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!

Pork practice

So I’m assisting on a team at a bbq & beer contest in August. This is super exciting, as you can imagine. In preparation for this, I get to have a lot of fun practicing and tasting beer, so it’s even better than I would have thought. Seriously, I went to the other side of Chicago on a Tuesday at noon to have beer! The biggest part of the competition is the beer and bbq pairing contest.

So after tasting some delicious beers from Open Outcry Brewing, I got inspired to try out some pork recipes. I used a bourbon aged stout to create an Al Pastor-inspired marinade and sauce. For the marinade, I blended guajillo peppers, achiote paste, cumin, salt, pepper and garlic. I marinated pork shoulder in that overnight. I had saved half of that mixture and I heated it on the stove and added brown sugar, apple cider vinegar and some tomato sauce to make a sauce that I used on the shoulder about 3/4 of the way through smoking. I also smoked a pineapple over the pork for the last 2 hours. The dish was pretty delicious. I would like to tone the heat down a bit. I only smoked it to a slicing doneness, and I think it would be better if smoked until pull-able and then served like a taco, though I’m curious how an arepas would hold up.

I also made a heated brine with water, salt, pepper, cumin, whole garlic cloves and bay leaves. After chilling it, I brined a pork shoulder in it overnight. I rubbed this one with fresh ground black pepper, cumin, garlic, salt, brown sugar and onion powder. I admittedly went to heavy on the black pepper. The pork was delicious and tender, but the outside could definitely have used a little less pepper. Again, I did this one to slice and not pull, so I would adjust that for the actual competition.

This coming weekend, I have a picnic ham thawing because I’m currently out of pork shoulder. I figure there will be some difference, but it’ll still allow me to play with flavors. And I’m gonna cook that until it just falls apart! (kidding, mostly). I still have some of the al pastor inspired sauce, so I thought I’d play with it a bit more. I’m thinking if I add orange juice to mellow it out a bit…not sure, that’ll be in a blog next week!

Scratch or box?

I’m a child of the 80s & 90s who had two working parents. I grew up on Hamburger Helper and Kraft. This is not a criticism of my parents, My entire generation grew up on these foods. This was still the early microwave dinner era. Suddenly, we could have anything in an instant. I’ve probably had more instant potatoes than would fill a bathtub.

And let’s face it, the instant and frozen foods have gotten way better than when I was a kid. Do they still make Hamburger Helper? I wonder if I could recreate that pizza bake I used to like.

But I digress. You can basically get anything premade, precut, assembly ready, dried, canned, frozen…the list goes on an on. I can walk into the Trader Joe’s and pick up my pizza dough, a mixture of precut toppings from veggies to meats, a can of sauce and voila!

Over the years, though, I have discovered that not only do you pay a premium if you want the pre-made foods that aren’t loaded with sodium, sugar or rat poison, but you are still getting inferior food at the end of the day. I’m not saying the food won’t provide the nutrients to keep you satisfied biologically and yes, some of it is just nostalgic, but you just can’t get the same flavors, aromas, and all around food-love vibe.

My first revelation in this was mashed potatoes. Don’t laugh because it’s true. I don’t know if I had real, made from actual potatoes, mashed potatoes in my teen years. We always had a box of instant. Then, I remember having mashed potatoes made from scratch. I thought they were the most amazing thing ever. I think I was 18 and was at a friend’s mother’s house for dinner. I thought this had to be the most difficult dish ever. (Keep in mind, ya’ll, I didn’t cook yet at this point.) Then I made mashed potatoes.

It turns out it takes maybe a couple more minutes. And they are so good. My favorite are now made with Yukon gold potatoes, sour cream, too much butter, garlic, and heavy cream. And I now own a ricer, so I’ve complicate it more, but omg, so worth it.

Do you know how long it takes to make pizza dough? You can do it in half an hour. The trick is to make the dough and put it in the microwave after heating a mug of water for a minute first. Leave the mug in with the rising dough. Like breakfast sausage? Read the packages sometime, and that opinion might change. But you can mix up a batch of breakfast sausage (Sausage Balls Recipe) and let it sit 30 minutes to an hour, or overnight, and you have excellent tasting breakfast sausage with nothing you cannot pronounce.

And let’s not even joke about those little package season mixes you can buy. You know, you buy the packet, add it to some beef and magically, you have taco meat or chili or turkey gravy. That last one might frighten me more than anything. First, about 50% of them are loaded with 1/2 spices and 1/2 preservatives. I’m not a total health nut, but I’m not big on preservatives, and I certainly do watch our sodium intake because I have high blood pressure, and I want to live at least until I’ve eaten my way around the world. Also, these mixes are far inferior to fresh combinations of spices. You don’t have to go crazy, but keeping the basics around, including fresh cumin and a grinder, makes a far superior chili than any mix I have ever tried.

Last night, I made my own version of Sloppy Joes. My husband has named this the “Disheveled Joseph” as he feels it is too elevated to just be called a Sloppy Joe. However, it was super easy. I had bought a can of the store sloppy joe sauce. I then looked at the can and read how much sodium was in it along with some other things I try to limit, like high fructose corn syrup. So, I decided to make it myself. Our house smelled like heaven, and this one definitely fell into my “make enough for the week” leftovers philosophy. The recipe is posted under the Recipes tab.Discheveled Josephs (my version of sloppy joes)

I’m not saying not to ever buy the boxed or frozen foods. We buy Trader Joes’ frozen pasta dishes and such frequently. Let’s face it, no matter how much I love to cook, there are going to be nights I just don’t have a creative bone in me, and we have a 9-year-old to feed. But I’m finding experimenting with making some of the old favorites from scratch is proving to change the way I look at some of the old favorites.