Saturday, February 12, 2011

Top 10 Reasons to Cook BBQ Competitively

We cook BBQ contest pretty much professionally.  Our year revolves around 4 seasons, the off-BBQ season, the rainy BBQ season, the hotter than heck BBQ season, and the fall BBQ season.  When you are this into something, it doesn't even occur to you to think about why you are doing something- you just are.  However, occasionally we encounter a non-BBQ-er (the dreaded NB"S), and we have to explain not only what we do but why.  So, just in case you feel the need to justify your addiction to a NB at somepoint (or even a spouse (the much, much more dreaded Peeved Off Spouse or POS!)  here is a list of ready made reasons that you simply MUST purchase charcoal by the pallet or spend $4000 on a cooker.

10. I have an addiction, and the first step is admitting you have an addiction.  There is no second step.
9.  My blown-out knee prevented me earning millions as a professional (insert sport here) player.
8.  It's not like we're cooking Bambi.
7.  If I don't do this, someone else will.  How would you feel then!
6.  Pigs are running amok through farmland, somebody has to step up and stop it.  I am that person.
5.  Survival skills. 
4.  You should really come help- it's fun and we need a dishwasher.
3.  College fund?  It's sitting right there on that 20' BBQ trailer baby!
2.  I could be golfing, and you see where that got Tiger Woods.

And the Number one reason I BBQ is:

1.  Because if the World ends, you can't eat Bowling Balls.

Delta Style Cooking

The Mississippi Delta region is where I grew up, and my cooking, be it an everyday dinner or competition BBQ, reflects that in the flavors and foods I use.  To give you an idea of the region, it is generally given this geographical - Starting at Memphis down to New Orleans, bordered by the Yazoo River on the Mississippi side and stretching a few miles on the other side through Arkansas and Louisiana.  Cuisuine from this area has picked up influences from the surrounding zones and morphed into a certain flavor profile that is unique in its own right.  Food is very well seasoned, but not necessarily hot or spicy.  Fresh products are used in everything, reflecting the lack of reliance of the residents on the land.  The food should express itself though the entire palate, not just having a singular note. Everything is made from scratch, and mealtimes are a celebration, not a duty.

Delta food is not known for a single item, but rather for its abilty to absorb the styles of nearby areas and morph into a slightly different style.  It is more than a "kissing cousin" to cajun food (not the super spicy stuff that people assume is cajun, but the homespun dining of the everyday person of Louisiana).  Much of the cooking comes from time consuming recipes utilizing inferior cuts of meats.  The Cajun "trinity" (celery, onions and peppers cooked down as a flavoring base) is predominate in most stew types, but the use of a roux is not.

One item the Delta is know for is tamales.  Yes, tamales.  Made in much the same way as their Mexican cousins, the difference in a Delta tamale is in a few touches.  It is almost always made with a pork filling.  True Delta tamales are always wrapped in butcher paper as opposed to corn husks.  Delta tamales are typically stewed in a very seasoned broth made with tomatoes and a stock.  One of the best things about driving through the Delta is finding the tamale stands or shops and stopping in for a snack (look for the boiled peanut stands, there is usually a tamale stop nearby!).  Typically, you are given saltines to eat with the tamales- I still don't get why, but just go with it. 

Items such as Red Beans and Rice are another Delta specialty.  Yes, they are a New Orleans dish, but they are also a Delta item with a few changes.  Red Beans and Rice can be anything as simple as just that- some red beans cooked and served with rice to a more satisfying stew with sausages, ham and the like.  Traditional New Orleans RBR was made on Mondays, which also was "wash day."  Ladies would put on the beans to cook for the afternoon while they washed clothes.  It is still a Monday special at many restaurants in New Orleans and throughout the Delta.

We served a great RBR at our restaurant years ago. Here is a modified recipe for the home:


Cooking down smoked sausage
 1 lb dried SMALL RED BEANS- don't use kidney beans or pinto beans or anything else, this has to be SMALL RED BEANS.  It will say so on the package- SMALL RED BEANS.
1 TBL canola oil
1/2 cup diced celery,
1 cup each julienne onions and julienne peppers (green or red your choice, or mix)
1 TBL minced garlic
1 gallon chicken stock
1/2 cup diced ham (tasso ham is awesome, but it makes it more of a cajun style)
1 lb smoked sausage, cut into 1/2 moons (andouille if you are going for the cajun style)
1 TBL basil flakes
3 bay leaves
1 tsp coarse ground black pepper
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 tsp hot sauce (we like Louisiana brand as it's not that hot but it adds a good flavor)
White rice- you need about 2 cups cooked
1/2 a bunch of green onions, diced.

"trinity" cooking with garlic
 Optional- some more sausage, cut into 3 inch links and butterflied (one link per person)

Soak beans overnight or cover with water and bring to a light boil for 1 hour.  Drain.  Set aside.
In a skillet, add oil and cook sausage. Getting a sear on it brings out the flavor.  Remove sausage, but leave the oils in skillet.  Add celery, onion, peppers and cook until softened.  Add garlic and continue cooking until garlic is golden- about 2 minutes.  Place all ingredients in large stock pot and put on medium heat until is comes to a light boil, then reduce to a strong simmer.

Now, go wash clothes because you have about 3 hours to kill.  Occasionally stir the pot.

As it cooks you will notice it becoming more stew-like.  It is done when the beans are very soft and it looks melded together.  If it becomes too thick, add some more water or stock. If it's too thin, use a spoon and mash some of the beans against the side of the pot and stir- I do this always as it really helps flavor the stew.

About 30 minutes before serving taste for seasonings.  Feel free to add salt, pepper, spices, whatever you think it needs- it's your dinner at this point, not mine, so don't let a recipe stand in your way!

Cook your rice.  I take the sausage links and sear them to the point of getting them black at this point- the little char adds an extra flavor componant. 

A bowl of Delta-Style Red Beans and Rice
 To serve- spoon red beans in a bowl, then top with a few spoonfulls of rice.  Sprinkle green onions on top of rice, and place a sausage on top.  Awesomely easy, satisfying dinner- right from the Delta.  Enjoy!

KCBS vs Memphis Style Contests

At our trailer with on-site judge
Ok, let me preface this by saying we love cooking both types of BBQ Contests.  We got our start in Memphis Contests, and our first love will always be the Memphis Style BBQ Contests.  However, it is a nice change of pace to cook KCBS contests, and we are transitioning to adding quite a few KCBS contests to our schedule- probably to the 50-50 range this year, and maybe more next year.  Let's go over the styles first and then discuss the differences.

Memphis Style contests are pork only BBQ, consisting of three types of products- Whole Shoulders, Whole Hog, and Ribs.  The hallmark of a Memphis-Style contest is on-site judging- where in addition to teams turning in a "blind box" of their product they also have judges visit them at their booth.  This results in significantly more elaborate team booths.  Due to the judging styles, Memphis teams cook a larger amount of food as well- typically 6 to 8 shoulders, 15 slabs of ribs, and 1 hog (at Memphis in May, many teams cook 2 hogs).  This results in larger cookers/trailers being needed as well.  Memphis judging is basically done in 3 stages- first, a blind box is turned in- judges do not know whose product they are judging.  Garnish of the box is not allowed.  Secondly, 3 on-site judges visit the booth (in 20 minute increments, not at once) for each category entered.  Third, the top three teams in each category advance to the "finals."  All scores start at 0, 4 judges visit all 9 entries and decide the best product that day- kind of apples to oranges (Ribs vs Hog is kind of hard to judge), but it works out in the end.  In Memphis, teams may enter 1 to 3 categories, and you see quite a few teams entering ribs only, or ribs and shoulders for example.  You can win Grand Champion of the contest entering only 1 category (sometimes this helps actually, more on that later).

KCBS cooks Pork (shoulders, butts or picnics), pork ribs, beef brisket and chicken.  Judging is blind only, and certain garnishes are allowed IN the blind box.  The Overall placements of teams are determined by combined scoring of all the seperate categories.  Thus, consistent cooking skills are rewarded.

Memphis judging is COMPARATIVE, while KCBS is not.  Memphis judges are instructed to compare the samples they get to determine their best score.  This doesn't matter if they get 3 great samples or 3 awful ones, only one can get their best score of the day.  Technically, KCBS judges should not compare samples and should judge based on its own merits- if they think something is great, then it gets a 9, etc.  The one little bone of contention we have with this is that it is human nature to compare- the teams know this as well (stand outside of turn in one day at a KCBS and watch the teams dancing around trying to avoid falling on the "favorites" table!). 

So, those are the basics.  Memphis style contests are older- Covington TN (Hubbie's home town by the way) is home of the "World's Oldest BBQ Contest (the 39th Annual this year!).  Memphis in May started in 1978.  MIM sanctioned smaller contests for several years, then stopped.  The Memphis BBQ Network picked up the gauntlet in 2007 and has grown the sanctioned contests to approximately 40 this year.  KCBS is celebrating their 25th year this year, and despite their slightly later start has grown significantly faster and will sanction over 350 contests this year. 

KCBS contests are significantly cheaper to enter.  Average entry fees are around $250, and the fraction of meat that must be cooked for a contest (around 50lbs total) certainly helps with cost containment.  MBN entry fees are typically more- up to $400 if you are entering all 3 categories.  The main costs come in the meat however- we cook 8 shoulder, 15 ribs and a whole hog- around $500 total!  The small amount of meat (relatively speaking) in KCBS contests also help with having smaller and/or less smokers.  It is very easy to cook an entire KCBS contest with 1 medium size cooker (and cookers costs run the gamut- from a $40 modified metal drum to a $10,000 cooker).  For Memphis contests, we use 4 different cookers, for KCBS we use two.

The main difference comes down to the judging however, and this is also the bone of contention among a lot of competitors.  While in KCBS 1 or 2 person teams can cook and compete, in MBN you see teams grow quite large (although, many of the top teams only have 2 or 3 people, so it can be done).  KCBS cooks sometimes compare a MBN contest to a "dog and pony show" due to the large amount of effort teams put into judging areas, cleanliness of their cookers, etc.  You will not, for example, find china plates at a KCBS contest, but you probably will find enough to start a bridal registry at Memphis in May.  Yes, this gets to be a pain at times setting up tents, flooring, tables, linen napkins, etc, but it is part of the game.  All of this is an effort to create a professional feel to your judging area.  Does all of this work really influence judges and, if so, is that really what BBQ contests are about?  Our response is a solid maybe (stepping out on a limb here!).  Cleanliness impresses judges (they are, after all, eating at your booth).  We don't really think all the other trappings do too much one way or another.

In Memphis, judges will often come back to your booth and give you feedback on your area, your product and your presentation.  This helps new teams jump ahead of the learning curve a little quicker.  In KCBS, obviously this is impossible, so you don't really know what your scores mean (example you get a 7 in tenderness in KCBS- was it too tender or not tender enough?)

The main thing we love about on-site judging comes not in the preliminaries but in the finals.  There you are truly head to head with other teams.  This is the only type of contest in BBQ where you can say you actually beat someone, not just outscored them.  If you are an adrenalin junkie, making finals is awesome.  The main drawback to Memphis is this very thing however.  Allowing the judges to know which teams they are judging also allows for personal bias (as opposed to taste preference) to enter the equation.

To sum it up- KCBS= Cheaper to enter, easier to cook, MUCH more prevelant contests, significantly less up-front investment in cookers, more relaxed atmosphere.  Memphis = more challenging meat entries (larger amounts and whole hog), larger, more elaborate set ups, more interaction with judges.

Any choice you make to cook is a good one, so you can't go wrong.  We just wished more teams would do both and dispense with the "Ours is better than yours" talk. 

Now get out and cook!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Skinny on the Fattie 101

We have decided there are two types of people out there- those that smoke a fattie and those that don't know what the heck that means (note- we are talking about sausage here!)  Really, we were in the latter group until we started cooking some KCBS contests.  On the Memphis-style cooking side, not many people really talk about them that much.  Then, the infamous "bacon-explosion" happened and fatties became the big BBQ fad.  So, for those that still arent on the bandwagon, here's the skinny on the fattie.

 There are tons and tons of versions of Fatties.  They all revolve around three basic things however- 1.  A BBQ smoker, 2.  BBQ Rub (seasoning) and 3) Breakfast sausage.  The simplest version is just these three basic items- take your favorite sausage out of the casing leaving it in its' cylindrical shape.  Season the outside with your favorite BBQ rub, and place in a smoker at 250 for 1 to 1.5 hours.  At this point you can either brush it with sauce and let it cook on for 15 minutes, or just remove it and slice and serve with sauce for dipping. Simple, easy and a great appetizer.

Squished sausage in a gallon ziploc
First comes the sausage.  As we are pretty partial to sage, we like the Jimmy Dean Brand Extra-Sage, but any breakfast sausage will do.  We believe the fattie really comes into its own when you stuff it.  This is very easy to do with the help of a gallon ziploc bag.  After removing the plastic casing, put the sausage in the ziploc (don't seal it) and press it to flatten the sausage into a layer.  It should take up most of the bag.  Now take a knife or scissors and cut down the sides and bottom of the bag, removing half the bag.  Now, take your favorite ingredients and lay in the middle (don't go all the way to the sides).  Using the bag to help, start rolling the sausage around the fillings.  I usually do this jellyroll-style to add a little extra panache to our fattie (see, the joke here is you are trying to get any "panache" out of a rolled up sausage). 

When it is rolled up, seal the edges and the ends with your fingers.  If you don't, you WILL have cheese and other filling ingredients leaking out all over the cooker.  And an empty sausage, and nobody really wants that!
Beginning the roll!

We then sprinkle all sides pretty heavily with our Ultimate BBQ Rub, but you can use any BBQ type seasoning you would like.  Place in the smoker and you have a great appetizer in only an hour and a half!

We usually never do this as a stand alone product, but if we are cooking something else with a little extra room it makes a great treat.  Like we said earlier, feel free to brush with BBQ sauce.  We usually like it "dry", with some sauce on the side.

Don't hesitate to experiment with the stuffings either- just about anything will go well with a fatty.  We have tried a sauteed spinach/mushroom/parmesan stuffing, a jalapeno-queso stuffing, etc.  If you like it, the sausage really won't care what you put in there! 

We hope you liked our intro to a fattie.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Never buy Pork Chops Again!

In installment #2 of our "trimming meat" series, we will focus on a family favorite- Pork Chops!  Now, this is important because it will

a) Save you money
b) keep you from getting angry when you buy a package of pork chops and they have hidden a couple of really crappy ones under the top ones
c) introduce you to how to trim silver skin from a pork loin.  This is really easy, but if you have never done it you may be a little trepidatious at first.  However, this same skill is used extensively when you trim a Beef Tenderloin into steaks- and it's a lot better to experiment with a pork tenderloin than a $10+/lb beef tenderloin!

Half pork loin, fat cap on top
Ok, first select a pork loin.  Loins are available either whole or halves.  Most warehouse type stores carry whole ones, groceries carry halves.  Usually, they can be purchased for around $2.00/lb, which is significantly less than the $4 to $5/lb for slice pork chops!  Really, the ease of trimming your own is such that it is almost crazy to buy sliced pork chops unless they are on a significant sale.

The two ends of a pork loin are different.  One half will be thicker, with a thin layer of fat and silver skin around a portion of it.  The other half has this layer that runs into the loin and through the middle of it.  When we are purchasing a half loin, we always go for the side with the silver skin- it's easy to trim off and then we don't have to deal with it.

Trimming off silver skin
Open the cryovac and drain.  You can pat the loin dry with a paper towel if you wish. Turn the loin over, the fat cap will basically extend around 3/4 of the loin.  Start by inserting a thin boning or utility knife under the silver skin/fatcap.  Try to get about 1" or so before the knife comes out.  Then, turning the blade so it is angled approximately 45 degrees up, start moving the knife towards one end of the loin.  After you get it trimmed to the end, grasp the cut end and turn the knife around and head back until you remove a whole strip. 

Continue with this and work your way around the loin until the whole fat cap is removed.  The goal here is to leave as much meat on the loin while removing the silver skin. 

After you have removed all of this, you will be left with a beautiful piece of loin.  From this point you can do many things with it.  One favorite of ours is to smoke it (of course season or marinate it first) to an internal temp of 145 degrees, then slice into thick chops and finish on a hot grill with a glaze. 

Nice looking pork chops!
If you would just like to have some pork chops- it is very easy to slice into pork chops of any size.  I normally cut a variety- some thick ones for grilling and some thinner ones for frying/baking. 

One thing we do to chops we are going to grill is JACCARD them.  A Jaccard is a push type tenderizer with 48 tiny knives.  As you press down on the item, the knives extend and cut into the meat.  This helps the product absorb flavors better as well as cook faster and be more tender. 

One trick is to season the outside of the chops and then jaccard it- this helps push the seasonings or flavor into the meat.  These are very inexpensive and are great for tenderizing chops or steaks.

Competition Knives

Our competition knife set-up
Our friend Diva Q wrote about her competition knife set not too long ago, and it got us thinking about ours.  In any culinary endeavor, sharp knives are a must.  However, when you have literally thousands of dollars riding on being able to make the proper cuts, it becomes imperative to have great knives. 

A few notes about knives:  First, it's all about balance.  What feels like an extension of my hand may not work with you- it is very important to hold knives in order to get a sense of the balance.  If you are uncomfortable, the sharpest knife in the world is not going to do you much good.  In the past we have used a mixed bag of knives- mainly Henckel's with some Dexters (a commercial kitchen type), calphalon, or Tridents thrown in the mix.  A lot comes down to selecting the specific line- for example Henckels has several differently priced lines (always avoid anything that says "ever sharp" or something to that effect), some quite cheap and some on the moderately high priced side.  As with anything, you are going to pay more for quality- but with proper care a good knife will last you a lifetime.

A Mac Knife 10" slicer with indentions.  This thing just looks mean!
Anyway, we weren't real happy with our selections so we began looking around, trying several types.  We absolutely love the look of SHUN knives- a higher end Japanese knife.  They are reknown for their sharpness.  However, we never could get happy with the balance.  Perhaps we have been in the commercial kitchens too long or something, but our grip and their knife did not mesh.  We were given a MAC Knife as a present- also a Japanese knife though it has more of a western-style grip and weight (they use bolsters to add to the heft- something a traditional Japanese knife does not).  We were sold! (Full Disclosure here- After a few flattering emails, we actually worked out a deal to add them as one of BBQ sponsors.  The other side of this is we had several offers from cutlery companies to sponsor us, but we really loved Mac Knives).

Santuko and Utility knife from Mac Knives.  Both VERY sharp!
 A quick note about our competitions.  Our set is made with both Kansas City Barbecue Society and Memphis BBQ Network competitions in mind.  For example, if we were just doing KCBS we would need far less knives.  With MBN, you have more meat to cut as well as on-site judging, which requires clean knives for each judge in some categories and frankly we don't have time to clean BBQ sauce off of each knife during judging.  We just take extra and clean them all after.

Start with a Steel and a good sharpener.  A steel aligns your blade, not really sharpening it.  It may feel sharper because it has been straightened however.  We use a "rollsharp" from Fiskars as our main sharpener at contests.  Whatever you do, please be careful when sharpening knives!  Next, we carry 2 10" slicers, one with a "granton" edge and one without.  The granton is a series of small indentations in the side of the knife that helps it move through the product.  Basically at a contest the only use for these is when we are doing Brisket.  For trimming meat, we carry 6" filet knives (we carry a stiff and a flexible).  These are for trimming pork shoulders, whole hog, etc.  A 4" paring knife for helping with garnish.  We carry five 6" utility knives for MBN contests- slicing ribs for a blind box, and slicing meat for the judges in the whole hog category.  We keep a 8" chef knife in there because you never know when you will need it!

For the house, one knife that we have fallen in love with lately is a 6" Santuko knife.  It it truly an awesome knife and frankly I'm kind of mad I've never used one much before recently. 

Chef's choice model #120
 A couple of other notes- we do have an electric sharpener- it is a Chef's Choice model 120.  We don't use it for our Mac Knives, but it does an excellent job on Henckels and everyday knives. 

For Competion knives, we use a knife satchel.  They can be found for around $40 online (we use a Dexter we bought from our local restaurant supply company).  We use a 14 knife model- always go for the bigger holders because you will eventually fill them up!  For our home knives, we have a cherry wood Henckel Knife block.  Sorry, Mac doesn't make one yet!

The long and short of it- spend a few extra dollars on a really good knife now and you will get a lifetime of return for it. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Trimming your own Steaks

Both my husband and I worked for years as managers and owners in the restaurant industry.  Aside from the long hours and servers having meltdowns, you tend to learn a lot about food and how to handle it.  One of the best skills we ever picked up was in cutting our own steaks! 

There are several advantages to cutting your own steaks.  First is price.  On a similar quality and weight steak, you should save around 2 to 3 dollars PER STEAK by cutting your own.  Second is quality- when you buy a whole ribeye for example, you will know what grade your steaks are, the fat content, etc.  Third of course is being able to control the fat content and size of your steaks.  Want a huge steak for the big game- no problem, just cut it!

We are going to start with Ribeyes because we consider them the easiest from which to hand-cut great steaks.  Later, we will go through filets (beef tenderloin) as well.

The first thing to do is select your ribeye .  Typically, we purchase whole ribeyes (aka loin) from wholesale clubs like Sam's or Costco.  Grocery stores sometimes carry them also, but we have not found them to be of the same quality, even though they may be the same grade (choice, for example).  When buying a ribeye, remember- the bigger the loin, the bigger the cow, this sometimes can mean tougher.  We like to stay in the 14-16 pound range for loins.  Only buy Choice or better, period.  One trick we do is hold it buy both ends and shake it- the more  "give" it has in the middle  of the loin the less external fat it will have.  We like to select one that is kind of in the middle in terms of this give- too much and the loin is too lean (which also shows up in the marbling of the beef- thus determining its grade), too little give and we are probably going to be trimming a lot of excess fat away (thus reducing our yield).  I won't bore you with actual yield determination- basically, we like to hit 83-84% yield on our ribeyes- the amount of actual weight of steaks compared to raw weight of the loin.  Anything above 70% would mean you were saving money over buying steaks at the butcher shop.

a 6" boning knife, 12" scimiitar, 12" slicer
So we have selected our ribeye- what tools do we need?  First, a large cutting board with a non-slip liner (very important!).  If you don't have a rubber mat designed for this simply dampen a kitchen towel and place it under the cutting board.  Pretty easy.  Next, knives- we use a 6" utility knife and a meat "scimitar".  This is not a common knife- mainly used in commercial kitchens and butcher shops.  If you don't have one, use a long slicer-10 to 12".  For cutting one ribeye it will work fine, if you were doing 20 loins a day it would fatigue your arm quickly though!  Just make sure anything you use is super sharp.

 Next, cut open the cryovac and drain the ribeye.  You can pat it dry with paper towels if you want, though we usually skip that step.  First, there is a fatty covering going from the fat-cap around the curve of the loin.  We usually trim this down being very careful not to cut into the meat.  If you want to skip this, at least run you fingers across this- sometimes there are bone chips embedded here- you will definitely want to remove them.  Then, examine your ribeye looking at both sides.  One side will have a line of fat running through it.  Steaks from this side will be more tender, but also more fatty.  The terminolgy we always used for steaks from this side was a "delmonico" steak.  As we cut from our right to our left, we arrange this side to our left- this is just a preferance thing and not a necessity. Using a modified sawing motion-i.e. "saw" as little as possible- cut your first steak.  The first one or two steaks you cut from this side of the loin are far more similar to a strip steak or sirloin in texture than the rest of the ribeye.  After cutting a steak, we trim off the fat from the tail, shaping the steak into the classic ribeye shape.

After cutting through about half the loin, you will notice the fat line turn into a "C".  At this point we trim off the "tail" (the fat at the bottom of the loin).  The rest of the steaks have a higher fat content and are thus more tender.  We have always called this cut the "delmonico" steak. 

A couple of other notes:  don't worry about being exact on your cuts- utlize the differences in sizes for different people in your family when you are packing the steaks for the freezer.  If you have an ounce scale, this will help you get your steaks more even.

The great thing about cutting your own steaks is controlling the size and the quality.  We will typically cut a 15lb ribeye into about 18 steaks.  We then pack steaks into ziploc freezer bags, label and date and freeze.  You can use a vacuum packer if you have one, but if you will eat them in the next 4 months or so it is not necessary.  Enjoy!
"Delmonico's" above, classic ribeyes below