Tag Archives: grass fed beef

An Inside Outsider

Millie Rambis warned me that, “They usually don’t let anyone from the outside into the judging tent, but since you’re from the outside maybe they’ll make an exception.” I was writing about the competition at the invitation of the Columbia, Missouri, Convention and Visitors Bureau, but “from the outside” sounded ominous.

Award Trophies: Grand Champion & Reserve Champion Trophies are hand painted vintage guitars

An Inside Outsider: An Exclusive at the Roots, Blues and BBQ Festival

The Kansas City BBQ Society does not allow observers inside judging tents until one Philadelphia chef and writer was given an exclusive scoop.

Millie Rambis warned me that, “They usually don’t let anyone from the outside into the judging tent, but since you’re from the outside maybe they’ll make an exception.” The very affable Millie, an event planner at Columbia’s main music venues, the Blue Note and Mo Jo’s, both owned by Festival impresario Richard King, has worked for the past year as BBQ Competition Coordinator and served as my liaison for two days of interviews and observations. From the “outside” sounded ominous, yet I guess it worked.

Fifth Annual Columbia, MO, BBQ Competition

Since midnight, surrounding the white tent that will house more than 70 certified judges, 60 teams have been diligently concentrating on preparations for the Fifth Annual Barbecue competition which is an integral component of Columbia, MO’s Roots, Blues and BBQ Festival – warming cookers with their own combinations of woods and charcoal, trimming briskets, brining chicken, applying rubs to pork shoulders and getting very little sleep.

Judge Ron Pinchott from Milwaukee tells me that, “Teams can consist of everyone from a basic laborer to a CEO. BBQ bridges all areas and genres. The competition circuit starts in February and goes to November all around the country. Some teams make their living at it.”

Bill Watkins was Columbia’s city manager, as well as being a certified BBQ judge, when the Festival was first conceived five years ago. He was an enthusiastic supporter and instrumental in city participation. “The original organizers wanted a unique event. They not only wanted to bring in the best blues music, but they wanted other things to attract people and BBQ is this All American event.” Attendance each year averages 60,000 nationwide.

All certified by the KC BBQ society

All the judges are certified by the Kansas City Barbecue Society having completed a basic course and, when time dictates, refresher classes. Some are Master Judges having scored over 30 contests and participated themselves in competitions. Certification can be achieved as young as 16 years old. Present today were judges from Wisconsin, Oklahoma and throughout Missouri. One was a University of Missouri journalism student who became a judge at 15 – just before the new minimum age requirement went into the rules. He was here with his dad.

It’s not an easy task. Barbecue is as regional and individualistic a preparation method as food can get. In central Missouri sweet tomato based sauces are favored while just a couple hundred miles east in Memphis they prefer spice rubs over sauces. In the deep South mustard based sauces are the norm and in the Carolinas they like a vinegar tang. Even wood preferences change: hickory, pecan, apple, oak, cherry and, in the southwest, mesquite.

Linda Schowalter, certified judge and responsible for the computer inputing and calculation of the scores says, “In the training, we try not to tell them how the scoring’s done, but what to look for. But to be honest, if someone were to turn in a mustard based sauce it probably won’t be scored very high because the judges here aren’t used to that. You talk to the different teams and they’ll use the seasonings of the region they grew up in, but if they travel out of their area they’ll change.” In competition they have “to please the judges.”

The Judging Criteria

Prior to the start of judging a recording summarizing the KC BBQ Society’s rules is played followed by a formal recitation of the Society’s Oath administered this day by Mike McMillan, official representative of the Society and chief supervising judge. Texture, moisture, tenderness and ease of pulling meat off the bone are emphasized.There are reminders that smoked chicken may appear pink near the bone, yet if it pulls away easily it’s properly cooked. Because of this issue I noticed a number of contestants deboning their chicken when I conducted interviews the night before. Thighs were favored because of fat and dark meat content (moisture).

Ron Pinchott’s take is, “Try to be open minded. Sometimes people put too much emphasis on presentation. We always remind ourselves we’re judging the meat, not the garnish and the sauce.” They have to mentally divorce the seasonings from the methodology.

Double Blind Judging

The procedure’s known as double blind judging. Each contestant’s styrofoam box arrives with its team number – no names – which is immediately covered by the supervising judges with a second sticker containing the teams corresponding computer score sheet number. To keep taste buds clean, no judge may smoke during the process and they freshen their palates with saltine crackers and water. No spouses or other household members may sit at the same table. Silence is enforced during judging and judges pledge, among other criteria, to have had no prior contacts with contestants that day.

Tasting the competition

Tasting the entries was not open to the general public because of Department of Health regulations, but since I was an official observer, I was allowed to sample the leftovers along with the volunteer assistants. The smoke flavors were surprisingly understated, almost subtle – not at all like one just walked out of a burning log cabin.

•The chicken, both boneless thighs and legs, were moist, tender and sweet with sauce.

• Ribs were succulent, meaty and fell off their bones. My first sample’s sweetness was complimented by an even smokiness. Yet another sample surprised me with a spicy hot pepper rub that worked well with its deep smoky flavor.

•Pork could be presented sliced, pulled or cubed. All samples were very tender and ranged from sweet to salty to salty/pepper spicy. Generally they were less smoky than ribs.

•The brisket was my personal favorite. Coming from the East Coast I’m used to braising this cut of beef. But here the fat is trimmed, rubbed with spices and/or sauces and smoked for up to 14 hours. The slices are firm – no flaking like braising can cause – the smoke flavor is subtle and the texture is butter soft. Mike McMillan commented, “This spoils even us for BBQ brisket. Most restaurants can’t afford the prep and cooking time.”

And the Winners

Grand Champion: Political Pork ($2500 plus invitation to the American Royal)

Reserve Champion: Blazin’ Blues ($1500 prize)

1st place in each category: $750
•Chicken: Spicewine Ironworks (perfect score)
•Ribs: D2 BBQ
•Pork: Muddy BBQ
•Brisket: TrueQue (perfect score)
•Dessert: Up in Smoke

And my prize was participating as the first “outsider” to get an inside look, and taste, of this hospitable and enjoyable event.

 

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Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks: Days of Food and Wine

From the moment you drive across the 1931 Bagnell Dam you know you’ve entered a different world.

Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks: Days of Food and Wine

Read more at Global Writes, the journal of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association

Columbia, Missouri: A Zou for the Lively Arts

Be it jewelry, painting, film, music, writing or culinary, 100,000 Columbians enjoy a surprisingly rich artistic life – and a lively “Zou” of 50,000 students.

Beetle Bailey and Me
Thomas Jefferson’s original tomb stone at the University of Missouri
Sycamore’s Missouri Legacy Beef Tenderloin
University of Missouri
Organic Beet Salad at the Main Squeeze Natural Foods and Juice Bar

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Great dining experiences in Missouri

Great dining experiences in Missouri: the heartland of America has more to offer than just being “that empty space” one flies over from coast to coast.

 

The Lake of the Ozarks

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Colonia: Uruguay’s many reasons why

“Better to marry a neighbor than a stranger.”
Uruguayan proverb

Perhaps that is why Buenos Aires (Argentina) is fond of calling this Uruguayan city their “48th barrio.” It’s not imperialism or condescension, it’s 300 years of history. Founded in 1680 by Portugal, Colonia del Sacramento is a mere 50 minute high-speed ferry trip across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. Colonia suffered a violent history for over a 140 years as it ping ponged between Portugal’s Brazil and Spain. Finally, with significant Argentine assistance, the former Brazilian province, known today as Uruguay, achieved it’s independence in 1828.

old town Colonia with lighthouse
oldest house in Colonia 1690

Colonia’s renowned historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the finest districts of 17th and 18th century South American colonial architecture. It is a popular tourist attraction for visitors from Buenos Aires especially during the summer as its position on the northeastern side of the Rio de la Plata provides a cooling breeze. The Barrio Historico de Colonia, within walking distance of the ferry terminal, contains portions of its fortified wall and the City Gate with its  still functioning wooden drawbridge. Original cobblestone streets radiate from the tree-lined Plaza Mayor. Shops, restaurants and intimate inns are interspersed among residential 18th century houses.

original city gate, drawbridge and fortified walls
“300 years of struggle and love”

I was visiting in late June which is the beginning of winter in Uruguay. Because of the country’s long Atlantic and Rio de la Plata coast line, Colonia was pleasant in the breezy 60’s (F.) The entire historic core is closed to traffic except for business owners and residents. Many visitors rent bicycles and scooters – many residents use similar vehicles – but it is an easy town for walking. In the summer season Colonia is as crowded as any popular historic waterfront town, especially with Argentines.

Casa del Almirante Brown

Among notable attractions are the Lighthouse and convent ruins of the 17th century Convent of San Francisco. The Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento was  constructed in 1808. The 18th century Portuguese Museum has Portuguese furnishings, jewelry, uniforms and old maps of Portuguese naval expeditions. The Casa de Nacarello, is an 18th century upperclass house museum. The Casa del Almirante Brown houses artifacts and documents of the city’s different periods and cultures. Of note is that the Irish-born Admiral William Brown was instrumental in gaining Uruguay’s independence, is regarded as the “father of the Argentine navy” and a national hero in both Uruguay and Argentina! The oldest church in Uruguay, Iglesia Matriz, dating from 1695, is found in Colonia as well.

Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento, Plaza Major

There is a new town to Colonia that is commercial and conveniently seperated from the historic zone. It continues the city’s traditional base as a trading hub between Argentina and Uruguay.

Top: new maritime terminal, historic train station Bottom: Buquebus ferry

Buquebus ferries make 5 to 6 round trips between Buenos Aires and Colonia daily from its new modern and efficient terminal at the Northern Dock in Puerto Madero (Buenos Aires). The trip takes less than one hour. Same day excursion specials are also available. From both Colonia and Buenos Aires, Buquebus ferries sail to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital.

Cafes in Colonia (yes… that is a former windmill & a dining table in an antique car)

There are dozens of restaurants in the Barrio Historico de Colonia. It has always been my experience to avoid any restaurant that has waiters outside overly eager to “capture” a tourist – of any nationality – and explain their menu. I’ll make a generalization based on hundreds of restaurant meals in dozens of countries – this tactic sends up the proverbial “red flag” that the food is mediocre and overpriced. Colonia, especially around the Plaza Major, has many such establishments. On the other hand, I am partial to restaurants that have water views, even if the menu is not extraordinary. Simple food, well cooked and presented, acquires a special aura when accompanied by a beautiful setting. Uruguay, like Argentina, is known for the excellent quality of its grass-fed cattle and natural farming methods.  In recent years there has been an increase in vineyards devoted to organic grapes and wine production.

a profusion of flowering plants even in winter

Restaurant Dos Puertos filled that criteria. Set one block from the waterfront, the outdoor seating had a clear view of the sun dappled Rio de la Plata. Even though it was winter, the temperatures in the 60’s were fine for an outdoor lunch. My first course was their interpretation of what the menu clearly said was Caprese Salad – thick slices of tomato, fresh basil with slabs of Gruyère cheese. If you are very fond of Gruyère you would be in heaven – personally, I would have liked the fresh mozzarella a Caprese Salad requires. My entrée was grilled fresh Sea Bass, simply seasoned, accompanied by a vegetable medley that had obviously come from a freezer bag, but at least they were not over cooked. It was not a memorable meal, but the service was friendly and the view relaxing.

Restaurant dos Puertos

Like most restaurants, Dos Puertos is primarily a parilla, and stacks of aromatic wood were piled on the side of the building. Pleasant folk music was piped outside. Restaurant prices are slightly higher in Uruguay than in Argentina.  If you are just making a day trip to Colonia, use a credit card rather than exchange money for Uruguayan currency. You can use Argentine pesos in Colonia, but you’ll get a better exchange rate on the dollar with your credit card, even with the bank fee. (Note: Uruguayan currency is not accepted in Argentina.)

at rest in Colonia’s harbor

With the pleasant waterfront surrounding three sides of the Barrio Historico, Colonia is well worth at least a day trip from Buenos Aires with its history, charm, cafes, sailing, shops and galleries. For a longer visit, it makes a good base to explore the beautiful countryside of southwestern Uruguay.

(Note: All photos and collages will enlarge when clicked and very large when double clicked)

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The Best Entertainment in Buenos Aires

And it’s free!

The western barrio (neighborhood) of Mataderos in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is host to the incomparable Feria de Mataderos.

Once the meat-packing district, this barrio on the edge of the Pampas rocks every weekend year round to the sounds of folkloric music and dancing, A-list performers, artisan foods, crafts and antiques. It is a must for any visitor especially since few guide books even mention this treasure!

The Puna – Produce Garden of Hawai’i

    

Top Left: Papaya, coffee beans, avocado. Bottom Left: unknown, Asian cucumber, Cacao pods

 

I was startled awake at 5:30 AM by a loud rapping on the bedroom window. It was the next door neighbor of our rented Hilo water view house telling my wife and I that we had to evacuate. A Pacific-wide tsunami warning, following Chile’s catastrophic earthquake in February 2010, had been issued. Not knowing if we’d see our beautiful Japanese beach house again, we drove the 30 minutes to Volcano National Park, 4,000 feet elevation. The Park is home to one of Earth’s most active volcanos – in an island chain born of volcanos. As we had breakfast in the tropical forest we were struck that we had fled to the sides of an active volcano to escape a tsunami. This is the fragility of paradise; an environment that allows for abundance yet it just may convulse and destroy it all. Fortunately, Hawai’i was spared this time, but that wasn’t the case in 1950.    

Hilo Market

 

Later that week we drove the ten miles into Hilo for a day at the already famous Hilo Market – founded in 1988. I was struck by the vaguely shabby feel of Hilo’s commercial waterfront. Some fine examples of Art Deco, tropical Victorian and Arts & Crafts architecture are in various states of repair or restoration. A substantial swath of land forms a buffer between the historic commercial center and the Pacific Ocean. It makes for attractive park land, athletic fields and water activities, but that’s not the reason for its existence.    

For nearly a century, prior to 1950, this land had been Japan Town, a warren of shanties and pan-Asian cooking. The legacy of Japan Town lives on in the Puna’s suburb Asian fusion cuisine. In a brief period of time one morning in 1950, Japan Town was swept into the sea by a tsunami created by one of history’s most catastrophic earthquakes centered in the same area of Chile as the 2010 event. The Hilo Market area occupies land that had been devastated by that tsunami.    

    

As we neared the market, the scents and sights pulled us quickly along.  The main stalls, flower vendors, clothing, crafts, jewelry and a seamstress radiated onto the surrounding sidewalks. The Hilo Market  is not really a building. The main stalls are under a permanent cover with no walls (fortunately or else it would feel like an oven). It’s a bustling place. Organic lettuce is sold next to carnivorous plants. Taro root’s for sale if you want to make your own poi or tapioca. Exotic fruits and vegetables from Asia and the Pacific are in abundance and require conversations with vendors and fellow market goers for preparation suggestions. It’s a riot of color, textures and sounds!    

Top pics: sweet potato cheese cake and "what is it?"

 

The fresh coconut “milk” vendor is a perennial favorite in the tropics. Fresh, iced green coconuts have their tops sliced off with a machete. A straw is all that’s needed to enjoy a truly refreshing drink. Often when finished, the soft green shell is cut in half exposing the pudding-like coconut that can be eaten with a spoon – a double treat !    

    

The multi-cultural quilt that is Hawai’i resulted in a fusion of comfort foods. During the Second World War, that marvel of canned foods, SPAM, hit Hawai’i like a rock star. Overnight, the refrigerator scarce islands of the 1940’s found a food of remarkable flexibility, even if it is lacking in other qualities.    

Tradition meets SPAM and Loco Moco: popular island breakfast

 

The macadamia nut is nearly synonymous with Hawai’i, even though it’s native to Australia. What processors do to this buttery treat is legendary, and for another blog post, but suffice to say, the nut also married SPAM.    

Macadamia: green from tree, dried and shelled

 

Farmers markets are in nearly all small towns, and even between them, on the island. The Sunday market near Hawaiian Paradise Park, south of Hilo, offers a large variety of local crafts, musical entertainment, fresh eggs, Kava (for a relaxing morning), candles and terrific poultry, beef and pork grilled over guava wood.    

    

The lush eastern half of the Big Island is a garden, and even if you are a visitor without a kitchen, the markets of Hawai’i provide not only the best and exotic but a terrific insight into cultural fusion, entertainment and certainly an opportunity to eat authentic prepared island foods.

Where to get your goat…

…and your heirloom tomatoes?  In Jenkintown, of course. Now Jenkintown, (Montgomery County, PA) hasn’t been home to a farm in a century, and when I moved here in 1984, a rather small Acme pretty much was it for food supplies. The world for foodies has changed considerably starting in the mid-1990’s. Zagara (short-lived but exciting while it lasted), Whole Foods, Produce Junction, Trader Joes, Peas in a Pod, and the Acme, are all within walking distance or short drives from anywhere in Jenkintown.          

The farms of Philadelphia’s surrounding counties – Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Lancaster and Berks – are historically famous for their products. Yet in this age of diet-by-frozen-foods, we forget that there are places within less than an hour’s drive where leg of goat (grass-fed) is available, as well as drop cherries, raw honey and Thai eggplant.              

Thai eggplant, heirloom tomatoes & carrots

 

This June, Jenkintown inaugurated a weekly Wednesday Farmers Market in the Town Square from 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM. For a variety of reasons, today was the first time I had a chance to check it out. I walked the less than 10 minutes from my house not necessarily with high expectations that I’d discover anything different from the normal stands of fresh, small-farm produce I’ve come to expect.           

It’s nice to be surprised in your own backyard. Three sizable stands of produce were brimming not only with the normal assortment. Herrcastle Farms (Holtwood, PA, Lancaster County) has an impressive display of heirloom tomatoes and the unusual drop cherry – beautiful yellow color and crisp texture. Tall Pine Farms’ (Rushland, PA, Bucks County) table caught my eye with a half-dozen eggplant varieties, including the crisp, tennis ball sized Thai eggplant that’s great in curry and stir-fry. Farmer Thad of Jett’s Produce (Telford, PA, Montgomery/Bucks County) prominently displays a sign “We grow chemical free.” Isn’t that organic? To Farmer Thad, it’s “organic” minus the bureaucracy, paperwork and high fees to be FDA organic certified. Herrcastle and Tall Pines, as well as many small farms I know in Pennsylvania, agree.             

Drop cherries

 

Not all is produce. In the center of the square at least six long tables were overflowing with cinnamon rolls, muffins, carrot cake, decorated cookies and at least a dozen savory breads including a still warm loaf of Olive Rosemary bread. This carb heaven is the work of Tabora Farm and Orchard (Hilltown, PA, Bucks County). It seems Tabora’s still a farm and orchard with a bakery that produces 160 different baked items per day!              

Tabora Farm's baked products

 

A small stand displayed raw honey, including my favorite, Buckwheat Honey. The product of Everich Honey Farm (Cedars, PA, Montgomery County), I had an informative conversation on the still real threat of Colony Collapse Disorder and the possible ties to the over use of chemicals in American farming. Coffee is in the mix as well with One Village Coffee (Souderton, PA, Bucks County) a company that takes corporate “fairshare” seriously, funding farming projects in third world coffee growing areas. A Little Taste of Tennessee (Jenkintown, PA, Montgomery County) started in April by Pat Walton, a Tennessee native is a new catering business and weekend restaurant in Jenkintown featuring the country foods of that state. At the market, they were offering Ms Ethel’s and Aunt Weeze’s nut brittle and a variety of fresh, crisp pickles – the Bread and Butter nicely under sweetened. Varieties with jalapeño peppers would probably burn my tongue off.          

Two craft stands are in the mix – one selling hand bags made with recycled material, and another table of handmade “Jewelry From a Writer, for Word Lovers” from Words at Play (Elkins Park, PA, Montgomery County). Janet Falon, a writer, creates necklaces and bracelets built with word blocks so the wearer can create a message.          

What really caught my eye, shortly after I arrived at the Market, was a mobile kitchen parked at the edge of the Square. Thinking it was a misplaced Philly Steak and hotdog stand, I finally walked up to the M & B Farview Farm (Hamburg, PA, Berks County) mobile unit to discover a refrigerated/freezer trailer selling grass-fed beef, veal, lamb, goat and pork. With a 142 acre farm (soon to grow to over 200 acres) M & B, from looking at their order form, utilizes every part of an animal offering kidneys, hotdogs, sausages as well as a full line of cheeses from both cow and goat milk. M & B’s ranching techniques would make both an American Indian and an Argentine Gaucho proud!           

Prices at the market are comparable to Whole Foods or anyplace selling premium products, but now you know where they’re coming from – your own backyard.           

           

  Herrcastle Farms, 198-A Douts Hill Road, Holtwood, PA 17532, www.herrcastlefarm.com          

Tall Pine Farms, 1046 Swamp Road, Rushland, PA 18956           

Jett’s Produce, 87 Ridge Road, Telford, PA 18969, www.facebook.com/JettsProduce           

Tabora Farm and Orchard, 1104 Upper Stump Road, Hilltown, PA, www.taborafarmandorchard.com/store/           

Everich Honey Farm, Cedars, PA 19446, (215-565-6422)           

 One Village Coffee,18 Cassel Road. Souderton PA 18964           

A Little Taste of Tennessee, 307 Old York Road,  Jenkintown, PA 19046 (215-432-8028 or 215-906-3903)            

Words at Play, Elkins Park, PA, 19027  (215-635-1698)           

 M & B Farview Farm, 229 Farview Road, Hamburg, PA