Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Best Bites From 2012, Part One

What a wonderful, very filling year! Was reviewing my food snaps from the past 12 months, and, dang,  there were some mighty memorable meals.

I traveled to Hawaii and gorged on poke, mango and drank from a coconut every day I was there. Then, there was a star-studded trip to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, an epic road trip that stirred up powerful waves of nostalgia for early days in my newspaper career in Colorado. Los Angeles was a blast, especially the brilliant bites at Mexicatessan in Eagle Rock. Oh, those crispy duck skin tacos!

There are still lots of days on the 2012, but I doubt anything can top the competition barbecue I pigged out on at the Kingsford Invitational in Belle, Missouri. So, so tender/smoky/messy good!

Still, no matter how from home I roam, I come back to Seattle so pumped about the amazing food here. The spectacular ingredients, the chefs and kitchen crews with heart and drive, the stunning settings in which you can enjoy these incredible edibles adds up to a vibrant food scene that just keeps getting better all the time.

Photos from top to bottom:

Wagyu carpaccio at Metropolitan Grill.

Madison Park Conservatory's superstar chefs Zoi and Cormac (one of Food & Wine's best new chefs this year... yay!) impressing the hell out of the crowds in Aspen.

Beet "tartare" at Steelhead Diner.

The Tom Douglas catering crew making some kick-ass barbecue brisket sandwiches.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Congrats to Yazoo's Delta Q, Winner of Kingsford Invitational

Melissa Cookston and her stellar, three-person team won the "best of the best" competition, held in Belle, Missouri, last weekend. The first-ever Kingsford Invitational was like no other contest I've ever been to, as it was pretty teeny tiny. Just eight teams were vying for first prize, winner takes all of the $50,000. But these were the top teams in the nation, having won big in other competitions throughout the season.

The first clue that the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest Grand Champion was going to come out on top of the heap was when the team handily won the quick-fire one-bite challenge on the first day. Each team was charged with coming up with a compelling appetizer using just five ingredients. Yazoo's Delta Q made grilled bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with cream cheese and jalapenos. Winning the challenge was worth $5,000 and an extra point in the finals score.

On Saturday, five judges with some major BBQ chops evaluated teams on pork, beef brisket, ribs and chicken. Before the prize was announced, the panel gave the crowd a juicy preview, agreeing that it had been a mighty tough decision.

After all the boxes were turned in to the judges, Melissa and her crew invited the crowd to come do a little pig picking, with chunks of beautifully smoked meat from her whole hog placed in containers for everyone to try. A very generous gesture! It was so, so, so delicious, moist and incredibly flavorful. I tried some loin and a bit of shoulder meat, but my favorite was the meaty part of the belly, also known as bacon. Oh man.

The ribs were also out of this world, thanks to teammate and sometimes fellow competitor, John David Wheeler, whose team Natural Born Grillers is a perennial winner at Memphis in May.

Congrats to all the teams for making it to this prestigious competition! Can't wait to see who makes the cut next year!!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Top 5 Things I Learned At The Kingsford Invitational

Spent a long, very filling weekend in and around St. Louis, at the inaugural Kingsford Invitational Barbecue Competition, a "best of the best" cook-off that featured eight excellent teams that had won prestigious prizes this season. For those of us who love barbecue competitions, it was like the Super Bowl, World Series and Indy 500 all rolled into one, with a little bit of Iron Chef tossed in to keep things interesting.

The action took place in a cow pasture -- no kidding, I've got the cow pies on my boots to prove it -- in Belle, Missouri, a two-hour drive from St. Louis. Teams rolled their rigs in, unloaded their various cooking contraptions and did what they do best: treat meat with TLC, low-and-slow over Kingsford competition briquettes (yes, they make a charcoal for heated cook-offs, but consumers can buy it, too).

Rules were slightly different for this go-round, during which teams cooked beef brisket, chicken, pork and did a one-bite quick-fire challenge. The eloquent Chris Lily was the master of ceremonies -- somebody give that man a show on the Food Network! -- who introduced the all-star lineup of judges and walked us through the painstaking process for coming up with the winner. Instead of the traditional 9-point scale, judges were charged with giving the most perfect bites 13. A hedonic scale, explained Meathead, aka Craig Goldwyn, the author of AmazingRibs.com, and the man who cooked up this novel approach. (With the help of a professor at Cornell University!)

While all this cooking and judging was going on, the group of old school journalists and new world blogger types Kingsford flew out to cover the event took tours of the historic Anheuser-Busch Brewery and of the charcoal plant in rural Belle. It was fascinating!

Here are the Top 5 Things I Learned on this calorie-packed trip:

1. Kingford's charcoal briquettes are made from sawdust, a mountain of it. (Pictured above.) Pretty cool way to recycle a waste product, don't you think? The mostly automated plant at Belle runs 24/7 and the crew takes great pride in their record of clean emissions. It was neat to see the whole process, walking through that vast facility, where the sawdust is cooked down to the rock-hard briquettes before being bagged and stacked on pallats that soar two stories high in a 20,000 square foot warehouse. I've always been a Kingsford fan -- I have tried most of the other brands and experimented with lump, too -- but this made me even more enthusiastic.

2. A sprinkle of orange Tang gives grilled chicken a perfect golden hue. So says Los Angeles based cooking champ Harry Soo, aka Slap Yo' Daddy BBQ. Can't wait to use try it.

3. Grilled pickles! Chris Lily's ridiculously delicious grilled bread and butter pickles made me jump for joy! Wow, how freaking novel is that? That pitmaster also impressed the thirsty folks at the bar with his Smoked Lemonade, spiked with Makers Mark. Fill 'er up, please.

4. White Lily flour is no longer made in the South, but milled in Ohio. I went searching high and low for the best material for making biscuits so I could tuck it into my suitcase, but came up empty.

5. Barbecue brings people together. Actually, I already knew this, but it was reaffirmed during this two-day contest. There's nothing more special than talking to team members who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of the perfect bite of Q. Most of these folks have day jobs, but spend every spare moment working on their craft. I met guys from Detroit and a seasoned pitmaster from Virginia, who are white-hot passionate about what they're doing. It takes an amazing commitment of time and money to compete, and while teams might stress as they're putting together the "blind box" that's going to be set in front of distinguished panel of judges, you can tell that part of the reward is hanging out and talking barbecue, right down to the most minute detail. It's easy to see how you could get hooked. I'm happy as a pig in you-know-what to be an observer and a chronicler of this "sport." Go teams!