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How I Won a Virtual Barbecue Competition

These days, we are all are doing things differently due to the pandemic. Live cooking competitions have been on hold for obvious reasons. Video conferencing has become a way to stay connected to family, friends, and co-workers. A virtual cooking competition? I was skeptical at first, but it was a blast! I belong to the Northeast Barbecue Society (NEBS). Recently, it hosted a Chopped-style barbecue competition on Zoom.

There were seven enthusiastic teams participating in the initial Zoom meeting. They had cool team names, and I could tell some of them knew each other from competing at live events. Was I out of my league?

Each team had a day to come up with a plan for four basket ingredients that were revealed via email—ground turkey, cantaloupe, cornflakes, and a chocolate rabbit. The judges were introduced (four were certified Kansas City Barbecue Society judges) and they verified that the mandatory basket ingredients had not been altered. Teams then had 45 minutes to make an appetizer, entrée, or a dessert.

I recruited my wife, Karen, to help me since I didn’t think I could complete everything in the allotted time by myself.

Our goal was to create a Southwestern Pub Burger with a grilled cantaloupe salsa and a cantaloupe and grilled jalapeño-infused margarita. I wanted to use the basket in as many ways as possible and put as many ingredients as I could on the grill since NEBS is a barbecue group.

Basket Ingredients

When the clock started, I immediately placed ears of corn on a kettle grill set up for indirect grilling/smoking. (I had two grills hot and ready, which was within the contest rules.) The gas grill was set up for direct grilling and heated too high. Karen started with our Mexican-inspired Mole-in-a-Hurry— a combination of ketchup, chipotles in adobo sauce, lime juice, shaved dark chocolate, and a homemade Southwestern rub. We used ground cornflakes to thicken the mixture. The mole sauce was used three ways: as a binder for the turkey burgers; as a sauce for the pretzel bun; and as an unconventional rim for the margaritas.

Karen then made cornflake and Monterey Jack cheese crisps for the burger and as “chips” for the salsa. We also dipped tomatillos in egg and crusted them with crushed cornflakes and cornmeal for a twist on fried green tomatoes.

Meanwhile, I grilled the cantaloupe, halved limes, fresh tomatillos, and jalapeños.

The moderator periodically checked in with the teams to ask questions and keep everyone on task. We obsessively checked the clock, and were so focused on cooking, it was hard to answer any questions.

Time was winding down, and we still had to cook the turkey burger, grill our pretzel buns, and plate our food. We thought we were organized before the cook, but when I started grilling the turkey burgers and buns, I realized I forgot the spatula inside. When I returned to the grill, the buns had burned. (Steven’s words, “Never desert your post!” rang in my ears.) Luckily, I had two more buns at the ready.

Too quickly, time was up! Fortunately, we got everything on the plates. The burger came together with the mole sauce spread on each half of the pretzel bun. The pan-fried cornflake-crusted tomatillo went on next, followed by the turkey burger, cheese crisp, and grilled cantaloupe. The turkey burger was served with our grilled cantaloupe salsa, more cheese crisps for dipping, and our grilled lime, cantaloupe, and jalapeño- infused, margarita rimmed with mole.

Virtual Barbecue Plated

Each team was required to have a presentation plate and a separate plate to eat from while “selling” the flavors to the judges. Plates were judged based on creativity, presentation, and the drool factor. As judges were not able to taste the food, each team did their best to describe and present their dishes. All the dishes looked awesome—among them, meatballs, chili, salsa, lettuce wraps, enchiladas, tacos, stuffed poblanos, a variety of mole sauces, and cocktails.

During our presentation, I highlighted all the ways we used the basket ingredients, always grilling or smoking when possible. To score points for the drool factor, you had to describe the flavors in the dish so the judges can imagine eating your food. In my first bite, the heat and sweet of the chocolate mole sauces jumped out. I noticed the juiciness of the turkey burger from the sauce and sautéed onions and mushrooms. The pan-fried tomatillo and cornflake crisp provided a salty-cheesy crunch to the burger. The charred and cool cantaloupe helped balance the heat from the mole sauce. The salsa was sweet due to the grilled cantaloupe and corn but had heat thanks to the jalapeños. The grilled tomatillo and onion provided texture and crunch. The acid from the grilled limes and the fresh cilantro balanced out the salsa. The salsa even had a hint of smoke from the corn. The cantaloupe and jalapeño- infused tequila and grilled lime juice margarita was refreshing and the mole and salt rim took it over the top.

Virtual Barbecue Plated

We knew we had a chance when the first question we got from one of the judges was, “What’s your address?” The judges deliberated and returned with the results. There was a tie for second place between the “USS BBQ and Crew” and the “Lizzie Borden Choppers.’ Then the winner was announced…the Backyard BBQ! Our team. Karen and I will receive a trophy and a cash prize.