Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Labor of Love

Smoked Spareribs

Ben and I have spent the summer enthusiastically searching for the best barbecue in Chicago. We’ve had a lot of fun looking, and have found some pretty awesome spots. But it wasn’t until last weekend, Labor Day actually, that last true weekend of summer, when we finally tried our own hand at grilling up a barbecue feast.

After sorting through all sorts of barbecue recipes and reading tips from all the pit masters, we got right down to work, whipping up ribs and baked beans, coleslaw, cornbread, and all sorts of other stuff.  After hours in the kitchen and out at the grill, we had a feast to rival any barbecue joint. The two of us, and all our guests (it was our biggest party yet!) were thrilled with the results.  Just as tasty as some of our favorite Chicago barbecue spots!

The substantial amount of prep was the only imaginable downside.  A homemade barbecue feast is nowhere near as easy as popping into a neighborhood barbecue place, but it was Labor Day after all. And what better way to celebrate this holiday than with a true labor of love?

Pimento Cheese with Vegetable Crudités & Blue Corn Chips
Deviled Eggs
Dill Pickle Spears
Bing Cherries & Sliced Watermelon
Barbecue Spareribs, 2 Ways
Cheddar-Jalapeño Cornbread
Slow-Cooked Baked Beans
Corn on the Cob
Blueberry Pie with Vanilla Ice Cream

We started out the night with a huge spread of Southern-style snacks. Deviled eggs you’ve seen a time or two on here already. I’m thoroughly addicted to these tasty guys, and each time I serve them, people just go nuts. I threw together a few super-easy things too: fresh veggies, Bing cherries, juicy triangles of sliced watermelon, crunchy dill pickle spears, blue corn chips.

Starting Snacks

But best of all, pimento cheese. My best friend Susan, a true Southern belle, introduced us to this incredibly tasty dip a few years ago, and it’s kept a its place towards the front of our favorites ever since. This cream cheese-based dip is chock full of shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, dotted with bright red specks of diced pimento peppers, and enhanced with just a pinch of grated onion and that oh-so-classy garlic powder. It’s a delightfully wicked complement to any vegetable spread. Everyone loved this salty, tangy stuff. Not a single scoop was left behind.

Scoop of Deliciousness

Please pardon the pun, but now let’s get to the real meat of the matter, the barbecue ribs. Our initial plan was to stay as true to barbecue tradition as possible, and smoke them long and low over our charcoal grill. But as our guest list continued to grow in the week leading up to Labor Day, we realized our modestly sized grill could never fit all the ribs we’d be cooking up. So we decided to try them out 2 ways – Ben smoked two racks on the grill for hours and hours, and I slowly roasted another four in the oven for just about as long.  And then we had a taste test.

Ben's Ribs, Slowly Smoking

The results? Well, they were pretty close. But here’s the general summary. Ben’s ribs, which took considerably more effort and attention, turned out absolutely gorgeous, a true pit master’s result. Full of huge smoky flavor, and tender as anything, every bite tasted of the long, loving hours spent over the smoldering wood chips. My ribs had the upfront benefit of being much easier to prepare. Following a trick I learned from my grandma (an ingenious method), I slowly roasted the ribs in the oven, then dipped each single rib in sauce and gave it a quick grill, just enough to give them some nice blackened grill marks. Aside from this boon of easiness, these guys received the popular vote too. They were a bit meatier and juicier than the first version, with the sauce adding a nice touch of caramel goodness. I felt a little bit guilty, because Ben had worked so hard and given such care to his home-smoked racks. And if you asked me, I think I’d have to give his racks a slight edge over mine. They were just so authentic and true to the spirit of barbecue. But then again, as soon as I think of the ease with which I whipped those insanely tasty slow-roasted ribs, I just may have to call it a tie. At any rate, they were both incredible enough to include here.

Spice-Rub Components

And oh, I definitely want to share a few thoughts about my homemade spice rub and barbecue sauce. The rub, a powdered concoction of all kinds of herbs and spices, went a long way towards imparting wonderful flavor deep into the rib meat. I don’t think I’d ever make ribs again without it. And the homemade sauce – a smoky tomato and vinegar based blend with molasses, garlic, pepper, onion, mustard, brown sugar and much more - was everything a barbecue sauce should be, no matter what part of the country you call home. I experimented with recipes all week, and even continued tweaking for a few days after the party. But now, finally, I do believe I’ve perfected my ultimate barbecue sauce recipe. Check it out below. I know you probably have a favorite go-to brand of bottled sauce, and I certainly do myself, but if you’re ever in the mood to try out a homemade version, this one is really wonderful.

Pretty Cabbage

And now for the side dishes, all classics you’d find in any barbecue joint.  Corn on the cob, drizzled with melted butter and sprinkled with salt – well, that needs no verbose description. And the coleslaw recipe, I’ve shared with you before.  Simply said, it’s hands-down my favorite coleslaw.  I’ll save my expounding for the beans and the cornbread.

The Dinner Spread

First off, the cornbread. A Cook’s Illustrated recipe (and I should mention that Ben’s ribs and the blueberry pie below also herald from the pages of that fantastic magazine), this cornbread is a real winner. With a batter of yellow cornmeal and buttermilk, full of golden kernels of fresh corn, a green confetti of diced jalapeno and a generous grating of sharp cheddar cheese, this cornbread emerges from the oven moist and tender, with wonderfully true corn flavor and a gorgeous golden crust. Sliced warm, with pats of butter melting over the top... well, nothing quite compares.


Now let’s talk beans. These brilliant baked beans are maybe my absolute favorite Ina Garten recipe ever. If you’ve been following this blog for even a short while, you’ll know that that’s quite a statement. I simply adore her recipes. I’ve got all her cookbooks, and every single one ranks among my favorites. But this baked bean recipe is perhaps her greatest triumph of all. Creamy, sloooow-cooked red kidney beans, studded with thick slices of smoky bacon, all tucked into a rich, velvety sauce thick and sticky with brown sugar and maple syrup, and spiked with bright notes of fresh ginger and chili. A little sweet, a little spicy, a little smoky, and hugely luscious, these glorious beans were the crowning glory of our barbecue feast.

Blueberry Pies

And last but not least, dessert of course. Cook’s Illustrated named it their best blueberry pie recipe. And so, of course, I just had to try it out. And I’ve got to say, I just may agree with them. To start, it’s got this beautifully buttery, incredibly flaky crust. The trick to this, they say, is replacing some of the water with ice-cold vodka instead. I was skeptical at first, but the delicious results spoke for themselves. The berry filling was not only delicious, but had the perfect consistency, neither too runny nor too stiff. The special trick here was a grated Granny Smith, which added a bit of pectin, along with some ground tapioca, which you’d never even guess was in there. I always love the tricks and tips I find in Cook’s Illustrated, and these did not disappoint. This blueberry pie recipe was especially clever, and the end result, was especially delicious. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it was a perfect ending to our awesome Labor Day barbecue.

Blueberry Pie in the Making

Pimento Cheese
Adapted from a recipe by Paula Deen
Makes about 3 cups 
Pimento Cheese with Vegetable Crudites
8 oz (1 package) cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup grated sharp white cheddar cheese
1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp grated onion
4 oz jar diced pimentos, drained
1/2 tsp kosher salt
pinch of freshly ground black pepper
pinch of garlic powder
Using an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.  Add the rest of the ingredients and beat until well combined, again scraping with the spatula as needed.   Can be served right away (with chips, crackers, or vegetable crudités) or kept refrigerated in an air-tight container for up to five days.
Deviled Eggs

This recipe is a repeat from a previous dinner party.  (It’s that good!)  Check it out here.

Deviled Eggs

Slow-Roasted Barbecue Spareribs (Easier Rib Recipe)
Serves 4 with big appetites, but more like 6 if you’re serving lots of good sides
Slow-Roasted BBQ Spareribs
2 racks St. Louis Style spareribs
about 1/2 cup spice rub (see recipe below)
about 3 cups barbecue sauce (see recipe below)
vegetable oil, for preparing the grill

Rub the spice mixture evenly over the two racks of ribs, on all sides.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate, at least 6 hours and up to overnight.

Spiced-Rubbed Single Ribs

Preheat the oven to 300°F, and arrange an oven rack in the middle position.    Using damp paper towels, wipe off most of the spice rub from the two racks of ribs.  Slice the racks into single ribs by slicing between the rib bones.  Arrange the ribs evenly within a large roasting pan.  (It is okay if the do not fit in a single layer and you have to place some on top of each other.)  Cover the roasting pan tightly with foil. 

Bake for 1 hour at 300°F,  then decrease the heat to 250°F and bake 1 hour longer.  Decrease the heat again to 200°F and bake 1 hour longer, or until the meat is very tender and pulling away from the rib bones.  Remove the ribs from the oven, and cool at room temperature, about 1 hour. 

At this point, you can either refrigerate them overnight, covered in plastic wrap, or proceed with the the next step, once they are cool.  (If you do refrigerate them, make sure you let them set at room temperature for about 1 hour before proceeding.)

Heat the grill on high until very hot, about 30 minutes. Here’s a way to tell if your grill is at the right temperature.  Hold your hand right over it.  If you you can keep it there for five seconds, it’s not hot enough.  If you can’t hold it there for even half a second, it's too hot.  When the grill is hot, soak a clean rag or a bunch of paper towels with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil, and using tongs, rub it over the grill rack. 

Pour about 1 1/2 cups barbecue sauce into a medium-sized container or bowl.  Dip the ribs, one at a time, into the barbecue sauce, shaking them gently to remove any excess sauce.  Arrange the sauced-dipped ribs directly over the flame or hot coals, working with only as many as you feel comfortable handling at once.  Grill, meat side down, about 1 minute, then flip the ribs over and grill, bone side down, about 1 minute more.  You just want to give the ribs some nice grill marks and heat them up a bit.  Remove the grilled ribs to a serving platter and serve immediately, with extra barbecue sauce on the side. 

Hickory-Smoked Barbecue Spareribs (Less Easy Rip Recipe)
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, Summer Entertaining Issue, August 2009
Serves 4-6
This smoking method is best preformed over a charcoal grill.  If all you’ve got is a gas grill, I wouldn’t bother with this recipe.  Try the oven-roasting method instead.
Hot-Smoking on the Charcoal Grill
2 racks St. Louis style spareribs
about 1/2 cup spice rub (see recipe below)
3 cups apple cider
1 cup cider vinegar
2 cups wood chips (hickory)
barbecue sauce, for serving on the side (see recipe below)
Soak the wood chips in a bowl of water for 1 hour. 

Light about 3 quarts (45 briquettes) of charcoal and allow to burn until coals are fully ignited and partially covered with a thin ash layer, about 20 minutes.  Arrange the coals, 2 to 3 briquettes high, far to one side of the grill.  Set the cooking grate in place.  Open the top and bottom grill vents halfway.  Place the lid over the grill and let heat for 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, drain the wood chips.

Position the rib racks, meaty side up, on the opposite side of the grill from the coals.  Drop about 1/4 cup wood chips over the coals.  Cover the grill, making sure to position the lid so the vents are placed over the ribs and opposite the coals, to help draw smoke through the grill and around the meat.  Meanwhile, combine the apple cider and vinegar in a small sauce pot.  Bring to a simmer, then remove from heat, cover and reserve.

After 30 minutes, turn the racks, switching positions and rotating 180 degrees.  Add 1/4 cup wood chips to the coals. 

After 1 hour, open the top and bottom vents completely.  Baste the ribs with the cider/vinegar mixture, using a pastry brush or spray bottle.  Turn the racks again and add another 1/4 cup of wood chips. 

Continue to cook - making sure to turn the racks, baste the ribs and add wood chips every half hour,  and add 12 new briquettes every hour (while still turning, basting and adding chips) – until the meat is very tender and starts to pull away from the bones, about 3 to 4 hours total.  

Before removing the ribs from the grill, place each rack, one at a time, on the grate directly over the hot coals, cooking about 30 seconds on each side.  Transfer to a cutting board, cover loosely with foil and allow to rest 20-30 minutes. 

Slice the ribs between the rib bones and serve the barbecue sauce on the side.

Barbecue Sauce
Adapted from The Barbecue! Bible by Steven Raichlen
Makes about 3 cups
Bubbling BBQ Sauce
1/2 stick butter
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup tomato sauce
3 Tbl cider vinegar
3 Tbl Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbl fresh lemon juice
1 tsp Tabasco sauce
1 tsp liquid smoke
1/4 cup molasses
3 Tbl dark brown sugar
2 Tbl Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepot over medium heat.  Add the onion, bell pepper and garlic.  Decrease the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, until softened but not browned, about 10 minutes.  Add 1 cup water and stir to combine. 

Transfer this mixture to a blender and puree until smooth, about 30 seconds.  Transfer back to the saucepot. Stir in the rest of the ingredients (ketchup, tomato sauce, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, Tabasco sauce, liquid smoke, molasses, brown sugar, Dijon mustard, dry mustard and black pepper) and stir to combine.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered and stirring frequently, until thickened to the desired consistency, about 15 minutes. 

Barbecue Spice Rub
Makes just over 1 cup, enough for about 4 racks of ribs
Spice Rub
1 Tbl ground black pepper
2 Tbl kosher salt
3 Tbl light brown sugar
4 Tbl paprika
1 tsp cayenne
2 Tbl chili powder
1 Tbl ground cumin
1 Tbl celery salt
1 Tbl garlic powder
1 Tbl onion powder
1 Tbl dried oregano
Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl.  Keep until needed in an air-tight container.
Cheddar-Jalapeño Cornbread
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, January 2005
Makes one 8-inch square
Fresh-Baked Cornbread
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 medium-sized jalapeño, cored, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 tsp kosher salt
4 oz sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
2 Tbl packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
1 cup buttermilk
2 large eggs
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly, plus more for buttering the dish

Preheat the oven to 400°F and position a rack in the middle of the oven.  Generously butter an 8-inch square baking dish (or any baking dish roughly that size).  Set aside.

Combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, cayenne, jalapeño, salt and half the grated cheddar in a large mixing bowl.  Wisk well to combine.  Set aside.

Combine the brown sugar, thawed corn kernels and buttermilk in the bowl of an electric food processor.  Process about 5 seconds.  Add the eggs and process about another 5 seconds, until well combined.  (It doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth.  Small bits of corn will remain.)

Using a rubber spatula, fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, but give just a few turns, just to barely combine everything.  Add the melted butter and continue folding until the dry ingredients are just moistened.  Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish, smoothing the top surface with the rubber spatula.  Sprinkle the remaining cheddar evenly over the top surface.

Bake until deeply golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 25-30 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then invert the cornbread onto the wide rack and turn right side-up.  Continue to cool 10 minutes longer, until just warm.  Slice into 16 2-inch squares and serve.  

Slow-Cooked Baked Beans
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa at Home by Ina Garten
Serves 8
Best-Ever Baked Beans
1 # dried red kidney beans
1 large yellow onion, peeled, cored and sliced in eighths
1 bay leaf
6 whole black peppercorns
3/4 cup grade-B pure maple syrup
1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 cup ketchup
1 Tbl chili-garlic sauce
1 1/2 tsp freshly grated ginger
5 oz thickly cut smoked bacon, cut into half-inch slices
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place the beans in a large bowl and cover by one inch with water.  Let sit overnight.  Drain and rinse the beans, then drain again.

In a large pot, combine the beans with 2 quarts of water, the sliced onion, bay leaf and peppercorns.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to keep at just a bare simmer.  Simmer until tender, about 90 minutes.  Drain the beans, making sure to save the cooking liquid.

Preheat the oven to 225°F and arrange an oven rack in the middle position. 

In a small saucepan, whisk to combine the maple syrup, brown sugar, ketchup, chili-garlic sauce, ginger, salt and 1 1/2 cups of the cooking liquid (making sure to still reserve the rest of the cooking liquid).  Bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Simmer for 5-6 minutes.

Transfer the beans to a medium Dutch oven (or if necessary, a large saucepot).  Discard the bay leaf.  Add half of the sliced bacon and stir gently to combine.  Arrange the rest of the sliced bacon evenly over the top of the beans.  Pour the maple syrup sauce over the beans.  Cover the pot with the lid and bake for 6 to 8 hours.  Lift the lid to check occasionally.  If the beans look too dry, add 1/2 cup cooking liquid at a time.  Remove the lid for the last 30 minutes of cooking to thicken the sauce.  Serve hot.  Can be kept refrigerated in an air-tight container for up to five days.


This recipe is a repeat from a previous dinner party.  (It’s that good!)  Check it out here.


Blueberry Pie
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, July 2008
Serves 8
Blueberry Pie
For the pie dough:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting work surfaces
1 rounded tsp kosher salt
2 Tbl sugar
1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup vegetable shortening, cold, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/4 cup vodka, cold
1/4 cup cold water
For the blueberry filling:
6 cups (about 30 oz) fresh [or frozen] blueberries
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and grated on the large holes of a box grater
1 tsp grated lemon zest
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup plus 1 Tbl granulated sugar, divided
2 Tbl quick-cooking tapioca, ground (with a spice grinder or mini food processor)
pinch of kosher salt
2 Tbl unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 large egg

Make the pie dough:  Add 1 1/2 cups flour, salt and sugar to the bowl of an electric food processor.  Pulse until just combined, about two 1-second pulses.  Add the butter and the shortening.  Process until the dough is begins to collect in uneven clumps resembling cheese curds, and there is no uncoated flour, about 15 seconds.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, then add the remaining 1 cup of flour.  Pulse until the mixture is evenly distributed, and the dough is evenly broken up, about 5-6 quick pulses.  Transfer the mixture into a medium-sized mixing bowl.

Sprinkle the vodka and water over the mixture.  Using a rubber spatula, fold the mixture together, until the dough is slightly tacky and sticks together.  Divide the dough into two even balls, and flatten each into a 4-inch disk.  Wrap each separately in plastic wrap.  Refrigerate at least 45 minutes, and up to 2 days.

Remove one disk of dough from the refrigerator.  On a generously floured work surface, roll out the dough to a 12-inch circle, of about 1/8-inch thick.  Roll the dough loosely onto the rolling pin, then lift it and unroll it into a 9-inch pie plate, leaving at least a 1-inch overhang around the edge.  Gently press the dough into the pie plate bottom.  Refrigerate while preparing the filling, or at least until the dough is firm, about 30 minutes.  

Arrange an oven rack in the lowest position, place a rimmed baking sheet on the oven rack, and preheat oven to 400°F. 

For the filling: Place 3 cups of blueberries in a medium saucepan set over medium heat.  Using a potato masher, smash the berries several times (about 5-6 times) so they will begin to release their juices.  Cook, stirring frequently and mashing occasionally, until the mixture is thickened and reduced to about 1 1/2 cups, and about half the berries have broken down, about 8-10 minutes.  [If using frozen blueberries, cook half of the frozen berries over medium-high heat, stirring frequently and without mashing, until reduced to about 1 1/4 cups, 12-15 minutes.]  Let cool slightly. 

Place the grated apple in a thin, clean kitchen towel and wring dry.  Transfer the apple grating to a large mixing bowl, and discard (or drink!) the juice.  Add the cooked blueberries, the remaining 3 cups of uncooked blueberries, the lemon zest, lemon juice, 3/4 cups sugar, tapioca and salt.  Stir to combine thoroughly.  Transfer the mixture to the dough-lined pie plate. Evenly scatter the butter pieces over the berry filling.

Roll out the remaining disk of dough to a 11-inch circle, again about 1/8-inch thick, on a generously floured work surface.  Using a 1-inch round circular biscuit cutter, cut a round from the center of the dough, then cut another 6 rounds, equally spaced around this center circle, each about 1/2-inch apart.  Roll the dough loosely onto the rolling pin, then lift it and unroll it over the pie, leaving at least 1/2-inch overhang around the edges. 

Using kitchen shears, trim the bottom layer of overhanging dough to a 1/2-inch overhand.  Fold the overhang of the top dough over the edge of the bottom dough, so that the edge of the fold is flush with the outer rim of the pie plate.  Flute the edges, or press with the back of a fork to seal.  Brush the top and edges of the pie crust with the egg-water mixture.  Sprinkle evenly with the remaining tablespoon of sugar.  If the dough seems very soft, place in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes. 

Place the pie on the heated baking sheet.  Bake 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 F and continue to bake until the crust is deeply golden brown and the blueberry juices bubble, about 30-40 minutes more.  Transfer the pie to a wire rack and cool to room temperature, about 4 hours.  Cut into wedges and serve, preferable with vanilla ice cream. 


  1. I can attest this dinner was great!

    And the top picture of the blueberry pie??? I want to frame it, that's how pretty it is. Good work :)

  2. Dana, you are too nice :). But thanks! And dinner at your place was GREAT the other night too! Thank you!!