them to build a wood fire. He placed the crab steaming pot on the cinder blocks with the fire underneath. My neighborhood frowns on open fires, so nowadays I use a propane fueled burner. Whatever you are using as a pot, put it over whatever kind of fire source you have with about two inches of water in the bottom. Let the water come to a boil. Be careful when dealing with a large pot of boiling water! Once the water boils, I remove it from the fire so I can put the crabs in it. Now, I don't boil the crabs. I use a large perforated pizza pan with six inch bolts in it for legs that holds the crabs up above and out of the water in the bottom of the pot. This way, the crabs are steamed and not boiled.

Next, you will need some seasoning. Here is the recipe that we have used for decades. In a large bowl, thoroughly mix together:

2 Cups Old Bay Seasoning
2 Cups Fine Grind Black Pepper
2 Cups Table Salt.

Now, you need a bushel of living blue crabs. I like to put the crabs in the pot a few at a time and season them in layers. This also gives me the opportunity to look for dead crabs. Never, ever cook and eat a blue crab that is dead before you cook it. You have no idea how long it has been dead.

Once you have all the crabs in the pot, put a lid on it and put it back on the fire. When you see wiffs of steam coming from the lid, that means you have about 20 minutes for the crabs to be done. The best thing about this part of the cook is the smell! The fresh crabs cooking in the Old Bay and black pepper create a magic aroma that exclaims "It's summer time!"

After about 20 minutes, I like to remove a crab from the pot to test for doneness. I know they are done when they have all turned a bright orange color and the meat is tender and succulent.

When they are done, dump them on a picnic table covered with newspaper. My kids like to dip the meat in apple cider vinegar, so I serve that in little bowls on the side. I prefer my crabs straight up with no vinegar. And the best thing about eating freshly steamed blue crabs is the fact that you just can't eat them fast. Everyone has to sit around the table and it's a great time to converse with family and friends.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

BBQ Pitmasters Episode 1 - After Action Report

SPOILER ALERT - If you haven't yet watched the episode, don't read the "Judging" section at the end.

I love BBQ Pitmasters! I was hooked in the first season and was thrilled when I heard that they were coming back for a third season. This past Sunday, the season premier episode came on the new Destination America channel. What more fitting channel for a BBQ show that features world class BBQ cooks? BBQ is, in the words of Robert F. Moss, an American Institution, after all.

The first episode of the season pitted (no pun intended, ha ha) three BBQ cooks against each other in "round 2." The first round was a sneak peak episode. Melissa Cookston (3 time Memphis in May world champion), Moe Cason, and Donny Bray went head to head in a no holds barred BBQ throwdown in episode one in Memphis, Tennessee. They each had to cook the best barbecued pork butt and baby back ribs of their lives in order to win.

The judges were Tuffy Stone, Myron Mixon, and Aaron Franklin. I've met all three of those guys and have even cooked against Tuffy. And, I can tell you, these guys know barbecue. If you present your barbecue to those three for evaluation, expect to be schooled. The judges judged the competitors' entries on taste, tenderness, and appearance. And, they let their thoughts be known without any hesitation. Tuffy pointed out that pork butts and ribs are the first things that a barbecue cook learns to cook.  Aaron pointed out that baby backs are very lean and are hard to cook without drying them out. Myron said that if he doesn't get his socks blown off by the ribs, somebody is going to be watching the finale from their living room chair.

The competitors had 10 hours to cook the barbecue. Melissa Cookston cooked on a vertical, indirect water cooker and a dry cooker for setting bark and used peach and apple wood for smoke. Moe Cason cooked on a stainless steel water cooker and used pecan for smoke. Donny Bray cooked on an offset stick burner and used only hickory for smoke.

Moe Cason focused on the fat marbling in the meat. He likes to see nice strips of fat flowing through the meat. Melissa Cookston wasn't happy with only pork butts. She would have preferred to have whole shoulders.

All of the competitors injected their pork butts except Melissa Cookston. Donnie Bray used an injection that included pork broth, water and salt. He injected to maintain moisture in the meat. Donnie pointed out that if he could cook the money muscle well, he would win. Tuffy interjected that the difficult part of cooking a pork butt is being able to place it in the smoker so the backside becomes tender without over cooking the money muscle. Myron retorted in jest that he would like to put Tuffy's butt on a pit. Tuffy replied that he would like to put Myron's butt on a pit but he hasn't found a pit big enough for that. Good one, Tuffy! Moe Cason injected his pork butt with a mixture of cola, jerk seasoning, and ham base. He lets the pork butt sit for about an hour after injecting before he puts it in the pit.

Moe Cason talked about how he seasons pork. He said it's all about being able to taste the meat. He uses a two stage rub; first one is more of salt, pepper, and paprika, the second one is more for savory flavors like coriander, garlic powder, etc. He likes to use cola and jerk seasoning in his injection. Donnie Bray used a commercial rub that he adds a few things to it. He likes to stay traditional in the flavor arena and just focuses on "good barbecue."

Melissa Cookston removed the money muscle from the pork butt. She wanted to get bark all around the money muscle. It's interesting that I just posted a similar technique on my blog about a week earlier. Great minds, you know. Melissa trimmed off the fat from the butt and rubbed it with a dry rub, put mustard over it and then put turbinado sugar over all that.

Melissa Cookston put her pork butts on the smoker at 275 degrees F and cooked them for about 6 to 7 hours. Donnie Bray put his pork butts in the smoker at about 290 degrees F for four hours then wrapped them in foil and cooked them until they reached 195 degrees F internal temperature.

Moe Cason removed the membrane from his baby rack ribs. He said the membrane prevents seasonings and smoke from penetrating the meat. Donnie pointed out that cooking baby backs is different than cooking spare ribs because they don't take as long to cook and, therefore, proper timing is an issue for him.

Melissa Cookston's rub has a little heat, a little salt, and a little acidic flavor. It's a full flavored seasoning. Moe Cason always puts Worcestershire sauce on his ribs. His rub has a little lemon powder, paprika, cayenne powder, and jalapeno powder in it. Donnie Bray's rub has a sweet and salty, and heat flavor profile that enhances the natural flavor of pork.

Melissa Cookston cooked her baby back ribs at 275 degrees F for four hours. Donnie Bray cooked his ribs for 2 hours at 190 degrees F and then wrapped them in foil and cooked them for another 30 to 45 minutes. He was looking for a mahogany color on the ribs before foiling. Moe Cason wraps his ribs in foil after about 2 or 3 hours. He puts butter on top and pours a little cola in the bottom of the foil. Donnie Bray Spritzed his ribs with butter and apple juice. When the color was good, about 2 hours, he added some honey and squeeze Parkay and wrapped them in foil and let them cook for about another 45 minutes. Melissa Cookston put some honey, brown sugar, and rub on the ribs before wrapping in foil.

The judges commented on the smokers the competitors were using. They noticed that Melissa was using a pit with a computerized temperature controller. Aaron Franklin commented that there is something "a little creepy about computers and barbecue together. If you know how to work a fire, you don't need one."

The last hour of cooking is "crunch time" according to Melissa Cookston. She glazed her ribs looking for a nice mahogany color. All competitors were busy setting glaze on their ribs at this point. Moe Cason pointed out that you have to "wow" the judges with one bite barbecue but you can't use too much sauce.

Melissa Cookson pointed out how important it is to not depend on thermometers and depend more on how your fingers and how the meat feels to determine tenderness. Donnie Bray pointed out that the first thing the judges will do is touch the meat so he likes to touch it to make sure it feels tender. Most of the competitors included a mixture of pulled, sliced, and chopped pork in the boxes turned in to the judges.

Moe Cason said he was going through the pork butts to find "that feel." His game plan was to give the judges "sliced, pulled, and chopped" pork butt. He likes to use a little of the pork fat that rendered out of the pork when cooking to season it. Melissa Cookston likes to slice the money muscle and mold the pulled pork so that it looks almost like it's in almost one piece. Then, she added her sliced meat with a few pieces of bark just for accent. Donnie Bray put a variety of pulled pork and money muscle in the box. Donnie decided that he would not put sauce on his pork entry.

Donnie Bray glazed his baby back ribs. He was very pleased with them. Moe Cason was also very confident with his baby rack ribs turn in box. Melissa Cookston cut her ribs into splits of two bone ribs. She turned in wet (sauce added) and dry ribs.

Just before turn in, Donnie Bray felt that he should have sauced the pork because his turn in had turned gray. So, he hurriedly applied sauce to his pork in the turn in box.


On the line is the title of "BBQ Pitmaster Memphis" and a shot at the winner take all $50,000.00 finale and the title of BBQ Pitmaster Grand Champion!

Aaron Franklin was looking for a delicious mahogany color on the ribs that was "kinda" sticky looking and really moist. Tuffy said he likes to see the meat come cleanly from the bone where he bites. And he also wants some smoke but he doesn't want the smoke to override the natural flavor of the pork.

Donnie Bray won appearance for ribs. But, Myron said that Moe Cason's ribs were a "home run!" The judges really liked Melissa Cookston's pork and were a bit perplexed over Donnie Bray's because his pork was gray and dry looking. He didn't do a good job of saucing his pork. Myron called it "half a**ed BBQ." Melissa Cookston's pork box was beautiful. All the judges loved how it looked. The judges loved Moe Cason's pork entry too.

Donnie Bray came in 3rd place. Between Moe Cason and Melissa Cookston, Melissa Cookston came in first place! Only 6 tenths of a point separated 1st and 2nd place.

To be honest, I was rooting for Moe Cason of Ponderosa BBQ. But, in the end, Melissa COOKston showed why she is a three time world champion. Congrats, Melissa! I'm looking forward to seeing you in the finale!