Rejoicing was heard across the land — or maybe just in our household — when I found out that McLane Stadium was hosting the Brazos River Ribfest on April 24-26.
I. Love. Ribs. No, seriously. I love ribs. It’s one of my favorite meals. If Abby is making, say, tacos for dinner and asks what I would like to go with our tacos, I’ll say, “Ribs.” If we’re having spaghetti. What else do I want? Ribs. Steak for dinner? A side of ribs would be nice, thank you.
When my parents lived in Bellmead, Dad would occasionally grill a whole bunch of meat on a Saturday afternoon and invite family and some lucky friends over for dinner. He would sometimes cook brisket, but he always did sausage and ribs — plenty of ribs, since he knew I would eat my share, plus the shares of one or two others. Dad had a gas grill. He actually had a gas line installed specifically for his grill so he wouldn’t have to worry about his propane tank running empty. So, it’s from Dad that I learned about cooking on a grill and learned to love ribs.
When reading about all that would be happening at the Brazos River Ribfest — it’s a lot, since the fest is a three-day affair — I saw that rib vendors from across the country had been invited and that they would be competing for a Critics’ Choice and a People’s Choice award. I immediately tracked down Tyler Gambrell, SMG marketing manager at McLane Stadium, to offer my services as a judge and to ask for a list of competitors who might offer some tips — without giving away any of their award-winning secrets — on how we home cooks can prepare tasty, competition-worthy ribs.
As I was glancing through the list, I didn’t seen any local area codes, so I began to wonder where these professional rib chefs were coming from. Seems many of them hail from the Chicago area. I didn’t realize that a city on the banks of Lake Michigan in the upper reaches of Illinois was such a hotbed of barbecue. Turns out, the area benefitted greatly from a sad era of American history.
During the Great Migration, beginning in the early 1900s, millions of black Americans fled the Jim Crow laws of the South, where they faced so-called “separate but equal” status, and moved to other areas of the country: New York, California and the Midwest, in particular. (To read more about the Great Migration, I highly recommend “The Warmth of Other Suns,” a beautifully written New York Times bestseller by Isabel Wilkerson.)
“They brought with them barbecue as well as the blues and settled on the South and West sides of Chicago,” according to the History & Culture section of AmazingRibs.com. “Chicago’s reputation for barbecue is built on ribs as surely as the city was built on the wreckage of the Great Chicago Fire.”
So, that helped explain how a bunch of Chicago folks got to be experts in the art of the grill. Ed Latowski was happy to give another, more practical reason. He mentioned that some of the largest pork producers are located near Chicago, and “it’s a place that people like barbecue.”
Latowski’s team, Howling Coyote Roadhouse, will be competing this month in Waco. He has been a full-time barbecue competitor for the last couple of years, but has been entering contests since 1989.
When cooking ribs, Latowski said, “It’s low and slow. Cook over low temperature for a long time on indirect heat. Don’t rush it and don’t sauce until you’re almost done.”
Somewhat closer to Texas is Fayetteville, Arkansas-based Mark Grant of the team Porky Chicks BBQ. He said his squad has won “35 or 40” first place awards over the years.
“It’s been a good last few years for us,” said Grant, who has been on the competitive barbecue circuit for 15 years and has been going at it full time for the past eight years after a career as market training manager for Taco Bell.
“I’ve been in food since I was 16 years old,” he said.
Grant said that making ribs at home isn’t that difficult, and that professional grillers don’t have a magic secret. It’s mainly trial and error.
A pretty surefire method is to heat the grill to about 250 to 275 degrees and cook the ribs on indirect heat for three-and-a-half to four hours. Cooking over indirect heat keeps the meat from drying out, he said. When the ribs are done, remove them from the heat, let them rest for a while, then place them on a hot grill — about 500 degrees — to give them a good sear. Slather on a little barbecue sauce and enjoy, he said.
“We don’t baste them,” Grant said. “We do a dry rub and let them cook. But don’t look at ‘em.”
In other words, don’t open the lid of the grill during cooking.
“If you have a small grill at home and you’re looking, you lose a lot of heat. It takes time to get that heat built back up. And the longer it takes, the more moisture you’re going to lose out of them. If you’re looking at it, it ain’t cooking,” he said.
For more information about the Brazos River Ribfest, go to www.McLaneStadium.com and click on Events.
- 1 or 2 racks of baby back pork ribs
- Rib Rub (recipe follows)
- 1 bottle barbecue sauce
Several hours or the day before you intend to cook the ribs, place the racks of ribs on a sheet pan and rub them all over with the Rib Rub. Cover with foil and refrigerate.
Prior to cooking, bring ribs to room temperature. Heat oven to 350 F. Cook the ribs, still covered, for about two hours. During the last 30 minutes of cooking, prepare the grill. (We use a gas grill and turn all the burners on medium while heating; when we put the ribs on, we turn the burners directly under the ribs to low.)
Remove the sheet pan from the oven, being careful not to spill the juices. Place the ribs on another sheet pan. Pour the pan juices into a saucepan and add barbecue sauce. Bring to a boil then remove from heat.
Place ribs on prepared grill and baste with barbecue sauce mixture. Turn occasionally, basting with each turn. Grill on both sides until grilled or charred to desired doneness.
Serve with cold beer or iced tea. Two racks of ribs makes about 6-8 servings (or 4 if one of your diners is Kevin).
- 3 tablespoons paprika
- 3 tablespoons salt
- 6 tablespoons brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons pepper
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
Mix all ingredients together and store in an airtight container.
Sweet Potato Hash
- 1/2 pound bacon, sliced into thin strips
- 1/2 red onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced or grated
- 2 jalapeno peppers, diced, ribs removed (if desired)
- 3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into about 1/2-inch cubes
Fry the bacon in a skillet until crispy. Remove bacon and drain on a paper towel. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of bacon drippings from the pan. Saute onion and garlic in drippings until soft, for 2-3 minutes. Add jalapenos and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Stir in sweet potatoes and cook until the potatoes are tender, for about 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the bacon just prior to serving. Season to taste with salt and pepper and/or Tabasco or other hot sauce. Makes about 4-6 servings.
Bacon and Cheddar Cornbread
- 1/2 pound bacon, cooked and crumbled
- 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
- 1 jalapeno (optional), diced, ribs and seeds removed
- 1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
- 1 egg
- 5 tablespoons butter, melted
Heat oven to 350 F. Spray muffin pans with nonstick spray and set aside. (If you’re using a cast-iron skillet, cook the bacon and saute the jalapenos in the skillet. Wipe out any excess grease, and it will be ready to use for baking.)
Cook the bacon and set aside to cool. Remove most of the bacon grease and saute the jalapeno in the same skillet until soft and set aside.
Grate the cheese and set aside.
In a medium bowl, mix together all of the dry ingredients.
In another bowl, combine the wet ingredients. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Add the cooled, crumbled bacon, cheese and jalapeno. Mix to just combine.
Either pour into the cast-iron skillet or the muffin pan. Fill each muffin tin about halfway full. Bake until golden brown, for about 15-20 minutes. When the cornbread is done, a cake tester inserted in the middle will come out clean.
Remove from the oven, cool slightly and cut into pieces. Serve with butter. Makes about 8-10 servings.
- 4 cups milk
- 1 cup sugar, divided
- 4 egg yolks
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon vanilla
- 1 cup heavy cream
- Vanilla wafers
- Toasted coconut (optional)
In a heavy saucepan, dissolve half the sugar in the milk and bring just to a boil.
With a whisk, beat the egg yolks and the eggs in a stainless steel bowl. Sift the cornstarch and the other half of the sugar into the eggs. Beat until perfectly smooth.
Temper the egg mixture by slowly beating in the hot milk in a thin stream.
Return the mixture to the heat and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. When the mixture comes to a boil, continue to stir constantly and boil for up to 2 minutes, until the cream has no raw, starchy taste.
Remove from heat. Stir in the butter and vanilla; mix until the butter is melted and completely blended in.
Pour into a shallow pan. Cover with plastic wrap placed directly in contact with the surface of the cream to prevent a crust from forming. Place in refrigerator until completely chilled or overnight. Makes about 4 cups of cream.
When ready to assemble the pudding, whip the heavy cream with an electric mixer until medium to stiff peaks form. Fold the whipped cream into the pastry cream.
Place a couple of vanilla wafers on a small plate. Top with about half of a banana, sliced in half lengthwise or into discs, then top with the pastry cream and toasted coconut (if using). Makes about 10-12 servings.