Melissa Cookston, the winningest woman in BBQ, shares her secret

in Nonfiction by

“Traditionally,” writes Melissa Cookston, “the home kitchen has been women’s domain, while the grill has been male territory. Maybe it’s the caveman effect—big pieces of meat and fire bringing out the chest thumping.”

Millions of years of evolution, however, haven’t stopped Cookston from being among the best at what she does—calling upon her Mississippi Delta roots to create mouth-watering morsels at the grill and smoker, a practice dominated by men. In fact, Cookston is the winningest woman in the  barbecue contest circuit, having capped off her career with a 2012 Grand Prize at the Kingsford Invitational, a contest of champions at which she also won first place in four out of five categories.

It’s that background that has led to the creation of Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue, a collection of Cookston’s greatest recipes for the grill. “Memphis barbecue is about meat cooked low and slow and seasoned with a soulful hand,” she writes in her introduction. “Memphis barbecue has a full-flavored profile, with a sweet beginning note and a symphony of savory and spicy melodies that sing in your mouth the way B.B. King plays his guitar.”

And what a symphony this book presents. From Cookston’s Competition Pork Baby Back Ribs to Rack of Lamb to Brisket Chili to Delta Juke Burgers, the author takes us on a culinary tour of Memphis barbecue as majestic as the mighty Mississippi River itself. Throw in some Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Fried Catfish with Tartar Sauce, and Cookston’s tour of the South is nearly complete.

GingerSalmon250
Photo credit Angie Mosier

The dish we used to test-drive this book, though—Ginger Salmon with Pineapple Chipotle Glaze—was one that, by Cookston’s own admission, isn’t typical Memphis barbecue fare. “Yes, I understand that this isn’t very Delta,” she writes, “but it tastes so good I just had to include it.”

How can we describe this amazing dish? The marinade keeps the fish moist on the grill and the glaze was a powerhouse of deep, fruity sweetness punctuated by a perfect sting of chipotle heat. It made a great companion to the light, delicate taste of the grilled salmon. There were six of us at the dining room table. We vacuumed up eight salmon fillets, and we easily could have scarfed down more. In fact, one of my diners—a hearty eater for whom I’ve made countless meals—told me that this dish may have been the best thing I’ve ever cooked for him.

In a barbecue-flavored battle of the sexes, chalk this one up as a victory for the women—and for anyone with an appetite! Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room is a formidable addition to any grillmaster’s cookbook collection.

GINGER SALMON WITH PINEAPPLE CHIPOTLE GLAZE

1 cup soy sauce

½ cup pineapple juice

1 cup packed light brown sugar

½ cup canola oil

1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 tablespoon granulated garlic

2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger

4 (8-ounce) skinless salmon fillets

 

Pineapple Chipotle Glaze

2 tablespoons pureed chipotle chilies in adobo sauce

1 cup apple cider vinegar

½ cup pineapple juice

½ cup soy sauce

4 cups granulated sugar

In nonreactive container, combine the soy sauce, pineapple juice, brown sugar, oil, pepper, garlic, and ginger, and mix well. Add the salmon fillets. Cover and refrigerate for eight to 12 hours, turning occasionally.

To make the glaze, place the chilies and a splash of the vinegar in a blender and blend until smooth. Place the pineapple juice in a large stockpot over medium heat and cook until slightly reduced, about two minutes. Add the chipotle mixture and cook for three minutes. Add the soy sauce, granulated sugar, and remaining vinegar and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat and cook for 10 minutes. This recipe boils quickly, so stir constantly. The glaze should lightly coat the back of a spoon when done. Remove from the heat and let it cool. The glaze can be made ahead of time and refrigerated overnight.

Prepare a medium-hot grill and lightly oil the grates. Remove the salmon from the marinade and shake off excess liquid. Place on the grill for three to four minutes, then turn and cook for three to four minutes longer, depending on the thickness of the fillets. In the last minute of cooking, liberally brush on the glaze and allow to thicken slightly. Serve with additional glaze on the side if desired.

WINE RECOMMENDATIONS

By the Big Chill

As wonderful as this dish sounds, it’s difficult to pair with wines due to the sweet and hot glaze. The rule of thumb is the more complicated the dish, the simpler the wine. Conversely, the simpler dishes can be a great opportunity to show off complicated wines.

For this week’s feature recipe, though, here are my suggestions. If you’re partial to red wines, my first choice is a Pinot Noir (red) from Burgundy, Bourgogne Pinot Noir, or a Pinot Noir from Oregon. A Zinfandel from California would also work well.

For those who prefer white wines, I would suggest an oaky (or rich) Chardonnay from California, or a medium- to full-bodied Gewurtztraminer from Alsace.

Here’s to a wonderful meal!

Grill Daddy is a pro with tongs who has been cooking up summertime feasts for family and friends for more than 20 years. The Big Chill is our libations expert. An international wine importer and expert by day, by night he helps friends, such as you, get their chill on—big time.

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