Category Archives: Appetizer

Bacon Wrapped Smoked Meatballs

When you love bacon, meatballs, smoked food… why not combine those things and celebrate Opening Day of the Cardinals season?

Start with the meatballs. I love meatballs.

2+ lbs. ground (un-tubed) salsiccia
1 cup Italian bread crumbs
1/2 to 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 finely minced medium yellow onion
2 eggs
Generous squirt of ketchup
Slightly less generous squirt of yellow mustard
Few jostles of Worcestershire sauce
Multiple dashes of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
Handful of shakes of Slap Ya Mamma brand Cajun seasoning
Couple tsp. Italian Seasoning
Sprinkle of sage

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Un-balled meatballs

Turn that bowl of mush into a wad of mush with your well-washed hands.

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Wad of pre-meatball

Form into 1″ or so meatballs. I set mine up on baking paper on a cookie sheet.

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Meatballs, just like your stereotypical Italian grandma used to make

You’re going to wrap each meatball with some bacon. I selected National Champion Bacon from Swiss Meats in Swiss, MO. Have you ever been national champ at something? Probably not. If you were, it was something lame like tennis or chess, not freaking bacon. This stuff is awesome.

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Thick Cut Bacon. America.

Toothpicks were necessary to keep the bacon wrapped. One each per bacon strip / meatball.

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Yes.

Onto the 22″ Weber Smokey Mountain you go, along with the extra bacon and a dozen or so chicken wing drummettes.

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What a lovely day for smokey BBQ.

To smoke the meat, I have some Missouri pear wood. Never cooked with pear wood before, but it was free from a friend who decided a pear tree needed to be trimmed and/or die, so into the fire it went. What a wonderful smell that wood smoke generated.

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About an hour in…

As time passed, I watched a little baseball and drank a little beer.

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Good things coming soon.

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About 1/5 hours in.

The WSM kept at about 200-220 throughout the smoke. Since this is ground meat, particularly ground meat that had been thoroughly churned with my bare hands, I needed the instant bacteria death temperature of 165 for the center of each meatball.

Around the 2.5 hour mark, the BBQed meats were about done.

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My experiment is complete!

Things are looking good here.

I never flipped or turned or moved any meatball. Just the smoke and indirect WSM heat slowly brought each one up to the final temperature.

Since the meatballs varied by size and were in different locations on the grill grate, they didn’t all hit 165 simultaneously. A few went into the 170s and 180s while the last stragglers caught up to the safe temperature. No matter – the BBQ wasn’t so hot as to dry out and burn the early bloomers.

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Bacon-wrapped smoked meatball – final product

They looked good and smelled good. But, were they juicy and flavorful?

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Bisected smoked meatball

Yes, they were! I failed to capture it here in the above picture, but there was a very subtle pink smoke ring around the meatballs.

They had very much of a traditional Italian meatball flavor and texture, but had a robust (yet not overpowering) smoke flavor. They were moist and succulent. The bacon sliced nicely with a dull steak knife and didn’t get tough or crispy. Pretty damn tasty if I say so myself, and I am a hard critic of my own food.

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The results

Garnish options abound. I had half of it unsauced, and gave the other half a try with some Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce. I tried another later with some beer mustard. It was all successful.

BBQ leftovers aren’t very common, but a few of these made it to Monday and they held well in the fridge. Warmed at 70% power for 1 minute, they nuked well and needed no sauce garnish – stayed plenty juicy and tender.

This is an easy recipe that produces a unique, flavorful BBQ experience. Everyone who came over for the baseball game enjoyed them (even though the game didn’t go so well).

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Smoked Chicken Bacon Cheesy Fajita Wrap

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

A few weeks back, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that SugarFire Smokehouse had placed in Memphis In May for some kind of smoked chicken bacon cheesy sushi dish. I gave it a shot a couple weeks ago on vacation as an appetizer for our fajita night, and we were met with rave reviews.

The wife told me to “take it easy” and “not go crazy” on the BBQ this 4th of July, so I made fresh salsa, grilled a bunch of gourmet sausages, and made the smoked chicken bacon cheesy fajita wrap for my extended family.

Step one is the bacon weave, this time a full pound of Tyson pork bacon (since it was on an insane sale of $2.99 for a 1 lb. pack), hosting at its center a pounded-flat boneless skinless chicken breast (this one being a little over 1o ounces).

Bacon weave and flattened chicken breast

Bacon weave and flattened chicken breast

On that went a washed, seeded, and thinly sliced Anaheim pepper, and a quarter of a sweet yellow (Vidalia) onion, cut into liberal long slices.

Peppers and onions round out a fajita

Peppers and onions round out a fajita

And on top of all THAT went some pulled mozzarella string cheese (two sticks) and a couple slices of pepper jack. I didn’t want too much heat, since a variety of people would be eating this – including a couple people who aren’t down with the hot peppers.

Cheesy does it

Cheesy does it

When wrapping this contraption, I pulled the bacon edges nearest to me into the center of the cheese slices and then rolled the whole thing forward. This may allow the cheese to slide around two sides of the bacon.

I didn’t bother closing up the edges since they went so far beyond the ends of the chicken and other contents.

Wrapped and ready for smoke

Wrapped and ready for smoke

My weave / wrap went onto a Weber 22″ set up for indirect smoking with large hickory chunks.

Time to drink some beers

Time to drink some beers

While this smoked, I drank some amazing beers that I muled back from Florida. That we can buy neither Oskar Blues nor Dogfish Head in St. Louis is ridiculous.

After 45 minutes, I rolled it over. After barely over an hour, it was fully smoked. Importantly, the digital temperature probe read well over 165 in all locations that I tested. It’s ready to rest.

OMG that looks nice

OMG that looks nice

After about 10 minutes of resting, I sliced it at an angle and rang the appetizer bell.

The middle pieces are nice, but the ends are excellent

The middle pieces are nice, but the ends are excellent

Cleaning up the scraps of smoked crispy bacon was hard work. I barely hat time to get pictures.

If you make this, here’s a tip: In addition to getting a center piece, make sure you also get one of the ends. It’s more bacony than cheesy, and it’s gluttonous.

The meats of my labor

The meats of my labor

Everyone who had it loved it, and I offer my sincere thanks to SugarFire for inspiring this slight variation on their idea. Make this – you’ll not regret it.

I hope you had a wonderful and save Independence Day, full of beers, meat, family, and fireworks.

Happy 4th from Webster Groves

Happy 4th from Webster Groves

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BBQ Joint Review: Wild Smoke House

Is it fair to judge a BBQ joint based on its first day of business? Its first hour of business? Look, you tell everyone on Reddit that there’s a new BBQ place in town and I’m going to show up on opening day.

Is it fair for me to consider ribs and brisket to be a suitable and universal baseline comparison between all BBQ restaurants? Those are the two things that I’ve found require intense levels of skill (based on trips to restaurants and on personal experience), and so those are the two things I try to get at every BBQ joint gauge that joint against all others. Two kinds of meat, two distinct flavors, lots of patience and talent required, etc. If you do both well, you’ve got your act together.

These two things in mind… I present my review of Wild Smoke House in Creve Coeur, MO.

As usual, I phoned my father with news that I needed a BBQ sampling partner and he was all too happy to oblige. On a late Tuesday morning we ventured together to the site of a former Culpepper’s, just west of I-270 on the south side of Olive.

Wild Smoke? I like smoke!

Wild Smoke? I like smoke!

Clearly they spent some cash renovating this place. Things are nice and new and clean. Cloth napkins holding my silverware!

Cloth napkins!

Cloth napkins!

Cowhide (or cowhide prints) for booth seating!

Moo. Ok, maybe no cow actually died for this booth. A bunch died for lunch, though.

Moo. Ok, maybe no cow actually died for this booth. A bunch died for lunch, though.

Woah, some kind of RFID laser-tag system that differentiates my table from the table two feet away? Order and pay first and then take this thing to your seat. Ok, sweet.

Hey, we're No. 1! Also, this is apparently not a coaster.

Hey, we’re No. 1! Also, this is apparently not a coaster.

So a ton of high end stuff went into this place, and it looks literally nothing like the Culpepper’s that was here before. And there’s lots and lots of people working there. And the hostess is unnecessarily hot. But, how is the food?

Background on this place is that it’s owned by winery people who also run Edge Wild in Chesterfield, where their smoked food apparently sells well when on the menu. And they are collaborating with some guys who won a recent chicken wing championship. Great… how about a brisket and pork platter with slaw and an order of onion rings?

It came out VERY quickly after ordering.

My lunch: Brisket ribs and slaw (with pickles)

My lunch: Brisket ribs and slaw (with pickles)

Dad’s a big BBQ chicken fan.

Dad's lunch: chicken ribs and slaw (and also some pickles)

Dad’s lunch: chicken ribs and slaw (and also some pickles)

And we love onion rings.

Ginormous onion rings and sauce

Ginormous onion rings and sauce

And they provided us with a sampling of four home-made BBQ sauces (and also had a squeezy pump of ketchup adjacent thereto).

Shiny new sauce dispensers. None of this "bottles of sauce on the table" shit!

Shiny new sauce dispensers. None of this “bottles of sauce on the table” shit!

Impressive in their diversity.

Four sauces, none like the other

Four sauces, none like the other

On to the food:

Beef Brisket – Very thinly sliced, including a big fat cap you find on untrimmed brisket. I saw some really nice color on a couple slices (see below), but for the most part there was no smoke ring or color.  The ring is a chemical reaction, and the lack of it is not indicative of a lack of smoke, but the ring looks nice.

Wild Smoke's Brisket

Wild Smoke’s Brisket

This is not your typical brisket. When you go to PM BBQ, Pappy’s, Sugar Fire, Hendricks, etc. you get a tender bite of meat sliced a certain way with certain flavors. Variations between those traditional BBQ briskets are rubs, injections, tenderness, color, etc. Wild Smoke gave me ultra-thin slices of brisket that had no detectable smoke flavor and had zero of the tender bite of a normal sliced brisket. Literally unexpected.

I can only describe it as roast beef. Now, this was utterly succulent and tender and juicy and flavorful roast beef, but unless I knew from ordering it and watching them slice it that it was BBQ brisket, I would never ever have guessed as much. Put some jus on this and stick it on a sesame bun, and you’re eating a kickass roast beef sandwich. There was a nice pepper finish to the meat. I just was expecting traditional BBQ brisket.

The rockin’ steak knives that we got were useless with the brisket. The serration depth of the knives was greater than the than the thickness of the cut of the meat, so cutting pieces of the slices was not very effective. Just stringy tearing and shredding; no cutting. The steak knife was effectively another fork. Just a plain old knife would have done fine. And a useful knife would have been nice due to all the fat cap I trimmed. (Yes, the cap adds flavor during smoking, but I don’t want to eat all the fat.)

Baby Back Ribs – With my brisket they gave me three thick but short ribs. Before slicing the slab, they applied some kind of rub that had a nice little heat finish after each bite. Great flavor and some nice pink color.

Great looking ribs

Great looking ribs

The convex arch meat of my first of the ribs had a literally perfect bite. When I sunk my teeth in, there was the most subtle tender tug back but nothing pulled off the bone. It was like biting into a firm yet yielding slice of meat bread. I even photographed it to memorialize.

Great bite of pork!

Great bite of pork!

Sadly that was the only perfect bite. The lateral side bits of rib were not quite so tender and needed some teeth gnashing and tearing. The other two of my ribs were also not particularly tender. It’s a shame because the flavor was spot on and the color looked great. Maybe STL style ribs would have fared better? Maybe something else in the process needed to be controlled more tightly?

The reason I use pork ribs and beef brisket as a baseline is because it’s extremely hard to make them perfectly consistently. My ribs were not consistently perfect, in fact neither consistent nor perfect. Pretty good, but given the local competition in pork ribs, these pale in comparison. The bar is set high. Very high.

Onion Rings – Yes, you only get three, but they are three humongous hemispheres of fried onion. Great crunch of thick batter and perfectly salted, but they were a little greasy. The sauce was… not so good. Too heavy and rich and the flavor didn’t match the salt / crunch of the rings. Just discard the sauce and use the rings to sample the BBQ sauces. Three to an order is plenty for a two person appetizer.

Cole Slaw – What, uh, what the heck is going on in this slaw? It’s loaded with sunflower kernels and white raisins. The veggies are crisp (borderline crunchy) and there’s a little more carrot shred going on here than I’m used to. It’s both creamy and vinegary, instead of just choosing one, and I cannot put my finger on whatever other flavor they tossed in here, or maybe it’s the white raisins.

To steal a rant from Adam Carolla, iced tea is really good and doesn’t need innovation. Lemon wedges were about as innovative as we needed with respect to iced tea. Then some people started putting passion fruit into it (looking at YOU, Schlafly Tap Room), which is needlessly screwing with a wonderful thing that didn’t need abusive tinkering. At least at Schlafly when you order it they say, “Oh, it’s passion fruit iced tea. Is that okay” so you have a chance to say, “No. No, that’s not okay at all. I’ll just have a beer even though it’s 11am and I have to go back to work.” That’s what happened here, but no one said to me, “Listen, we do some goofy stuff with our slaw and you probably actually want the beans. Just a heads up.”

Someone is getting really cute with cole slaw and I just don’t understand why. My dad liked it. Nay, he LOVED it. (He’s hopped up on pain meds these days.) But, I was a little perplexed. You see clever cooking shows where someone reinvents a classic or puts their spin on a popular dish… that happened here, but instead of the judge (me) saying OMG this is amazing, I’m just making a mental note: never get that again.

Pickles – Firm and tart with a great cucumber flavor not overpowered by brine. Reminds me of a home made kosher pickle. I really liked these pickles.

Sauce: Showdown – Super sweet and evocative of an overly patronizing attempt at an STL-style (according to Kraft foods) bottle sauce.

Sauce: Tennessee Zed – Tarter and pepperier than the Showdown sauce, and thankfully less sweet. I guess it’s the best of the lot, which isn’t saying much. The only Zed I know of was in Pulp Fiction and had questionable interests.

Sauce: Carolina Peach – How did this go?

Me: I love yellow Carolina sauces!

(samples sauce)

Me: This is not good.

No, it’s not mustardy at all. It’s kind of tart and sweet and goopy. Really the texture is totally off. It’s got as much in common with a traditional Carolina sauce as maple syrup, which is to say they’re completely unrelated.

Sauce: Root Beer Molasses – Ok please stop. Tasted like a root beer barrel candy with some pepper in it. So odd and it made no sense to me at all. Why?

On a scale of Yuck to Yum, these sauces averaged a Meh, borderline Blah.

Summary: I really really wanted to like this place because I consider myself a meat optimist and I want STL to be a haven to superior BBQ. This place is just different and not my style at all. Maybe it will succeed with flying colors by doing things that are not just outside the box but several dimensions outside the cube.

Don’t go there thinking you will get brisket and slaw and have the BBQ lunch you are used to. You’re getting someone’s attempt to try new things, which I can respect. Those new things just aren’t my thing.

Will I go back? Yes, for a couple reasons. First, it was their first day and there are bound to be kinks that need working out. Second, I will try other things on the menu to see if maybe there are some more traditional BBQ experiences that I might enjoy. There’s enough badass normal BBQ joints in town to satisfy my needs. If you want a totally different experience on BBQ or maybe regular BBQ isn’t your thing and you want to see someone else’s take on it – then this place is for you.

I’ll go once more to (likely) confirm my impressions from this review. In the meantime, this place should probably trade off of its uniqueness. Not for everyone, but maybe it has a home in STL. I’m all for diversity. I sincerely hope they do really well and anchor that shopping strip for years.

Epilogue – Hey, their beer taps look awesome!

Beers (to wash away that slaw flavor)!

Beers (to wash away that slaw flavor)!

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Smoked Chicken Wings

Santy Claus brought me a new BBQ cookbook and I need to show up at a neighbor dinner with appetizers.

Important news

Important news

How about some smoked chicken wings? Easy yum yums.

Everybody likes chicken

Everybody likes chicken

I rigged my UDS for smoking at 200 with about 2/3 a coal chimney’s worth of charcoal. Atop that hot mess I added a mix of hickory chunks and cherry chips with the intent to leave it alone for about 1 & 1/2 to 2 hours.

Who wants wingy wingy?

Who wants wingy wingy?

I figured that kiddos might prefer the drumettes while the adults can negotiate the entire three part wing. I let the whole batch smoke for about 1 hour 45 minutes, all 5+ lbs.

Smoke!

Thoroughly smoked

I got some badass color on these wings, with a single batch of charcoal and wood fuel. The UDS, quite well made if I say so, got up to about 200 degrees and didn’t need a lick of attention while I drank some beers and watched bad reruns on tv.

Two sauces were made: Traditional hot wing sauce comprising a stick of butter and oodles of Frank’s Red Hot Sauce, and Honey BBQ sauce comprising a bunch of Sweet Baby Ray’s, a ton of honey, another stick of butter, and a couple dashes of Frank’s.

I tried to roll the wings in butter and flour to fry them, but that failed, since I don’t own a cast iron skillet for frying. Instead, I dropped all the smoked wings into about 3/4″ of hot vegetable oil to fry the skin. From the frying pan, each wing went into a warm foil pan of sauce. Drumettes into honey BBQ and the full wings into the Frank’s sauce.

Hot wings!

Hot wings!

Honey BBQ!

Honey BBQ!

Super thrilling to me was seeing my son’s 7 year old friend crushing the honey BBQ wings. They were really good, with a deep smoky taste and a nice tenderness. Those hot wings grow on you, or so I was told. Truly, they were tasty wings with a nice finish and bite.

In the end, the minimal effort resulted in two kinds of tasty wings full of deep smoke flavor, moisture, and tenderness. Each well-incorporated the richness of their respective sauces. Delicious poultry that everyone enjoyed.

Pro Tip Epilogue:

I received a text from someone with far more BBQ wing experience. Smoked chicken wings don’t like to stick to sauce, unless you augment the sauce with some brown sugar. That explains why the honey BBQ sauce coated the wings well, and why the hot sauce slicked off their respective wings. In the future, add brown sugar for stickiness and perhaps some vinegar to keep the heat when doing hot smoked chicken wings.

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BBQ Joint Review: Hendrick’s BBQ

Since my law firm CFO ledger says that my father had some legal fees due, I figured he could settle up his account with a lunch out – his treat. We put on our Friday BBQ best…

The Simpsons Dapper

The Simpsons Dapper

… and crossed the river into St. Charles to visit Hendrick’s BBQ.

Apparently it’s owned by the same people who run Cathedral Square Brewery. Try their Belgian-Style Abbey Ale. If they BBQ like they brew, then we’re in for a treat.

We were tipped off about this place by a recent column written by Evan Benn for the STL Post-Dispatch online, one that listed five local BBQ joints worth a visit. That’s basically a checklist for me.

According to the article, I needed to get the (1) brisket, (2) cheesy grits, and (3) peppery slaw. Yeah, no problem.

As we walked up from the parking lot to the door, we saw an A-frame sign that let us know about the “soup of the day”.

Looks like my kind of restaurant... from the damn curb!

Looks like my kind of restaurant… from the damn curb!

Oh, yes… looks like we’ve come to the right place.

Busiest Friday lunch ever? 20+ minute wait for tables? Would we like to have a beer at the bar? No problem!

Back in the day, when I was a small child and money was tight, we went as a family to Po Folks country restaurant on Manchester near Hanley in south central St. Louis County. It’s not there anymore, but you could get your kid a chicken leg basket dinner for $1 and it included a soft drink in a mason jar (mine was always orange soda). This takes me back:

Unconventionally-served beer

Unconventionally-served beer

Pop ordered some kind of rye IPA and liked it just fine. I was in the mood for something lighter and asked for a wheat ale. The bartender, who was semi-distracted with familiarizing himself with the ever-growing wall of whiskey (er… soup?) behind the bar handed me a Civil Life German Wheat. Holy cow that’s a good beer.

As we sipped our beers and waited for a seat, we admired the decor. Everything here seems very deliberate, thoughtful… almost intentionally shabbily chic junkyard. Here’s a mason jar light fixture:

This is nothing. You should see the mussel basket lights.

This is nothing. You should see the mussel basket lights.

The bar tap handles look a little dangerous… possibly designed by Tim Burton.

You have to wonder if their Workers' Compensation liability carrier has seen this.

You have to wonder if their Workers’ Compensation liability carrier has seen this.

Yes, those are butcher knives, cleavers, etc. as bar handles. No drinking while working!

While we drank our beers and refills, amazing blues music poured over the speakers. What an enviable atmosphere.

Finally, after two beers apiece and 30 minutes, we were escorted to seats. The waiter (helpfully) reminded us that this was their busiest day ever, likely related to the aforementioned article. Food was running at a 40! minute delay. We ordered quickly.

Appetizers: Fried green tomatoes, Onion rings, & Pork Cracklin’ (whatever that is… hell, it’s $2). Oh, and refill these Civil Live beers, please.

2/3 of our apps

2/3 of our apps

I’ve never had fried green tomatoes. Without knowing what they are, in the picture above it looks like fried polenta. They were firm and flavorful. The main impression from this dish is that I should begin to experiment with making these on my own. The onion rings were solid, and I swear they used a chicken fried steak batter. The sauce was a nice complement.

Now… Pork Cracklin’

ww... www.....what?

ww… www…..what?

Fried cubes of pork belly. If there’s a simple-yet-genius pork-related innovation I’ve seen since starting this blog, the Pork Cracklin’ is that. As I chowed, my father (literally) regaled me with a story about his open heart surgery.

On to lunch… let’s see… what’s the first thing on the lunch menu:

Meat & 3. Simple, subtle.

Meat & 3. Simple, subtle.

Sounds great. Brisket, cheesy grits, slaw, and baked beans. Dad had that but sub collard greens for baked beans. Can we get a refill?

Thanks. Shadows creeping in. How .long have we been here?

Thanks. Shadows creeping in. How .long have we been here?

Our entrees eventually arrived, on metal trays that were just a colored paraffin layer short of high school biology.

Will this be worth all the fuss?

Will this be worth all the fuss?

Bonus: Ramekin of hot blueberry cobbler. Not a Bonus: Four slices of brisket? Yes, it’s a lunch portion, and yes I am full of appetizers and beer, but I expected more meat. Regardless, here’s my impressions.

Baked beans: Sweet, absolutely perfect balance of sugar and onion (not easy to do), with superb bean tenderness. Great bacon flavors. Just about the best classic baked beans I’ve ever had. Bravo.

Collard greens (one bite stolen from my dad after he oohed and aahed them): Shit, I love collard greens and didn’t know it. Amazing bacon flavor, great bite to the greens. Like a less tart spinach that got blasted in pork flavors.

Blueberry cobbler: Nice touch to the plate, not too sweet. The blueberries have a nice bite, but aren’t tart. Somewhat mealy cobbler topping, but it mixed well with the compote/filling. It was a perfect amount and accent to the plate.

Slaw: Peppery as advertised, and I got major hints of something… onion salt? Dad swore up and down that chopped green onion was in there, but I didn’t see any. The sauce was thin, and I really enjoyed the slaw. Thanks for not having a heavy hand with the celery seed.

Cheesy grits: My first impression was that they were a little too cheesy, but I still ate the whole thing. In the end, it was quite delicious. The beans are the side dish star without question, though.

My zeal for brisket brought me here. How was it?

Brisket, king of BBQ beef

Brisket, king of BBQ beef

You immediately notice the very nice and distinguished smoke ring, deep in color and surrounding each slice’s edge. The meat has a very light sear on the outside, and a part of the fat cap was left on the meat during smoking. I usually serve my brisket carved with no further seasoning, leaving that to the diner. Hendrick’s added some coarse cracked pepper-based seasoning.

Smoke line

A blurry smoke line close-up. Thanks, iPhone

Really an impressive smoke line. Even, colorful. I wonder what wood they use.

From a moisture standpoint, this was exquisitely moist and tender. Not overly tender, as I have done in the past, but pretty much perfect. I haven’t been able to get this level of tenderness and moisture into my brisket yet, but I’m working on it. This is one of the best I’ve ever had. Absolutely no sauce was needed, though we did try a little STL and Hot.

But… the one thing that bothered me about the brisket was the very powerful coarse black pepper sprinkling that they put on the finished meat. I really wanted to taste the smoke, but it was overpowered by the pepper. I got great beef flavors, but not smoke, and that’s a damn shame because you can see from looking at the meat that incredible amounts of time and care went into getting it that color, consistency, texture, etc.

So we finished our meals, and the waiter asked about dessert. None for me… until my father quite aggressively peer-pressured me into pie.

Yes, apple pie a la mode

Yes, apple pie a la mode

Yes, it was delicious. No, I didn’t get anything done the rest of the day.

So we spent about 2.5 hours and a bunch of tax-deductable money on BBQ, beer, and pie. Not a horrible way to spend your Friday. Would I go back? Hell yes, in a second. Maybe next time I get the pulled pork. Affordable, delicious, worth the wait, great beer selection… how could you not return here?

2012 Schlafly World Pork Steak Championships

One of the best days of the year for an amateur St. Louis BBQer was yesterday at the Pavilion in Chesterfield’s Central Park: the Annual Schlafly World Pork Steak Championships. I have been practicing for a few weeks on an entree and my pork steaks, and my partner, Mike, has been working on an appetizer. We’ve done this together for four years now and it’s always a blast, despite the fact that we always get too drunk and finish near last.

We got the tent set up around 8:30 or so. Say hello to everyone, Mike! Be sure to look as silly as possible.

Hi, everybody!

Easily one of the coolest CPAs I know…

Mike brought his fancy Weber 22.5″ and I brought the Big Blue smoker.

Where the magic happens

Appetizer due at 2:00pm, entree due at 2:30pm, and pork steaks due at 3:00pm.

Planned Menu:

Appetizer – Balsamic marinaded chicken kebabs, paired with a porter beer

Entree – Smoked steelhead trout BLT paninis, paired with an IPA

Pork Steaks – Smoked for about 2 hours at 200 degrees after a dredging in a mustard/beer/brown sugar paste, followed by a brief sear on each side

Competitor Meeting at 9:30am:

No foreign objects allowed, as in no kebab skewers. Also, you can garnish as much as you want, contrary to what the rules said. Also, beer sales are at 12:00 noon, and apparently you could have brought your own package beer after all. Mike was totally bent out of shape by all of this.

Appetizer: (Sorry, but I didn’t get any photos of this)

With some input from my wife, Mike changed things on the fly to lettuce wraps with the chicken and some grilled veggies. He also changed the beer pairing from a dark beer to a summer lager.

Mike toasted peanuts in a foil pouch, grilled some bok choy (Chinese cabbage) and bell peppers, and grilled his chicken as usual. It was all chopped up and tossed in some large leaf lettuce with peanut sauce and dry asian slaw.

Frankly, the appetizer was delicious. We all liked it, but apparently the judges didn’t find it top ten worthy. It was probably Mike’s best effort to date. Good work.

Entree:

I generally followed the recipe from a few practice sessions ago when we first tried the smoked steelhead trout BLT paninis. Both huge filets were generously covered on the non-skin side with Lawry’s seasoned salt and coarse black pepper.

Simply seasoned fish

Due to some grill space issues, one of the cedar planks had to be put on the Weber 22″ over indirect heat and the other had to go on the smoker where the pork steaks (discussed later) were already in the midst of a hickory wood smoke.

Smoked steelhead trout, skin ready to come off

As entree assembly time approached, only the fish on the smoker grate was ready to go. The one on the Weber was underdone. This would turn out to be a critical piece of fortune.

After about 30-40 minutes of cooking, the skin peeled right off in one piece and the fish was ready for a little more cooking.

Skinned fish filet

The BLTs were assembled with the pre-cooked thick-cut maple bacon, some real mayonnaise, arugula, and vine ripened tomatoes, all on white ciabatta bread rolls.

Set up and ready for fish

After putting generous, massive pieces of fish on each sandwich, I put the assembled sandwiches on the smoker and used a paver brick wrapped in foil as a panini press.

While the sandwiches finished, we tried the remaining filet. Much to our surprise, the flavor was much richer and buttery than it had been in the past. Something about the two wood smoking and the drum smoker as opposed to the Weber improved the fish dramatically.

Then, after each side of the sandwich got a pressing, we pulled them and cut each in half. Six individual servings were required.

Paninied sandwiches

They looked good. They tasted amazing. I felt pretty good about my chances. If nothing else, I made something delicious and was getting excited to make some sandwiches for the group once the other filet finished on the Weber.

I needed to pair it with a beer. What better to go with something sweet and smoky and full of fish than an IPA? I selected the Goose Island IPA as my pairing.

BLT w/ Fish

I turned it in and was pleased… despite the pork steak fiasco. Read on.

Pork Steaks:

The plan was to replicate my prior successes at making pork steaks by dredging them through some paste/mud of mustard, beer, brown sugar, pepper, spice, paprika, etc.

Dredge paste ready to go

Each of the pork steaks, and the only gave us three this year, was liberally coated.

Pork steaks in their spicy mud bath

Rubber gloves for food safety. After all, the county health inspector is around.

Safety first. Pork hands are not good.

The witches’ brew of hickory smoke billowed from Big Blue. The time for pork steaks is at hand.

Catastrophe coming…

The pork steaks met the smoke about 2 hours before turn in time. We were busy getting the appetizer and entree prepared and they are a low-maintenance dish. Little did I realize that the temperature was climbing, rapidly and dangerously.

Big Blue usually sits at 200 degrees, barely going over 225. Today, however, it rose to 300 then 350. When I finally realized it was at 350, I knew I was screwed.

Oh crap

In the part trial runs, these things were ready for a flip and continued smoke at an hour. After two hours, they were super tender, hyper-moist, and very flavorful. My plan was to give them a brief sear to get some BBQish crispiness on the outside, at about 2 minutes per side or less, after the smoking was over. No point now.

What a nightmare. I was quite dejected, a feeling that passed later for reasons you will read. Eventually, as explained below, I figured out why this happened. Basically this was the low part of the day.

I cut six slices from the least awful pork steak and turned them in with zero expectations of success. The other two were inedible. Time for a shitload of beers and some contemplation how this freak accident happened.

Awards Ceremony:

Whilst we waited for them to announce the awards, we hit the craft beer tent pretty hard.

Beer tent. What a nice way to spend a 95 degree day.

Mike caught up on his summer reading.

Scandalous! Fabulous! OMFG S&M!

They announced the appetizer winners without mentioning us. Damned shame, but better luck next year.

As a quick aside, my expectations were low. While we were prepping our pork steaks, the guy next to us came over and let us try some of his Tri-Tip that he turned in as his entree. Holy MFing Shit, it was amazing. Juicy, flavorful, perfectly cooked. If this is what I am up against, then I’m screwed.

Much to my pleasant surprise, I was announced as the Third Place winner in the entree category!

Third Place is better than nothing!

It was my first BBQ trophy that didn’t involve something that’s apparently unethical, like parboiling pork ribs.

Obviously we were thrilled!

Hooray

Oh, and I didn’t place in the pork steaks. They sucked. I knew they sucked when I made them and turned them in. I seriously messed up, as explained below. Whatever. I was happy to win something for the entree.

Epilogue:

Not to ruin the story, but I was already dead in the water with respect to the pork steaks and I didn’t know it, before ever showing up that morning.

The night before the competition, I thoroughly cleaned out Big Blue. For weeks, I had been practicing with a lining of BBQ drippings, ash, coal, etc. all cemented to the bottom and lower walls of the smoker. It had been performing consistently and in a manner that I could control and predict. I don’t know why I cleaned it out; I just did.

During the competition, the temperature spiked uncontrollably a few times. It went up to 350 out of nowhere and stayed hot. Even after dousing the fire and closing the baffles, it jumped to 400. Two of the three pork steaks dried out and the third was a mediocre shadow of my previous practice successes. A total fiasco that left me puzzled until I had a eureka moment in the middle of the night last night. Dammit. Live and learn.

Still, a great time and a good finish.

Mike was annoyed about the change in the package liquor rules. According to the original entry form, we would be disqualified if we had outside package beer or liquor. Tons of people had outside package beer and liquor, but not us. I mentioned to Mike that every prior year we had gotten blasted and someone had burnt themselves (usually Mike) and we had turned in sub-par food. This year we stayed bright, drank tons of water, and turned in some wonderful food. He begrudgingly agreed.

Now would be a good time for a beer. This one was awesome:

Matilda by Goose Island, my celebratory beer (among many)

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Mushroom Misfortune

My semi-ambitious Super Bowl BBQ Menu included a stuffed mushroom appetizer. I was psyched to try this recipe.

A 10 oz. package of baby portabella mushrooms gives you about 14 bellas. It’s easy enough to pry out the stems with a little finger pressure to the side, done while washing them under some running water.

Clean and ready to get stuffed

You only need half of a 4 oz container of crumbled gorgonzola. Each baby bella will only take 3-5 big crumbles. You need room for the muffaletta salad.

Salty hash

Muffaletta salad is basically a chopped mixture of olives and other antipasto. This one had a couple types of olives, artichoke hearts, pimento, among other things. It makes a great sandwich spread with salami. Each mushroom got a heaping tablespoon of the salad. Then I wrapped everybody in bacon.

About to meet a tragic end...

I have made this recipe before in the oven with no bacon, mozzarella in place of gorgonzola, and olive tapenade instead of muffaletta. It’s a quick, simple appetizer that’s rich in flavor (and sodium).

The BBQ plan was to put these on a wood soaked cedar plank and give them 15 minutes or so on indirect heat. I assembled all of the mushrooms on the plank, set it on the counter, and went outside to check on the other food already on the grill.

Unfortunately, the family dog had acquired a taste for bacon after eating her Super Bowl BBQ doggie treats. While I was tending to the Weber 22″, Sam got on her hind legs and ate 12 of the 14 raw bacon-stuffed mushrooms. I caught her in the act and blurted out something along the lines of “Holy shit, Sam, what the hell are you doing?” or perhaps something far more profane.

Prime Suspect, caught in the act (File Photo)

I tossed the dog slobber-covered cedar plank. I cooked the survivors indirectly with some hickory smoke for about 10 minutes. They were great.

The thing to remember about this appetizer is its saltiness. Bacon, muffaletta salad, gorgonzola cheese … all salty. This is a high sodium appetizer, so have a beer in hand to wash things down accordingly. And keep the damn dog in the basement.

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