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Buy just 3 ingredients to make great barbecue sauce

Meat is giving up ground in my kitchen to meals that underscore summer produce.

Lacking much beyond bacon and hot dogs in the fridge and freezer, I was coming up short on ideas for a stick-to-the-ribs dinner to treat a friend who had just returned home from a wilderness adventure on hikers’ rations. Then lo and behold, actual ribs emerged from a drawer in my freezer containing the final few cuts of lamb from last summer.

Lamb ribs, as most people would surmise, aren’t nearly as meaty as beef or pork ribs. Smaller animal, smaller ribs.

But in some parts of the country, including a Portland barbecue restaurant that’s been featured on food travel shows, lamb ribs have their own following. And I knew that I could make them delicious with a homemade peach barbecue sauce.

I frequently make barbecue sauce for pennies of what a commercially prepared bottle costs and without the additives and preservatives. Don’t get me wrong: There are some high-quality barbecue sauces to be had for higher prices. But why buy barbecue sauce when it’s so easy to make?

Such is the opinion of Chicago Tribune food writer James P. Dewan, who crafted a piece within the past couple of months encouraging readers to try their hands at this supremely simple endeavor. Barbecue sauce, at its most straightforward, is just ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar and spices. Cooks also can read that as tomato or other fruit flavor, acid and sweetener, meaning this is a flexible formula.

Instead of tomato, I blended up an overripe peach without bothering to peel it. Because the flavor of fresh fruit is more subtle than tomato, I planned to balance the sauce with some other seasonings.

Like Dewan, I added cider vinegar but substituted molasses for brown sugar to give the sauce a smoky, earthy note. Instead of Worcestershire, I used Thai fish sauce to complement the Chinese five spice and ginger rub that I planned for the ribs. I also dolloped in some Dijon mustard for good measure and sprinkled in some granulated onion and garlic. Tasting and adjusting, as Dewan recommends, eventually will yield a sauce that hits all the right notes on a cook’s palate.

And that’s it.

After seasoning and rendering the ribs tender with 45 minutes or so in the Instant Pot, I turned on the oven to 350 F and basted the cooked ribs all over with the sauce and allowed it to bake on. After about 20 minutes and another application of sauce, the ribs were starting to char on the edges and the sauce had thickened to the perfect consistency.

A vegetable and bean saute resembling succotash completed the meal. And my friend tucked in for the first food he’d had in days that didn’t come out of a box or a bag. Asking what I’d put on the ribs to make them so good, he nodded in appreciation and asked: “What is barbecue sauce, exactly?”

See the answer below.

Barbecue Sauce That’s as Easy as It is Good

2 cups ketchup

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika

Combine all ingredients and store in refrigerator until needed.

Makes about 2 cups.

This one goes much heavier on the vinegar, and makes the ketchup optional.

Tarheel State-Style Barbecue Sauce

2 cups cider vinegar

2/3 cup brown sugar

1 to 2 tablespoons hot sauce

2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 to 1/2 cup ketchup (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan. Bring to a simmer and stir to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat and cool before use.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Tribune News Service photo