Thursday, August 18, 2011

The First Time Nothing Sucked

The Mainely Grillin’ & Chillin’ competition in Eliot, ME is one of my favorite contests. I get a little sentimental when I think about our first ever barbecue call that happened at the inaugural MG&C. The call was 1st in pork, and walking up to get our award for the very first time was as great as everyone said it would be…multiplied by 100.

While we’ve been doing pretty well lately with our grilling competitions, we haven’t hit our stride when it comes to barbecue. We have been in the top 10 quite a bit, but the top awards are eluding us. While it’s a great accomplishment to win any competition, I feel that more recognition and respect is given to those teams who win barbecue contests. Not to mention more money. Now that we have a Grand in grilling, it’s time to really focus on barbecue and earn top honors with that as well.

Fast forward to this past weekend. We got to Eliot quite a bit earlier than we usually do, arriving at around 2:30pm on Friday. Eric and Cindi of Yabba Dabba Que fame graciously let us borrow their 6X12 enclosed trailer, and it allowed us to pack everything much more quickly for this contest. Usually, I need to rearrange things several times to make everything fit in our Explorer and Civic. Then, Suzanne and I need to drive several hours in separate vehicles, usually arriving very late Friday evening. A big thanks to the Mitchells for making our lives much easier this time! And if anyone hears of a used trailer for sale in the New England area, please let us know (no larger than 6X12).

We got everything set up Friday afternoon, then we settled in and waited in anticipation for Fryday. For those of you who don’t know what Fryday is, you are missing out! Eric “Fry Daddy” Mitchell fires up his Cajun fryer and fries up all sorts of delectable golden goodness at a few competitions each year. On the menu that night: bell peppers, zucchini, onion rings, pop tarts, McDoubles, fresh clams (Patrick), and armadillo eggs (Bill). All battered and thrown into the fryer! We also contributed to the clogged-artery-cause by offering up some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some chocolate covered strawberries. My favorites were the McDoubles and pop tarts. And if that wasn’t enough, Leslie Lovely broke out her cheesecake for “dessert.” We ate way too much, as multiple trips to the porta potty on Saturday morning would attest.

On Saturday, there were two contests: the Wild Side Challenge and People’s Choice. We typically don’t do the People’s Choice contest, simply because we are usually busy doing other things…like the grilling competition. But since there was no grilling competition at this contest, we decide to do it. We were given two Smithfield boneless pork butts on Friday night, and were asked to turn them in at noon on Saturday. I got the butts rubbed and ready to go Friday afternoon. Then I made a last minute decision to cook them “hot and fast” on Saturday morning rather than doing the typical overnight cook. The product ended up fine, but I’ll stick to “low and slow.” We ended up in 5th place out of 29 teams.

The Wild Side Challenge works like an Iron Chef competition where a secret ingredient is revealed and then teams have approximately 6 hours to turn in their dish. The secret ingredient was potatoes, which was no big surprise being in Maine. We decided to modify a recipe we had done several times before, making potatoes the main ingredient. The entry tasted amazing, but the appearance wasn’t as great as it could have been. Given a little more time, we could have done a better job with it but that’s part of the challenge! Still, we got 4th place out of 27 teams. Congrats to Charlie and the Mighty Swine Dining team for winning top honors, and kudos to everyone who did such an amazing job with their entries. I saw some fantastic looking things on the way to the turn-in table.

The barbecue cooking on Saturday night and Sunday morning went pretty much according to plan. We had a few presentation issues, but nothing to be that concerned about. I won’t go into too much detail, but here is a quick rundown…

Overall – 6/40: Very good, considering the tough field.

Chicken – 15/40: We did a complete overhaul of the flavor profile, and like the way it turned out.

Ribs – 11/40: Scored a bit higher than expected.

Pork – 10/40: Scored a bit lower than expected.

Brisket – 5/40: Right on target.

We usually have at least one “problem” category that simply tanks (typically chicken or brisket). Not so this time around. Our chicken and brisket scores were our highest of the year and the ribs and pork were respectable. I’m going to do the same program next month and see if we get consistent scores. Congrats to our friends Mike and Kris from Lakeside Smokers on the GC and Wendy and Tim from Feeding Friendz on the RGC. It was a close one, with both teams receiving the exact same points total of 666.8566!

Not adjusting much for the barbecue competition will give us time to practice for the grilling competition next month. Even though we earned Reserve Grand Champion last year, I don’t like that the categories are exactly the same this year. One thing that makes grilling interesting is that the categories can vary wildly from competition to competition. But that’s how it is, and we will try to fix the things that didn’t work well last year.

See you in Harvard next month!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Western Maine BBQ Festival

We arrived in Fryeburg, Maine later than we wanted to on Friday. I was rushing to get everything packed and we left the house around 2:30 rather than between 12:00 and 1:00 as we had planned. Of course, we hit much more traffic going north than we would have if we left earlier. Such is life in Massachusetts.

We finally arrived safe and sound and settled into our site right across from our good friends Eric and Cindi of Yabba Dabba Que. After a lobster dinner which was provided to teams by the organizers, we got our meat inspected for the grilling contest and finished settling in. We were both exhausted from all the running around and driving in traffic, so we called it an early evening and got a few hours of sleep. The heat was unbearable on Friday and Saturday, but that's something you have to deal with as a competition barbecue team.

The organizers couldn't have been better, and the facilities at the competition were excellent. It's always nice to have real bathrooms rather than porta potties and an added bonus was private, clean showers with hot water. Nothing feels better than a nice shower after sweating your nuggets off in 100 degree weather! The fairgrounds were great, and there were lots of interesting vendors to visit. This place also has a ton of room for growth. It could hold a hundred teams or more. For a first-year contest, the organizers did a fantastic job and I can't say enough good things about them. I don't know how they can improve upon things next year, but if there is a way to do it I'm sure they will!

The cooking for Saturday's grilling contest went well. Any time there is a chicken wing category I'm not happy. We also haven't cooked beef ribs very much, so we didn't know exactly what to expect. Here is a quick recap of the grilling results...

Overall: Grand Champion - This was our first ever Grand Champion call. We came close last year at Harvard's grilling competition, but just missed it. There is a great sense of accomplishment when you see all of the hard work and practicing pay off. What a thrill!

Chicken Wings: 1/20 - It's a little too soon to tell, but I think I'm finally figuring out this category. We will do them at the next contest and see if our good showing was a fluke in Maine.

Sausage: 16/20 - The judges didn't like anything about our sausage.

Beef Ribs: 1/20 - Thanks to Ted Lorson of Q Haven for the helpful cooking advice. I did the opposite of what you told me and things turned out great. Just kidding, buddy.

Dessert: 5/20 - Suzanne did a great job once again with the dessert. There was a lot of tough competition and high scores, as is usual for this category.

The cook for Sunday's barbecue contest went pretty much as planned. There were a lot more teams competing in the barbecue portion of the weekend, and I knew it was going to be difficult to repeat our previous day's success. Here is a quick recap of the barbecue results...

Overall: 7/38 - Much higher than I expected. After turn-ins, I felt the chicken was some of our best, the ribs and pork were both overdone, and the brisket was average. Shows you what I know...

Chicken: 22/38 - Totally revamping the chicken for our next competition in Eliot, ME. I don't have long to practice, but I'll make it happen. Something needs to be done before it costs us a Grand. I really thought the chicken was good this time.

Pork Ribs: 7/38 - I'll take it. I expected to be middle of the pack.

Pork: 5/38 - I'm glad the judges liked pork that was a bit overcooked. Luckily, it was still very moist. I always trust my butcher.

Brisket: 6/38 - I was pleasantly surprised to get 6th, and it's a major victory if you consider our last three brisket finishes were 29/35, 27/44, and 33/43. I'll go with this formula again and see how it does.

Thanks again to the great folks who worked so hard to make the Western Maine BBQ Festival a success. We will be back next year!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Let's Try This Again...

Time to make a decision. Either post more and keep this blog going or shut it down. Posting only a few times a year isn’t going to hold anybody’s interest. It may be therapeutic if this was a private diary, but as a public blog it stinks.

Let’s give this another shot. I’m not going to promise to write X number of time per week, month, or year, but I’ll promise to post more often. And if I break my promise, I’ll shut it down.

We are in the midst of preparing for the grilling and barbecue competitions in Fryeburg, ME. It was a late decision to travel the 3+ hours up that way to compete. For the record, we have nothing bad to say about Harpoon. I wish everyone competing there the best of luck. I know everyone will have fun, as always! For us, the decision was between either judging at Harpoon or competing in Fryeburg. I convinced Suzanne that we should give Fryeburg a shot and see what happens. I know she would rather be judging at Harpoon, and I’ll definitely miss it too. But I’m excited to try something new, and I’m having fun practicing for the grilling categories.

The grilling categories are chicken wings, sausage, beef ribs, and dessert. Suzanne is handling the dessert category solo, as she did when we won first place in Harvard last year. She is coming up with some super ideas this time as well, and I’m having fun being more of a “consultant” than a cook. Suzanne is also helping with the sausage category, and I’ll tell you we are both entirely sick of eating sausage and chicken wings.

The chicken wing practicing is done. I’m trying something completely new with them, and I have no idea how the judges will score them. Time will tell. One thing I learned about chicken wings is to be very patient when grilling them.

Beef ribs are something I’ve cooked a grand total of one time in my life. Well, two times as of last week. Last week’s run was barely edible, so I’m trying something different with them tomorrow after work. We hope to be able to actually chew them this time. They felt like butter with the Thermapen. Dagnabit.

The barbecue portion is all set. I practiced the ever elusive chicken one more time, and I’m confident with the formula. Chicken has definitely improved for us, but it’s still the only barbecue category for which we haven’t gotten a call. In fact, we’ve gotten 1st place calls in every other barbecue category. Hopefully that will change up north. I’m also hoping to get our brisket mojo back. I’m switching to a different product, and I’m confident we will do better. We can’t do much worse!

Besides the competitions, I had the pleasure of helping Jed Labonte and many others with the NEBS cooking class in May. It was a lot of fun, and I taught my group of students as if we were doing an actual competition. I didn’t hide anything…I did everything as I would normally do. It was very rewarding to see two of my students competing in their first KCBS competition at Peter’s Pond. Not only did they NOT finish DAL (Dead Ass Last, for you non-competitors), but they got a couple of calls and finished 15th out of 35 overall on their first time out. Great job Deb and Gary. I’m proud of you guys!

For those who are interested in how the competitions have been going for us so far this year, here is a quick summary…

Snowshoe (Grilling)

7th out of 24 overall

Strip Steak – 3rd

Pork Tenderloin – 18th

Sausage Fatty – 11th

Chef’s Choice – 6th

Rose City (Grilling)

3rd out of 18 overall

Chef’s Choice – 2nd

Chicken – 3rd

Sausage – 3rd

Pork – 10th

Cape Cod (BBQ)

7th out of 35 overall

Chicken – 12th

Ribs – 1st (first 1st in ribs for us!)

Pork – 3rd

Brisket – 29th (ouch, but expected…it was awful)

More after Fryeburg!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Looking Forward to the 2011 Season

With the Snowshoe coming up in less than a month, I think it's safe to say the competition season is right around the corner. It can't get here soon enough...the winter has been brutal here in New England.

It looks like all the popular kids are starting to post their 2011 grilling/barbecuing competition schedules, so here is the Insane schedule (subject to change):

March 12: Snowshoe Grilling Challenge in Abington, MA (grilling)

May 7: Norwich Rotary Rose BBQ Festival in Norwich, CT (grilling)

June 10-12: Cape Code BBQ Championship in Sandwich, MA (barbecue)

July 23-24: Western Maine BBQ Festival in Fryeburg, ME (grilling and barbecue)

August 12-14: Mainely Grillin' & Chllin' Country BBQ in Eliot, ME (barbecue)

September 17-18: Harvard Fall Festival in Harvard, MA (grilling and barbecue)

So it's looking like eight contests, if you break out grilling and barbecue. I'd love to do Lexington, Troy, and a slew of others. If I had unlimited time and money, I'd be signing up for every contest in New England and beyond. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen, so we have to pick the handful of venues that work best for us in terms of time and money.

The Snowshoe practicing is coming along. Steak and fatty are all set and we are in the final stages of pork tenderloin testing. Chef's choice is a bit of a question mark at this point. We have a few ideas, so we need to get busy in the outdoor test kitchen and try some things out.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

2010 Barbecue Retrospective

Some moments to remember from this year in barbecue...

Snowshoe: First Place Fatty - My first solo competition...not something I want to make a habit of. Damn it was a lot of work. But getting first place in fatty was a big thrill after getting fifth the previous year. I think I've got this fatty thing figured out.

Peter's Pond: First Place Brisket - My first ever call in brisket. I'm really hoping to get a few more beautiful briskets at the meat market like the one I had at Peter's Pond. What a thrill.

Harvard Fall Festival: RGC in Grilling - It was as close to a GC as we've ever been at any competition. It was one of the few competitions where I was really happy with everything we put in the boxes. In fact, it may have been the only competition.

Frydays with the Mitchells - Eric and Cindi hosted "Frydays" at various contests this year. Eric fried up all sorts of great things in his Cajun fryer. Bacon, garlic, peppers, candy bars, and even hamburgers. They fried it all and satisfied the masses. Suzanne and I have really enjoyed these frydays. The one in Maine was particularly memorable.

Whole Hog for Charity with Uncle Jed - Assisting Jed with a whole hog at a WAAF charity event was a lot of fun, and it raised a ton of money for the Greg Hill Foundation.

NEBS Board of Directors - As an organization, I feel we are doing a lot of great things and moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, as with most volunteer organizations, there aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done as quickly as we'd all like. Serving on the Board has been a lot of fun, but there is still a lot to be done. I'm looking forward to a productive, exciting year for NEBS in 2011.

There were also a few moments to forget. Chicken wings at grilling contests. Not getting my chicken turned in on time at Harvard. Actually, chicken in general. I'm seeing a theme here. So guess what I'm working on this winter? I was really disappointed that I missed the turn in at Harvard, because I had spent a lot of time practicing chicken and it was finally looking great. It was beautiful and tasty chicken in the end. Anyway, the issue will be fixed by Peter's Pond next year. You can count on it. We will place in chicken at Peter's Pond.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone! See you all next year.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Harvard Fall Festival 2010 Recap

Here is my Harvard Fall Festival recap…

NEBS Grilling

Chicken Wings

Rank: 7/19

Suzanne and I split up the categories for the first time. I took the wings and sausage and she took the seafood and dessert. Everyone knows how much I hate cooking chicken wings, but I figured since organizers continuously torture us by including wings in grilling contest, I’d better learn how to cook them well. Getting 7th out of 19 teams doesn’t sound all that great, but I still consider it a victory. I thought the wings were pretty good, and I took a bit of a risk by making them spicier than usual. I can’t say that I’ll use this exact recipe again, but it’s a solid base for future wing categories. I doubt wings will ever go away.

Sausage (in casing only…no fatties)

Rank: 3/19

Another one of my categories. We don’t eat a lot of sausage, so we had to practice this one at home a few times with different types to see what we liked best. One type of sausage was our overwhelming favorite, so we went with that one. All organizers should include some type of sausage in their contests. That would make me very happy. Sausage is relatively cheap, easy to cook, and we seem to do well with it.

Seafood (Shrimp or Crayfish only)

Rank: 9/19

Suzanne took over creative duties for the shrimp category (because who in their right mind would do crayfish in New England?). She came up with a great idea, and we were pretty happy with our tests at home. The day of the contest, the entry didn’t really cook as well as we had hoped. So although we both still think it was a great concept, the execution was a bit lacking. Finishing in the top half was fine with us.


Rank: 1/19

Suzanne came up with the concept for this one as well, and it was a great idea. I did a little recipe research and testing, but Suzanne was the one that decided on the final product. After practicing it a few times at home, we were happy with the outcome. The cooking process at the contest went according to plan, and it was the most “relaxed” turn-in of the day.

Judges, please don’t walk around after the contest and ask me “what did you make?” I find it very awkward. If you want to stop by and tell me what you liked after judging, that’s fine. In the past, I’ve been pretty open but from now on I’m not going to tell you what I made. Our “average” dessert took first place…so what did any of us really learn? Other than knowing that you almost cost us a perfect 180 score in this category.


Rank: 2/19 – Reserve Grand Champions

This was our first RGC call, and I have to admit it was great. The only thing better would have been to win Grand, but I Smell Smoke flexed their muscle once again and took that honor. It was a real team effort for us, and although these grilling competitions are fast-paced and stressful at times, we still had a lot of fun. We are already talking about our next grilling competition. Now if we could just get this barbecue thing figured out…

KCBS Barbecue


Rank: 43/44

We didn’t get our chicken turned in on time. It was a learning experience and it won’t happen again. It isn’t against the rules to turn in raw meat, but I don’t feel it’s the right thing to do (especially with chicken). I didn’t feel it was safe, and as a judge I would be appalled to get raw meat. This has happened to me before, and it isn’t good. Not to mention it could affect the remaining teams' chicken entry scores for those at that judging table. As a judge, if you eat a piece of raw chicken how would you feel having to potentially take another bite of 5 other entries? I’d be worried that the others could be undercooked as well. Some other competitors would have turned in the entry in an effort to get all the points they possibly could, but we stick by our decision.


Rank: 7/44

The ribs were done ahead of time (go figure), so we had to hold them for quite a while before turn-in. That didn’t seem to be an issue. They came out pretty good, and we got our best call of the contest with ribs. The ribs seem to be getting better and better, so I’m happy with that. We should continue to do well with them


Rank: 22/44

I’m a little surprised our pork didn’t do better. We both thought it was good. I thought it was just as good, or maybe even a little better, than our 5th place finish at the same venue a year ago. To finish in the middle of the pack was a bit disappointing. Such is life. I’ll tweak a few things with the pork over the winter and see if that solves the pork mystery.


Rank: 27/44

When you cut into a brisket, you pretty much know if it is going to be a winner or not. This was no winner. Unlike the pork, I knew brisket wouldn’t get us a call on this day. It wasn’t bad…it just wasn’t great. We finished about where I thought we would.


Obviously not turning in a category means we tanked overall in the barbecue contest. I’m going to revise our cook schedule to help improve the timing…not only of the chicken but for all categories in general.

Thanks to Ken and Kathie Dakai for once again being excellent contest representatives. Thanks also to Chris Ryan for again organizing this contest. We had a few minor issues with the contest this year, but nothing major which would prevent us from returning next year.

Congratulations to I Smell Smoke for winning the grilling contest and to Mighty Swine Dining for winning the barbecue contest by getting first place in 3 of the 4 categories. Absolutely amazing. Great job guys!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My Final Competition

It's been great folks, but Harvard next month will be Insane Swine's final competition.

That is, until next year. :)

The Harvard Fall Festival was our first ever four-category competition, so that makes it a bit special to me. That was also the year it rained overnight Saturday and into Sunday, making our lives miserable while we waded around in the muck. Although my wife may disagree, it was still fun and I met a lot of great people at that contest. I was hooked.

But for most of us, it also marks the end of the barbecue competition year here in New England which is a little sad. It will be nearly 6 months before the next competition, usually the Snowshoe late in the winter. Those months seem to drag on forever.

So we need to make the most of Harvard. I can't believe it is only a few weeks away. We are pretty much all set in terms of practicing for the barbecue contest. I need to practice one thing with the chicken (big surprise), but everything else is good to go. There is also a four-category grilling contest on Saturday, and we have some practicing to do for that. I will take the chicken and sausage categories and Suzanne will be in charge of the seafood and dessert categories. This is the first time Suzanne will be taking two of the categories, and I'm really looking forward to it. She wants to be more involved in the actual cooking, and a grilling contest is a great way to start!

The Harvard Fall Festival is a really nice contest. Chris Ryan does a good job organizing it, Hazel's Farm is a great venue. There is usually a potluck for the teams on Saturday night which is a good time as well. I highly recommend it for those of you who are on the fence about competing there. Hope to see you all in Harvard!