BBQ: It’s the Pits

Have you ever wished that you could make your own BBQ pit so you could master the taste like your favorite BBQ joint does?  Well, you can.  It’s not as difficult nor as costly as you might think.  In fact, you can build one right in your own backyard for next to nothing.

Start out by determining where you want the pit to be placed in your yard.  Of course you will want it away from any area that children will be playing in.  You may want to set it up in a good spot where you and your guests can hang out while the meat is cooking and remember that your pit can double for an open fireplace to warm up by on cold evenings.  With those things in mind, mark your spot and place one 3 foot iron rod in each of the four corners.  Pound them down with a mallet.

Dig down a little over a foot around the perimeter of the pit.  Fill with three to four inches of small, pea gravel.  Layer bricks above the gravel and then place more gravel on the bricks.  Then you are ready to wrap chicken wire along the outside perimeter of the pit.  Secure it to the stakes with wire.

Assemble retaining wall stone by placing a layer of the stones against each other along the perimeter.  Gaps in the stones will allow for air to through.   You can find a variety of these wall stones so take your pick of which you like the best as any are fine to use.

Apply four layers of stones, total.  Once you have finished, drive the stakes into the ground to be even with the stones.  Now you are ready to scatter charcoal and wood in the middle of the pit and lay a grill across it.  Fire it up and let the cooking begin.

You can use the same formula for this pit and vary it slightly for different types of materials.  You can substitute cinder blocks for the retaining stone or you can use river rocks.  You can make the pit larger or smaller too.

If you are more comfortable purchasing a pre-assembled kit, that option is also available.  You can have the plans customized and do the rest yourself or, you can have all of the work done for you and even tailored to any specifications you would like.  I have seen u-shaped pits, heart shaped pits and pits in the shape of Texas.  There is no end to the creative touches you can add to your pit.  After all, we BBQ lovers take our pits quite seriously.

Not only will your pit produce some of the best tasting BBQ there is, it will be the source of many a great time spent hovered around it, anticipating the meal and enjoying it as well.  So light the fire and gather round with your favorite friends and family.  Here’s to great BBQ and great times too!


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BBQ Fish? Crazy or Genius

You have a great catch and want to share some fish. I will not turn you away. While I BBQ everything, fish is not an exception. It may not seem very Texas to you, but it is mighty good on the grill. It’s not crazy it’s genius in the right hands. There are many ways, but I have my favorites. I love to grab my favorite tackle box, some Bud Lights and head on over to Galveston Island and go fishing.

Salmon is tops on the fish list. After you have cleaned and gutted your fish onsite with a handy fish filleting knife, bring it to me fresh or frozen. I will first cut it into portions. Sockeye, Coho, Chinook: it is all the same to me: food fare for the family. I would say about 6 ounces per person is just right. You will grill it with one-side of the skin kept on. Remove pin bones, rinse and pat dry and you are ready for the fun part. Here comes the spices, rubs glazes, and sauces. Take your pick.

Basic BBQ Salmon Marinade

  • Canola oil (or any vegetable oil you prefer)
  • Salt
  • lemon cut in wedges
  • freshly-ground black pepper

Brush the flesh side of the fish with the oil, salt, and pepper. While marinating the fish, get the grill ready. The best temperature is medium to high. After brushing your grate with oil, place the fish skin side down, then cover. It takes 10 to 15 minutes for a one-inch salmon steak to cook. If your fish is thicker, allow another 10 minutes. I recommend a spatula to remove the prepared meal. Serve with lemon wedges.

Lemon Dill Sauce

  • salmon fillets 1 1/2 inches thick (keep skin on)
  • 1/4 cup grapeseed oil
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • lemon wedges
  • 2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1//2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper

Get the grill ready for medium heat. In a bowl, combine lemon juice and grapeseed oil. Brush liberally ont skin side of salmon and then flesh. The salt, black pepper, and garlic powder form a rub mixture to sprinkle onto salmon before it is topped with chopped dill. Place salmon flesh side down on grill grate and cook for 2-3 minutes. Carefully using a spatula, work fillets away on all sides from grill. Gently turn them, and with cover down, allow to cook for 8-10 or until the centers of the fillets are opaque. Remove from grill and garnish with lemon wedges and more chopped dill.

Japanese Miso Glaze

  • Unskinned salmon fillet, about 1 1/2 pounds
  • 2 tablespoons red miso
  • 1 tablespoon grated ginger
  • 1 green finely chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1 clove minced garlic
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

After pre-heating grill for medium-low heat, combine all ingredients, except salmon, in a small bowl. Place mixture on fillet flesh. Place salmon on grill, skin side down, and cook for about 12 to 14 minutes. Remove from heat and serve.

I have heard that some people spread mayonnaise on their salmon fillets, especially dill. Remember that mayo contains lemon juice, seasoning like salt and herbs, and oil. You also might like Cajun blackened salmon or chili-lime sauce. BBQ works but can overpower fish so opt for lighter versions.


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Big on Taste: Best BBQ Spots in The State of Texas

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Texas is big on BBQ so you can rest assured that there are some really great places to grab a delicious BBQ in the Lone Star State.  There are old places, famous places and places that are hidden hole-in-the-walls too.  Many have been visited by the rich and famous and others have books that have been written about them.  If you are going to be in Texas, you will not be lacking for great BBQ.  That is for sure.

Texas is divided into four regions, South, Central, East and West.  The geography and culture differs quite a bit in the different areas as does the BBQ that is made and served in them.  South Texas, being near the Mexico border, boasts Spanish influence in their BBQcabrito pits  Not only is the method of cooking often done in a hole in the ground and the sauce usually a bit on the spicy side, you never know but what a goat or sheep might be on the menu rather than beef.

Central Texas is most known for its signature smoking sensations with Czech and German roots.  You can often pop into a meat market for a tasty treat but don’t pass up the BBQ joints there or you will be missing out for sure.  East Texas is popular for sweet sauced meat that literally falls off the bone and West Texas takes great pride in its mesquite infused BBQ.

One of the best places to go in Texas for BBQ is Luling City Market in the Galleria area of Houston, just off Highway 1-10, east of San Antonio and south of Austin.  It’s been around for over 30 years.  The meat is cooked over a custom made pit over Post Oak wood and the sauce is to die for.  You won’t find any forks or knives at this joint.  If you are in the area, don’t miss out on this legendary BBQ heaven.

Another great place to dine for BBQ is also in Houston.  The Goode Company is the spot to go for “melt in your mouth” meat cooked over mesquite.  It too has been around for over 30 years so it is rich in history as well as in taste.

About 50 miles northeast of Austin, is another exceptional BBQ joint called Snow’s.  If you are going to test this one out, you had better get there on Saturday because that is the only day of the week it is open.  BBQ is served from eight in the morning until it runs.  You may find the hours of operation odd but the BBQ is undeniably delicious.

In Lockhart, Black’s is the place to go for its famous ribs along with sausage and pork loin too.  Black’s is known for its smoky tasting, spicy meat.  If you are in doubt of how to get there, just follow the signs.  You can’t miss the signature oversized signs that will point the way.

Around the Dallas area, you will find a slew of great BBQ places.  Mike Anderson’s is a local favorite.  Known for its hickory-smoked pork ribs, beef brisket and other great pieces of smoked meats, this restaurant has great sides as well.  You won’t leave hungry.  They are also famous for their heaping helpings and hospitality as well.

There are a ton of tasty BBQ spots in Texas, without a doubt.  Some are famous and some are just plain ole good.  Just about anywhere in the state that you have a hankering, you are sure to find some of the best BBQ in the entire world.


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BBQ Cooking Methods: Which Way Is the Best?

BBQ Cooking Methods

The Wonderful World of BBQ is a tasty one indeed but it is not as simple as you might think.  BBQ can get downright complicated.  Even the act of cooking the meat is quite diverse.  Which way is best?  That has been in debate for as long as BBQ has been.

There are three main ways you can cook the meat which is grilling, indirect grilling and smoking.  And each of those methods have many variations that can be used as well.

There is direct grilling, indirect grilling, and smoking.  Usually, people chose the method they use by which gives the taste and texture they like best.  Sometimes though, it is a matter of what method is available to you.  If you are on a campout, you may not have your fancy gas grill with you so you might go for what you have to work with.  The way in which you cook your meat may depend on more than personal taste.

Direct grilling is when your food is cooked not far over the flames.  Oftentimes it is just inches above the fire.  Usually thin meats, fish, shellfish and even fruits and vegetables are cooked this way because they do well when seared from the close flames.

Because direct grilling is done quickly, you want to stand guard and keep a close eye on your food as it cooks.  Usually, the lid is left open due to the intensity of heat and the fact that what is being cooked does not require a lot of cooking time.

Another rule of thumb that goes along with direct grilling is that you have three spots, or heat zones.  One is for searing which means to cook the meat quickly over a very hot heat to seal the flavor and juices in.  You will need a spot that is less hot to actually let it cook and then a place to set the food once it is done.

Many people prefer to cook on a charcoal grill because it gives them hands-on control over the three zones.  You can place the coals in different positions to get the desired heat you would like.  Be sure to let your coals completely cook down before you start cooking with them or you will not only have trouble controlling the heat but the flavor will likely be botched as well.

Gas grills are favored by others who like the fact you can control the burners with a simple touch.  You can vary the heat on some gas grills like have one burner designated for high heat, the next for medium which is used to actually cook the meat and can even turn the third off to allow the cooked meat to rest.

Indirect grilling is the best way to grill thicker, larger pieces of meat because it allows you to cook them slower thus making them more tender.  You can put the lid down if your meat is really thick or if you want to employ a smoky taste.  You can leave it open if you choose if you don’t want to hurry it or to have a smoky taste.

Smoking meat is always a hit.  It takes a little time but is well worth it for it renders that “melt in your mouth” BBQ.  A good number of people think that BBQ must be smoked in order to even earn the honor of being called BBQ.  There are many ways to smoke meat but it is usually done in a smoker, smoker box or BBQ pit.

Smoking requires wood in order to fuel the fire.  The type of wood has a lot of influence on how the meat will taste.  Hickory, oak, apple, cherry, peach and many other varieties can be used and each bring a unique infusion to the table.  Corn cobs are sometimes used instead of wood and actually work quite well in my opinion.  Soaking the wood chips that are used to kindle the fire is a big deal with BBQ masters.  Smoker bags and smoker cans are sometimes used too.

There are a trillion tricks of the trade when it comes to the method of cooking the meat and what marinade, sauce or rub you put on the meat makes a world of difference too.  Which way is best?  The verdict is still not in.  It is at the heart of every cook-off and may never be resolved.  Why should it be?  As long as the question is still unanswered, competitions will be held in backyards across American and at county fairs and events across the nation and those are just too fun to ruin by ever pronouncing a winner.


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Kitchen & BBQ Hygiene

BBQ is sacred in these parts of Texas. In fact, it is the state pastime. We take it very seriously using the best grill, the most savory homemade sauce, deluxe cuts of meat, healthy chicken, and an experienced apron-clad cook. But even the greatest meal can be marred by poor hygiene. We are not talking about bugs that come with the backyard territory. Restaurants have strict cleanliness requirements, so why not at home? To keep guests from running back for more, and not to the bathroom, they post rules and regulations. Try them in your abode as well.

Hygiene Rules

  1. Wash hands thoroughly before and after meal preparation–with soap. Keep hand soap near the kitchen faucet so it’s easy and convenient. Tip from finestfaucets.com: hands should be washed for 15 seconds to kill all germs.
  2. Do not touch contaminated surfaces. When in doubt, use bleach or other disinfectant on countertops and in sinks—inside and outside.
  3. Keep the grill debris free. Tough burned-on food doesn’t need a pressure washer, but it may take some elbow grease. You can’t avoid it. Scrape it off carefully. Most anything can be dispensed with in this way.
  4. Make sure utensils used for grilling BBQ are clean. Don’t take shortcuts and think it’s all the same residue and no one cares.
  5. Why not use paper plates. You can quickly and easily dispose of mess.
  6. Organize your activity so it is all ready before you and you don’t have to abandon your fire to go searching in the house or garage.
  7. The backyard is BBQ heaven in Houston. Create a suitable place for your grill and keep the kids informed of safety around matches and fire.
  8. Have a fire extinguisher handy in case of unforeseen events. Most chefs do not experience emergencies but little flare-ups can be scary.
  9. Refrigerate your meats until grilling time to avoid bacteria. You will probably cook it off, but why worry! Be sure you check that certain items are thoroughly cooked inside—no pink chicken or raw hot dogs. Most people like ribs well done, slathered with sauce. Rare steaks and burgers are okay of course.
  10. Use fresh vegetables for your accompaniments, whether as sides or on buns. Wash them first, as tedious as it may seem.
  11. Include all family members, including the dog, in the rules and teach children good hygiene habits for all aspects of life, but especially food preparation.

Now that you have some general guidelines, everyone will stay healthy and happy during summer BBQ time and all through the year. You can start concentrating on recipes and new ways of making every meal special. Salads abound and you never have to repeat one, unless it stands out as a family favorite. Experiment with unique sauce ingredients and different charcoal brands. Do you like mesquite or hickory? There are different types suggested for various meats as they burn in various ways. You can also look into a new grill if yours is on the wane. Think of it as a special gift to the family, neighbors, and your friends. If you see BBQ as the art it is, they will come in droves!


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Great BBQ Sauces: Don’t Forget to Lick the Spoon!

To me, a great sauce makes the BBQ.  It’s like icing on the cake!  If you are aching to know what’s in your favorite sauce, good luck.  It’s easier to squeeze blood out of a turnip than it is to find out the secret ingredients in a tasty BBQ sauce but I’ve done my best to deliver what I can.

The thing about most “secret recipes” is that, in general, they contain the same base ingredients, with slight variations and different measurement ratios.  Once you get a recipe you like, you can tweak it to make it your own.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between a sauce, rub and marinade.  A rub is rubbed on the meat prior to cooking and a marinade is a liquid the meat soaks in prior to cooking.  A sauce is generally served on top of the meat or alongside of it.

For the most part, BBQ sauces contain a base of tomato paste, sweeteners, spices and vinegar.  Of course molasses is also a twist many use and others use ketchup rather than tomato paste.  Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke and even meat drippings are ingredients commonly added for flavor as is liquor, like bourbon.  Great spices for sauces are among the likes of mustard or mustard powder, garlic and/or garlic powder, salt, pepper, onions or onion powder, chili powder and even ancho powder.

Basically, sauces are divided into three categories: sweet, sour and spicy.  To make one sweet, brown or white sugar is often used as well as honey, maple syrup, hoisin sauce, ketchup, jam or jelly and even soda such as Coca Cola.  For the sour effect, vinegar is popular as is lemon or lime juice, sherry wine, cider, tamarind concentrate and Worcestershire sauce.  If you like spicy, you might try adding curry, garlic, onions, mustard, chili powder, ginger, cumin or peppers.

Then there are the “off the grid” ingredients which add a very unique flavor and are often the “secret” in the “secret sauce”.  One of my absolute favorite sauces has one such ingredient…coffee.  I have swiped the recipe for you.

Texas FlamingBbq Sauce:

INGREDIENTS:

2 cups ketchup

1 cup expresso

1 cup brown sugar (I use dark)

1/2 cup vinegar (red wine is my pick)

1-2 chopped onion

2-3 jalapeños, chopped

2-3 garlic cloves, crushed:

4 tablespoons ancho chili powder

4 tablespoons dry mustard powder

4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

4 tablespoons molasses

4 tablespoons ground cumin

Simply combine the ingredients and simmer for about 20 minutes.  Then blend until smooth.  I use a blender to be sure it’s extra smooth.  Serve with your favorite BBQ meat, on the side or over the meat.

You can easily switch up the ingredients in the recipe to make it sweeter or sour, depending on your own taste.  That’s what makes a great BBQ sauce, it owning and making it your own.  It’s fun and tasty to explore new avenues and to get really creative with your sauce.  Don’t forget to pay attention to what you are doing with it though because nothing’s worse than not remembering your own “secret” in your “secret sauce”.  Have fun and …don’t forget to lick the spoon.  Licking the spoon is what life is all about!


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Good Ribs Need Good Bibs

We love our BBQ here in Houston (and all over Texas, of course!). We specialize in secret sauces and super deluxe state-of-the-art grills. We pass things down from generation to generation. We have our own techniques, side dishes, favorite beverages and even charcoal types. This is serious eating business and we are world-renowned for it. It can be a real mess at times, if not most of the time, and cleanup is no fun. If everyone gets into the act, however, it can be fast and easy. Reward the kids with s’mores when they are done.

BBQ goes with paper plates and cups. You should keep it simple. Your big serving platters can even be disposable. You will have cooling utensils and the grill to contend with, but that’s all. Plastic spoons, knives, and forks are cheap and well worth the little extra expense. Most people eat chicken and ribs with their hands in any case, so you won’t use many. Remember to store leftovers for the next day in dispensable containers, which means make plenty of extra food.

Then there is the inevitable personal cleanup time. You better wear an old t-shirt or a bib for those drippy ribs in particular. Plenty of paper napkins will help, so keep them coming. The big mess is part of the fun, especially for the kids with sauce-laden faces, and grandma can make special bibs for them. You might want one as well once you see her great handiwork (and her glowing pride). My grandmother used to embroider our names on all kinds of things and do theme clothing and room décor. Why not bibs? I bet yours would be game. These ladies love the adoration it produces. Bibs can be a great birthday or holiday gift, and mom and dad could get matching aprons just for the BBQ occasion.

My grandma did everything by hand as she could crochet and knit, but yours may have a trusty sewing machine perfect for any job with all those fancy attachments for decorative stitchery and embroidery. She might even hand paint the bibs with waterproof hues. Mom can get into the act if grandma is not the homemaker type, but this is indeed rare! Or the family can do it as a communal activity. Life in Texas can revolve around outdoor cooking in so many ways it seems. It is truly the good life, my friend.

What do you see on your personal bib? Designing one is often more fun than the execution for most people. Give grandma some hints. Do you want a steer or a chicken? Do you want words like “great BBQ chef,” “award winning griller” or “BBQ genius?” You can add piping, appliques, and more. A nice handmade tablecloth would add pizzazz and glamour to the usual casual event. But then you have to wash it, so think long and hard on this one. Just make it festive and get grandma into the act. She will treasure your attention.


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BBQing on an Open Fire

Think of a juicy roast beef turning on a spit on an open fire–not just your regular old fireplace with a hearth, but the real thing. Think a few close friends waiting for just the right cut, cooked exactly to their taste. Everyone is sitting around comfortably, drinking beer, relaxing in the cool breeze of fall. Some light music is heard in the background and perhaps a few night lights add to the ambience. If this appeals to you, get out a long poker and some chopped wood. You can use an electric rotisserie or basic rod as a spit. You are going to be mighty surprised how good this kind of BBQ is. This is one great image. You can do an open fire grill in different ways and forget lugging the propane on a camping trip. Do take the grate and briquettes if you prefer them to the wood, although in my experience, the latter is the usual choice. Some people like cast iron, stone, or copper pits they either tote along or find at their chosen site. This is a whole world of exciting BBQ possibilities.

You can make the experience special with your own menu of items. The meat is the centerpiece, but the sides, the beverages, and the treats and snacks are also important. It can be an art and you need to think ahead and shop right. First timers may need some tips so I would practice in the backyard or at a local park that allows such open grilling.

When you get it down, it becomes second nature. It will be your favorite pastime. There are great places to camp near Houston with the requisite facilities nearby. Plan it during the non-rainy season as a best bet. Fire pit cooking is like no other. The warmth of the fire will captivate as will the wonderful far-reaching aroma. If you are in the woods, you might get a few unwelcome visitors. If they are human, invite them for a bite!

Starting a wood fire is not so simple. Don’t use chemical-based igniters for obvious reasons. There are safer fire starter gels and some woods are kerosene treated. Let any residue burn off before starting to grill. You can use tinder or kindling to get a fire going faster—like newspaper or dried leaves, twigs or pieces of wood. Remember that wet things do not burn! Seasoned wood makes the best fire (avoid newly cut or “green” wood). Soft woods burn quick and fast while hard wood burns longer and hotter. You can start with one and then switch.

Keep in mind that you need oxygen to start your fire and prevent it from suffocating too soon. You will need to stack your wood loosely to provide needed air space. If the fire still starts to die, you can stir the pot with a poker and even blow on the logs. Yes, some big breaths! You want a nice core of glowing embers. You can add wood as needed.

That’s it. It is a highly-recommended way to enjoy the outdoors and some great food and companionship.


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Taste of Texas BBQ: Bigger and Better

You simply don’t go to Texas and not have yourself some BBQ.  They say that everything is bigger and better in Texas.  When it comes to BBQ, they’ve sure got that right.

Texas BBQ roots run deep.  In fact, it is thought to date back to Czech and German settlers who lived in Central Texas in the mid 1800’s.  It really came about out of practicality rather than as a luxury.  Butchers smoked leftover meat that had not sold in the market so that it could be stored and used without spoiling.  The smoked meats went over so well, they quickly became a favorite for the locals.

Around the same time, freed slaves began to experiment with BBQ as well, especially in East Texas.  They cooked with a whole different style though.  Meat was cooked long and slow until it was literally falling off the bone.

Texas is so big into BBQ, it is actually divided into four BBQ regions, each with a character all its own.  Central Texas is famous for its rubs and spices and for being cooked over hickory or oak wood.  East Texas is not only known for BBQ that falls off the bone but also for sweet tomato based BBQ sauces that are heaped upon the meat as it cooks over wood, typically hickory.

West Texas favors using mesquite wood, probably because it is plentiful in the region.  The mesquite makes for a slightly bitter taste that sets it apart from other Texas BBQ.  Down in South Texas, you will find a Mexican influence in the preparation as well as in what is prepared.  In addition to beef, sheep or goats are often cooked and sometimes, they are cooked whole.  Don’t be surprised if your South Texas BBQ is cooked in a large hole with maguey leaves and is covered in a thick molasses sauce.

If you are going to be in Texas, for sure you simply must eat some BBQ.  You really can’t get a good feel for Texas BBQ though unless you try out all four types.  Not only is the BBQ different but also the way they are served.  Some establishments urge you to dig in with your fingers while others serve up a more formal meal with actual knives and forks along with rolls, beans and other fixings.  Still others are big into BBQ sandwiches served with sides.

Variety in Texas is never lacking and it is evident in their BBQ.  As far as which is the best, there are many ongoing arguments within the lone-star state on that very subject.  While the question is the reason for competition cook-offs between the four areas, the best way to answer it is to be your own judge and help yourself to each, then decide for yourself.  If you’re like me though, you will find that they are all so delicious, it’s almost impossible to choose one.  In fact, I think I could make a more informed decision if I had…just one more taste.


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