Category — Entertaining

How to Grill Chicken

There’s something quite primal about cooking over fire – tossing something raw over smoldering coals, hearing the fat sizzle as it melts and drips into the flames, the smell of wood and meat and smoke comingling briefly before being carried off by the breeze of a slightly chilly spring evening.  Three years ago, one of the deciding factors in our electing to purchase our first home was our leasing company’s ludicrous prohibition on outdoor grilling – those were dark years, and I swore to never go that long without grilling ever again.

I now have my own deck, and on it sits a steel monstrosity forged in the very bowels of Amish country, three hundred pounds of black metal that serves as my mechanism for transforming meats into meals.  My name has become a grilling word.

I used to think that everyone knew how to grill, but now I’ve come to reconsider my presumption after having witnessed the embarrassingly cringe-worthy performance of someone who was unfamiliar with charcoal and afraid of fire.  I’ve never seen a situation where more food ended up under the grate, withering away on the coals, than on the grate where it belonged.

So, with that, I’m presenting a short primer on how to grill chicken -  specifically, chicken thighs.  For newcomers to the thrills of outdoor cooking, chicken thighs are fairly forgiving, because their uniform size and shape, combined with the amount of fat that is laden throughout the meat, means that there is a very low likelihood of ruining dinner.  And with the long Memorial Day weekend coming up, there’s a good chance that more than a few of you will be grilling for a crowd.

When you’re shopping for chicken thighs, try to select pieces of poultry that are roughly the same size, to ensure that they will all cook at the same rate.  When you get them home, rinse each piece under cool running water, then pat dry with a paper towel, season with salt and pepper, and transfer to a plate for transport to the grill.  Pick up a nice bottle of barbecue sauce, one that’s hopefully not too sweet and not packed with corn syrup, or make your own.

About an hour and a half before you plan on eating, start your coals, preferably in a chimney starter (which allows for the preparation of coals without the chemicals of a liquid starter – hover over the link for a picture).  I presume you are cooking with charcoal – if you aren’t, I can offer no guidance, since I’ve never used propane.  Once the coals have turned ashen, about 20 minutes, spread them in your grill, mounding slightly on one side, and set your grate into place.

Now comes the part of grilling that’s filled with fun and danger.  Using tongs, place your chicken thighs, skin down, on the grate over the higher portion of the charcoal mound.  Squeal with delight as the fat from the chicken skin drips into the fire, causing massive flareups!  Don’t panic – just take your tongs and move the chicken pieces that are over the flareups to the side of the grill that contains fewer pieces of charcoal, and wait for the flames to die down.  Every so often, move the chicken pieces around and flip them over – your goal is to achieve a nice char on both sides of each thigh.  Treat it like a big game – the fire wants to eat your chicken, and you have to play keep-away.

Once all of your chicken is browned, with a nice, crisp skin, move the thighs to the cooler part of the grill (skin up) and close the grill by setting the cover on it.  Open the vents slightly to let air through.  During this time, the grill will act as an oven, roasting each chicken thigh to doneness.  Since the thighs are dark meat, they will remain moist even if left in the grill for a few minutes longer than needed.

You’ll notice that I haven’t yet called for barbecue sauce.  A lot of novice grillers make the mistake of putting their barbecue sauce on their chicken/ribs/whatever too early, which only serves to insulate the chicken from browning properly.  It also guarantees that the high heat of grilling burns the sugars in the sauce, resulting in a carbonized, blackened mess.

After about 35 minutes, pour some barbecue sauce into a small bowl and equip yourself with either a large spoon or, preferably, a basting brush.  Take the lid off of the grill, flip each chicken thigh over, and splash a dollop of sauce on each piece, using either the spoon or brush to coat each chicken thigh evenly with sauce.  Flip each thigh over, so that the skin faces up, and repeat.  Replace the cover, cook for 10 to 15 minutes more, then serve.

May 20, 2009   Comments

Yes, I Made The Ratatouille from Ratatouille

I stumbled across this photo while looking through my Picasa web album that serves as the host for all of the images on The Best Food Blog Ever.  I guess I uploaded it with the intention of writing about it and never did.  Since all I’ve seen for the better part of a week, when I looked out of my kitchen window, is not-melting-fast-enough piles of snow, I decided that it was time to write out-of-season again and try to pretend that we’re not weeks away from any true sense of spring.

In case this doesn’t look at all familiar, it is the dish from Pixar’s Ratatouille, which we’ve seen twice and absolutely love.  We had a dinner party planned, and I was inspired by the movie.  So, it was on one of those warm summer evenings last year that I got the crazy idea to try to replicate the titular dish from that movie.

The actual recipe that is represented here, and which appears in the movie, is Thomas Keller’s Confit Byaldi.  It’s a colorful mosaic of red, yellow, and orange peppers, tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, yellow squash, and green zucchini.

As would be expected, you spend the majority of your time in this recipe with the preparation and assembly – slicing all of the vegetables to an exacting thickness, then layering them in tight groups of seven colors in a spiral pattern in a roasting pan.  Beneath all of this is a simple tomato sauce accented with garlic, onion, and thyme, and the whole affair is liberally drizzled with a vinaigrette before being set into an oven for a couple of hours, then flashed under a broiler right before serving.

The result?  Sure, it’s pretty, but for the effort I probably wouldn’t attempt this dish again.  It takes quite a while to slice all of the vegetables (I used a truffle slicer, and even then it still took longer than expected), and in the end, the dish tastes exactly like its components – there’s no magical transformation, no ascension to some uber-level of otherworldly deliciousness, but then again Keller probably has access to better quality produce than I do.  It’s a great showcase for seasonal vegetables, to be sure, but you’d probably achieve the same overall taste with a quick chop, a saute in olive oil, and the addition of the same herb vinaigrette.

February 10, 2009   Comments

Secret Ingredients to Make Mashed Potatoes Exciting Again

Here’s news that’s news to no one – potatoes are bland.  They belong to that same category of bland, white dishes that include tofu, grits, and rice – and it takes some special techniques to coax some culinary beauty out of your everyday spud.

For a lot of people, that means loads of butter and sour cream.  When prepared this way, the mashed potatoes are transformed into a crude delivery device for the fattier, more flavorful condiments that are mixed within.  It’s fine, really, especially when the mashed potatoes are merely an extra cast member milling around in the background of a scene starring that most famous of celebrities, Roast Turkey.  But last year, I came across a recipe that truly elevates mashed potatoes to a level worthy of all of your holiday meals.  This makes mashed potatoes the star, or, at the very least, a supporting actor.

I wish I could find the original source for this preparation – so, know that this is not my own creation, although it’s very easy to riff off of.  It may have been in one of the seasonal Cook’s Illustrated publications, or in an issue of the magazine itself.  Suffice it to say, though, that the details of the recipe are easy enough to remember off of the top of your head (as I did) and deliver a stunning rendition of what everyone typically regards as an obligatory contribution to the table.

We start with the basic components of every mashed potato recipe – potatoes, chicken stock, and butter.  But, realizing that plain potatoes are bland, and that mashing them only produces bland mashed tubers, we need to add some more flavorful ingredients to the mix in the form of parsnips and celery root.  Parsnips, which look like white carrots, carry a pronounced sweet, earthy flavor that complements potatoes quite well, and celery root contributes a hybrid spud/celery taste that adds complexity to the final dish.  We coax the most flavor out of these two vegetables by sauteing them in melted butter until they’re golden and soft.  Whereas every other mashed potato recipe will have you cooking and mashing the potatoes first, then adding melted butter and stock, this recipe begins with the butter and uses it to full effect.

It’s easy to fear celery root.  A celery root is knobby, and dirty, completely unapproachable and very hard to handle if you are unfamiliar with it.  For one thing, you can’t peel a celery root with the same kind of peeler that you use for potatoes, or with any kind of peeler, for that matter.  The only way to tackle celery root is with a sharp chef’s knife, and you’re going to feel as if you’re wasting most of what you’ve purchased – hack off the nubby, dirty end of the celery root (which depletes nearly a third of it), then carve the skin away from the rest.  When you’re done, rinse whatever remains under cool water to rid it of any excess dirt.  If you do this first, you’ll feel much more at ease when I tell you to peel the parsnips as you would carrots – something that will take all of two minutes.

You’ll know that this recipe is different the moment the parsnips and celery root bits begin to brown in the butter – the smell, a sweet, buttery aroma tinged with starchy components, will waft throughout your kitchen.  After they’ve turned a nice bronze color (easy to judge since everything starts out white as snow), add the peeled and diced potatoes, stir to combine with the butter, then add about a cup of chicken stock.  Bring everything to a simmer, then cover and let cook until the potatoes are soft enough to mash.

The wonders of this dish are many – for one thing, it only uses a single pot, and doesn’t require you to cook the potatoes beforehand.  The spuds will steam themselves done in a harmonious array of butter, stock, parsnips, and celery root.  The normally bland nature of the potatoes is vanquished by the flavors contributed by the other ingredients, none of which are condiments like sour cream.  Everything here is an integrated part of the finished dish, and not an add-in thrown in at the end to boost flavor.

Mashed Potatoes with Parsnips and Celery Root

1 large celery root (celeriac) or 2 small, peeled, rinsed, diced

2 parsnips, peeled, diced

Potatoes (estimate according to how many people are eating), peeled, diced (keep submerged in water until use)

1 stick of unsalted butter

1-2 cups of chicken stock

Flat leaf parsley and/or chives, chopped


Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat, until the butter has stopped foaming.  Add the diced celery root and parsnips and toss around to coat with the butter, then let that cook until the vegetables have browned.  Drain the potatoes from their submersive H2O prison and add to the pot, again stirring to incorporate with the other ingredients, then pour in about a cup (more for more potatoes) of chicken stock, bring to a simmer, then cover.

After 30 minutes, poke a potato piece with a fork to test for doneness.  Potatoes are done when a fork slides easily through them.  When tender, remove the pot from the heat, uncover, and use a potato masher to mash the contents of the pot.  If the potatoes seem dry, add more stock.  If the potatoes are too loose, you may keep the pot over low heat, uncovered, to simmer off some of the excess moisture – just keep on stirring to prevent the bottom from burning.

Taste the potatoes, add salt as necessary, and stir in the chopped parsley and chives.

December 4, 2008   Comments

Second Thanksgiving, Where Butter and Bacon Make Everything Better

My wife and I have never considered Thanksgiving cooking to be a chore, a task, or in any way a burden.  On a day where millions of people consult the internet, friends, and family to determine how best to tackle the immense ball of bird sitting on their kitchen counter, we’re always willing to gladly step up and happily serve the cause.

Which is why, on Thanksgiving last week, we had no idea what to do with ourselves, because we weren’t in charge of the cooking.  We had gone to my wife’s aunt’s place, and the only thing that we were responsible for were the potatoes.  Thanksgiving turned out fine, but we still left there feeling a little unfulfilled.  That night, while driving home through Lancaster County, we both decided that a second Thanksgiving dinner would be entirely appropriate.

On Friday, we set out to the supermarket and picked up a 13 pound fresh turkey and everything we needed to create our own private followup Thanksgiving.  We called friends and neighbors and invited them over on Saturday, with the explicit understanding that no matter how many people accepted, the two of us were having Thanksgiving again for our own selfish purposes.  That evening, I concocted a brine of salt, brown sugar, chili powder, apple cider, apple brandy, pureed apples, and garlic and submerged the turkey, making sure that the fragrant mix welled up inside the cavity and that no part, save for a nubby end of a single drumstick, poked out from the surface.  I started using this brine two years ago, and, instead of replacing my traditional holiday turkey recipe, it’s kind of merged with it, with amazing results.

On Saturday morning, my wife let me sleep later while she roasted sweet potatoes, prepared homemade cranberry sauce (made easily with cranberries, sugar, and an entire orange, rind, flesh, and all), and baked a pumpkin pie.  When I finally roused myself out of bed, I drained the turkey from its brine and set it into a pan, patting it dry with paper towels and letting it warm up a bit to cut down on the roasting time.  I softened a stick of butter, fried up some diced bacon, and went to the garden to fill a small plastic bag with snips of thyme, flat leaf parsley, chives, and sage.  I’m enjoying the fact that my herb garden has grown so resistant to the cold weather.

I incorporated finely chopped sage, some sea salt, ground pepper, and the bacon into the butter, mashing and stirring until I had achieved a uniform mix.  Using first my fingers, then my entire hand, I loosened the skin from the turkey’s breast meat and applied the butter mixture liberally underneath, wiping any excess on my hands across the surface of the breast, the thighs, and the legs, then applying more salt and ground pepper to the entire outside surface of the bird.  Now, sitting royally in its pan, brined throughout, well-seasoned both under and over the skin, and stuffed with a single chopped apple, the turkey was ready for the oven.

In keeping with the tradition of having a lazy day devoted to nothing but kitchen duties, I roasted the turkey at a steady 350 degrees, anticipating a total cooking time of nearly four hours or so.  I have a religious devotion to my probe thermometer, so the oven temperature is not as crucial to me as the rate at which the internal temperature of the bird rises.  About an hour and a half into cooking, I realized that my temperature was rising way too quickly – a relocation of the probe deeper into the thigh meat registered a full 40 degrees cooler.

With the turkey now set and roasting away, we turned our attentions to turning out the numerous traditional side dishes that appear on every Thanksgiving table.  I put the turkey neck and giblets into a stock pot with a dash of olive oil, then tossed in roughly chopped carrots, onions, and celery to start a stock which would simmer on the back burner until it was needed.

The timing was as perfect as we could ask for, since the turkey was ready about an hour before our guests would arrive.  I like to give my roasted turkeys a good hour or so of resting time – it allows the juices, which accumulate close to the surface of the bird during cooking, to redistribute back throughout the meat.  I set the roast aside on a platter in the warmest corner of the kitchen and tented it with foil while I prepared the gravy.

Gravy, as I may have mentioned, is an art.  I drained the fat from the pan drippings, setting the now empty roasting pan across two stovetop burners set to high.  As the residual fat grew hot and started to sputter, I splashed about half of a cup of white wine and a third of a cup of apple brandy into the pan, moving quickly to scrape all of the meaty bits up from the bottom, finally adding the defatted pan drippings and stirring.

Letting that cook down and reduce, I started a roux in a heavy saucepan – about three tablespoons of butter, melted, to which I added a quarter cup of flour, whisking to incorporate the butter.  I heated the roux until it smelled of toast, picking up the light brown hue of peanut butter, then poured the pan dripping/wine/brandy mixture into the saucepan, whisking, whisking, whisking, then finally adding a good amount of the turkey stock, watching the mixture thicken, then letting it simmer slowly for ten minutes or so.

Ultimately, we would end up serving roasted brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes with parsnip and celery root, a sweet potato casserole, homemade cranberry sauce, and that glorious cider brined sage-butter roasted turkey.  Recipes will be forthcoming later this week, so you’ll have have the opportunity to consider them in time for Christmas.  Most of the preparations come from old issues of Saveur, others from the backs of bags and boxes – I’ll list all sources so that you can save them for yourselves.

December 2, 2008   Comments

The Big Decision in November

In just a matter of days, each of us, as Americans, will be faced with a decision of critical importance, and with profound consequences.  It is a choice not to be taken lightly, for it carries the weight of generations of tradition and obligation, and the path that each of us takes will have lasting effects on how we are viewed and respected by our family and our friends.

I’m talking, of course, about making your own gravy for Thanksgiving.

I like cooking for Thankgiving.  It’s one of the few days where there is nothing else that needs to be done other than preparing the big meal, and, for me, preparing gravy from scratch is my favorite part.  It signals the turn into the final stretch of cooking, and the process, and results, are immensely gratifying.  It also throws all caution to the wind with respect to calorie counts and fat content.

The idea for this post came when our supermarket recently went into holiday mode, and with it comes many many endcaps filled with gravy in a can, gravy in a box, or gravy in a pouch.

This year, if I hear that any of you bought gravy from a store, or made it from a mix, I will personally come to your house and punch you in the head.  I’m that serious about gravy.

Before I list the recipe, let me explain the process and try to convince any of you gravy-purchasers of the validity of my argument.  Gravy, at its essence, is nothing more than a mixture of a thickening agent with liquid.  For my gravy recipe, I use butter and flour to thicken a combination of pan drippings from the turkey and stock.  That’s pretty much it, so you see why I am so vehemently against packaged preparations.

The long form is this – when start to prepare the turkey on Thanksgiving morning, I throw the giblets and the neck into a pot with some vegetables and water, and get a stock going, which simmers for most of the afternoon, extracting as much turkey flavor out of the meat and bones as possible.  When it’s time to make the gravy, I make a roux out of butter and flour, and let that cook until it’s a deep, deep brown, then strain the stock into the roux, mix it up, and keep it at a low simmer.  The pan drippings from the turkey get stirred in whenever the turkey’s done and been transferred to a carving platter.  And that’s it.

I realize that some people may be apprehensive about cooking in general, and for this reason Thanksgiving tends to kick off the holiday season of stress.  The only thing that I can think of that could go wrong with this recipe is you could burn the roux, either by cooking it on too high a heat setting or letting it cook for too long.  Remember, making a roux is the act of toasting flour in butter – some words to remember are “toast” or “peanut butter”, which are the levels of browning that you are looking for.  If you reach this point and discover that you haven’t strained the stock, or are otherwise not ready to add stock, just move the pot with the roux to a cool burner and keep stirring until it cools off a little.

Thanksgiving Turkey Gravy by The Best Food Blog Ever

Stock (can use prepared stock if necessary)
[stock] 10 cups water
[stock] Olive oil
[stock] Contents of giblet bag from the turkey, minus the liver
[stock] 2 carrots, unpeeled
[stock] 2 onions, unpeeled, hacked into halves
[stock] 3 stalks celery, broken in half
[stock] 1 Tbs peppercorns
[stock] Fresh parsley and thyme, no need to chop

1 stick of butter

1/4 cup of flour


Pan drippings from the roasting pan

Red or white wine

If you are using prepared stock, make sure you have 10 cups available, heated, and proceed past the next part.

If preparing your own stock, take a large pot and heat a thin coating of olive oil over medium heat until shiny.  Add the contents of the giblet bag (no liver) and the turkey neck and saute until browned, about five minutes per side (flip with tongs).  Throw your carrots, onions, celery, and peppercorns in, along with half of the parsley and thyme, give everything a stir, and cover.  Turn the heat down to the lowest it can go and let that cook for 20 minutes.  This is called ’sweating’ and the process extracts a lot of flavor out of the pot ingredients that would otherwise not be available by just boiling them in liquid.

After 20 minutes, add the remaining parsley and thyme and 10 cups of water.  Cover, bring the heat to high, and bring it all up to a boil.  Once boiling, you can reduce the heat and let that simmer on the back burner until you need it.  When you need it, you can either strain the solids out or just use a slotted spoon to scoop most of the solids out and use a ladle to pull out the stock you need.  Keep the giblets and the turkey neck, though.

Make the roux – in a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the stick of butter until its fully melted and no longer foamy.  If you want to live on the edge, you can even wait until it starts to brown a bit.  Dump all of the 1/4 cup of flour in at once and stir vigorously to absorb the butter (a whisk will help immensely with this part).  At first, all of the flour will clump up into chunks and balls, but as the mixture heats up and relaxes it will become more viscous.  Keep on stirring until the roux has darkened to the color of peanut butter, then add 10 cups of hot stock, whisking mightily as it bubbles and squeaks.  Once all of the stock has been incorporated, maintain the gravy at a simmer while you finish preparing Thanksgiving.

Once the turkey is done and moved out of the roasting pan and onto a carving platter, drain all of the pan drippings into a bowl or large measuring cup (or even a defatting beaker).

Set the roasting pan across two burners set to high heat (if you have a vent fan, now would be a good time to turn it on).  Using an oven mitt to hold onto the pan and give it some stability, pour a good amount of wine into the pan and use a wooden spoon to scrape up all of the bits that are stuck to the bottom.  Once everything is loosened up, let all of it cook for about a minute, turn off your burners, and (use two mitts) carefully pour all of it into the simmering gravy.  Add the pan drippings, defatted or not as is your preference (if there’s a large amount of fat, it’s probably better to defat it).   Stir it all together.

This part is optional.  If you’d like, you can now take the meat off of the turkey neck with your fingers, and chop the meat up along with the giblets.  Add all of this to the gravy, taste, and adjust for salt just before serving.

I want everyone to join the homemade Thanksgiving gravy revolution.  Feel free to email me at ddl[at] if you have any questions about this recipe.

October 31, 2008   Comments

Rising to the Occasion – Lancaster County Corn Souffle with Gruyere

I’ve never made a souffle before.  What I knew about souffles was what everyone knows about souffles – that you have to tiptoe around the kitchen and make as little noise as possible, lest you cause the delicate, puffy concoction in the oven to collapse.  I think it’s this one notion that keeps more people from trying their hand at making one.

Well, it was the end of August, and the supermarket had this immense island of corn, going for something ridiculously cheap.  I had wanted to incorporate summer corn into the menu for the engagement party, but I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to approach it.

I picked up eight ears of corn and pored through my library.  I found this recipe for corn souffle back in issue #13 of Saveur (and found online here).  I tried to scale the proportions of the ingredients to make a souffle that would fit into a larger dish, but, as it turns out, when it comes to whipping egg whites, you can’t just multiply ingredients to come up with a bigger portion.  I had enough souffle batter to fill one large dish and two smaller ones.

After popping everything in the oven, I was curious about this whole souffle thing, so I turned on the oven light to see how they were coming along.  The tops of each souffle were rising steadily, and quite impressively, and the melted gruyere was forming a nice, brown crust.  And, to dispel the myth, we made no attempt to maintain a quiet environment in the kitchen during this time – people were coming in and out, dishes were being washed, and other recipes were being prepared.  Yes, they will deflate once you poke a serving spoon into them, so if you’re going for presentation, you may want to hold off and serve at the table.

In the end, the souffles were amazing.  The larger of the souffle dishes turned out a little underdone, but the smaller ones were perfect.  As a whole, the dish was a perfect way to highlight the freshness of local summer corn, and definitely something I am eager to repeat next summer.  Until then, I’m looking for more souffle recipes – they’re cheap and easy (like all egg dishes) and can be varied to suit what’s available.

September 11, 2008   Comments

Deconstructing Dinner: Crabmeat Ravioli with Saffron Cream Sauce

A couple of weeks ago, we staged a engagement dinner party in honor of our friends Ray and Melissa of Bathtub Brewery.  Since that time, my procrastination in getting anything written about that evening has let Steph of beat me to the punch, thus giving me the freedom to explore some of the dishes that we served that night in greater detail.

One of the courses that we served was a Crabmeat Ravioli with Saffron Cream Sauce.  I had a hankering to do a handmade pasta, but the timing of my preparation made me wary of spending the afternoon cutting noodles.  As I had never made ravioli before, I decided to try my hand at a single large ravioli per person, encasing some sort of seafood filling and served in a cream sauce.  Since it’s still summer, I wanted the pasta course to be lighter – if this were happening two months from now, I’d be all over the unctuous meaty fillings.

Using the same pasta dough recipe as with the previous engagement dinner party, I rolled out the dough, progressively reducing the width of the rollers until I had reached the second-to-last thinnest setting.  In retrospect, next time I’ll take it all the way to the last setting – I like very thin ravioli, and these tended to be on the doughy, thickish side.

For the filling, I flipped through a number of sources, finally settling on a recipe for a simple crabmeat filling with carrots and tomatoes, which took all of fifteen minutes to whip together, but which then had to cool in the fridge for a while before I went about filling the ravioli.

The timesaving feature of ravioli is that you can basically just roll a sheet of pasta and use a knife to cut four-inch squares, and by that point you’re halfway done with assembly.  Using a pastry brush, I brushed the edges of each pasta square with some beaten egg, mounded some filling in the center, and then carefully laid a matching square over it, using a fork to crimp the edges to ensure a tight seal.  I placed the ravioli in the refrigerator to hold them until dinner, although another lesson learned – they dried out a bit, which may have contributed to their doughy, brittle nature in the final dish.  Next time, I may experiment with slipping them directly into boiling water after assembly, and holding them in a cooked state.

The saffron cream sauce was a quick, last-minute preparation.  I sauteed some chopped shallot in butter, added some white wine, allowing the wine to boil down, then poured in some heavy cream.  Add a pinch of saffron, bring to a boil, and reduce by half.  The ravioli were put into a large pot of boiling water for about a minute and a half, and the dish was ready to be assembled and served.

I’m not including a recipe with this entry, because there are many improvements that I can make with this dish, both in ingredients and technique, and I am reluctant to post recipes unless I can guarantee consistent results.

September 9, 2008   Comments

The Big Pig Gig 2008 – Amazingly Awesome Recap Special Edition Episode One Reloaded

Well, that was all flavors of awesome.

First, let me get some much-deserved thanks handed out.  Big thank-you to Ray of Bathtub Brewery, who, in response to the emailed question “Can you draw a pig playing a guitar?” was instrumental (hah!) in creating the illustration that serves as this year’s Big Pig Gig logo.  Whenever you are bored, try going to Hindrances to Progress, read Ray’s comic, and then weep quietly at the premature retirement of one of the greatest comic geniuses of Web 2.0.  Then go to his other site and check out what he’s doing now.  It could be worse, it could be stand-up, and homebrew beer benefits everyone.  So, thanks to Ray for the pig drawing.  It’s a special flavor of awesome.

And, speaking of homebrew beer, a huge round of applause to Tim and Steph of for brewing a special batch of American Pale Ale just for our barbecue.  It was a fantastic brew, an instant classic from the moment I tasted it, and would be my favorite drinking beer if not for the fact that I can’t get it all of the time, so I’ll settle for it being my favorite special occasion beer.  The most amazing thing about the J&D Pale Ale is that it went head to head with a Victory Festbier, and the Pale Ale keg kicked well before the Festbier did.  Overall, everything was balanced perfectly, with the kegs kicking just at the right time, so while we didn’t end up with a lot of unused beer, we also did not run out too early.  Being friends with homebrewers is loads of fun, almost as much fun as a barrel of…

Helper Monkeys! We are forever in debt (or, at least until BPG09) to the Helper Monkeys for playing our basement rock-nook.  We tried to make it as cool and comfy as possible, with rope lights and white Christmas lights strung from the rafters, old couches and folding chairs, and it was a thrill to walk into our basement and see a band playing their hearts out.  Absolutely, utterly, incomparably cool, and the basement easily fit everyone who came to the party, as well as the crowd of people who were hollering and carrying on about…

DRINK-O. Drink-O is like Pachinko, involves a bunch of ping pong balls and a board with screws in it, and hard liquor shots for the losers.  There are a lot of people in pain this morning because of Drink-O, and the jury is still out as to whether we should actually thank our neighbor Vince for constructing this monstrosity.

You’re probably wondering about the food.  Long answer short, we did not run out of food, and at the end of the night (or the early morning beginnings of the next day, if you want to be technical about it) I still had a full rack of ribs and an untouched pork shoulder left.  The crowds attacked the rib and pulled pork pile with wild abandon, which is something that I live to see, especially those folks who have never been to our thing before, and there were several contributions to the appetizer and dessert table (so much so that my beloved buttermilk pies had a total of one taker.  Thanks to whoever you are, and I hoped you liked it – but now I have one and 9/10’s of buttermilk pie to finish).  The pimento cheese was a great hit, as was the gut-killing chili that my coworker always brings every year (he actually purees the habaneros into it so you can’t pick them out, evil man).

The night was so packed with stuff that, by the time I went to bed, I had only eaten a single rib.  It’s kind of like a wedding, where you’re spending so much time walking around and talking to people that you never get a chance to sit down.  That’s what tonight is for, and as I type this, I can already smell the leftover pulled pork as it warms in the oven, along with small tins of almost everything else we served last night.

It’s time for us to eat, so I’ll end this here.  Thanks to everyone for coming and making this such a special night.

July 20, 2008   Comments

Meet the Meat

I knew there was a reason why I wanted a top-bottom refrigerator instead of a side-by-side.

43 pounds of charcoal.  Check.

28.6 pounds of pork shoulder.  Check.

24.5 pounds of ribs.  Check.

53 pounds of barbecue, coming right up.  We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

We forgot to ask if anyone was a vegetarian.  Maybe I should pick up a head of lettuce.

July 17, 2008   Comments

Counting Down to The Big Pig Gig

The road to the Big Pig Gig is paved with test recipes.  This past weekend, we stayed in and beta-tested three of the recipes that we were planning on serving next week.  One is an appetizer, one’s a side, and one’s a dessert.  All three turned out amazingly well and are a go for starring roles at the Big Pig Gig.

The unofficial theme for this year (at least in my head) is True South, and, as such, there’s more of a Southern bent to the menu than in previous years.  One true Southern staple, and a delicacy that I had a lot of while in South Carolina, is pimento cheese.  The people who I’ve spoken with around these parts all have expressed some degree of unfamiliarity with pimento cheese, so maybe it deserves a little explanation here.

Pimento cheese is a concoction of cheddar and cream cheese, mixed with pimentos and a pinch of this, a dash of that.  If I had to classify it, it’s kind of a spread of sorts, although it is very common for people to make pimento cheese sandwiches as a quick and cheap lunch.  Every family in the South has a particular recipe for pimento cheese, but often times people will just skip tradition and buy it from the grocery store.  Having had some homemade stuff down in South Carolina last week, I can tell you there’s no beating a pimento cheese made with dedication and personal pride.

Which brings me to the pimento cheese recipe that made the cut.  I came across this recipe in the book Frank Stitt’s Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill, which I picked up at an outlet store for eight bucks, but is well worth every penny even at full price.  Having flipped from cover to cover, I love this book so much I’m putting it into the sidebar for this site.

I won’t give away Mr. Stitt’s recipe here, but I can tell you that it does stick to the common pimento cheese template of cheddar and cream cheese, and is amazingly quick to whip up in a food processor in all of five minutes and provides a damn fine classic example of pimento cheese.  We’ll be serving it alongside a stack of saltines and Ritz crackers – the first batch is nearly gone, and it’s only been two days.

Act Two was a brand new recipe for cornbread.  I’ve been a creature of habit for years now, having found a recipe for cornbread and sticking with it every year for the barbecue.  That was true until we went to Charleston, and ate at the Hominy Grill, where they served a cornbread that was so light and airy, I would have given my right arm for the recipe.  As it turns out, I just needed to buy their cookbook for $12, and whoop, there it is.  By Grapthar’s Hammer, what a savings.

So, about this cornbread – my previous cornbread recipe, that which held the title of “my” cornbread for going on about five years now, was made from stone ground cornmeal, was fairly thick and dense, and had about two cob’s worth of corn kernels mixed into every batch of batter.  I thought I would never leave it.  The Hominy Grill cornbread, though, was a revelation – presented as a wedge, it was unlike any other cornbread I had ever tasted, almost cakelike in its crumb, collapsing easily into an almost creamy texture, but still retaining that Southern quality of not being too sweet.

I was hopeful that I would be able to replicate the same qualities that we had so enjoyed in the restaurant.  I found that the key to the lightness was a greater amount of baking powder than I had seen in a cornbread recipe prior – when wet, the batter was almost foamy as I poured it into the pan.  Some 30 minutes later, after taking it out of the oven, I had a sense that I had gotten it right.  After letting it cool a bit, and cutting into it, we knew that we had found our new cornbread recipe.  We whipped up an impromptu dish of honey butter and attacked the thing like it had insulted our mamas.

The last test recipe was for buttermilk pie, another dish that we had tried at the Hominy Grill and another recipe that was included in the small booklet that we had bought from the restaurant.  Made from a simple batter of buttermilk, eggs, sugar, and a little bit of lemon juice, the pie presents a light ending to what presumably will be a very heavy meal of barbecued pork (and chili, and mac and cheese, and cornbread, and red rice…) for most people attending our bash.  The recipe was easy to follow, and turned out tasting exactly like the version that was served to us in the restaurant.  So, we have our dessert, or at least our contribution to dessert, along with whatever anyone else decides to bring.

Oh yes, that, and a little something called Jack Daniels Chocolate Ice Cream.  More on that later.

July 14, 2008   Comments