Don't ask Paul Kirk to define barbecue. It'll be one of the rare times that the Baron of Barbecue, as he's know in Kansas City, is at a loss for words.
“It’s in the eyes of the beholder. It’s a way of life,” is finally all he can muster.
While Kirk can’t exactly tell you what barbecue is, he certainly knows how to cook it. His life is so thoroughly immersed in the world of barbecue that vinegar and smoke practically run through his veins.
He’s the author of six cookbooks and the winner of more than 400 cooking awards, including the World Championship seven times. On Sunday, he’s coming to Sumner’s Branks BBQ to teach his techniques. The daylong class is open to novices and professionals alike.
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We caught up with Kirk via phone from a chilly Kansas City last week where he was in his natural element – cooking pork butt and brisket in a friend’s newly constructed barbecue pit.
Kirk said his childhood was filled with family reunions and holiday get-togethers – all centered around a barbecue pit manned by his father. “Grandma, Grandpa – the whole family would come over to our house.” Kirk’s father would use peach, apple and walnut wood to cook ribs and chicken over old metal gates turned grates.
Kirk is a little nostalgic over the meat from those days, especially pork ribs that were “two and down,” meaning two pounds or less. “They were more tender. The meat-to-bone ratio was better. I think the hogs back then tasted better.”
Barbecue is arguably the most American of foods, crossing divides of geography, race and culture. Kirk attributes part of its appeal to its social aspect. Barbecuing is invariably a gathering around a fire, an act as old as humanity itself.
Kirk owes his success in the barbecue world to an open mind, he said. He’s always learning, always trying something new, always willing to pass on his secrets. Then he amends, “I don’t teach all my secrets.”
His first cookbooks weren’t something he put together overnight. “Those are 20 years of my life,” he said. He’s able to put out new books because “I very seldom cook the same thing twice.” He’s constantly trying new recipes, spices and cooking methods.
Kirk, a man never short on opinions, isn’t happy about some of the trends he’s seeing in barbecue. High on his list is cooking in aluminum foil, a method that seems to be winning a lot of barbecue contests, he said.
“It’s a shortcut. I won’t do that. I guess I’ll never win again.” Kirk said the method produces tender but flavorless ribs and brisket. For Kirk, the element of smoke from a fire, rather than a bottle, is key to good barbecue.
Kirk frowns on hotter and quicker barbecuing methods rather than slow and low. For Kirk, brisket should take 10-12 hours to cook and never get above 250 degrees. He also disdains the increasing sweetness in sauces and rubs. “I’m not a big fan of sweet. I don’t want to eat a rib that tastes like candied meat.”
While Kirk is the king of Kansas City barbecue, he embraces the regionality of barbecue culture. Kansas City is known for its sweet thick sauce with spicy tomato. The Pacific Northwest, he said, is no stranger to regionalism.
Aside from the bounty of seafood here, the thing he notes about our area is a love of liquid smoke in barbecue sauce – a style one gathers he doesn’t wholly embrace. But Kirk – who barbecues with oak, apple and hickory – gives high marks to the Northwest’s ubiquitous alder, which he says produces good heat and a mellow smoke.
Sunday’s class will cover meat selection, pits, charcoal, wood and sauces. The class will divide into teams that will develop their own rubs for chicken and ribs.
“It’s a long hard day. It’s a good 10 hours. They get a lot of good food to eat ... better than most of the barbecue you can find out there.”
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
Grilled Flank Steak with Apple Barbecue Sauce
1/2 pound flank steak, trimmed
Apple Barbecue Sauce
6 onion buns split
6 tomato slices
6 purple onion slices
Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper
Place the flank steak in a zip-lock bag or a glass baking dish. Pour 1/2 cup Apple Barbecue Sauce over the steak. Squeeze all the air out of the bag and seal or cover dish, and chill in the refrigerator for 8 hours or over night.
Remove the steak from the marinade, discarding the marinade. Grill over medium hot coals, covered for six to seven minutes per side for medium rare or to desired doneness.
Cut steak on a bias across the grain into thin strips. Serve on rolls with tomatoes, onions and lettuce. Drizzle with remaining sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
Makes 6 sandwiches.
Apple Barbecue Sauce
1/2 cup apple jelly
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1/4 cup sweet rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple juice
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon Louisiana hot sauce
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Place all of the ingredients in a small saucepan; bring to a boil, stirring until smooth. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally for 20 to 25 minutes. Cool.
Makes 1-1/2 cups
Pear Chicken Glaze
1 cup pear nectar
1 cup canned pear puree
1 cup water
1/2 cup corn syrup
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon fine ground black pepper
Combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan with a wire whisk. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thick, stirring occasionally.
Barbecued Tex-Mex Wings
2-1/2 pounds precut chicken wings, or whole wings cut into 2 pieces at joint, tips discarded
1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon hot red pepper sauce
1 teaspoon mesquite-flavored liquid smoke
Wash wings and pat dry. Prepare medium-hot charcoal fire or preheat gas grill to medium high. Grill wings over medium-high heat, turning often, until skin begins to get crispy, about 15 minutes. In medium bowl, mix ingredients together and baste wings, turning often. (Basting earlier will cause wings to burn because of the high sugar content in the sauce). Continue grilling, basting often, until wings are cooked through and slightly charred but not burned, about another 10 minutes.
Country-Style BBQ Onions
1 can baked beans
14 cup packed brown sugar
12 cup barbecue sauce
4 tablespoons (1/2) stick butter, cut into eight pieces, at room temperature
4 slices bacon, cooked an dcut into 8 (2-inch) pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
Prepare the grill to cook with indirect heat at 350 F. Peel the onions. Carefully hollow out the onions, leaving two or three layers and the base intact. Chop the onion pieces you hollowed out and mix them with the baked beans, brown sugar, and barbecue sauce. Spoon the mixture into the onions and top with the butter and bacon. Sprinkle with black pepper. Grill the onions using indirect heat for 40 minutes to an hour, or until golden brown and tender.
Source: Paul Kirk