Sunday, December 30, 2012

MMA and New York State

MMA and New York State (and why I hate the Diaz brothers)

I love martial arts! I’ve been practicing various MA styles for almost 15 years now. When I’m not practicing them I’m reading about them, thinking about them, and watching movies that feature them. When I first started you couldn’t see the UFC on television. If you were lucky you could catch a few kick boxing matches on ESPN, and maybe a few minutes of Tae Kwon Do on the summer Olympics. I couldn’t have been more excited when the UFC first appeared on TV. The early matches were featured as style vs. style. A Karate practitioner vs. a Jiu Jitsu practitioner; a Tae Kwon Do practitioner vs. a Thai Kick Boxer, etc. As audience members we rooted for those who practiced “our” styles, and evaluated the merits and pitfalls of each art. There were no weight classes and very few rules.

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has now developed into a style in it’s own right. Practitioners (the successful ones at least) study a variety of arts, often a combination of western Boxing, Wrestling, Thai Kick Boxing, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Weight classes were introduced, as well as a number rules to protect the athletes. In short, it became a sport.

A sport that, unfortunately, is still illegal in New York State. Legislators that oppose MMA in NY equate it to “human cock fighting”.

In martial arts practice we bow to our opponent. It’s our way of showing respect, and indicating, “I’m going to practice what I’ve learned with you, but it is not my intention to hurt you”. In a sparring match, we would bow if our opponent scored a point on us. The intent there was “thank you for showing me my weakness”. Everything we did came from a place of respect.

In a UFC match, fighters touch gloves as a way of showing respect at the beginning of a match. Not everyone does it, but many do. Sometimes, they even shake hands at the weigh in, like Junior Dos Santos and Cain Velasquez below.

Then we have the other type of UFC fighter (I call it the “WWE type”). Not only do they NOT touch gloves with their opponent, but they will verbally taunt them, calling them a “bitch” and worse. They get so worked up at the weigh-ins they have to be physically restrained from fighting right then and there. The worst or the worst of the “WWE type” are the Diaz brothers. Nick and Nate grew up under less than ideal conditions in Stockton, CA. Despite their success, and the privilege of studying with one of the greatest Jiu Jitsu coaches, Cesar Gracie, they’ve never learned to control their attitudes. What’s worse is that they have a very vocal fan base who seem to feed off all the drama. “It’s a fight!” they all say on Facebook, “They’re not supposed to be nice”.

I can’t help but think these are the types of fighters that NY legislators are talking about when they criticize the UFC. Maybe if the fighters all acted like martial artists instead of street punks, the argument would run out of steam. I sure would like to find out!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Asian Cooking Guide - How to get Started

To get started with Asian cooking, you'll need a few basic items for your pantry.Many of these items can now be found in the International Foods Section of your grocery store.

  • Light Soy Sauce - Not to be confused with low-sodium soy sauce. This is usually what you find in the grocery store labeled as "Soy Sauce". 
  • Dark Soy Sauce - Thicker and heavier than light soy, almost like a thin molasses. You only use a small amount of this at a time so a bottle will last a long time.
  • Sesame Oil - a flavorful oil, often used in marinades and sauces
  • Chili Paste/Sriracha- These are similar in flavor, but Sriracha is more of a hot sauce, while chili paste has a thicker consistency. You could probably get away with buying one of these and using them interchangeably.
  • Cooking wine/Sake - I prefer to buy Sake, which in NY will require a trip to the liquor store. The quality is better than cooking wine and it will keep for months in the refrigerator.
  • Rice Vinegar  - Used in sauces/dips. Lighter and less acidic than standard vinegar.

The above list will get you started with a number of basic dishes. As you experiment further, you may need:
  • Mirin - A sweet rice wine, often used in Japanese dishes.
  • Curry Paste - Standard varieties are Red or Green, but there are many others. You'll need this to cook Thai or Chinese curry dishes.
  • Oyster Sauce - Used in Chinese stir fries or as a marinade.
  • Fish Sauce - Used in Vietnamese dishes, like Pho.
  • Hoisin Sauce - Sort of a Chinese BBQ sauce. It's salty, sweet, and slightly spicy.

Getting to know your local Asian Grocery store

If you don't have a grocery store with a good International foods section, you may have to visit an Asian grocery store to find some of these ingredients. Try not to be intimidated! Yes, you may be the only westerner in the store, and finding the ingredients may initially be difficult. But over time you'll learn your way around. And most store owners will be glad to help you if you ask. You are, after all, a customer.

Helpful hint: use the links above to view the products at Amazon. Knowing what the bottle looks like can help you find it in the store.

Will I need a wok?

A wok is fun to work with, and particularly handy for cooking large amounts of food. But in truth, all you need is a large saute pan.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Smoked BBQ Ribs

Smoked BBQ Ribs

My first attempts at smoked ribs were rather disastrous. They were either 1) too dry, or 2) too smoky. Luckily I never gave up, as now they are one of my favorites.

Keys to success:

  1. Ability to maintain a low steady temperature on your smoker. I smoke ribs at 250 degrees. Temps above 275 degrees will almost certainly dry out your ribs.
  2. Take it easy with the flavored wood chip/chunks. This is a thin piece of meat and it is easy to overdo it.
  3. Preparation. Proper trimming of the ribs is the key to cooking them evenly.
  4. Wrap. While I'd consider wrapping of a larger piece of meat like a brisket or butt to be optional, with ribs it is essential to keeping them moist.

Baby backs vs. Spare ribs

Baby back ribs are cut from the top of the rib cage between the spine and the spare ribs, below the loin muscle. They are smaller than spare ribs and are meatier and firmer in texture.

Spare ribs are cut from the belly side of the rib cage, below the section of back ribs and above the sternum (breast bone). Spare ribs are flatter and contain more bone than meat.

For smoking, I definitely prefer spare ribs. The extra fat and bone helps keep the ribs more tender, and able to stand up to the longer cooking times in the smoker. 

Preparing the ribs:

We are basically creating what's called the St. Louis cut of ribs. You can buy them already cut this way to save time, but then you'd be depriving yourself and your guests of rib tips, which I'll explain below. 

Above is a basic illustration of the St. Louis cut. The object is to make the ribs as uniform in size as possible. To guide your top cut, look for the longest of the rib bones, and make your cut directly above the top of this bone. 

The second step is removing the membrane. Slide a butter knife under the membrane at one end of the ribs to loosen it. Then grasp the membrane with a paper towel and pull across the ribs to remove it. If you're luckily you'll get almost all of it at once.

Spice Rub:

Once your ribs are prepped, it's time to add the spice rub. If you're preparing your own rub, go lighter on the salt than you would for a larger piece of meat like a brisket. I also like a lot of hot chili in my rib rub, it goes well with the sweet glaze we'll add during the wrapping stage.

Adding a layer of yellow mustard can help your spice rub stick to the meat. Once your ribs are prepped and rubbed, they can be wrapped in plastic wrap and placed in the refrigerator to marinate.

Smoking the ribs:

Remove your ribs from the refrigerator to allow them to come to room temperature before smoking. During this time you can prep your fire.

Please don't use briquettes for smoking, unless you have access to "competition" briquettes. Regular charcoal briquettes can contain additives such as coal and other chemicals and you don't want that flavor in your ribs. I only use 100% hardwood lump charcoal. Lump charcoal burns hotter than briquettes and is often less expensive.

For additional smoke flavoring, I also add chunks of hickory and apple. Pecan is another popular choice for ribs, and other fruit woods such as cherry. If you're going to use smoking chips instead of chunks, soak them in water for at least a 1/2 hour before using them.

Cooking the ribs will be done in three stages:

  1. Initial smoke. Add the ribs to the smoker, add your wood chunks/chips to the fire, and smoke at 225-250 degrees. For spare ribs, about 3 hours; baby backs about 2 hours. The clue that you're at the end of this stage is to watch for the rib meat to start to pull away from the end of the bones.
  2. Wrap the ribs. Place a large sheet of heavy duty on a flat surface and prepare the glaze. Using squeeze Parkay margarine, apply a generous coating to the foil. (if you use butter it will burn) Sprinkle some brown sugar on top of the margarine, and then add a tablespoon or two of honey. Finish the first layer of glaze with some BBQ sauce. Lay your ribs on top of the glaze, and then repeat the glaze on the top of the ribs. Close the foil, and return to the smoker. For spare ribs, stage two will take 2 hours. For baby backs, 1 hour.
  3. The last stage is to unwrap the ribs and return to the smoker to firm up. Your ribs are already fully cooked at this point, so this is just to your taste. You can also add more BBQ sauce to the ribs at this point, if they seem a little dry.
Allow the ribs to rest for 15 minutes before cutting and serving.

Rib Tips

One of the reasons I resisted the idea of trimming ribs to the St. Louis cut was the waste created by all the trimming. That is, until I discovered rib tips.

Rib tips will be subject to much of the same treatment as your ribs:

  1. The initial smoke. Add your spice rubbed rib tips to the smoker for 2 hours. 
  2. Wrap. Using the same treatment as for your ribs above, wrap and cook for 1-2 hours.
  3. To finish your rib tips, remove from the foil and cut into chunks. Add the tips to a disposable foil tray and toss with your favorite BBQ sauce. Add the tray to the smoker with your ribs for the final stage. The tips are already fully cooked at this point, you just want to firm them up and get a little carmelization on the sauce. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Smoking a Beef Brisket

Smoking a beef brisket can be a wonderful way to show off your BBQ skill. The above picture is the brisket flat, which is usually about 5-7 pounds. A full packer brisket will range from 12-15 pounds.

Keys to success:
  1. Ability to maintain a low, steady temperature on your smoker. Unless you want to be constantly babysitting your fire, investing in a good quality smoker can save you a lot of aggravation.
  2. Time. This is a big piece of meat. To cook it slowly will take a significant amount of time. A good rule of thumb is about an hour and a half per pound.
  3. Patience. After the low and slow cooking process is finished, you'll want to give the meat time to rest, reabsorbing all the juices. 
  4. A remote thermometer. The kind that has a probe you can set in the center of the brisket, and connects to a remote unit to display the internal temperature of the meat. Some of the fancier ones also have an alarm that will sound when the meat reaches your target temperature.
  5. If you're just smoking the brisket flat, look for one with a uniform thickness, and get the thickest one you can find. (the picture above is an excellent example)
The night before you plan on smoking your brisket:
  1. Prepare a spice rub. These are available commercially, but if you have a decent spice collection it is easy to make your own. Typical spices on a beef brisket include: garlic powder, onion powder, paprika (lots), cayenne, and cumin. Always add plenty of salt & black pepper as well. If you want to add a bit of sweetness, add some dark brown sugar. (I like to keep my brisket all savory)
  2. Trim the brisket. If you're just smoking the brisket flat, then it will probably not need much trimming. A packer brisket, however, will have a significant fat cap. If you want your spice rub and the smoke to have a chance of flavoring the meat, this will be need to be trimmed down to about a 1/4 inch. 
  3. To help your spice rub stick to the meat, apply a layer of yellow mustard. Then liberally sprinkle your spice rub on all surfaces of the meat. Be generous, this is a large piece of meat so it can stand up to a hefty amount of spice. 
  4. Wrap tightly in plastic and allow to marinate overnight
The next morning:
  1. Remove the brisket from the refrigerator about an hour before you plan on smoking it. This allows the meat to come to room temperature and get started cooking faster.
  2. Start your fire. I usually do this right after I get the meat out of the fridge. You want the fire to have time to burn into some nice coals, and for the heat to even out at about 225 degrees. I use lump hardwood charcoal as it burns hotter than briquettes (1200 degrees vs. 600 degrees), and has fewer additives. 
  3. For additional smoky flavoring, hickory and apple chunks or chips can be used. Chips will need to be soaked in water before using (for about a 1/2 hour), or they will burn off too quickly. Do not constantly add the wood chunks or chips to the fire or you will run the risk of the meat being too smoky. If you're using chunks, adding 2-3 pieces to the fire every hour or two should be plenty.
  4. Fat side up or down? There is a lot of debate about this! Proponents of fat side up say that the fat will slowly melt as the brisket cooks, basting the meat and keeping it moist. Fans of fat side down say the layer of fat facing down will help protect the meat from becoming too smoky. Me? I've tried it both ways, and have had the best success with fat side up. It does seem to keep the meat moister.
  5. To wrap or not to wrap? Many BBQ purists claim that if you maintain a proper low and slow heat, that the brisket can stay moist without wrapping. This also aids with the production of a "bark" on the brisket, a flavorful outer crust. My experience is that wrapping the brisket will not only insure that it stays moist, but also, particularly if you're only smoking the smaller brisket flat, will keep it from getting overly smoky. Because the meat will be steaming inside the foil, you will be sacrificing the bark. (wrapping can also speed up the cooking time, if you're running behind schedule)
  6. To aid in keeping the meat moist, you can also spritz the brisket periodically with apple juice. This can be done every thirty minutes or so, but be quick about it. Remember..."when you're looking, you're not cooking!"
  7. Before putting the brisket on the smoker, insert the probe thermometer. The easiest place to do this is from the top, into the thickest part of the meat. Avoid inserting the probe into a vein of fat, as this can cause the temperature to display too high.
  8. If you're going to wrap the brisket, pull it at about 160-170 degrees. Wrap in a double layer of heavy duty aluminum foil, spritz it with apple juice, and return to the smoker. At this point, you could also finish it in a 225 degree oven, since the wrapped brisket will not be absorbing any more smoke.
  9. The brisket will be done at about 190 degrees. This is the point where all the fat and collagen in the meat will be fully broken down. 
  10. Allow the brisket to rest at least 20 minutes before slicing. Many go longer than this, but I don't have the patience. Also, do not remove the probe thermometer until the meat is fully rested, or you will have a mini geyser of juice. (and you want all the juice to remain inside)
  11. If you smoked just the flat, you're ready to go. To serve the flat, cut across the grain into thin slices. Serve with your favorite BBQ sauce on the side. If you have a full packer you'll want to separate the brisket point from the flat and cook up some burnt ends! (below)

The string in the picture above shows the separation between the point and the flat. (point is on the right) When the brisket is cooked, the fat line between the two will become even more pronounced as the fat will tend to shrink inward.

Burnt Ends:

The brisket point is pretty fatty and has a lot more collagen than the flat. This makes it less than ideal for just simple slicing and eating.

To separate the point from the fat, insert a large carving or chef knife from the side and cut along the fat vein. Wrap the flat tightly in foil to keep it warm while you make the burnt ends.
  1. Trim away the largest chunks of fat, and slice the point into cubes, about 1-2 inches.
  2. Add the chunks of meat to a disposable foil baking pan. 
  3. Add your favorite BBQ sauce. (I love Sweet Baby Ray's Hickory and Brown Sugar) Stir to coat the pieces in the sauce.
  4. Put the pan on the smoker. It usually takes about 30 minutes for the sauce to caramelize on the meat, and render down the remaining fat and collagen. Longer is fine, too, just be sure to stir them periodically so they don't stick to the pan.

You're done! Serve the burnt ends along with the slices of the flat meat for a delicious, Texas-sized feast!!