Women in BBQ

I remember when I was a kid. Dad did the grilling. I’m not even sure if my mom knew how to work the grill. (Before she yells at me, I’m sure she could, I just don’t remember it happening.) The first grill I ever had at my house as an adult was my former husband’s grill. I think I used it once, and it took some work to figure out. But for some reason, at least where I have lived, the grill was a man’s arena. Mom cooked the indoor sides and such, but never the steaks!

But, a couple of years, I got the idea in my head that I wanted to a grill. I was frustrated with trying to use one of those indoor grill pans in an apartment with no real ventilation over the stove, and it was tough to clean. I shopped around and ultimately bought a Weber charcoal kettle grill. In my research, I discovered the chimney lighting method would relieve me of the lighter fluid smell/taste. So, I got a chimney and some charcoal and started grilling. About a month or so into my adventure, I researched how to turn the grill into a smoker. Now, I mostly smoke, although I do occasionally grill say a hamburger or bratwurst or such.

Here’s the kicker: I’m a woman. My husband has never used the grill to cook. As a disclaimer, he does clean it for me periodically because he’s awesome. I really thought nothing of this until I participated in a BBQ competition recently. There were 22 teams with 4-6 members average on each team. The number of women actually on BBQ teams was minuscule to say the least. And to my knowledge, not a single team was led by a woman. There was one team from a restaurant that I believe is husband-wife owned.

Then, I’m watching Food Network’s new show BBQ Brawl and Michael Symon actually points out how amazing it is that 3 of the last 4 contenders are women. I realized I’m not the only one that sees that the BBQ world is very male dominated. If you check out shows like Pitmasters or any of the other televised BBQ competition shows, you won’t see many women, especially not leading teams. I just can’t decide if this is a result of an old fashioned idea that the grill was a man’s arena or some other bias. I’m not sure if women don’t want to go to these things, don’t know that they can, or if they really aren’t welcomed into the arena.

I will say that I did not feel at all odd about being on a BBQ team, and I didn’t feel like the other team leads and members I spoke to thought anything of a woman being a pitmaster. But still, even at this simple, local event, there were only a handful of women working any of the pits.

More women are definitely entering the world of BBQ competitions, and you can tell that the younger generation has no fixed ideas of gender when it comes to BBQ. But then again, the world of chefs, despite the likes of Julia Child, used to also be a male dominated field as far as the most elite were concerned. Maybe this is just one more way we are removing gender barriers in our society.

Vegetarian/Vegan Smoking

So many of you know that I turn my Weber grill into a smoker on a regular basis and smoke a lot of meats! But I also smoke mushrooms and tofu for my little veggie eaters. However, I hadn’t really experimented with a lot of vegetables. So I decided to do a complete vegetarian smoke. Here’s my review of the things I tried:

Corn on the cob was delicious, but I opted to smoke them in the husks, and I think the taste was not much different than when you grill it this way. It didn’t really pick up the smoke except near the tip where it may have been a bit out of the husk or the husk opened. I will be retrying this without the husks to see how that works. However, the corn was sweet, delicious and the perfect texture.

Smoked mushrooms were a hit with the 9-year old. I’ve done portobella mushrooms in the past. This time, I found some larger baby portobellas. I skewered them and coated them with olive oil and some salt. I don’t like mushrooms, so I have to trust the kid’s opinion here. She said they picked up a lot of smoke.

Smoked red, yellow and orange bell peppers were delicious, and my tiny food critic agreed. They were sweet as you’d expect, but they also picked up a substantial amount of the smoke.

Zuchinni also picked up a substantial amount of smoke. It was not squishy soft like squash can get, so some might like it cooked longer, but I loved it. It was no longer “crisp” like eating it raw, but not to the squishy point either. It had the zucchini flavor along with the nice amount of smoke. As a note, I cut them in half length-wise and added olive oil and salt before putting on the grill.

Smoked red onion is delicious! The 9-year old wouldn’t try it. She has a fear of spice, and at the mention of the word “onion,” she acts like a vampire around garlic. Someday, I’ll get her to see the beauty in onions. Luckily, she doesn’t recognize that they are in a lot of the foods we eat and does not realize shallots are in the same family!

Smoke cauliflower was not good. I followed an online post I found, but I may not have done it right. However, to both myself and my husband, there was an intense smoke flavor but it completely overwhelmed the cauliflower. Also, the cauliflower did not soften the way it does when you roast it.

Overall, I would say dinner was a success. (Just a disclaimer, I grilled a few bratwurst after the veggies were all off the grill which us meat eaters had with the vegetables.) I would definitely be willing to try more vegetables in the smoker. I’m also considering trying cold smoking in the near future, and I think tofu may react well to such a process!

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.