Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pork Barrel Politics

So after much anticipation, the great rib-off was finally upon us. We showed up the night before to prep our first set of ribs (they generously gave us 15 racks!). My team was unaccustomed to the delight of membrane removal, and this was a high-stress trial by fire. We went into the restaurant basement and set up shop. I am still on the disabled list, so I was coaching them, as it is no fun, under any circumstances, much less in a hot crowded basement. It took some getting used to, but everyone did great. We got the 6 prepped racks rubbed in my dry rub, wrapped in cling wrap and back in our bin and into their walk-in. Off to the Asian market to pick up our pork belly and a couple of other necessary ingredients. After that it was a night full of prepping, and then early to bed, as we had to wake up for a 7 o'clock BBQ!

That night, I dreamed of pork and smoke, and I woke up ready to hit the BBQ. The fig puree was blended and after a filling McDonald's breakfast, we were off. When we got there, the street was already crowded with teams - chimneys smoking, people moving like worker ants in the Saturday morning dew. We found our table and started setting up. First thing first, I got a chimney going. It ALWAYS takes longer than you would think to get the grill/smoker hot. We got our area set up, dumped the charcoal into the smoker, threw in a couple of chunks of aged White Oak, and opened the rib packets that we prepped the night before.

I made a mop for the ribs out of apple juice, apple cider vinegar, and some spices including hot pepper flakes and cayenne powder. The mop is applied during the smoking or slow-cooking process to keep the meat from drying out due to the prolonged heat. When the grill was up to temperature (225 degrees) we put on the ribs and the pork belly, which had been marinated overnight in a mixture of apple juice, maple syrup, salt and pepper. The ribs were allowed to smoke for 2.5 hours, then they were pulled, wrapped in foil, grilled (to steam) for 1.5 hours, left to rest for about a half hour and finally finished on the grill for about forty five minutes. The final grill time is spent basting the meat in your desired sauce and letting the meat firm back up. After the smoking and foil time, it is literally falling off of the bone, so be careful when handling. This is great because you can control the level of tenderness.

We chose to use three different sauces that I had made and let people pick their own favorites. I wanted to go for a traditional, southern-style cola BBQ sauce first; I made a Coca Cola based sauce. That was really good, but I decided to kick it up a level on the next one, so I used Dr. Pepper. This was REALLY good. The Dr. Pepper's 31 flavors are complex and tasty, and with the addition of some spices and brown sugar, this sauce has an incredibly flavorful sweet and spicy kick. To round it out, I did a ginger beer and hoisin sauce-based Asian-style sauce. If you have never had ginger beer, you need to go get some. It is SO GOOD. It's like spicy, super gingery soda, and when mixed with Myer's Dark Rum it makes an incredible Dark 'n' Stormy. I am hooked.

We put the ribs out when the time was right for judging, and although I feel as though we had some of the best in the entire competition, regardless of category, we didn't win. I know everyone thinks their own product is always the best, but some of the competitors ribs I tasted were below what I would expect from Applebee's. Cooked using lighter fluid, some thick applications of dry rub, and some mediocre sauces, not too mention the toughness of the meat - some of the ribs I tasted were quickly discarded and disregarded as almost inedible. That being said, some of the other competitors were really on their game and had some truly great pork. Just like everything in life, you win some, you lose some. We had an amazing time, drinking beer and talking BBQ & pork with the contestants and the crowd.

As for the pork belly, we smoked it for 5 hours over hardwood, then sliced it and grilled it so it was a bit crispy. We then grilled some slices of bread, spread our fig puree, topped it with belly, and finished with some chopped chives. If you have never had pork belly, its a must-try. A cut very close to bacon, but fattier, I tell people that it tastes like a cross between bacon and moist pork tenderloin. I am a big fan (as were the people eating it at the event). The fig puree was slightly sweet and the smokey rich pork went great with the fresh onion-y chive on top. The overnight marinade really helped impart a sweet apple taste to the pork before smoking as well. I thought we had a real possibility of winning with that one, but alas, we did not. All in all, the weather held out, the people were great and everyone involved had plenty of pork and beer. I will certainly be back next year, although I will have some new tricks up my sleeve (not to mention two useful arms).

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