Sunday, March 22, 2015

Competition BBQ Class: Pork Choppers University

I attended Pork Choppers University this weekend in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  PCU is a high level, tell - all competition barbecue class presented by the Warren County Pork Choppers.  They are a fixture on the BBQ circuit and were the Grand Champions at our first solo competition last year.

Donny Bray at Rocky Top BBQ Cook-off in Knoxville, TN May 2014.

Don't feel bad that they beat us last year.  For the whole year, Warren County Pork Choppers pretty much beat everyone else like they were a brother-in-law's mule.  That's why they won Team of the Year for KCBS in 2014.

So I decided to learn from the best and moseyed up to "the holler" for their class.  This is just a review of the class - I'm not giving away any secrets here.  First, it's their content, not mine.  Second, I could tell you but you'd have to cut Warren County Pork Choppers a check first. 

In KCBS judging for BBQ, you get three scores from 0 to 9 for appearance, taste, and tenderness.  Since this is a BBQ competition class, I'm going to review it on that scale, just changing the categories a bit. I give Pork Choppers University competition BBQ class Triple 9's! 

Appearance (facilities, hospitality, learning environment) - 9
The class is held at their newly built barn located in the rolling hills of Western Kentucky.  There is no cell phone coverage in the holler which is a plus - no distractions. 

The barn was built specifically for conducting classes so it's a perfect fit and a great learning environment.  It may be a barn but it is completely outfitted with all of the creature comforts (heating/air, restrooms, etc).  It is an ideal set up because you go from inside class room to outdoor demonstrations with just the roll of a garage door.

Warren County Pork Choppers barn
Ours was just the 3rd class in the new barn.  Kitchen is on the left, the middle and right side are the class room.

The podium has an overhead mirror and an overhead projection screen so you can see everything going on in detail even if you are standing all the way at the back by the buffet tables.  The barn has a professional audio system. 

Pork Choppers University
We had 30 or so in our class but the barn can handle more than that.

The team provided snacks, happy hour (open bar), and a full teppanyaki style dinner on Friday.  Saturday morning they put out a huge breakfast spread of biscuits and sawmill gravy, sausage, bacon, breakfast casserole, eggs, and more.  Then of course you sample all of the BBQ.  You won't go away hungry, I promise. 

Donny Bray (left) and Billy DoRag Carroll (right) whipping up veggies for the teppanyaki dinner.

Shot of the interior during happy hour.
It is an entertaining learning experience.  I really enjoyed meeting other BBQ people outside of my normal regional contests area.  There were people from Wisconsin, Connecticut, South Dakota, Kansas City, Alabama, South Carolina, and more.  The team makes it fun and uses a lot of humor.  Billy "DoRag" Carroll was a riot, Donny was full of quips (like the brother in law's mule one I stole), and the team members take light hearted jabs at each other.

It's not just Donny - it is a true team approach.  Each and every interaction I had with a team member was friendly, helpful, and I walked away with what I needed.

It is a comfortable, well designed set up for learning.

Taste (Content) - 9
The class is advertised as "tell all" and after taking it, I have no doubt that Donny gave us the full spectrum of his program.  Not once did I get the impression he was holding back or being coy.  He even told us things he is currently working on changing, even if it is still in the experimentation phase.  This is not just rubs and sauces - Donny is giving you a complete turnkey operation, everything you need to be successful. 
  • Detailed techniques and processes for product selection, trimming, injecting, brining, seasoning, cooking, and presenting.  For example, he gives specifics for how much of 3 rubs to put on the bottom of chicken and different ratios for the top.  Yeah, that level of detail.
  • Donny talks through equipment, suppliers, fuel, times/temps, and just about anything that could possibly related to winning at BBQ.
  • There were plenty of eye opening surprises in the content.  But each time you might question a technique or suggestion, all you have to do is look at that Team of the Year trophy.  They scored higher and won more contests than any other team in the country.  They might know what they are talking about.  Examples -
    • The type of ribs they use is NOT what I expected.
    • When they apply smoke was suprising.
    • You do what with your brisket!?!?
    • A sharpie as a BBQ tool?  Like the permanent marker - sharpie? 
  • Donny discusses how things are supposed to be judged (i.e. "only judge what is presented to you in the box") versus the reality ("it puts the burnt ends in, or else it gets the hose again").
  • Despite his credentials, Donny is a very humble and approachable instructor.  He presented everything as just his opinion but he was absolutely confident in those opinions.  

Backwoods smokers, Warren County Pork Choppers
Smokers rolling at 6 in the morning.

Tracy showed us how to build a lettuce blind box that actually looks good.  As a judge, most of the ones that I see look awful so we have always used parsley when we compete.  But parsley is time consuming and sticks to the sauce.

Any time I questioned anything Donny said, I just went into the kitchen and looked at the wall and his Team of the Year hardware.

Donny Bray, Warren County Pork Choppers, Brisket, burnt ends
They shared their no fail burnt ends technique.  Results spoke for themselves.

It was great being able to open the roll up door and walk straight from the class room to the cooking area.

Warren County Pork Choppers, Pork Choppers University
Donny working through his chicken program.

Competition bbq ribs, warren county pork choppers
Ribs ready for foiling.  He shared some ideas about sugar and toughness of the skin that I had not thought about.

competition chicken
These didn't have the appearance he wanted because we were cramming 9 in per pan since we needed so many.  That didn't give any room for air circulation so the edges weren't as pretty as normal.

These were the back up ribs after someone (cough, Donny, cough) got so excited about the taste/texture of the ribs and started passing them out before we built the blind box.  It proved the point he made several times about distractions and we got a good laugh from it.

A little blurrier than my other pork shots but I just loved the steam coming off in this pic.

They taught us great techniques for keeping pork warm and juicy during holding and while building your blind boxes.

Competition blind box pork
Pork blind box. 

brisket blind box competition
Brisket slices and burnt ends, always my favorite.
Tenderness (Takeaways) - 9
One funny lesson we learned is "Don't eat your turn in ribs before you build your turn in box".   Yeah, that class.

But my main takeaway without revealing secrets is this. I now have absolute confidence that I am going to have a much better year this BBQ competition season and I'm not talking just about scores.  I know that I am going to enjoy it more and have a better experience because I have the tools, knowledge, and processes to be more organized and focused on what needs to be done. Without a doubt, I got every penny of my money's worth from this class. 

If you have been thinking about taking a comp class, do it, you won't regret it.  It is educational and entertaining.  Specifically, the Pork Choppers University is excellent for
  • Rookies wanting to get on the fast track and side step the mistakes,
  • Teams looking to improve their scores and get more calls, and
  • Veteran teams that just need to shake up their program.
I highly recommend it.

One side note:  If you do take the class - drive carefully down Jenkins Road on Saturday morning.  It was before dawn as I came over a hill and almost hit a black cow standing in the middle of the road. "Hey Donny! I brought two more briskets to class!"

To find out when the next Pork Choppers University session is, keep an eye on the Warren County Pork Choppers Facebook page or you can contact Tory via email.

[FTC Standard Disclaimer] I received no compensation for this post, have no affiliation with Warren County Pork Choppers, and paid full price for the class.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Product Review: Char-Broil CB500X Portable Grill

I teased the review of this grill in my last post when I was grilling skirt steak for a salad using the Char-Broil CB500X Portable Grill.

Char-Broil CB500X Product Review

One of the perks of being a Char-Broil All Star is that each Spring, I get a package of grills and gear as part of their sponsorship*.  For a griller, it's like Christmas morning when the shipment arrives.

Not pictured here is the Char-Broil Commercial 3 Burner grill with TRU-Infrared technology which is coming directly from Lowe's, the exclusive retailer.

The CB500X immediately caught my attention and I have already put it to work several times this week.  It is about as stylish as Dad's old metal tool box so why do I like it so much?  Because it is simply well made, has well designed features, and has a variety of potential uses as a portable grill.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Fajita Steak Salad

The other night Alexis and I were craving a taco or fajita salad and we had everything we needed in the fridge to throw one together.

Or so I thought.  I reached in to grab the leftover taco meat from the night before and.... it was gone.  No problem, I'll use that leftover skirt steak.....which was also gone.  Empty containers in the sink were evidence that our older son had stopped by for lunch earlier in the day.  No worries, but the stomach wants what the stomach wants.  We ran to the store and picked up another skirt steak just so we could have this salad.

Big on TexMex flavors, this Fajita Steak Salad uses grilled skirt steak.

Tip:  If your store is out of Certified Angus Beef skirt steak, you can substitute their sirloin flap steak. Certified Angus Beef is one of our sponsors and I got to try the sirloin flap in a "grind your own burger" competition at their headquarters.  It's similar in texture and taste.

Fajita Steak Salad
serves: 6 servings

  • 1 skirt steak
  • 2-3 tablespoons NMT Fajita Seasoning or other fajita seasoning
  • 1 red bell pepper sliced into rings
  • 6 tortilla salad bowls, heated according to directions
  • 2 heads romaine lettuce, chopped
  • 1/2 cup chimichurri sauce (optional)
  • 1 cup shredded colby jack cheese
  • 3 diced roma tomatoes
  • 2 peeled and diced avocados
  • 1 cup Fire Roasted Chile Ranch Dressing or other ranch dressing
  • 1 cup enchilada sauce or taco sauce
  • black pepper to taste

  1. Prepare your grill for direct heat and preheat to high heat (500°F +).
  2. Trim any excess fat from your skirt steak and season heavily on both sides with the fajita seasoning.  You will likely have a little seasoning left over.  Keep that for seasoning the salad at the end.
  3. Grill the steak and pepper rings on both sides until the rings are charred and the steak reaches an internal temperature of 130°F for medium rare, about 4-6 minutes per side.
  4. Remove the steak and pepper rings and allow to rest for 5 minutes.
  5. Slice the steak thinly against the grain.  See pictures for detail.
  6. Divide the lettuce between the tortilla salad bowls and drizzle lightly with the chimichurri sauce.  Top with cheese, diced tomatoes, diced avocados, and the pepper rings.  Drizzle with the ranch dressing and enchilada sauce.  Season with fresh cracked black pepper and a pinch or two of the leftover fajita seasoning.
  7. Top with the sliced skirt steak and serve.
Kingsford natural lump briquetes, mesquite
I tried using the new Kingsford Lump Briquets with mesquite wood this time.  Briquets on the left are regular Kingsford and the right are the lump with mesquite.  Got some good mesquite smoke in the air but 8-12 minutes of exposure isn't going to add a lot of flavor to the food in most cases.  

I did about 50 coals and that jumped the temperature to a little over 500°F.

seasoned skirt steak
If your skirt steak is in one piece it will be too long so just cut it into a few pieces.  The middle will be fatter than the ends.

fajita, skirt steak on grill
I put the thicker pieces on first and wait a minute to put the thinner sections on the grill.

grilled skirt steak recipe, beef,

Char-Broil CB500X
Notice the paver stone under the Char-Broil CB500X grill.  I always do with when grilling on my deck to keep the deck from reaching combustible temperatures.

CB500X grilling skirt steak
I've cooked this twice this week in case you were wondering why the meat keeps changing sizes in the pictures. 

I like to cook my skirt steak to medium rare at most, to keep it tender, so I pulled these when they registered 130°F on my Char-Broil Instant Read Thermometer.

how to slice skirt steak
Notice how the grain of the meat is running in the same direction as the knife blade.  You need to cut perpendicular to the grain but first I cut it into manageable sections about a finger long as shown....

how to slice skirt steak
...then turn the meat sideways like this and slice against the grain...

slicing skirt steak, how to this.  Notice the grain of the meat is going in the same direction as the yellow lines.

When I made it earlier this week, I just served it drizzled with chimichurri sauce and it disappeared.  Literally, before I could use the leftovers, it disappeared.

This Fajita Steak Salad recipe is big in Tex-Mex flavors

Where did I get that cool little grill?  It is a Char-Broil CB500X that I got as part of my sponsorship package for being on the Char-Broil All Star team.  I'll review it in my next post, don't let its size fool you.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

BBQ Event Wrap Up: National Barbecue Assocation 2015 National Conference - Nashville, TN

I have been wanting to attend an NBBQA National Conference and Trade Show for several years but it was always too far away and cost a little too much for my budget.  But this year the conference was nearby in Nashville and I knew that I had to attend.  

The tagline "Where Barbecue Means Business" is not just a slogan. This is not just some BBQ party that is an excuse to get away from the office for a few days. This is a serious gathering with high power, business oriented information to help the BBQ business person learn to increase revenue, bring down costs, and share a voice.

I'd love to share everything that I learned but I have over 10 pages of notes.  I'll just share one takeaway from each of the general or breakout sessions to give you just a tiny taste of the immense amount of information and resources available at this annual event.

The one downside to the event was that a small sleet/snow storm hit early Thursday morning, shutting down the Nashville Airport and actually preventing some attendees and presenters from making it. I was staying at the conference hotel so while some folks faced this while driving in...

Picture blatantly stolen from Clint Cantwell's Facebook page.  He's got a brand new BBQ website hitting the interwebs soon.
I just peeked out the window and saw this...

and decided to just do room service.  I only mention this because the staff at the Sheraton Music City Hotel did a great job in general and the Heuvos Rancheros they made on Thursday was one of the best room service breakfasts I've ever had.

Keynote Speech
The conference wasted no time in setting the business tone.  Myron Mixon, world's biggest fan of "getting paid", introduced Larry Winget. Winget is known as the Pitbull of Personal Development but don't lump him in with "self help gurus".  He is more of a "pity party shutter downer".

Excuse potato quality, I had to mix in mobile phone pics.
Takeaway:  He tore down any excuses you could have about not succeeding or not pursuing your dream.  He tore down the mystique of the archetypical weathered old pitmaster just doing the job because he is passionate about it. Sure we are passionate about BBQ but Larry bluntly pointed out...

"If you don't get paid at it, it's your passion.  If you get paid for it, it's your business!"

And that's what we were all there for.  Whether we are restauranteurs, competitors, rub/sauce makers, or authors, we are in the business of BBQThat doesn't make it evil or corrupted.  We still love BBQ but I can love BBQ alone in my backyard.  We all do what we do because we want to make money at it.  If BBQ is your business, treat it like a business.

Breakout Session: Marketing, PR, and Promotion
The ins and outs of how to get your business out there and in front of potential customers.  The session also used the recent flag controversy as a learning moment for handling a media crisis.
This was a panel session including Mike McCloud (promoter behind Sam's Club tour, World Food Championships), Paul Schatte (VP at Head Country), and Dominick of Sonny's BBQ.
Paul discussing how Head Country utilizes marketing in their ventures.
Takeaway:  Avoid a fragmented approach to social media.  Whether using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or the next book thing, all social media should be managed by an overall plan and story.

Paul Kirk, Baron of BBQ
Renowned Chef, Paul Kirk, aka The Baron of BBQ, did a breakout session on developing your own rubs.

Breakout Session: Competition to Catering - Taking That First Step Into Business
Randy Twyford of Twyford BBQ & Catering discussed their experiences and his advice for someone ready to make that leap to catering.  This was a great session for anyone even considering catering as Randy discussed tools, ideas, and even software that has helped them.
Randy Twyford

Takeaway:  Jump on the growing trend of Home Replacement Meals as a caterer.  Sell HMR packages from a set location once a week to generate revenue and spread awareness of your catering services.

Awards of Excellence 
Awards were given in several categories of commercially available BBQ sauces, marinades, and rubs.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Green Peppercorn Encrusted Manhattan Filet

The French classic, Steak au Poivre, is probably my favorite "non-grilled"  steak recipe.  You would think that the big chunks of black pepper would make it overbearing but I think it is just perfect.  This recipe is a variation of Steak Au Poivre.

Green Peppercorn Encrusted Manhattan Filet
Served with garlic green beans and twice baked red bliss potatoes with bacon crumbles.
When my sister, aka "Nibble Me Sis", was in town for a week, she declared that this was the best steak she had ever tasted. The ingredients and preparation are very simple so you want to be sure to use a quality beef since it will stand out.  You'll also need some type of flat grilling surface, like a cast iron plate setter, grilled or pan.

Green Peppercorn Encrusted Manhattan Filet
Serves 4

  • 2 New York Strip Steaks 
  • 1 tablespoon finely ground NMT Beef Rub or other beef rub
  • 2 tablespoons green peppercorns, coarsely crushed
  • 1-2 tablespoon black peppercorns, moderately crushed 
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  1. Preheat your grill to 450°F.  Place the cast iron skillet or griddle in the grill to preheat also.
  2. Trim off excess fat from the steak and cut into half lengthwise, resulting in 4 filet total.  Tie around each filet with butcher's twine.
  3. Season each side of the filet with the finely ground beef rub.  Place the cracked pepper (green and black) on a plate and then pressed each side of each steak firmly into the pepper so that a crust adheres to the meat.
  4. Place butter in the skillet or griddle and sear the steaks about 2 minutes per side (see notes).  
  5. Switch the steaks to a raised rack and put them back on the grill with the dome lid closed.  Allow the steaks to roast until they reach your desired internal temperature.  I was going for 130°F for medium-rare and it took about 7 more minutes after the sear.
  6. Allow to rest (or don't) and serve.

steak on cutting board with spices
Since this has few ingredients, you want quality meat.  This time I was using a Meyer Natural Angus NY Strip (Choice) branded as Greenwise at Publix.
I have written about Manhattan filet before.  Essentially you are taking a New York Strip steak, cut it in half, and then trim the fat from around the filet as pictured below with my super graphics.  I like the Manhattan because it is a more reasonable portion.  It looks like a tenderloin filet on the plate but it has the texture and beefier taste of a strip steak.  For Manhattan's you'll want to start with a thick strip steak, about 1 1/2 inches is best.

trimming a Manhattan filet

Do you tie meat only to have it spring loose as you try to tie the second knot?  Start off with your first knot being a "double overhand" or "surgeons knot" (two passes through the loop instead of one) and that will hold as you tie the second knot as shown above. See the surgeon's knot against the steak is firm as I tie the second knot, a simple overhand knot.

NMT Beef Rub
For steaks, I grind my NMT Beef Rub finely as shown in the upper left.  For briskets and chuck roasts, I use very coarsely ground like on the right.

My pepper grinder won't ground coarse enough for my liking so I crush the peppercorns by pressing down on a mallet.

The green peppercorns are much softer and have a rich, mellow taste that goes insanely well with beef in my opinion.  So I like it much more coarse than my crushed black pepper.  I like to use a 50/50 mix but if you don't like heat you can use 75% green and only 25% black peppercorns.

pepper crusted Manhattan filet
You want to get as much pepper to stick as you can get it, it will form a crust.

filet on cast iron plate setter
Here I was using a cast iron plate setter.  You definitely need to add butter/oil because you want the peppercorns simmering in it a bit.  I've tried au Poivre straight up on a dry heat grill and it usually burns instead of forming a crust.

If you don't want to mess with the rack, you can just cook the steaks 3-5 minutes per side on the cast iron.  I like using the two step process, you want the crust dark, not burned.
Note:   If you use a skillet, you can make a peppercorn cream sauce that is fantastic.  Just add a splash of whiskey or brandy and flambe it, letting it burn until concentrated.  Add some shallots and garlic to cook for a few minutes then deglaze that with some beef stock.  Let that reduce to half.  Stir in cream and a tablespoon of cold butter.  Season with salt and pepper and drizzle over the steak.

Another option would be to compliment this steak with my Green Peppercorn and Blue Cheese Sauce.  Personally, I like it straight up without any sauce other than maybe a compound butter on top.

steak, grilled, kamado steak, Big Green Egg steak

Sigh...I could go for a bite of this right now.