Friday, March 29, 2013

Product Review: Sweet & Spicy Red Pepper Relish by Merchant & Co.

By Dru Chai

On a sleepy weekend afternoons, I love watching reruns on the food or travel channel. It not only makes me drool while taking a nap (TMI?), but the shows provide ideas for recipes. On the Hot Dog Paradise show on the Travel Channel, I will always remember that elderly owner of the SuperDawg restaurant in Chicago telling the audience in a matter-of-fact tone, "Ketchup packets will be provided upon request, however we will NOT apply it." The way he said just made me chuckle.

I bring that story up because the world of condiments plays an important part in food. Depending on which part of the country or world, it's always interesting to see how some condiments are more popular than others. Ketchup and mustard are pretty universal throughout America for hot dogs and burgers. But hey, that can get boring. There's so much more out there in sauces, relishes, and other toppings to give your food some added flavor.

Recently I had the opportunity to try out the sweet red pepper relish from Merchant & Co -- both the original and spicy versions. I'm already a huge fan of green relish on my hot dog (ahem, Costco), and I especially love the bright, neon green relish on the Chicago-style dog. But how would a sweet red pepper relish taste?

On its own, the original version of the relish had a good amount of sweetness with an ever-so-slight hint of tartness. By looking at the ingredient list, it is no surprise that sugar is the second one listed, followed by apple cider vinegar. The spicy version of the relish includes habanero chile, and only provides a slight kick in the end. On a scale of 1-10 spiciness, I would give it a 2 or 3. As someone who loves spicy foods, I would've liked to see the spice level go up a few notches.

The jar and label design is subtle, letting the bright red hue from the relish shine through. As for the relish itself, you can see the freshly diced sweet red bell peppers -- giving it some nice texture on whatever food you choose to place it on. If this red relish were to be used with that neon green relish, watch out -- you would have some Christmas relish on your hands!

Dirty Smoke Rating (4 out of 5 stars)
It should be no surprise that the relish works great on hot dogs and burgers. But I recommend using the relish in place of ketchup or any sweet sauce, as the relish already adds that sweet element. Another would be double the sweetness. On sandwiches, the relish would go great with the smooth and creamy avocado. The sweet and spicy relish is also a nice compliment to contrast some of the smokiness of BBQ grilled meat -- either some chicken or pork chop.

Monday, March 18, 2013

How to Enjoy a BBQ Festival Without Going Insane

By Dru Chai

This past weekend was a glorious day in Southern California to enjoy the outdoor sunshine. It was about a perfect 75-80 degrees. Of course that meant everyone else wanted to enjoy it as well. I recently attended and judged the Santa Anita 2nd Annual Winner's Circle BBQ Championships. The large, lush venue of Santa Anita Park is perfect for a large event. I've attended events like food truck gatherings and cultural festivals here and it's always a great location. While I could talk all about some of the BBQ that I judged (check out last year's post), I wanted to address a different topic: how to enjoy a BBQ festival.

Checking out the race horses practicing in the early morning

Antique cars make their appearance at the Santa Anita Race track infield

Quick overview for the uninitiated -- most BBQ competitions also have a "People's Choice" (or PC) part of the competition. The general public pays for sample tickets to taste BBQ from different teams and they get to vote for their favorite. The teams who participate in PC get paid based on the number of tickets that they receive. This helps to offset the high costs of of the BBQ competition.

I've either attended or judged more than a dozen BBQ competitions/festivals over the past several years. In my book, a BBQ competition also turns into a BBQ festival once the organizers start charging for admission and selling sample tickets for People's Choice. I've met and spoken to a few promoters/organizers and needless to say, there is a LOT that goes into putting on these events. Bravo to them with continued success.

BBQ teams firing up the smoker in the early morning

Great SoCal weather to enjoy some BBQ

Long lines just to buy sample tickets

Unfortunately, in the business of event planning, things inevitably go wrong and there is only so much one can control. For BBQ festivals, here is the quick and dirty equation. BBQ + great weather + great location + "deal-of-the-day" = loooooong ass lines and angry people. It is a common theme, no matter how you slice it. Some people will have a great time, but others will not. So what can you do to enjoy a BBQ festival?

TIP #1: Avoid lines and arrive early. It may be obvious, but it can't be emphasized enough. If you want to enjoy a stress-free experience, plan ahead and go early. If the doors open at 11am, be there around that time or earlier. You can buy your sample tickets early and figure out which teams/vendors to try BBQ from. The closer it gets to noon, the longer and faster the lines swell up. Don't take any chances by showing up later -- tickets and food could run out. Plus who wants to wait in a long line to buy sample tickets, just to wait in another long line for a BBQ sample? Then repeat, again and again? You will be miserable and hungry.

TIP #2: If you purchased a "deal of the day," expect an even longer wait. For most of these deals, it's all about selling as many as possible. Sure, there's probably a cap -- but I'm sure most event promoters want to sell more than less. Usually both the admission and sample tickets are lumped together and you would save some money vs. buying everything separately. Most venues have a separate line specifically for people who purchased these deals. Based on my experience, these lines are usually longer than Disneyland. Once again, go early.

TIP #3: Don't expect to get a full meal from BBQ samples. When it comes to BBQ festivals, people always get excited and expect a smorgasbord of food at their fingertips. By the end of the day, they want their belly stuffed full of BBQ. Most of the time, it just doesn't work that way. Typically, the taste samples are about 2 ounces each, and it depends how generous it is being served. It also depends on how much food you need to get full, as everyone is different. As I mentioned before, by the time noon hits, it will be crowded with people trying to get their lunch. Lower your expectations and don't come in starving.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Product Review: Lizard Lick Towing BBQ Sauce

By Dru Chai

I love trying out new BBQ sauces. Every time I'm at a grocery store, I always have to check out the aisle with all of the spices, herbs, and sauces. You can really tell what store and region you're at just by looking at the selection. In California, you'll find all of the usual commercial brands like Kraft, KC Masterpiece, and Sweet Baby Ray's. In some of the higher end stores like Whole Foods, you'll see Bone Suckin' Sauce (highly rated by many) and even sauce from the Salt Lick in Texas.

BBQ sauce sales an insane multi-billion dollar business, with celebrities and chefs fighting for shelf space in stores. Even the stars from the show Lizard Lick Towing has their own line of BBQ sauces. An astute reader of the blog pointed out that it had been well over 7 months since my post on Lizard Lick Towing. I mentioned that I had a bottle of their branded BBQ sauce and that I would review it. Well, better late than never.

Nothing like having your face on a bottle of BBQ sauce!

"Sauce so good... it'll run a bulldog off a meat wagon at lunch time!"

With a catchy slogan like that, you can't help but want to try this sauce, right? As you can see by the picture, this is Eastern Carolina Barbecue Sauce, with the words peppery vinegar right above. There's no doubt that "peppery vinegar" perfectly sums up the flavor profile for this sauce. Now I've never been to North or South Carolina, but I do know that Carolina-style BBQ is all about the thin and vinegar-based sauce to go along with whole hog.

Looking at the listed ingredients, number one is apple cider vinegar, which is no surprise. That is the most prominent flavor, followed by... what else? Pepper. Also included are regular vinegar, ketchup, onion powder, and a little bit of crushed red pepper and cayenne to give the sauce a slight kick in the end. I actually love a good, spicy kick on my BBQ sauce and I wished it was even more spicy.

You can see plenty of black and red pepper flakes in this thin sauce

The consistency is classic Carolina style -- it's thin, but not watery, with bold and pronounced vinegar and peppery flavors. This sauce is perfect for both basting and marinating on one thing only -- PIG. If you're smoking some pork shoulder or whole hog and you're looking for that vinegar-based flavor profile, this sauce would be a nice compliment. You can also use this sauce as a marinade for chicken. It should give the chicken a subtle tart and tangy finish throughout the meat. I wouldn't use this sauce on beef or seafood.

If you're a fan of the show and you like vinegar based BBQ sauce, sure why not give it a try. The bottle says to visit for recipes and cooking ideas, but if you visit the site it's a suspended domain written in Spanish! After a web search, it looks like this is the real site.

Dirty Smoke rating (out of 5 stars)
Lizard Lick Towing, Peppery vinegar Eastern Carolina - 3 stars