Saturday, June 27, 2009

Rib Bit

I wish I could say I’ve eaten and cooked ribs for as long as I can remember but it wouldn’t be true. I did grow up with hickory pit barbecue but for the most part it was pork, mutton or ocaissionally beef sandwiches. Barbecued pork ribs, though universally popular now, seem to have evolved west of the Mississippi rather than in the South.

My first encounter with this American culinary icon was in someone’s backyard. It was more bones than meat (and meat that was dry and stringy at best), drowned in ketchupy sauce and charred black over charcoal. I’m afraid I wasn’t anxious to try them again for sometime. The occasion would be at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis. Their baby back ribs were grilled over charcoal but perfectly cooked and seasoned with a dry rub rather than sauced. I progressed to spareribs, slowly smoked, sampling them at legendary BBQ havens like Arthur Bryant’s and Gate’s in Kansas City and Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas.

As with most things I develop a taste for, I decided that I can make it myself. After much bone sucking, some research and a hell of a lot of experimentation, I’ve come up with what are for me the perfect spareribs—until I come up with something better.

It didn’t take me long to figure out I much preferred barbecued—slow smoking over a hardwood fire—as opposed to grilled—quickly broiled over high heat—ribs. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the space or resources to build a genuine pit in my backyard. Fortunately, about the same time I became a serious fan of Q, the home smoker came along. I’ve owned three to date and all have been the bullet-shaped type with a charcoal fire source and water pan. Chucks of water-soaked hardwood are place directly on the fire to produce smoke. The food placed on racks in the upper portion of the smoker cooks at a temperature range of 200-250 degrees. Today, you can buy several different types of smokers that range in price from about $100 to $3,500. Locally, The Bruce Company, Menards and Home Depot all sell smokers. An accessory I would consider is rib racks which allow you to maximize space in the smoker. Smokers come with basic instructions but I wouldn’t rely too much on the recipes included. A good reference book is Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue which will tell you everything you need to know about smoking or grilling just about anything, plus hundreds of interesting recipes and tips. But, I’ll be honest. It takes a lot of trial and error to get it right.

You can use any hardwood for smoking; hickory and mesquite are the most readily available. Many professional barbecue chefs swear by oak because of its exceptionally slow burn. Fruitwoods like apple and cherry are also popular but don’t impart fruit flavor to the barbecue.

All ribs are not created equal. Spareribs come from the belly of the pig, and are usually between 11 and 13 inches long. St. Louis-style spareribs are trimmed and have the brisket bone removed, forming a nice rectangular shape. Kansas City-style ribs are trimmed even further, down to a square. Baby back ribs come from the loin and are leaner and meatier than spareribs. “Country-style ribs” are not ribs at all but a blade cut from the end of the loin, a sort of fatty pork chop.

Both spareribs and baby back ribs have their attributes but I gravitate toward the later. Like most red meat prior to smoking, ribs benefit from a rub. This blend of spices, sugar and salt is actually sprinkled over the surface of the meat but not rubbed in per se. After shaking off the excess the rib racks are sealed in 2-gallon plastic bags and refrigerated overnight. This actually functions as a kind of cure, similar to the original process for making ham. I personally think a rub works much better on ribs than a marinade.

The ribs should be cooked over smoke at 225 degrees for about 4 hours—smoking too long will result in an unpleasant tasting, creosote layer on the meat. Then each rack should be wrapped and sealed first in plastic wrap and then in heavy duty foil. The wrapped racks are returned to the smoker—200 degrees is ideal—for another 2 hours. No the plastic wrap won’t melt! When you serve the ribs, the meat will be fall-off-the-bone tender.

I like my ribs dry with sauce served on the side. If you prefer them wet, they’ll be much more successful if you sauce them at the end. After 4 hours of smoke, wrap and return the racks to the smoker for 1 more hour. Remove the foil and plastic wrap, cut the racks in half and brush the surface of the meat with barbecue sauce. Glaze the half racks over a hot charcoal fire, turning frequently and brushing with sauce, for 10 minutes or so.

If you want to cut corners, my advice is go out for ribs instead. Here are my Best of Madison places to enjoy barbecued ribs.

Eldorado Grill. The restaurant added barbecue to the menu a while back and the dry-rubbed and smoked baby back ribs are exemplary, served with their homemade molasses-based sauce.

Smoky Jon’s #1 BBQ. This is the closest Madison has to a genuine BBQ joint and lays claim to Wisconsin’s largest wood-burning rotisserie pit. For more than 27 years Smoky Jon has piled up awards for his ribs, seasonings and sauce, earning him the title as “Madison's All-Time BBQ King.”

Fat Jack’s Barbecue. Madison’s longest running venue for smoky meat treats, they feature both tender spareribs and baby back ribs served with their own unique spicy sauce. All-you-can-eat sparerib special on Wednesday night.

Papa Bear’s Barbecue. St. Louis style ribs and rib tips along with traditional sides to carry-out.

Famous Dave’s BBQ. It’s a chain to be sure and (one that began in Minneapolis no less) but consistently earns praise and awards for its hickory-smoked spareribs that are finished with their Rich & Sassy® BBQ sauce over an open flame.

Arthur Bryant’s Rib Rub
1 cup salt
2/3 cup paprika
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground mustard
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon ground celery seed
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder

Mix all the ingredients. Generously sprinkle both sides of the ribs with the rub and massage it in. Let ribs sit at least 12 hours, refrigerated, before cooking. This recipe flavors 12 slabs of ribs.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Rest of the Story

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What's Cookin' on Father's Day


June 21, 2009

Father's Day & The First Day of Summer

Pan Fried Vidalia Onion Dip
with Black Pepper Potato Chips


Hickory-Smoked Beef Brisket
with Grapefruit Chipotle Barbecue Sauce

Texas-style Potato Salad

Blue Cheese Cole Slaw

Jalapeño Corn Bread

Peach Blueberry Pie
with Vanilla Ice Cream

Peach Blueberry Pie

Pastry for a double crust 9-inch pie

3 to 3 ½ pounds ripe peaches
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup blueberries
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup light-brown sugar
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons instant tapicoa
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons heavy (whipping) cream

Line a 9-inch pie plate with pastry and chill for 1 hours.

Using a paring knife, cut an "X" in the bottom of each peach. Drop the peaches into a pot of boiling water for 1 minute. Remove to a bowl. When they are cool enough to handle, slip off the skins. Cut the peaches into ¾-inch slices and place in a large bowl. Toss with the lemon juice to prevent discoloring.

Add the blueberries, vanilla, brown sugar, ½ cup granulated sugar, tapioca and the flour; toss well.

Lightly brush the bottom crust all over with the egg white; spoon in the filling and dot with the butter.

Cut the top crust into strips ¾-inch wide and make a lattice cover over the filling. Trim the overhang to 1 inch. Moisten the edges of the crusts where they meet with a little water, then press them together lightly and turn them under. Crimp the edges decoratively. Chill for 1 hour.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Brush the lattice crust and the rim with the cream. Sprinkle the surface with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar.

Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for 25 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake until it is golden and the juices are bubbling, about 30 to 40 minutes. If the top is getting too brown, tent the pie with foil after about 30 minutes. Let the pie cool on a wire rack before serving.

Makes 1 9-inch pie.

Monday, June 15, 2009


I only eat them in the summer. It’s a simple and classic sandwich but demands the best ingredients to be successful: vine-ripened tomatoes—preferably home grown; crispy, smoked bacon; and crunchy head lettuce leaves stacked between freshly toasted bread with plenty of quality mayo.

I only eat them in the summer because of the tomatoes. For me, tomatoes are the fruition of the season. To be sure, those hard, green things sold in winter have improved in recent years. But the perfect bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich is naught but shear fantasy without a flawless tomato—red and ripe, firm but juicy and properly acidic.

It’s not that I don’t care about the other ingredients. Thickly sliced, applewood-smoked bacon is my favorite but other varieties will suffice so long as probably cooked—tomatoes are soft, so the bacon shouldn’t be. I prefer head lettuce to field greens—it holds up better on the sandwich. Toasted home-style bread—white or whole wheat—is preferable to the squishy, mass produced stuff. I also don’t like French bread that’s so hard it breaks your jaw. The mayonnaise doesn’t have to be homemade but real (no brand endorsement implied). You can, however, easily obtain all of these ingredients all year long.

I grew up eating bacon and lettuce tomato sandwiches. My mother made them, of course, but I didn’t like the Miracle Whip she used instead of mayonnaise. Since she didn’t much care for meat, she made a much more successful vegetarian version, substituting peanut butter for the bacon. It sounds like a weird combination, but I still occasionally put one together just for nostalgia sake and have to admit I always enjoy it. The sandwich was standard fare at luncheonettes which every drug stores and dime store had. I can still remembers sitting at the serpentine counter, chubby legs dangling in the great void between stool and floor, slurping a Green River phosphate and nibbling on a BLT. It was a time when a sandwich was more likely made on toast rather than a bun … and a wrap was only an article of clothing.

The bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich today is most often something consumed at home, but there are several restaurants here that take the art form seriously. Here is my list of Best of Madison BLTs:

Classic BLT: The Old Fashioned. You won’t find it on the regular menu but only as a daily special when Heirloom tomatoes are in season. The best tomatoes ever matched with fine, hickory-smoked bacon from Bavaria Sausage on toasted country bread.

Foodie’s BLT: Marigold Kitchen. Scrap the lettuce and substitute arugula plus some whipped cream and pepper jelly on their signature rosemary bread.

Fishy BLT: Bluephies. So they call it a crab sandwich but it’s really a BLT with crab, guacamole and chipotle aioli. Yum!

Vegetarian BLT: Monty’s Blue Plate. Marinated and grilled tempeh strips with lettuce, tomato and cumin-chipotle mayo served on toasted jalapeño-cheddar cheese bread. Where’s the meat? Who cares?

Best Club Sandwich: Nick’s. One of Madison’s oldest diners piles up a traditional club, a double-decker BLT with the addition of sliced home-style roasted turkey.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Gin and IT

That’s what they call it in England—gin and Indian tonic. It may be an utterly British drink but it came of age in this country. As a student abroad, I remember looking forward to a trip to the pub for my first authentic gin and tonic. I was handed a smallish wine glass with a squirt of gin and a miniature bottle of Schweppes and told to help myself to ice and lemon laid out on the bar. I wasn’t told not to take more than a cube or two but gleaned that from the glare I got.

My interest in this drink was piqued as a youngster, making frequent trips with my family to Gabe’s Restaurant in Owensboro, Kentucky. The place is most remembered for its revolving, bigger-than-life statue of its owner, Gabe, and his mantra “Hi neighbor, it’s a wonderful world!” Back in the 1950s, Gabe’s had a beautifully lithographed menu. Down its side danced tempting illustrations of colorful cocktails, including a gin and tonic in a tall, sweaty glass garnished with an improbably green lime slice. This wouldn’t be the last time a picture lead to my downfall, but one of the few instances where I wasn’t disappointed.

Coming of age and finally being able to imbibe this libation that I’d lusted after for so long, I was surprised that I actually liked it. My mother had already prejudiced me against gin (or had at least tried). In her opinion, it was not something that nice people drank. My own experience was that the only bad gin was cheap gin.

Gin and tonic came about as an attempt to make bitter quinine—which the British in colonial India took copiously to avoid malaria—more palatable. What could be better than to disguise it with good English gin? Eventually, carbonated water and sugar were added and the beverage bottled. Today’s tonic water only contains a small amount of quinine, added to properly produce the distinctive bitter flavor enjoyed the world over. Ineffective as a malaria prophylactic, bottled tonic water is sometime recommended as a treatment for nocturnal cramps.
Back in the l960s when black lights were all the rage, I recall ordering a gin and tonic in a bar with psychedelic décor and being shocked that my G and T was fluorescent! This was not the result of some drug-induced hallucination: The quinine in tonic water causes it to fluoresce under ultra violet light.

Gin and tonic is traditionally a tall drink, properly made in a Collins glass with lots of ice. In recent years—especially around here—order a gin and tonic and it’s most likely to show up in an on-the-rocks glass. What’s so wrong with that is the resulting gin to tonic ratio. I prefer a gin and tonic made with an old-style gin such as Tanqueray or Plymouth rather than Bombay Sapphire or Citadelle which are better suited for a martini. For me a fresh lime wedge—and not too stingy—is an essential garnish. In the UK they would much more likely use lemon which works in a pinch.

Regardless of how you like your gin and tonic, it will always taste better enjoyed out of doors. Here is my list of Best of Madison places to sip a gin and tonic this summer.

The Continental Fitchburg. The atmosphere on the patio here is always that of a big backyard party—but without paper plates and plastic cups.

Genna’s Cocktail Lounge. It always has a buzz on and is the place to meet after work for the 4:30-6:30 happy hour.

The Edgewater Pier. This place has been shouting “This is Madison!” forever, and though the actual pier is not as long as it once was the vista is bigger than ever.

Fresco. “Not a cloud in the sky, got the sun in my eyes … I’m on top of the world looking down on creation.”—The Carpenters.

Harvest. On the Square but as close as you’ll get here to a café on the Rue de la Paix.

Bettylou Cruises. A view of the water is serene, but a view from the water is uniquely refreshing.

The Great Dane Pub, Downtown. It may be a brewery but the big dog’s courtyard is a first-class venue for a cocktail.

Ishnala. WISCONSIN SUMMER, filmed on location in IMAX starring Mirror Lake and a cast of thousands.