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Showing posts with label pork ribs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pork ribs. Show all posts

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Picnic Food & Ice Cold Beer for Super Bowl Sunday

We have a yearly tradition. For Super Bowl Sunday, we invite friends over to our house to eat, have some drinks and watch the game. Until our younger son, Michael, came into our lives, neither of us were much interested in sports. 

Attending UCLA during the John Wooden days, when the men's basketball team reigned supreme, I never went to a single game. I didn't care. But Michael did. From the time he was a toddler, he watched Sports Center, baseball, basketball and football.

Like any parent we wanted to find common ground with our son. For us, that meant catching up with a three year old's encyclopedic knowledge of major league sports.

At first a chore, we got into it. We learned to cheer on the Lakers, root for the Dodgers and follow the careers of our favorite quarterbacks (Manning, Brady, Luck, RGIII, Rogers and Kaepernick).

During the season, I wouldn't miss an episode of Showtime's Inside the NFL, although I am growing tired of the tedious insider kidding the hosts treat themselves to every week.

For our friends on Super Bowl Sunday, I bring out favorite recipes, ones I would take to the beach or park for a picnic. They're all easy-to-make. Put them on the table and watch the game. Everything can be prepared ahead. Everything will taste as good in the fourth quarter as it did before kick off.

Have a great Super Bowl Sunday. May the best team win!


What to serve

Picnic food is perfect for watching the game: rosemary fried chickenegg salad with grilled vegetables and bacon, lobster salad, carrot salad with lemon soaked golden raisins, green salad, oven roasted beets tossed in seasoned olive oil, chicken wings, Caesar salad with grilled shrimp, baked parsley-garlic chicken breasts, sage and shallot stuffed porchetta, and brown sugar pork ribs.

And for desserts, we'll have some choices: handmade chocolatesapple pie with candied ginger crust, ice creams, banana chocolate chip-walnut cakevanilla custard, dried fruit compote and fresh fruit (Valencia orange wedges and Fuji apples).

My favorite

I love chicken wings. Southern fried wings with a light, seasoned flour dusting or marinated and roasted with Korean (kimchi) or Vietnamese (nouc cham) spices.

For this Super Bowl Sunday, I'm making the Nuoc Cham Gung version. Spicy, sweet, moist and delicious. They are a crowd pleaser.



Spicy Sweet Ginger-Garlic Chicken Wings

Serves 4 as an entrée or 8 as an appetizer
Ingredients

2 pounds chicken wings, washed, disjointed, wing tips discarded or reserved and used to make stock
½ cup white sugar
½ cup warm water
¼ cup fish sauce--preferably a light caramel colored brand
¼ cup white vinegar
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
4 cloves garlic minced
1 dried Chinese Szechuan pepper, stem removed, seeds and skin minced
3 tablespoons or 3” ginger, peeled, minced
2 tablespoons brown sugar, to taste

Directions

1.       In a large non-reactive bowl, dissolve the white sugar in warm water. Add the other ingredients, stir to mix well and add the chicken wings. Transfer to a sealable plastic bag and refrigerate one hour or, preferably, overnight.

2.       Remove the wings and transfer the marinade to a small saucepan, adding the brown sugar. Stir to dissolve and reduce by a half or, if you want a thicker glaze, by two-thirds over a medium flame to create a glaze that should have a good balance of sweetness and heat. Taste and adjust for more sweetness if desired by adding another tablespoon of brown sugar.

3.      The wings can either be grilled on a barbecue or baked in a 350 F oven on a rack on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil for easy clean up. Turn every ten minutes. Cook until tender, about 30 minutes.

4.       Place the wings on a large plate of Asian noodles, steamed rice, or shredded lettuce. Just before serving, pour the hot glaze over the top.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Bulk Up and Trim Down for the 4th of July: Brown Sugar Ribs and Open Faced Cheese sandwiches

For 4th of July there's always a tug of war in our house. Do we go traditional and make ribs, hot dogs, hamburgers, grilled corn on the cob, cole slaw, potato salad and apple pie? Or, should we keep an eye on calories as we watch the fireworks, serving fresh fruit, salads and lighter fare?

In the spirit of liberty and freedom, why not do both? That means brown sugar ribs, deliciously fatty, sweet and salty and open faced melted cheese sandwiches with shrimp for a lighter but no less finger-licking-food entree with  tossed arugula and homemade crouton salad and end of the season sautéed asparagus for greens.

And, because the farmers market is filled with delicious berries and fruit, for dessert have a fresh fruit salad with blue berries, freshly picked strawberries, ripe yellow peaches and dark purple pluots.

The good news, none of these dishes take much time to prepare and they all work beautifully in the backyard or packed in a picnic basket.

Open Faced Cheese Sandwiches with Grilled Shrimp

Serves 4
Ingredients:

2 large slices of white or whole wheat French bread or 4 smaller slices of bread/person
16 medium, raw shrimp, peeled, deveined, washed and pat dried
1/2 pound white cheese (Comte, cheddar or Monterey Jack), thin sliced
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
Sea salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon mustard (deli, dijon or brown) (optional)
Sesame seeds, roasted (optional)
2 tablespoons scallions, white and yellow parts, thin sliced (optional)

Directions:

Heat a bbq grill. Toss the shrimp in the olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper. Grill evenly one minute on both sides to get light charring. Remove.

Lightly toast the bread. I prefer thin slices so the cheese and shrimp predominate. Line up the slices and prepare them assembly line style. If you like mustard, spread a thin layer on the bottom of each toast, topped with 2-4 shrimp, depending on the size of the slice.

Lay thin sheets of cheese over the shrimp and for added flavor sprinkle sesame seeds and/or scallions on top.

Preheat the oven or toaster oven to 350 F degrees. Lay a sheet of aluminum foil or a silpat sheet on the bottom of a cookie sheet. Place the open-faced sandwiches on top. Place into the oven for 15 minutes or until the cheese has melted.

For a beautiful crusty finish, raise the temperature of the oven to broil and cook until the cheese lightly bubbles and browns. Be careful not to burn.

Remove from the oven and serve.  If transporting to a picnic, let cool on a wire rack, pack in an airtight container with sheets of waxed paper between layers. Do not refrigerate. Serve at room temperature.

Variations:

Instead of mustard use remoulade sauce or mayonnaise

Dust the shrimp with cayenne for added heat

After the shrimp are grilled, toss with 1 tablespoon finely chopped mango chutney

Brown Sugar Pork Ribs


The cooked ribs can be kept in the refrigerator covered 2-3 days or frozen in an air-tight freezer bag.

Yield 4 servings

Ingredients

1 3-pound rack, pork ribs, washed, pat dried
2-3 cups brown sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 teaspoon cumin 
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Olive oil
Black pepper
6 ounces Italian tomato paste
1 small yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped

Directions

Trim excess fat, the membrane, and flap from the ribs. Caprial Pence the owner-chef of Caprial's Bistro in Portland, Oregon shows how to prep the ribs with easy-to-follow photographs. Reserve the flap, trimmed of its membrane, to grill for tacos.

Spread a sheet of plastic wrap on the counter 5” larger than the rack. Dust the meat side of the ribs with the cumin.

Mix together the brown sugar, cayenne and kosher salt. Spread half the dry mix on the plastic wrap. Lay the ribs on top, then spread the remainder of the dry mix to cover. Place a second piece of plastic wrap over the ribs, seal, fold in half and place into a Ziploc or plastic bag. Place in a pan overnight in the refrigerator.

In the morning remove the ribs. The dry mix will have transformed into a slurry. Very alchemical! 

In a sauce pan sauté the onions and garlic with olive oil until lightly browned, season with pepper. Remove the ribs from the plastic bag. Capture the liquid from the plastic bag and transfer to the sauce pan. Add the tomato paste and simmer the sauce on a low flame for 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the flavor as necessary.

Line a large baking tray with tin foil. Place a wire rack on top of the baking tray and lay the ribs on the rack. The ribs can either be cooked in a 350 degree oven or on the “cold” side of a covered grill with the heat on high.

Whether on the grill or in the oven, cook the ribs 30 minutes, turn them over, cook another 30 minutes and turn over again. If the ribs are tender, then baste the ribs with the sauce and cook another 30 minutes on each side or until the meat is tender. 

Remove from the oven, cut apart the individual ribs, and serve.




Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Texas Baby Back Ribs for Father's Day

Sure it's a cliche, but one you can hang your hat on: most guys like meat.
On any other Sunday, you'd probably find dad in front of the grill, doing damage to burgers, dogs, shrimp and steak. With red hot mesquite or briquets supplying the fuel, dad happily flips his victims until he's got caramelization underway and char marks in all the right places.
But not this Sunday. Oh, no.  This is Father's Day when everyone else should be rolling up their sleeves and doing due diligence in pursuit of dad's favorite food.
What's special about this day is that dad can rest. Drinks and food will be laid on the table without any effort on his part.
As a dad, myself, I enjoy this day. My sons, Michael and Franklin, are very good cooks. They grill and saute with the best of them and, like their dad, they fill the table with lots of choices.
Recently I visited West Texas and enjoyed myself immensely at the Wildcatter Ranch, a delightfully rustic resort, about an hour and a half north-east of Abilene.

Chef Bob Bratcher, self-taught and a cowboy at heart, showed our group how to break down a beef tenderloin and cut ribeye steaks out of what he called the "stick".
For two days we feasted on chef Bob's creations, not the least of which was a magnificent 14 ounce, bone-in ribeye steak with a peppery crust on the outside and perfectly medium-rare, juicy inside.
One of the other memorable dishes he shared with us was his baby back pork ribs, coated with the Wildcatter Ranch dry rub he makes himself.

The ribs were tender and sweet. The bone side of the rib had a thick coating of chef Bob's dry rub. Unlike traditional powdery, dry rubs, his was thick with cracked black pepper and celery seed. That added a pleasing crunch as we gnawed on the bones.
Chef Bob was kind enough to share the recipe with us and it's perfect to make for Father's Day.
Wildcatter Ranch Dry Rub Baby Back Ribs
Cooking the ribs at low temperature for a long time is the secret. Slow roasting brings out the sweetness of the meat.
Serves: 4
Preparation Time: 30 minutes
Marinating Time: overnight
Cooking Time: 3 hours
Ingredients
2lbs pork baby back ribs
¾ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
2 cups Rib Rub (recipe below)

Bob's Rib Rub
The rub can be made ahead but because the garlic is fresh, use within 24 hours of preparation.
Ingredients
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons coarse black pepper
1 cup dried oregano leaves
½ cup paprika
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon celery seed
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 ½ cups brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon (ground)
2 teaspoons dry minced garlic
2 teaspoons granulated garlic

Directions
Mix all ingredients together in bowl and store overnight in airtight container until ready to use.

Pull the silver skin off the backs of the ribs.  Season the racks liberally with fresh lime juice and the rub.  
If you have a barbecue grill or a smoker, get it hot on one side and place the ribs on a rack over an aluminum lined pan on the cold side of the grill.
If you're using the oven, heat until 250 degrees.
In either case, cook for 2 ½ hours. Fork-test the meat to confirm it is tender.
The ribs can be cooked ahead of time, even the day before.
30 minutes before serving, wrap the rack tightly in foil, and bake in a 200 degree oven for 30 minutes.
Cut the ribs apart and serve on a platter.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Super Bowl Sunday Eats and Treats

Last year I wrote about celebrating my birthday on Super Bowl Sunday. We're doing the same thing this year and we'll be enjoying all the same treats.

My birthday isn't on Super Bowl Sunday, but it's close enough that every year I double-down and celebrate my birthday and football on the same day.

I didn't much care about the sport until our youngest son, Michael, taught me to love all things football. From the time he was 3 years old, he watched Sports Center and would grill me about which QB was the best--I didn't have a clue. He's off at UC Davis now and all that's different now. These days, my favorite TV show--with the exception of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report--is Showtime's Inside the NFL.

We've invited a dozen friends to come by the house and watch the game. I don't want to get stuck in the kitchen, so everything we're serving will be made the day ahead.

Only the Bacon Wrapped Shrimp appetizer has to be grilled on the day so the bacon is crisp and the shrimps are juicy. Just before kick-off, we'll reheat the wings and ribs and we'll be ready to watch what promises to be a great match up.

Bacon Wrapped Shrimp

You know the expression, "Bet you can't eat just one," well it applies to this appetizer. My son Franklin mastered this recipe when he was putting on feasts to entertain his college roommates. He taught me and I'm happy to pass it along to you.
Yield: 4 servings

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound shrimps (25-35 count/pound), washed, shelled, deveined
10-12 bacon strips
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled, finely chopped
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
Toothpicks


Method

Heat the olive oil in a pan and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sauté the finely chopped parsley, garlic, and shallot in the olive oil until lightly browned. Let cool. Spoon the seasoned olive oil over the shrimp. Toss well and let marinate for 30 minutes.

Organize an area on the counter so you can work assembly-line style.

Cut the strips of bacon into 3 equal pieces. Toss the shrimp again, then take one shrimp and lay it on the piece of bacon, rolling the bacon around the shrimp. Take a toothpick and push it through the bacon-shrimp-bacon to hold it together. Set aside and do the rest.

Using tongs, put the shrimp on a hot grill and close the hood. If you're using an oven, set it at 450 degrees and put the shrimp on a wire rack over a cookie sheet. Turn every 2-3 minutes so they cook evenly and don't burn, about 10 minutes.

Serve on a platter with napkins.

Carrot Salad with Lemon-Soaked Raisins

A great accompaniment for the ribs and wings, the salad also goes well with deli meats like turkey breast or ham or grilled steaks, chicken, or sausage. The lemon-pepper soaked raisins and the roasted nuts bring some surprises to a familiar side dish.

Yield 6-8 servings
Time 20 minutes

Ingredients

8 large carrots, preferably farmers' market fresh, washed, peeled, ends trimmed off
1 scallion, optional, finely chopped
1 small bunch Italian parsley, washed, dried, stems trimmed, finely chopped
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cumin
Pinch of cayenne
Sea salt and pepper
1/2 cup mayonnaise

Method

Soak the raisins in lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight Grate the carrots in a large mixing bowl. Roughly chop the raisins, reserving the lemon juice not absorbed into the raisins.

Mix together the carrots, raisins, parsley, and scallions. Season with the cumin, cayenne, sea salt, and black pepper and toss. Add the lemon juice and mayonnaise. Mix well.

Variations

Use cilantro instead of Italian parsley

Add 2 tablespoons capers

Top with 2 tablespoons roasted chopped almonds

Caesar Salad

The dressing can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 2 days, then all you have to do before serving is tear up the lettuce, shake on some cheese, add the croutons and pour on the dressing. Perfect for a half-time snack.

Yield 4 servings

Time 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 garlic clove, skin off
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
4 anchovies
1 large egg, farmers' market fresh
1/4 teaspoon Worcester sauce
2 hearts of romaine or 1 large frisee, leaves washed
2-3 tablespoons olive oil, to taste
1 teaspoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
2-3 drops Tabasco, optional
1/4 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese, freshly grated
1/2 cup croutons, homemade
Black pepper

Method

Use a wooden bowl if you have one. Sprinkle the sea salt on a wooden cutting board. Mash the garlic back and forth on the salt with the flat side of a chef's knife, then sweep the garlic-salt mash into the salad bowl.

Boil water in a small saucepan. Add the egg and cook for 4 minutes. Remove the egg, let cool, open, scoop out the yolk and white with a small spoon, and add to the salad bowl along with the Worcester sauce, optional Tabasco, olive oil, and lemon juice.

Using a fork, mash the anchovies against the side of the salad bowl so they dissolve in the dressing. Mix well.

Tear the romaine leaves into pieces or chop up the frisee, add to the salad bowl, top with grated cheese, croutons, and season with pepper. Toss to coat the leaves.

Taste and adjust the flavors by adding more lemon juice or sea salt.

Variations

Add 1/2 pound grilled, shelled, deveined shrimp, whole or roughly chopped

Add 2 chicken breasts, skinless, grilled, thin sliced

Add 1 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted, roughly chopped

Brown Sugar Pork Ribs

The cooked ribs can be kept in the refrigerator covered 2-3 days or frozen in an air-tight freezer bag.
Yield 4 servings

Time Prep (20 minutes) Marinate (overnight) Cook (2 hours)

Ingredients

1 rack pork ribs
2-3 cups brown sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
Olive oil
Black pepper
6 ounces Italian tomato paste
1 small yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped

Method

Trim excess fat, the membrane, and flap from the ribs. Caprial Pence the owner-chef of Caprial's Bistro in Portland, Oregon and a fellow contributor to Eat Drink or Die shows how to prep the ribs with easy-to-follow photographs. Reserve the flap, trimmed of its membrane, to grill for tacos.

Spread a piece of plastic wrap on the counter 5” longer than the rack. Dust the meat side of the ribs with the cayenne.

Mix together the brown sugar and kosher salt. Spread half the dry mix on the plastic wrap. Lay the ribs on top, then cover with the rest of the dry mix. Cover with a second piece of plastic wrap, seal, fold in half and place into a Ziploc or plastic bag. Refrigerate in a pan overnight.

In the morning remove the ribs. The dry mix will have transformed into a slurry. Very alchemical! In a sauce pan sauté the onions and garlic with olive oil until lightly browned, season with pepper. Remove the ribs from the plastic bag. Use a rubber spatula to remove most of the liquid from the ribs and plastic bag and transfer to the sauce pan. Add the tomato paste and simmer the sauce on a low flame for 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the flavor if necessary.

Line a large baking tray with tin foil. Place a wire rack on top of the baking tray, then lay the ribs on the rack. The ribs can either be cooked in a 350 degree oven or on the “cold” side of a covered grill with the heat on high.

Whether on the grill or in the oven, cook the ribs 30 minutes on each side, then baste the ribs with the sauce and cook another 30 minutes on each side or until done. Remove from the oven, cut apart the individual ribs, and serve.

Kimchi Chicken Wings

The natural partnership of kimchi and brown sugar brings a sweet-heat to these finger lickin' good wings.

Yield 4 servings

Time Marinate overnight. Cook approximately 60 minutes

Ingredients

2 1/2 pounds chicken wings, washed, pat dried
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup kimchi, finely chopped
1 tablespoon kimchi water from the bottle
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, washed, peeled, sliced thin
2 tablespoons soy sauce

Method

Dissolve the brown sugar in the kimchi water, olive oil, and soy sauce. Add the kimchi, onion slices, and chicken wings. Mix well, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking tray with tin foil for easy clean up. Place a wire rack on the tray and arrange the wings on the rack. Drizzle the wings with olive oil. Put into the oven and bake 30 minutes. Turn over with tongs. Bake another 30 minutes.

The wings should be tender and golden brown. If not, turn the wings over and continue baking another 10 minutes.

Check again and continue baking at 10 minute intervals, turning the wings each time, until they are done.

In a small saucepan on a low flame, reduce the marinade by a third. Reserve.

The wings should be eaten hot. Pour the heated, reduced marinade over the wings just before serving.

Serve with plenty of napkins and ice cold drinks.

Variations

Add 1 tablespoon julienned garlic and 1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley to the marinade
Just before serving, top with 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds and 1 tablespoon thinly sliced scallion

Banana Cake with Chocolate Chips and Walnuts

Now it's time for something sweet. The cake is best served warm, topped with powdered sugar and grated dark chocolate. Ice cream and whipped cream are good too.

Yield 8-10 servings

Time 90 minutes

Ingredients

4 ripe bananas
1 1/2 tablespoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sweet butter, room temperature
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup half and half or 1 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 cups white flour
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of cayenne
1/2 cup raw walnuts
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Method

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and paint the inside of a 9 x 3 round cake pan, then put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes. The frozen butter prevents the batter from sticking to the pan.

Bake the walnuts on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, turning every 10 minutes. Let cool, roughly chop, and set aside.

In a bowl mash the bananas with a fork, add the baking soda and vanilla. stir well and set aside. In a mixer use the whisk to cream together the softened butter and both sugars. Add the eggs, mashed bananas, half and half (or cream) and whisk until blended. Mix in the flour half a cup at a time, being careful not to over-beat.

Remove the bowl from the mixer. Use a rubber spatula to blend in the walnuts and chocolate chips. Pour the batter into the buttered cake pan. It will only fill the pan half-way, which is good because the cake will rise.

Bake the cake in a 350 degree oven for 60-70 minutes, turning the pan every 20 minutes so the cake cooks evenly. Test to see if the cake is done by inserting a wooden skewer. If the top is browning too quickly, lightly lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top. When the skewer comes out clean, take the cake out of the oven and place on a wire rack for 30 minutes.

Remove the cake from the pan, putting it back on the wire rack to finish cooling.

Just before serving, dust the top with powdered sugar and shaved chocolate. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Nugget's Best of the West Rib Cook-Off is a Recession Buster

If you've never been to a barbecue rib-cook off, let me paint you a picture.

On either side of a long street, booths are set up with sellers hawking their wares. You'll hear laughter and a hundred conversations as people walk down the crowded street or stand in line at the booths.

Imagine a midway that looks very much like a county fair only instead of having rides, baking contests, and pens with animals, at a rib rib-cook, everyone is selling meat.

Pork ribs, beef ribs, brisket, turkey drumsticks, barbecue chicken, pulled pork, and hot links.

Ok, that's a slight exaggeration. Not everyone is selling meat.

You can buy sides that go with meat: cole slaw and baked beans and you can buy lots of fried things--thick fried onion rings, zucchini strips, hush puppies, garlic fries, and potato chips piled high on a plate looking very much like a small mountain.

For those watching their diets, there is fresh fruit on a stick and freshly squeezed lemonade. If you want something sweet, there are booths selling fennel cakes, shaved ice and chocolate dipped fruit on sticks.

But you don't come to a rib-cook because you want to eat all that other stuff. You come to a cook-off because you love to eat meat and you love barbecue.

You might see people in PETA t-shirts and you'd scratch your head wondering why animal rights advocates would be here, but then you read the fine print and you'd understand. At a rib cook-off, PETA means "People for the Eating of Tasty Animals."

In early September I was on assignment for Peter Greenberg to be a judge at John Ascuaga's Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off, my second year and the Cook-Off's 21st.

Over six days, the Nugget's rib-cook attracts over 500,000 people, who come together for a celebration of good times and good food.

There are families everywhere you turn. Toddlers in strollers. Babes in arms. Teenagers who might not otherwise hang out with their parents are happily comparing notes about a favorite rib cooker or fiery barbecue sauces, like Johnson BBQ's ThermoNuclear or Rasta Joe's Island Fire sauce.

The Nugget adds to the fun with bands playing day and night. The sound of rock and country music drifts through the air, combining with the sweet smoke that pours off the wood burning grills as the racks of ribs are coated with thick brush-strokes of barbecue sauce.

People find space on the picnic benches that have been set up in the shade. Mostly though, impromptu picnics happen as soon as the people get their ribs. They can't wait. The ribs are that good.

People who come to a rib cook-off don't just come to have a quick bite to eat. Not a chance. They've come to sample and compare.

If you strike up a conversation with people as they eat their ribs, you'll find out that this isn't their first cook-off. Odds are they've attended the Best of the West before and they've come back to enjoy the ribs from their favorite cookers.

They'll eat a basket of ribs. Lick their fingers. Grab an ice cold lemonade. Walk around a bit. Listen to the music, maybe gamble a bit, then they're back out to the midway to try another cooker's ribs.

The conversations you'll hear as you walk down the midway are all about ribs and sauce. If there's inside-baseball talk, then at a cook-off, you'll hear inside-barbecue talk.

Which cookers are at the top of their game. Whose meat has the best balance of smoke and tenderness. Which rib has just the right edge of heat. There are comparisons between old favorites and new ones. Which sauces hit flavor out of the ballpark.

In addition to the judges ranking of the Best Ribs and Best Sauce, there's also a People's Choice award. People have their favorites and they lobby one another to promote the cookers they like.

Butch of Smack Your Lips BBQ is a favorite because he beat Bobby Flay on the Food Network's rib Throwdown. There are long lines in front of Rasta Joe's because who can resist barbecue with Jamaican flavors and heat? Last year's winner for best ribs, Bone Daddy's Bill Wall, has so many fans, they've started a Facebook page and he tweets to let people back home know what's happening each day at the cook-off.

The cookers are as enthusiastic about ribs as are the fans. They literally live, breath, and sleep dry rubs, sauces, and quality of meat. Of the 24 cookers in competition, 23 are on the road 4 months of the year.

From just before Memorial Day to just after Labor Day, the cookers criss-cross the United States in big rigs, pulling their mammoth smokers and barbecue grills. They move from competition to competition, selling their meats and sauces, going up again long-time competitors, and (hopefully) picking up more trophies along the way.

But even if they don't win, this is big business. Only a few of the cookers have restaurants. Most make their living doing catering and traveling the competitive barbecue circuit. In a down economy, where their catering business might be off because corporations don't have as much to celebrate and they've cut back on events, the cook-off business is as good as ever. Virginia Beach's Dan Johnson of Johnson's BBQ says, "People are staying local, enjoying themselves. The cook-offs are good for families. There are things for dads to do, moms too, and the kids get to play. There's lots to do."

The Nugget's Best of the West is a great example why business is so good. Where else can a family have so much fun for so little money?

There's no admission fee. The entertainment is free. Everyone is welcome to stop and listen to the bands that play day and night. A large crafts fair is set up nearby where you can shop for clothing, hand-made jewelry, household decorations, and toys. There's plenty to eat and drink. The most expensive plate of food is under $15.00. You're hanging out with family and friends.

So where do the big guys like to eat when they’re on the road?

Butch eats ribs from old friend Ray “Red” Allen Gill’s Razorback, stopping by Red’s place in Arkansas and when they’re at events competing against one another.

Peter and Roberta Rathmann of BJ's Nevada Barbecue Company--the only Sparks barbecue restaurant at the competition—-try small, family operations when they travel because they want to see what people like themselves are doing.

Joe Alexander of Rasta Joe’s likes Corky’s in Memphis, Tennessee for the pulled pork and ribs.

But surprisingly, what most cookers recommend isn’t what you’d think.

Most agree with Bill Wall who says, “The honest truth is I don’t eat a lot of barbecue. I love to visit and see barbecue places [when he’s traveling]. But when I’m going out to eat, I like Caesar salads and shrimp, a good pasta or a great piece of meat.”

Unlike Bill and the other cookers, I rarely get the chance to eat great ribs and I love them. So being a judge at the Best of the West is a great treat.

The tough part, though, is the waiting. The first rule of the contest is that no judge may eat a rib until the judging.

Walking past all those cookers, their grills ablaze, the smell of barbecue sauce and smoke in the air, is pure torture. Watching crowds of people eating baskets of ribs and licking thick, sweet sauce off their fingers, it takes all my self-control so I don't just reach over and grab one of those ribs and devour it on the spot.

But I’m true to my judge’s oath and I wait.

When the time comes, the judges meet in a secured room inside the casino. The ribs are put out on a large table. The cookers are identified only by number.

The tasting begins in hushed silence. The second rule of judging is “No talking.” In 40 minutes, each judge has to evaluate either 12 (the preliminary round) or 10 (the final round) ribs. Walking around the chafing dishes we solemnly nibble on a bone, evaluating each rib for appearance, tenderness, mouth feel, and taste (salty, sweet, and heat).

Some ribs I like right away. Others I’m convinced aren’t good. But in fairness I know that a cooker shouldn’t be judged on one rib alone. So it’s back around the table for a second tasting. I score each one. Then I go back a third time to confirm my favorites. I’m dying to know who I like, but all I know is a number.

After the judging we’re invited to a special area where the cookers bring their ribs to a large tent so it’s easier to try everyone’s ribs and sauces. Now I have the chance to put a face to a rib, so I methodically take one rib from each serving dish (if you’re keeping track that’s 24 ribs) and carefully write on the Styrofoam plate the name of the cooker. I take a bite out of each one but only eat the whole rib if it’s great.

By the end I think I have a pretty good idea which cookers made my favorite ribs. I keep it to myself because the results of the contest aren't announced until tomorrow.

When I go to bed that night, I go to sleep happy and very full. In four hours, I’ve eaten 30 ribs.

After about an hour, I wake up with terrible chest pains so bad I am convinced I am dying. I know I should call the front desk and ask them to call an ambulance, but the pain is intense, I can’t move a muscle.

Then I realize I'm not having a heart attack. It is heartburn. You can’t eat that many ribs and not pay the price.

But it was worth it