July 2012 Archives

Reducing the variables

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If you haven't been able to tell, I'm absolutely loving my Big Green Egg ceramic grill/smoker. It has been seeing more than its fair share of action since I bought it a few months ago. The thing is truly amazing, and it gets better with every use - I seem to learn or discover something new with each cooking session.

The Egg is so versatile... as I mentioned earlier, you can load-up the fire box with some hardwood lump charcoal (my favorite so far is from Wicked Good), light your fire, and then configure the air vents to either slow cook for hours at 200F or rocket the thing up to a blast furnace level of 1000F.

With the cast iron grates in place and the fire rocking at 800F you can put a monster sear on your favorite steak. With the stainless steel grates in place, the diffuser set, and the vents nearly closed, I can smoke a pork shoulder at 225F for 10-12 hours, or until the meat literally falls away from the bone. Yum.

The challenge with smoking low-and-slow is maintaining a constant temperature. The Egg does a relatively good job of holding a consistent temperature, but variables such as wind speed and sun really impact the cooking temperature over time.

So, when I've smoked a pork shoulder, turkey breast (bone in), a brisket or ribs, I've always had to monitor the smoker. If the wind picks-up, I have to close the vents a bit. If the wind slows down, I have to open them a touch... it's a bit stressful, and it eats up the entire day. Babysitting the Egg for 12 hours grows old.

I did some research and discovered that the pros (competition BBQ cookers) use all sorts of gadgets to control their fire temperature. After careful consideration, I decided to purchase the DigiQ Controller from The BBQ Guru.

I placed an order with them, and within a few days, the UPS man delivered my DigiQ set-up. I raced home and set everything up. Here's what the assembled system looks like (along with my Thermowerks 2-phase digital temperature monitor (in yellow)):

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This system is pretty amazing. It consists of a computer control box (in red, above), two temperature probes (inside of the Egg), and a variable speed 10cfm fan.

You connect the fan's power/control wire to the computer controller, and install the fan into the lower "intake" vent on the Egg, then close-off all of the other vents on the Egg. This effectively limits the only oxygen source to the 10cfm fan, which will spin at whatever speed the computer tells it to. Here's what the fan looks like when it's attached to the Egg's intake vent:

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You then connect the "pit temperature probe" from the computer to the inside of the Green Egg. They recommend you clip the probe to the cooking grate. Some guys recommend you use a spot on the dome. I chose the grate, as I have another temperature probe connected to the dome (on a second unit).

The system is slick. To test it, I ran over to my favorite butcher shop (Knoche's) and purchased an 11-pound USDA choice brisket. I took it home, prepared a homemade rub, and let it sit in the fridge overnight.

On Saturday night at around 9:00pm, I fired-up the Green Egg and attached all of my DigiQ gear. I programmed the computer to set the Egg's temperature to 225F.

By 10:00pm, the fire was stabilized, and things were ready for smoking. I went inside, grabbed the brisket and put it on the Egg. With the DigiQ keeping tabs on the fire, I went inside and watched Saturday Night Live.

At midnight, I stepped outside to check on the Egg. I would've never left it alone for two hours for fear of a temperature spike or drop, but I trusted the DigiQ. Here's what things looked like at midnight:

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The temperature was sitting at a dead-steady 225F. No variation. Wow. That's slick! With complete peace-of-mind, I went to bed and slept like a log, knowing that the Egg was in good hands with the DigiQ.

On Sunday morning, I woke-up and took Flea outside. I checked on the Egg, and wouldn't you know it, but the temperature was still holding solid at 225F. The brisket had been smoking for nearly 10-hours at a moisture-inducing 225F, without a single spike or dip in temperature. AWESOME.

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My guests were due to arrive for dinner at around 6pm. My plan was to smoke the brisket to an internal temperature of 195F, and from everything I had read, the brisket would require about 16 hours of smoke time at 225F to reach that final temperature.

By 3:00pm (15 hours of smoking), the brisket was still sitting at 175F... hmm. I needed to let it rest for a full two hours before serving, so I was in a bit of a bind. I didn't think the brisket would gain 20F in an hour at 225F, so I bumped up the temperature on the DigiQ to 245F. I figured the extra heat would help finish the brisket in a timely manner.

Within 3 minutes, the Egg was sitting at 245F. No more, no less. WOW! And by 4:30pm, the brisket hit 195F. Both the DigiQ and the Thermowerks units alerted me that things were ready - nice!

Here's what the final product looked like after 16.5 hours of smoking:

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I wrapped that beast in foil and put it into a large cooler that I had stuffed with preheated bath towels. My guests arrived, and we nibbled on some awesome beer bread with an assortment of dips (thanks, Leanne!!), along with a few other appetizers while the brisket continued to rest.

Chris brought over his signature vegetable medley which we cooked on the Egg. After running non-stop for nearly 18 hours, the Egg was still going strong on the original load of lump charcoal! That Wicked Good stuff truly is wicked good!!

We rocked the Egg up to 500F, cooked the veggies, and then prepared for dinner. Here's the brisket after resting for two hours:

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I wish I would've remembered to take a photo of the entire meal, but trust me when I say it was awesome. The brisket had an awesome bark ("crust"), thanks to the combination of the rub and 16 hours of exposure to mesquite wood smoke. The veggies were slightly charred and delicious. Corn on the cob rounded out the meal.

With dinner finished, Leanne broke out an awesome selection of cupcakes from a new cupcake shop near her house. We sampled them all, and they were superb. What a great evening.

Even the Flea thought the meal was finger-lickin'-good:

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So... while the DigiQ may take some of the "excitement" out of using the Big Green Egg, I say "so what?!" - it works perfectly, and is a true asset to the smoker. Score (another) win for technology!

I can't wait to do some ribs or a pork shoulder with it next...

After delcaring Buck and Honey's as the new number one-rated fish fry, we decided to visit our former champion, the Owl's Nest, so that we could perform a back-to-back, head-to-head comparison.

And I'm sad to report that the Owl's Nest appears to have slipped a bit - or at least it did on the night we visited. As mentioned in the Buck and Honey's review, fish frys are fickle. You really are at the mercy of several variables.

We arrived to the Owl's Nest after a short 40-ish minute drive from Madison, and found the place completely packed. We struggled to make our way to the small hostess station; once there, we requested a table for five. The hostess informed us the wait would be around an hour.

After signing-on for a table, we pushed/rubbed/shimmied our way over to the bar for a beverage. With the outside temperature still loitering in the triple-digit range, the idea of an Old Fashioned didn't sound the least bit refreshing, so a few brews were requisitioned.

We stood around, trying not to get in the way of folks while trying to cool off. The Nest's air conditioning was struggling on this early July evening...

After approximately 45-minutes of waiting, we were summoned to our table - a small, four-top table located dead center in the dining room. Hmmm. This was going to be a tight fit... five people sitting at a very small four-top table. Oh well, we'd make due.

Our young waiter arrived and asked if he could refresh our drinks. Absolutely, we proclaimed, beads of sweat streaming steadily down our foreheads. He took our drink and appetizer orders, then sped away. A friendly young lady arrived with water glasses; we slugged those away and she promptly refilled us.

After approximately 10 minutes of waiting, I flagged-down our waiter to inquire about the drinks. He looked slightly stunned, then said he'd be right back with our appetizers. Hmm...

Sure enough; within 2 minutes, our onion strings arrived, while drinks and mushrooms remained AWOL.

The Owl's Nest know a thing or two about onion stings. They finely slice a heap of yellow onions, bathe them in a perfectly made beer batter that features a hint of salt and fry them to a blissfully crunchy state. I'm convinced you will not find a better onion string... these things are pure heaven - our group of five ordered a half-order, and it was more than sufficient.

Our drinks arrived, followed by the mushrooms, and just like the onion strings, the Owl's Nest's mushrooms are second to none. They're made from whole button mushrooms and feature the same salty beer batter as the onion strings. Forget everything you thought you knew about breaded mushrooms... the Owl's Nest blows them all away.

While waiting for our fish, several huge bowls of baked beans, coleslaw, and tartar sauce appeared. And when I say huge, I mean H-U-G-E. I'm not sure why we received such massive bowls of the stuff... there had to be nearly a gallon each of beans and slaw, and a quart of tartar - and that's no exaggeration.

Our little table was now overfilled with the bowls of beans/slaw/tartar, drinks, bread basket, condiments, mushrooms, onion straws, and our plates. And it was about to get worse, because our waiter soon appeared with two massive plates - one of beer battered cod, and one of crinkle-cut fries. The Owl's Nest serves their fish family style; it's not "all you can eat," but there's definitely plenty to eat - I'd say our plate had at least 20 pieces of beer battered cod on it.

We exchanged our nearly empty plates of strings and 'shrooms for the fish and fries, and set about digging-in to the piping-hot plate of fish.

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I grabbed 3 pieces of the battered cod and a healthy helping of french fries. The fish was so hot that I could barely hold on to it. A quick cut revealed a nice, white piece of cod. I allowed a few seconds for it to cool, before taking a bite.

...and... I was completely underwhelmed. While the fish was hot, it wasn't fresh from the fryer hot. Our fish appears to have been taken from some type of uber-warming vessel, because while the temperature was rocket hot, the batter wasn't crispy fresh.

Adding insult to injury, the fish wasn't nearly as flavorful or quality-tasting as the fish we remembered from our previous visit. And it definitely paled in comparison to Buck and Honey's fish.

While eating at Buck and Honey's, I didn't see anyone reach for tartar sauce; tonight, I saw everyone grabbing for it. The batter was flavorful - it had that familiar salty and beer-laden flavor, but the fish was incredibly bland and unexciting. Combined with the "it's been sitting in a warmer for a while," and heaps of tartar, lemon, and pepper were necessary.

We dug through the plate, looking for better pieces of cod, but none could be found.

Now, don't get me wrong... this is still a soild fish fry, and will best most competitors. But our visit of July 6th wasn't up to a first place performance. Based on this visit, I'd place the Owl's Nest in the top 10, but not in the top 5.

We finished our meal, ordered a legendary grasshopper sundae for dessert, paid our $70 tab ($13.95/person for the cod), and adjourned to the air conditioned confines of our cars.

Perhaps the Owl's Nest was overwhelmed by the volume of people, or maybe the heat threw off their normal game. Whatever it was, things weren't as "on" as they have been in the past. As mentioned, this is still a good fish fry... but the strings and the 'shrooms were the stars tonight, and as good as they were/are, it wasn't enough to keep the Owl's Nest in the number one seat.

Owl's Nest (7/6/12 visit) = WIN

Food = 3.25 stars (great appetizers, pedestrian fish)
Service = 2.5 stars (slow, distracted, semi-inattentive)
Value = 3 stars
MISC = 2.5 stars (A/C struggled; cramped table - don't seat 5 people at a small 4 top)

We'll be back, and we'll hope that things return to normal with the next visit. Oh - we should also mention that if you're looking for the quintessential Supper Club experience, this would be one of your best bets, even if the fish isn't frying at a perfect "10." The paneling, the carpet, the accouterments - it all screams "Supper Club." And we like that.

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IT IS OFFICIALLY HOT.

Well, that's not exactly accurate... It's not only hot, it's obscenely hot and it has been for quite some time now. According to the weather report from this morning, we've had temperatures in excess of 90F for thirteen days in a row, and we've exceeded 100F four days in a row.

Combine that heat with a complete lack of rain (June saw just 0.33" compared to more than 4.25" during a normal summer), and it makes for a crunchy existence. Just take a peek at my backyard, along with a squinty and hot Flea...

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That yard is brown. And crispy. And I'm sitting here, sweating as I type this.

So... it's been a busy few weeks... there's been a lot going on at work, a few motorcycle rides, fewer bicycle rides, even fewer runs, a tour of American Packaging Company, fireworks, and a concert. Let's recap, shall we?

I'll skip the bits about work, running, and riding. Those are necessary evils. Let's just say that I've been working much harder and longer than I have been running and riding as of late. I truly am burned out. I need to find a new activity to help keep my girlish figure in check.

The motorcycle has been doing quite well. I promised some photos a while back, and I apologize for not getting them posted in a more timely manner. I snapped these while on a ride a few weekends ago. I won't bother to describe them, I'll just post them.

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Much to my surprise, the Flea has taken a bit of a liking to the motorcycle. She really enjoys riding in the car, but it was a bit shocking to discover that she was interested in the Hog... here she is investigating the ride, looking for a place to sit.

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I got to thinking, and after some searching online, I found several options for taking your dog along on a motorcycle ride. There were backpacks, chestpacks, tank bags, and trunks. Some cost as little as $20; others cost as much as $600. I hated to spend serious money to determine if the Flea actually liked riding on the cycle, but I didn't want to leave her vulnerable to danger in the event of a crash or incident.

I eventually decided to buy a small crate and secure it to the luggage rack with heavy duty zip ties. This would allow me to keep her safe without having to spend a ton of money up front. I went to the local pet store and bought the smallest crate I could find - it cost $21.

I disassembled the crate and lined-up the bottom half with the luggage rack so that it was centered on the bike. I marked locations on the front and back of the crate so that I could drill my first series of mounting holes. With those marked, I grabbed some Vaseline and applied it to the top surfaces of the luggage rack. I then set the crate on top of the rack, in exactly the centered location.

When I lifted the crate off the rack, I could see exactly where the luggage rack rested on the crate (the Vaseline left perfect luggage rack lines on the bottom of the crate). I then drilled additional holes for the zip ties, in a manner that would allow me to completely secure the crate to the rack.

I purchased several dozen 3/8" wide ziptie packs and went about securing the crate to the rack. When I was done, this is what the base looked like:

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The next order of business was to put the top back on, secure it, and zip-tie it for additional security.

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With the crate secured, I placed an old quilted pillowcase inside, and my work was complete.

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I put the Flea inside the crate, and she seemed to like it. She spun around and sat down.

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We've taken a few test rides - started with a short ride of about 5-8 minutes, followed by rides that have been progressively longer. Aside from the oven-like heat, Flea seems to enjoy the rides. When I check on her, she's looking out the front while lying down. She doesn't seem anxious or upset, so I'm guessing she doesn't mind it too much.

I may take her for a longish ride this weekend, just to see how she does. If she likes it, I may invest in a more expensive, more professional-looking solution. Or, I may keep this homemade system... it assembles/disassembles quite easily, and it only cost about $25 with the 10 zipties.

Fireworks

My friend Matt (aka "Potato Man") invited me to watch the infamous Rhythm And Booms event with him, his wife, some family, and friends. Since he lives near Werner Park (site of the event), and since I really enjoy spending time with him and his wife, this was a no-brainer.

I met at their house, where they had a wonderful cookout underway, complete with roasted organic free-range chicken and a ton of goodies. We ate, drank, and chatted until it was dark, at which point we ventured a few blocks down the road and scored some awesome seats just across from the park. With lawn chairs and coolers in place, we sat back and enjoyed the show.

Here are some photos of the fireworks:

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One of the great things about watching the event with Matt and Jen was that I got to catch-up with Andy (Matt's brother) - I hadn't seen him for nearly 10 years. When the fireworks ended, I bid everyone farewell, packed-up my folding chair and headed for home. It was a great fourth of July, for sure.

American Packaging Corporation Tour

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My cousin's husband Jeff works for American Packaging Corporation, which is located in Columbus, WI. They're celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, and as such held an open house to demonstrate how and what they do. It was extremely interesting - APC produces the packaging (labels, wrappers, etc) for the majority of the world's leading consumer products.

Each time you crack-open a mini Hershey bar, or open a can of Pringles, or unwrap a piece of gum, you're peeling away the packaging that Jeff and his fellow employees produce at APC.

APC has several large lines, known as Roto lines - "Roto" is short for Rotogravure, the method by which the packaging is produced. The Roto process uses an engraved cylinder to apply ink to the paper at a high rate of speed. Some of the lines can run at more than 1450 feet per second. That's insane!

The factory is huge - something like 400,000 square feet in size... those Roto machines are massive. Here are some photos from the factory tour.

Roto 2 - one of the original Roto lines. It runs at around 1000 feet per second.

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Roto 2 makes Krackel wrappers, along with other things. Here's a roll of finished Krackel packaging, before being scored and cut into a final product:

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Here's where they mix all of the ink for the various packaging. They start with bulk dyes and then custom mix them to the client's exact specifications. The amount of Quality Control effort that must go into this process is unreal. They use more than 360 tanker trucks' worth of ink per year.

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Here's the area where they store, retrieve, and refresh the cylinders. The cylinders are stored in a large "silo" and are inventoried and retrieved by a computerized, robotic system.

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While slightly blurry, you'll still get an idea of just how large some of these lines are - this is the newest Roto line, and it's an absolute monster. I didn't catch exactly how long it was, but I'd guess it was right around 75-85 yards.

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Here's one of the control panels for that monster. The operators are responsible for identifying misprints, misalignments, feed problems, and so on. Imagine trying to track all of that stuff while it flies by at more than 1,000 feet per second.

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One of the Roto lines was printing labels for Pringles. In Chinese.

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It was a great tour that lasted about an hour or so. At the end of the tour, we were invited into a large warehouse area where APC had free food - brats, burgers, chips, cakes, and the like. Bucky Badger even made an appearance. Here's to another 40 years of success, APC!

Summerfest 2012

I vowed to never attend another Summerfest event, but when I heard that one of the world's greatest heavy metal bands was going to be playing the event, I had to make an exception.

Iron Maiden announced that as part of their Maiden England 2012 tour they would be visiting little 'ole Milwaukee. I purchased tickets as soon as they were available, and a small group of us made the trek to the shores of Lake Michigan to take in the show.

When we arrived to the Summerfest grounds at approximately 5:30pm on the 4th of July, the air temperature was well over 100-degrees. Yikes.

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The blistering heat didn't seem to deter too many people from attending... there were throngs of folks everywhere. Upon our arrival, we took a stroll through the grounds, just to get an idea of what had changed, where the hot spots were, and to see the various stages. This was one of my favorite free stages:

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Alas, there weren't any decent bands playing on the free stages (Summerfest saves the good bands until the late night hours), so we decided to find a place that would be cool(er), and preferably served brews. Within no time we were sitting in the upstairs pavilion for the Water Street Brewery, enjoying a beverage or two.

Here's a shot of our crew; from lower left, working counter-clockwise, we have: Mark (brother of my friend and co-worker, Chris), Mike (friend of Chris'), Chris, and yours truly. If we appear hot, sweaty, and a bit cranky, we were. Even with a cold beverage in hand, it wasn't much fun sitting outside, wallowing in a pool of your own sweat.

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Iron Maiden wasn't playing on a free stage - no sirree - they were playing in the Marcus Amphitheater, which sits on the far south east side of the grounds and requires you to buy a special event ticket to attend. Our tickets were $72 each... and the show was scheduled to start at 7:30pm. If you look closely, you can see the Amphitheater in the background - this was taken from our perch at the brewery's pavilion.

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We sat at the pavilion for as long as we could, and then made our way to the Amphitheater. Our seats appeared to be in a decent location; left of the stage, about 40 rows back. Little did we know the seats wouldn't be that great once the show started.

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As soon as the show began, we instantly recoiled in horror. The sound was absolutely dreadful - nothing but shrill, harsh, shrieking sound. You see, the Marcus Amphitheater has several design factors working squarely against it... it's an Amphitheater, so the stage is set low into the ground, with a shell placed behind it. This works great for non-amplified performances, but acts as a reverb chamber for amplified sound.

The Amphitheater also has a large metal roof that is quite low in relation to the venue. The metal roof helps bounce/reverberate sound even more than the shell behind the stage.

And finally, the entire facility is constructed from concrete, which only makes the reverberation problem worse than it already is. So... as a result, the sound was absolutely atrocious. We know every single Iron Maiden song there is, yet we struggled to identify which songs were being played - that's how poor the sound was.

The showmanship was fine; lots of explosions, good lighting, and props. Here's the stage, almost completely consumed by a controlled fireball:

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I felt really bad for the band - they were playing their hearts out, and they are a super talented group of guys. To be 60-years old and hammering away like they did is truly impressive. They didn't miss a beat, and they played non-stop for nearly two hours in the blistering heat.

Unfortunately, the sound was so bad that I couldn't wait for the show to end. It was literally fatiguing to listen to - it was pure reverberated static, and it was disappointing to say the least.

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The band also mentioned that because the Summerfest stage was so small that they could only bring out about 1/3 of their normal stage set-up. Further proof that the Marcus Amphitheater and Summerfest suck, and that I should've maintained my self-imposed ban of attending any events there. Oh well... lesson learned - never again.

My ears rang for an additional two days because of that horrible venue. UGH.


Bonus content: Clips of Faith

In an attempt to create my longest blog entry to date, I'll pass along one more story.

The New Belgium Brewery (makers of Fat Tire) are big supporters of bicycling. As such, they set up a small national tour called "Clips of Faith" and selected twelve US cities as host destinations. The events raise money and awareness for local cycling efforts - the brewery donates its proceeds from the event to local cycling organizations. Madison was selected as one of the twelve stops.

It's called Clips of Faith because it's essentially an independent film festival that serves some exclusive New Belgium beers along with local cuisine. Entry is free, but you have to pay for your food and drinks.

Chris (from work) told me about the event, and we decided to attend.

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The event was hosted at Olbrich Park, near downtown Madison. While it was warm, it wasn't scorchingly hot, so the event was tolerable. Here's the list of brews offered by the brewery; some of these were really unique and not widely available:

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In addition to the movie screen and beer tents, New Belgium set-up a little "village" of sorts. There were various tents with information, events, and social gatherings. It was really well done:

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We grabbed a few brews (they were available in small, 3oz sample sizes), found a seat on the lawn, and set about preparing to watch some short films. Here's me and the Flea, with a little beverage (they allowed dogs, which was extra cool):

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As soon as dusk landed, they fired-up the projector and started showing films. The films were truly short - I don't think a single one lasted more than 3 minutes. Some were as short as 20 seconds. And, none were very interesting... It's really difficult to "follow" a short film, and the subjects were all over the place... the best part of the show as the intermission - they left the projector set to a white screen and encouraged people to make their own shadow puppet show. That was fun to watch.

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I left the event a little early and was home by 9:30pm. Chris and his girlfriend stuck it out for the entire event, and I'm told it didn't get much better - the films were all equally odd and unusual. At least it was (mostly) free.

FIN

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