Baby Back Ribs with Root Beer BBQ Glaze

A few weeks ago, my husband, Les, and I had the unfortunate experience of being forced to empty and clean out what we call our “downstairs” fridge. The term is a misnomer, for sure, given that our home is built on a slab, and we have no downstairs—unless you consider the main level as “downstairs,” and that would only make sense if you were standing in the loft. No, our extra refrigerator lives in the garage, just through the laundry room, about six steps from the kitchen. The confusion is built on Les’s occasional reference to the spaces of a home he once owned in Connecticut, where he apparently did have a downstairs fridge. He also sometimes mistakenly tells me he was listening to “K-ROQ” on the drive home, which was his favorite radio station when he lived in Southern California (which, by the way, was only 28 years ago), but I digress.

What happened that night recently was a flat-out mess, as a forgotten glass bottle of “nitro” cold brew coffee was shoved into one of the uneven cold spots in the back of the extra refrigerator, and the darn thing exploded all over everything. There was broken glass and sticky cold coffee on the shelves and walls of the fridge and spattered on several food and drink containers that were sitting beneath the mishap. It was not exactly the way we intended to “clean out” the fridge, but it did force us to dump some things and gave us a chance to properly inventory the ridiculous quantity of stuff that has piled up in the overflow fridge, which we frankly would not need if it were not for my impulse purchases, especially, it seems, the beverages.

What can I say? I don’t want anyone to be thirsty!

One such impulse buy stood out as a bucket list item for me, and the forced fridge cleanup gave me a push on my culinary intention of making a root beer-based barbecue sauce. I will admit that neither Les nor I are fans of carbonated soda. I have not had a Coca-Cola or 7-Up or anything like them in years (maybe decades), and I don’t miss them. My aversion is based partly on the fact that they are carbonated and leave me feeling bloated and uncomfortable, but more on the fact that nearly every soda on the market is made with high-fructose corn syrup. And that, my friends, is a total deal breaker for me. Diet sodas are no better, because I cannot abide the aftertaste of alternative sweeteners, including the plant-based stevia.

But when I had spotted this small-batch, handcrafted root beer a few months ago, I thought again about my desire to make a root beer sauce or maybe root beer-braised pulled pork. This specialty root beer is sweetened with cane sugar, and on its own, it is sweet. Like, melt-your-teeth sweet. When I reduced it down, however, and simmered it with ketchup and spices and onions, it was exactly right for dressing up baby back ribs on the grill. As with most rib recipes, I started with a brine to give the meat a jump start toward tenderness and flavor, and I got some good advice from chef Bobby Flay about what to put in the brine—cinnamon, star anise and molasses were a giant echo for the root beer flavor that would be slathered on the ribs near the end of cooking. There are a couple of things Les and I agreed we would do differently next time, and I’ll explain that at the end. But overall, this was a successful adventure!

It was a southern BBQ feast, with spicy collards and homemade mac and cheese.

Another bucket list item has been moved to the “done” column, and because I discovered that I also really like the essence of root beer, I used two more bottles of it from the “downstairs fridge” to make syrup for bourbon cocktail experiments. Alas, my friends, that will be a post for another day.


Inspired by  BBQ Ribs with Root Beer BBQ Sauce Recipe | Bobby Flay | Food Network

Ingredients – the ribs

1 large rack baby back ribs (ours were pasture-raised from the local farmers’ market)

1/2 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup molasses

2 whole cinnamon sticks

2 star anise

1 Tbsp. oak-smoked black peppercorns* (see notes)

1/4 cup sweet onion juice, optional*

Enough ice and water to make 8 cups of brine liquid


*Notes

The smoked peppercorns are made by McCormick and sold in a tall jar with a built-in grinder top. I am thoroughly addicted to their flavor and have used them in various food and cocktail recipes whenever I want to add a smoky flavor.

I made these ribs the same weekend as the tangy apple cole slaw that I shared a few days ago, and the onion juice was the discard from the shredded onions in the slaw. Waste nothing, right? 😉


Prepping the ribs

  1. Prepare the brine by combining kosher salt, molasses, cinnamon, star anise and black pepper in a large glass pitcher bowl. Add two cups of boiling water and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar. Add ice cubes and enough cold water to make 8 cups total.
  2. Remove the tough membrane from the back side of the ribs. Begin by slipping a sharp paring knife under the membrane on the smaller end of the rack. Separate enough of it to grab onto with a dry paper towel, and then slowly but steadily lift it up and away from the ribs.
  3. Use kitchen shears or a sharp knife to separate the ribs into portions. Transfer the rib portions to a 2-gallon zip top freezer bag, placed in a container large enough to contain the brine if the bag should happen to leak. Pour the cold brine over the ribs, squeeze out as much air as possible and send them to the fridge to marinate at least overnight, and up to 24 hours.
  4. When the brine is complete, remove the ribs and pat them dry. Place them on a rack over a baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, for a few hours. This prepares the surface of the meat for more flavorful grilling.

Root Beer BBQ Glaze

2 Tbsp. canola oil

1/2 sweet onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

Zest of a fresh lemon

2 pieces crystallized ginger, finely minced

3 Tbsp. light brown sugar

1 cup tomato ketchup

12 oz. bottle naturally sweetened root beer

1 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika

Kosher salt and oak-smoked black pepper


Make the glaze

  1. Empty root beer into a heavy-bottomed saucepan, and simmer over medium-low heat until the liquid is reduced to about 1/2 cup. Transfer to a measuring cup.
  2.  In the same saucepan, heat canola oil and sauté onions about two minutes, until slightly softened. Add minced garlic and crystallized ginger and cook one to two minutes more.
  3. Add smoked paprika to the pan and cook just until the paprika becomes fragrant. Add root beer reduction and simmer on low heat several minutes until the mixture is syrupy.
  4. Add the ketchup and brown sugar, stirring to combine. Add lemon zest and smoked black pepper. Simmer on low heat until just bubbly at the edges. Adjust salt, pepper and sweetness to taste. I wanted it a little bit sweeter, so I added a splash of additional root beer.

Time to grill the ribs!

My hubby, the grill master, questioned the instructions I handed him from the Bobby Flay recipe, and I darn sure should have listened. We followed the gist of the original recipe, grilling the ribs naked over indirect heat at about 250° F for two hours, then glazing them with the root beer BBQ glaze for the last 20 minutes or so. Granted, we do not have a “kamado-style” charcoal grill, but I had hoped

This was enough time to cook them, but not enough to make them fall-off-the-bone tender, which is what my root beer-loving heart desired. We had also soaked some hickory chunks in cold water and root beer, and tried out the small smoker box we had purchased for the grill. Friends, let me just say, “don’t bother,” because we did not get even a hint of smoke on the ribs. It would have been terrific, though, on a regular smoker. Overall, The meat was tasty (I think the brine did wonders) and the sauce was just as I imagined—root beer was present but not too sweet.

We have had more tender ribs without following a recipe, and next time we make these, I will hand the reins over to Les to grill or smoke the ribs however he chooses. We also agreed that low and slow roasting in the oven would probably have resulted in more tender ribs, and I sure would not mind the aroma in the house!

The flavorful brine and the root beer glaze were the real winners for this recipe!



Smokehouse Sausage Pizza

Until I launched this blog, the only pizzas we ever had at home were traditional, “classic” Italian pies. You know—tomato base, sausage, mushroom, mozzarella. Sometimes eggplant or spinach. I had tempted my pizza-loving man with stories of more “creative” pies I’d made in the past, but we always ended up making the usual, and it was all well and good.

But now that I’ve broken him (haha!), it seems we can’t turn away from the unconventional ideas I’ve been posting here. It started with the Buffalo chicken pizza, and we’ve worked through a couple of vegetarian pies and the couple of jerks (as in “Jamaican”). We still enjoy a classic pepperoni and mushroom pie, don’t get me wrong. But we are also knocking down the walls with all kinds of flavors, and having a lot of fun in the process of it all! (I should say at this point that my fact-checking husband, who edits this blog, reminds me that we have had white-clam pizzas as our New Year’s Eve celebration each of the last two years. But I would say those count as traditional, since they are part of the lore of Connecticut’s nationally famous New Haven pizza places, like Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s and Modern Apizza.)

White clam pizza, Comfort du Jour style!

And they are awesome, truth be told.

But I digress. Today, I offer another example of how I like to use up leftovers, and this adventure began on the heels of a recent backyard BBQ meal, when we enjoyed gourmet sausage (among other things) on the smoker. One of our local markets has an exclusive “sausage” department, featuring 40+ house-made specialties, and all pretty fabulous.

One lone straggler called “The Grill Master” was staring me down from the leftover shelf, along with a little bit of leftover sweet and spicy BBQ sauce that Les had whipped up for the spare ribs he smoked (he is the sauce king). There is always a plethora of cheese odds and ends in the deli drawer, and because I keep homemade pizza dough in regular rotation in this household, why not throw it all together into a smoky BBQ sausage pie? Why not, indeed.


Ingredients

1 ball of my New York pizza dough

1/4 cup sweet-spicy BBQ sauce

1 link smoked sausage* (about 4 oz.), cut into bite-sized pieces

1/2 medium onion, sliced

1/2 medium green bell pepper, sliced

Extra virgin olive oil

Handful of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 cup combined white cheddar and mozzarella*, grated

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper (smoked, if you can find it)

*Notes

Smoked sausage has a very firm texture, perfect here because I could crisp up the cut edges in a skillet for even more texture and interest for our pizza. Kielbasa is a common example of a smoked sausage.

For this pizza, I used the bits of cheese we already had. If I were shopping from scratch, I would have gone straight for the cheddar on its own, or perhaps even a smoked cheddar or gouda.

Instructions


  1. Preheat the oven to 550° F, with pizza steel or stone in place about 8” from the top heating element.
  2. In a small skillet, heat olive oil over medium high heat and saute the smoked sausage until edges are crispy and some of the fat renders. Transfer sausage to a small bowl. Add onions and peppers to the same pan and saute until soft and lightly caramelized. Add mushrooms and cook until soft and some of the moisture evaporates. Season with sea salt and black pepper.
  3. Shape pizza dough into a 14” circle and transfer it to a greased pizza pan or floured and cornmeal-dusted pizza peel.
  4. Brush dough with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Then, spread the sauce in a thin layer, leaving 1/2” bare edges.
  5. Scatter half of the cheese over the sauce, then distribute the peppers, onions, mushrooms and sausage. Top with remaining cheese and slide the pizza into a preheated oven for about 7 minutes, or until crust is puffy and golden and cheese is bubbly all over.
Each bite had a little sweet, a little heat and a little smoke.

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Savory Smoky Baked Beans

Just about every baked bean recipe I’ve ever eaten has hit me a little too heavy on the sweet tooth. Do they really need to have brown sugar and honey and molasses and maple syrup? Geez, it hurts my teeth just thinking about it. My version has some sweetness, but it’s a deep, earthy kind of sweet, thanks to molasses, and balanced with only a bit of brown sugar. There’s dark-roast coffee, cumin, ancho chile, coriander and ginger, too—plenty of savory notes to keep these beans off the dessert end of the potluck table.

You could sauté the onions in olive oil and this recipe would make even a vegan happy. But don’t lament, carnivores. Your beloved bacon will feel right at home in this dish, too. Y’all go ahead and make it your own!

Ingredients

About 4 cups cooked pinto and great northern beans* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. bacon drippings (or extra virgin olive oil)

1 sweet onion, chopped

1 Tbsp. spicy coffee rub*

1 tsp. coarse kosher salt

8 oz. can tomato sauce

2 Tbsp. ketchup (Heinz organic made with sugar)

3 Tbsp. molasses

2 Tbsp. brown sugar

1 Tbsp. maple-flavored balsamic vinegar*

(Optional) chopped cooked bacon and/or browned meat*

*Notes

I cooked the beans from dry, which is easy to do after an overnight soak. For me, the texture of from-scratch beans is worth the minimal effort, and a lot cheaper. If you prefer, use two or three varieties of canned beans. You’ll need 3 cans, and you’ll want to drain and rinse them well before proceeding.

My recipe for spicy coffee rub follows, or substitute any pre-made spice blend that includes coffee, sugar and chili spices, but be mindful of the sodium content and adjust the recipe accordingly.

I’m a very devoted follower of flavored oils and vinegars, and I think the maple balsamic brings a nice maple flavor to these beans, without more “sweet.” Use any other dark balsamic you like (perhaps espresso or dark chocolate), or omit it altogether. It’s kind of like the cherry on top of a sundae—nice, but not necessary.

We had 3 slices of leftover cooked bacon from breakfast and about 1 cup cooked ground bison (a leftover from chili for hot dogs). Both found their way into the baked beans, and the dish was even more hearty and satisfying for it.

Instructions

Sauté onion in bacon drippings (or olive oil) until they’re slightly soft and translucent.

Add spicy coffee rub and salt, and cook until fragrant. Add tomato sauce, ketchup, molasses, brown sugar and maple balsamic vinegar. Cook until sugar is dissolved, and mixture is thick and syrupy.


Preheat oven to 350° F. 

Put prepared or canned beans in an oven-safe, lidded casserole. Pour sauce over beans and fold gently to combine. Bake about 45 minutes, until fully hot and bubbly. I left the lid on for most of the baking time, but removed it for the last 15 minutes. That dark, sticky crust just makes me so happy, and I can’t wait to eat the leftovers cold from the fridge.

Spicy Coffee Rub – my take on a Bobby Flay recipe

Makes about 1 cup

1/4 cup ancho chile powder

1/4 cup finely ground dark roast coffee*

2 Tbsp. sweet Spanish paprika

2 Tbsp. dark brown sugar

1 Tbsp. dry mustard

1 Tbsp. ground black pepper

1 Tbsp. ground coriander seed*

2 tsp. ground ginger

2 tsp. ground cayenne pepper (optional to taste)

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1 tsp. kosher salt*

*Notes

The coffee should be ground as finely as powder, not just ground for coffee. If you have a spice grinder, that’s the best way to achieve the proper grind texture.

Coriander is the seed form of cilantro, but the taste is not similar. You can find it pre-ground at the market, but I much prefer the flavor of freshly ground seeds for this rub. I use a mortar and pestle to crush the seeds, but you could also use a spice grinder, as used for the coffee.

I keep the salt to a minimum in this spice rub recipe to allow more flexibility in its use. If you want a more intense flavor when you use the rub, you don’t end up making your end dish too salty.

Instructions

Combine all ingredients and keep in a tightly covered jar for up to four months.

Use it as a dry rub on steak or ribs before grilling, add a tablespoon to your favorite chili recipe or mixed in with your meat for burgers or tacos. Obviously, use it also in this recipe for savory baked beans.

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Maple Bacon Bourbon Onion Marmalade

There have never been two flavors more perfectly designed for each other than bourbon and bacon. My friend Linda would give an amen, and we’d be correct. Or maybe it’s chocolate and cherry. I’d ask my husband, but it would probably prompt further discussion of all the recipes we should concoct to incorporate all four—bourbon and bacon and chocolate and cherry. Maybe brownies? Or ice cream? That sounds like a rewarding challenge for later—I’ll work on it and let you know (wink).

For now, I’m cooking up a storm in advance of Memorial Day weekend. I know, none of us are likely spending the weekend quite as we’d planned. That’s a given on just about everything this year. My husband, Les, and I have already missed a dreamy beach weekend with Linda and her husband, and my heart positively aches for everyone who has sacrificed once-in-a-lifetime plans for weddings, graduations and funerals. Just thinking about that makes me feel guilty and selfish lamenting a weekend getaway. For sure, the pandemic is revealing all that we’ve taken for granted, and given us new appreciation for the simplest things in life—like a backyard cookout. So this weekend, Les and I are following tradition and firing up the grill to usher in the summer season, even if it ends up being just the two of us. Chances are, you’ll be doing the same.

Everyone has their own favorite thing to put on the grill, and our burgers are no better than yours. But if you’re looking for something new to dress up whatever you’re putting on the grill—well, cue the bourbon and bacon!

My inspiration for this recipe is a book that literally jumped into my cart a few years ago while I was casually browsing at a discount store.

What could possibly go wrong?

It includes plenty of discussion about bourbon etiquette and whiskey history, what type of glass is correct for different types of bourbon cocktails, and what it means for a bourbon to be “bottled in bond” (if you’re wondering, it’s the result of one season, one distillation, and one distillery, and it’s bottled at a minimum of 100 proof; that’s on page 28). But there are also dozens of mouthwatering recipes—for bourbon, for bacon and for a few crossovers that include both. The latter are, without question, my favorites. Here’s my adaptation of one of them, and I’ve elevated everyone’s happy with yet another complementary flavor, maple. Oh yes, I did. The end result is a delicious smoky, savory, sweet and slightly spicy topper for your burgers, steaks, chicken and perhaps even slipped inside a grilled cheese sandwich. (You’re welcome, Linda!)

The recipe will make just about 1 cup and it’ll keep in a jar in the fridge for several weeks. But you’ll be lucky if you have any left after the three-day weekend, especially if you find yourself eating it straight from the jar at 3 am while everyone else is asleep—not that I’ve done that.

Ingredients

2 slices smoked, uncured bacon* (see notes), chopped into pieces

1 small sweet onion, cut into thin, crescent-shaped strips (not rings)

1 small red onion, roughly chopped into pieces

1/4 cup maple sugar*

2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

2 Tbsp. bourbon

Pinch of crushed red pepper (or as much as you like)

About 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves

Pinch kosher salt (maybe)*

*Notes

I only purchase “uncured” bacon, which is free of the unnecessary preservative sodium nitrite. If you can find the maple kind of bacon, that’s a win-win. If you aren’t sure what “the maple kind” is, maybe you need to watch this. I literally cannot think or write about bacon without hearing this dog’s “voice.”

So, the maple bacon will be a nice extra touch, but the real flavor comes from the sugar.

Maple sugar is literally a dehydrated, granulated form of real maple syrup. I buy it online, directly from a sugar shack in upstate New York, my old stomping ground. Click here to get some from Big Tree Maple. If you can’t wait for it, substitute 1 Tbsp. light brown sugar and 2 Tbsp. real maple syrup.

You may not want additional salt in the recipe, depending on the sodium content of your bacon. Ours is house-cured by a local butcher and puts a perfectly salty kiss on this. Wait until your marmalade is finished, and add salt only if desired.

Instructions

Cook bacon in a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until crisp; remove bacon and drain on paper towels. Drain and discard all but about 1 Tbsp. of the bacon grease. Add sweet and red onions to the same skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until onions are soft and caramelized.

Add maple sugar, stir until dissolved. Stir in vinegar, bourbon, red pepper and thyme leaves. Cook a few minutes until liquid is the consistency of syrup.

Crumble the bacon into smaller pieces, if desired, and add to the onion mixture. Continue to cook several minutes, until mixture is thickened to a jam-like consistency. Adjust salt to taste.

Transfer to a covered jar and store in the fridge up to a month. Slather it on your favorite grilled meat. Or just eat it with a spoon—there’s no judgment here.

The finished marmalade will keep nicely in a sealed jar, or any dish with a tight lid. Keep it in the fridge, but bring to room temperature when you’re ready to use it.

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