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!



100!

When I published my first post on Comfort du Jour in April, I didn’t know what it would become or what it would mean to me. It took a global pandemic to help me finally grasp that the phrase “life is short” is more than a catchphrase; it’s a reality. What I did know is that I love cooking, creating and entertaining, and I wanted to share my passion with other like-minded people. I knew I was never going to have a restaurant, and just as well, because I love my free evenings and weekends. I will never win Next Food Network Star (though I considered auditioning a few times), also just as well, given that most of the winners don’t actually get to cook as much as they talk about food other chefs are making.

Comfort du Jour has been a blessing for me because I’m doing what I love and sharing it with you, but on my own terms and at my own pace. Your support has encouraged me to keep going. It’s empowering to know that what I do in my kitchen has power to make you happy. Having this blog has challenged me to tackle my food “bucket list,” including these:

I’m 100 posts in, and still have so much to say, though it isn’t always easy for me.

At times, I struggle to make the things that happen in my kitchen interesting to you. My recipes are so familiar to me that it’s hard to believe anyone else would be inspired by them. On the flip side, I sometimes find myself veering way off course and having too much to say, which is usually a sign I am aiming too low—by talking about the food rather than the story.

A good example of the latter was my July 3 post on Vanilla. I had planned to count down the top flavors used in American cooking through the years, to identify what America tastes like, being the world’s melting pot and all. I didn’t expect to become mesmerized by the story of the slave boy who revolutionized the hand-pollination of the rare and fragile vanilla flower, forever changing the course of food history worldwide. Now, it’s all I think about when I use the ingredient that would have been available only to the wealthiest of people, had it not been for Edmond Albius.

This has been a theme for me in cooking, as well as in life—that what I’m making (or doing) is far less important than the “why”: food tells a story, and if we’re willing to listen, we will learn a great deal more than a recipe. The story is what I love most, and this blog has helped me identify that.

I’ve shared plenty about my early inspiration by my maternal grandmother, who taught me how to properly sear meat, build a cream sauce, make gravy and turn bread scraps into pudding. So far, I have barely mentioned my time in a catering kitchen, where I was challenged to elevate my knowledge in ways that shaped me into the home cook I am today. Those stories are coming. As I said, so much more to say.

On the other side of Halloween, I’ll be retelling the tales behind my favorite Thanksgiving recipes, along with instruction for some of the basic things we make at home to reduce our dependence on expensive store-bought ingredients.

Here’s to the next 100! Thank you. 😊


Pierogi with Potato, Leek and Spinach Filling

One of the most satisfying cooking achievements is striking an item off my culinary “bucket list.” I started my running list a couple of years ago as a way to challenge myself in the kitchen, and my late-night Pinterest surfing (which, unfortunately, coincides with midlife insomnia) is making it longer. Occasionally, I might see a Pinterest recipe I want to try as it is, but more often, I see something that inspires me in a different direction. Either way, you don’t have to be good at math to recognize that my habit (plus my imagination) can only grow the bucket list, so moving an item over to the “made it” column feels like a major accomplishment. Today’s dish has been on the bucket list for at least a year. It’s time!

These pierogi—yes, that is the plural—will be coming up again in rapid rotation, because they were delicious and filling, but also easier to make than I expected. In the big picture of comfort foods, these Polish dumplings are about as far as you can go—tender dough stuffed with potatoes, onions, vegetables or whatever else you like, then boiled and fried in a skillet. With butter! What’s not to love? The arrival of fall seems like the perfect time to tackle them, too. The challenge for me in trying a classic dish for the first time is choosing which recipe to use, and that’s what I’m really sharing today.

An internet search for “best pierogi” will yield at least two pages worth of results that declare to be the original, the best, the most authentic, etc. One person’s “perfect” pierogi dough will fully contradict the next, and here’s the deal on that—everyone had a grandma, and everyone’s grandma made dishes that were “original” for their family, and so that was the best for them. But my grandma was Scandinavian, so how do I know from a cultural standpoint what is truly authentic—at least when it comes to pierogi?

Simple—I research it.

I dig deeper to learn where a dish comes from, who were the people who created it, what was their life and what foods were common to their everyday diet. All of these background notes help me arrive at my own approach to the dish. The central and eastern Europeans who created this dish were likely Jewish peasants, and so they would have used simple, inexpensive ingredients. Over time, the dish caught on with other classes, and sweet, fruit-filled versions evolved, but I’ve decided to keep them savory for my first run-through.

Next, I consult trusted recipe resources, whether that is cookbooks I already own or internet sites such as AllRecipes.com that provide multiple recipes for a particular food. I do not select a single recipe and give it a go. Rather, I look for commonality among the recipes, and then I trust my own cooking instinct as I dive in to create it.

I’ve trusted this book, The Gefilte Manifesto, for the dough portion of the pierogi recipe, primarily because their ingredients and technique are very similar to Italian pasta dough, which is in my wheelhouse so I have a bit of confidence going into this. I’ll save the cream cheese-based dough for another time. For the filling, I followed early tradition and made a potato-cheese-onion mixture. And I’ve added sauteed fresh spinach because my half-Polish, all-Jewish husband (whose family, unfortunately, never made him pierogi) can’t get enough of it, so I always have spinach on hand.

Here we go!


Dough Ingredients

(adapted from The Gefilte Manifesto)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup spelt flour

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

2 eggs

3 Tbsp. warm water

The original recipe made a very large batch of pierogi, and in hindsight, I wish I had gone that way because they turned out so delicious. But I halved the ingredients, as I often do when I make something for the first time. The original used only AP flour (which I never follow on anything), so I’ve adjusted for some whole spelt flour so that we can have some amount of whole grain. The original recipe said 3 eggs, but chickens don’t lay eggs in halves, so I used 2 and cut back on the suggested amount of water. I suppose I could’ve whisked three eggs together and divvied out half by weight, but that seemed overkill, and the eggs add richness and protein. I followed my instinct and made the dough the same way I make pasta dough but with less kneading, and set it aside to rest while I made the filling.

Unlike pasta dough, this pierogi dough was only kneaded enough to be fully mixed.

Filling Ingredients

4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and boiled until fork-tender

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 leek, white and light green parts, split lengthwise and sliced thin

2 handfuls fresh baby spinach

1/3 cup small curd cottage cheese

1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

2 oz. finely shredded white cheddar cheese

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

For frying (optional): 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, 2 sprigs fresh thyme leaves.

Some of the suggested filling recipes I considered mentioned addition of an egg, but I didn’t feel this was important, given that the Yukon gold potatoes already had a creamy quality. I decided the cheddar and cottage cheeses provided enough binder. I put the mixture in the fridge to chill while I rolled and cut the dough into circles.


Putting it all together

Rolling out the dough proved more time consuming than I expected, given that I hadn’t kneaded it much. It was surprisingly strong, which means gluten strands had formed during the rest time. Again, I followed my instinct from experience with pasta, and covered the dough a few minutes to relax those strands, then continued rolling, until the dough was about 1/8” thickness. I did this in two batches.

All the recipes I found suggested cutting about 3 1/2” circles, and the only thing I had that size was a little ice cream bowl. Note to self: buy a biscuit cutter already!

On to the fun part—shaping the pierogi! I spooned about 1 1/2 teaspoons of filling mixture onto the center of each dough round, then I dipped a finger into a small dish of water and wet the outer edge of the rounds to help seal the dough. This is important, because a good seal prevents the filling seeping out during boiling. Anything oily along the edge of the dough will cause the edges to separate, so I was also careful to keep the filling right in the center of the rounds as I closed them. I cupped the dough round in one palm, and used my other hand to seal the edges tight, stretching the dough as needed to fully envelop the filling. Once the rounds were sealed up into half moon shapes, I crimped the edges with a floured fork and let them rest while the water came to boil.


Boiling and Pan-frying

As with pasta water, I used a generous amount of salt. Don’t skimp on this out of fear of sodium—remember that most of the salt will stay in the water, and the pierogi (like pasta) will take up just enough to season it well. Various recipes I’d seen suggested that the dumplings would initially sink but eventually float, and I followed the recommendation to cook them about 4 minutes from the float stage. They cooked at a gentle boil, just above a simmer. I scooped them out onto parchment paper, and though they could have been served exactly like that, I pressed on with the pan frying to give them some extra texture—and, of course, the browned butter. 😊

This half-batch of pierogi fed us for dinner twice, and I ended up with enough leftover to freeze for later. I laid the (un-boiled) individual dumplings out on a parchment-lined sheet, covered loosely with another sheet of parchment and frozen overnight, then I transferred them to a zip top bag for cooking later.

Ready for a quick weeknight meal later this fall! Boil them straight from the freezer.

Want to print this recipe?

These turned out so comforting and delicious, I wish I had made them sooner, but I’m glad to get them off my bucket list! 🙂 Here is a sampling of my remaining “someday” recipes, and I hope that sharing this glimpse with you will give me the accountability I need to get cooking:

Porchetta (an Italian specialty made with pork belly wrapped around pork tenderloin)
Why I haven’t made it: It looks fussy and complicated, and that scares me a little.

Black-and-white cookies (one of Les’s favorite NYC classic treats)
Why I haven’t made them: He loves them so much, I’m worried I’ll mess them up (crazy, I know).

Barbacoa (slow cooked spicy beef, which I love, thanks to Chipotle chain)
Why I haven’t made it: I’m committed to only using grass-fed beef in my recipes, and our city doesn’t have the best options for grass-fed, so I need to venture out to a market in a nearby city.

Hold me to it, dear friends! Those dishes deserve a shot in my kitchen. What foods are on your bucket list, either to cook or just to try?