The Great Barbecue Taste Off, Part I

Since no one cares about our intense work load, our cat’s toes, or our 1,000 mile sojourn last weekend, I will now deliver the initial results of our Great Barbecue Taste-Off. It’s good to know that at least a few people are interested.

We focused on barbecue in and around Durham, most of which is the traditional eastern North Carolina variety: slow-cooked pork with a lightly spiced vinegar sauce. Debate rages over exactly how to prepare it, and especially over the question of whether the pig must be cooked over wood. Our friend Paul, who gamely joined our efforts, is so insistent on this point that he spurns barbecue joints that don’t feature smoke pouring from somewhere on the roof.

But this is the kind of dilettantish fervor that we wanted to put to the test. (Sorry, Paul.) We didn’t want to be fooled by the charm of a run-down shack on the side of the road that no one had discovered, or swayed by Gourmet’s rave reviews of the painstaking efforts of an elderly country man who raised the pigs on turnips from his garden and chopped the wood for the fire himself. We wanted to base our opinion solely on a double-blind experiment that compared each barbecue side by side and where the only deciding factor would be the taste of the meat.

Considering that all three of us are humanities majors, we were quite proud of the experiment we devised. Even Paul, who confidently proclaimed that he would easily recognize every contestant, was unable to tell which was which. (The exception was the Q Shack’s pork, which we probably should not have included since it’s too heavily sauced and uses too much tomato to be classified as eastern North Carolina barbecue.)

Below are the results.

#1: Bullock’s (3330 Quebec Dr., Durham; 919-383-3211). With an interior that resembles HoJo’s circa 1985, big crowds of diners who probably wish HoJo’s would make a comeback, a gas pit, and rave reviews from people of clearly questionable taste, I didn’t expect much from this contestant. And there was also our own visit in May, which resulted in my firm declaration on this blog that “Bullock’s is just not my favorite North Carolina barbecue joint.” But Fred and I put this entry at the top of our list because of the moist flesh and the vinegary sauce with just the slightest overtone of sweetness. (Reviewers on Citysearch complain about the amount of vinegar Bullock’s uses, but it was a plus for us.) Not surprisingly, Paul wanted more smokiness, but this entry still came in a close second for him. And all of us loved the bits of fat in the meat. Some NC barbecue afficionados sniff at pit masters who don’t pick out the fat when the meat is chopped or pulled. But I cannot understand why a people raised largely on pork fat tossed into every vegetable dish would ever complain about such a thing.

# 2: Backyard Barbecue Pit (5122 NC Highway 55, Durham; 919-544-9911). The Backyard Barbecue Pit has everything you want in a real barbecue joint: smoke, wood, pigs roasting outdoors on a site that indeed resembles your country neighbor’s backyard, and a great review by H. Kent Craig, a true barbecue fanatic. (Craig’s review also offers a wonderful descripion of the restaurant and the cook’s process.) Had I been asked to predict a winner, this would have been it. But philistine that I am, I put this at #4. Paul and Fred catapulted the BBP into #2 by placing it at #1 and #2 respectively. All of us agreed that the meat was moist with hints of sweet, and Fred was particularly impressed by the fine chop. But I missed the fat that the pit master so carefully pulls out (see Craig’s review).

And here is where the experiment began to show just how ridiculous our whole enterprise is to begin with. I found the meat “not smoky.” Paul liked the “smoky” taste, while Fred called it “spicy” and “exciting.” Though I’d placed the BBP at #4, I had to confess that on another day the entries I’d ranked #2 – #4 might have been in a different order. The good news is that there really was no bad barbecue among our contestants. The bad news is that we are not as clever as we think we are.

#3: The Original Q Shack (2510 University Dr., Durham; 919-402-4227): Only a very petty person would criticize the decision of a friend who drove all day picking up barbecue for her taste test, which she would not even let him write about on his own blog. The Q Shack serves Texas-style barbecue, smoked over mesquite and hickory with a tomato-based sauce. As noted above, it was easy to spot in the lineup, but we tried to maintain our objectivity.

Still, ranking The Q Shack was another exercise in quibbling futility. I put it at #2, Paul at #3, and Fred at dead last. We all agreed that the meat was tender. Paul described it as the most “unusual” of our entries, while Fred felt its tomato-y sweetness should have disqualified it altogether. My own hillbilly prejudices came out in my evaluation, which noted that it came in second because there was “not as much fat as A [Bullock’s].”

(Our confusion in ranking this place is matched by my confusion over which Q Shack is which, and I will eagerly accept comments explaining its history.)

#4 (tie) Dillard’s (3921 Fayetteville St., Durham; 919-544-1587). The “Official Bar-B-Que of the Durham Bulls,” as their web site proclaims, this restaurant actually serves a South Carolina mustard-based vinegar sauce. I’ve never been there and have never sampled their fare at the Bulls ballpark, so I had no opinion going in. Including this place was undoubtedly a questionable choice given the different style of preparation, but again, since Paul was kind enough to spend an entire Saturday driving all over Durham buying barbecue, it would be petty of me to complain.

I put this entry at #3, while Paul and Fred ranked it #5 and #4 respectively. I suspected it was South Carolina cue because of its yellowish tinge and found it “smoky, spicy, moist” and less vinegary than I like. Paul described it as “mild,” but Fred’s assessment best summed up our reaction: “somewhat spicy” but “dull.” It was decent barbecue, but set against other entries it didn’t stand out.

#4 (tie) Hog Heaven (2419 Guess Rd., Durham; 919-286-7447). Paul, Fred, and I visited this restaurant over a summer workday lunch and were pleasantly surprised. Like Bullock’s, Hog Heaven doesn’t use smoke. The interior, resembling an underdecorated Chick-fil-A, invites you to sit down, eat your meal, and get out ASAP, although the service was friendly, fast, and helpul. I wasn’t sure how they’d fare in the contest, but I would have given them at least 50-50 odds on winning.

In our test, though, Hog Heaven came in at #3 (Fred), #4 (Paul), and #5 (me). Its biggest flaw was dryness, and like Dillard’s, its flavor didn’t stand out. Paul’s only description was “slightly better than B [Dillard’s],” while Fred and I agreed it was not as spicy or flavorful as some of the others. Inexplicably, Fred felt it had a vinegary aftertaste, while I complained about its lack of vinegar. By now, though, you should have expected that.

Notably absent in this lineup are J.C.’s Kitchen, which I declared was my favorite Durham barbecue last year, and the legendary Allen and Sons in Chapel Hill. We do plan to expand our efforts in a future post, but we’ve learned our lesson and won’t deceive our readers with false promises again.

Apologies

We regret that trivial activities such as our jobs have prevented us from engaging in the important work of writing up our barbecue revue. We really, really will post it this week.

Fred, meanwhile, has obviously gotten light-headed from his weight loss. I arrived home last week to be met with this astonishing news.

Fred: “I got us some new Clorox wipes at the store today. I noticed there were some stains on the kitchen floor, so I wiped them up.”

I stared. I looked at the floor, where two coffee stains, not Swifferable, had been lingering. I looked back at Fred.

“You did what?” I croaked.

“I wiped up the stains.”

“Let me get this straight. You actually noticed there were stains, and you wiped them up?”

Fred began to look worried. “Well, yes,” he said.

He should be worried, I thought. He’s gone mad. How long can this go on?

Later, I noticed a large quantity of paint on the $50 wooden display we’d bought to hold prints for his upcoming art show. Apparently Fred had decided it would make a great easel. “What about the extra easel you have sitting over there?” I asked. “Isn’t that what it’s FOR?”

“Well, it’s all beat up and has paint on it.”

My faith in humanity was restored.

Coming Soon: The Great Barbecue Taste-Off

Yesterday we joined our friend Paul for the beginning of a project we’ve been talking about for months–an authoritative, double-blind taste test to determine the best barbecue in Durham.

This stage of the project involved five restaurants (listed here in alphabetical order): the Backyard Barbecue Pit, Bullock’s, Dillard’s, Hog Heaven and the Q Shack.

Who won? Tune in later this week to find out, when I get time to write up the results. We’ll also feature cooking results from last week’s vegetable haul.

In the meantime, I turn to that last resort of writer-blocked, time-crunched bloggers everywhere: the cat photo. Today: a very rare shot of the adorable multi-colored toes of Catalina, our shy tortie. Don’t try doing this at home.

Vegetables Make You Thin

Total weight loss as of today: 21.4 pounds (10.8 for Fred, 10.6 for me).

We also picked up our vegetables, which probably account for 99.9% of our weight loss. Snow Creek Organics continues to offer lovely produce despite marketing practices that defy every law for success. Today we received . . .

a Rose Tomato, a heirloom variety that is light and lemony in flavor and pinkish in color . . .


. . . eggplant . . .

. . . okra . . .

. . . poblano peppers . . .


. . . and zucchini, which is a little too sexy to picture here.

Cooking results to be posted later.

Focaccia Results, and Happy Birthday Rocco

I am pleased to report that 4-H and Lidia did not let me down in yesterday’s focaccia attempt, even though I misspelled Lidia’s name. Neither did my Cuisinart–a valuable ally who was not present during my youthful struggles with yeast breads, nor during later misguided attempts to make bread without “cheating” (i.e., doing things in an easier and more efficient way).

I hope that Rocco, whose actualy birthday is today and in whose honor this bread was made, will be pleased with these results.

Here is the recipe, modified slightly from Lidia’s Italy–a beautifully illustrated collection of Italian recipes that I highly recommend.

Onion-Tomato Focaccia

Makes 1 large round; serves 10 or more as a side dish

Dough

2 packets active dry yeast (I used outdated rapid rise)
2 1/4 cups warm water or as needed
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for handling the dough
2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil for bread bowl

Topping

1 large onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced (about 2 c.)
2 c. tomatoes, diced (original calls for cherry tomatoes, halved)
1/2 c extra-virgin olive oil, or as needed
1 tsp. coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1/2 tsp. dried oregano

Dissolve yeast in 1/4 c. warm water and let it sit for several minutes, until it begins to bubble. Put flour and salt in food-processing bowl. Stir together yeast and 2 c. lukewarm water in spouted measuring cup. With processor running continuously, blend flour and salt briefly, then pour in all the liquid through the feed tube and process for about 30 seconds. A soft, moist dough should gather on the blade, with some sticking to the sides of the bowl. Add more flour, 1 tbsp. at a time, if dough is too sticky and has not come off sides at all; add more water in small amounts if it’s too dry.

[NOTE: I misread the recipe and added the yeast directly into the 2 c. lukewarm water, then poured into the food processor before it bubbled. But luckily focaccia is a forgiving dough.]

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface (I used a clean, non-fuzzy kitchen towel), scraping bowl and blade clean. Knead by hand for a minutes, using as little flour as possible, until dough forms a smooth round, still soft and a bit sticky. Coat a big bowl with olive oil, drop in dough, and turn to oil it all over. Seal bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, 20 – 30 minutes (1 hour if using regular yeast).

After the dough has risen, it should look like this:


While dough is rising, toss together onions, tomatoes, 4 tbsp. of the olive oil, and 1/2 tsp. salt in small bowl and let them marinate.


Coat a large shallow baking dish or pan, bottom and sides, with 2 tbsp. or more olive oil. Deflate risen dough and lay it in the pan. Gently press and stretch it into an evenly flat round (or square, as you see below) that fills the pan. If dough is resistant, let it relax a few minutes.

Lift the marinated tomato and onion out of the bowl with a slotted spoon, draining off juices. (Lidia failed to mention you are to reserve these, so I ate them.) Scatter vegetables all over focaccia. Lightly press in with your fingertips to create dimples in the soft dough. Drizzle the marinating oil that you did not eat over the top, or if you did eat it, olive oil works quite well. It will look like this:


Let the focaccia rise, uncovered, for about 20 minutes. Set a baking stone, if you have one, on center rack in oven and heat to 425. Just before baking, gently dimple the dough again with your fingertips, and sprinkle another 1/2 tsp. coarse salt all over.

Puzzle over why Lidia ever expected you to slide this enormous square thing onto your round, medium-sized pizza stone, which perhaps is different from a baking stone but you aren’t sure. Decide that Lidia probably left out a sentence or made a typo, and anyway you have only 5 hours till your dinner party and can’t afford the disaster that will surely occur if a transfer is attempted. Set pan on top of the pizza stone in the oven and cross fingers. Bake focaccia for 20 minutes, rotate pan back to front for even cooking, and bake 10 – 15 minutes (or more) until bread is golden brown and onions and tomatoes are nicely carmelized.

Remove from pan and top with remaining olive oil and crumbled oregano. Let cool at least 15 minutes before slicing. Serve warm or at room temperature.


Give thanks for wonderful bread and friends. Wonder if Martha White would let you enter this in the next 4-H breadbaking contest.

1981 Breadbaking Champion Attempts Focaccia

In the spring of 1981, I was crowned the Tennessee 4-H District III breadbaking champion and traveled to Knoxville for the state competition that summer. Several key facts about the event should be noted.

a) The contest coincided with Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding–a great disappointment to a 16-year-old who had been waiting to see the dress for months.

b) When I did see the dress, I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever created, and I could not imagine that those puffy sleeves would ever, ever look dated.

c) Contestants in the breadbaking competition were judged on 1) a project book, which recorded all breadbaking activities over the course of your 4-H career; 2) an oral exam by state extension agents and representatives of the Martha White Flour company (sponsor of the event); and 3) no baking whatsoever.

d) I did not win.

e) Had we baked, I certainly would not have won.

In sum, I was a breadbaking champion who was more interested in the intricacies of Princess Di’s dress than in the chemical interactions that were making my loaves so tough.

Despite this, on an impulse that can only be called “stupidity,” I volunteered to make bread for a dinner party that starts in about 7 hours. I was intrigued because one of the guests is allergic to all oils except olive, does not eat dairy, eggs, chocolate, and a host of other things, and wrote the book I just finished. And so I am attempting Lydia Bastianich’s recipe for onion-tomato focaccia from Lydia’s Italy. Results will be posted.

I bake this in honor of my friend Rocco Marinaccio, who is having his 50th birthday bash in the Berkshires today and who gave us Lydia’s Italy for our wedding. Happy birthday, honey, and I’m sorry I can’t be there!

We’re Famous!

Or at least linked, and to a blog by someone who doesn’t even know us. 30threads, a new site from Ginny from the Blog, included The Newlyfeds in their latest report on Durham’s food blogs. Food Network, here we come.

I was also pleased to discover that 30threads also offers endless potential for procrastination, with links to 30 of the most interesting threads in local blogs. I killed half an hour in between writing these two paragraphs–imagine the possibilities when you’re really trying to accomplish something.
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But back to food. On Tuesday we received our CSA (community-sponsored agriculture) delivery, and it allayed some fears that I’d been developing about our choice of a farm. Well, actually “choice” is too strong a word. I waited until the last minute (see note on procrastination, above) and so had to go with the only farm that still had space. Except that it didn’t actually have space–something we discovered after we mailed our check, and e-mailed, and heard nothing, and called, and heard nothing, and called, and were finally told that they never got our check and that there was no space anyway.

In late June, however, we got a somewhat garbled message from the farmer offering us a share for the remaining half of the season because someone had dropped out. Driven by a desperate need for vegetables instilled by our new weight watching habits, we acted like a high school wallflower who’s just been asked to the prom by the star quarterback. We couldn’t return the call fast enough, and my mid-June we got our first delivery.

After four deliveries, I am beginning to understand why our farm, Snow Creek Organics, did not bother to call us back. They’re too busy farming. Here’s what was in this week’s delivery:

The items we recognized immediately were Swiss chard (in the back), tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, and okra. The green items on the left that resemble miniature watermelons are squash (I’m afraid I didn’t get the variety) and the yellow items atop the red pepper are lemon cucumbers. The flowers weren’t part of the delivery; they’re the ones Fred always buys for me at the Duke Mobile Farmers Market, our pick-up site (for the vegetables, that is).

I love that Snow Creek gives us oddball varieties to try. The lemon cucumbers were a delight, with a fresh, clean cucumber taste–although with no hint of lemon. The seeds were large but would be easy to remove using the same process as that for cantaloupe. And the slices would look beautiful in a salad with tomatoes. Unfortunately, we ate them so quickly we didn’t have a chance to find out.

We also made a great discovery about the chard stems. I’d thought they weren’t usable, but my 1946 edition of The Joy of Cooking claimed that you could cook them like asparagus. After tasting one raw, I was skeptical: It was awful–bitter, with no redeeming qualities I could identify.

All the more reason to put Irma Rombauer to the test. And it appears that she, like my mother, is always right. Once cooked, the stems lost their bitterness. They don’t taste the least bit like asparagus, but roasting them with garlic, oil, onions, balsamic vinegar, and salt made for a delicious dish.

Roasted Onion and Swiss Chard Stems (serves 2)

Preheat oven to 350. Remove leaves from 10 -12 stems of Swiss chard. (Leaves can be cooked like spinach or other greens.) Cut off about 1/4 inch from the bottom and cut chard into 1″ pieces. Quarter a large onion, lengthwise, then slice. Mince 3-4 large cloves of garlic. Toss all ingredients in a large bowl with 1 tbsp. olive oil, several generous splashes of balsamic vinegar (roughly 1/4 – 1/2 cup) and salt to taste. Spread on jelly roll pan or cookie sheet and bake for 20 -30 minutes.