Montrealers may remember that last summer was one of the hottest, stuffiest summers in recent memory. We don’t have air conditioning in our apartment, and so for much of the summer, cooking in our kitchen was pretty much unbearable. Luckily, we had just purchased a new BBQ, as well as the awesome veggie grilling basket pictured above, and so we spent months eating perfect dinners of grilled proteins with vegetables–whatever we had in the fridge just thrown on a the grill with a little bit of seasoning and oil–and loving it. It was about as much as we could handle “cooking” in that heat. And it ruled. As the weather has been warming up in recent weeks, I am looking forward to another summer of simple, tasty, hearty BBQ-ing.
This weekend we fired up the BBQ for the first time this year, and we were instantly nostalgic for last summer, and excited for this one. We kicked off the first BBQ of the season with a soul food-style feast. I have, in the past couple of years, become obsessed with soul food, which is a problem since this is a pretty much nonexistent cuisine in Montreal. Whenever we go to the U.S. I gorge myself and discover what I can, while back home, I have relied on a couple of cookbooks to show me the ropes. It is a pretty strange thing to cook dishes at home that you’ve never actually eaten before, so that you’re not quite sure if you’re getting them right. Last winter, for example, I was fixated on trying to make chicken and dumplings, and scoured a million websites to find the perfect recipe to introduce me to this traditional dish; the result was absolutely delicious, but who knows how it compared to the real thing!
One book that has been teaching me about soul food is Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South:
Sheila Ferguson wrote Soul Food when she moved to the UK with her British husband and felt cut off from her community and access to traditional recipes. She is a fantastic writer who takes great pains to introduce the reader to the origins of the food, its cultural significance, and why she loves it. She manages to be funny and colloquial without coming off as kitschy. Chapters of the book include, for example, “The High and Mighty Breakfast”; “Fine Feathered Fowl”; “The Almighty Pig”; “If You See It, Shoot It”; and “The Glorious Sweet Potato”; among others. I had been pouring over this book since I bought it months ago, savouring her writing on the evolution of this style of cooking, but it was not until this weekend that I finally tried a recipe. Many reviews online mentioned that Ferguson’s BBQ sauce recipes were amazing, so I thought that a fitting place to start. Often, when we BBQ, we use the Smoked Chipotle BBQ Sauce from Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie cookbook, which is seriously so ridiculously flavourful that it surprises us every time, but I thought it might be nice to add another sauce to our repertoire. And Ferguson did not disappoint. For whatever reason, I was especially drawn to the BBQ sauce in her recipe for spareribs, so I stole that and used it for a couple of chicken legs. We grilled some new potatoes, asparagus and nectarines alongside the chicken, and as a further accompaniment I decided to try my hand at another soul food perennial that I had never actually tried (or even seen) in real life: spoonbread.
The result was a literally finger-licking plate of food that could not have made a more beautiful kick-off to our summer cookery. The BBQ sauce was really simple but full of flavour: a little bit sweet, a little bit spicy, a little bit acidic, it complemented the char of the BBQ perfectly. I will absolutely be making it again; it strikes me as the perfect base sauce to experiment with, or just to use as is because it is so solid. The spoonbread was like a perfect cross between cornbread and bread pudding. We often do some kind of corn-based accompaniment when we grill–cornbread, grilled polenta, corn on the cob–and this is a great addition to our repertoire. Light and fluffy, and nice and moist, it really added to the succulence of the BBQ-ed chicken and also made for awesome leftovers; we had some for breakfast the next morning with butter and a fried egg.
What a lovely way to kick of BBQ season; I hope we will have many more such meals to share with you over the coming months. In the meantime, here are Sheila Ferguson’s recipes for Spoonbread and BBQ Sauce, slightly adapted by me.
Adapted from Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South. Serves 6.
Spoonbread is to my mind a gourmet’s delight. You should be able to spoon it out onto your plate and eat it with a fork. To ensure this, I treat spoonbread with the respect it deserves and separate the eggs and beat the whites. Some people don’t and it comes out just fine, but I like that extra little bit of fluffiness that beaten egg whites give.
1 cup yellow or white cornmeal
2 cups water
1 tsp salt [I would add a little more]
1 cup milk or buttermilk
2 tbsp melted butter
1 tsp baking powder
3 egg yolks
3 egg whites
Preheat your over to 375F. Pour your cornmeal into boiling salted water. Cook, over medium heat, for 5 minutes or until thick, stirring constantly.
When the consistency is just about right, remove the pan from the heat and slowly stir in the milk. Let it cool down a bit before beating in your butter, baking powder and egg yolks. Beat vigorously for a couple of minutes then fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites (stiff but not dry, that is).
Pour the batter into a well buttered 2 quart baking dish and bake for 35-40 minutes [it took me about 45] or until golden brown. It’s done when a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.
You can serve spoonbread with just about any kind of meat — ham, pork loin or chops, spareribs, roast chicken or seafood dishes. It is also terrific for breakfast!
Spare Rib BBQ Sauce
Adapted from Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South. Again, I used this to BBQ chicken and it worked out beautifully; I am sure it would also be awesome for ribs too.
2 tbsp melted pork fat or bacon grease (or melted butter)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp cider vinegar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
2 tsp mustard dry or prepared (not too strong though or it will take over the taste)
1 tbsp celery salt or 1 tsp celery seed
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper [I put closer to a tsp and it gave it a nice kick]
1 cup tomato ketchup
3 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
4 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 cup water or meat stock
1/2 cup beer
1/2 cup dry white wine (optional) [I skipped this]
Heat the bacon grease or butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Brown the onion, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or so. Add in all the remaining ingredients. Bring them to a boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20 minutes or so, uncovered.
Taste and adjust seasoning, and then slather all over your chosen protein!