Kick your backyard barbecue up a notch with easy homemade sauce, babyback ribs on the grill, and three simple but elegant side dishes
Many people are intimidated by the idea of making barbecue sauce. I was until my friend Bill Knutson, who writes our grilling column, “The Kitchenless Cook” came over one night and taught me his simple, foolproof formula. When it comes to outdoor cooking, I always stick to the easy stuff — hot dogs, burgers and steak — but my lesson with Grillmeister Bill gave me the confidence to expand my horizons.
We decided to make babyback ribs to put that homemade sauce to use (it works equally well with chicken), and I created three easy, summery side dishes to go with the ribs. Bill also shared his top five tips for success when firing up your grill (see sidebar).
As any outdoor cooking aficionado will tell you, grilling and barbecuing are not the same. Grilling is a fast, direct method of cooking with the lid open (best for those hot dogs, burgers and steaks) while barbecuing is low and slow, using indirect heat and a closed lid (perfect for bigger items and tougher cuts, from ribs and brisket to whole turkeys and prime rib).
The way ribs are cooked varies greatly depending on which part of the country you’re in and personal taste. The four main styles are Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, and Carolina. You’ll never get two barbecue lovers to agree on the exact definitions of these styles, but in general Texans favor brisket and prefer their barbecue “naked” or with a side of tomato- and vinegar-based sauce. The specialty in Memphis is “wet” marinated pork ribs basted during the cooking process. They sometimes apply a spicy dry rub before the ribs hit the grill, and their sauce of choice tends to be sweet and mild. Kansas City leans toward both pork and beef seasoned with spices and rubs and slow-smoked in a hickory pit. The sauces are thicker and stickier and slathered on the meat. Carolina style often involves pulled pork tossed with thin vinegar-based sauces that keep the meat juicy and let the natural flavors shine.
Bill’s version, which he calls his “go-to sauce,” leans toward Texas-style. For this recipe he didn’t do a rub, but we’ve included his rub recipe — it’s well worth the extra steps for those who like dry-rubbed ribs. Bill breaks barbecue sauce down to four ingredients, and most can be interchanged with other ingredients to create a wide array of styles. The four basics are: base, acid, sweetener, and spice. The binder for this recipe is ketchup; the acid is a thick, black fig balsamic vinegar; the sweetener is pure maple syrup; and the spice is chipotle pepper powder. You can do an Asian twist by subbing teriyaki for the ketchup; the balsamic vinegar can be switched out for cider vinegar or rice wine vinegar; the maple syrup can be swapped out for honey, agave or even fruit juice; and the spice — depending on how hot you like your sauce — could be anything from cayenne to jalapeno (though I love the rich smokiness chipotle brings to the mix).
A lot of history and tradition comes with barbecue, but there are no hard-and-fast rules. Experiment and have fun this summer coming up with your own signature sauce. You can get squeeze bottles at any dollar store and keep your sauce in the fridge for up to a year (if you’re using fresh fruit such as blueberries for the sweetener, the sauce will last for a couple of weeks, after which you should freeze it).
THE KITCHENLESS COOK’S BARBECUED RIBS & GO-TO SAUCE
3 cups tomato ketchup
⅓ cup fig balsamic vinegar
⅓ cup pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon chipotle pepper powder
2 to 3 racks of pork babyback ribs
Combine the first four ingredients and set aside. Salt and pepper ribs on the meat side only.
Gas grill method: Turn all burners to high and close lid to heat grill. Turn the middle burners off and the side burners to medium-low. Place the ribs down the middle, meat side up and close the lid. After 20 minutes, flip the ribs. After another 20 minutes, flip the ribs meat side up again, and baste the ribs with the sauce. Cook for another 20 minutes until sauce has caramelized and the rack of ribs is “floppy” when lifted with a pair of tongs.
Charcoal grill method: After the coals are hot, push them to either side, place ribs down center of grate, and close lid. Follow gas grill instructions.
Indoor oven method: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place ribs on a rack in a shallow baking pan and cook for 20 to 30 minutes each side. Glaze ribs with sauce and turn broiler on for five minutes until the sauce caramelizes.
Note: If you like additional sauce for dipping, heat it in a small saucepan and serve alongside ribs.
THE KITCHENLESS COOK’S DRY RUB FOR BARBEQUED RIBS
½ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons dry mustard
2 teaspoons ground sage
1 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Combine all ingredients, rub over meat side of ribs, and refrigerate ribs for an hour. Allow to come to room temperature before grilling.
SUSAN’S MACARONI SALAD
I became obsessed with the macaroni salad in the deli case at The Real Food Company in Cow Hollow (3060 Fillmore Street at Filbert) over a decade ago. Unfortunately, they rarely have it anymore, so I tweaked the recipe until I got it just right. When it comes to macaroni salad, I like the stout little traditional salad macaroni, but you can use elbow, fusilli, penne, or any pasta. If possible, make this the day before you plan to serve it and refrigerate overnight to allow flavors to fully develop.
1 pound dry salad macaroni
⅓ cup sliced black olives
⅓ cup diced pimentos
⅓ cup green onions, chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon cracked pepper
1 cup mayonnaise
Place the pasta in a pot of boiling salted water and stir immediately to prevent sticking together. Cook to al dente (firm but not hard). Run cold water over pasta to stop the cooking and bring it to room temperature. Strain the pasta and pour into a large bowl. Add olives, pimentos, green onions, salt, and pepper and toss until well mixed. Add mayonnaise and gently fold it into the pasta. Refrigerate for a minimum of two hours, preferably overnight before serving.
CHILLED PEA AND MINT SOUP
This easy soup can also be served warm, but it’s wonderfully refreshing when served chilled on a hot summer day.
2 pounds fresh or frozen
Vegetable or chicken broth to cover
10 to 15 fresh mint leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon cracked pepper
2 tablespoons heavy cream
In a 2-to-3-quart stock pot, simmer peas in broth until tender. Pour peas and broth into blender (or use an immersion blender in the stock pot off the heat), add mint leaves, and pulse until smooth. Pour soup back into pot and stir in salt, pepper and cream. Refrigerate for two hours before serving.
JAPANESE POTATO SALAD
American potato salad is often weighed down by copious amounts of mayonnaise and soured by too much vinegar. The Japanese take on this classic is lighter and more refined, using very little mayonnaise because the potatoes are mashed, which helps bind the ingredients together. You can even skip the mayo (or substitute a few drizzles of olive oil).
Japanese potato salad includes vegetables — usually carrots, cucumbers, peas, and corn — but you can use any veggies. It’s also sweeter than the American version, but if you like your potato salad tart, add more rice wine vinegar or take out the peas, corn, or both. Japanese mayonnaise is more acidic and flavorful than American mayonnaise; you can find it readily at Japanese markets (sold under the brand “Kewpie”), but regular mayo works just fine.
Like the macaroni salad, it’s best to make this potato salad the day before you plan to serve it and refrigerate overnight.
4 to 6 large russet potatoes
1 medium Japanese or other
thin-skinned cucumber, finely sliced
4 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, divided
⅓ cup fresh or frozen carrots, diced small
⅓ cup fresh or frozen peas
⅓ cup fresh or frozen corn
2 tablespoons green onion, finely sliced
½ cup Japanese mayonnaise
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (or 1 teaspoon of sugar, honey or agave)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly cracked pepper
1 tablespoon fresh snipped
Peel and cut potatoes lengthwise into quarters and then into cubes. Slice cucumber and carrot very thin (I use a mandolin, which you can find at any kitchen store, to get uniform, paper-thin slices).
Place sliced cucumber in a small bowl with 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar and a pinch of salt. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and simmer potatoes until tender.
While potatoes are simmering, place carrots, peas, and corn in a small saucepan with just enough water to cover and cook until tender.
Drain potatoes; pour into a large bowl, and mash with a potato masher until most are broken up. Fold in the carrots, peas, corn, cucumber, and green onions, and gently mix until all ingredients are well combined. Fold in mayonnaise, remaining rice wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, salt, and pepper. Mix gently until evenly incorporated. Refrigerate for a minimum of two hours, preferably overnight.
Before serving, use herb shears to garnish with fresh snipped chives.