Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Ribs: An Embarrassment of Riches! or, Exploring My Inner Lucy on Memorial Day Weekend

I learned comedy watching two women: Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. If I had spent a little time watching either the Three Stooges or the Marx Bros too, I would have hit the trifecta. Or the Superfecta. Whatever.

But, as funny as the boys might have been, the ladies were funnier, to me. And Lucy was funniest.

I thrilled to watch I Love Lucy, and Lucy's latest scheme to "be in the show" (or just get what she wanted from Ricky) while maintaining her position as a semi-public figure in the still-uptight 1950's post war America (separate beds for married couples, anyone?).

I absolutely
loved watching how Lucy figured out the rules, then spent the next half-hour circumventing, renegotiating, redefining, or breaking them outright. With the help of trusty Ethel, and occasionally Fred, she ran circles around Ricky! Damn it, Lucy was going to get what she wanted, and she would make us laugh the whole way.

I have a good friend who HATES the Lucy/Ricky dynamic. She says it's sexist. I can understand why, but I don't agree. Here's why:

While I was watching Lucy manipulate Ricky in reruns, I watched my father behave like Lucy at home. My mom was Dr. No at our house; My dad was The Idea Man. He was the "This is totally going to work!" guy. It was almost as fun for me to watch him maneuver a half-baked plan into fruition as it was for him to do it, I think. For me, it was never about the Lucy being a suppressed woman, it was that she had this HUGE imagination that needed to be taken out for a spirited run around the park, and was surrounded by people who thought smaller, and in more, um... realistic terms.

Cut to the present day, I am married to my magnificent husband, Karl.

I probably don't need to tell you that he is Ricky to my Lucy.

It seems like I always have some 'Splaining to do. It isn't that he doesn't want to have fun, or that he isn't imaginative, it is that I see... Big Ideas! Concepts! I'm an optimist! A risk taker! Deep in my heart, I do believe that no matter what happens, if it all goes to hell in a handbasket, there is always pizza delivery and booze.

This BBQ was one of my most extreme Lucy moments.

It started when the weather turned hot, which made me think about our huge grill in the backyard. Then as I flipped through the mental Rolodex of things I felt like grilling, I thought... RIBS! We hadn't done ribs in ages!! Turns out, we hadn't done ribs in almost... five years.

The Menu:

Boiled Peanuts

McNutt Family Pimento Cheese on Crackers


Slow Smoked Ribs!

Texas Caviar

Green Chile Cornbread

Butterbean Salad with Buttermilk and Mint

First-of-the-Season Sugar Snaps with Mint Butter

Grilled Spring Dandies and Radicchio with HOT Anchovy Dressing (you know I can't help myself!

Ranch Style Beans á la Homesick Texan!!


Some kind of delicious dessert

It also turns out that when you cook ribs for a LOT of people, it is easier to have two people manning the erzatz grill/makeshift smoker, because it gets a little lonely and boring, takes a long time, and it is kind of a pain in the ass, what with the constant maintenance of the temperature and the mop. Last time we had Peter. This time Karl was alone with the smoker, the meat, his thoughts, a cooler filled with beers, and his fantasies of murdering me and burying the body under the cherry tomato plants while I stayed upstairs cooking everything else like a crazy woman. His motive? Stay tuned.

It also turns out that it would have perhaps been easier to have used a REAL smoker, instead of making Karl rig one out of our ghetto 55 gallon drum grill set up. Oops!

Lordy. We had barely started and I already had some 'Splaining to Do.

I ordered the ribs but due to my lack of clarity when ordering, I got the wrong kind (St. Louis cut, which are much larger, instead of baby backs) and WAAAAY too many.

Like, forty pounds too many. (Cut to Karl's facepalm and fifteen minute rant.)

But in true "I can make this work!" fashion, I employed bus tubs and made a dry rub of:
cumin, kosher salt, cayenne, celery seed, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder and oregano.

I rubbed those racks down hard on both sides (reminds me of this one time at college... Oh, wait. This isn't that kind of blog...) and stacked them in the "ready to go on the grill" bus tub. Naturally, it goes without saying that the ribs were still really too cold at this point to go on the grill/smoker. But did I let that stop us? HELLS NO!

Poor Karl. He gets to be Ricky AND Ethel in this story!

We remembered from our last foray into smoking ribs that if you stack them upright like books, instead of letting them lie flat, you could fit more onto the grill.

Note fancy makeshift "smokebox" separator made with bricks.
A little dodgy, but very functional...

I thought we managed nineteen racks last time, but that was just a little revisionist history. It ended up being only sixteen.

Six or seven hours at between 200˚ and 250˚. Sloooow and good.

The other, uh... fourteen racks went into the oven and were tightly covered with foil. Oven, low and slow at 325˚...

So, Karl got smoker duty for the next six or seven hours. Frankly, at the time, I had no idea what he was doing, because I tried to stay far, far away. I figured that if I stuck my head out there he might remember how he wanted to murder me - like when the matador taunts the bull with a red cape.

Ana Infante (Photo from Askville from Amazon)

But if I stayed upstairs, waaaaay back in the kitchen, I was out of sight, and out of mind. As it was later described to me, Karl spent the rest of the day tong-feeding the smoker with fresh glowing coals and pre-soaked hickory chips for delicious smoke. Because the rig was so tightly packed, he was constantly shifting the racks of ribs around so they cooked evenly, and mopping them with coconut water every half hour or so.

Meanwhile, upstairs in the kitchen... I had soaked my pinto beans overnight so I could make The Homesick Texan's Ranch Beans.

I was especially excited to make these for a few reasons:

1. It is nearly impossible to get real ranch beans in NYC unless you make them yourself.
2.You have to plan ahead. You can't just decide you want them at 4pm and serve them at 6pm.
3. The tomato/chile/smoke taste of these is sooooo specific, and really takes me back to my days as a young slip of a thing, growing up in the Southwest, and
4. Homesick Texan's recipes ALWAYS rock and ALWAYS work, which is more than I can say for many cookbooks by famous chefs...

I toasted and added dried ancho chiles, tomatoes, spices, vinegar, brown sugar and because I didn't have any beef broth, per se, but did have a quart of frozen pot roast liquid, I added that. YES. I. DID. And I let those little motherfuckers simmer alllll afternoon.

The smell was intoxicating.

While the ingredients were transforming into beanyliciousness, The peanuts were boiling away on another burner, with cider vinegar, plenty of chiles, a can of beer and water.

I LOVE that I can get raw peanuts for cheap in Astoria. The funny thing about boiled peanuts is that you might think they would take an hour to cook, but you would be wrong. They actually require about 4 hours, so plan accordingly. As the liquid boils away you also have to be sure to replace it so your peanuts are covered.

I really should have made the McNutt Family Pimento Cheese recipe the night before, but I didn't, so I whipped it up again. This was its second go around in as many weeks-- It had been so wildly popular on Derby Day I decided it needed a curtain call. Lynn McNutt, to the rescue again.

The Green Chile Cornbread is from Forking Fantastic! and before that, it was stolen from my Ex Husband. The recipe was originally called Tamara's Ex-Husband's Guilty Secret Cornbread, but due to the fact that his (now) ex-wife was somewhat maniacal in her hatred of me, Zora and I decided to leave him out of the title in case we ended up on the New York Times Bestseller list. It seemed like that might complicate his life, and no one wanted that.

Of course, THIS particular batch of cornbread had to be baked in my upstairs neighbor's oven, as I had (in true Lucy fashion) failed to consider the thirty pounds of ribs in my own. WTF would I do if I wasn't living in a near commune?

The hilarious thing about this cornbread is that it's made from boxed Jiffy® corn muffin mix, prepared with eggs and milk as per the recipe on the box, and then, canned creamed corn. For real.

Karl loves this picture...

Kinda mindboggling, especially given my standard emotional allergy to processed food. In this instance, I doctored it with cans of chopped green chile that I picked up last time I was in Phoenix. They sell Hatch green chiles in Arizona, I have no fucking clue where to find them in New York, and they are truly worth the effort.

Cut to dinner, and Karl is waving the emptied cornbread bowl in my face. "When will you give in and make twice as much as you think you need? It gets eaten!" I initially attribute his cornbread freakout to hours and hours of smoke inhalation, dehydration from sweating over a hot grill and copious beer consumption, but then, I watched as a woman, new to Sunday Night Dinner, ask the guy across from her (a regular) if she could eat the remaining piece off his plate. He politely told her he was saving it. She dejectedly said, "okay." Then five minutes later, she tried AGAIN (the BALLS on this one! I love it!) and he laughed, relented, and split the piece between her and the other four slavering guests around him. Class move. Fucking Hilarious. Jiffy®, canned creamed corn and Hatch Chiles. Alchemy.

Butterbean Salad with Buttermilk Dressing and Mint is inspired by the Lee Brothers, but I diverged from their recipe a bit. I use frozen lima beans (yeah, I DO!) blanch them quickly in salty-like-the-ocean boiling water, and then cool them in an ice water bath. Then I mix greek yogurt, buttermilk, salt and the juice of a lime or two, depending on their state of golfball-hardness... I shake the fuck out of the whole business in a quart container, taste for balance and adjust, and then pour all over the little limas. Finish with chopped fresh mint. You can let this salad mingle in the fridge for a couple of hours, but no need to let it go all day. It is completely refreshing, and just perfect next to those smoky ribs and beans.

Texas Caviar is another one of those dishes I associate with poverty, college, and my first marriage, i.e. something I used to make frequently because it was cheap and now hardly ever make, but when I do, I'm reminded how delicious it is. When it hits your mouth you think, "I should TOTALLY make this all the time, and keep it around for snacking!" It's ultimately meant as a dip for chips, but I think it makes a great summer salad. And, you can put it together in ten minutes, if you use canned beans, which in this case, is a perfectly acceptable substitution:

1 can black-eyed peas
1 can whole black beans
A couple of scallions, chopped fine
Handful cilantro, chopped fine
Jalapeno, chopped fine
1 small red onion, sliced thin then chopped fine
1 red pepper chopped
2 ripe tomatoes, chopped
Vinaigrette of lime juice, red wine vinegar, olive oil, toasted cumin and a dash of cayenne

I combined everything except the vinaigrette in a big bowl, salted and peppered it to taste. Then I made the vinaigrette in the standard fashion, shaking it up in a quart container and checking for balance before I poured it over the salad, then tossed it with my hands. Again, this one benefits from a few hours in the fridge, with the flavors "mingling". Kinda like me.

The Sugar snap peas never made it to the party.

They looked like shit at the green market. Karl put the dandelion greens on the grill, once the ribs were smoked, to tame them a little, (he was in a full-on smoke inhalation/cheap beer haze at this point, and much more compliant and happy.) Then, I tossed the charred dandies in hot anchovy butter, which, quite frankly, is the Eighth Wonder of the World, in a solid tie with miso butter. Anchovies, melted in a pan, with butter melted in and whisked to keep it together, and finished with a squeeze of lemon and dash of half and half, or cream if you have it. I told a couple of women who were over last week that anchovy butter awakes this primal instinct in me and makes me want to rub it all over my tits and lick it off myself. They laughed nervously. Anchovy butter is the Rite of Spring of the sauces...


Dessert turned out to be a complete triumph, born from having abandoned both Plans A and B. Much like my life, humming along swimmingly in Plan C, dessert was even MORE enjoyable to me, knowing that it was the end result of a bunch of failed earlier plans. Lucy again.

Plan A was Strawberry Rhubarb Pie. But then, the strawberries weren't really ready yet (and once you have had a really good farm strawberry it makes you wonder why you were eating all of those red styrofoam ones for all of those years,) and I had a brief moment of mental clarity and remembered that I am NOT Nicole or Millicent, the great Pie Mistresses of ALL TIME. I am Tamara, the woman who can't really roll a pie crust and ends up cussing, crying, and throwing rolling pins in a cloud of King Arthur flour all over the kitchen. Not pretty, people. I look like a spoiled teenager when I attempt more than one pie at a time.

So, no pie. No strawberries anyhow, so not a big loss, really. How about rhubarb upside down cake? I LOVE rhubarb upside down cake! I love upside down cake (and have been making it a lot lately) because melted butter, brown sugar, vanilla and fruit turn into magic in a cast iron skillet, and because I love how FUCKING EASY IT IS TO MAKE. Big bang for your buck here. Melt the butter, sugar, vanilla, bring to a boil, add the fruit (rhubarb, plums, peaches, nectarines, pineapple... you name it). Pull of the heat and make the cake batter in the standing mixer (or if you are an overachiever, mix it by hand with the whisk. Pour the batter over the fruit IN THE CAST IRON SKILLET, and park it in the oven for like... 25 minutes. Let it sit for 5 minutes, turn it out on a plate, and serve. Major wow factor.

Except... Remember that time, a few paragraphs ago, about how the oven was full, and how I COULDN'T possibly make Rhubarb upside down cake because... I am a complete fucking idiot and had an oven full of ribs? And my neighbor's oven was full of cornbread? Remember that? I didn't.

Little Miss Whoops© Roger Hargreaves

So, Enter Plan C: Cut Rhubarb. Toss with a little brown sugar (not too much) a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of salt, juice from 1 orange and a cinnamon stick. Stew in a heavy pan for about 20 minutes on medium low. Serve warm with cream whipped with confectioners sugar, orange flower water, and a touch of rum. Intoxicating!!!

How were the ribs?

You know, they tasted DELICIOUS, but they probably needed another hour just for tenderizing purposes, if I can be completely honest. The oven-cooked ribs got eaten a little here, too - so meltingly tender but missing the smoky "fire" aspect of the grill. The leftovers got given to the staff at Vesta for family meal. I have no doubt that they were doctored into something completely delicious there--a sort of second life for them.

And as for me and Ricky, er, Ethel... I mean... Karl! Are we still married? Yes. Are we concerned that TV executives will become enamored with the battling Lucy/Ricky dynamic and make us do that kind of a show? Fuck, yes.

That being said, is it also still kind of fun to watch Karl get all in a lather about how my latest plan isn't going to work and then watch him have to eat it when my insane plan succeeds?

Yes. Yes it is.

Tune in next week, as Lucy tries to talk Ricky into putting a chicken coop in the yard...


Christopher Calderhead said...

I totally vote for the chicken coop.

Tamara Reynolds said...

I vote for the chicken coop tooo!!!! but I think we should move first.