Saturday, July 26, 2014

Smokin’ in the Valley

Maggie Valley, NC, is the perfect location for a barbecue festival in the summer. In July, a good event in the South depends on sunny and warm weather, and Maggie Valley in the mountains offers days that are warm but not too hot with lots of sunshine.

Cooking teams set up the night before in the festival grounds of Maggie Valley
In July the maximum temperature is 82 degrees. At night the thermometer reading usually drops below 60, so cool temperatures in the evenings also offset the daily highs. In addition, the risk of rain is low. July is the driest month in the summer with only 3.7 inches of rain. With these conditions, the organizers of Smokin’ in the Valley, which proclaims itself as the Western North Carolina BBQ championship, couldn’t ask for more favorable conditions.

Smokin' in the Valley proclaims the Western N.C. BBQ Champion.
Smokin’ in the Valley is an event that local residents look forward to attending each year, even though Maggie Valley has a full summer schedule of exceptional events that annually draws repeat visitors. The motels, lodges, and inns fill up quickly, and I had to call several places before I found one with a room available (fortunately a reservation had just been cancelled).

Food vendors do a brisk business along the path to the music stage.
The most attractive part of Smokin’ in the Valley is not the weather but the crowd enthusiasm. The line to get a tray of samples by the cooking teams is long, but everyone waits patiently. Can you imagine standing in line for up to an hour to vote in the People’s Choice category?

The reward for standing in line to vote in the People's Choice category is
a tray of tasty samples prepared by cooking teams.
The event is held on the festival grounds (where parking is easy) of Maggie Valley next to charming Jonathan Creek, a regular destination for trout fishing because it is part of the Mountain Heritage Trout Waters Program. When Smokin’ in the Valley occurs, the grounds become a singular destination to browse through mountain arts and crafts and enjoy food from vendors (my favorites were cornbread salad and root beer float) that complement the barbecue sold in the People’s Choice contest. People arrive early and linger for hours to enjoy the music.

Mountain music performs throughout the day on the festival grounds.
Many entries that I judged were excellent, an indication that many cooking teams had been competing for years. Several earned high scores for appearance. For taste and tenderness, most beef brisket entries were excellent. Even judges who are die-hard pork aficionados considered the beef briskets as good as any other barbecue in the contest.

The judges tent is quiet before noon when the first meats arrive.
Maggie Valley is popular for more than barbecue. Several judges that I talked to were also dedicated motorcyclists, who had applied for this event to combine their interests in judging barbecue with riding mountain roads. The highways in this part of North Carolina are known not only for their scenery but also for their twisting turns and changing elevations. This area has several scenic journeys, including one with 318 twists and turns in 18 miles (known as “The Dragon”). In addition, some judges took time to visit the popular collection of vintage motorcycles on display at the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley.

Backyard grillers can buy bags of wood -- pecan, hickory, cherry, and apple -- in the arts and crafts area.
A valley in the mountains is an excellent place to hold a barbecue festival in the summer. The trophies and prize money that Smokin’ in the Valley offers contestants is only part of the attraction for competing in this event.

Trophies for the reserve (left) and grand champions await the winners.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sampling and Learning at a Grilling Class

Would you take a barbecue grilling class at a restaurant owned by a highly regarded chef and graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America? When I had the opportunity to participate, the decision to sign up was easy (although it was also sweetened by a discounted registration fee). The class indicated the growing interest in personal grilling.

Lots of food on the grills were ready for tasting when the class began

The class was held at Backyard Bistro, a family-owned restaurant in Raleigh, NC, well known for several signature dishes, including beef brisket slow roasted for 12 hours over hickory wood and St. Louis-style pork ribs dry-rubbed and also slow roasted. Three stations had been set up outdoors just outside the restaurant’s patio area: one was a custom-built open grill heated with charcoal briquettes, and another was a clamshell cooker fired by gas. The most intriguing grill had been made out of a trashcan for demonstrating smoking techniques.

The simplest grill is made out of a

The class was more a sampling class than a cooking class, although a chef at each station explained the advantages and disadvantages of the setup and heat source. The class favorite was clearly the homemade trashcan grill, and the distinctive smoke flavor imparted to food cooked in it attracted the most attention.

Smoking box with hickory wood inside
the trashcan grill.

The chef indicated that the trashcan grill had been built for less than $50 in supplies, including L-brackets, temperature gauge, circular steamer grates, and a smoking box for holding wood. At the bottom of the trashcan, holes had been drilled to let in air that kept charcoal embers slowly burning to heat and smoke hickory wood pieces in the smoking box set on the coals.

Ribs prepared in the trashcan grill
were extremely flavorful.

Food smoked in the trashcan is
ready for sampling.
Lots and lots of food items were grilled during the two-hour class: scallops, swordfish, shrimp, steak, beef brisket, chicken, pork ribs, and Portobello mushrooms. Veggies included corn, blanched potatoes, summer squash, and zucchini. In addition, pineapple basted in a mixture of brown sugar, butter, and cinnamon was on the grill to show how fruit can be part of a barbecue event.

The class was brief, and its instruction was basically only an introduction for someone interested in starting to grill. Anyone with grilling experience wouldn’t gain much except for enjoying the food that had been cooked.  In fact, some seemed interested in only eating. However, the chefs did offer suggestions practical for the backyard griller:
  • Don’t pre-soak wood being used to impart a smoky flavor to avoid smoldering it and changing the smoke flavor that would be otherwise produced. 
  • Use a smoking box for the wood (rather than placing the wood directly on the coals) so that the smoke is gradual. 
  • Sear meat on a hot cooking area initially to lock in flavor and juices. 
  • Move the meat after searing to a low heat area so that cooking continues slowly. 
One of the vehicles in
 Backyard Bistro's fleet
The class attracted more than 40 participants because Backyard Bistro is also acclaimed as a regional caterer. It has a fleet of “flame-wrapped vehicles and grills” for cooking on site. Its 40-foot “Big Rig” has four 3-by-5 feet grills (large enough to cook a whole 125-pound pig each) and has fed as many as 8,000 people with 16 buffet lines going at once. Joe Lumbrazo, head chef and owner, has been selected to cook for the governor at political events. What better crew of professional chefs to observe?

Joe Lubrazo discusses meat and vegetables cooked on gas-fired grill.

The buffet enjoyed
at the end of the class.
The class was entertaining and provided information about grilling techniques and fuel sources. Watching the chefs demonstrate their pride and skill in preparing exceptional food on a grill obviously motivated the participants to improve their grilling techniques.

Grilled Pineapple 

Although no recipes were provided as part of the class, this recipe is a good one for grilling pineapple.

1 fresh pineapple, peeled, cored, and sliced into one-inch rings
¾ cup dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon honey
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

1. Mix honey, butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon in bowl.
2. Add pineapple to bowl and spoon mixture over pineapple rings.
3. Place pineapple rings and mixture in plastic bag that can be resealed.
4. Seal bag and press to continue coating each ring.
5. Marinate overnight (but not less than 30 minutes)
6. Preheat an outdoor grill for medium-high heat and lightly oil the grate.
7. Grill pineapple for approximately 3 minutes per side. Remove when grill marks appear (and be careful to avoid burning sugar on pineapple).

Note: Makes about 12 servings.

Grilled pineapple that I prepared several days after the class using this recipe.