Tomorrow, battle lines will be drawn... the whiff of smoke in the air, blue ribbons flapping in the breeze and the knowledge that one person will emerge a winner... it's the Napa County Fair Barbecue Contest at the fairgrounds in Calistoga.
Every year, my Dad and I enter, and every year we place and/or win in our categories. However, the Best of Show title has eluded us for the past three years and last year’s results are the reason I’m back this time with a vengeance.
Last July, my family and I arrived at the fairgrounds with our loaded-down truck and saw that only one team was there before us. A solemn, bearded man had been there since 4 a.m., smoking pork for his entry. He looked bored and tired, oblivious to the waves of heat emanating from his smoker. I didn’t see any plates, garnishes or other implements that would distinguish his entry, so I didn’t give him another thought. I should have.
I also had stiff competition from my Dad (we never enter the same categories but do compete for best of show) with his grilled lamb chops. In it to win it, I was entering my Sweet and Spicy Seared Ahi Tuna in the fish category and Filet Mignon 'Burgers' in the beef category. I felt quite confident about these dishes, as they were perfectly cooked and beautifully presented.
I won First Place in both the Beef and Fish categories and Dad won First Place in the Lamb category. I was the only person with more than one First Place ribbon, so I was SURE I had Best of Show in the bag. Imagine my surprise when Dad was awarded Third Place Best of Show and I was given second! The winner turned out to be the guy who got up early to smoke pork and merely presented it in a foil tray! I was sort of devastated.
My wonderful husband went up to the judges and inquired as to the reason I was not awarded the grand prize. They said first place was pretty much even, but they decided to give it to Pork Smoker Guy because this was a BARBECUE contest, not just a cooking contest, and he had barbecued more than me. It was at that moment that I decided I needed to do something special for this year’s contest.
The judges want more grilling from me? Challenge accepted!
For the fish category this year, I’m submitting my famous Butter-Poached Halibut with Lemon Gastrique and Spicy Dressed Greens. I’m not only going to grill the lemons before I add them to the gastrique, I’m going to grill the butter before it goes into the poaching pot on the grill. I’ll be freezing the sticks of butter with dry ice, them grilling them on high heat to get a char before melting them down. It’ll give the butter a nice smoky taste, infusing the halibut, which will be grilled after poaching. Yes, I’ve practiced this at home.
I’m also submitting my Grilled Cheese Sandwiches with Shiitakes, Spiced Tomatoes and Arugula in the vegetarian category. I’ll grill the shiitakes and tomatoes before incorporating them into the sandwiches. I’m also submitting this entry in the People’s Choice category as the sandwiches are easy to make a lot of, and can be quartered for tasting portions.
I’m really excited about this year’s contest, and hope that at least someone in my family grabs the Best of Show title this year. No matter what, it’s a great way to hone my grilling skills, bond with my family and have a great time.