Beer and BBQ Fest – the Event

It’s here. It’s the big day. I’ve slept maybe 3 hours. I hear “Jen, it’s 3:30, I’m gonna shower”…and I am immediately up and in the bathroom. I get ready and head upstairs in minutes. We get back to the site where our team member has already left and our brewer is manning the station.

We end up pulling the meat at around 6:30 am, so it’s been going about 16 hours total. It is beautiful. We, of course, sample a few bites, and it is amazing. The pork is fall off the bone tender and the flavor is outstanding. You can taste the smoke. You can definitely taste the seasonings. And you can taste the bourbon-aged whiskey stout. It’s incredible.

John wraps the meat and we put it to rest in the warmer. We now have nothing to do. It’s too early to prep much else and the meat is just sitting. We need water and a few other ingredients, so we go back to John’s. Oh, some beautiful person gave us iced coffee somewhere in that whole time. We go back and pick up the smoked poblanos and some other equipment and decorations and such.

We get back to the site and start prepping. I minced an enormous amount of cold smoked poblanos. I have a battle scar from this as our knife was not as sharp as would be ideal, and smoked poblanos are kind of harder to dice.

Owen, my wonderful husband and Eleanor, our 9-year-old, show up about 10:30 a.m. and start immediately helping. Eleanor is very excited to be a helper, but there’s not much for her to do until it’s time to start cooking the smoked poblano arepas at 11. Owen jumps in to help John pull the pork.

At 11 am, we start making the arepas. At first, it’s a bit of a challenge. We hadn’t thought about the fact that John was the only one that had actually made them up to this point, and he has other duties as the head of the team, like schmoozing the crowd to get the people’s votes! But after some trial and error, we get it down. Two more teammates, Cooper and Kelly, appear on the scene to help as well. We are ready to serve at 11:45 am as instructed. Kelly and I are mainly on arepa duty. After we get into a rhythm, she’s mixing up the batter and making arepa patties. I’m standing over a cast iron griddle pan on a camp stove cooking them. Jill is backup for making patties and moving them around.

We form a beautiful assembly line that would make my dad proud as a long-time restaurant man. We make arepas, pass them down, Cooper tops with pork and Owen tops that with the cold smoked pineapple salsa. Eleanor then serves them to the public.

I have not seen such energy from her ever! She is an arepa wielding dynamo. I keep hearing “Arepa!” as she’s handing them out as fast as we can dish them up. The first hour or so takes a bit of tweaking to get a rhythm, but then we pump them out so fast that at one point, Eleanor is handing them to people 3 deep in our line. We do this for four hours and she wears out at about 3 1/2, which is better than a lot of adults I have seen in the food industry!

At the end of the day, we’ve served around 600+ arepas based on the amount of mix used. We are all dead tired, but it also feels good, and we know our product is good.

We don’t win as far as the actual prizes/awards are concerned. But I have more fun than I can remember in a very long time. I have about 100 ideas on things to do next year if I’m invited back, including bringing a first aide kit! I even google to find out if there are more things like this I can try to do around town.

Beer and BBQ Challenge – the day before

The day of the event is almost here. We get an email with the breakdown of the schedule leading up to and the event day. My part here is pretty easy. I’m to show up on the day before we actually start smoking meat, cause, you know, that’s my jam.

Friday, I show up at noon at a church/school parking lot. John, our fearless leader, is nowhere to be found. But a nice lady asks me who I’m looking for and directs me to our tent. I hang out a bit and wait. In the mean time, I meet a couple of the other competitors and see what kind of setups they have going. There was one with a really interesting smoker made from an old steel file cabinet. There was a point later where flames were shooting out the top of it that was a bit scary, but I admired the ingenuity.

After John got back from running home to gather more supplies, we go find our 70 pounds of meat. To explain, John had prepped the meat at Haymarket a couple of days before, and they had been storing it while it marinated. There was a refrigerated van they used to deliver it to the site. We located our meat in the truck, piled it on a serving cart and wheeled it off to the kitchen in one of the church/school buildings. Now, it was time to tie it. I’m totally new to this. I’ve been smoking for about 2 years, but I’ve never really tied meat. I learned that it really helps when you smoke meat for so long because yes, it becomes pullable, but it also can just come apart.

John tied four of them up and washed up in the time it took me to do three…or less time. Afterwards, we both wore the splatter cause achiote in the marinade creates a scene that looks like you might want to call CSI.

We get our smokers to the desired temp and we put the meats in. We have a large barrel smoker with 3 racks, so it holds 6 of them and then we have a smaller barrel smoker, that only holds one of them.

The first couple of hours, we’re struggling with the smaller smoker. Nothing will reduce the temp. We choked off all oxygen and it held. This defies all laws of physics, and we just can’t figure it out. Somehow, things even out. John leaves for a bit, and a little while later, both smokers start going insane. We’re talking temps dropping 30 degrees in seconds and other temps spiking just as sudden. I am flustered. I have never used this type of smoker, so I’m pretty much winging it. We eventually later decide the thermometers/blue tooth readers have just gone insane. Our meat temps are great, so the smokers can’t be doing what the thermo readers are telling us. We just roll with it.

Now, what I wasn’t prepared for was the night before the competition. You have a parking lot full of bbq teams who are just basically waiting for meat to smoke and monitoring temperatures. It’s just a big party. We hung out, we drank, we ate…oh the food these people share…if I get invited back, I have so many ideas for food to share that night.

Some folks have big reclining chairs and sleep on-site. A few have computerized monitoring stuff and everyone just leaves. John and I went back to his house and crashed a few hours while a younger teammate monitored the meats, and then he got some sleep in the morning while we did the final prep. I had been prepared to stay up on all night, but I was so grateful when offered his guestroom.

The big day was coming!

Beer and BBQ Challenge

This crazy little thing happened. A friend of ours, John, competes in a Beer & BBQ competition each year. In April, I got an email inviting me to join his team. I love smoking and barbecuing meat, so of course, I said yes without the slightest hesitation.

The event is to raise money for a local Catholic school. The organizers paid up BBQ teams with a brewery and the basic jest is to create a beer and bbq pairing that go well together. So, the process really got started with a meeting at Haymarket Pub & Brewery where the teams were their assigned brewery. None of us had ever heard of our brewery, Open Outcry, but a well-known brewer had gone there, so everyone seemed to feel okay about it. This was my first time ever doing anything like this, so I, obviously, had no opinion. We briefly discussed ideas, but in a very broad manner, such as noting that it was super hot last year and so maybe we want a light and refreshing menu.

We were told at this meeting to give the organizers time to get our info to the brewers before reaching out. Weeks went by and not a word. Finally, we get an email suggesting a day and time to go visit this brewery. We all meet up on a Tuesday afternoon in the farthest southern end of Chicago I think I have ever gone, short of driving through. But the brewery was beautiful. We tried 6 or 7 beers. We talked about potential menu ideas, but it was all still very loose. We toured the brewery, which has an awesome rooftop if you need to plan an event. We left with only one really solid idea…pineapple.

So we had pork (organizers supply the meat), and we had the idea of pineapple. John had recently smoked pineapple and really liked it. My mind instantly went to Cuban, Latin, South American, you see where this is going. I decided to experiment with a play on al pastor. I researched a lot of recipes for it, including some that were using smoking. I eventually came up with a mixture I thought sounded good. When we were at the brewery, we had tried a bourbon rye or bourbon stout, so I had my husband go to the store and find me the closest thing he could to use in the marinade, and I mixed in and marinated my pork 24 hours.

I smoke the pork for 5-6 hours and then put the pineapple on top for the last couple of hours, kind of mimicking how al pastor is done. I only smoked it to a sliceable point and not to pullable in this time, but it was delicious, if a little on the HOT side. Unfortunately, John was out of town, so he didn’t get to try it. However, he must have believed me or my husband that it was pretty good. I sent him the recipe I used, making a few suggestions on how we could make it better and less likely to set someone on fire. He experimented with it a couple of times, and we had a recipe for the meat.

In the mean time, John had been experimenting with the pineapple. He found that cold smoked pineapple had great flavor and held it’s texture better, and he came up with a fantastic cold smoked pineapple salsa.

We’re on the phone, days before our recipe needs to be turned in and discussing what medium to serve all this goodness on. I suggested arepas. After I finally spelled it and we both googled to find out what all was in them and how they were made, this idea sounded pretty good. John started experimenting with the arepas, and I guess it didn’t go badly because he turned our recipe in with them listed. He also came up with a sweet and tangy vinegar based sauce for our meat.

John had a second tasting out at the brewery. Then he and I met up with the brewer and John’s wife, Jill, and had another tasting with beers, including one none of us had tried but that sounded good. He had made up arepas with cold smoked pablanos, jalapenos, and just plain. We had a very nice hazy IPA, and an ESB. Then we had the Hazy IPA with ghost pepper infusion. This was to die for. We were totally sold, even though we knew it was a big risk given the reputation of those peppers. Oh, and I forgot to mention the brewer happened to have a rye whiskey barrel-aged stout he’d been working on when we came up with our idea, which we used in our marinade for the actual event!

This was one of the biggest cooking collaborations I have ever done. I work alone most of the time, and I’ve never competed in any type of cooking competition, but this entire process was so much fun. I know, you’re thinking “That’s it? You aren’t going to tell us what happened?” Well, I will, but the actual competition weekend deserves its own entry, so it’ll be out in a few days. For now, I just wanted to talk about the process.

The decision to become vegetarian or vegan

Kids are stubborn. Duh, right? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has tried to argue reason with an 8 year old and wound up wanting to just bang my head on the table. The amazing little humans can in one argument sound totally reasonable and come up with completely rational arguments and then in the very next discussion argue that fairies really exist even though they can provide no reasonable evidence with ardent passion.

So my reason for dwelling on this stubbornness was inspired by a little girl who looked to be about 5 years old. I was getting out of my car next to one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, Rockwell’s, and a family was sitting on the patio. The little girl was saying “Would you like it if someone killed you? So, why do we kill animals just to eat them?” By the response, her parents were obviously not vegetarians. But the simple logic just struck me.

Now, I’m not a vegetarian, and I don’t judge if you choose to eat meat or not eat meat or if your diet consists of candy bars, for that matter. However, it made me think about my girls and the various dietary habits we have cycled through over the years. My Katie, who now is a complete omnivore for the moment, decided to be vegetarian when she was about 8. As a non-vegetarian family, we accommodated this by experimenting with vegetarian dishes or by providing alternative proteins such as beans or tofu if we were having a meaty main dish. This lasted about a year.

Then a few years ago, Katie and Melanie both decided to go vegan. Katie’s stint here was short lived. She then decided to be pescatarian. That lasted until recently. About a year ago, she slowly started adding meats back into her diet. Melanie has remained dedicated to being vegan, despite the occasional reminiscence about meat dishes she once loved.

But the thing is, they came these decisions on their own. No one told them what their food choices would be. I provided the food I like in life until they asked for something different, and then I have tried to accommodate wherever I can so that we can enjoy meals together.

Now, our youngest is 9 and a vegetarian. However, she was born to two practicing vegetarians. Her mother is still vegetarian. However, her father went back to eating meat a couple years after she was born and I am a total meat eater. She’s very insistent that she’s a vegetarian. Now, as with our other girls, I totally respect her right to choose. I would just argue that she has not yet made that choice. Her current vegetarian diet is more a result of that childish stubbornness we all know and love and less a choice. Someday, I am confident that she will make a conscious choice about this issue, and I look forward to seeing how that plays out. But for now, I do enjoy challenging her rationalizations on the issue. (Don’t worry, I don’t challenge them by not offering her as much good, healthy, vegetarian food as I can!)

With each of the girls and each of their experiments toward discovering their dietary decisions, I like to ask questions and challenge the rationale. For example, if you aren’t willing to eat an animal but you take no issue with animal made products, this is a questionable position. Also, I never understood the rationale of eating fish but not other animals. Or if the issue is that you have a problem with animal cruelty, are there alternative decisions such as being conscious of where the meat is from and just avoiding those parts of the industry that practice methods you consider cruel. Or one of my favorites with the little one, if you say you don’t want to kill animals but you are willing to flood the world with ocean-life killing glitter.

Now, depending on at what age you are having these conversations, obviously the rational quality of the conversation may vary. However, it can be fun and stimulating as long as handled in a “explain your side to me” open way and not an “I’m right, you’re wrong” manner. Does it help them decide? I don’t know. I think they eventually develop a set of ideas and beliefs based on the totality of their experiences in life. I think I’m part of that totality, but only a small part. But either way, it’s been a fun and interesting journey so far.

Instant Pot

An acquaintance told me about her Instapot recently. It definitely sounded like something I would love to try out. Luck would have it that the husband and I stumbled onto a Macy’s going out of business sale and there was an Instant Pot (not the “Instapot”, another brand). This has to be one of the most amazing inventions ever.

First, you can do all the things. Think one pot meal and this is your best friend. You can saute, slow cook, steam, warm, pressure cook…I mean the thing specifically has a risotto setting! Also, unlike most other kitchen gadgets you find, this one can eliminate other items in your kitchen! I’m going to keep my crockpot, but I COULD get rid of it.

The first thing I made with the Instant Pot was my risotto. I was skeptical, but it came out awesome. The best part was that the risotto normally takes over and hour and I’m stuck standing over a hot boiling dutch oven for most of the time. While the work out to my arms is awesome, it’s also exhausting. In the Instant Pot, I sauteed the shallots, wine, garlic and rice, and then just added my saffron, salt, pepper and vegetable stock. I set the pot in the steam function for 20 minutes. The risotto was awesome!

As weird as it sound, I love the Instant Pot for making pasta. It’s really the equivalent of one pan as far as dishes are concerned, so while it sounds like too much for such a simple dish, it’s worth it. The pasta comes out perfectly done. I’ve done a recipe where you make the sauce first and add the pasta and steam. I’ve also done pesto by cooking the pasta in the pot and adding the pesto after it’s done to the hot pot. In both cases, the pasta was delicious.

My next adventure is going to be chicken. I have some chicken thigh thawed and I’ve found several good looking recipes online. I don’t think I’m going to use one of the recipes, but I will use some ideas I got from them. I’m thinking of a garlic, onion and white wine chicken preparation. I’ll try to remember to update you on how it came out!

Pesto Experiments

It turns out that while, yes, the classic pesto sauce we all think of is basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and Parmesan, you can make many varieties of pesto. I mean, we all know this because we’ve seen them on various menus or in jars at the grocery store, but I hadn’t really thought of experimenting with them.

However, the other night, we were out at Pasta Passion, a new place in the neighborhood, and a member of our party had the Genovese pesto, which was made with walnuts…I think. So I made a basic basil pesto, but instead of pine nuts, I used ground almonds. It came out delicious. There’s definitely a flavor difference because pine nuts have their own particular taste, but it was good. I am super curious to try it with walnuts!

You can also make pesto from a ton of other things. I learned from one of my beloved cookbooks, East Like a Gilmore, that all you need is 1) an herb or vegetable, 2) a nut or seed, 3) cheese, and 4) oil. Most people stick with olive oil, though I have seen some recipes with avocado or grape seed oils. Just use an oil you would eat as a salad dressing.

For herbs, you can stick with basil or use cilantro or mint. Anything that has that same texture profile works. Or, you can use a vegetable like sun dried tomatoes or roasted red or yellow peppers. If you want an Italian flavor, Parmesan is good, but so is Asiago or Romano. But you can go a little Mexican or Greek using cotija or feta. You just want a cheese that is a little harder like the texture of Parmesan. And you can add to these four basic ingredients, if you want for a little sweetness, a little honey. If you want a little spice, jalapenos or red pepper flakes.

Anyway, there are no rules for pesto. Feel free to experiment with flavors you love. Your family is nothing if not your own little focus group. I have to avoid the spicy, but I think I could do almost any other crazy combination of the above basic four categories and throw it on pasta, and my kids would all eat it. But we’ll see…in any case, trust me that it is worth it to make your own pesto. Nothing in the store will ever compare, and it’s super easy. Check out my basic Pesto Sauce recipe.

Penne with Vodka Sauce

Yes, the blog title sounds like a recipe. And the recipe can be found on my recipe page. However, penne with vodka sauce is more of a bonding experience with my daughter Katie.

The first time I tried to make this dish was a total disaster. No one, not either of my daughters or their father would eat it. This wasn’t one of those things where people politely pretend to eat it or peck at it. It was terrible. The sauce was so bad that I heard about it for more than a decade after that awful dinner episode. It took years before Katie would even try vodka sauce in a restaurant. She discovered, as we all suspected or knew, that it was her mother and not the dish itself that was to blame for that traumatic dinner experience.

A year or so ago, I decided to try this dish again. This time, I used Anthony Bourdain’s recipe. It was fantastic. Since then, my Katie has periodically requested this dish and, between the story and her love of the dish itself, this has become more of a bonding experience than just a simple dinner.

I recently acquired an instant pot, and there will be an entire separate post on that soon, but I tried making the penne with vodka sauce in it. It was a raving success. And it combined my love of experimenting with cooking with being totally lazy. Throw all the stuff in a pot and see what happens. Add a couple of ingredients and serve.

The best part about making the dish in the instant pot is that I got to just hang out with my daughter, who is going off to college soon, for a half hour and just chat. And when it was ready, we had a classic Italian dinner on the patio with great conversation!