Apricot Bourbon Barbecue Sauce

Food Blog September 2014-0579I wasn’t expecting that a barbecue sauce would be one of the dozen pourable concoctions I developed this year. Call me a snob but, barbecue sauce? It just seems so… pedestrian. Break out a bottle, squeeze it over some drumsticks, and reach for the wet-naps.

Food Blog September 2014-0570But that’s exactly what happened. Faced with a summer that just won’t end (upper 80s/low 90s predicted for the first weekend of October. October, people!), we couldn’t bear to waddle back to the butter-laden list of French classics. Brimming from the success of last month’s gastrique, I found myself continuing to think about fruit-based sauces – at once sweet and tart and deep in flavor from long simmering – and realized that barbecue sauce is, at its core, something like a gussied-up gastrique. There’s almost always a molasses or brown sugar component, and there’s usually vinegar of some kind, even if that is hidden within one of the most ubiquitous barbecue sauce ingredients of all: ketchup.

Food Blog September 2014-0575I’ve never been a huge fan of ketchup, so I decided to steer clear of it here and build my own collection of flavors. I’d been considering the merits of combining the flavors of apricot and bourbon, and what better place to do that than in a sticky, bubbly sauce, well-spiced, just aching to be brushed gently over some lucky poultry? Deeply caramelized onions, a squeeze of dijon mustard, a whisper of cayenne, and some cider vinegar joined the party, and then, because the richness and depth of concentrated tomato is such an expected note in this sort of sauce, I gave in and added some tomato paste for verisimilitude.

Food Blog September 2014-0573The important thing about this sauce is the time you give it. The onions must be cooked down and toffee colored. The simmer must last at least twenty minutes – I did mine for thirty before I was satisfied. The thick, slightly lumpy result can be used as is, or you can give it a quick whir with an immersion blender or standard blender to make a glossy, velvety smooth glaze you’d eat just as happily on a piece of toast as on a grilled chicken breast or pork chop (at least, if you’re me). I briefly considered using fresh apricots here rather than preserves, but since the prep time already promised to be the better part of an hour, I decided to take just one shortcut. Besides, the sweetness quotient in fresh apricots is unpredictable, and dealing with their thin, impatient skins did not sound like a welcome addition to my weekend plans. The guaranteed sticky thickness of a pectin-laced jar of preserves was the kind of guarantee I wanted.

Food Blog September 2014-0576It should not come as a surprise that apricot and bourbon, balanced against a meaty tomato backdrop and laced with just enough spice, are a beautiful match. The chicken thighs we lacquered this onto never stood a chance. Neither would pork, or salmon, and I’d even venture that with a splash of soy sauce, this could make an interesting adaptation of teriyaki to sauce a bowl of perfectly steamed rice and veg. What’s more, even though it’s still summer here, the blend of fruity sweetness and dark caramel from the bourbon make this sauce a lovely offering for fall as well, if you are lucky enough where you are to be watching the seasons shift.

Food Blog September 2014-0582

Apricot Bourbon Barbecue Sauce
Makes 1 cup (will generously sauce 6-8 chicken thighs)

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely diced onion (about ½ a large onion – I like the purple ones)
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ cup apricot preserves
½ cup bourbon + 1 tablespoon, divided
¼ cup water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
¼ teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
6-8 boneless chicken thighs or desired protein

 

  • In a 10-12 inch skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the finely diced onions with a pinch of salt. Slap on the lid and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are nicely caramelized. Lidding the skillet will help the onions brown faster while allowing for less burning.
  • When the onions are caramelized to your liking (deeper brown = deeper flavor), add the tomato paste, mustard, and cider vinegar and stir through. Then add the apricot preserves, the water, the salt and the black and cayenne peppers.
  • Remove the skillet from the heat and add the ½ cup of bourbon (reserve the remaining 1 tablespoon for later). We are doing this off the heat to prevent an accidental flame-up; alcohol can and will catch on fire!
  • Stir all ingredients together, bring to a simmer, and reduce the heat to low.  Simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least 20 minutes (but 30 is better).
  • When sauce is thick and shiny, remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Puree if desired for a smooth consistency, then stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon of bourbon.
  • To use, season your chicken thighs to your liking (maybe just salt and pepper, maybe a fancy spice rub). Preheat your grill to high heat and oil the grates.
  • Add the chicken thighs to the grill, spreading them out for faster, more even cooking, and brush the exposed side with the sauce. Close the grill lid and cook, undisturbed, for 5 minutes.
  • After 5 minutes, flip the chicken over, brush with more of the sauce, and close the lid to cook for another 5 minutes.
  • With a clean brush, slick the chicken one more time with the sauce and cook for a final 1 minute, just to get the surface really sticky and glazed and good. Serve hot, with whatever you deem best for a barbecue. For us, that meant potato salad and corn on the cob.

Guacamole Steak Salad

Food Blog August 2014-0352I remember it so clearly: the day my perspective on salads was enunciated aloud. It wasn’t by me. I’d had mixed, un-uttered feelings about salads for years, but it wasn’t until the year after I’d graduated from college, as I watched one of my roommates adding spinach, and then sliced tomatoes, and then garbanzo beans, and then hunks of cheese, and one or two (or five) other ingredients to a big red bowl – one of those bowls with the spout on one side for easy pouring, and a rubber bottom so it wouldn’t slide around the counter – and she looked up at me watching and said “I like my salads with a lot of stuff in them.”

Food Blog August 2014-0331Yes. That was right. That was why the salads my dad liked to pair with pasta – lettuce, a few tomatoes, maybe a sliver of cucumber or three, and the occasional crouton – didn’t seem worth it to me. That was why the house salad at innumerable restaurants was a chore to crunch through rather than a pleasure (I’d rather have had another basket of bread). There was a whole course for that sort of thing? Boring. Bring on the entree.

Food Blog August 2014-0335Food Blog August 2014-0337Food Blog August 2014-0342But salads are – can be! – exciting, if we are mindful of my roommate’s assertion. They just need a lot of stuff in them. And at this time of the summer, when all I want for dinner is a big salad, or something charred and fragrant off the grill, it seems the right moment to combine the two for a salad so stuffed with, well, stuff, that it needs no entree to help it along. It is no side; no first course. It is the main event. And this main event has found its way to our table an embarrassing number of times in the past few months.

Food Blog August 2014-0338Food Blog August 2014-0341Food Blog August 2014-0345I took guacamole as my inspiration, and chunked up all the ingredients necessary there – tomatoes, onion, cilantro, a whisper of jalapeno, if spicy suits you, and of course a mound of buttery, creamy cubes of avocado. Lime and garlic found their way in as part of a dressing, the brisk acidity and bite of raw garlic tempered a bit with a drizzle of honey. Because it’s grilling season, I couldn’t help but add some corn on the cob, grilled whole, then kernels lopped off to find their sweet, charred way into the mix. Since the grill was on anyway, the logical thing to do was to grill up a hunk of flank or skirt steak, liberally rubbed with spices, and slice it thin to lay across the top of all that veg. And then, because why not, a generous crumbling of queso fresco. Deconstructed guacamole. Steak. Corn. Cheese. Stuff.

Food Blog August 2014-0348This sounds like a salad only tangentially. I haven’t even mentioned crisp romaine, or toothsome kale, or fresh, grassy spinach. The thing is, as Mark Bittman taught me, the greens part of the salad is neither the starring role, nor (stay with me here) even necessary! Though I did end up including a greens foundation here (I chose cabbage because it stays crisp, and because it’s the green I like most in tacos – you could easily swap it out for lettuce of any sort, or even spinach if you prefer), the salad is bolstered by it, not overwhelmed with it. Any odd forkful is going to include a mix of vegetables, not a pile of cabbage with the occasional tomato you had to hunt around for.

Food Blog August 2014-0351If you’ve got a grill, this salad is executable without even looking at your oven or your stove. It is fresh and light, but still substantial, it carries a pleasant citrus bite but is creamy from the avocado and the cheese, and it makes a big bowlful. The steak is flavorful and slightly spicy; I’ve included my seasoning blend here, but you can use any mixture of spices you like – this is another tasty one. N. and I found ourselves fighting over the last succulent pieces as we went back for seconds. And though the salad stands alone just fine, as noted above, if you simply have to char a few corn tortillas over the grill at the last minute to serve in place of bread or chips on the side, I doubt anyone would argue. Because you, my friend, just won summer.

Food Blog August 2014-0354

Guacamole Steak Salad
Serves 4-6
For the steak:
1 pound skirt steak
1 teaspoon salt
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
zest of 1 lime
1 tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil
For the corn:
2 ears corn, husks and silk removed, stalk end still in place
salt and pepper for sprinkling
a few teaspoons olive oil to drizzle or spray over the corn
For the salad:
8-12 ounces thinly sliced cabbage shreds
16 ounces cherry tomatoes, quartered, OR 4 medium tomatoes, cored and cubed
8-10 green onions, roots removed, thinly sliced
2 avocados, pitted, peeled, and cubed
6 ounces crumbled queso fresco
½ cup packed chopped cilantro, from one bunch
For the dressing:
¼ cup lime juice (estimate 2-3 limes)
2-4 cloves garlic, very finely minced
2 teaspoons honey
⅓ – ½ cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
  • Preheat your grill to high. While it heats, we’ll prep the steak and the corn. Spread the steak out on a flat surface (I just unwrap it and leave it on the butcher paper wrapping it came in to save on dishes). Place the salt, the cayenne, and the other spices in a small bowl and combine with a fork. Add the lime zest and the olive oil and mix again – it will have the consistency of wet sand.
  • Scoop up half the sandy spice mixture you’ve created and rub it over one side of the steak. Be liberal in your application, and don’t be too gentle about it either – really massage it into the surface of the steak. Flip the steak over and repeat the process with the remaining half of the spice mixture, then set the steak aside to drink up some flavor.
  • Now we’ll prep the corn. Remove all husks and silk, but leave the stalk end on – it makes cutting the kernels off later on a bit easier because you have a built-in handle. Coat the corn with a drizzle or a few sprays of olive oil, being sure you get it on all sides of the ear. Sprinkle on salt and pepper as well, again, being sure all sides get seasoned.
  • Place the seasoned corn directly on the grates of the grill, and grill over high, direct heat for about 8 minutes, turning every few minutes. Your goal is to cook it through, and create a beautiful, golden char on all sides.
  • When the corn is done, set it aside to cool. In its place, flop the steak onto the grill and grill over high, direct heat for 5 minutes undisturbed. Flip it over and grill another 5 minutes, again, undisturbed. Remove to a plate or platter, cover with a layer of aluminum foil, and set aside to rest for about 10 minutes. This gives the juices time to redistribute and it allows for a bit of carryover cooking – by the time you slice it up, the steak will be medium to medium-well (skirt steak can be a bit uneven in thickness).
  • While all this grilling and resting is going on, make the rest of the salad. Place the cabbage, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and queso fresco into a large bowl. You can either mix them all together, or arrange the ingredients in rows atop the cabbage like a cobb salad for pretty presentation.
  • To add the corn, stand up one of the grilled ears, which should be cool enough to handle by now, with the stalk sticking up toward you. Hold the stalk firmly and, with a sharp knife, cut straight down the ear, sawing back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. As you remove each segment of kernels, rotate the ear a bit to line up a new segment. Add the kernels to the salad. Some will be individual; some will be in big chunks. That’s okay. They will break up as we toss the whole thing.
  • To make the dressing, juice the limes and add the finely minced garlic, and the honey. Combine with a fork or a small whisk. Drizzle in the olive oil, whisking continuously, until the dressing emulsifies. Start with ⅓ cup of oil, then dunk in a chunk of tomato and give the dressing a taste to see what you think. Remember, it will taste stronger straight out of the mixing bowl than it will when you’ve tossed the entire salad with it.
  • Season the dressing to your liking, adding more of the olive oil if it is too acidic for you. Add the avocados to the salad immediately before you add the dressing, to prevent browning.
  • The last step here is to add the meat. Unwrap the steak from its rest and place it on a board or butcher block to slice it. Using a sharp knife, cut thin slices (no more than ¼ inch or so) against the grain at an angle. This will give you lovely tender slices. Drape the slices over the salad, down the center for a pleasing presentation.
  • Serve immediately, with a side of charred corn tortillas, if desired.