Sonoma chef shares secrets to Southern barbecue

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For Brannon Fetzer of Q Craft in Sonoma, barbecue is more than a summer fling. It’s a deep love that calls to him all year ‘round.

The Texas native graduated from the New England Culinary Institute and worked his way up through a wide range of fine-dining kitchens, including Angele and La Toque in Napa, before returning to his roots two years ago with the purchase of a custom, 21-foot barbecue trailer with 72 square feet of smoking space,

“Texas is the home of barbecue, football and church,” he said. “I don’t do church or football, so it had to be barbecue.”

Nowadays, Fetzer can be found smoking and grilling meats all over Wine Country, from the Huichica Music Festival at Sonoma’s Gundlach-Bundschu Winery in June to the Taste of Sonoma at Healdsburg’s MacMurray Ranch on Labor Day Weekend. He also serves up his down home fare at Off the Grid, the new food event launched last Sunday at Coddingtown Mall.

Although he draws upon his Southern roots, Fetzer often serves up barbecue with a twist, preparing his smoked meats using traditional techniques and flavors, but adding sauces and side dishes that kick it up a notch.

“There’s ho-hum barbecue and really good barbecue,” Fetzer said. “I like to incorporate unusual sauces and flavors, and I have a big herb garden and chop stuff up every day.”

In recent years, Wine Country has embraced the tantalizing smells and juicy flavors of Southern barbecue at new restaurants that include Cochon Volant in Sonoma and Kinsmoke in Healdsburg,

“Barbecue has been taking off,” Fetzer said. “It’s a comfort food, and it’s good value ... people are traveling more to barbecue regions, and there’s a growing appetite for it.”

To help readers spice up their Memorial Day barbecues, Fetzer came up with a simple but satisfying menu of all-American fare, including spice-rubbed baby back ribs and marinated chicken, cowboy beans and a kale slaw dressed with a zippy vinaigrette.

“The barbecue spread should have hot and cold dishes, fats and acids,” he said. “The slaw helps cut through the fat of the ribs and the chicken.”

Your guests’ eyes will light up at the sight of the tender, baby back ribs coated with a savory spice rub.

“You can use a gas grill or charcoal,” Fetzer said. “You just need to cook the ribs low and slow on indirect heat.”

Fetzer suggested marinating the chicken thighs or breasts in a savory combination of lemon, olive oil, onions, chile powder and fresh herbs.

“People tend to lose sight of the importance of marinating meat,” said Fetzer, who uses a brush made of fresh herbs to keep the chicken moist while cooking. “The oil penetrates the chicken and breaks down the seasoning. It’s the vehicle to let the flavor get into the meat.”

Instead of a ho-hum potato salad, why not serve some hearty Cowboy Beans, made from a combination of heirloom beans grown by Rancho Gordo of Napa?

“The Rancho Gordo beans are beautiful,” he said. “And when they’re cooked properly, they’re creamy.”

For the Cowboy Beans, Fetzer slowly simmers a couple different varieties of beans — such as the Midnight Black Bean and Eye of the Goat from Rancho Gordo — with a combination of diced poblano chiles, tomatoes, onions, garlic, chile powder and paprika.

“You can cook the vegetables in some pork belly or slab bacon, for extra fat and flavor,” he said. “You can also just go get some cans of beans.”

For his coleslaw, Fetzer cuts up the cabbage, carrots, sweet white onion and kale, then dresses them in a tangy blend of red wine vinegar, Dijon, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

“I like the bigger pieces of cabbage,” he said. “The coleslaw is really crunchy and snappy, with personality and bright flavor.”

To serve with the barbecue feast, he suggests a good IPA or pale ale and some nice zinfandel or tempranillo wine. Back in Texas, folks like to drink Lone Star or the darker Shiner Bock beer.

“Fire, smoke and cold beer,” Fetzer said. “It’s a testosterone thing.”

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The following recipes are from Brannon Fetzer of Q Craft in Sonoma. If you are serving a crowd, you can double or triple the recipes.

Cowboy Beans

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 sweet white onion, diced

3 pasillo or poblano peppers, diced

5 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 cups dry beans: kidney, red, pinto, black or any combination (soaked in 1 quart water and refrigerated for 12 hours, if possible)

1 tablespoon chile powder

4 ounces of your favorite barbecue sauce

8 ounces diced tomatoes

Greek feta cheese (optional)

In a stockpot, sweat the onions, peppers and garlic in olive oil until onions are translucent.

Add the beans and cover with 2 inches of water (if beans are soaked already) or 4 inches of water (if starting dry.) Slowly bring to a simmer.

Add chile powder, BBQ sauce and diced tomatoes. Cook continuously until beans are slightly undercooked (the texture should be slightly crumbly). Season beans with salt and pepper a pinch at a time. You do not want to over-season. (Beans will not cook in salted water, which is why you are seasoning them now.) Keep cooking until beans have a creamy texture and are soft all the way through.

Chef’s Secret: Serve with some crumbled Greek feta on top.

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Kale Slaw

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 head savoy cabbage

1 head red cabbage

1 sweet white onion

2 carrots

2 bunches of red Russian kale (or whatever kale you prefer)

Dressing (see below)

Core and chop the cabbages and place into a large salad bowl. Julienne the onion and carrots. Chiffonade the kale. Toss together with the dressing.

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Slaw Dressing

Makes about 3 cups

2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 cups red wine vinegar

1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil

Salt and pepper

2 to 3 sprig each chives, parsley, thyme, rosemary

Combine all ingredients in a blender until smooth.

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Baby Back Ribs with Dry Rub

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1/2 cup chile powder

1/4 cup paprika

2 tablespoons dry mustard

2 tablespoons onion powder

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon cayenne

1 tablespoon coarse ground black pepper

2 racks baby back ribs

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Remove the “skin” from the underside of the rib racks. (The easiest way to peel it off is with a paper towel. Grab the top corner and peel back at a 45-degree angle.) Or ask your butcher to do it for you.

Season the ribs liberally with salt BEFORE applying the rub. Apply the rub liberally so that all areas of the ribs are covered.

To cook the ribs: If you are using a propane grill, place the ribs on indirect heat (don’t turn on the flame under the ribs). You are looking for 225 degrees in your cooker. If you are cooking on a charcoal grill, place the ribs on indirect heat by arranging the coals either on one side or around the perimeter.

Cook the ribs at 225 degrees for 2 1/2-3 hours or until a meat thermometer reads 185 degrees. Depending on the crust achieved thus far, you can flip them over and get some sear if desired. The top side of the ribs should be virtually black and the rib bones should be showing on both sides by about 1/3 inch. Let the racks rest for a minimum of 10 minutes before slicing.

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Marinated Barbecue Chicken

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 lemon, sliced

1 sweet white onion, sliced

3 sprigs each rosemary, chives, thyme, parsley

1 tablespoon coarse black pepper

1 tablespoon oil

5 cloves garlic, sliced

3 to 4 pounds chicken (preferably bone-in thighs or breasts)

Combine all marinade ingredients in a bowl. Place chicken in 1 gallon Ziploc bags, not too full. If using more than one bag, place an equal amount of the marinade in each bag. Seal bag and move chicken around to coat with the marinade. Store in refrigerator for 24 hours in advance of cooking.

To grill the chicken: Light a charcoal or propane grill and achieve 350 degrees. Remove chicken from bag and remove marinade ingredients. Start bone side down for 25-30 minutes; flip and crisp the skin side for 5-10 minutes; return to bone side until juices run clear off the bone.

Chef’s secret: Make a brush out of fresh herb sprigs, tied with twine or string. Brush the chicken with the marinade while it cooks.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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