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On-Target Barbecue: Fire, Steel, Ribs

The South has provided many wonderful things to the world…country music, NASCAR racing, SEC football…but the South’s greatest contribution is barbecue.  There’s something magic that happens when you combine a hardwood fire, spices, and a tender pork shoulder or rack of ribs.  Even chicken becomes a work of art when slow cooked over hickory or pecan and touched with a sweet and peppery sauce.

A load of seasoned pecan ready for LeviathanI have over forty years’ experience with smoke and meat (See "The  Pitmaster's History”) and I want to provide my experience to you for your next gathering.  I use only 100% hardwood—never gas or charcoal—to smoke ribs, shoulders or chicken.  Hickory gives a deep smoky flavor and is great for all cuts of pork, while pecan - while harder to get - kisses the meat with a much lighter smoke and turns out a wonderful smoked chicken.  To complement these meats, I prepare sides and sauces according to our own family recipes developed over generations of barbecue tradition.

The Meats: I specialize in three staples of the Barbecue Art.

RIBS:  A lot of folks go ape for Baby Back Ribs, but they are missing out, in my opinion.  I start with full-cut Spareribs, complete with the Rib Tips and the Rib Ends, because the marrow and connective tissues included in those tips and ends add a fuller flavor element.  They also have a better texture; cooked right, the meat will slide off the bone but still have enough body to give you something to chew and enjoy.  I dry-rub each rack with a mix of spices (No, I won’t tell you what they are!) and roast them low and slow over hickory or pecan wood.  They get basted periodically with a mix of vinegar, water, and oil laced with more spices.  At your desire, I can either leave them dry and let your guests sauce them to taste at the table, or I can sauce them on the grill and let the heat of the fire caramelize the sauce just before cutting and serving.

Getting That Perfect Smoky FlavorSHOULDERS:  I brine my shoulders in a vinegar-spice bath before putting them on the grill face.  As with ribs, the key words are “low and slow” and “hardwood only.”  Unlike ribs, the shoulders don’t get basted for the first two hours—I want them to suck up the smoky flavor of the hickory and build that perfect “smoke ring” in the outer layer of the meat.  Once they have picked up that wonderful brown, then they get swept with the basting mop.  I watch the temperature constantly through the eight to ten hour cooking time, making sure it never gets too high.  Once they have reached the peak of perfection, I pull the pork—removing the bone, various connective tissues and fat deposits—before coarse-chopping the meat.  Sauce can be added at this point and the pan can be put back on the grill for a bit of caramelizing, or it can go straight to the table to be sauced—or not—according to individual taste.

CHICKEN:  I take whole fryers and split them into halves.  After tucking the wing, I give them a light dusting of salt, garlic powder, and pepper, then lay them rib-side down on the grill face.  Then comes the hard part: leaving them alone.  It is tempting to turn them, rotate them around different grill positions, and test them for doneness.  But what they need to do is sit there and absorb the flavor of the smoke while the fire renders the layer of fat just beneath the skin, basting the bird in its own juices.  Leviathan can actually put a smoke ring on a chicken this way.  Other than a single position rotation—done with tongs, not a fork—to swap the birds closest to the fire with the birds furthest from the fire, these chickens will not move until they come to roost on your plate.  They too can be sauced on the grill or sauced at the table.

The Sauces: I will never use a commercial barbecue sauce.

RED SAUCE is a fusion of different regional styles that my family developed over decades of travelling and sampling different barbecue traditions.  It is tomato-based and has a taste of sweetness from brown sugar, but that sweet is cut with the tang of apple-cider vinegar.  I add a blend of spices that give it a nice opening warmth and a little bit of a back-bite, but not too much.  Other than that, I won’t tell what all is in it, or how I cook it down.  It also comes in a hot variation, so always check the label on the bottle before pouring.

WHITE SAUCE is a creamy combination of vinegar and very mild spices mixed with mayonnaise.  It goes good with pulled shoulder and very good with smoked chicken.  Unlike the Red Sauce, it is for table service only; with no sugar content, it will not caramelize.

The Sides: Keep it simple, make them good, and provide plenty.

BAKED BEANS start out as humble pork and beans, but take on new flavors from fresh chopped onion, ketchup, mustard, brown sugar and thick cut bacon on top.  These are slow cooked in the smoker itself, giving them an additional boost of flavor to compliment the meat.

COLESLAW is a bit of a problem at an on-site a barbecue.  I like a mayonnaise based slaw myself, but I’m always worried about the mayo turning to the dark side without refrigeration beyond an ice chest (for the same reason, I don’t offer potato salad—I’d hate to unleash Darth Tater on an unsuspecting crowd).  Fortunately, I have a vinegar-based coleslaw that is just the right accompaniment for these fine smoked meats so it doesn’t need refrigeration.

Desert: A New Twist on and Old Favorite

BREAD PUDDING:  They thought I was crazy when I told them I could make bread pudding on a barbecue smoker, but I proved them wrong.  I've adapted an old favorite recipe to suit the conditions on a grill face and come up with something kind of unique...smoked bread pudding.  It is sweet and rich, but with a hint of hickory lingering in the little crunchy bits that stick up out of the sauce.  Topped with pecans and brown sugar and drenched in a caramel sauce, it is worth saving room for at the end of your barbecue feast.

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