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Flavors: Summer Food Made with Smoke and Fire

Blues Barbecue Ribs.jpg
Stella Fong
The seasoning on Blue’s BBQ ribs remains a secret. Owner Ken Hager tells of the spice formula coming from the hills of Mexico.

In the height of summer, the smoky aroma of food cooking over a fire gathers people together. Though precautions need to be taken during this COVID 19 Pandemic, experts agree that dining al fresco is safer, allowing for social distancing while still enjoying friends and great barbecue.

Before the home cook can grill or smoke under the Big Sky, she must have the right equipment. Jade Haynie, barbecue expert at Billings Hardware, believes the beginner should start with a propane barbecue. “I call it the college grill. You can get into one of those for under $120. They’re a good starter grill for anyone who has not had one.” For the price and longevity, the term “college” is appropriate with its lower cost to fit a tight budget and its expected longevity of about four years.
Increasing the price on propane grills brings a lot of options. “For $1000, you’re going to get stainless steel grates. It's a pretty large square footage area for cooking. You usually get three to four burners, and you get a side burner in case you want to cook corn or beans.”

Jade Haynie Billings Hardware.jpg
Stella Fong
Jade Haynie of Billings Hardware stands by a Traeger grill, a wood pellet grill that can be temperature controlled for grilling and smoking.

Charcoal grills are another option. These grills use charcoal briquettes that require lighter fluid, and time for them to burn down. With charcoal, 20 to 30 minutes is needed for the briquettes to be hot and glowing and no longer smoking before cooking can begin, whereas propane can deliver almost instant gratification. The charcoal grill has to be monitored as the coals burn off.

Nowadays, the most popular grill is the wood pellet grill. Wood pellet grills use an auger that moves the pellets from a hopper to an electric fire pot underneath the grill. Once the pellets are in the pot, they ignite. A fan blows over the fire to modulate the cooking temperature allowing for relatively precise control. The pellets come in different flavors such as mesquite, hickory, oak, cherry and apple. The fruit options work best for fish and pork while mesquite is a good choice for beef and poultry.

With the ability to control temperatures, the pellet grill functions as a great smoker. The main differences between grilling and smoking are the heat levels and cooking times. Grilling usually takes place over higher heat for a short time while smoking utilizes low heat over a longer period of time, from hours to days.

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Stella Fong
In his food truck Burnin the Bone on Pemberton Lane in the Billings Heights, Brock Ninker hands over an order of "Biscuit and Gravy Sundae" and "Brisket N Bacon Sub."

The more expensive wood pellet grills include many options, “They’re WiFi capable so you can actually control the grill with your phone once it’s on. It’s good for Thanksgiving. You can set the grill, turn it up, put your turkey in there, and let it smoke for eight hours.”

Along with flavoring with a variety of sauces and seasoning, a temperature gauge makes for successful grilling and smoking at home.

What if you don’t want to cook up your own summer feast? Locally the flavors of summer can be found at the Burnin the Bone food truck or Blue’s Barbecue, both in the Billing Heights.
I found out about Burnin the Bone from Yellowstone Public Radio’s Jess Sheldah, host of Morning Edition and the news podcast, The Worm, who enjoys their breakfast burritos. I was intrigued about a smoked breakfast so got up early and made the trek to the Heights to give them a try.

Owner Brock Ninker explained that his dad called barbecuing “burning the bone”, hence the moniker of his food truck.

Ninker’s favorite foods are brisket and eggs, “So why won’t they go together I figured? So I started to make brisket burritos and people loved them, so we started to do all kinds of breakfast stuff. There’s a little barbecue here and there, and we call it fusion barbecue.” Ninker’s definition of fusion: “We try and twist any dish we have with our own little flair in some fashion or another to make it our own.” His “Biscuit and Gravy Sundae” comes in a cup with sausage gravy layered between three grilled slices of biscuit while the gut busting “Big Hog Burrito” is stuffed with smoked brisket, pulled pork, shredded chicken, potatoes, eggs, cheese and sausage gravy.

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Stella Fong
Blue’s BBQ has been located in a gas station in the Billings Heights since 2004 when owners Ken and Kim Hager relocated there from Sheridan, Wyoming.

The secret to Ninker’s brisket? “The quality of the meat is everything, and cooking low and slow. Take your time. Don’t hurry, and let it do its thing and the end result is always worth the wait.”

To wash it all down Ninker’s wife Sasha has a coffee kiosk adjacent to his truck. “We are the quintessential husband and wife team of entrepreneurs.” The family affair continues with daughter Robin and sons Thomas and Drake helping out.
Blue's BBQ has been a fixture on Hilltop Road since 2004 and are most famous for their ribs. Kim Hager and her husband Ken started their barbecue business in Sheridan, Wyoming in 1995. A customer who lived in Billings suggested they move the business north and they found a spot in the former Village Mart, where they remain today.

Kim learned about the Oklahoma-style barbecue from her husband’s childhood home, and used the cooking skills she learned growing up in Wyoming to open Blue's BBQ. Her grandmother and mom cooked, canned, ranched and farmed, feeding field workers and branders on their Wyoming ranch, so cooking on a large scale was natural for Kim.

Her grandmother’s inspirations are found in many of the offerings at Blue's BBQ. “The potato salad was actually my grandmother’s recipe, and that actually takes longest to make just because we have to cook the potatoes and cool them down properly, and do all the eggs and the dressing.” She is most proud of her potato salad which contains hard boiled eggs, gherkin pickles and onions.

Though Ken believes his smoked meats should be served without sauce to highlight the seasoning and smoke flavors, Kim convinced him to provide optional sauces on the side. The regular and spicy barbecue sauces come from a recipe her grandmother created years ago. “The sauce is actually very simple. It’s just ketchup, brown sugar and garlic. There’s not a lot of ingredients in the barbecue sauce, but I think it picks up some of the smoky flavor that just permeates throughout Blue's BBQ.”

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Stella Fong
Blue's BBQ co-owner Kim Hager holds a plate of ribs with potato salad and pit baked beans.

While the sauce absorbs the ambient smoke flavors, the “Pit Baked Beans” are cooked in the smoker with ham and onions and the house seasoning. “The heat helps caramelize them, and that’s how we get that good flavor, the smoker just makes things so much better,” Kim said.

The “better” may also come from the seasoning, but Ken is not divulging its formula. “The seasoning is a secret. My husband has a story. He says it’s made in the hills of Mexico, but he’s never told me the secret of the spice, he does all of that,” Kim said.

The secret flavoring was a favorite of Kim’s grandmother, who passed away a year after they opened in Sheridan. Her grandparents were “just so proud and loved the ribs. Anytime we came to their house we always had to bring the ribs, specifically. Grandma also loved the potato salad and gave it her blessing.”

That blessing has carried Blue's BBQ through the years, especially during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Though their catering business has slowed significantly, the restaurant was already set up with a drive-thru, so customers continued to take out food. “We’re one of the fortunate restaurants that has been able to stay open most of the time,” Kim shared.

While the weather continues to sizzle, the taste of summer can be found on your own grill or from the foods cooked low and slow from Burnin the Bone and Blue's BBQ.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.