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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.