Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Thanksgiving turkey tribute to Walt and all the grill masters and pitmasters who pass along the tradition

Libby & Gunnar Jacobson at the cabin on Grindstone Island in 1991.

With the Posse, I've eaten turkey at some of the best barbecue joints in Texas, including Franklin Barbecue in Austin and Stanley's in Tyler. Their turkey breast is first rate, no question, just like their other smoked meats.

But the most memorable turkey I've ever eaten still remains Walt Scheela's, cooked at his cabin on Grindstone Island.

The ambiance is important. One of 1,600 islands in Rainey Lake, Grindstone is located about 10 miles East of International Falls, Mn. Look one direction across the water and you see Canada. Look another and you see Voyageurs National Park.

One winter long ago, we skied across the frozen lake and spent a cold night (20 below or so) in the cabin, waking every couple hours to stoke the fire in a Franklin stove, our only source of heat. But that's a story for another time.

With Thanksgiving upon us, I want to tell you how Walt, the long-time coach and athletic director at International Falls High School who died in 1979, taught me to cook turkey during our holiday stays on the island. This is a tribute to him and all the grill masters and pitmasters who pass along the tradition.

I married one of Walt's granddaughters. In her family, getting your first Weber kettle was a rite of passage to adulthood. And watching Walt was how we learned to use the machine.

The ritual would begin in the morning as he started the charcoal. Bill and Walt Jr., Walt's sons, say that early on their father used kerosene to light the charcoal. It smelled worse but was cheaper than starter fluid. By the time -- 1971 -- I joined the family, though, he had switched.

By  9 a.m. or so, the coals, a few stacked on one side of the kettle providing indirect heat, would be white and Walt would place the whole bird on the grill. Then he put the cover on the kettle and adjusted the air vents.

When everything was right, that usually meant it was time for a beer and to start the first bocce ball tournament of the day.

Every hour, precisely, Walt would add a few briquets.

Last Thanksgiving, at my brother-in-law's place in Kansas, we cooked turkeys, ham and beef loin on three different machines -- an offset stick burner, a Kamado and a standard Weber. Actually four, if you count the turkey in the kitchen oven as well. My brother-in-law also learned, in part, from Walt.

Over the the years, my basic turkey technique hasn't changed much. It's still Walt's.

Oh, now I sometimes brine the bird ahead of time in a salt and sugar bath. And I add wood chunks (hickory and/or apple and/or pecan) to the charcoal for smoke flavor, and some herbs to the butter baste. But those are small tinkerings.

The main thing I learned from Walt is the importance of constant vigilance, regularly adjusting the vents to keep the temperature right, adding charcoal and wood when necessary, checking the bird every so often. Its color and smell will help tell you how it's doing.

 Often accompanying all that vigilance is a beer. That's an important part of the ritual, too.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Posse member Bruce Tomaso nominates Justin and Diane Fourton of Pecan Lodge as Texans of the Year

Diane & Justin Fourton, owners of Pecan Lodge. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Note: The Dallas Morning News editorial department selects a Texan of the Year. Posse member Bruce Tomaso recently nominated Diane and Justin Fourton of Pecan Lodge for the honor. With permission, we are reprinting Bruce's Viewpoints column from The News.

By BRUCE TOMASO

Wendy Davis can talk on her feet. Ted Cruz can talk with his foot in his mouth.

But neither of them can cook a world-class smoked brisket. Neither of them helped change the public face of Texas cuisine.

The people who did that are Justin and Diane Fourton, my nominees for 2013 Dallas Morning News Texan(s) of the Year.

Justin and Diane own Pecan Lodge at the Dallas Farmers Market. If you like barbecue and haven’t eaten there, go.

It’s open Wednesdays through Sundays, lunch only. They start serving at 11 a.m. The line starts forming before 10.

The Fourtons have dazzled culinary high priests near and far. In 2010, the year Pecan Lodge opened, D magazine named it one of the city’s best new restaurants. (This floored Diane, who remembers thinking, “How does D magazine even know who we are?”)

Guy Fieri, the overloud Food Network guy with the blond spiked hair, featured Pecan Lodge on Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives. Daniel Vaughn, Texas’ most influential barbecue writer, gave the joint a rare 5-star rating, saying, “There isn’t much that Justin can’t successfully transform under a bath of mesquite smoke.”

Even more prestigious: The Texas BBQ Posse, of which I am a proud member, chose Pecan Lodge as one of its six favorite joints statewide. The posse, for those few who don’t know, is a distinguished and exclusive gastronomical society that grants membership only to those who ask.

Then, this past May, the Fourtons got the barbecue equivalent of a predawn phone call from Norway’s Nobel Committee: Texas Monthly, which issues its celebrated list of “50 Best BBQ Joints” once every five years, had placed Pecan Lodge in its top four.

This is not to say that Justin, who runs the pits at Pecan Lodge, has broken new ground in the craft of slowly cooking meats with wood. Or that other Texas pitmasters — most famously, Austin’s Aaron Franklin — aren’t turning out great barbecue. Justin’s methods, like those of his peers, are as old as Texas itself.

What separates the Fourtons, and qualifies them as Texans of the Year, is that they’ve earned respect in a city whose most-talked-about cuisine is normally served in five courses on white tablecloths.

In the heart of downtown Dallas, they’re flourishing with the same classic barbecue usually associated with the Texas Hill Country.

No longer must one trek to Lexington or Lockhart or Luling (or even Austin) to experience state-of-the-art Texas barbecue. An office worker in a high-rise on Pacific Avenue can do it. A conventioneer visiting from Ashtabula, Ohio, can do it. A family from Plano can do it.

The Fourtons have opened a big window through which countless thousands of visitors have gladly reached for a platter of Texas culinary culture.

“All the publicity that we’ve been getting becomes, in a way, publicity for Dallas,” Justin said. “As Dallas residents, that’s something we feel really good about.”

In early October, Notre Dame’s football team played Arizona State University at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. My son, a Notre Dame junior, came home for the game and brought along a couple of buddies from the Midwest. Wishing to treat our guests to an authentic Texas dining adventure, I drove to Pecan Lodge that Saturday morning to grab a takeout order of brisket, ribs and sausage.

Almost everyone in line was wearing either Fighting Irish or Sun Devils gear. These were clearly out-of-towners. Through word of mouth, or TV, or Google, they’d discovered that Pecan Lodge at the Farmers Market was the place for barbecue in Dallas.

Money can’t buy that kind of publicity. And it hasn’t. The Fourtons have no advertising budget.

If one needed a second reason to consider them for Texans of the Year — and one shouldn’t, after tasting their food — there’s this: Almost single-handedly for the past three years, they’ve kept the Farmers Market from turning into a ghost town.

The city, after years of annual operating losses, has sold most of the property to private developers who promise the standard “showcase,” “vibrant urban center” and “anchor destination.” There will be shops and restaurants. Apartments. And of course, farm-fresh fruits and vegetables.

Whether any of that gets built — and whether Pecan Lodge will be part of the vibrant urban center anchor showcase destination — remains to be seen.

I’m skeptical. I may end up eating my words. But I’d rather eat a plate of the Fourtons’ barbecue.

Bruce Tomaso, an assistant Metro editor at The News, once ate at eight barbecue joints in seven Texas towns in just over 24 hours. He can be reached at btomaso@dallasnews.com.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Making the most of the 'golden hour' at Texas Monthly's BBQ Fest

Pitmaster Justin Fourton of Pecan Lodge in Dallas shows off his brisket at the 2013 Texas Monthly BBQ Festival.

Note: Posse members Libby and Mike Gagne, who live in Austin, attended Sunday's Texas Monthly BBQ Festival (TMBBQ Fest 2013), which brings together many of the best joints in the state. Libby and Mike were guests of Phil Winters of FoodyDirect, an Internet food site that advertises on this blog. Here is Libby's report from the event.

We queued up at about 11 a.m. and were admitted to the festival at noon, and enjoyed a “Golden Hour” of reduced lines and access to 21 of the best BBQ places in Texas. During our wait in line, we formulated a strategy to maximize our hour before the doors opened to general admission at 1 p.m. Three places were at the top of our collective lists because at least one of us had not tried them yet: Opie’s BBQ, Pecan Lodge, and La Barbeque Cuisine Texicana.

“It’s like speed dating but with food,” Phil said.

A definite festival find was Opie's (Spicewood), which delivered on brisket, sausage, and turkey.  It was the only participant rated 4.5 or higher by Texas Monthly that all three of us had not previously tried and it's good to know it's practically in Austin's backyard.  We each got fattier pieces of brisket, which were moist, with good texture and good smoke.  Phil was lucky enough to get an end piece and couldn't believe how moist it was.

There was some good heat on the jalapeno cheese sausage, although no noticeable snap.  But it definitely delivered on taste and texture, so it was two out of three and was among the top sausages of the day. Turkey is an often overlooked or minimized protein, maybe because when it's bad, it can be very bad. But I really appreciate when it's done right.  Opie's did it right and offered up turkey with a tasty rub that was still moist and had a very good overall texture.

Pecan Lodge (Dallas) was popular from the beginning of the festival, and immediately drew a line of people. Only Franklin Barbecue (Austin) had a more consistently long line, which deterred us, for fear of wasting the precious golden hour on one place that we have been to many times before.  Justin Fourton was slicing the Pecan Lodge brisket for each visitor and offering up smiles as well as some delicious smoked meats.  The sausage had a great snap and spicy flavor.  The smoke was more pronounced on the brisket, which the Posse appreciates, but the meat was not as falling-apart moist as some other places.

We tried to visit Lockhart Smokehouse (Dallas) at this point as well but they were not yet serving food so we moved on down the line.

Pitmaster John Lewis of La Barbecue in Austin cuts brisket.

The brisket from La Barbecue (Austin) put the other briskets that we tasted in perspective.  (Remember, we avoided Franklin because of the long lines.) It set the gold standard for us - perfect texture and fantastic smoke.  Plus, pitmaster John Lewis offered up the best sausage of the day with excellent snap, possibly the most important element to us when it comes to sausage.  It was less spicy than most of the others we tried, but still had a lot of flavor.  It was so good several of us went back for seconds, and even thirds.  We had the opportunity to meet LeAnn Mueller, co-owner of the joint.

According to one yearly festival attendee, Snow’s (Lexington) brisket has not traveled well in the past or lived up to expectation in this setting.  But this year it more than redeemed itself and arguably served one of the top three briskets we had all day.  The sausage had good snap but not a lot of flavor compared to others.

Stanley’s (Tyler) consistently has one of the best ribs and this year was no exception.  Absolutely fantastic.

Overall, the festival had a great layout with the higher-ranked places situated at the end of each segment of tents, and the lines directed away from the middle walkway and seating area.

Oh, we do have another suggestion about how to make the most out of the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest. At one point, we made a crucial custard run across the street to Sandy's Hamburgers. Although the festival had some good looking pie, that custard really hit the spot. And the walk freed up some space for a few additional barbecue samples when we got back. It was the cherry on top of a very delicious Sunday.

Pitmaster Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin works the serving line.

Left to right, Kerry Bexley & Tootsie Tomanez of Snow's BBQ with Libby Gagne & Phil Winters

Brisket, turkey & sausage from Opie's BBQ in Spicewood.

Brisket & jalapeno beef sausage from Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. 

Left to right, Mike Gagne, Libby Gagne and Phil Winters at the 2013 Texas Monthly BBQ Festival.