As seen in Monterey County The Herald
Todd Fisher: A little friendly competition
Some might say I am a little competitive, some might say I’m a lot. I would just prefer to win given the opportunity. Is that so bad?
This story actually begins several months ago. A friend of mine, Deborah from Taste Morgan winetasting room at The Crossroads Shopping Village in Carmel, suggested that she would love to put together a team from her wine club membership and challenge me to a little showdown.
Obviosly, knowing she had some capable hands and palates at the ready, she began thinking of the dream team she would assemble. I thought that would be kinda fun and agreed to do it. Little did I know I had a few of them in my cooking classes over those few months — strengthening and developing my own competition.
Deborah and I spoke regularly about the secret ingredient that both teams would have to use, and we tossed around several ideas and products — from burgers to lasagna and finally settled on baby back ribs. Middle of summer, exceptional wines to drink, fantastic venue in The Crossroads, the chosen ingredients and the competitors in place … all we needed were a few judges, roughly 200 impartial guests and five certifiable experts. Hey, what do you know, we had ’em and you were all great! We had us a real showdown. Cue the theme music from some old spaghetti western and it was on!
As the sun rose over our fruitful valley, the stage was set. Team Morgan had spent a few days in THE KITCHEN dry rubbing and braising succulent, picturesque baby back ribs — carefully and meticulously tending to the prized bones.
I chose a slightly different style that included a quick-but-hot bath in an acidulated water (water with vinegar) with chile flakes and herbs. This allows for that less-than-tender membrane to be easily peeled off the back of the rib. Then my ribs took a trip over to Ol’ Hickory at the Cannary Row Brewing Company, where good friend and chef Mark Ayers allowed me to smoke my bones over smoldering cherry wood for 2 hours. Then my ribs came home to a dry rubbin’ party and a restful hour and a half in the oven to caramelize the bones and intensify delicious porky flavor.
A little background into these two styles and a quick understanding of rib cookery. Baby back ribs are the most tender of the pork rib family. Baby back ribs (aka loin ribs, back ribs or Canadian back ribs) are taken from the top of the rib cage between the spine and the spare ribs, below the loin muscle.
The designation “baby” indicates the cuts are from market weight hogs, rather than sows. They have meat between the bones and on top of the bones, and are shorter, curved and sometimes meatier than the larger spare ribs. All ribs have a thin layer of connective tissue (pleura) attached to the inner surface of the rib cage that is difficult to cook tender; it is usually removed before marinating or cooking. This is where the hot bath in vinegar water helps to loosen the pleura for easy removal.
Now, for years I did not remove this membrane, because it is a rather tedious task from the raw state. The other thing the quick bath does is allow the vinegar to tenderize the meat a little. Some of the fat will obviously cook away during this process but, trust me when I say, you will not lose any flavor.
Team Morgan chose a braised rib method that employed dry rubbing and then slowly cooking in Morgan Chardonnay and vinegar until the meat was falling-off-the-bone tender. Then their ribs simply needed a few minutes on the hot grill to warm through. This is a good method; the difference results in a very tender rib that has cooked in a delicious liquid and its own renderings. How do you beat that?
Well, I figured if you were going to challenge me to a showdown this is how I win — smoke. A rib — or a good rib — is an experience, and smoke adds depth and character. The smoke penetrates the meat, causing a pink ring to form and, let’s face it, pigs like to smoke (ham, bacon, Porky Pig — yeah, he was a cigar guy).
Ribs also take some time to cook. Now, cooking in liquid is faster than dry heat, so Team Morgan probably cooked their ribs for something like 2½ hours. Team Red’s ribs cooked 1 hour in water, 2 hours in smoke and 1½ hours in the oven before hitting the grill for 10 or so minutes. The oven time is critical. This allows for the meat to color, a necessary flavoring technique. Boiled meat does not taste as good as roasted meat — simple as that. Also, the bone caramelizes and allows for the meat to absorb the rich and roasty bone flavor.
What you grill over is of personal preferance. In the case of the rib showdown, we went with a quality, mesquite coal and it was an excellent
complement to both ribs.
Now we have to talk sauce or glaze or baste. Team Morgan reduced their cooking liquid to a vinegary delicious Carolina-style sauce that basted the ribs while on the grill — delicious, sweet and tart all at the same time. I chose to combat any smoky carcinogens with antioxidant-rich pomegranate-molasses glaze. First I reduced 1 gallon of pomegranate juice with ½ gallon molasses to a thick glaze, then added some tomato product, spices, onions and a few chipotle peppers for a touch of heat on the palate.
As the guests moseyed about (’cause that’s what you do at a showdown, mosey), the comments were positive. They were torn. Two very different styles, two very different flavors. The judges weighed in and the winner was …
Let me say that Team Morgan was awesome. Jeff and Carolyn Marshall (who developed Team Morgan’s recipe), along with Donna and Deborah, you all rocked, and it was a pleasure just to be invited. All cordiality aside — the winner was Team Red.
Thank you Dan and Donna Lee for the invitation, and all the delicious wine. And a hearty thank you to my pit crew, the sensational Katie Martin, chief pot stirrer (and I’m not talking about the BBQ sauce pot) Fritz, kilt wearin’ bone guardian Bryan, bladerunner roller and the beautiful Meagan and Jaxs. It was really fun. And to all other challengers … you name the place and time! Cheers my friends!
Pomegranate Molasses Glaze
1 qt. pomegranate juice
2 cups molasses
3 chipotle chiles
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 T. New Mexico chili powder
2 T. pasilla chile powder
2 cups tomato puree or ketchup
2 cups brown sugar
1 cups cider vinegar
2 T. salt
Steps: In a large pot, reduce pomegranate juice and molasses to a thick syrup (be careful not to burn it). Once you have achieved a thick syrup, add remaining ingredients and bring back to a boil. Mix well and cook till onions are tender and flavor is deep and caramelized. I like to use my sauce as a baste while the ribs are on the grill, as well as a drizzle on the ribs before I serve them. Serve a little extra on the side for those guests who like to get saucy.
The Herald received a copy of Team Morgan’s recipe for baby back ribs:
Team Morgan’s Baby Backs
(Makes 2 slabs)
8 T. brown sugar
3 T. kosher salt
1 T. chili powder
1 – 2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp.chipotle chili pepper
1/2 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1 cup white wine
2 T. white wine vinegar
2 T. Worcestershire sauce
1 T. honey
2 garlic cloves, chopped
Steps: Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Combine all dry ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Place each slab of baby back ribs on a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil, shiny side down. Sprinkle each side generously with dry rub.
Pat rub into the meat. With the meat side down, fold foil around the rack into a packet.
Refrigerate the ribs overnight. In a microwavable container, combine all the ingredients for the braising liquid. Microwave on high for 1 minute and stir.
Place rib packets on a rimmed baking sheet. Open one end of the foil packet of each slab and pour half of the braising liquid into each foil packet, then seal back up. Tilt the baking sheet in order to equally distribute the braising liquid. Braise in the oven for 2 1 2 hours. Drain braising liquid into medium sauce pan. Check ribs. If they are not pulling apart, then re-seal and return to oven without sauce for a half hour or so.
Bring braising liquid to a simmer and reduce by half or until syrupy. Brush the glaze onto ribs and grill. Baste during grilling as needed. Slice into
portions. In a large bowl toss sliced ribs with extra sauce if desired.
– Recipe courtesy Jeff and Carolyn Marshall and Team Morgan