Wednesday, March 9, 2011

You Want Something Really Different...?

I quit going to the rodeo many years ago, mainly because of the entertainment that they started having!

In my mind, the rodeo was always about cowboys and cowgirls doing western stuff. But when folks start showing up, like Janet Jackson...forget about it! Can you imagine? Janet Jackson at the Houston Fat Stock Show and Rodeo...somehow, that does NOT compute!

The one thing you can always count on at the fairgrounds, however, is the unusual and totally unexpected food that seems to show up every year! The folks at the Houston Chronicle were kind enough to give us a little preview!

At rodeo, one dilly of a pickle

By KEN HOFFMAN Copyright 2011 Houston Chronicle
March 7, 2011, 11:51PM

People love snacks that are sweet. And sour. And crunchy. And salty.

Chocolate-covered pickles! Hello?

The carnival midway at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is famous for introducing wonderfully bizarre "carny food" like fried Twinkies, fried Beer, fried Coke, fried butter and, well, fried anything.

The truth is, while fried this and fried that are good for laughs — whoa, almost forgot fried Snickers — dining along the carnival midway is awfully great for what it is. If you like turkey legs, the rodeo has the biggest, most delicious turkey legs. Corn dogs? The corniest. Hot dogs? Half-pounders that can't be beat.

But chocolate-covered pickles? That took some extra-hard thinking.

Unlike New York Stock Exchange burger chains, which spend years and millions of dollars creating, test-marketing and introducing a new "secret sauce," things move fast on the carnival midway.

Last month, Mike Ousie was preparing his Pennsylvania Dutch Funnel Cake booths for the rodeo. His funnel cakes are famous on the state fair circuit. You really have to eat them hot from his cast-iron frying pans with powdered sugar or chocolate frosting on top.

A few years ago, Ousie began selling chocolate-covered strawberries. And he's always sold big juicy pickles.

"My daughter Kate said, 'Why don't you make chocolate-covered pickles?' It sounded strange to me at first, too. But I thought, you know, she might be on to something," Ousie said.

"I wanted to add something different that would get us some attention. Chocolate-covered pickles would certainly do that. Once I started playing around with the concept, things moved pretty quick," Ousie said.

They're $4.75.

Ousie first tried traditional chocolate coating, like a chocolate-dipped cone at Dairy Queen. He didn't like the waxy texture. He also wanted a richer, "more chocolaty" flavor. So he went to Sam's Club and bought some Ghirardelli chocolate bark. He melted the chocolate in a double boiler and dipped a giant dill pickle. He waited to see if the chocolate hardened properly and stuck to the pickle.

It did, but Ousie didn't think the chocolate flavor was right — not "chocolaty enough." So he tossed a few handfuls of NestlĂ© Toll House chocolate chips into the double boiler with the Ghirardelli chocolate bark. Perfect.

Then came an unexpected problem. Ousie was having trouble finding the right size pickles, and enough of them, for the huge crowds expected at the rodeo. He eventually ordered a truckload of dill pickles from the Cajun Chef company in St. Martinville, La. They arrived just in time for the rodeo's opening day.

Ousie makes his chocolate-covered pickles fresh each morning. He starts with cold pickles, so the chocolate hardens fast. Ousie rolls each chocolate-covered pickle in candy sprinkles or adds a swirl of white chocolate on top.

The chocolate shell is crunchy and brittle, and it crumbles in your mouth when you bite into the pickle. Ask for an extra napkin — these pickles are juicy and squirty.

Chocolate-covered pickles have become a surprisingly good seller for Ousie. His best customers are women. "And not pregnant women, either."

"When people bite into one, they get a surprised look on their face. It's like, 'Wow! That wasn't what I expected!' I think I've got a nice little product on my hands," Ousie said.

A different kind of meatball

Over at Enzo's Pizzeria Stand, owner Dominic Palmieri has a nice big, and I mean super BIG, product on his hands.

It's the 22-inch, 3½-pound, jaw-dropping, belt-popping, Man vs. Food-defying Ball Buster Meatball Submarine.

"I developed this sandwich at an Italian festival last year, and now I'm introducing it to the 1.5 million people who'll come to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo," he said.

Huge is easy. Huge and delicious is the trick, and this sandwich is a whole lot of both.

The Ball Buster Meatball Submarine starts with meatballs that are barbecued — that's different — over an open flame. Then Palmieri sprays the meatballs with a beer marinade. The result is a smoky, charred flavor.

"It's a very distinct flavor profile. The beer really explodes the taste of the meatballs," he said.

What kind of beer does Palmieri use? "The cheapest I can find." Palmieri describes himself as "The Meatball King" and leader of "Foodie Boomer Generation."

The Ball Buster serves 2, 4, 6, 8 … who do we appreciate? The Meatball King!

That'll be $20, tax included.

The meatballs are made with beef, pork and bread crumbs. They're 2 ounces each, about the size of a plum. They're kept warm in a giant pot of authentic marinara sauce. Each Ball Buster has 12 meatballs end to end.

Palmieri has a baker in Houston who supplies all the bread products for the carnival midway food booths. A 2-foot hoagie bun can be a challenge.

"The bread has to be stout enough to hold 12 good-size meatballs plus sauce and mozzarella cheese, we're talking over 3 pounds, but delicate enough for people to enjoy it. You can't just pick this up like a normal sandwich. We serve it across four paper plates. When someone orders one, other people in line get a shocked look on their faces. People grab their cameras and take photos of the sandwich," he said.

"This sandwich was a no-brainer for us, and we're enjoying its notoriety and success. It's definitely gourmet carnival food meets Texas."

Now you know me and you know I love chocolate! But I just somehow draw the line on a chocolate covered pickle! I mean, I like 'em both...but not together! Kinda makes my jaws ache just thinking about it!

Yes Sir, one thing about Texas...they can always come up with something just a little bit different! Sometimes, even a LOT different!

How about some fresh coffee this morning? No pickles, I promise!


Ben in Texas said...

You Rodeo Food sounds like some of the weird stuff that shows up at the START FAIR OF TEXAS Sept 30 to Oct 23 They do offer some weird stuff. But my first food at the Fair HAS to be Fletcher's Corn Dog absolutely the best!!! Fresh out of the fryer with mustard!!!

Dizzy-Dick said...

You know, Jim, that pickle thing sounds good, as does the meat-ball sub. The last time I was at the rodeo was the spring of 1981 and Don Williams was the entertainer. He was my favorite.

Mechanic in Illinois said...

How about chocolate covered tomatos, the little cherry kind. They're the right size. All this talk about food is making me hungry. I think I'll have a venison summer sausage sandwich. Thanks for the story and have a great Wednesday.

Bob from Athens said...

How about deep fried coffee in a chocolate cup? now that would be ahh something to look forward to!

HermitJim said...

Hey Ben...
I'm sure that some of the same vendors show up at the rodeos and the state fair!

Probably have a circuit that they follow.

I do like the sound of the sub, but that's a LOT of sandwich!

Thanks for coming by today!

Hey Dizzy...
I can understand Don Williams at the rodeo, but Janet Jackson? I don't think so...!

I really like Don Williams and would consider him worth the price of a ticket!

I appreciate you coming by today!

Hey Mechanic...
I don't think anyone has come up with that one yet! Maybe you should start making and selling them!

Thanks, my friend, for coming by today!

HermitJim said...

Hey Bob...
I'd be willing to try that one!

Wonder if the chocolate cup would leave a ring on the tablecloth?

Oh well, I don't use a tablecloth anyway, so it really doesn't matter!

Thanks for coming by today!

Marjie said...

Pickles have no business in the same sentence, or even the same paragraph, with chocolate, much less combined! This is one scary food, to me at least. I think I'll go find some nice plain chocolate now.