Wednesday, March 2, 2011
My kids love babyback ribs. In fact, they love them so much that learning how to make them really wasn’t an option for me. I simply had to learn how to do it.
I have watched plenty of cooking shows on TV that show guys with huge charcoal grills and smokers who make their own sauce with their own special ingredients. Those guys are serious about their ribs, and I respect their ability. I’m sure that what they make is FAR better than what I make. However, I don’t have 10 hours to smoke my ribs, and smoking ribs in a Wisconsin winter can be a chilly activity.
So, after a doing a little research I’ve come up with my own way of making a nice rack of ribs that my family loves. Those hardcore professionals would probably pooh-pooh my methods, but that’s fine with me. In my corner of the world, simplicity rules.
The keys to making ribs are to use a good sauce and to cook them on a low temperature slowly. The professionals are definitely right about letting the ribs cook for a long time. With all of that cooking time, you have to baste them regularly with barbecue sauce to keep them from drying out. Other than regular basting every 30 minutes or so, cooking ribs is actually a pretty simple process.
First off, buy your rack of ribs from a butcher shop or from the deli counter. The pre-sealed packs of ribs that are put on sale are on sale for a reason – nobody bought them and the store wants to make some money on them instead of throwing them away. Trust me, you may save a little money but you’ll lose a lot of taste. Ribs that are freshly butchered are far better than those sad discount ribs. You may spend $15 dollars on that fresh rack, but it will be money well spent when you taste them.
The next key ingredient, and actually the only other ingredient, is a good barbecue sauce. I prefer Sweet Baby Ray’s, especially their Honey Barbecue Sauce. However, buy whatever brand you like. The sauce is what can turn that expensive rack of ribs into a glorious feast, so again, don’t skimp on the quality of the sauce to save a few cents. I’m lucky in that we all like Sweet Baby Ray’s because it happens to be pretty cheap. But I’d willingly spend more if we liked something else.
My method for making ribs is pretty simple. I put salt and pepper on both sides of the rack and then liberally apply barbecue sauce on both sides using a basting brush. I prefer the silicone type of basting brush because it’s easy to clean, but use whatever kind you like. After covering the ribs I let them marinate in the refrigerator for at least an hour, and usually two or three. You could even let them sit overnight, although I certainly don’t think that’s necessary.
After marinating, I preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Once it’s at the right temperature, I baste the ribs again and then put them on a sheet pan in the oven for 2 and ½ hours. Note that when you’re basting the ribs you want to coat them well, but you don’t want sauce dripping off of them. If you’re using an 8 ounce jar of sauce you should still have some left over after making the ribs. If you’re using more than that on one rack of ribs you’re using too much in my opinion.
After 1 hour of cooking I baste both sides with barbecue sauce and turn the rack over. I repeat this process two more times. At this point the ribs have been cooking for two hours and have been basted three times. I will generally baste and turn the ribs every 15 minutes from this point on until they are completely cooked. Note that cooking times vary between ovens. In the oven I have now the ribs are usually done in 2 ½ hours, while in my old oven it took a little longer. To check doneness I usually cut the rack into portions and make sure that there is no pink showing. If the ribs are done at 2 hours, then start the rest of your sides and get ready to eat early. If they take a little longer, then just be patient with them as you baste and flip every 15 minutes.
Once the ribs are done I remove them from the oven and let them sit on top to rest for about 10 minutes while I work on the rest of the meal. We generally make fries or have chips to accompany the ribs, but you can make whatever you like.
As I stated earlier, making good babyback ribs is a pretty easy process. From a cooking standpoint, the hardest thing to do is to resist the temptation to try and cook the ribs faster. Cooking low and slow is definitely the way to go with ribs. All that you have to do is baste them regularly to keep them moist and then stay out of the way while they cook to a delicious tasting meal that your entire family will love.
at 2:54 PM
Monday, February 28, 2011
Over the years I’ve had many conversations with friends and family about cooking for yourself when you’re single or when your spouse is away for the weekend. In my opinion, you can eat as well if not better when you’re cooking for one instead of cooking for many. My wife recently was away for four days, and while I didn’t eat like a king I certainly didn’t eat like a college student.
Cooking for yourself takes some motivation and a desire to eat healthy food. During my weekend alone I could have easily made frozen pizza, ramen noodles, or ordered takeout food all weekend. Instead, I opted for a couple meals of leftovers, a pork chop meal with risotto, and a meal at a friend’s house. In looking back at my weekend, I basically ate the same way that I always eat. The only difference was that I either cut down the number of portions that I made or I made food that would make good leftovers. Again, that’s basically what I do all of the time anyway.
Another advantage to cooking good food for yourself is that you can practice new techniques or foods without the pressure of cooking for others. It’s far better to make a mistake with a meal when you’re cooking for one than if you’re cooking for the whole family. After all, who’s going to know if you’ve filled the entire house with smoke or made something that tastes truly awful? Besides, there’s a reason that you have that frozen pizza in the freezer or the takeout Chinese number on the bulletin board.
One of the arguments that friends have made about cooking for one is that they don’t want to spend all of their time in the kitchen making food for themselves. They would rather eat food that is quick to make and, in my opinion and often theirs as well, tastes bad. I honestly don’t understand why you would subject yourself to icky food when well made fresh food can be made in a similar amount of time.
To prove my point, let’s look at the one full day when I was alone to see just how much time I spent in the kitchen cooking. Breakfast was pretty simple – oatmeal with raisins and cinnamon. That took about 10 minutes, including the time it took to grind the coffee beans and make fresh coffee. Lunch was a left over filet mignon and a salad. Total prep time for that meal was about 5 minutes. I realize that most people probably don’t have a leftover filet mignon in the fridge, but I did and so I planned on that for my lunch. When I’m alone I typically will have some type of leftover for lunch. It’s just simpler. While you may want to argue that a leftover isn’t much different than a microwave meal, trust me, it is. Anything that you cook ought to be better than a frozen concoction with no seasoning that is filled with preservatives.
Supper was my big meal of the day, and that took about an hour to make. I had a butterflied pork chop paired with butternut squash risotto. The risotto took about 45 minutes to make, and I was a little off on my timing with the pork chop so it took a few minutes longer than the risotto. Anyone who has ever made risotto knows that it’s a time consuming process, and I knew that before I started down that path. However, I really wanted to have risotto and so I took the time. I could have very easily made some type of potatoes or just a simple side of veggies and finished the meal in about 30 minutes.
So, in total I spent about 75 minutes in the kitchen making food for myself. Had I gone the “easy” route I could have had cereal for breakfast and cut the prep from 10 minutes down to maybe 5, since the coffee takes a couple of minutes. Lunch would have been about the same if I would have had a sandwich or some type of microwave meal, so that is sort of a wash. A frozen pizza takes about 20 – 25 minutes to make if you include the time it takes to pre-heat the oven. Had I opted for something other than risotto for my side I would probably have been done in a very similar time frame. As you can see, it doesn’t take much longer to cook good healthy food for yourself than it does to make junk food. Based on this example, what would you rather eat?
at 3:50 PM
Monday, February 21, 2011
This weekend I finally took a chance with some high-end cuts of steak. My initial attempts at cooking steak have been below average, at best. In fact, I’ve served a couple of hockey pucks once or twice. Thank goodness we had some steak sauce! However, after watching cooking shows I finally figured out a good process for cooking a decent steak. Yesterday was sort of my graduation from the minor leagues because I cooked a very good filet mignon.
On Saturday we celebrated my wife’s birthday with her family. During the course of our lunchtime celebration my Mother-in-Law gave us a coupon from a local Racine butcher shop to get a “free steak” during my wife’s birthday month. That’s a pretty cool deal, if you ask me. I wasn’t expecting much, but when we got there they went over to the bacon wrapped filet mignon section and pulled out a nice juicy looking steak. Seriously! We had to buy two more so that we could all have one, which is obviously the reason why they run this special. But it gets even better. Not only did we get my wife’s free filet, we also got another free one because the shop was running a buy-two-get-one-free special too. So we got two free filet mignons. WOW!
Until now, I’ve been cooking relatively average size inexpensive steaks. To be honest, I’ve been afraid to cook an expensive cut of steak because I didn’t really trust my cooking ability enough. Ruining an inexpensive cut of meat isn’t too bad, but making a hockey puck out of a $7or $8 piece of steak would definitely not make for an enjoyable dinner, regardless of how much my wife would try to placate me by telling me it was a good try. I certainly would know that it wasn’t very good.
But now that we had the high-end steaks in the fridge, I had no choice but to focus on cooking them well. As you might be able to tell by the title of this post, I surprised even my wild imagination with the end result.
My method for cooking steak is pretty simple. I season both sides of the meat with salt and pepper. Then I heat up the cast iron skillet on medium high heat and add some extra virgin olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. While the pan is warming, I preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Once the pan is hot enough, I add the steaks and sear them on one side for about 2-3 minutes. Then I turn them over, sear the other side, and if necessary I’ll sear the sides of the steak too. Once there is a good sear all the way around the meat, I put it in the oven and set the timer for about 7 minutes. After the first 7 minutes is over I check the internal temperature of the meat using a meat thermometer. I’m shooting for about 140 degrees for my wife’s rare steak and a little more for my medium-rare steak. If the meat isn’t at that point yet, I’ll turn it over and cook it for another 7 minutes and then check the internal temperature again. I continue to do this until the meat reaches the internal temperature that I want.
I generally serve my steaks with some type of potato and a garnish of onions and mushrooms. Yesterday we had whipped potatoes with butter and chives. I also used the pan from searing the steak to sauté half of a large red onion, some shitake mushrooms, a red pepper and garlic. Good stuff!
After turning out some tasty filet mignon yesterday, I’m officially done with inexpensive cuts of steak. They don’t cook well because they are so thin, and spending a little bit more on a better cut of meat is definitely worth it. If you like a well-cooked steak, give my method a try with a decent cut of meat and you’ll soon realize that cooking a restaurant quality steak is really just a matter of getting a good sear to lock in all of the juices and then cooking the meat in the oven until it’s done. It really is just that simple.
at 10:41 AM
Friday, February 18, 2011
I find it amazing that two minutes after my daughter struggles to eat two forks of dinner that she miraculously has enough room to “squeeze” in a huge plate of cake or a Jethro-sized bowl of ice cream. Sound familiar? Well, there are ways around the dessert craze to keep things healthy and still get those little tummies full before bed.
First off, you can’t serve fresh fruit for dessert every night. We usually have some type of ice cream in our freezer, and I always have a couple of boxes of instant pudding on hand. Those are quick desserts that can be used as a reward for the times that your kids eat everything on their plate. You could also make or buy other sweets, such as cookies, cake or pies. However, you don’t want to let them eat this kind of stuff every day, or even every other day. A couple times a week is more than enough for treats like this.
There are plenty of healthy alternatives that kids love just as much and are pretty easy to make. One favorite of my younger daughter is a sliced apple with peanut butter. You may have to limit the amount of peanut butter that the kids use, but other than that they are getting a serving of fruit with a serving of protein. You can also do the same thing with celery by slicing a stalk of celery into two or three pieces and filling them with peanut butter.
Another favorite of ours is to make a fruit salad. We will buy several of our favorite fruits and put them together in a bowl. That’s easy and you can use it as a learning opportunity for the kids by teaching them how to do things such as peeling apples or oranges, taking grapes off the stem and washing them, or removing the stems from strawberries.
Another variation of the fruit salad is to make a fruit smoothie. There are thousands of ways to make smoothies, but what we often do is to put our favorite fruits into the blender, add some ice and blend them together. Depending on what’s in the blender, you may have to add some water or fruit juice to thin it out a little. Just use your imagination and creativity to come up with your own creations. Your kids will love collaborating with you on these inventive concoctions.
Fat free Jell-O is easy to make (or you can buy it in pre-made cups) and kids usually love it. To change things up a little bit and keep the kids interested, you can add some fruit after letting the Jell-O set up for a little while in the refrigerator. Young kids are often amazed at seeing fruit suspended in Jell-O. One example of this treat is to make orange Jell-O and then add sliced oranges. You can even top off this upgraded Jell-O with some fat free whipped cream.
Dessert should be fun, and one way to make it even more special for younger kids is to buy some inexpensive dessert bowls, glasses (for smoothies) and utensils that are used only for desserts. Taking them shopping for these special things will make them feel special every time they are used.
By making dessert a special event, you will extend the family time spent around the dinner table and make meal time even more enjoyable. This is one part of the meal where creativity can really come into play and where you can collaborate with your kids while teaching them some simple cooking skills. This is one part of the meal where you won’t have any problem getting the kids engaged.
at 8:48 AM
Thursday, February 17, 2011
I recently read a piece in a magazine about the best hot dogs in America. The one had french fries, mustard, onions, and what looked like a jalapeno pepper. I'm okay with everything, especially the idea of some crunchy fries on the hot dog. But my daughter thinks that's just a bad idea. I think that we'll eventually try it, but I'm curious if any of you have had something like that. If so, is it worth trying?
at 8:54 PM