Making Sense!

Summer in New Jersey is a barrage on the senses.  The feel of slowly dripping sweat running down the spine of your back during a humid night.  The rising and falling chorus of cicadas hiding in the trees.   The blinking light of fireflies at the corner of your eye.  The cries of unseen children playing manhunt around the neighborhood.  The scent of a full honeysuckle patch, ready to be plucked and sucked.  The familiar tune of the ice cream truck sending kids running into the house, only to return a minute later, screen door slamming shut behind them.  Fresh Jersey corn and tomatoes from your favorite farm stand.  It is these nostalgic sounds, feelings, and tastes that help define what it means to be from New Jersey, and they resurface every summer, reminding us of why we live here.

The food of summer should also bombard our senses.   And none can do this more than barbeque.   Between the lingering aroma of smoke, the sweet and tangy of the sauce, and the gentle pull of the meat from the bone, no other food offers itself up to add to your collection of summer memories than slow cooked, smoked meat.  And we need not limit it to the main course, but rather add to that collection from the various side dishes that we surround it with.  Potato salad, baked beans, corn bread, cole slaw, collard greens, corn on the cob… the possibilities are endless.    But finding that perfect combination to round off the gathering between family and friends can make those memories last even longer and increase the appreciation of all things “Jersey”.

One dish that always seems to be a hit and doesn’t take all day to prepare is ribs.  Going to the butcher or grocery store, you will have to decide between baby backs or spare ribs.  Baby backs are the part of the ribs toward the top or back of the pig, near the loin.  They generally tend to be shorter, and a little more lean and tender.  Because the ribs are close together, much of the meat is on the top of the bone, cut from the loin.  Spare ribs come from the bottom or front of the pig and are longer with a little more fat, which helps give them flavor.  To break down the fat and make them tender, they may have to be cooked for a longer period of time.  Spare ribs are further apart from each other with the meat in between each bone.    Before cooking, make sure to rip off the membrane on the back of the ribs, which will allow smoke to reach the back and make eating them a lot more enjoyable.

The flavor of the ribs can come from a variety of sources.  Of course there is the flavor from the meat itself.  Then the addition of the smoke.   But two of the largest influences come from you.  Before cooking, cover the ribs liberally with a dry rub, or mixture of your favorite spices.   There are a number of pre-packaged rubs in stores or on the net, but nothing beats making your own.   The types and amounts of spices depend on your particular sense of balance between sweet and spicy.    If you aren’t completely satisfied with the way that it came out, take note of what you did, and cook up another rack or two next weekend.    The last influence will be the sauce that you spread on at the end of the cooking process.  Remember that sugar burns at 265 degrees, so you have to be really careful when going too high, or finishing it off on a grill.  Because smoking temperature tends to be from 225-250 degrees, there is not much of a concern, but small flare ups can occur and can bring the temperature up for short bursts.    Purists will tell you that a finishing sauce is not necessary, but you don’t have to invite them over if you like barbeque sauce and don’t want to hear their lecture.  Regardless, if you use sauce, make sure that it complements the other flavors and doesn’t overpower them.

In New Jersey, we tend to want to forget the winters and remember the summers.   Every year, there are opportunities to add to our personal sensory database in order to connect to memories long since forgotten, or better yet, add new ones.   Food is something that we can appreciate, share and pass on, adding to those things that we love about New Jersey.

 

Barbeque Pork Ribs

Ingredients

1-2 racks of pork baby back or spare ribs

1 cup of dry spice rub

1 cup of barbeque sauce

Dry Spice Rub

4 tablespoons of dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons of salt

2 tablespoons of paprika

2 tablespoons of garlic powder

2 tablespoons of ground mustard

1 tablespoon of black pepper

1 tablespoon of cinnamon

½ tablespoon of cayenne pepper

½ tablespoon of thyme

Barbeque Sauce

2 cups of ketchup

½ cup of apple cider vinegar

1/3 cup of brown sugar

2 tablespoons of molasses

2 cloves of roasted garlic

1 tablespoon of black pepper

½ tablespoon of Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons of cherry syrup

1.       Get the smoker going until it reaches a steady 225-240 degrees.

2.       In a small bowl, combine all ingredients for spice rub and stir until well blended.   Put into a shaker if available.  Set aside.

3.       Mix ingredients together for the barbeque sauce in a medium pot.  Simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.

4.       Remove the membrane from the underside of the ribs using a paring knife

5.       Shake the rub onto both sides of the ribs until well coated.

6.       Place the ribs on the rack of the smoker and cook for approximately 2 hours.  Wrap in foil and place back in the smoker for another

2 hours.  Open foil, brush with barbeque sauce and replace foil.  Cook for another ½ hour or until internal meat temperature reaches 145 degrees (USDA Recommended).  Allow meat to rest for 10 minutes.

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Fusion!

Damn, am I having fun!   When I took on this exploration of New Jersey, I was so looking forward to eating some great food and having interesting conversations with the creators of that food.  Whether in backyards, at festivals, or in restaurants, I wanted to taste each cook’s interpretation of barbeque and hear the influences, thought processes and struggles that went into that creation.  As I have said before, I have discovered that New Jersey barbeque really is influenced by the culture and history of the cook, making it extremely complex and worldly.   Although different from my own interpretation, is allows a new discovery from every neighborhood and increases the anticipation of a totally different interpretation just a neighborhood away.  Many a cook are accompanied by the ghost of their mother or grandfather, ready to give them an ethereal slap in the head if they stray from the time honored recipe that had been handed down from generation to generation.  It connects us to our family and allows us to disregard the modern-day technological terrors that we have surrounded ourselves with to cook our meat.  But let us not forget one of the strongest influences that have allowed barbeque to diversify and become increasingly popular…making it how we like it.  Such an easy, yet beautiful concept.  But also relatively rare when talking to many chefs.  So when Boy McBoy and I found a few spare hours from our hectic lives to go out and pay a visit to Michael Johnston and his Grub Hut in Manville, we were able to sample some southwest Mexican barbeque fusion dishes that came into being simply because that is what he liked.  As as would have it, we did too!

Grub Hut

All of us can think of at least one moment in our lives that turned us on our heels, making us divert from the intended path and never look back.  For Mike, it was on a trip to a chef’s convention in California over ten years ago.  I can only imagine the months of anticipation, looking forward to seeing the latest in cooking techniques and demonstrations from the renowned cuisiniers of the time.  A young chef in a candy store (surely they would have that too).  And it would have been if he hadn’t met Javier, the owner of a local food truck that specialized in Mexican food, and formed a friendship that would make Mike play hookie and hang with him cooking and learning about Mexican food.  Mike would bring that experience back to New Jersey and open up a restaurant that sought to fuse the two foods that he loved the most: barbeque and Mexican.  The Grub Hut is his ten year old baby, and like a pre-teen, it is whimsical and fun, and deliciously honest in its willingness to try ways to blend the two joys, while at the same time, honoring both types of food.

As you travel down North Main Street, you can’t miss the red neon sign,  Don’t be discouraged if you look in and don’t see an open table, as there is another small room in the back, and, in the summer, seating out front.  I took advantage of the warm night (finally!) and popped open a beer (the place is BYOB 🙂 ) on one of the outside tables while waiting for Boy and smelled the aromas coming out the front door.  Manville has an ordinance that prohibits wood fueled smokers, so the Grub Hut utilizes a gas smoker that moonlights with hickory and sassafras.  Eaters that come in looking for the fine smell of burning wood and smoke rings will be a little disappointed, but the difference is made up by the same distinctive tenderness and the varieties of sauces available.  The smoker has a spot of prominence right near the dining room, and Mike positions himself right in front of it, checking every plate of food that goes out and ever ready to come to each table to greet the customers and talk about the specials for the night.  This also gave us the opportunity to introduce ourselves and share our intention of trying every type of barbeque that he could offer.   Sides need not apply!  We even asked Adrienne, our server, to take away the chips and salsa.  Looking at the table next to us, we could see couples enjoying pizzas and Mexican, but tonight, for us, it was all about the meat.  And Mike delivered, hooking us up with a some of his specialty appetizers and a platter full of smoked chicken, pork, and beef.

What’s the only thing better than ribs?  Why, that would be… fried ribs!  These sirens called to us from the appetizer menu and offered us an unique opportunity to try something that we had never had before, and fell under what Boy called, “Fun things to do with slow cooked meat.”   For those eager to hear the rest of Boy’s list, you’ll just have to wait for a future post (way, way, way in the future).  On the outside, the ribs don’t look like anything special, almost like large french toast sticks, but the taste and the tenderness definitely benefit from the frying process.  The crunchiness of the crust gives way to a super tender rib and is accented by the house barbeque sauce drizzled on top.  Yea, we pretty much cleaned those things to the bone.  While you are on the appetizer menu, check out Mike’s brisket empanadas, a dish that epitomizes what he is doing at the restaurant. The juice of slow cooked shredded brisket soaks into empanada crust and is a tasty take on a food that was originally designed to be portable and convenient.  If I was at a fair or carnival, I would be walking around with a brown paper bag full of these things.  You can find some Grub Hut satellites at the Bridgewater Commons and at Somerset Patriots stadium, so if you can, grab a bag full there while your lady fills up with shopping bags.

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For the main course, Mike brought over a platter heavily laden with piles of meat: pulled chicken, pulled pork, shredded brisket, baby back ribs, spare ribs, carnitas, and sassafras chicken.  I’m not sure if such a thing of beauty is on the menu, but it should be, and it was exactly what Boy and I had pictured when a competition buddy of our recommended the place.  He had specifically told us that we need to try the carnitas, a Mexican pulled pork dish with a load of spices, and it was definitely awesome.  I came away thinking about how I might be able to try to recreate it at my own house for pork tacos with vinegar soaked cabbage or on nachos.  Both of us were also taken with the spare ribs.  Good amounts of meat with competition-quality tenderness, meaning that the entire rib did not pull away with the bite, but rather came away easily with only the shape of the teeth.  But for me, my favorite was the sassafras chicken, a leg quarter that is smoked over sassafras wood, an aromatic tree that is not often used for smoking.  The wood gave the chicken a taste a very distinctive taste.  Even with so many different choice of meats, I think that next time I come back, I need to get that one again.  And with all of the choices available, you could still go even further with the original sauces that the Hut has available.   Between the bourbon sauce (table favorite), salsa, Carolina mustard, vinegar mop sauce, and house barbeque, you can experiment with tastes and find a few favorites.

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So if you are planning your own New Jersey barbeque walkabout, or want everyone in the family to find something that they like while you partake in the BBQ, include the Grub Hut in your travels.  Bring a bottle of wine or some beer (still want to do a post on pairing wine and beer with bbq), talk with Mike, and enjoy the food and atmosphere.  When you have a chef that loves to eat what they cook, chances are that you find new things to eat every time.

Break out that calendar and get ready to eat!

Alright, let’s break out the calendar and go over all of the barbeque events that you should be going to this year.  I’ll wait….

O.K. let’s go then.  I’ll add to these throughout the year or as some dates get set, so check back often.  If you are a barbeque aficionado, I encourage you to go to any of these that may be in your area.  Whether it’s a competition or a festival, check out the vendors and try as many things as you can.  Many of them have restaurants, and you could just find one of your favorite go-to places.

May 9    Big Jersey BBQ and Brewfest, Mercer County Park, 1638 Old Trenton Rd.  West Windsor, NJ, 12 pm-6 pm                           http://www.nj1015.com

June 27-28   Rocks, Ribs, and Ridges Festival,  Sussex County Fairgrounds                                                                                                www.rockribsandridges.com

July TBD   Country Music Festival and BBQ Throwdown   Pemberton, NJ

July 10-12    New Jersey State Barbecue Championship, North Wildwood, NJ                                                                                              www.njbbq.com

Sept. 11-13   Do AC Smokin Hot BBQ Championship, Atlantic City, NJ

Sept. 12   Marlboro Blues and BBQ Festival, Marlboro, NJ                                                                                                                         http://www.marlboroblues.com

Sept. 19-20   Que by the Sea BBQ Competition and Festival, Seaside Heights, NJ

Sept. 26-27   Red White and Que BBQ Competition and Festival, 100 3rd. Street, Cresskill, NJ                                                                     http://www.rwqbbq.com

Look for a booth with us there or me handing out t-shirts.   Make sure that you tell me that you are follower of the site.

September Man No More

Is barbeque like the September Man?  Dead after September?  Cold weather sucking the heat from the smoker like a vampire, having to check the temperature and feed the fuel box a few times each hour.   All the competitions moving deeper south where people hang outside yearround and lemonade is always in season.  Raking up the leaves and putting the deck furniture away, the cover for the smoker within reach.  You can always just grill if needed.  Right?   Sure, it’s easy to bury the smoker beneath the clumsily coiled hoses for a few months, and break it back out next April, loaded with new recipes, new enthusiasm, and a new box of wet wipes.   Easy enough.  Nothing to write about until then.    Or so I thought.   I am a slow learner, but when I do, I like to think that it sticks.  You don’t have to be outside, sidling up to your own smoker, or at a friend’s place next to his rig in order to enjoy the taste of smoked meat and sweet sauce.  When the weather turns, as it always does in Jersey, you can go out on a walkabout, a pilgrimage of sorts, looking for cooking that is as good, or (cough!) maybe even better than yours.  So when we went looking for a place to watch Rutgers play North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl (certainly not Detroit), we gravitated toward our old stomping ground of New Brunswick.   But not within the Bermuda Triangle of our freshman year (Grease Trucks, Stuff Yer Face, Tumulty’s), or even the extended area of our later years (Arthur’s, Old Bay, Draft Picks), but somewhere new… somewhere within the facelift of the “new” New Brunswick.  So when Chris suggested Brother Jimmy’s, a relatively new barbeque restaurant in town, I bit.  And it was good.

According to the website, ( www.brotherjimmys.com ) Brother Jimmy’s is a place that started in New York City as a home away from home for Atlantic Coast Conference alumni, to watch the games that regular networks didn’t carry and to eat food that was the destination of late night college road trips.  Since its opening in 1989, Jimmy’s has opened a number of restaurants, including six in NYC and one across the river.  As luck would have it, the New Jersey restaurant landed in New Brunswick, in the thick of where we wanted to bathe in a sea of scarlet as the Knights played.    On the day after Christmas, the campus was empty and most of the students were home for the holidays, but parking on the street was still a bear.  I had to drive around a bit to find a place on the street, but at least I didn’t have to walk beneath the water dripping from the limestone of the railroad trestle to get to the doors of the place.  Anybody who has walked to the New Brunswick train station knows what I am talking about.   I tried to think back to what occupied the space of the restaurant back when I was a student, and not surprisingly, I couldn’t.  The old taxi place where we could catch a ride across town to Cook College was still next door.  Craiger’s surf and skate shop, Earth Core, was up the hill and around the corner.  But here?  No idea.  But it doesn’t matter anymore, because once you walk through the doors, you’re no longer in New Brunswick or care what used to be there.  You’re now in some barbeque joint that could be in any city south of the Mason-Dixon line.  Or NYC, I guess.

I was a bit early, so I grabbed a few beers from the bar to wait for Chris, Linda and Justin.   About a third of the place is designed for the bar crowd: large windows open to the street, craft beers on tap, space for large groups to belly up to the bar and get loud.  Done it, love doing it, but that is not why we came.  We came for the game and the company…and the meat.  The rest of the place was table seating enclosed on three sides by rustic wood walls and signs that you would see in any roadhouse.  If I could have a mancave look like this, I would.  Looked like it could seat about a hundred people to sit and eat, and at the moment, most of them were empty, so I wasn’t worried too much about finding a good spot to watch the game.  But time flies, and as game time approached and my friends and I had had a few, you start to notice all of a sudden that the place is pretty hoppin’ and your tables are filling up fast.  Like a man on a mission, I scoped out one of the few remaining tables that offered what I thought was a good view of a television screen, and the manager, Dan, was good enough to accommodate the large guy with a beer in his hand that had a particular one in mind.  I can only imagine how many times he has been in this situation, so I can appreciate now his patience with me.  On the way to the table, we counted the televisions in the room and landed on about 18, so we were able to laugh at ourselves for being pretty stupid.

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Our server was a cute young woman named Dina who made us feel like she was hanging and watching the game with us, and every now and then would have get up to get us something.  I don’t know how many tables she had, but if it always felt as if we were her one and only.  When she found out that we were there for the first time and were interested in learning everything we could about the food, she was always happy to talk or answer questions for us.  She even introduced Brother Jimmy’s signature shot of whiskey with a pickle juice chaser to us.  Now I gotta have one every time I go down.  Don’t take this the wrong way, Dina, but at that point, I rather you hung up your apron, pulled up a chair, and did some more shots with us.  You are very cool.

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When we go to a place, we have to try everything that would put on our own menu, of which sides and corn bread are a huge part.  You can tell a lot about a place by their corn bread.  When the Team Boy B Que guys are sitting around a table of barbeque and the sides are put down on the table, it’s everyone for themselves.  Linda can hold her own as well.  But when everybody gets a taste and favorites are quickly chosen, you don’t have long before the bowls are empty.  Forks are optional, although I am glad to say that Chris used one as he wolfed down the creamed spinach.  I can’t guarantee that they were used on anything else.  The sides that we tried were the spinach, brussel sprouts, cole slaw, and beans.  I like to try the greens, and can appreciate them, but its they are not what I covet.  Justin developed a recipe for cole slaw long ago that we make for our own families to this day.  Every bowl of slaw is compared to this and when we tried it, we looked at each other and nodded.  It passed the muster.  It didn’t look like much, but it had a great balance of mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, and sugar mixed with the cabbage.   I could eat a plateful and still heap it on a pulled pork sandwich for good measure.  The beans were delicious as well.  The menu said that it was infused with pork, which wasn’t obvious by looking at it, but after trying it, I wasn’t really looking anyway.  It didn’t last long on the table.  I used a fork, if anybody is keeping score.

When we go for the meat, there are two ways to do it.  The first is to ask the server for whatever they recommend, and while this often brings great results, you run the risk of not being able to try everything.  The other way is to get a sampler plate, and that is what we did: three of them.  Each had a chicken, pork, and brisket, served in one manner or another.  Again, no forks involved.  Forks don’t allow the teeth to tear off the meat the way that we like to try it.  Justin and I elected to try the pulled pork first because, like corn bread, you can tell a lot about a place by the pork.  It came naked (no sauce) with the option of putting on any of the three types of barbeque sauces that are in the rack on the table, but we didn’t have to touch them all night.  Didn’t need to.   Except to do a shot of the Carolina vinegar sauce.  At the time, it was deliciously awful, and I cringed at the huge dose of vinegar as it went down, but I wouldn’t hesitate to pour it all (my plate) over just to change things up.  The pork was deeply smoky, confirming out opinion that “less is more”.  Many places disguise the taste, or lack of, by bathing the pulled pork in sauce, but by the taste of the pork, we had confirmed that if you don’t need to, then don’t.  Moist and tender, on it’s own.  In a competition, the judges would enjoy what we had just as it was.  Chris went for one of the baby back ribs, and then passed the bone along to us.  It was good, but not memorable like the spare ribs that came next.  The spares came either wet or with dry rub.  I chose to go for the dry rub first, and the rib was perfectly tender, not falling from the bone, but rather with the slightest of tug from the bone as the bite comes off and into your mouth.  Although most people talk about meat falling off the bone, if it all comes off with the first bite, then it is too tender and has cooked too long.  The dry rub combined the sweet and hot in a nice thin layer that accented the large amount of meat beneath.  When Chris let me try the wet rib though, I was immediately jealous.  The sauce on the wet rib had the textbook tangy sauce that really changes up your gameplan, and has you ordering an entire half rack “just like that.”  We were a little disappointed with the brisket on the one platter as it seemed to come from the end of the cut and didn’t allow us to really taste the interior.  When Dan heard this, he went into the kitchen and brought out some hot sliced brisket that melted like butter along the sweet veins of fat that ran through it.  Beef brisket that would make my dad very happy.

Dina and Dan introduced us to Bryan, the general manager.  He seemed very proud of the restaurant, as he should be, and took us into the kitchen to see the smokers.  Unfortunately, we caught them at a time when they weren’t filled with meat, but we were still able to see and appreciate the set up.  Gas kept the temperatures at a low and even heat while the apple and hickory chunks gave the meat its distinctive smoky flavor.  Amazing that the three smokers could serve such large crowds of eaters.

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Overall, a great time out hanging with friends, watching Rutgers win, and eating great barbeque.  If you go there, make sure you sit at one of Dina’s tables, grab at least one sampler platter, drink the signature shot, and come back again for more of everything. Love that its not far away and now a part of the Rutgers student scene.

New Jersey State Barbeque Championship, Bone 2

In the last post, I alluded to the fact that one of the reasons that the New Jersey State Barbeque Championship has been so successful over the years is that the organizers enlisted the help of the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) from the very beginning. While the Anglesea Fire Company takes care of the competition logistics such as permits, space, water, garbage disposal, restrooms, etc., when it comes to the barbeque, the KCBS, a non-profit organization that has over 19,000 members and runs over 450 contests throughout the United States, helps set the rules for preparation, presentation, and judging. The KCBS has been in existence since 1985, when the only requirement for membership was that he or she could not take any of it seriously, and the history page from its website (www.kcbs.us) makes for some very interesting reading. Without the KCBS, and at least one of their 95 total representatives on site, all of the 65 teams at the competition would be turning in different products and would result in the judges trying to compare apples to oranges (not any of the four events). Frustrated teams would not return, and New Jersey would lose one of its premier culinary events.
On the Saturday of the event, I had the opportunity to speak to three of the representatives from the KCBS who were on hand for all three days to make sure that the contest ran smoothly. John Busch, from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, was one of the “cozy family” of competitors here in the early years of the New Jersey competition and now helps oversee about twelve competitions a year from South Carolina on up. Don and Nancy Muller, a barbeque loving couple from Wappingers Falls, New York, travel from Virginia, through the Mid-Atlantic, and all of the way up to Michigan, to supervise about 15 competitions a year. This was their third year back at the New Jersey Championship. Each is also also a certified judge, when off-duty and hungry. In the off-season, they judge each other for taste, tenderness, and appearance and get straight 9’s across the board, resulting in a long marriage. (Sorry, Don and Nancy: took a little creative liberty there, so don’t let your friends at KCBS give you shit).
So when they graciously granted me some time with them, I took the opportunity to finally address one of the big questions that I had about New Jersey barbeque, from three people who were living the dream: meeting teams up and down the East Coast (and beyond), tasting hundreds of barbeque bites, and witnessing the crowning of multiple grand champions. So, how does Jersey barbeque compare to that from the other states, especially the strong ones like the Carolinas that have been basting in sauce and lying on coals since banjos were first plucked. Were Jersey teams sticking with the big boys when they went below the Mason-Dixon line or when they competed nationally? If anybody could answer this question, it would be John, Don and Nancy. Sitting down with them, I thought that it could go 50/50. We are just starting to explore this art of smoke, and it is relationships and conversations like this like this that will expand our knowledge and understanding of where we stand and need to go. With a smile across their faces, they all assured me that I need not worry. From what they have seen, and with the expanding popularity and exposure of barbeque on television, they are seeing more and more teams from New Jersey that are highly competitive and winning events; teams that reach the nationals by winning against teams from other states and going on to place at the invitationals.
The New Jersey State Barbeque Championship is a testament to this. Since Team BoyBQ, has started competing, the amount of teams that have entered has more than doubled, and who knows how many more tried after the limit had been reached. I told them that from what I have seen, the teams at the competitions are no longer the back yard gladiators like us, but are now mostly professionally trained cooking teams that represent restaurants and catering companies. How were regular guys like us supposed to do well when every barbeque joint in the state was sending their guys in to scoop up trophies and bragging rights for award winning barbeque to put on their menus? John agreed that nowadays the competition is more fierce, citing how the quality of the meat has improved, teams are taking advantage of growing sponsorship opportunities, and winning teams that have gained recognition on television are now paying it forward through teaching others. But he disagreed that teams coming to the competitions are different. “It is not that the teams are different, it is that the teams are evolving”. Citing examples like Local Smoke, a team that started out in 2007 and gained success on the competition circuit before opening up two restaurants in Central Jersey (yes, I am one of those that recognize the existence of this region), he stated that the same teams are around, but have risen to the next level and return under different names that now represent their companies. BTW, my sister, Kristen, and her family go to the Neptune location often and love the food, so throw an extra cornbread in that bag. But it good to see that teams that have gone on to be successful in the restaurant business continue to come back to test themselves against the best of the best in order to help themselves improve and, in the long run, help put New Jersey on the barbeque map.
If, after reading these posts, you want to find out more about KCBS and how they are promoting the art of barbeque in New Jersey (and other areas, I guess), pull up their site and become a member. Not only can you take classes, share recipes, and get scholarships, but you can even become a certified judge and taste some damn good barbeque. But only if you don’t take yourself too seriously!

Next: A Tale of Two Teams: Sir Pork-A-Lot and Lincoln Creek Smokehouse

New Jersey State Barbeque Championship, Part 1

Standing atop the North Wildwood sea wall, nursing a growing case of swamp-ass, I looked out over the temporary encampment of pop-up tents, trailers, and smokers and admired how one common passion could bring so many people together at one time. It was early Sunday morning at the New Jersey Barbeque Championship, and like Kilgore, I was breathing it all in. The land breeze that had been blowing tents and flags all night had finally settled down, and the sea breeze that would carry the smell of slowly cooking meat over the town that hosted the event for the last sixteen years had not yet kicked in. But at this moment, before the heating differential of the land and sea really kicked in, a thick layer of smoke blanketed the tarmac parking lot where 63 of the area’s best and upcoming competition barbeque teams would pit their creative and time tested recipes against each other for prize money, trophies, prestige, and an invitation to the Big 3 national invitationals. It was the morning that many of these teams had prepared for all year. The briskets and pork had been on the smoker for hours, tended to throughout the night. The ribs would go on soon, and then, a little later, the chicken. The teams had been marinating in beer, whiskey, moonshine, and barbeque sauce for days. All was as it should be. The calm before the storm.

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The camp was slowly coming back to life. Fire boxes were being checked and logs thrown in. Team members headed out to Quick Chek or McDonald’s in search of coffee. Guys looking around for a place to spit their toothpaste and finally deciding that the bathroom was too far away and the ground in front of them was adequate enough. Clocks checked once, twice, (rub the eyes) and thrice. Beer cans being cleared from tables to make way for cutting boards. People walking from tent to tent, dazed from lack of sleep, to wish friends and familiar foes a good morning and to see how their night had been. I have been taking part in competitions for almost 15 years now, and this first hour after dawn, between preps and before the crowds, is one of the most intimate moments of an event. When culinary warriors that have stayed up all night, abusing their bodies with drink but remaining ever vigilant over the temperature guage, can converse and empathize with others that endured the same hardship. One of the reasons why I love this venue is that the sea wall allows me and my swamp-ass a bird’s eye view of this moment, one well worth staying up for. The next few hours, leading up to the first turn-in at noon, would get pretty hectic and would allow little time for reflection (or wind up the shorts (btw: the best method for this is the Captain Morgan over the box fan for anybody who is interested)). The time to talk about meat and rubs is over, and soon, it would be in the hands of the judges to decide who cooked the best barbeque this weekend. It would be almost impossible for me to talk about everything at this event in just one post, so I won’t even try, but rather will punish you by writing multiple posts in the hopes of giving you an inside perspective of one of the most important barbeque events in New Jersey.

A barbeque competition generally consists of four main events: brisket, pork, ribs, and chicken. You may come across an event that is for only one day, in which case they may only include the quicker cooking meats like ribs and chicken. Since brisket and pork can take longer than 10 hours to cook, competitions that include these events will last two or three days. All meat is inspected before the competition starts in order to make sure that it has not been prepped in any way before it begins. Each meat is turned a half an hour apart, starting with chicken, then ribs, pork, and finally brisket, according to the estimated cooking times. Each team must submit their dish within five minutes before or after the turn-in time or be disqualified from that particular event. Because of this, it is important that teams be on top of their timing and temperatures, to the extent that some teams take into account air temperature, humidity, wind, and other weather conditions when cooking. A smoker that does not have enough fuel or air flow to maintain the correct temperatures can be disasterous and make all that hard work for nothing. Driving home as a loser sucks, but it sucks even more to drive home after being disqualified from an event.

While any organization can run a barbeque competition, it is always good to have the backing of a sanctioning body, to set guidelines and ensure fair play. The New Jersey State Barbeque Competition has been run by the Anglesea Fire Department from the beginning, and they have always done a great job and have never had any problem getting enough teams to compete because of this. They have also expanded the event to include the Anglesea Blues Festival and have created a great party atmosphere for families and hard core partiers as well. The amount of teams has only been limited by the amount of space available, from the beginning when about 24 teams competed down near the firehouse (oh the fun we had in the wee hours watching the people come out of the bars at closing time) to the limit of 65 teams that can fit in the current parking lot. The event is and has always been sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS), one of the largest and most influential barbeque organizations in the world. (More about them in the next post). They set the guidelines that teams and judges must follow in order to be successful at this event.

Each entry of meat must have at least six separate portions for six judges. If a team does not turn in enough portions, then a judge cannot give the team a score, and their overall score will be affected. Entries must be presented in styrofoam boxes, with or without a bed of greens such as lettuce or parsley, as per the team’s choice. It is a double blind turn-in, in that each team has a number that is not known by the judges and the entry gets a different number when it is turned in, so that judges cannot know which entry is from which team. Judges score entry from 5 to 9 on three categories: appearance, texture, and taste; weighted respectively. Teams with the highest score from each event will place in that event, while the one that scores the highest overall cumulative score for all four events will walk away the Grand Champion. Since this event is a state championship, the Grand Champion is then invited to compete in the national barbeque invitational events.

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While these competitions give teams an opportunity to test themselves with the best in the state, it is not the only reason, or sometimes, the most important reason. For us, Team BoyBQ, the events offer us an opportunity to get together in the increasingly busy schedule that seems to revolve around our kids and family. As long as we keep the wives supplied with juicy meat every now and then, they let us go out on these occasional forays. For Crotchwood BBQ, it’s an opportunity to honor their friend who met an untimely death five years ago. I have tasted their food and I am sure that Crotchwood is saying, “Niiiiiiice!”. For the young members of Beerbeque, it’s always a party. For Lincoln Creek Smokehouse (more about them later), it’s a way for a young couple to express their passion. For Sir Porks A Lot (more about them later), it has been a successful venture into his own team after being part of another team for so long. So while there are many reasons that teams compete, winning is not always the most important. And while they may not go home as Grand Champion this year, they are not necessarily going home disappointed either.

Stay tuned for more posts about KCBS and the teams of the New Jersey State Barbeque Championship soon.

Best mustache of the competition: Al of Red Ants Barbeque!!

This post is dedicated to Crotchwood. I heard some of the stories told by your friends and they miss you. Rest in Peace

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Come check us out at the New Jersey State Barbecue Championship

We will be at the New Jersey State Barbecue Championship on July 11-13, 2014 in North Wildwood, NJ!   Look for Team BoyBQ among the competitors and stop by for a beer and to meet the author and the rest of the team.  I will be covering the contest and talking with other New Jersey barbeque teams about the craft.  It’s always a good time!

http://www.njbbq.com

Then we will eat in the shade!

    For those that have been reading and keeping on up my posts, this one may seem like yet another digression from jumping in the deep, viscous and unique world of American barbeque.  But need I remind you of the very first article in which we met, and where I stated (and hopefully you agreed) that the beauty of New Jersey barbeque lies in the diversity of the cultures here and what each brings to the red and white checkered table.  This weekend I totally blew off a friend, Marc, that was smoking up a pork butt in his newly annointed R2D2 unit (Weber upright) in order to visit one of the largest Greek festivals in the State and answer the question of how our fun and sun-loving friends from the eastern Mediterranean region do barbeque. 

    I have visited Greece twice before, once as a single, new college graduate and later with the lovely and adventurous woman that would become my wife.  Did I just hear a low groan from my female fans?  Probably not.  But in both cases, we followed the advice of a young traveler with the alcohol shakes that I met at the Athens hostel on my first trip where he telephoned his father to ask for more money.  “Dude, you gotta go to Ios!  You gotta go to Ios!”  No truer words have ever been said, and that all encompassing statement peeled me away from exploring the ruins of Athens for yet another day and landed me on a smoke-filled train for the port of Piraeus. There, I (and later, my wife and I) navigated the ferries that served as the lifeline of the Greek islands until we had “gone to Ios”.  Party island of the young, poor, and Swedish nurses, it tempted me to abandon my plans for backpacking through the rest of Europe, and to join the rest of the world’s revelers for the rest of the summer in laying on the beach all day long, dancing in the bars all night long, and rolling down marble stairs while passed out between 6 and 7 am.   I will not keep you in suspense and will tell you that we did finally, and sadly, board an outgoing ferry at some point and enjoyed the wonders of the continent, but not before gaining a huge appreciation for the Greek people and their way of life (food). 

     So when a Greek friend that I work with said that his family was going to the Greek festival at St. Andrews in Randolph, NJ, I thought that it would be appropriate for me to reacquaint myself with the Hellenic people (when sober), investigate how they do barbeque, and meet my friend’s wife who makes a fresh and mouth-watering tzasiki sauce that has been on every sandwich I have made since.

So was I successful? To tell you truth, I don’t really know. In one of my previous posts, I outlined the differences between barbeque and grilling, and am still influenced by this defined and perhaps narrow definition of barbeque. I did discover that Greek barbeque, like Brazilian churrasco, uses the convection from coals to cook the meat, which is turned on spits. Lamb, port, poultry, beef, and lamb (yes, again), seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper are turned rotisserie style, until the dripping juices sing like Sirens over the coals, luring men to gather around the souvla, or grill. Dry rubs that contain traditional Mediterraean herbs such as oregano, mint, thyme, basil, and others enhance the flavor and help the Greeks distinguish their Kontosouvli and souvlaki from the meat dishes of other cultures. So although I did dive into the festival’s offerings of souvlaki and gyros (heated from flames rather than heat lamps like in college), I still came away a bit unfulfilled and questioning whether my quest to experience Greek barbeque was successful or not. Was I unfairly handicapped from the start by the tinted goggles of smoke soaking, American barbeque? Did I experience all there was, or is there a smoky Aegean feast out there that does prove Odysseus did discover American barbeque and brought it home to be honored along with philosophy, art, and democracy?

What did Odysseus do when he found himself adrift? He went to the Ouzo, and that is exactly what I did.

Betta’ check yo’ self!

On Memorial Day weekend, this post is more important than ever!  Definitely want to acknowledge and give respect to the service men and women that gave their lives in order to help preserve our freedom, as well as those families that were left with a huge void that they had to learn to live with for the rest of their lives.  It is our responsibility as a nation and citizens to make it worth it, as Captain Miller told Private Ryan.  One way we do this is surround ourselves with friends and family during the holiday in order to remind us of what is at stake.

But before you go inviting everyone over for a barbeque, you betta’ check yo’ self!   Depending on who you are talking to, you could be giving people a false impression of what exactly is on the menu.  Is it burgers, dogs, (God forbid!) veggie burgers or steak?  Or is it ribs, brisket,  pulled pork, or chicken?  Are you grilling or barbequing?  Does it even make a difference?  Hell yeah!  Different equipment, tastes, atmosphere, cook times, condiments, sides and, ultimately, guest reactions.  So before you start throwing that “B” word around to your family and neighbors, you need to educated like you’re going back for your GED and listen up.

For a you and me, students of the Art, there is a difference between barbequing and grilling.  Barbequing is cooking “low and slow” using indirect heat to roll over our meat in order to cook it for longer periods of time and at lower temperatures (215-250 degrees).  We use a piece of equipment called a smoker,  which has firebox, where the fuel goes, that is either offset from the smoke chamber where the meat is or has a shield to block the radiation from the fire.  Wood is the fuel of choice, in order to produce the smoke that caresses and gets absorbed into the meat, giving it flavor, helping it retain moisture, and forming the very distictive “smoke ring” just below the surface and is seen and admired when sliced.   Although the type of meat does not define the method of cooking, traditionally, barbequing has been used to make tougher and cheaper pieces of meat more appealing and, well, edible.   In a barbeque joint, you will see pork shoulder, brisket, and ribs on the menu; meat that generally needs a little more tender loving care.  In order to respect the short attention span of my readers, I will forego an explanation in this post about why low and slow is used for these more collagen-rich slabs of nectar, and instead devote another entire post to the science of breaking down the components of the meat to make it oh so sweet.

And now on to (sigh) grilling.  Not that grilling does not have its place, but if you have the time, why would you bother.  But if you have ever tried to smoke a hamburger, then you know why.   Hamburger, hotdogs, and steaks are the iconic American food and have their place at every (almost said “barbeque”) outdoor cooking event where grilling is the method of choice.  Grilling is cooking over direct, high heat (350-400 degrees) and usually utilizes propane or charcoal.  (Grilling diehards just cringed at me suggesting the use of propane.)  The radiation from the fire or conduction of the grill helps sear and cook the meat.  The advantage of this is that the grill is easier to light and keep at a constant temperature, the meat cooks a lot faster, and it is easier to retain the moisture of the meat.  Grilling itself is an art, but one that will not be discussed much in this forum.

Huge thanks and shout out to Huff Hearted for the question in BBQ Bits.  Keep the comments and questions coming, and if you like the site, tell your friends.

 

The writer grills up some burgers and dogs at Randolph High School.  Go Rams!

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Brazil Next Door

This weekend, I certainly didn’t have to walk too far (just next door) in order to enjoy some barbeque that one would normally have to travel thousands of miles to taste.  Due to its proximity to New York City that serves as an entry point to the United States for people all over the world, New Jersey gets the advantage of getting its leftovers with just a little push across the Hudson River.  The area’s Hispanic population is certainly growing, not only from immigration but also from the growth of families that have settled here and now call it home, spreading and solidifying their culture and influence, especially with regards to food.

Hispanic food has long relied on the zesty and robust pairings of meat, vegetables, and legumes.  Chicken, beef, and pork are the staples, along with corn, onions, peppers, potatoes, and beans.  But on this ride, it’s all about the meat, and so it gets all of the love.  And the one spreading all that love this weekend was Rogerio from an outfit called Gaucho of the BBQ.  Asked to cater my neighbor’s huge party, I took it as opportunity to do a quick Vodka shot from the ice sculpture, grab a beer from the homemade kegerator, and mosey on up to the grill to taste and talk barbeque.  The word “gaucho” refers to the our cowboy’s counterpart in the other American continent, a tradition and lifestyle that is over 400 years old.  They must have been very thankful to the Spaniards for bringing horses, which made cattle ranching must easier and allowed it to spread far and wide.  No longer did they have to ride sloths and anacondas to chase after the occasional lost calf.  And when the day was done, they could sit back, look at the Southern Cross up in the sky, and enjoy some damn good barbeque to restore those burned calories.

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But as Rogerio was only so happy to share, although we love to eat the same kinds of meats, there is a big difference between how Brazilian barbeque, or churrasco, and American barbeque are prepared.  Looking down at his large collection of Brazilian-made, sword-like skewers, I knew that he was either correct in this distinction, or that the party would end very shortly and on a very, very, very bad note.   The hardwood-handled skewers, laden with rows of good stuff roasting over the coals, were held over the grill, allowing the convection of the air to roast the meat.  Depending on how long or how fast Rogerio wanted the meat to cook, he would lay skewers at different heights from the coals, allowing the juices to drip down onto the meat below.  American barbeque relies on indirect heat to cook the meat, and by definition, is distinguishable from grilling by this fact.  Many people use these terms interchangeably which makes barbequers cringe.  So although, Brazilians use the direct heat from coal to cook the meat, I certainly wasn’t complaining, or arguing the point. The spices that each uses is very different as well. American barbequers tend to use mostly brown sugar, salt and whatever else seems detonate their taste buds, while charrisco tends to rely on salt and … more salt. Each piece was soaked in a generous brine or rolled in dry salt, keeping with the Brazilian tradition. Rogerio pulled out a squeeze bottle of roasted garlic and salt mixture that he put on the chicken, giving it that distinctive aroma and a nice flavorful coat. Salt, in whichever continent, is used in rubs as a way of keeping the juices in the meat where you want them to stay (until you bite into them). With a less experienced cook, the liberal use of salt could make me shrink up like a slug, but that night, it drew out the flavor of the meat and helped show what Brazilian barbeque was all about. And I wasn’t the only one that went all in. Throughout the night, people kept an eye out to see when the meat was plucked from over the coals and came over to grab some of the chicken wings, sliced sirloin, sausages, or the crowd favorite: perfectly cooked chicken hearts.

For that one night, I was Brazilian: eating the way they eat, partying the way they party, and taking part in a tradition that I hope will last another 400 years. Now if only we could get some other things from Brazil to make their way up here as well. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out what things I mean.

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Welcome and good eating!

When one thinks of barbeque, usually the great State of New Jersey doesn’t usually come to mind.  The foods that define New Jersey usually stem from its diverse cultural makeup and are still being perfected in the small towns and establishments that serve as the stronghold for the numerous nationalities that have delivered their time-honed ingredients and processes from across the seas (or the river).  And because the towns are so small and contiguous, access to the food is as easy as walking down to the corner.  Each town has grown to love and boast about the bakeries, restaurants, and butchers that serve their community and many never feel the need to go anywhere else, while the establishments themselves are very happy serving and supporting them.  Not long ago, it was not unusual for the person behind the counter to know exactly what the local customer wanted when that bell on the door rang.  The line is not only drawn between North Jersey and South Jersey (and Central Jersey to some), but also from town to town and neighborhood to neighborhood.  As a result, you can ask any number of New Jerseyans what the state food is, and you will get as many answers.  But most likely, barbeque will not be one them.

This blog is meant to be an adventure into how New Jersey does barbeque.  I am by no means one of the barbeque aristocracy who suckled a bottle a barbeque sauce before I tasted milk or was raised in the backwoods of Carolina or a ranch in Texas.  I was born and raised here in New Jersey, but grew up under the roof of a man who was raised among a family of Texas ranchers, and though expatriated, still exposed his kids to the joy of eating meat being pulled effortlessly from a bone as sauce cascaded from our chins.  From his stories, a good brisket is one of the seven wonders of the world, and was shipped in from well-known barbeque joints whenever he was sufficiently homesick or frustrated with the scarcity of barbeque in New Jersey.  In college, I had the luck of meeting a few friends who enjoyed cooking and eating.  Black Beauty, whose first lease on life consisted of holding and expelling propane, soon joined the family of one these friends, as a five foot, trailer-hitched smoker and our barbeque team was complete.  For the last fifteen years, we have participated in the east coast circuit of competitive barbequing and have catered various events.    Every year, we taste the best and worst barbeque, (often from our own hands) but in that time, we have learned to appreciate the finer points of the art and its influence on our own families.  In that time, we have also seen the influence of barbeque in New Jersey grow, not only in the growth of restaurants and home-grown competitive teams, but also in backyard experimentation.

I hope that you will join me in exploring that thing that is the art and science of New Jersey barbeque.  From cultivation and selection, to processing, to cooking, and finally eating, we will take a look at all that New Jersey has to offer in the best restaurants and teams, to the lesser known joints, butchers, slaughterhouses, and growers.  I also hope that if you enjoy this forum, you will pass it along to those that you know will help this community grow.  And I am always open to invites to see and share how you do barbeque.   Enjoy!