Last week, I was as sick of January as I had ever been. It's the Mount Everest of all of the months; a constant, uphill battle against frigidly cold days marked with less than 8 hours of daylight. For me, January is the longest, most drawn out, anticlimactic of all months. Thankfully, it's now over for another year. Never mind that it's only February....February is the shortest of all months which is some small consolation. When you live in Canada, you have two choices: let yourself be weighed down by all the snow and cold, or throw ourself in to it, giving it your all with pinache and joy! I like to think of myself as someone with a real zest for life and a 'devil be damned' attitude. Be that as it may, I absolutely abhore the frigid cold of Canadian winters and, as such, it's not likely you're going to see me out on the slopes, snowshoeing through the countryside or making a snowman. No sir...you're more lkely to find me wrapped in copious amounts of clothes, barely recognizable through the layers. I've long said that I'm living in the wrong climate but, for now, it is what it is. So how does a gal who'd much rather bundle up in a warm cuddly blanket by the fire than step a single toe outside the door get through winter with panache and joy? Well, by injecting a little summertime fare into the menu from time to time as a gentle reminder that spring and summer soon will be here.
Nothing says summer more than barbecue in my opinion. But with the temperature outside struggling to rise about freezing and the wind chill factor registering minus 19 degrees Celsius, (which is about minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit for my American friends), I would rather starve than strike up the grill on the patio. I wanted to make barbcue ribs but I didn't really have the time to do them low and slow in the oven and I'd never really had great success with ribs done in the slow cooker. I've seen recipes that suggest placing the ribs around the sides of the slow cooker, but that method has never worked for me. How could I get melt in your mouth ribs that were also carmelized? I had an idea that might work and with that, doing my very best Julia Child impression I said, 'what the hell?'. Nothing ventured, nothing gained right?
The word barbecue itself has no definitive history as to how it originated or why it sometimes is used as either a noun, verb or adjective. Some say the Spaniards get credit for the word, derived from their 'barbacoa' which is an American Indian word for the framework of green wood on which food was placed for cooking over hot coals. Others think that the French should have credit, offering the explanation that when the Caribbean pirates arrived on the southern shores of the U.S., they cooked animals on a spit-like device that ran from 'whiskers to tail', or 'de barb a queue'.
Barbecueing shouldn't be confused with grilling as the two are dstinctly different. Grilling is generally done 'hot and fast' over direct heat using low smoke fuels with the flame actually licking at the food itself. Barbecueing, on the other hand, is usually done 'low and slow' over indirect heat from high smoke fuels with the flame never contacting the food if possibe.
The origin of barbecue sauce is documented a little better, alhough there is still a difference of opinion on origination. Some trace it to the end of 15th century Polland, when a 2-tonner brought a sauce back from the Sahara. Others place it at the formation of the first American colonies in the 17th century. Irregardless of origin, barbecue sauce is a flavoring sauce used to marnade, baste or top food cooked in either barbecue or grill fashion. It is a ubiquitous condiment used not only to cook food via barbecue or grill but also as flavouring for many other foods. The ingredients vary greatly but most include some variation of vinegar and/or tomato paste as a base as well as liquid smoke, spices and sweetness such as sugar or molasses,making barbecue sauce the perfect blend of sweet, spicy and tangy.
Seeings how my purpose was to conjure up the feeling and memory of summer that I would make a batch of my go-to summertime barbecue sauce, Maple Bourbon BBQ Sauce. This sauce can be made in just over an hour, and most of that time is unattended simmering time, and then it can be stored in an airtight container for up to a month. I heated a little olive oil in a medium size saucepan over medium high heat and sauteed one onion, finely chopped with 3 cloves of garlic, minced. After about 3 minutes, when the onions were tranlucent and the garlic fragrant, I whisked in the rest of my ingredients: one 14 oz. can of no salt added tomato sauce. one 5.5 oz. can of no salt added tomato paste, 1/2 c. cider vinegar, 1/3 c. packed brown sugar, 1/3 c. bourbon, 1/4 c. Canadian maple syrup, 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce, 1/4 c. grainy mustard, 1/2 tsp kosher salt, 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper and a pinch or two of ground cinnamon. I brought the sauce to a boil and then reduced the heat and let it simmer for about an hour while it reduced by a third. After the sauce had cooled, I poured it into my blender and pureed it until it was a smooth. I then set it aside until I was ready to sauce up the ribs, leaving some sauce for my little experimentaion just before serving.
I then started prepping my ribs. First, I removed the silvery membrane on the back of the ribs by gently slipping a sharp knife between it and the meat and running it along it's length. I then cut my ribs into racks of 6-8 ribs, slathered both sides with Maple Bourbon BBQ Sauce and placed them in the slow cooker on low for 8 hours. Throwing the ribs into the slow cooker for 8 - 10 hours will certainly give me some fall-off-the-bone ribs but they'll look a little sad and unimaginative. The bbq sauce won't carmelize in the slow cooker, the liquid from the ribs will leave a really runny barbecue-tinged sauce and the ribs would more likely send me into a deep depression than serve their purpose of injecting a little summer into my otherwise gray wintery cold day. But I had a plan remember....one I wa pretty sure couldn't fail!
Confident that my Slow Cooker Maple Bourbon BBQ Sauce Ribs were going to be a grand success, I started to think about what to serve as my sides. Corn? I wasn't feeling it. I can't but think of barbecue without thinking about the Southern U.S. and I can't think about the Southern U.S. without thinking about okra. Made perfect sense to me to make an Okra and Tomato Succotash to go with my barbecue ribs and some rice pilaf to absorb all of the juices and sauce.
If you've never tried okra I suggest picking some up the next time you stroll through the prduce department of your local grocery store. It's a vegetable with it's own unique flavour. The texture is somewhat silky and it's taste is hard to describe but to me, it's like a slightly vinegary very mild pepper. Succotash itself was very popular during the Great Depression because it was relatively inexpensive and the ingredients were readily available. Usually, succotash contains corn and/or lima beans and in that regard, my succotash has little in common with traditional succotash other than the manner in which it is prepared and served.
Okra Tomato Succotash takes about 20 minutes to prepare so with 30 minutes left on the timer for the slow cooker, I browned 2 strips of bacon that had been cut into 2 inch pieces. I removed the bacon from the skillet, and added in a Tbsp of margarine, 1 small onion cut in wedges, 2 cloves of garlic, minced, about a half a pound of okra that I had chopped into 1/2 inch pieces and seasoned it all with a little sea salt and freshly groud black pepper. I covered the skillet and cooked the vegetables on low heat for about 15 minutes and then added in 4 small tomatoes cut into wedges and let it all simmer on low heat while I got my ribs ready.
In the midst of getting my succotash cooked, I put on a pot of salted water and brown rice and chopped a bunch of green onions to add in after the rice was cooked. Nothing fancy there...just a little rice on the side. For the ribs, I removed them from the slow cooker and placed them on a foil lined baking sheet. I brushed on a little more Maple Bourbon BBQ Sauce and placed the ribs under the broiler in my oven for about 5 minutes so that the sauce would carmelize a little and it worked like a charm!
While the ribs were resting for a couple of minutes, and let's face it, they'd done a lot of work to go from raw and bland to cooked, juicy and carmelized, I crumbled the cooked bacon in with the okra/tomato mixture and finished off the dish with about 2 tsp of fresh lime juice and 2 Tbsp of chopped fresh basil.
There was no sufferin' with this Okra Tomato Succotash, just light vinegary flavour spiked with the yumminess of bacon, pungency of garlic, sweetness of tomato, brightness of fresh lime juice and unique silky flavour of okra.
The Slow Cooker Maple Bourbon BBQ Ribs were fall-off-the-bone, mouth-watering, tangy, sweet delights! If one avoided looking out the window and blocked out the sound of the wind whipping around outside, one could certainly drift into an altered reality of a modest summertime weeknight meal, if only for a little while.
I have finally conquered the drawback of cooking pork ribs in the slow cooker with a little trick of placing the ribs under the broiler for a few minutes and whipping up some Okra Tomato Succotash was the perfect vegetable accompaniment. The brown rice kept it healthied-up and was the perfect starch to bring this meal together in one big cohesive warm summertime meal in the middle of winter.
Cooking anything in the slow cooker is not only the easiest way to achieve flavourful meals without fussing over a hot pot all day, but clean up is a breeze! Even on your busiest of days, you can easily prepare a scrumptious and hearty meal for your family that will make them sing your praise and marvel at how you manage to do all that you do!
Slow Cooker Maple Bourbon BBQ Ribs with Okra Tomato Succotash and brown rice pilaf....easy, healthied-up, inexpensive AND delicious!