Creative embers aglow, Martha Gooding walked to her spice cabinet. "We've got to find some magic ingredient for our rib rub." she said. "And what I was thinking was garam marsala."
It was the last Sunday of Sherry Jacobson's and my visit to Martha and Bryan Gooding's home on Lopez Island. Our mission was to test a punchy Texas style rub on two kinds of pork ribs: a meaty, fatty grocery store-bought rack of baby backs and a much smaller, leaner rack from pigs raised at nearby Midnight's Farm.
That's the same place Bryan got the meat for his recent post about smoking pork belly. The farm says its Hamshire/Tamworth crosses "are fed all organic feed and finished on apple cider mash and windfalls."
Instead of the South Asian spice, Martha, settled on turmeric, ancho chili powder and orange peel, along with more common barbecue seasonings such as brown sugar, kosher salt, black pepper, cumin and garlic salt.
She blended the ingredients to taste, each of us slightly wetting the tip of a finger, poking it in the evolving rub and giving our opinion..
"I can't really give the recipe," Martha said. "It's unique. The next time you do it, even with the same ingredients, it will not be the same."
At one point, Bryan wondered if the taste were getting a little off, a little too hot.
"You didn't put any of this in, did you?" Bryan asked, pointing at a bottle of cayenne pepper.
"Oh, I put a ton of it in," Martha said. "I thought it was paprika."
She doctored the rib rub a bit with other ingredients until we each gave our approval. A bit hot, maybe, but very interesting.
Midnight's ribs were marked "spareribs" and came in two packages, a half-rack in each. They looked very tiny, like the organic ribs the Posse cooked at the very first Blues, Bandits & BBQ competition a few years ago. Then, in our younger, cockier days, we called them cat ribs. We've matured a bit since.
The previous day, Bryan, with Martha's help, mixed a nice brine of water, vinegar, salt, sugar and pepper and let the racks soak in the fridge overnight. After the rub-making the next morning, Bryan coated the ribs evenly and put them on his smoker about 20 minutes after 8 in the morning. Let the apple wood fire and smoke do its work.
He cooked the ribs for about five and one-half hours, a little longer for the baby backs, with the temperature holding pretty steady at about 250 degrees. He pulled the racks, wrapped them in foil, and held them in the oven at 125 degrees for about 3 hours until meal time.
At dinner, we were joined by Jeanette Ross and David Champion, also Lopez Islanders, at a picnic table in front of Bryan and Martha's house. Mt. Baker loomed in the distance.
The consensus among us: the store bought baby backs, much meatier and with some fat, held up to the strong rub. The smaller, leaner ribs from Midnight's Farm were overpowered.
Still, we ate our fill of both and some chicken that Bryan had grilled.
We debated whether the rib rub was too hot. I wouldn't want to make it my everyday rub, but I still thought it was very good.
"I think if we used just a light rub coating on the ribs, it would have been better," Martha said.
Martha's rub ingredients
Start with a classic base of:
(When mixing your base, taste, and get your proportion of salt and sugar where you like it. Then add heat to your comfort level.)
We specialized ours with:
ancho chili powder