Ramble On

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Oh-dark-thirty at Smokin' on the Tracks

Things start early in the Valley and the Smokin' on the Tracks fest was no exception.  In fact, we'd agreed that we would meet at the Shenandoah Speedway that morning at 6:00 am, or as close to that as we could.

I drove over Friday night, arriving at Hawksbill Cabin at about 11 pm.  So you see my dilemma with these events.  But I always remember some advice from my dad when I'm dragging my butt out of bed for a purpose:

"Son, if you are going to hoot with the owls, you better be ready to soar with the eagles."

It was so dark when we arrived, I couldn't find Jared and Wayne, my other team members, shown here with one of the neighbors in the first photo, as Jared gets the grill started.  Fortunately, Jared saw me driving around looking for them, and called my cell, vectoring me back to our spot.

I should make a note about our team - it was a few weeks ago that Jared told me about the fest and his plan to form a team.  I invited myself along because of a shared interest in pork and grilling on big units.  Jared graciously allowed me to be part of it all - and it is with great pride that I report our team name - Two Fat Farmers and a City Slicker.

As the light started to come up, I noticed that two spots over, the contestants had actually decided to sleep near their grill under a tarp on air mattresses.  They were snoozing away over there while we were loading charcoal in our grill - I should note these well-rested fellows won second place overall in the contest.

With the fire started, we moved over to get the first meats ready to go in as soon as the heat was up.  That meant brisket and Boston butt - shown here, as are the ribs, which we didn't put in until around 11 am.  Jared had brought along a secret recipe rub which he is putting on here.

About 45 minutes after the grill was loaded with coal, the early meats had been rubbed and were ready to go in.  That's the last photo for today, with them all set up in their pans to cook away a couple of hours over slow heat.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Grillin' Units at Smokin' on the Track

So, I am going to write about our team and about the food we cooked during the Smokin' on the Track fest, but this morning as I began to write that post I had a few computer problems, and didn't manage to finish that post.  Instead, let me post today some more of the photos I took while I had a few minutes - of some of the rigs the various cooking teams had out there for the contest.

First is the one we used, this vertically oriented grill with the UVA image on it.  Like many of them were, it's made out of an old metal fuel or water tank; in fact, there was a lot of lore and discussion about work in progress that a lot of the teams had going on, making new grills.

In the background from ours, you can see a red unit in the distance.  That actually is one you see around town in Luray at Luray Fire Department events.  That fellow owns the one we borrowed.  The fire department themed grill is pretty cool - here's a photo.

Next I am going to show the set up that one of the pro teams had going on - they had quite a few of those "eggs" working.  You can clearly see two of them here - they had a couple of the next size down, and even an egg chimnea displayed around their space.  I don't know how they placed, clearly they were sponsored by the manufacturer though.

I've posted about this one before.  If you're out in Luray you'll see this one parked in front of the old cannery in the Stonyman neck of the woods.  These guys catered a gig at Wisteria recently, and they fabricate grills there.  I really like this one, right down to the chicken and pig cut outs that are welded on it for decoration.

For the last one, I want to show this one painted up in Army camouflage.  As a matter of fact, the guy running this won first place overall - he'd come up from somewhere in North Carolina to participate.  I talked to him about the rig.

He told me he painted it up to honor his son, who is enlisted in the Army and stationed at Fort Benning.  I thought that was a pretty nice story and privately was rooting for him after that - hoping he would finish second behind us.

I've given away part of the story now by telling how he finished.  More to follow.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Big Do - Smokin' on the Track BBQ Fest

Saturday was a pretty busy day around Page County - there was just a lot going on.  I spent my day at the Smokin' on the Track BBQ Fest put on by Performing Arts Luray (PAL) down at the Shenandoah Speedway.

Mary joined me later in the day - here she is posing with the fest mascot Dale Swinehart.

I was there as part of a BBQ team led by Jared Burner from Skyline Premium Meats, one of the Page County Grown farmers - I've got a link below to a couple of past visits to the farm.  Jared and another friend and I formed a BBQ team to compete in the Backyard Boyz part of the deal.  More on that later though,

There was a lot of activity to go around at this event.  Here are a couple of photos - one of Wisteria, our neighbor who also ended up across the aisle from where our team was set up cooking, and one of the Cornhole Tournament area as it was being set up.

I took this one sometime in the morning before the gates had actually opened.  I flagged down one of the volunteers on a golf cart to see if I could pick up a few bags of ice for the Wisteria booth.  That's the only way I managed to check out those areas, since the cooking kept us so busy down in the infield.

Here's another couple of shots - very early in the morning.  I went over to grab a cup of coffee and walked back through the grandstands at the track.  Hey, the area where the guy waves the start and finish flags for the race track was right there, so I climbed up there and took these photos of the infield.  Still a lot of vendors yet to show at this time, but all the cook-off competitors were up and running.
 I've got a couple of posts I will put up about the event this week.  I took some photos of the grills I saw when I took and early walk, and then of course I want to post on our cooking and the results.  So more to come.

Here is a link about the Smokin' on the Track fest:

Here are a couple of posts about Jared's farm:

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Last Brats (Pork Diaries)

Well, after all that grilling the last few weeks, I decided that we needed a quick dinner last Sunday night.  I dug into the freezer from some bratwursts - finding that I was going to cook the last pack of them from last January's pig.

Mary had bought some sweet corn at the Alexandria   farmers market - some Maryland variety, unfortunately, and no where as tasty as the Page County Grown stuff we've been used to.

There are still a few pork chops left, two roasts, and a bunch of the ham.  But that's not much variety.  We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ribs Again - the Pork Diaries

Mary's plate - ribs, sweet corn, and summer vegetables.
Saturday was a long day of cooking for me.  I brewed a small batch of "Brussels Black" - a dark Belgian ale that is fermenting away in the basement as I write this, and then I set out to do a practice run on some ribs. Those were cooked over charcoal with hickory smoke on the big unit out in the back of the Alexandria house.

My plan was to work a bit on the rub recipe, and I decided to go with a Kansas City style that features brown sugar and cayenne.  If you Google this type of thing you'll find that some ink is given to the difference between the K.C. and Memphis styles.  They saw K.C. style uses a sauce in addition to the rub, while Memphis style doesn't...neither Mary nor I found that any sauce was needed on these when all was said and done.

As you can see I started with a very meaty half rack.
The recipe I was using called for gobs of spices, and I figured that since I was using a half rack, I should reduce the recipe.  I cut it in half, and then saw that two spices I like were missing, and I added them back in - powdered mustard and cumin.  So that's where I am coming from...but I may leave the cumin out if I'm ever competing with this recipe.

The big unit, as the hickory smoke started.
Once the prep was done and the half rack rubbed, I went out to start up the big unit.  It wasn't long before those coals were going.  I put the meat on - indirect, since I have a lot of real estate in there, and after a little time to sear started adding hickory.

I had some other prep to get back to - I had to shuck some sweet corn, cut up vegetables, and things like that.  I also wanted to make some ice cream for dessert - I bought some fresh raspberries for this to combine with some dark chocolate chips I had stored in the fridge.

Boogs is bored.
After all of that, Tessie and I went out onto the deck while the ribs cooked.  As usual, she was a little bored with the whole thing, but she liked being outside with me.

I enjoyed a stogie while things were under way, and I'll admit to having a nice Fat Tire IPA for accompaniment.

Late summer dinner of ribs and grilled vegetables.
The upshot of all this is the ribs, which were done in about 2.5 hours or so.  I took them a little farther than I did in the last batch I made a few months ago, so they were done well enough that they did literally fall off of the bone.

There's a photo below of the platter.  Usually we have a little left from a half rack - we did this time too.  But they were gone by lunchtime Sunday.

And neither of us used any sauce on the leftovers.

Monday, September 17, 2012

New Pigs!

A few weeks ago I realized that David had gotten the pigs at just around this time last year - when I was spending some time on the farm in my so-called internship.  When I asked him about it at the farmers market, he confirmed that this was the time he'd be headed out to get the new pigs, and next thing I knew, there was a photo of them all on Facebook.

This one is a shot of all the little pigs in a pile sleeping one morning last week - the temperatures are getting down into the 50's at night now, so they sleep pretty close together.

All pink and proud.

Pigs sleep soundly, and their wakeup time is at least an hour after the chickens get up, as you can see here.  In fact, even the goats had wondered into the stall that morning before the pigs got up.

No post about pigs would be complete if I didn't mention last year's pig, who I called Pork Chop, much to David's daughter's chagrin.  Here she is, weighing in at just about 400 pounds last January.  The week before we butchered her.

To put this new bunch in perspective, they probably arrived at the farm at around 35 pounds, and they may already be passing 45 on the way to 50.  They'll pass normal market weight of 250 in November or so, and then continue growing until January.

Here's to Pork Chop, in any case.

Friday, September 14, 2012

New Jersey Road Trip, Part 2

So the actual reason we went up to NJ was to go to Mary's high school reunion, which we did on Saturday night.  Now, I've never been to one of my own reunions, so I didn't really know what to expect from this event as we headed over to Jumping Brook Country Club in Neptune, NJ.  But when we got there, we entered a festively decorated room - all green and white, Long Branch High's school colors.

There were posters, photos, and other memorabilia - and the best part, a good crowd of classmates, probably 50 or 60 of them, had come to join the festivities.  So Mary made the rounds, catching up with old friends she hadn't seen in years, and some that she has managed to stay in more frequent touch with.

Mary was a flag twirler in high school.  There was an 8x10 amongst all the memorabilia of the squad at a football game - she's told me before that every time she hears "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" she remembers these times.

Whenever we get up to NJ, another mandatory stop is to check in with Mary's cousins.  And since it had been a while since we'd seen them, we were really looking forward to stopping by there on Sunday afternoon.

We got caught up on family affairs over coffee and then headed out for a drive to the Shore, settling on a little seafood place in Point Pleasant.  I've got some highlight photos that I took with Instagram here - and I learned that Mary's cousin Ari uses the app also, so we now follow each other.  (Her photos of the restaurant were better).

My last shot here is of the Coast Guard station and light house in Point Pleasant.  Just as we were leaving the restaurant, the siren over there went off, and the boat went out on a call.  When we stopped to take the photo, a couple of the guys had just gone back inside after seeing the ship off.

So, all in all, a pretty busy weekend of sightseeing and visiting friends and family.  A trip long overdue.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9-11 A Day to Remember

I want to make a short post today as we pause to remember 9-11 this morning.  This year our observance falls on a Tuesday - as the actual events did in 2001 - and again we have a near perfect day on the east coast, the crisp edge of approaching fall.  So many things about the day remind us of where we were that fateful morning.  

I read in the paper that 11 years later, the painful memories may not be so fresh and raw so our thoughts tend to be more about the history of the day.  Even so, with so many lost, we will remember them.

A few months back Mary and I were at the Newseum, where they have an exhibit of some artifacts from the various sites of 9-11.  There are the engine nacelles from the jets that flew into the World Trade Center, some elements of police cars that were on-site with first responders.

And equally moving for me is a display of some of the front pages of newspapers from 9-12, the day afterwards.  My friend Dennis and I visited the Newseum on 9-12-2001, and I remember being overwhelmed by the display of more than 50 front pages from across the country and the world, all showing those horrific scenes.  It still moves me to this day.

Monday, September 10, 2012

New Jersey Road Trip, Part 1

And so it was that we took to the road this weekend for a trip to New Jersey, where Mary grew up.  Without offering any associated arithmetic I'll just say we went up for a high school reunion, and since we were there we had the chance to visit some friend and relatives and old haunts.

For myself, there are a couple of things I like to be able to check in on in addition to the basic requirements of a trip like these.  I like a visit along the boardwalk on the Jersey Shore, and we drove through Asbury Park on the way to one of the appointments we'd made in Long Branch, Mary's home town.

Here's a shot of The Stone Pony, the watering hole and music venue where Bruce Springsteen got his start, along with many others - some of whom play there to this day, like Southside Johnny.  In fact, Mary's cousin Grant had a high school band that played there on teen night.

So with this stop out of the way, we drove on up to Long Branch.  We always make a side trip into Mary's old neighborhood to see the house where she grew up.  It's changed.  I guess they always do.

Mary's big observation was that they had taken down the street trees.  I thought the landscaping was nice, that they'd added something to the place that way.  It was clear the house is being well taken care of and loved, in any case.

After lunch in a little pub - this is close to the Monmouth Park horse track, and the venue was a place that is used as a watering hole by race fans - we headed back to our hotel in Neptune, with a stop by the cemetery where Mary's folks are laid to rest.

We paid our respects in the well-kept grounds populated by so many first and second generation Greek families.  It was a nice moment to pause and reflect on their lives.

I have a few more photos to add, some from the reunion and then from a little sightseeing lunch trip we took to Point Pleasant - those will be up later in the week.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Scenes from the Vineyard

I still have a few more photos that I took at Wisteria that I want to share, so I'll put them up today as a wrap for now on my posts about the harvest.

Mary and I have frequently vacationed in Northern California, and that often meant trips with good friends to the vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, or even the Anderson Valley.  But I never expected that someday we'd find we were lucky enough to settle in so close to one, as we have with Wisteria.  It's just a special place, and we appreciate Sue and Moussa's hospitality so much.

Between some of the harvest and grape pressing tasks, there were some opportunities to take a walk around the farm and check things out - Tessie was getting her share of attention from our fellow travelers there, and that is her primary form of exercise, but she really had some fun adventuring around the farm as well.

So we walked out the little road into the vines.  The fencing and some of the trellising comes from old cedars that were found on the property.  Here and there you'll find something that reminds you of Moussa's family vineyard in Lebanon.  But mainly what you'll find is that the everyday worries and cares have dropped away.

During the harvest it was pretty hot and humid - and part of the tasks involved moving stuff in and out of the wine cellar, which is kept pretty constantly cool. I took a few minutes break in there on Sunday morning and checked out winemaking in progress.

Here are some carafes of chardonnay standing by to be bottled or blended into a white, and here's a photo of one of the oak casks that already has a long history of vintages.  I'll find out next time I'm over how many vintages they think they'll get out of a cask like this - the fact that it is oak means it's durable, and I'd think you could get some more mileage out of it, even though this one is well used.

At the end of the day, it could always be recycled into a whiskey casks for a few batches.  And then...a flower pot, I guess.

So that's a wrap on the harvest post.  I may revisit the topic later this month - we did look on as they used their manual grape press for the Chardonnay and Seyval harvest, so I have the potential for one more post on the topic.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Harvest at Wisteria - part 3

There had been plenty to learn on the first day at the vineyard, and there was plenty to learn as we moved to the second day’s activities as well.  We started a little later, too, and I’m sure that helped my keen eye for detail.

The first step is to set up the wine press, which uses an air-filled blatter to squeeze out all the grape juice.  The machine assembles pretty easily – it has to, since it is taken apart and cleaned between every batch.  Some special cheese cloth is used to line the press, to keep the grapes from exploding out of the small crevices that are designed for the juice to flow out of.

Each tub goes through this hour-long process, with the bladder gradually filling to about 70 psi.  Juice flows freely from the press into tubs that collect it; and from there, is pumped into the tanks in the cellar where it will ferment – Wisteria often uses steel tanks for the white varieties and oak barrels for the reds. 

One of the risks of using volunteers, and also newbie volunteers, is the introduction of variation to the process.  So I’ve described above a routine that must be carefully followed so that everything goes smoothly.  Except that it didn’t on batch number two.

On that one, the cheese cloth lining wasn’t positioned with the necessary overlap around the little seal at the front.  Eventually, as the pressure climbed when the bladder inflated…well, I had taken Tessie out for a walk in the vines and wasn’t around to see this happen, but I understand that there was a shower of crushed grapes.  Fortunately, there weren’t any volunteers or workers standing in front of that spot – but it was a near miss.

I did see the aftermath, and I was really impressed by the range and altitude that the spent grapes had achieved – they were up in the ten foot rafters of the crush pad, and they covered a good twenty feet or so of the wall, which was eight feet away from the press.  The event left a strong impression on everybody who’d been there for it – they couldn’t stop talking about it.  I was sorry I missed it.

We learned to break down the press and clean it, and after this little surprise, we reloaded the partially crushed grapes into the press to finish the job.  Eventually there were four pressings, counting the malfunction.

After they’re pressed, the spent grapes are removed from the press.  In this condition, they are mortared together and can stand on their own in a shape called “the cake.”  It has a very interesting texture and actually takes a bit of work to dispose of – we dumped the grapes into the bucket of Moussa’s tractor, where it was hauled off to the compost heap.

I did take a couple of handfuls and toss them to the chickens.

With the juice collected and moved over to ferment in the cellar, the work on the Seyval harvest was done.  I have some other material that I have collected about the experience that I will put up over the next few days, but this series has pretty much outlined the front end of the annual winemaking process – the harvest.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Harvest at Wisteria - Part 2

With the grapes moved in from the vines, it was clear that the harvest work was just beginning.  The idea is to quickly get them off the stems and partially crushed, which is usually done with a machine.  Then the juice and grapes are cooled overnight for pressing the next day. 

There is some statistical work that has to be done with the harvest during this preliminary stage, including calculating the total weight of the grapes so that the estimated wine yield can be reported to the state.  So the procedure was to weigh every tenth tub before the contents were poured into the crusher, take the average weight from this sample, and multiply it by the number of tubs. 

A couple of the volunteers did this part of the activity, while several others of us helped with the de-stemming and crushing.  Tub-by-tub, the grapes were dumped into the machine, spilling out into much larger tubs afterwards.  A couple of dozen one gallon ice cubes are added to them, and when they are full, they are moved into the cellar for storage overnight.

We filled several of these with the Seyval harvest.  After everything was done, for the day, we cleaned up, planning to come back on Sunday to crush the grapes.  That’s work that doesn’t start as early, thankfully.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Harvest at Wisteria

It is harvest season for the white grape varieties at Wisteria Farm and Vineyard, so we’ve been helping out as neighbors and volunteers with the Seyval, Traminnette, and Chardonnay harvests.  Even though the vineyard has only been open a few years, Sue and Moussa have already established some excellent traditions, so I’ve got a couple of posts lined up this week.  The red varieties won’t be ready for a few more weeks – we may head back over to lend a hand for that as well.

When I interned over at Public House Produce during my furlough last summer, one of the things I learned about farming is that it tends to start early.  I’m still not generally satisfied with the explanations I have been given for this practice, but I played along with the folks at Wisteria, just as I did with David last year.  We showed up at seven a.m. and there were a bunch of neighbors already there. 

It turned out we were just in time for the start of things – a local priest comes out to bless the harvest.  The blessing is complete with incense, prayers, and holy water.  You get the sense of deep roots for this ritual – humans have been enjoying the fruit of the vine for a few millennia now, after all. 

Everyone soon broke up and headed to the vines after the blessing.  The first crop that was ready was the Seyval.  This is a hybrid white variety that does well in cool climates, including upstate New York, England, and here.    

It’s a pretty straightforward thing to harvest grapes – you pretty much know what you’re looking for, and they usually aren’t hidden, although on a few of the vines you might have to poke around in the leaves to find a last few clusters.

The volunteer crew was a mix of experienced hands and newbies, like Mary and me, but we made quick work of that section, clipping the clusters from their stems and laying them into the yellow tubs.  The tubs are collected by a little tractor and hauled over to the crush pad near the cellar, and soon all of the pickers had moved over there for the next step – de-stemming and crushing the grapes.

That’s where I’ll pick up the story tomorrow.  In the meantime, here’s a link to the Wisteria Farm and Vineyards website: http://www.wisteriavineyard.com
Wisteria is also a member of Page County Grown – you can take a look at that website here: http://pagecountygrown.com/