Inside BBQ Judging

I was lucky enough to land a spot competing with a good friend last month in the Roots ‘N Blues ‘N BBQ competition. Many fans of barbecue may think the competition sounds intriguing — until you’ve participated in the competition. If you have not competed on a regular basis throughout the year, it’s kind of like getting thrown to the wolves. It’s a blast, but the stiff competition I faced in my high school wrestling career was less rigorous than this.

My barbecue team partner, Bruce (who has a much greater knowledge of barbecue), showed up Friday morning about 10:30 to start prepping the site. He brought his trailer hitch rotisserie, equipped with four rotating 5-foot wire racks that you can use to cook just about anything. When I got there after work, around 4 p.m., he was already in full swing. We’re not new to the competition; we competed two years ago and helped out a friend the previous three years. We treated the hours leading up to the evening more like a tailgate and didn’t stress about the competition too much. We didn’t start to talk about the next day’s competition until the evening’s activities died down.

Friday afternoon and early evening we fed friends and family while providing a place for them to stop between shows. We tested some ideas for the competition, but mostly came up with new things that we could cook on the grill/rotisserie. By the end of Friday evening, we had cooked eight slabs of ribs, four pork shoulders, several trays of chicken thighs, beans and numerous other small snacks. At 11 p.m. it was time to start thinking about the meats that had to be turned in at noon the next day.

Kansas City Barbeque Society, or KCBS, competitions are set up with four main categories; chicken, spare or baby back pork ribs, pulled pork and brisket. Most contests also have a Wild Card separate category that does not count into the total points; this year, it was dessert.

Judging times for most contests follow KCBS rules:

Noon – Chicken

12:30 – Ribs

1:00 – Pork

1:30 – Brisket

2:00 – Wild Card

Each turn-in window opens five minutes before the judging time and closes five minutes after, giving contestants a 10-minute timeframe to submit entries. Our goal for each category was to get there just before the window opened.

We thought each of us would cook enough portions to use in each category. Most of the time we had a group of people to taste the food. They served as our “pre-judges” to help us decide which one will fare best.

Our pork butts (the upper part of the pork shoulder that got its name from the barrels or butts used for packing in pre-revolutionary Boston, hence the name Boston Butt) had to start cooking about midnight and the briskets an hour later. We opted not to set up our camping tent and to sleep under the two 10-by-10-foot pop-up tents that we had been using to prepare food. I slept in a sleeping bag on the ground with a pillow on a parking curb; it worked well, better than you would think. This arrangement seemed to be going great until it started to rain about 4 a.m., but we stayed dry for the most part. The night was spent trying to sleep while checking on the charcoal/wood for the barbecue fire (KCBS does not allow for any constant fuel source such as propane). We couldn’t sleep much past 6:30 a.m. People began arriving to set up the 10K and half-marathon races that would start just down the street. Luckily we had a place to go to use an indoor bathroom, wash our faces, and get ready for seasoning our chicken and ribs.

While chicken and ribs were the first two items due for judging, they took substantially less time to cook. We started the rest of our charcoal and began to think about our fifth category: dessert. There was a little miscommunication in the competition packet. The packet had a due time for beans but no rules for dessert (beans had been the “wild card” the year before). The clarification that dessert was the fifth category had only happened one day ago. We didn’t have to enter the fifth category but we wanted to go all in. Our dessert decisions happened when I made a quick stop at the store on my way to the contest. I’d grabbed pineapple and pound cake, two things that I know grill well and decided we could “wing it” from there.

Until Saturday morning, we had joked about somehow adding bacon into the mix. I had also bought a large package of bacon at the store for breakfast and other snack items on Friday night. As the first item was getting ready to be turned in, we concluded that pound cake, pineapple and bacon would be the components used for the dessert.

We delivered our brisket to the judges at 1:30 p.m. and then decided it was a good time to start cooking our dessert. This was by no means a blue-ribbon dessert, but it can be put together in a matter of minutes and is a crowd pleaser.

There are three main components: cake, pineapple and bacon. It can all be cooked on the grill, but can be transferred indoors easily enough in colder months.

Pineapple Bacon Canapé

Makes 20 to 25 canapés

1 pound of pound cake (store-bought works fine or you can make it)

1 large pineapple, cut into ¼-inch-thick slices

1 pound of bacon

1 cup raw or brown sugar

Cut the pound cake into 10 or 12 quarter-inch-thick slices. Grill for 30 to 60 seconds per side over direct medium-high heat until golden brown grill marks are set. Remove cake slices from  grill and allow to cool.

Grill the large quarter-inch slices of pineapple over direct medium-high heat for 1 to 2 minutes per side until pineapple starts to soften and grill marks are apparent. Remove from grill and allow to cool. Grill bacon strips over medium indirect heat until crisp, or use previously cooked bacon. Briefly dip the cooked bacon into water and shake off excess water. Dredge one side of the bacon in the sugar and shake off the excess.

Blowtorch Option: Place sugar-coated bacon onto a pan or aluminum foil (make sure it is not on a surface that can melt). Using a blowtorch, slowly caramelize the sugar until it bubbles and start to turn dark brown, black in some places is OK.

Broiler Option: Preheat broiler on high in oven; place sugar-coated bacon in a pan or tray and position on the top rack of the oven under the broiler. Rotate pan every 10 to 15 seconds until sugar bubbles and start to turn dark brown; black in some places is OK. Remove from oven and place pan on cooling rack. Allow to cool and cut into ¾-inch to 1-inch pieces.

Cut each piece of grilled pound cake into quarters (or halves of the smaller slices) so you have roughly 1½- to 2-inch squares of cake. Cut each slice of grilled pineapple in half lengthwise, then into quarters. Stack the pineapple slices on the pound cake, top with the pieces of bruléed bacon and serve.

Variation: The pound cake and pineapple can also be cooked with a little butter in a sauté pan over medium heat until golden brown.

Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.

• To prepare the pineapple, cut off the top and base. Pare the outer quarter- to half-inch, following the eyes and curvature of the pineapple; trim deep eyes if needed after removing the rind. Slice quarter-inch slices down opposite sides of the pineapple.

• Grill sliced pound cake for 30 to 60 seconds per side until grill marks become apparent and cake starts to brown. Remove and allow to cool.

Grill pineapple for 1 to 2 minutes on each side until grill marks are apparent. Remove and allow to cool.

• Dip cooked bacon into water and then dredge in sugar to coat. Remove and place onto a pan or aluminum foil. Brulée with blowtorch until sugar bubbles and starts to caramelize.



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