What happened in Vegas

The perks of being a food writer don’t generally run to the glamorous. You get to work at home, at any hour, in your underwear. You don’t have to worry that your coworkers notice that you’re wearing the same jeans for the fourth day. You can write off your chicken feed.

Every now and then, though, somebody cares enough about what you write to invite you on a trip. The purpose is to introduce you to a place or product in the hopes that you’ll write about it. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to go to a salmon farm in British Columbia, a food festival in Reykjavik, and a guest lodge in Yellowstone.

You can’t do it in your underwear but, hey, I can adjust.

I must be living right, because the people at Kingsford charcoal have invited me to Kingsford University, with its curriculum of barbecue education, not once, not twice, but four – count ‘em, four! – times.

Part of the reason they keep inviting me back, I suspect, is that I’m a true believer. I used to think charcoal was just charcoal – I mean, really, how different can the various brands be? But all it takes is a line of grills, each with a different kind of charcoal, to see that the difference is remarkable. If you think I’m just drinking the corporate Kool-Aid, try it for yourself.

This time, Kingsford University was in Las Vegas (Kingsford is a NASCAR sponsor, and they brought us to the track). I was there with about twenty other writers from around the country, and we spent a couple of days with people who really know grills, food, and how to bring them together.

Chief among them is Chris Lilly. If you follow the competition barbecue circuit, you know Chris because he wins all the time. If you don’t, but you’ve been to Decatur, Alabama, you know him because he’s the proprietor of Big Bob Gibson’s, a barbecue joint good enough that Kevin, when he was driving across the country back in January, planned his route via Decatur.

Competition barbecue is to my barbecue what those NASCAR cars are to my pick-up truck. The pros use huge, expensive, elaborate cookers that have lots of ways to regulate smoke, temperature, and airflow – and cost tens of thousands of dollars. We use a regular Weber kettle grill, and we think we’re all that because we retro-fitted it with a thermometer. Sometimes, if we’re going really high-tech, we accessorize with an aluminum roasting pan with holes cut in it.

So what if we don’t have a thirty-thousand dollar trailer with three kinds of cookers and a giant TV? (The one we used was made by two crazy Mexican barbecue enthusiasts named George and Victor, the brain trust behind Pitmaker.) The principle is the same. You need heat, either direct or indirect, and sometimes you need smoke. The rest is temperature, humidity, and timing.

Chris took us through some of the standards, like brisket and ribs, but what he really focused on was what wasn’t standard. We were thinking outside the meat cooler. Grilled lemonade, anyone?

Marcus Wang, from Kingsford, started with a pan of honey with a couple of sprigs of rosemary in it. This he put on the grill to warm and infuse while he tackled a big box full of lemons. He sliced them in half, dipped them in sugar, and put them on the grill. He left them there just long enough to soften and char just a bit, and then he took them off and squeezed them.

He poured the juice over ice to both chill and dilute it, and sweetened it with the rosemary honey. It was genius. Also delicious, either by itself or as the base of a cocktail. (The people from Four Roses bourbon were there, and they didn’t have much trouble convincing us that bourbon and grilled lemonade were a fortuitous combination.)

Chris made a Tex-Mex style lunch where just about every element, including the guacamole, came off the grill. I think I ate a whole jar of the grilled pickles all by myself. The pico de gallo with grilled tomatoes, peppers, and onions was great with my single favorite dish of the weekend: Loaf-Pan Chicken.

It’s a simple recipe from Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book. Take a chicken, rub it with an applesauce/Worcestershire mixture in about a 4:1 ratio. Then rub it again, with the dry rub you like with chicken – just make sure it has sugar and salt. Paprika’s good, too.

Put the chicken in a standard loaf pan, breast side up. Put it on a grill over indirect heat, at about 300 degrees. (You can add wood chips for smoke, or not, depending on your preference.) Cook until it’s done (about 165 degrees, or when the leg twists fairly easily), about 2 ½ hours.

The combination of the dry heat from the charcoal and the liquid that collect in the pan makes for a moist, fall-of-the-bone bird. I’m going to try putting chopped collards in the bottom of the pan, the way I do for my clay pot chicken.

Kevin and I will be doing a lot of outdoor cooking this season, and we’ll be using Kingsford’s newly launched site, www.grilling.com, for reference.  It’s got some of Chris’s recipes along with the rundown on burgers, ribs, vegetables, pork, and just about anything else you’ve ever considered grilling or smoking.  I’ll also be turning to the site of my new friend Meathead, of Amazing Ribs. He’s been experimenting, backyard-style, with grilling and smoking for many years, and he’s funny to boot.

As the weather warms, Kevin and I will be playing around with charcoal, wood, and some of the ideas I picked up over the weekend. And, operating under the principle that what happens in Vegas should be disseminated far and wide, I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, I’m on my way home, and I just can’t wait to get out of these clothes.

18 people are having a conversation about “What happened in Vegas

  1. In Australia the trend for BBQ has been exclusively towards gas, and for a number of years. Sure it’s quick, easy, safe and boring. I even thought it was good. Then we had a chance to live in Switzerland for a while (for work) a year-or-so ago. As the seasons warmed, our two local supermarkets started barricading their doors with walls of bagged charcoal.

    So needing something for a picnic we bought a $20 nano-webber-knock-off BBQ. I fired up the charcoal with my portable blowtorch (every man should have one). Completely ignorant, and devoid of any style, I grilled our chicken thigh fillets and Switzerland’s best sausages over glowing carbonised wood. It was a shaky start – Is that too hot, that chunk isn’t burning. Move this, put that on the hot spot. Oooh there’s a flare-up! Et cetera.

    The result: perfection! If you know anything about the price of meat in Switzerland, then you know anything except a perfect meat job is a terrible terrible waste.

    The taste of food cooked over charcoal is so much better than that which is cooked over gas. I have never BBQ’d on gas since. And while it might take a little bit of prior preparation and planning, it sure is worth it. I will admit though, that it’s difficult to BBQ your onion on a grill (can’t have a BBQ without onion).

    PS> Tell us about Reykjavik! (But keep the fermented shark to yourself :P)

  2. Tell you what… I just opened a nice Pinot and I will do my best to save you a glass.. come home to me baby, Vegas has nothing on this place.

    • I was going to mention Meathead and Amazing Ribs! I went looking for a ribs recipe and luckily happened on his site. Made the Memphis Dust and followed his method (even though it differed greatly from Steve Raichlen’s, which we were watching a lot at the time) and the ribs were really. really. good. I’d never done ribs before and I see no reason to do them any other way, because they were just right the first time. Meathead has a couple of mustard-based barbecue sauces that I want to try. Fro some reason, you don’t get mustard sauces on the west coast; they seem to be a strictly southern thing, or maybe east coast (haven’t been to New England). I miss mustard sauce.

      I will try the loaf pan chicken, simply because I think Steve would love it, and I think your collard greens idea sound yummy. Loves me some greens. It’s starting to be spring around here, which means grilling season is just around the corner!

      And we tricked out our Weber with thermometer too. I got to dill the hole for it.

      Glad you had a great trip!

      • Meathead here: Thanks for the kind words! The mustard sauces are a German import (mustard and pork are like peanut butter and jelly) and they are pretty much confined to a band from Columbia SC to Charleston SC, with some spattering down into Georgia. German immigrants were big in SC and a lot of the best BBQ joints still have German names. I’ve been using mustard sauces on brined pork chops and just posted my guide to chops and the recipe. I even keep some on hand for hot dogs!

        Tamara really impressed me with her expertise, genuineness, lack of pretention, hearty laugh, sense of humor, and the fact that she seems to be devoid of dogma. She has a very sensible and practical approach that too often takes otherwise smart people into religious-like funks. Glad to hear we share your attentions, Paula.

  3. Thanks for this post Tamar! I have spent copious amounts of time learning from my Dad, and this Kingsford site, I hope, will be a great resource. And that man of yours, he has the right idea. I will definitely try the loaf-pan chicken! What an idea. Similar to beer can, but likely a little less messy.

  4. Great post Tamar. Bummed we did not get to join you this year, from the looks, and sounds of it, you had a great time. Glad you were able to get out of the east coast cold and warm up over the pits in Vegas!

    • The longest-running BBQ event in Massachusetts is being held again this year at Peters Pond Campground in Sandwich on Sunday, June 12th. The best teams from all over the northeast will be competing for prizes.

      If you’re in the area stop by.

      Dave Frary – IQUE

  5. It was great meeting you at KU, Tamar! Or should I refer to you as the “Fastest Chicken Deboner of the entire event” ?

    BTW, I tried getting on the bus in just my underwear but Nick and Spencer wouldn’t let me 😉

  6. It was great meeting you this weekend, Tamar! I am not hispanic (half-korean), but I will take that as a compliment. Loved hanging out with you and we will have to do again!

  7. I already knew not to go to work in my underpants, but everything else in this post was news to me. It’s absolutely fascinating what is being done with a concept as seemingly simple as cooking meat with fire and smoke. That you for sharing the BBQ news from Vegas. I’m earmarking one of my meat chickens for the loaf pan technique.

  8. Kingsley — Yes, there’s nothing like charcoal. It’s kind of like a stick shift vs. and automatic. With a stick, you’re *driving*. With charcoal, you’re *grilling.*

    But what happens in Reykjavik stays in Reykjavik.

    Paula – Yeah, what Meathead said. I couldn’t have told you that.

    Meathead, thanks for covering for me, and for the kind words. And for putting your vast barbecue experience online at http://www.amazingribs.com. Useful, smart, engaging. I’m in.

    Brooke — That’s exactly what loaf-pan chicken is, only contained! Let me know how it goes.

    Chez Us — Sorry you weren’t there! We did manage to have a good time without you, but it was touch and go there for a while.

    Dave — Thanks for the info! I had no idea. That’s about 5 minutes from my house, on the pond that I grew up on. Kevin and I wil definitely check it out.

    Chris — I’m very glad you were there. Part of the reason I like going on these trips is that I meet people who do what I do, from all over. That’s how I know Chez Us, above, and now you and Meathead. Keep nibbling!

    George! What a bonehead mistake, and one which I apologize for. Victor talked about being Mexican, and I assumed you two were practically brothers. Just goes to show. (But I notice you don’t disavow the “crazy” part.) I sure hope our paths cross again — like when I can afford to put a Pitmaker cooker on our property!

  9. Jen — Aw, come on, you shot that fox in your underwear! Yes, readers, Jen literally shot a fox out her window, in her underwear. (You can read about that, and the rest of her adventures, at http://www.milkweedandteasel.blogspot.com.) I do recommend outer clothes, come haying time, or when barbecuing. Let me know how your chicken comes out.

    • Oh I forgot about that. Maybe I don’t know enough not to wear just my underwear to work. And then post images on the internet. I will take your sage advice and be sure to wear clothes when I barbeque.

  10. I have been a lifelong Kingsford user and never heard of the grilled lemonade and bourbon idea. I like it! Since I only live a few miles from Four Roses, and Jim Beam, and Maker’s Mark distilleries, I can envision multiple trials being required before going on to Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, and Knob Creek. Might even go visit Booker Noe with that idea. Maybe if I was still under 30 (or even under 40)! Since I don’t drink much, if anything, anymore…I guess I will just have to stick to the modern old hillbilly standard fare on the grill: Beef, Pork, Chicken, Fish, Game and vegetables. Oh wait, what do I want for dinner: Meat and dough. What do I eat for dinner: Veggies and salad with enough meat to tease, or fish and chicken with veggies. Getting old is not for the fainthearted. Neither is real grilling over burning wood. Glad you had some fun and CBF (Charcoal Briquettes Forever)!

  11. Brooke@foodwoolf says:

    Well said. The event was spectacular and spending time with you and the other BBQ enthusiasts was wonderful. Thank you for such a well-written wrap up. You’ve got me scratching my head on what new perspective I can add! (back to the drawing board….)
    Yours in Kingsford,

  12. i would like to title this comment “you’re holding it wrong”. so, grilled the honey w the fresh rosemary sprigs. cut the lemons right off the tree 10 feet away and dipped in sugar, grilled until charred, juiced over ice, poured in honey.

    its good lemonade. well no. its lemonade. we didn’t get a grilled flavor, or the rosemary…. basically….it seemed like a lot of work for nothing terribly discernible. that said, i’d do a taste test with regular, ungrilled lemons and sugar and taste the different.

    • Possible your fire wasn’t hot enough? Were there nice black grill marks on the lemons? Did the juice have a smoky color? When we did it, there was definitely smoke. Although you gotta love a recipe where the worst-case scenario is lemonade.

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