Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
May 18, 2011
08:31 AMSmall Dishes
Sauce à la Américain
Let’s face it, whether you barbecue or grill, there’s only so many ways you can cook it. The heat source—charcoal, gas or wood—may vary, but whether it’s slowly smoked pork shoulder or beef brisket, grilled spare ribs or chicken, the goal is to give the meat that much coveted smoky flavor. You might add a rub or marinade before cooking, but what really sets one recipe apart from another is the sauce. Properly speaking, a sauce is a condiment and usually applied near the end of cooking as a glaze or served on the side with the finished product. (A mop is the term for a basting liquid applied during cooking—usually made with less sugar so it won’t burn so easily.)
Mention “barbecue sauce” and that tomato-based stuff sold at the supermarket probably comes to mind. However, the number of different sauces preferred around the country is staggering. I’ve never quite understood the popularity of bottled sauce, Homemade is easy to make and it allows you to stamp your own signature on the dish.
Before I give out a couple of my secret recipes (stolen from other people like most good barbecue sauces), here’s a rundown of what’s hot (no pun intended) where.
Seemingly anything and everything can be found in barbecue sauce. The meat of choice and how it should be sauced (if at all) varies from place to place. Many of these distinctions have blurred in recent years as people travel and relocate and the cooking traditions and tastes of other cultures—especially Latinos and Asians—go into the barbecue pot.
Carolinas. Both states have a preference for pork, especially a whole pig barbecued for a special event. Inevitably in North Carolina pork is pulled (cooked till it can be separated with forks) and served with a thin, vinegar sauce. In the western part of the state, ketchup gets added to vinegar sauce and called Lexington Dip. South Carolinians prefer a tangy golden concoction made with lots of yellow mustard.
Deep South. Pork is much favored over beef and found both pulled and chopped. The sauce—most often red (ketchup-based)—can be hot. Ribs are now also popular, but believe it or not, just in the past 30 years or so.
Kansas City. Dry rubbed ribs and beef brisket rule. The sauce is brown (molasses-based) and usually served on the side. Ribs are popular in St. Louis, but they tend to be “wet”—draped with a red glaze.
Louisiana. In the southern part of the state, game is uniquely popular as well as sausage and religiously accompanied with hot pepper sauce as a pour on.
Southern California. It’s all about tri-tip—a bottom sirloin roast. Simply seasoned with salt and pepper, the beef is slowly cooked over oak until medium rare. Santa Maria style includes a salsa enhanced with celery, oregano and Worcestershire.
Texas. Here’s where the beef is—from a whole side of cow, to untrimmed briskets and dinosaur-size beef ribs. The sauce is often a variation of the Kansas City-style, but with more heat. But brisket demands a warm sauce flavored with meat drippings.
Western Tennessee. Memphis in May is the Super Bowl of barbecue festivals and not surprisingly local taste embraces just about anything. Distinctive, however, is mustard-based coleslaw topping barbecue sandwiches.
Western Kentucky. Here and only here, mutton is king and comes with a peculiar black dip: a thin sauce with an ungodly amount of black pepper. Pork is popular, too, but simply served with meat juices and hot sauce if anything at all.
Here are a couple of Wisconsin-inspired barbecue sauces:
Door County Cherry Barbecue Sauce
This is especially good with pork, lamb and deep fried fish.
¼ cup onion, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons sesame oil
1 large garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
1/3 cup cherry juice or water
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons ketchup
¼ cup red cherry preserves
2 tablespoons molasses
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2/3 cup pitted tart cherries (frozen are okay)
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons whole cumin seed
3 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in ¼ cup water
Sauté onions in sesame oil over moderate heat and sauté until transparent; add the garlic and cook another minute or so. Add other ingredients and spices and simmer for 30 minutes. Thicken slightly with cornstarch and water.
Makes about 2½ cups
Dried Cranberry & Ancho Chile Barbecue Sauce
½ cup rice vinegar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground allspice
A few fresh cilantro leaves
¼ teaspoon peppercorns, crushed by hand
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons peeled and chopped red onions
1 large garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2/3 cup dried cranberries
3 tablespoons (or to taste) ancho chile powder*
1 cup water
2/3 cup ketchup
Combine vinegar, cinnamon, allspice, cilantro and peppercorns in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until reduced by half and set aside.
Combine olive oil, red onion, garlic, honey, and brown sugar in a non-stick skillet and sauté over medium heat until the onions are soft. Add the cranberries, chile powder, water, ketchup and the reserved vinegar mixture. Whisk to blend and cook over low heat for 5 minutes.
Makes about 2½ cups.
*Available at Penzeys Spices and Latino markets.