Summer is here, and there’s no better way to celebrate all season long than by firing up the grill. For casual backyard meals, block parties, dinner with friends, Father’s Day, or Fourth of July celebrations, meals from the grill offer lip-smacking flavors and built-in entertainment.
Have you ever noticed that as soon as the grillmaster takes his or her position in front of a gas or charcoal grill, everyone joins them? Guests will leave a table of hors d’oeuvres and drift over to the grill area with drinks in hand to witness the action, because grilling is culinary theater. Folks are generally fascinated with every aspect of outdoor cooking, and because it’s so popular there are many experts willing to share the information they’ve gleaned through personal experience, research, and flavor preferences. Sauces, marinades, rubs, direct and indirect cooking, cuts of meat, tips for grilling seafood, vegetables, and fruit — the realm of outdoor grilling provides endless possibilities.
But as one who’s passionate about entertaining and gathering people together, it’s not all about the grill. A truly memorable gathering begins the moment guests arrive. A seasonal wreath or décor on the front entry or garden gate sets the tone for what guests will experience during the entire gathering. In close competition with what’s happening at the grill, the table setting is paramount in my book. Generally, what’s cooking on the grill determines my table décor. If I’m grilling a thick, juicy steak on Father’s Day, I like neutral tones with splashes of bright summer colors to provide an eye-catching combination with masculine overtones. If it’s seafood or fish, I start with a tablecloth or placemats of azure blue, seafoam green, or shell pink, and create a centerpiece using my collection of large conch shells, starfish, sea glass, and shells collected on various trips. This collection has led to many wonderful dinner conversations as guests share stories of their own favorite beach getaways.
When ribs and corn are on the grill for a casual summer weekend gathering of friends, I prefer covering the table with an old-fashioned red-and white-checked tablecloth, as if we’re dining under a giant tree on a farm or ranch. Blue or white plates, Mason jar glassware, and white pitchers with no-fuss clusters of summer flowers set the tone for a laid-back evening of catching up with good friends.
No matter what’s on the grill for a Fourth of July celebration, my color theme is always red, white, and blue. My husband Randy and I are usually in Colorado for the Fourth, which means dinner on the front veranda overlooking the mountains. I hang flag bunting along the veranda railing, set up multiple six-foot tables end-to-end to accommodate the number of guests, and source chairs from all over the house. These gatherings can be rather large, so I don’t allow myself to get hung up on matching all the tablecloths, preferring instead to alternate white ones with red. The unifying element is squares of star-themed fabric and small red, white, and blue buckets filled with red and white flowers.
Hands down, one of our guests’ favorite summer recipes-from-the-grill is ribs. Years ago, I had the pleasure of prepping and preparing ribs for national TV chef and best-selling cookbook author Stephen Raichlen when he stopped in Dallas while on a cookbook tour. I had been in my own TV studio in Fort Worth all day filming cooking shows to be broadcast the following month, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to cook ribs for a true master-of-the-grill. I learned a lot about preparing ribs that night as I stood in the dark with a flashlight, making certain they were TV-worthy in appearance and perfectly cooked: a flavorful dry rub to season the meat, slow braising in the oven to break down the meat’s collagen and ensure tenderness, applying indirect heat on the grill and mopping with the braising sauce to finish the cooking process, and finally brushing on the sauce during those last moments on the grill.
The next morning as I stood nearby, slightly nervous, observing the live TV segment, my reward came when Stephen took my ribs off the studio’s outdoor grill, sliced into them, and announced, “These are perfect.” The techniques I learned that late summer night are reflected in my mouthwatering, sweet, and tangy recipe for pork ribs with southwest dry rub and bourbon whiskey barbecue sauce. Happy grilling!
BABY BACK RIBS WITH SOUTHWEST DRY RUB AND BOURBON WHISKEY BARBECUE SAUCE
2 racks baby back pork ribs, about 4 pounds
1 ½ cups apple cider
BOURBON WHISKEY BARBECUE SAUCE
1 ½ tbsp. canola oil
½ cup sweet onion, peeled and finely diced
5 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 ¾ cups ketchup
1/3 cup chili sauce
½ cup bourbon whiskey
3 tbsp. dark brown sugar, packed
1 tbsp. cider vinegar
2 tsp. Liquid Smoke (preferably Mesquite flavor)
1 tsp. Worchestershire sauce
¼ tsp. smoked paprika
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat a large saucepan over medium heat, add the oil, and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add onion and cook until it begins to soften; stir in garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add ketchup, chili sauce, and whiskey, and stir well. Add brown sugar, vinegar, Liquid Smoke, Worchestershire sauce, smoked paprika, and black pepper; stir. Bring the mixture to a low boil, stirring often; then reduce the heat to low and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sauce may be prepared several days ahead.
Yield: 3 cups barbecue sauce
SOUTHWEST DRY RUB
3 tbsp. onion powder
3 tbsp. garlic powder
1 tbsp. bourbon molasses rub (optional)
3 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. smoked paprika
2 tsp. coarse kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat the oven to 275 degrees. In a small bowl, stir together onion powder, garlic powder, bourbon molasses rub, cumin, paprika, salt, and pepper until well-blended. Rub the ribs on both sides with the spice mixture, transfer them to a large roasting pan lined with heavy duty foil, then pour the cider around the ribs. Cover the pan tightly with foil and braise the ribs 1½ hours until the meat is tender and begins to shrink back from the tips of the ribs.
Heat a charcoal grill during the final 30 minutes of braising. When the coals are hot, rake them into two mounds on opposite sides of the grill to provide indirect heat. Transfer the ribs to the grill, reserving the cooking liquid. Cook the ribs 30 to 45 minutes, bone side down, in the center of the grill, mopping them with some of the reserved braising liquid every 10 minutes. Turn the ribs over and cook 15 minutes more, mopping frequently with barbecue sauce. If cooking on a gas grill, heat one side of the grill and place the ribs on the opposite side.
Yield: 6 servings