The second annual BBQ & Blues Festival runs this weekend at the Red River Exhibition Park. Musically, the big act will be David Wilcox. Food-wise, the star attraction will be barbecue, specifically meat that's been cooked low and slow until it's pull-apart tender and packed with complex flavours.
The Winnipeg Free Press Pit Masters Championship is a Kansas City Barbeque Society-sanctioned event, and competition is fierce. Twenty-six teams will compete for a $10,000 prize payout in this big cook-off. Many competitors have pricey customized smoker rigs that can hold hundreds of pounds of meat. They guard their cooking techniques and secret ingredients as if they were nuclear launch codes.
If you've tasted good barbecue, you'll understand what the fuss is about. Barbecue, as it originated in the American South, is a complex mix of science, art and religion, and it shouldn't be confused with grilling, which is the hot-and-fast outdoor cooking most of us do in our backyards.
Last year, at the inaugural BBQ & Blues fest, I got to sample some of the offerings. The chicken was smoky, crisped on the outside and moist inside. The ribs were meltingly good but not sticky.
I can't hope to replicate the mysterious alchemy of southern barbecue, but we don't live by meat alone. And while meat is the big star at most barbecues, the sides are the hardworking supporting players. Sides I can do.
Barbecue, as hardcore practitioners will tell you, has its own culture, rooted in the elemental human act of gathering around fire. Barbecue is all about history and tradition, and you can see that in the side categories as well. Baked beans, roasted corn, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, cooked greens, slaws and quick breads are all time-tested, well-loved dishes.
Coleslaw is popular because the crisp vegetables and vinegary dressings help cut the richness of barbecue meat. In our version, red cabbage adds colour, and dried cranberries, pecans and apples add some unexpected flavour.
Cornbread is a popular side, and as with barbecue meat, there are a lot of fought-over regional variations. Our version is Midwestern style, with a little sugar and a mix of yellow cornmeal and flour, which produces cornbread that is slightly sweet with a densely moist texture.
Finally, our baked beans pick up on classic barbecue flavours with a mix of spices, molasses, dark brown sugar and bourbon -- lots of bourbon. We've gone low-and-slow by cooking them in a crock pot. (This is good for hot summer days when you don't want the oven on.)
You will need to start ahead. The beans have to be soaked overnight and then cooked for at least a day. Fortunately for this make-ahead dish, the beans actually taste better after sitting and being reheated the next day. Beans are also good if you need a vegetarian option for your barbecue. (Just omit the bacon and cook the onions in vegetable oil.)
At the BBQ & Blues Festival, the Pit Masters Championship specifies four big-meat-eater categories of chicken, pork ribs, pork (including pork shoulder, Boston butt or picnic) and beef brisket. Competitors are allowed to add a little lettuce or parsley or cilantro for garnish, but that is it. According to the strict official rules, "kale, endive, red-tipped lettuce, lettuce cores and other vegetation are prohibited."
So this weekend's competitors are pretty limited as to what they can put on their barbecue plates. Fortunately, we civilians can do what we like. Bring on the sides.
Red Cabbage and Apple Slaw
1 small head (about 6 cups) red cabbage, shredded
125 ml (1/2 cup) dried cranberries
30 ml (2 tbsp) balsamic vinegar
15 ml (1 tbsp) apple cider vinegar
15 ml (1 tbsp) honey
5 ml (1 tsp) Dijon mustard
45 ml (3 tbsp) olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
125 ml (1/2 cup) chopped pecans, lightly toasted and cooled
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and chopped
Place cabbage and cranberries in large serving bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, honey, mustard, olive oil and salt and pepper. Pour dressing over the cabbage mixture and refrigerate for 60 minutes to let flavours blend. Before serving, add pecans and apple and toss again. Serves 6-8.
Tester's notes: Vinaigrette for coleslaw tends to be more vinegary than a standard salad dressing. This one uses honey and apple cider vinegar for a slight sweet-and-sour taste.
250 ml (1 cup) all-purpose flour
250 (1 cup) yellow cornmeal
60 ml (1/4 cup) brown sugar
20 ml (4 tsp) baking powder
3 ml (3/4 tsp) salt
60 ml (1/4 cup) butter, melted and cooled slightly
250 ml (1 cup) buttermilk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Preheat oven to 220 C (425 F). Grease a square 22x22 cm (9x9 inch) pan. In a medium bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, brown sugar, baking powder and salt, whisking thoroughly to break down the lumps of brown sugar. In a small bowl, combine melted butter, buttermilk and eggs. Add to flour mixture and stir gently only until blended. Spoon batter into prepared pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until top is dry and edges very lightly browned. Do not overbake.
Tester's notes: This is a nice basic cornbread. It's good with barbecue and just as good the next day for breakfast, spread with jam.
Barbecue Baked Beans
500 g (1 lb) dried small white beans
8 thick slices of bacon, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
500 ml (2 cups) water
250 ml (1 cup) bourbon
250 ml (1 cup) dark brown sugar
175 ml (3/4 cup) of your favourite barbecue sauce
60 ml (1/4 cup) ketchup
45 ml (3 tbsp) molasses
30 ml (2 tbsp) grainy mustard
60 ml (1/4 cup) apple cider vinegar
15 ml (1 tbsp) Worcestershire sauce
In a large pot or bowl, cover beans by 7.5 cm (3 inches) of water and soak overnight. In the morning, drain, discarding any discoloured or misshapen beans. Put beans in a large cooking pot with fresh water and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 60 minutes. Drain. In a large heavy pan over medium heat, cook bacon until it begins to crisp and fat is rendered. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. In same pan, cook onion until soft and golden, about 5-8 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat. In the slow cooker, combine water, bourbon, brown sugar, barbecue sauce, ketchup, molasses, mustard, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce and stir. Add drained beans, bacon, onion and garlic mixture and some of the bacon fat. Cover and cook for 10-12 hours on low heat, stirring occasionally. When beans are cooked, turn off heat and let beans sit, uncovered for 1-2 hours, to let liquid thicken. Serves 4-6 as a side dish.
Tester's notes: Crock pots can vary, and the cooking time could be as low as 8 hours or possibly as much as 14 hours. Basically, you want the beans to be tender but not mushy. Check every so often to see how the beans are progressing. The liquid, after the sitting time, should be thick and syrupy.
The bourbon does add a deep, dark flavour, but you can replace it with water or tomato juice or broth. I used a hickory-flavoured barbecue sauce to play up the smoky taste.