Ribfest is a tradition of ours that started about 10 years ago with our next-door neighbors, and is somewhat legendary among our friends.
It began as a potluck barbecue free-for-all with 40 people and three grills full of spicy, sticky ribs. Because there was always a major extended downpour regardless of the date we chose, tarps were hoisted up between the two houses to keep the grills dry and the people around them slightly less dry. Dining tables and card tables were pushed together like mismatched train cars winding their way around the first floor of our neighbor's house. In later years, we all crammed ourselves onto our newly rebuilt front porch, piles of orange-streaked, wadded-up napkins littering the tables, rain pouring all around us. It was fun, but a little crazy. Turns out manning three grills at a slow, smoldering pace for 6 hours in the rain while keeping small children at bay is harder than it looks.
Over the years, the festivities have become scaled back to include mostly just ourselves and a few others. The basic menu has remained more or less the same: our neighbors' spectacularly tender and flavorful ribs and their similarly amazing grilled beans. My contribution has always involved hushpuppies, the deep-fried cornmeal fritters I fancied as a kid when we lived in the Chesapeake Bay area. Depending on the year, I might also make collard greens, coleslaw, or fried okra. Often, one or the other of us provides potato salad or cornbread or a green salad. I always make a dessert.
The main attraction, however, are the ribs. Unfortunately, I'm not in a position to share the rib recipe. I'm sorry to be a gigantic tease. There's something magical about those ribs and I'm afraid if I learn the secret, the magic will be lost. I can, on the other hand, share my recipe for hushpuppies—and I think you will find them to be completely irresistible.
For best results, use the finest ground cornmeal you can find. Fry these right before you're going to serve them, as they don't improve upon sitting. Give yourself a good 15-20 minutes to fry them all. The recipe makes about 2 dozen, but you can double (or triple) the recipe as needed--just allow more time for frying and bring them out in installments. Serve with corn and cayenne mayonnaise for a spicy kick.
2 cups yellow cornmeal, finely ground
1 Tbsp. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. granulated sugar
2 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped scallion
1/2 cup frozen corn kernels, defrosted (optional)
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup buttermilk, plus an extra Tbsp. or two if necessary
Canola or peanut oil for frying
In a large mixing bowl, stir together the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, sugar, onion powder, and garlic powder. Add the onion, scallion, corn kernels, egg, and buttermilk and mix well. I often add another 1-2 Tbsp. of buttermilk if it seems too thick, but much more liquid than that may cause painful oil splatters to occur while frying, so use caution. Let batter rest 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat two inches of oil in a large heavy pot. Use a candy thermometer to monitor the heat. The ideal temperature for deep-frying is 375°F, but it will fluctuate as you take things in and out of the pot. Adjust the heat as necessary. Usher small children out of the room due to aforementioned splatters. Fry hushpuppies 4 or 5 at a time until they turn a rich terracotta brown, then flip and fry on the other side (about 3 minutes total, but this will vary with temperature). Remove from oil with tongs or slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with kosher salt. Eat immediately. (The small crispy bits rescued from the hot oil are the cook's reward!)
Corn and Cayenne Mayonnaise
This recipe makes about twice as much as you need for a single recipe of hushpuppies, but it's also delicious with cornmeal-crusted catfish. Can be made a day ahead of time if kept refrigerated.
1 cup canola or vegetable oil, plus 1 Tbsp. to fry corn
1 cup corn kernels
1 clove garlic, peeled
2 egg yolks
2 Tbsp. vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/4-1/2 tsp. cayenne
Lemon juice to taste
In a medium frying pan, heat 1 Tbsp. oil until hot and fry corn until nicely browned, about 2 minutes. Let cool.
In a food processor, puree the cooled corn and garlic. Add the egg yolks, vinegar, mustard, salt, sugar, paprika, and cayenne (start with 1/4 tsp.), and blend well. Through the feed tube, slowly add the oil with the machine running until fully emulsified. Taste to adjust seasoning, adding a little lemon juice or more salt and cayenne if necessary.
Note: If your mayo should break, meaning separate into a curdled, disgusting mess, have no fear. Separate another egg and add the yolk to a medium bowl (reserve the white in the fridge for another use). Very slowly add the broken mayo to the egg yolk while whisking to incorporate until they are fully combined. The new mayo should be smooth and more stable this time. Dilute with water if too thick, whisking well.
Source: Adapted from The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.