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Showing posts with label bbq ribs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bbq ribs. Show all posts

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sweet, Crispy Pork Ribs; Cooked Low And Slow

Dry rub pork ribs cut apart after slow roasting and ready for serving. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
The summertime debate is on. What is the easiest way to cook pork ribs? Boil, roast or grill? High heat, low heat, wet sauce or dry rub? I’ve tried them all. Now the question is settled, at least for me.  Slow roasting with a dry rub. To avoid summer’s heat, I put the ribs in a 250 F oven before I go to bed. When I wake up, the ribs are moist with a bacon-thin, sweetened crust. And these best-ever ribs cooked while I was fast asleep.
My mother taught me to make pork ribs with a thick coating of sauce sweetened with brown sugar and raisins. Eating those finger-licking ribs was one of my favorite childhood memories.
Everything changed on a busy research trip to Abilene and Fort Worth, when I ate at 25 restaurants in 36 hours. I fell in love with West Texas BBQ.
At restaurant after restaurant, I watched grill masters lay bundles of mesquite into their subcompact-car-sized smokers. With the heavy metal doors open, the wood crackled as flames enveloped the logs The grill masters seasoned their racks of pork ribs with thick, grainy coats of brown sugar and spices rubbed onto the meat.  Waves of dry heat radiated from the smokers. But the heat that would cook these ribs would come not from an open fire but from smoldering mesquite embers.
When the doors were closed, the blazing logs were starved of oxygen. The flames died and a delicate smoke filled the air. At that moment the grill masters loaded in the racks of ribs coated with sweetened dry rub. Hours later, the ribs were removed, their outer coating thickened to crispness, creating what grill masters call “bark.”
I loved those ribs even more than the ones from my childhood.
At home, without the benefit of a smoker, I experimented for years to duplicate that sweet-crispness. Nothing could ever recreate the wonderful mesquite smokiness but I did succeed in making ribs with bark as good as any I enjoyed in West Texas.

High heat versus slow cookingMix of kosher salt, black pepper, brown sugar, cumin, coriander and cayenne for dry rub slow roasted pork ribs. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Mix of kosher salt, black pepper, brown sugar, cumin, coriander and cayenne for dry rub slow roasted pork ribs. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Cooking with high heat is exciting. There is great pleasure in watching the pyrotechnics of an outdoor grill as sizzling fat catches fire.  Roasting at low heat in the oven lacks that excitement.
And yet, what happens in an oven set at 250 F has its own kind of magic. In the darkness of the oven, the waves of steady heat melt the fat inside the rack, tenderizing the meat and gently fusing the dry rub to the outside of the ribs.
The best magic of all is that the oven does the work. No standing over a blazingly hot grill on a hot day. Once the oven door closes, there is nothing to be done.
Walk into the kitchen and a savory-sweet aroma scents the air. Pull the baking tray out of the oven and press a finger against the outside of the rack. The soft pliancy of the meat has been replaced by a jerky-like crust as sweet as a crème brulee topping.

Slow-Roasted, Dry-Rubbed Pork Ribs

Rack of pork ribs, trimmed. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
Cooking time depends on the size and thickness of the rack.
Buy good quality pork. Asian and Latin markets are often a reliable source of fresh pork products. Unlike the ribs sold in upscale supermarkets, the ribs in these markets will most likely be untrimmed.
Above the actual ribs, the rack will have a top portion with boneless flap meat and a section with thick bones similar to country style ribs.  Another smaller piece of flap meat will stretch across the back of the rib bones.
Requiring only a sharp filleting knife and a few minutes, removing the flap meat and the top portion is not difficult. The flap meat is excellent to use in stir fries, slow roasted in the oven or grilled on the BBQ.
A white membrane is attached to the outside of the flap meat. Use a sharp filleting knife to separate the meat from the membrane and discard.
The flap meat and country style bones can be prepared in the same manner as the ribs.  They will cook more quickly and should be removed from the 250 F oven after a total of 2 to 3 hours depending on thickness.
While the rack of ribs does not have to be turned over, the flap meat and country style bones should be turned over after one hour for even cooking. After another hour, use kitchen shears to cut off a small piece of meat to test for doneness. Return to the oven if the meat is not yet tender.
To eat the country style ribs, have a sharp paring knife handy to help cut out those hard to reach tasty bits tucked between the bones.
The ribs can be cooked ahead and reheated. In which case, do not cut apart the ribs until ready to serve. Reheat in a 300 F oven for 15 minutes.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 6 to 8 hours
Resting time: 5 minutes
Total time: 6 hours, 35 minutes to 8 hours, 35 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Ingredients
1 rack pork ribs, 4 to 5 pounds, washed, dried
3 cups brown sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup cumin
¼ cup coriander
½ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
Directions
1. Place a wire rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat to 250 F.
2. Select a baking pan or cookie sheet that is 2 inches longer than the rack of ribs. Cover the pan with aluminum foil for easy clean up. Place a wire rack on top of the aluminum foil.
3. Lay the rack of ribs on a cutting board, bone side up. Use a sharp filleting knife to remove the tough membrane on the bone side of the rack. Let the knife help you lift the membrane. Use your fingers to pull the skin off the bones and discard.
4. Do not cut off any fat.
5. In a bowl, mix together dry ingredients.
6. For easy cleanup, lay a sheet of plastic wrap on the cutting board. Place the rack on the cutting board. Layer a thick coat of the dry spices onto both sides, covering the meat and bones.
7. Reserve left-over dry rub in an air tight container and refrigerate for later use.
8. Carefully place the rack of ribs on the wire rack meat side up.
9. Put the baking sheet into the preheated oven.
10. Roast six hours. Remove from oven. Use kitchen shears to cut off a small piece and taste.
11. The outside should have a jerky-crispness. The meat inside should be moist and tender. The tapered end of the rack where the bones are small will cook faster than the rest of the ribs. Use the kitchen shears to cut off that section before returning the rack to the oven for another one-two hours. Be careful not to dry out the meat.
12. Once the ribs are cooked, remove from oven and let the meat rest five minutes.
13. Cut between the rib bones and chop into pieces any flap meat without bones. Serve hot with a green salad, Cole slaw, baked beans or freshly steamed vegetables.
Main photo: Dry rub pork ribs cut apart after slow roasting and ready for serving. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt.
 

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Picnic Food & Ice Cold Beer for Super Bowl Sunday

We have a yearly tradition. For Super Bowl Sunday, we invite friends over to our house to eat, have some drinks and watch the game. Until our younger son, Michael, came into our lives, neither of us were much interested in sports. 

Attending UCLA during the John Wooden days, when the men's basketball team reigned supreme, I never went to a single game. I didn't care. But Michael did. From the time he was a toddler, he watched Sports Center, baseball, basketball and football.

Like any parent we wanted to find common ground with our son. For us, that meant catching up with a three year old's encyclopedic knowledge of major league sports.

At first a chore, we got into it. We learned to cheer on the Lakers, root for the Dodgers and follow the careers of our favorite quarterbacks (Manning, Brady, Luck, RGIII, Rogers and Kaepernick).

During the season, I wouldn't miss an episode of Showtime's Inside the NFL, although I am growing tired of the tedious insider kidding the hosts treat themselves to every week.

For our friends on Super Bowl Sunday, I bring out favorite recipes, ones I would take to the beach or park for a picnic. They're all easy-to-make. Put them on the table and watch the game. Everything can be prepared ahead. Everything will taste as good in the fourth quarter as it did before kick off.

Have a great Super Bowl Sunday. May the best team win!


What to serve

Picnic food is perfect for watching the game: rosemary fried chickenegg salad with grilled vegetables and bacon, lobster salad, carrot salad with lemon soaked golden raisins, green salad, oven roasted beets tossed in seasoned olive oil, chicken wings, Caesar salad with grilled shrimp, baked parsley-garlic chicken breasts, sage and shallot stuffed porchetta, and brown sugar pork ribs.

And for desserts, we'll have some choices: handmade chocolatesapple pie with candied ginger crust, ice creams, banana chocolate chip-walnut cakevanilla custard, dried fruit compote and fresh fruit (Valencia orange wedges and Fuji apples).

My favorite

I love chicken wings. Southern fried wings with a light, seasoned flour dusting or marinated and roasted with Korean (kimchi) or Vietnamese (nouc cham) spices.

For this Super Bowl Sunday, I'm making the Nuoc Cham Gung version. Spicy, sweet, moist and delicious. They are a crowd pleaser.



Spicy Sweet Ginger-Garlic Chicken Wings

Serves 4 as an entrée or 8 as an appetizer
Ingredients

2 pounds chicken wings, washed, disjointed, wing tips discarded or reserved and used to make stock
½ cup white sugar
½ cup warm water
¼ cup fish sauce--preferably a light caramel colored brand
¼ cup white vinegar
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
4 cloves garlic minced
1 dried Chinese Szechuan pepper, stem removed, seeds and skin minced
3 tablespoons or 3” ginger, peeled, minced
2 tablespoons brown sugar, to taste

Directions

1.       In a large non-reactive bowl, dissolve the white sugar in warm water. Add the other ingredients, stir to mix well and add the chicken wings. Transfer to a sealable plastic bag and refrigerate one hour or, preferably, overnight.

2.       Remove the wings and transfer the marinade to a small saucepan, adding the brown sugar. Stir to dissolve and reduce by a half or, if you want a thicker glaze, by two-thirds over a medium flame to create a glaze that should have a good balance of sweetness and heat. Taste and adjust for more sweetness if desired by adding another tablespoon of brown sugar.

3.      The wings can either be grilled on a barbecue or baked in a 350 F oven on a rack on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil for easy clean up. Turn every ten minutes. Cook until tender, about 30 minutes.

4.       Place the wings on a large plate of Asian noodles, steamed rice, or shredded lettuce. Just before serving, pour the hot glaze over the top.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Throwing a (Birthday) Party on Super Bowl Sunday: Bacon Wrapped Shrimp, Carrot Salad, Caesar Salad, Ribs, Wings, and Chocolate Banana Cake

My birthday isn't on Super Bowl Sunday, but it's close enough that every year I double-down and celebrate my birthday and football on the same day.

I didn't much care about the sport until our youngest son, Michael, taught me to love all things football. From the time he was 3 years old, he watched Sports Center and would grill me about which QB was the best--I didn't have a clue. He's off at UC Davis now and all that's different now. These days, my favorite TV show--with the exception of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report--is Showtime's Inside the NFL.

We've invited a dozen friends to come by the house and watch the game. I don't want to get stuck in the kitchen, so everything we're serving will be made the day ahead.

Only the Bacon Wrapped Shrimp appetizer has to be grilled on the day so the bacon is crisp and the shrimps are juicy. Just before kick-off, we'll reheat the wings and ribs and we'll be ready to watch what promises to be a great match up.

Bacon Wrapped Shrimp

You know the expression, "Bet you can't eat just one," well it applies to this appetizer. My son Franklin mastered this recipe when he was putting on feasts to entertain his college roommates. He taught me and I'm happy to pass it along to you.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound shrimps (25-35 count/pound), washed, shelled, deveined
10-12 bacon strips
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled, finely chopped
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
Toothpicks


Method

Heat the olive oil in a pan and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sauté the finely chopped parsley, garlic, and shallot in the olive oil until lightly browned. Let cool. Spoon the seasoned olive oil over the shrimp. Toss well and let marinate for 30 minutes.

Organize an area on the counter so you can work assembly-line style.

Cut the strips of bacon into 3 equal pieces. Toss the shrimp again, then take one shrimp and lay it on the piece of bacon, rolling the bacon around the shrimp. Take a toothpick and push it through the bacon-shrimp-bacon to hold it together. Set aside and do the rest.

Using tongs, put the shrimp on a hot grill and close the hood. If you're using an oven, set it at 450 degrees and put the shrimp on a wire rack over a cookie sheet. Turn every 2-3 minutes so they cook evenly and don't burn, about 10 minutes.

Serve on a platter with napkins.

Carrot Salad with Lemon-Soaked Raisins

A great accompaniment for the ribs and wings, the salad also goes well with deli meats like turkey breast or ham or grilled steaks, chicken, or sausage. The lemon-pepper soaked raisins and the roasted nuts bring some surprises to a familiar side dish.

Yield 6-8 servings

Time 20 minutes

Ingredients

8 large carrots, preferably farmers' market fresh, washed, peeled, ends trimmed off
1 scallion, optional, finely chopped
1 small bunch Italian parsley, washed, dried, stems trimmed, finely chopped
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cumin
Pinch of cayenne
Sea salt and pepper
1/2 cup mayonnaise

Method

Soak the raisins in lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight Grate the carrots in a large mixing bowl. Roughly chop the raisins, reserving the lemon juice not absorbed into the raisins.

Mix together the carrots, raisins, parsley, and scallions. Season with the cumin, cayenne, sea salt, and black pepper and toss. Add the lemon juice and mayonnaise. Mix well.

Variations

Use cilantro instead of Italian parsley

Add 2 tablespoons capers

Top with 2 tablespoons roasted chopped almonds

Caesar Salad

The dressing can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 2 days, then all you have to do before serving is tear up the lettuce, shake on some cheese, add the croutons and pour on the dressing. Perfect for a half-time snack.

Yield 4 servings

Time 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 garlic clove, skin off
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
4 anchovies
1 large egg, farmers' market fresh
1/4 teaspoon Worcester sauce
2 hearts of romaine or 1 large frisee, leaves washed
2-3 tablespoons olive oil, to taste
1 teaspoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
2-3 drops Tabasco, optional
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard, optional
1/4 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese, freshly grated
1/2 cup croutons, homemade
Black pepper

Method

Use a wooden bowl if you have one. Sprinkle the sea salt on a wooden cutting board. Mash the garlic back and forth on the salt with the flat side of a chef's knife, then sweep the garlic-salt mash into the salad bowl.

Boil water in a small saucepan. Add the egg and cook for 4 minutes. Remove the egg, let cool, open, scoop out the yolk and white with a small spoon, and add to the salad bowl along with the Worcester sauce, optional Tabasco & Dijon, olive oil, and lemon juice.

Using a fork, mash the anchovies against the side of the salad bowl so they dissolve in the dressing. Mix well.

Tear the romaine leaves into pieces or chop up the frisee, add to the salad bowl, top with grated cheese, croutons, and season with pepper. Toss to coat the leaves.

Taste and adjust the flavors by adding more lemon juice or sea salt.

Variations

Add 1/2 pound grilled, shelled, deveined shrimp, whole or roughly chopped

Add 2 chicken breasts, skinless, grilled, thin sliced

Add 1 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted, roughly chopped

Brown Sugar Pork Ribs

The cooked ribs can be kept in the refrigerator covered 2-3 days or frozen in an air-tight freezer bag.

Yield 4 servings

Time Prep (20 minutes) Marinate (overnight) Cook (2 hours)

Ingredients

1 rack pork ribs
2-3 cups brown sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
Olive oil
Black pepper
6 ounces Italian tomato paste
1 small yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped

Method

Trim excess fat, the membrane, and flap from the ribs. Caprial Pence the owner-chef of Caprial's Bistro in Portland, Oregon and a fellow contributor to Eat Drink or Die shows how to prep the ribs with easy-to-follow photographs. Reserve the flap, trimmed of its membrane, to grill for tacos.

Spread a piece of plastic wrap on the counter 5” longer than the rack. Dust the meat side of the ribs with the cayenne.

Mix together the brown sugar and kosher salt. Spread half the dry mix on the plastic wrap. Lay the ribs on top, then cover with the rest of the dry mix. Cover with a second piece of plastic wrap, seal, fold in half and place into a Ziploc or plastic bag. Refrigerate in a pan overnight.

In the morning remove the ribs. The dry mix will have transformed into a slurry. Very alchemical! In a sauce pan sauté the onions and garlic with olive oil until lightly browned, season with pepper. Remove the ribs from the plastic bag. Use a rubber spatula to remove most of the liquid from the ribs and plastic bag and transfer to the sauce pan. Add the tomato paste and simmer the sauce on a low flame for 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the flavor if necessary.

Line a large baking tray with tin foil. Place a wire rack on top of the baking tray, then lay the ribs on the rack. The ribs can either be cooked in a 350 degree oven or on the “cold” side of a covered grill with the heat on high.

Whether on the grill or in the oven, cook the ribs 30 minutes on each side, then baste the ribs with the sauce and cook another 30 minutes on each side or until done. Remove from the oven, cut apart the individual ribs, and serve.

Kimchi Chicken Wings

The natural partnership of kimchi and brown sugar brings a sweet-heat to these finger lickin' good wings.

Yield 4 servings

Time Marinate overnight. Cook approximately 60 minutes

Ingredients

2 1/2 pounds chicken wings, washed, pat dried
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup kimchi, finely chopped
1 tablespoon kimchi water from the bottle
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, washed, peeled, sliced thin
2 tablespoons soy sauce

Method

Dissolve the brown sugar in the kimchi water, olive oil, and soy sauce. Add the kimchi, onion slices, and chicken wings. Mix well, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking tray with tin foil for easy clean up. Place a wire rack on the tray and arrange the wings on the rack. Drizzle the wings with olive oil. Put into the oven and bake 30 minutes. Turn over with tongs. Bake another 30 minutes.

The wings should be tender and golden brown. If not, turn the wings over and continue baking another 10 minutes.

Check again and continue baking at 10 minute intervals, turning the wings each time, until they are done.

In a small saucepan on a low flame, reduce the marinade by a third. Reserve.

The wings should be eaten hot. Pour the heated, reduced marinade over the wings just before serving.

Serve with plenty of napkins and ice cold drinks.

Variations

Add 1 tablespoon julienned garlic and 1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley to the marinade
Just before serving, top with 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds and 1 tablespoon thinly sliced scallion

Banana Cake with Chocolate Chips and Walnuts

Now it's time for something sweet. The cake is best served warm, topped with powdered sugar and grated dark chocolate. Ice cream and whipped cream are good too.

Yield 8-10 servings

Time 90 minutes

Ingredients

4 ripe bananas
1 1/2 tablespoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sweet butter, room temperature
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup half and half or 1 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 cups white flour
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of cayenne
1/2 cup raw walnuts
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Method

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and paint the inside of a 9 x 3 round cake pan, then put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes. The frozen butter prevents the batter from sticking to the pan.

Bake the walnuts on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, turning every 10 minutes. Let cool, roughly chop, and set aside.

In a bowl mash the bananas with a fork, add the baking soda and vanilla. stir well and set aside. In a mixer use the whisk to cream together the softened butter and both sugars. Add the eggs, mashed bananas, half and half (or cream) and whisk until blended. Mix in the flour half a cup at a time, being careful not to over-beat.

Remove the bowl from the mixer. Use a rubber spatula to blend in the walnuts and chocolate chips. Pour the batter into the buttered cake pan. It will only fill the pan half-way, which is good because the cake will rise.

Bake the cake in a 350 degree oven for 60-70 minutes, turning the pan every 20 minutes so the cake cooks evenly. Test to see if the cake is done by inserting a wooden skewer. If the top is browning too quickly, lightly lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top. When the skewer comes out clean, take the cake out of the oven and place on a wire rack for 30 minutes.

Remove the cake from the pan, putting it back on the wire rack to finish cooling.

Just before serving, dust the top with powdered sugar and shaved chocolate. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Nugget's Best of the West Rib Cook-Off is a Recession Buster

If you've never been to a barbecue rib-cook off, let me paint you a picture.

On either side of a long street, booths are set up with sellers hawking their wares. You'll hear laughter and a hundred conversations as people walk down the crowded street or stand in line at the booths.

Imagine a midway that looks very much like a county fair only instead of having rides, baking contests, and pens with animals, at a rib rib-cook, everyone is selling meat.

Pork ribs, beef ribs, brisket, turkey drumsticks, barbecue chicken, pulled pork, and hot links.

Ok, that's a slight exaggeration. Not everyone is selling meat.

You can buy sides that go with meat: cole slaw and baked beans and you can buy lots of fried things--thick fried onion rings, zucchini strips, hush puppies, garlic fries, and potato chips piled high on a plate looking very much like a small mountain.

For those watching their diets, there is fresh fruit on a stick and freshly squeezed lemonade. If you want something sweet, there are booths selling fennel cakes, shaved ice and chocolate dipped fruit on sticks.

But you don't come to a rib-cook because you want to eat all that other stuff. You come to a cook-off because you love to eat meat and you love barbecue.

You might see people in PETA t-shirts and you'd scratch your head wondering why animal rights advocates would be here, but then you read the fine print and you'd understand. At a rib cook-off, PETA means "People for the Eating of Tasty Animals."

In early September I was on assignment for Peter Greenberg to be a judge at John Ascuaga's Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off, my second year and the Cook-Off's 21st.

Over six days, the Nugget's rib-cook attracts over 500,000 people, who come together for a celebration of good times and good food.

There are families everywhere you turn. Toddlers in strollers. Babes in arms. Teenagers who might not otherwise hang out with their parents are happily comparing notes about a favorite rib cooker or fiery barbecue sauces, like Johnson BBQ's ThermoNuclear or Rasta Joe's Island Fire sauce.

The Nugget adds to the fun with bands playing day and night. The sound of rock and country music drifts through the air, combining with the sweet smoke that pours off the wood burning grills as the racks of ribs are coated with thick brush-strokes of barbecue sauce.

People find space on the picnic benches that have been set up in the shade. Mostly though, impromptu picnics happen as soon as the people get their ribs. They can't wait. The ribs are that good.

People who come to a rib cook-off don't just come to have a quick bite to eat. Not a chance. They've come to sample and compare.

If you strike up a conversation with people as they eat their ribs, you'll find out that this isn't their first cook-off. Odds are they've attended the Best of the West before and they've come back to enjoy the ribs from their favorite cookers.

They'll eat a basket of ribs. Lick their fingers. Grab an ice cold lemonade. Walk around a bit. Listen to the music, maybe gamble a bit, then they're back out to the midway to try another cooker's ribs.

The conversations you'll hear as you walk down the midway are all about ribs and sauce. If there's inside-baseball talk, then at a cook-off, you'll hear inside-barbecue talk.

Which cookers are at the top of their game. Whose meat has the best balance of smoke and tenderness. Which rib has just the right edge of heat. There are comparisons between old favorites and new ones. Which sauces hit flavor out of the ballpark.

In addition to the judges ranking of the Best Ribs and Best Sauce, there's also a People's Choice award. People have their favorites and they lobby one another to promote the cookers they like.

Butch of Smack Your Lips BBQ is a favorite because he beat Bobby Flay on the Food Network's rib Throwdown. There are long lines in front of Rasta Joe's because who can resist barbecue with Jamaican flavors and heat? Last year's winner for best ribs, Bone Daddy's Bill Wall, has so many fans, they've started a Facebook page and he tweets to let people back home know what's happening each day at the cook-off.

The cookers are as enthusiastic about ribs as are the fans. They literally live, breath, and sleep dry rubs, sauces, and quality of meat. Of the 24 cookers in competition, 23 are on the road 4 months of the year.

From just before Memorial Day to just after Labor Day, the cookers criss-cross the United States in big rigs, pulling their mammoth smokers and barbecue grills. They move from competition to competition, selling their meats and sauces, going up again long-time competitors, and (hopefully) picking up more trophies along the way.

But even if they don't win, this is big business. Only a few of the cookers have restaurants. Most make their living doing catering and traveling the competitive barbecue circuit. In a down economy, where their catering business might be off because corporations don't have as much to celebrate and they've cut back on events, the cook-off business is as good as ever. Virginia Beach's Dan Johnson of Johnson's BBQ says, "People are staying local, enjoying themselves. The cook-offs are good for families. There are things for dads to do, moms too, and the kids get to play. There's lots to do."

The Nugget's Best of the West is a great example why business is so good. Where else can a family have so much fun for so little money?

There's no admission fee. The entertainment is free. Everyone is welcome to stop and listen to the bands that play day and night. A large crafts fair is set up nearby where you can shop for clothing, hand-made jewelry, household decorations, and toys. There's plenty to eat and drink. The most expensive plate of food is under $15.00. You're hanging out with family and friends.

So where do the big guys like to eat when they’re on the road?

Butch eats ribs from old friend Ray “Red” Allen Gill’s Razorback, stopping by Red’s place in Arkansas and when they’re at events competing against one another.

Peter and Roberta Rathmann of BJ's Nevada Barbecue Company--the only Sparks barbecue restaurant at the competition—-try small, family operations when they travel because they want to see what people like themselves are doing.

Joe Alexander of Rasta Joe’s likes Corky’s in Memphis, Tennessee for the pulled pork and ribs.

But surprisingly, what most cookers recommend isn’t what you’d think.

Most agree with Bill Wall who says, “The honest truth is I don’t eat a lot of barbecue. I love to visit and see barbecue places [when he’s traveling]. But when I’m going out to eat, I like Caesar salads and shrimp, a good pasta or a great piece of meat.”

Unlike Bill and the other cookers, I rarely get the chance to eat great ribs and I love them. So being a judge at the Best of the West is a great treat.

The tough part, though, is the waiting. The first rule of the contest is that no judge may eat a rib until the judging.

Walking past all those cookers, their grills ablaze, the smell of barbecue sauce and smoke in the air, is pure torture. Watching crowds of people eating baskets of ribs and licking thick, sweet sauce off their fingers, it takes all my self-control so I don't just reach over and grab one of those ribs and devour it on the spot.

But I’m true to my judge’s oath and I wait.

When the time comes, the judges meet in a secured room inside the casino. The ribs are put out on a large table. The cookers are identified only by number.

The tasting begins in hushed silence. The second rule of judging is “No talking.” In 40 minutes, each judge has to evaluate either 12 (the preliminary round) or 10 (the final round) ribs. Walking around the chafing dishes we solemnly nibble on a bone, evaluating each rib for appearance, tenderness, mouth feel, and taste (salty, sweet, and heat).

Some ribs I like right away. Others I’m convinced aren’t good. But in fairness I know that a cooker shouldn’t be judged on one rib alone. So it’s back around the table for a second tasting. I score each one. Then I go back a third time to confirm my favorites. I’m dying to know who I like, but all I know is a number.

After the judging we’re invited to a special area where the cookers bring their ribs to a large tent so it’s easier to try everyone’s ribs and sauces. Now I have the chance to put a face to a rib, so I methodically take one rib from each serving dish (if you’re keeping track that’s 24 ribs) and carefully write on the Styrofoam plate the name of the cooker. I take a bite out of each one but only eat the whole rib if it’s great.

By the end I think I have a pretty good idea which cookers made my favorite ribs. I keep it to myself because the results of the contest aren't announced until tomorrow.

When I go to bed that night, I go to sleep happy and very full. In four hours, I’ve eaten 30 ribs.

After about an hour, I wake up with terrible chest pains so bad I am convinced I am dying. I know I should call the front desk and ask them to call an ambulance, but the pain is intense, I can’t move a muscle.

Then I realize I'm not having a heart attack. It is heartburn. You can’t eat that many ribs and not pay the price.

But it was worth it

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A 4th of July Picnic, the Perfect Time for Salads and Ribs

We've lived in Pacific Palisades for many years, treasuring its small town qualities as a respite from the congestion of the Los Angeles megalopolis. The 4th of July brings out the best in our community. We celebrate Independence Day by getting together with our neighbors, family, and friends. The celebrations begin in the morning with the 5k/10k run, the parade down Sunset at mid-day, an early evening picnic, and conclude with the night-time fireworks at the high school.

To prepare for the picnic, we shop at the local farmers' market, buying as many fresh vegetables and fruits as we can carry. On the 4th we spend the day cooking for the pot-luck picnic we organize with a dozen of our friends. So we'll have a good spot to watch the fireworks, we meet at 6:30pm at the park opposite the high school. We look forward to the picnic because we can catch up with our friends. Even though the picnic is pot-luck, we make extra just in case... Some of our friends who like to cook bring their specialties, like Lesli's mixed berries, while others make a run to Bay Cities or Gelson's and bring containers of deli treats and rich desserts.

By 9:00pm cars are double-parked on both sides of the street and people have crowded into the park, taking up every square inch of space. Everyone is ready for the fireworks to begin and yet...the sky is not yet completely, definitively dark. In the cool night air we bundle up and pull closer together. Only when all traces of the departing sun have been drained from the sky will the fireworks begin.

And when they do, they are a treat. From the first high-streaking skyrocket that bursts into a hundred points of light to the last crescendo of a dozen overlapping explosions, the crowd oohs and aahs. With the last firework dying in the sky, we get up slowly, feeling the dampness of the ground, hug and kiss our friends goodbye, and make our way back to our cars through the haze of gunpowder smoke still hanging in the air.

4th of July Picnic

In our experience salads work well at the picnic: beet salad, carrot salad, potato salad, egg salad, and corn salad. Finger food is good too: bread & butter pickles, salt-boiled corn on the cob and grilled artichokes. This year we'll also contribute a platter of deliciously salty and sweet Brown Sugar Ribs.

Brown Sugar Pork Ribs

Yield 4 servings
Time Prep (20 minutes) Marinate (overnight) Cook (2 hours)

Ingredients

1 rack of pork ribs
1 pound brown sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
Olive oil
Pepper
6 ounces Italian tomato paste
1 small yellow onion (peeled, finely chopped)
2 garlic cloves (peeled, finely chopped)

Method

Trim excess fat, the membrane, and flap from the ribs. (Caprial Pence the owner-chef of Caprial's Bistro in Portland, Oregon and a fellow contributor to Eat Drink or Die shows how to prep the ribs with easy-to-follow photographs.) Reserve the flap, trimmed of its membrane, to grill for tacos.

Spread a piece of plastic wrap on the counter 5” longer than the rack. Dust the meat side of the ribs with the cayenne. Mix together the brown sugar and kosher salt. Spread half the dry mix on the plastic wrap. Lay the ribs on top, then cover with the rest of the dry mix. Cover with a second piece of plastic wrap, seal, fold in half and place into a Ziploc or plastic bag. Refrigerate in a pan overnight.

In the morning remove the ribs. The dry mix will have transformed into a slurry. Very alchemical! In a sauce pan sauté the onions and garlic with olive oil until lightly browned, season with pepper. Remove the ribs from the plastic bag. Use a rubber spatula to remove most of the liquid from the ribs and plastic bag and transfer to the sauce pan. Add the tomato paste and simmer the sauce on a low flame for 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the flavor if necessary.

Line a large baking tray with tin foil. Place a wire rack on top of the baking tray, then lay the ribs on the rack. The ribs can either be cooked in a 350 degree oven or on the “cold” side of a covered grill with the heat on high. Cook the ribs 30 minutes on each side, then baste the ribs with the sauce another 30 minutes on each side or until done. Remove from the oven, cut apart the individual ribs, and serve.