Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving Menu... and the Day After

Ahhhh, Thanksgiving was all I hoped it would be! Me, Mrs. Bullfrog, and the tadpoles spent most of the morning at home preparing a dessert dish and doing some general picking up in preparation for my Father-in-law.

Once the dish was ready, we headed to my wife's in-laws, who happen to be Filipino, and were greeted with a traditional American menu:

Turkey, ham, stuffing, smashed 'taters, yams, and rolls.

But it didn't end there. Much to my delight and expectation, they had also prepared some Filipino dishes:

Pansit (fried noodles with veggies and chicken) and "gramma" was busy in the kitchen making pork lumpia, which is a fried egg roll. She loaded it with pork and garlic and served it with a spicy sweet and sour sauce which was a perfect accompaniment. She then proceed to laugh at me when I started perspiring due to the spiciness. To me, food is spicy enough when you are eating with one hand, and dabbing your forehead with the other.

Of course there were many desserts like lemon meringue (not a HUGE fan, but I sampled it), pumpkin pie, raspberry cheesecake, fruit salad, and the absolute most delicious: Mrs. Bullfrog's double-layer pumpkin cheesecake, with a Pecan Sandie crust and caramel glaze. She makes this all from scratch, and varies the crust between graham cracker and this latest experiment of crushed Pecan Sandie cookies which was excellent. On request, I may be able to talk her into sharing so I can post the recipe here.

As if that weren't enough eating, we also decided to make food the day after Thanksgiving for family that were traveling to see us. Here is what we prepared:

BBQ Spareribs (recipe to follow shortly), homemade BBQ sauce courtesy of the Mrs., Bratwurst grilled and boiled in beer and grilled onions (they love a good jacuzzi), and a candied pecan, bleu cheese and apple-pear salad that was amazing! This was accompanied by chocolate-dipped fruit and another double-layer pumpkin cheesecake.

We cooked all day and everyone really enjoyed the food and the company, so I would call it a raging success!

Now we have some walking to do to burn off all this good grub!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Wax Philosophic With Me: What is Barbecue?

First, let us take a moment to talk about the difference between barbecuing and grilling. Grilling is cooking quickly over high heat, and imparts flavor through caramelization, and some smoky goodness if you are grilling over charcoal. Barbecuing is cooking food slowly over indirect heat usually with the addition of smoke. For the purposes of this discussion, grilling will be excluded, although I will be posting recipes for grilled food on this blog and welcome grilling discussion.

The word "barbecue" means different things, depending on the person you ask. To some, it brings to mind meat slathered in sweet sauce with a side of coleslaw (and lots of napkins, of course). While to others it is used in the more general sense to describe a party where cooking outside plays some part. I have spent a lot of time on countless websites that are dedicated to this subject and what I have seen covers the whole spectrum. One thing is for certain: when it comes to "Q", just like religion or politics, you have your hardline zealots who believe no sauce should ever touch meat (EVER!) and you have your liberal-minded cooks who just want to eat good food and don't care about convention or tradition.

Some of these guys are serious about barbecuing, from the grill or smoker they spend thousands of dollars on, to the method of preparation that is used to tenderize and flavor meaty goodness with low heat and smoke. Debate is heated at times, and I am sure feelings get hurt, but overall I have met a great bunch of guys that just like to eat good food. A good number of regulars out there are actually competitive cooks and a lot of money can be at stake. I suppose if $10,000 were at stake, I would be that serious too.

As is my usual bent on any topic, I fall somewhere in the area of moderate when it comes to barbecue. I am somewhat traditional, and believe the product that comes out of your smoker or grill should taste good all by itself and sauce should be the extra something that adds an extra layer of flavor. It isn't about the sauce to me. If you think meat is just a vehicle for a good sauce, I say just save time and money and eat the sauce. Don't spend your hard earned money buying spareribs at $3 a pound so you can boil it and drown it in your favorite store bought barbecue sauce. Instead go buy a delicious McRib. As to the type of sauce, I prefer the sweet sticky kind, and I always (or rather Mrs. Bullfrog) make sauce at home. Making sauce is really easy and fun, even the kids can help, and you can tweak it to your liking. If you are in a pinch, go ahead and spend $4 on a bottle of ketchup and brown sugar, just don't let me see (I'm closing my eyes). Some Southern barbecue traditionalists insist that only the thin, vinegar flavored sauce is appropriate for good barbecue (heard of it or had it?), and I will reserve judgement as I have not tried it.

I am a purist when it comes to certain methods of food preparation, like par-boiling for example. The mention of par-boiling makes me cringe. This is a simple one to explain: if you are, at any time, boiling a piece of meat, poultry, or fish, you are making stock. You are transferring flavor from the food to the water using heat, which means the flavor is not in the meat anymore. When I am talking to someone about barbecue and the conversation turns towards recipes, they inevitably start with, "First I boil..." or "I like to shorten the cook time, so I start by baking..." Sigh... If you are in the house boiling or baking anything, are you barbecuing? I assume I don't have to answer that.

So let's at least agree that to be barbecuing, you have to be outside standing over an open flame of one sort or another.

Which brings a subject of much debate: gas, charcoal or wood?

Personally, unless I am grilling weenies or burgers, I cannot picture myself using gas. It sort of takes us back to the "being outside" statement I made earlier. In terms of flavor, what is the difference between cooking in the house using your gas stove and cooking outside on your gas grill? Okay, you are outside and the grill marks, while they do take practice to master, are appetizing and somewhat impressive. Other than that, not much flavor difference unless you are real creative. If convenience is more important to you than patiently creating a delicious product, you are not worthy of barbecue and may go now, hand over your apron. Just kidding, keep reading.

The key difference between gas and charcoal is that charcoal makes heat and flavor at the same time! Gas only makes heat, and it does that consistently with little bother. While keeping a good fire going using charcoal and maintaining consistent heat is generally more work, I reckon it is worth it in the end. As for wood burners, if you have access to a good wood in your area I hear this is a great way to go. I live in San Diego and it is pretty hard to find a good wood source, not to mention "stick burner" smokers (at least the ones I would consider purchasing) are out of my reach financially.

So for me, charcoal it is. But for the purposes of this debate and for future recipe posts, I will concede that using a "gasser" is acceptable, and I will include creative ways to add smoke to the equation when using a gas grill.

Smoke really is a key component of flavor and what differentiates good barbecue from bad. When you eat at that really good BBQ joint that taste so much better than the ribs you got at Chili's, it is likely smoke that made that difference. So learn how to use it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Joy of Cooking

I have blogged about this subject before, but I was inspired to get this blog going again and this seems like a fitting way to re-launch it.

My interest in barbecue is rooted in a more general interest I developed in cooking early on. My mother taught my brother and I to cook at a young age and, once she was confident no one would be harmed in the process of cooking or eating the food, we both had a night each week when we were responsible for cooking a meal . From there I cooked out of necessity and although I found some joy in it, I didn't have the love (or the money) as a young man to really get passionate about it.

It wasn't until 1995, when I became very ill and was physically disabled and unable to work that I developed a real interest in experimenting with food. How, you say? I was bed-ridden for a period of 8 months (see upcoming autobiographical blog) and watched hours of television. Part of my daily viewing schedule was the Discovery channel and the Food Network because I eventually got bored watching mindless talk shows or sitcoms (okay, I was really into Days of Our Lives too). I would always watch "The Essence of Emeril"; this was when Emeril Lagasse first got started and it was a typical cooking show, just him, food and a camera. He didn't start throwing food and yelling, "Bam!" until later, which is also when I stopped watching. A couple other shows I would watch religiously were "Great Chefs, Great Cities" and "Great Chefs of the West". They were both similar, touring the world watching talented, and sometimes well-known chefs do what they do. It was mostly gourmet, which never appealed to me as I feel there is too much emphasis on presentation, but what they do with food is amazing. The pastry chefs and confectioners (candy chefs) are particularly interesting to watch.

Through repeatedly being led through the process of cooking, including prep and presentation, I got over the inhibitions I had about cooking. I think I was always a little afraid to really cook and seeing it happen made it seem easier and peaked my interest.

I started with easy stuff, like pasta with sauteed chicken or shrimp. I did pretty much everything sauté, and would add fresh vegetables, experimenting early with fresh ingredients like garlic, onion and celery as opposed to using powdered spices. Dried herbs and spices definitely have their place, like marinades and rubs, but I like the depth of flavor fresh stuff brings.

Around that time I was befriended by my supervisor at work who saw some potential in me to be a good student. He was definitely a "Jack of All Trades" and enjoyed sharing what he knew with someone he thought would appreciate and use what was learned. He spent years as a sous chef for big hotels and taught me alot about prep work. Through this I discovered that the preparation of the food before cooking was more fun than the cooking itself. I enjoy knife work and the various methods of preparation: slice, dice, julienne, chop, etc. He also taught me how to make asian food like egg rolls, fried noodles and even sushi. Most of what I learned then I still use to this day, like how to cut an inexpensive piece of meat so it is tender and delicious. Very useful stuff.

I have never enjoyed baking or confection as there is too much measuring involved. I generally keep it simple when I cook and try to use only fresh ingredients. A typical meal at my house with me in the kitchen is pretty much any kind of meat, poultry, or fish; a starch, usually rice; and vegetables which are steamed in most cases, although I love grilled veggies as well. I have gotten away from frying pretty much as I am watching what I eat for health reasons, but I do make fried chicken occasionally. I still cook the stuff my mom made when I was growing up, like meatloaf, shepherds pie, and macaroni and cheese, but I put my own twist on it (don't tell my mom, but I like my fried chicken better than hers).

My foray into barbecue, which inspired this whole blog, started about 2 years ago. It is yet another way to prepare meat and poultry, and I love everything about the process: buying a good grill or smoker (I love toys), being outside, lighting fires, tending the fire (which is why I don't use gas), and of course the amazing flavor imparted by smoke (another reason I don't use gas, no offense to you "gassers"out there). My specialty, and Mrs. Bullfrogs absolute favorite, is pork spareribs (recipe to be shared soon). I started out with these early on and learned later that they are supposedly the most difficult to prepare well. I seem to have a knack, so they are my stand-by. I also barbecue chicken (white or dark meat), fish, and have started setting my sites on larger cuts of meat like pork shoulder, pork butt, and the like. My ABT's (Atomic Buffalo Turds) are pretty good, but due to the potential for heart attack of eaten too often I save those for special occasions.

In my next post, I will explore the broad spectrum of the subject of barbecue. Stay tuned!