Judging BBQ at Troy Pig Out

Barbecue Judging

Tucking into ribs after Appearance judging at Troy Pig Out. Can you spot the no-no* in this picture?

Last Saturday I judged the team barbecue competition at Troy Pig Out in upstate New York, for the second year in a row. One of the seasoned judges shared some tips he learned from his KCBS mentor, and they’re good enough to pass along. Keep in mind the KC stands for Kansas City, so these are not necessarily the same rules that would apply for Texas barbecue even though I was sworn to follow them for this event.

  • The judging scale goes from 1 to 9 with 1 being a disqualification (we had one, for meat presented in the wrong category). Barbecue good enough to share with co-workers gets a 6; good enough to share with your boss is a 7; good enough to share with loved ones is 8; good enough you don’t want to share with anyone is a 9.
  • If there’s a red center in chicken it may be from the smoke; wipe it on a napkin and see if the juices run clean. If it’s still red that’s blood, an automatic 1.
  • KCBS judges apply the pull test to brisket: it initially holds together but quickly separates when you tug on it. That’s the ideal tenderness. This is different than in Texas where we want our brisket pudding-soft.
  • Ribs shouldn’t be falling off the bone, but the meat should separate quickly and cleanly when you bite into it.
  • Judge the meat, not the sauce. Preps where the sauce gets in the way of tasting the meat get marked down.
  • If parsley is used as a garnish, get rid of it before you taste because it will affect the flavor experience. (This tip is mine, actually; even though parsley is allowed it shouldn’t be.)
  • Be fair, focused and kind in your judging. Keep in mind teams have made a considerable investment in time and expense to compete.
  • And of course, follow the rules not your own preferences.

The categories as last year were chicken, ribs, brisket and pulled pork in that order. Each entry in each category is judged for appearance, taste and tenderness. There were six teams competing, a manageable number in terms of how much you can taste and keep track of. (You are not supposed to directly compare one prep against another, but it’s good to have a reference range.)

Two of the teams were obviously more experienced and were probably neck and neck on most scorecards. One team was aggressive with heat and smoke and broke a few KCBS rules but also scored points for taste and tenderness. The others were newer to the game but I hope they’ll be back because this was an enjoyable and educational experience for us all.

*Scented hand wipes should never be used because they’ll influence your taste of the food. Use plain water and napkins instead to clean your hands between tastes.

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Register now for 2016 Kneading Conference

Kneading Conference Registration Page

Register now for the 2016 Kneading Conference!

It’s just a couple of weeks till the 2016 Kneading Conference, a full schedule for which is available here. From what I understand from past participants, it’s like the best of spending time with the great bakers and teachers at King Arthur Flour’s education center except many classes are held simultaneously and you can wander back and forth as you like. All-inclusive registration price (including classes and meals) is $325 for the two days.

The event takes place all day Thursday and Friday, July 28 and 29, on the County Fair Grounds in Skowhegan, ME. This is in the heart of the grain belt (lots of local growers/millers/bakers represented), about 30 miles north of Portland. It’s about a 5 hour drive from my location in upstate New York so I plan to stay for the duration. Will also probably go for the night-before dinner (meet the speakers/bakers; $75 extra cost) and stay over for a local artisanal baking market on Saturday morning.

I am especially looking forward to the keynote speaker, who is none other than our local baking pal Amy Halloran. You can bet she’ll bake up some of her Ambassador Pancakes, and show you how to do it using whole grains. See you there!

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Curd Nerd Utopia at NYC Cheesemonger Invitational

Ryan Skrabalak is a cheesemonger at Cheese Traveler, a wonderful shop in the DelSo district of Albany, NY. In this guest post, he shares an insider’s look at the Cheesemonger Invitational, an event held in tandem with the New York Fancy Food Show which is part serious competition, part cheese nerd Woodstock—fueled by the antics of impresario Adam Moskowitz who wanders the premises in a cow suit.

The last two years Ryan was a competitor, this year a volunteer, assigned to stir a fondue pot over a grill until his “arm cramped up like a stressed relief pitcher”. But the experience was clearly worth it. Let’s cut (to) the cheese.

Cheesemonger International cheese tasting

A typical competitor’s presentation at Cheesemonger International. Photos are from their web gallery.


It’s the last weekend in June, and I find myself once again ascending the steps of the Hunterspoint Avenue station in Long Island City, Queens. It’s hot. In this part of town, once alien to me, there is no shade—except for a railroad bridge the sidewalk passes under at 25th Street. Heat radiates violently off of warehouses and storage units. And—this is sort of a rare thing in New York City—there isn’t a bodega or high-rise condo in sight. I keep walking through the humidity and high noon sun, finally rounding the corner on 27th Street. A colorful huddle of folks are out smoking in front of a nondescript brick building. I can hear their laughter from the intersection. I feel at home.

I’m here for the NYC Cheesemonger Invitational. This year, I’m on the other side of the scenes, volunteering. The two years prior, though, I competed in this deliciously esoteric, adrenaline-drenched, sweaty, hilarious, and supremely educational event that is self-proclaimed as “Fight Club meets WrestleMania,” aka “Cheeselmania,” aka “the best party on the Eastern Seaboard.”

It’s a beautiful thing, this sort of craft-kegger-cum-advanced-cheese-seminar. Curd nerds from across the world mix and mingle, trading everything from war stories of the World’s Worst Customers (“she literally emptied the entire sample plate of two year reserve Comte into one hand and took it all to the face!”) to shop secrets and tips (“use a toothbrush to clean that gross little spot on the Handee cutter”) to, well, just exhalations of joy and camaraderie. For many of these folks, this weekend is a reunion of sorts—the one time a year someone in Chicago can chat with their cheesemonger pal from Philly. Cheese (and its myriad vectors) naturally takes up the bulk of the conversations. It’s a time to geek out and drink up.

Two days of camaraderie and competition, all about cheese.

The Cheesemonger Invitational is actually a two day affair. The competition doesn’t begin until the second day. The first day is purely educational: about five or six hours of educational seminars with a sort of who’s who of producers, affineurs (people who age cheese), and importers. Much shop is talked. One gets a sense of the genuine closeness and unity of the cheese community. Not only do we cheesemongers sell the physical product—aged milk—but we also are purveyors of place, offering snapshots of countryside and the people who work in it and of it. We offer the preserved collective stories of specific landscapes, special folks, and happy animals.

Curd Nerds

Curd nerds in cheese utopia at Cheesemonger Invitational.

As a community, we work together to offer the rest of the world these stories; this product, steeped in traditions intertwined with the relationships between humans, animals, and land. We make sure they are delivered as the cheesemaker intended them to taste and with the feelings the cheesemaker intended them to invoke. These are the sentiments that make a group of fifty cheese slingers downright giddy in a cold storage unit in Long Island City, Queens. The beer helps, too.

There’s a latent joy that buzzes about said cold storage facility, too. The competition on the second day is just about the only time all weekend where there’s a modicum of peace and quiet—competitors line long buffet tables, poring reverently and studiously over a few difficult written exams. This year, there was an aroma test (one hopes one didn’t do anything while out and about on Friday night to sully those nasal cavities). In years previous, there have been blind taste tests—sometimes focusing solely on American artisanal cheeses, sometimes regarding only European PDO/PGI cheeses (yeah, even those obscure ones, like the funky golden Czech button, Olomoucké tvarůžky—though if you’ve ever had it before, you’d recognize it pretty quickly). After the tests, mongers are judged at additional events. There’s a cutting trial, in which points are only awarded to those who cut cheeses of random density, height, and overall size within .01 or .02 of a specified weight. Then, mongers must showcase their cheese origami in a timed wedge-wrapping trial.

Finally (and this is where things start to really dazzle), the competitors begin to assemble their “perfect bites.” These are pre-meditated amuse-bouche that each cheesemonger has developed after being assigned a cheese about a month prior to the competition. Seeing these bites come to life is for certain one of the highlights of the weekend. Creativity oozes from every station—one runs across ingredients from candied ginger to dulce de leche, soba noodles to homemade biscuits, wafers, and jams, nutritional yeast to salmon roe. It’s an incredibly inspiring array of—well, when you really simplify it—cheese pairings. Competitors assemble mini fondue stations, brulee dollops of chevre, stack s’mores, you name it. “Has anyone ever paired ________ with ________ and ________?” Yeah, they have. And it was fucking delicious, too (Chocolate and Cheese isn’t just a great Ween album, okay?). Judges make their way around the tables, popping this and that into their mouths, at times eyes rolled back in ecstasy, at times nodding fervently. This year, additionally, there was a beverage pairing element (I was too busy to check most of these out, but I remember seeing a number of seriously hat-tipping combos. Mavens, I tell you).

Enter the impresario: Ken Kesey in a cow suit.

Scores are tallied, and as mongers’ emotions in Larkin Cold Storage begin to swell, and the sun begins to dip over the distant 59th Street Bridge, the doors open to the public. Even more cheese freaks. They’ve literally lined up around the block. Adam Moskowitz, the facility owner, event founder, and CMI’s bon mot-cum-impresario-cum-MC-cum-Merry Prankster (think of a hybrid Flava Flav and Ken Kesey, if Kesey had trays of Taleggio and Challerhocker instead of his normal party favors, and also dressed himself in a cow suit) begins to make his rounds, having transformed into his Mr. Moo avatar. Vendors, importers, producers, and the like have literally piled the best cheeses in the world on their respective tables, and begin slinging their wares. Beer flows like wine. Fondues bubble sexily. Raclette courses through troths that run the length of the warehouse (that was a lie. But there is a ton of raclette). The top ten cheesemongers (this year, the list had shortened to top six) are announced, to much applause.

Throughout the course of the evening, which delves deeper and deeper into cheese-and-beer fueled mania, the finalists cut and wrap more cheese, pair cheeses with food and drink splayed across the warehouse tables, and praise and acclaim their profession and the cheeses they sell. One hears stories of love at first bite and of love affairs with wheels of cheese. If you think that someone cutting a perfect third-pound wedge of 22-month Gruyere AOP can’t send a room full of 800 cheeseheads into utter chaos and ecstatic conniptions, too, well—you gotta just get yourself a ticket then.

Cheesemonger International winner

Adam Moskowitz congratulates last year’s winner at NYC Cheesemonger International.

The evening grows intense. Three mongers stand upon the stage, their brows sweaty, their sleeves rolled up. A few empty cans of beer frame the stage. Veritable mounds of perfectly-wrapped cheeses cover some of the tables. Mr. Moo has worked the crowd into a curd-fueled fever pitch. Maybe an instrumental of “Root Down” is playing. Loudly. A few people are literally spinning in the back of the warehouse, Grateful Dead style, their mouths full of Schnebelhorn and Stilton. The judges have convened in a back office. A winner emerges and is duly blessed Excalibur-style with—duh—a big ass knife to cut cheese with. The crowd roars, eats more (if they can), and dances some of those calories off. For a minute or two, you’d think you were in some underground club, maybe, or some raging disco. But the crowd parts a bit, and across the warehouse you can spy someone cutting a nugget of Montgomery’s Cheddar out of a golden wheel. This ain’t no disco. See you next year.

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Recipe: Buffalo Chicken Dip

Buffalo Chicken Dip

Susan’s Buffalo Chicken Dip… with some serious damage in the first hour of the party.

Like it says… Buffalo Chicken Dip! Our friend Susan made this for her son Zack’s high school graduation party but Zack, who is headed for a career in chemical engineering, says he can make it even better. Nicely fills a 9×12 baking pan and serves lots of hungry folks.

4 “Costco cans” chicken (about 3 lb pre-cooked shredded chicken off the bone; roast your own chicken if you like)
1 16-oz bottle Kraft or other blue cheese dressing
2 lb (approx.) Philadelphia cream cheese (this element variable depending on how thick you like it)
Frank’s Red Hot Sauce to taste (I’d estimate 4 oz, but start with less and taste as you go)

Method: Combine all ingredients in a big bowl and stir/mash with a big spoon till cream cheese is incorporated with other ingredients. Bake in 350 degree oven 30 minutes or until thoroughly heated with a light crust on top. Serve with chips for dipping.

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Snows-style BBQ brisket for 4th of July

Brisket Leftovers

Pretty much all that was left over from my Snows-style BBQ brisket made with USDA Prime meat. Note the deep mahogany bark and the lacy tendrils of pudding-soft flesh.

For the 4th of July meal, I decided to try Snow’s BBQ brisket technique as described by pit boss Kerry: rub the meat all over with salt with some pepper mixed in (I used about a 1/5 ratio) and let it cure for 24 hours. I put the meat on a rack inside a roasting pan then covered the pan tightly with aluminum foil and refrigerated; I figured this would approximate the big plastic tubs Snow’s has. The meat gave off surprisingly little moisture after the cure so I just paper-toweled it dry and smoked it according to my usual method.

The result was magnificent. Great bark, sublimely tender meat, and enough salt to bring out the best in the brisket. It helped that this was USDA Prime, rather than Choice, grade. The H.E.B. grocery chain in Austin had a freezer case full of these smaller briskets (averaging 5-6 lbs) at less than we pay per pound for choice in my neck of the woods, if we can even find it. So unfair.

Prime Brisket from HEB

My Prime brisket from H.E.B. in Austin. I brought two of these home in my carry-on. The TSA guy recognized what they were on the x-ray and gave me no problem.

The meal was served with Vincent’s Cole Slaw, German Potato Salad, beans and Buttermilk Pie for dessert. The beans were the only disappointment. I followed Snow’s method using Tone chili powder, but didn’t have any bacon ends so I poured in some of the brisket grease. It was a one-dimensional, uninteresting result. Also, I typically smoke a brick of cheap mozzarella along with my meat but this time tried American cheese in homage to the smoked prep at Chester’s Smokehouse. With mozzarella, the whey leaches out and keeps the cheese from sticking but because American isn’t real cheese it stuck like crazy.

Live and learn. But that brisket… oh man. Next time I’ll add my usual rub of brown sugar, which I left out because I wanted to do it exactly Kerry’s way. But I’m not sure this prep can be improved on.

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Recipe: Favorite Pie Crust

This pie crust is based on Christopher Kimball’s method in the Cook’s Bible, with a few important tweaks. He uses only butter but I would insist on at least some animal fat if serving with a Texas-style barbecue meal. Makes one 9-inch pie crust (not counting any desired top layer).

1 1/4 C all-purpose flour
1/4 t Kosher salt
1 T sugar
6 T chilled butter cut into half inch cubes
4 T chilled lard cut into half inch cubes (or use frozen bacon fat or beef tallow)
3-4 T ice water

Method: Add flour and salt to food processor fitted with steel blade; pulse to mix. Add butter pieces and toss quickly with a spoon so they are distributed evenly and coated with four. Pulse 5 times (a couple seconds per pulse) to mix butter with flour. Add lard or animal fat and pulse 4 more times, then a final mix of several seconds. The mixture should have the consistency of coarse cornmeal; if there are lumps pulse again to get rid of them.

Dump mixture into a bowl and sprinkle 3 T ice water over the top. Mix quickly with a spatula, spoon or cool fingers until dough sticks together. Add a bit more water if needed. Shape into a ball, smooshing together any rough corners, then flatten to a 4-inch diameter disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 30 minutes to no more than 1 hour. Roll out on a floured surface with a rolling pin or wine bottle, working from the center to expand, moving scraps around till you have a circle roughly 12 inches across. Fold in half (slide a big knife under the dough to facilitate the process), transfer to a pie plate and open to full diameter. Cut off and move scraps around the edges as necessary to create an even edge. Decorate the edge with fork tines or your fingers if desired. Try to have all crust edges sticking up rather than resting on the lip of the pie plate since those sections will break off when you cut the pie. Fill with Buttermilk Pie filling or other and bake according to recipe.

Note: I use an ancient (c. 1994) Cuisinart for this prep; you may need to adjust method for your own food processor or hand mixing. (If mixing by hand, work quickly and keep your hands off the ingredients so everything stays cold.)

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Recipe: Buttermilk Pie a la Micklethwait

Buttermilk Pie

Time for some Buttermilk Pie!

I was inspired by the life-changing buttermilk pie at Micklethwait’s Craft Meats in Austin, and this is pretty close in my opinion. It’s based on a Southern Living recipe which is what I expect the Micklethwait pastry chef would be most familiar with*. Makes one 9-inch pie.

1 1/2 C sugar
3 T all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
1 C buttermilk (ideally whole buttermilk from a quality dairy such as Argyle Cheese Farmer in upstate New York)
1/2 C butter, melted
1 T lemon zest, finely chopped
3 T fresh lemon juice
1 t vanilla extract
Pie Crust (see separate recipe)

Method: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix sugar into flour in a large bowl. Whisk or beat buttermilk, butter, lemon zest, lemon juice and vanilla extract into beaten eggs. Pour into sugar/flour mixture; stir to combine; pour into uncooked pastry crust. Bake for 50-60 minutes until the pie is set and the crust is nicely browned but not at all burned. Remove from oven and cool at least one hour before serving.

  • Or, maybe not. I shared this recipe with Micklethwait and asked if it was based on Southern Living. The response: “Our pastry chef said he combined several recipes. (Southern Living not included.)” Anyhow, I stand by the result and expect you will be very satisfied with it.
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On the floor at the New York Fancy Food Show 2016

Putnam Market Team

The Putnam Market Team: Cathie and Gloria in front, Sam and Steve in back, headed for Fancy Food Show

This year I saw the Summer Fancy Food Show from a different perspective compared to previous visits. I was a guest of the team from Putnam Market, an excellent source of gourmet takeout and boutique food specialties in my home town of Saratoga Springs, NY. I spent the morning walking the floor with cheesemonger Cathie Hamilton, tasting from her purveyors (especially World’s Best Cheese, an outfit that distributes from many small producers) and understanding what’s important from a retail perspective.

Chanel To Go

Laura Chenel to-go marinated goat cheese hits the marks for a good retail product

Distribution is one thing. Small companies often like to ship direct and have the buyer pay the cost; Cathie finds this raises retail price to an uncomfortable level and always asks if they work with a distributor. A product needs to sell itself through attractive packaging and make customers believe they will be able to use and enjoy it successfully. A specialty fruit product with the ingredients pressed into an artistic shape was breathtaking, but failed to sell because people couldn’t see themselves serving it. Quality goods in too-big sizes or with plain jane labels are also a problem. Something that hit the sweet spot was a new line of marinated goat cheeses from Laura Chenel that come in a small sealed container you could take on a picnic.


Coconut was everywhere…

After I started wandering on my own, it was easy to recognize a few major themes. Liquids are big, especially tonics, botanicals, prepared exotic cocktail mixes and sodas made from natural ingredients. We want to stay hydrated, it seems. And coconut! Coconut water, coconut ice cream and coconut energy bars were everywhere.

Beans in Brownies

Vegan brownies made with beans actually not bad. Also saw “dessert hummus”

Gluten-free is holding its own along with a lot more vegan goods and “probiotics”. Those are substances that promote the growth of natural flora in the gut, so I guess you could apply the term to anything that is not overly processed and stabilized with preservatives. If you compared this show from several years ago you’d see far more natural/raw/fermented foods and far fewer jarred salsas.

Sansaire Searing Kit

Sansaire will sell you a blowtorch and a rack to put a crust on your sous vide meat.

I was there on a Monday so missed the weekend crowds; it was rarely a problem to get down the aisles. The “Siberia” annex (actually the location of the Latvian pavilion along with other late-registering vendors) was filled, a good sign of exhibitor participation. See my photos for a few other finds and fails.

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These ain’t no burnt ends

Not Burnt Ends

This barbecue is smoky, tasty and tender. But burnt ends, it’s not.

A friend alerted me to the “burnt ends” being served by a local barbecue emporium. He showed me a dark photo in which the pieces were suspiciously large and uniform. I also noticed they’re a regular menu item, always a bad sign. So I fired up the Ford and took off down the highway, wondering if I’d catch a polecat in the act.

Burnt ends as we know them in Texas are garbage, essentially. They’re pieces left over as the meat carved for serving. They usually come from the tip of the point, where the brisket is all char and smoke and delicious fat. The smaller bits might make their way into the pinto beans, while the larger pieces are saved up until you have enough to run a special. (Which is why you don’t expect to see them on a daily menu.)

When I got to my local establishment the mystery was quickly solved as I watched the meat being carved before my eyes. It’s just regular point meat, cut in chunks rather than slices to produce a good amount of outside bark. On a smaller brisket they’d use the whole point for this; the larger ones would be cut toward the tip so there would be bark on both outer edges.

The taste of this was perfectly fine, by the way. Not the best barbecue I’ve had but smoky and tender with a bit of dry heat in the bark. But they charge $2 extra per serving for the burnt end designation, which galls me because most places that sell actual burnt ends do so at a discount.

One more thing that galls me is this picture on their Yelp page, which appears to be the same as a photo in this Serious Eats article from a few years ago. Now I do smell a polecat. I’m not sure how vigorously I can defend the article, however, because it describes burnt ends as a Kansas City innovation (WTF?!) “which can contain as much lean as fat” and can “be cut from all parts of the brisket”. The article also describes resmoking these interior pieces, which I believe would create tough meat without adding the requisite char.

Real burnt ends are worth the hunt. That’s part of the fun. So ask your favorite barbecue place when they run their burnt end special, then mark your calendar and plan to get there early.

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How to cook and eat milkweed buds

Milkweed fritters

Milkweed fritters!

We’re back with the milkweed. The sprouts we were sautéing whole a couple weeks ago are now 3 feet high and producing clusters of buds that very quickly blossom into pretty purple flowers. Should we pick, cook and eat milkweed buds? Of course, though we shall be cautious in our harvest leaving plenty for butterflies and for other configurations later on.

Similar to milkweed leaves, the buds have a mild vegetal flavor. I made milkweed bud fritters by dipping them in an egg/flour mixture seasoned with salt, pepper and granulated garlic and frying them in a half butter/half oil combination. The most useful thing about these is the novelty. Why garnish with a fried onion ring when you can use a seasonal wild vegetable?

Milkweed with buds

A stand of budding milkweed

Milkweed bud harvest

A small haul of milkweed buds. I found it’s fine to leave on the bit of stem and a couple of leaves. The purple one is too far gone and was dry.

I have also put up a few bud clusters in pickle juice and will saute others simply, without batter, for a meal tonight. And as the summer progresses we’ll be back with milkweed pods and milkweed silk, following the lead of Foragers Harvest  and the Tactical Intelligence prepper website.

Evil dogbane

Dogbane, a bitter milkweed imitator, is easy to identify because of its purple stalk.

By the way, the lore that these friendly, pleasant plants need many rounds of boiling water to wash out the bitterness may be due to confusing milkweed with dogbane, a plant that grows nearby and is similar but has a distinctive purple stalk. (Milkweed’s is green, and oozes white sap when picked.)

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