A strong intention in the mind is often overcome by a stronger fatigue of the body.
It was my intent, competing in my first ever grilling contest, to blog the entire journey. The preparation, practicing, joys, sorrows—all were going to be detailed in my blog. Leading up to the event, I recorded every recipe I tried, including not only the ingredients but also outside temperature/weather, cooker temperature, type and amount of charcoal used, length of time each meat spent on the grill, and on and on and on. It simply left no time for blogging, other than the occasional Facebook status update. I was nervous as hell that I would embarrass myself at the contest, and I was determined to make sure that didn’t happen. The last thing on my mind at the end of the day was blogging. As my father often says “we make ourselves too busy.” That makes a whole lot more sense to me than some of his other sayings, like “go take a flying leap into a rolling donut.”
So here we are. A full month has passed since the Shoeshoe Grilling Competition in Abington, MA and I’m just getting around to blogging about it. Better late than never, and I want to write things down before I forget everything. This entry will focus on the weeks leading up to the completion. Another entry will be devoted to the actual day of the competition. For those interested in grilling, competitions, food in general, or perhaps all of those things, happy reading.
I’m going to recap the preparation phase by category. The categories for the competition were: fish, pork tenderloin, sausage fatty, and burger.
I had grilled fish only a handful of times prior to preparing for this competition. My wife and I simply don’t eat a lot of fish, and when we do it is usually baked (her) or fried (me). Grilled fish isn’t something I grew up eating, so I never crave it or think about cooking it that way.
So the first step was to decide what type of fish I wanted to cook. In my mind, there were only two options: salmon or swordfish. Some competitors like to cook tuna, but my opinion is that many judges don’t like it—or at least they don’t like it the way tuna should be eaten. I decided on swordfish 1) because I like it better than salmon and 2) I feel it is the easiest fish to grill. At a first competition, easy sounded just fine to me!
In terms of flavors to add to the fish, I decided on a basic Asian marinade with very mild flavors. My first test turned out surprisingly well. The only complaint was that the fish need just a little bit more flavor than what the marinade provided, given the abbreviated marinating time that would be allowed at the competition.
For the second test, I used a commercial glaze at the end to give the swordfish a little added kick. Success. The fish was good to go after two trial cooks. Thank goodness, because swordfish isn’t cheap.
As with the fish, pork isn’t something I grill a lot. We eat a lot of smoked ribs and pork butt, but I’m not a big fan of pork chops, tenderloin, etc. That said, I must admit that I had never in my life cooked pork tenderloin. Never. I did a bit of reading on cooking techniques for pork tenderloin, and found some good advice from the folks at Cooks Illustrated. Whenever I need to learn about the science behind cooking something new, I turn to Cooks Illustrated. It’s an excellent resource.
After investigating the art and science of cooking pork tenderloin, I again decided that mild Asian flavors would pair well with it. My first cook used a similar marinade, although not exactly the same, as the fish marinade. It tasted great, and was moist and flavorful. To make sure it wasn’t a fluke, I did a second cook which produced the same result. I decided to use a little bit of commercial glaze on the pork as well, and it made the taste buds happy. Two categories down, two to go.
Once again, fatties were something totally foreign to me. I’d read a lot about them, but had never cooked one before. Under the advice of many posts I had read about fatties, my first couple of fatty cooks were basically taking the fatty out of the casing, rubbing them, and smoking them with fruit wood. My wife tried my first two fatty attempts, declared them disgusting, and refused to try any further fatty concoctions. Honestly, I don’t blame her. I’m not a huge fan either. But I had to keep practicing until I came up with a recipe and technique I was happy with.
Unlike the fish and pork, I had to cook fatties several times before I was satisfied. There are several different flavor profiles you can use with a fatty. I kept things pretty simple, and used some cheese, onions, and peppers as the main additives. Texture is also a concern. As a judge, I’ve had slices of fatties that were so dense you could use them as hockey pucks. I wanted to avoid that, so I experimented several times to get the flavor and texture just right. All I’ll say is that I tried a couple of different bread crumbs, and it tasted like crap. I found another way to lighten up the texture. After getting that right, I worked on another problem…
A challenge with fatties is they tend to lose their nice, round, fatty shape when you put them on the cooking grate. This results in an oblong, half moon shape. This is especially true if you are mixing soft/liquid ingredients in with the sausage, as I was doing. It took me three tries and quite a bit of creativity to fix this problem. After several weeks of testing and a whole lot of frustration, the fatty was ready for prime time.
Now, burgers are something I’ve done a million times before. I rival that big franchise with the golden arches. Or is that the golden arcs…McDowell’s? In any case, I know my burgers. Or do I?
When I cook burgers at home for me and my wife, I keep them really basic. Most burgers consist of salt, pepper, a slice of cheese, a bun, and a medium-rare burger. Would this be enough for the judges? After thinking about it for way too long, I decided the burgers needed to be something more. A decision I would later regret. More on that in the next post.
I knew all along that I wanted to do sliders, because I thought cutting up a full-sized burger would dry out the meat in the time it took to get to the judges’ mats. I also decided that I didn’t want to mix anything in with the ground beef other than basic seasonings. That was the easy part, as was the decision to use cheddar cheese on top of the burgers. The harder part was figuring out if anything else should go on the burger or the bun. I really struggled with this. It finally got to the point where I just had to make a decision and go with it. I decided on a basic flavored mayonnaise. Nothing else. I tested this a few times, and both my wife and I absolutely loved it.
Another aspect of the burger category is that it was “open garnish” which basically meant that competitors could put anything in the turn-in box. This opened up a bunch of different options, rather than just the standard parsley or green leaf lettuce. What goes well with burgers? French fries! One problem with this was that my butane burner was incapable of generating enough heat to get the oil to a good frying temperature. I decided to see if using a chimney of lump charcoal dumped in a little Smokey Joe grill would get the oil up to the proper temperature. Boy did it ever. The fries were coming out great, and they looked great in the box.
When all the burger practicing was done, we were really happy with it. I was feeling more and more confident that, if we had a chance in hell to get a call in a category, this was it!
Putting It All Together
I’m a firm believer in timelines and practicing using competition timing at least once before the actual competition. I would have liked to have done this a couple of weeks before the competition, but the only time I had available was the weekend before. It wouldn’t allow me much time to adjust things if they went wrong, but it would have to do.
The night before my practice competition, I made the marinades and trimmed all the meats just as I would the night before the real competition. I got a good night’s sleep, and woke up bright and early just as I would have to do at the competition. I won’t go into too much detail, because there isn’t a lot to say. The practice went fine. I forgot a couple of steps in my timeline, but I simply added those and everything was good to go. It was a successful practice run and I finally felt ready for the competition.
So there you go. The practicing was done, and it was competition time. To be continued in the next post…