Chef Melba Wilson likes to say she was born, bred and buttered in Harlem. Wilson got her start in the hospitality industry at her aunt's famed Harlem soul food restaurant, Sylvia's. Now, she heads up her own Harlem eatery, Melba's, where she serves up comfort food at affordable prices. She is also active in the community, contributing her talents to the annual Harlem EatUp! Festival, benefitting local charities.
Here are some of her signature recipes: Finger lickin' ribs, Melba's tres mac and cheese, sweet 'n' savory coleslaw, hush puppies, Uncle Herman's sour cream pound cake and muy fruity sangria
Finger lickin' ribs
4 to 6 servings
2 racks spare ribs
2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons hickory smoked salt
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1. Pat the ribs dry with paper towels. If the membrane hasn't been removed from the back part of the ribs, peel it off with a sharp knife. (It will come off easily.) Combine the sugar and all the spices to make a rub. Massage it generously all over the ribs. Give yourself 24 hours for the rub to do its work.
2. Place the ribs on a large sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil and cover with a second sheet of foil. Roll up the edges of the bottom sheet all around to cover the edges of the top sheet and make sure that none of the juices can escape. Refrigerate the ribs in their foil for 24 hours.
3. Take the ribs out of the refrigerator and, still wrapped in the foil, let them comet room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 300°F.
5. Place the ribs, still in the foil, in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Reduce the oven temperature to 250 degrees and bake the ribs for 3½ hours until the meat is tender. Open the foil packages to line the rimmed baking sheet and brush the ribs with BBQ sauce. Turn up the oven temperature to 350°F. Return the ribs to the oven and cook uncovered for 30 minutes more. Remove from the oven and cut them apart between the bones before serving.
Melba's BBQ Sauce
Makes 3 cups
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1¼ cups ketchup
¼ cup molasses
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup cider vinegar
1¼ cups light brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons chipotle powder
2 teaspoons dry mustard
¼ cup water, plus more if needed
¼ cup strong brewed coffee (espresso if possible), plus more if needed
1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add all of the remaining ingredients except the water and coffee. Slowly stir in the water and coffee until the mixture has the consistency of ketchup. Make sure all the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat to medium and simmer the sauce for 20 to 30 minutes. Stir in additional water and coffee if the sauce becomes too thick.
2. Use at once.
Melba's tres mac & cheese
Makes 4 to 6 servings
8 ounces elbow macaroni
For the cheese sauce
2 cups heavy cream
8 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded (about 1 cup)
6 ounces pepper Jack cheese, shredded (about ⅔ cup)
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon salt, or more to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
1 large egg, lightly beaten
6 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded (about ⅔ cup)
1. Cook the macaroni in boiling, salted water until al dente. Drain, and shock in cold running water to stop the cooking. Set aside.
2. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
3. Place the cream in a medium saucepan over low heat and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. Stir in half the Cheddar and half the pepper Jack along with the onion powder, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Temper the egg by adding a small amount of the hot cheese sauce and stirring gently. Continue adding small amounts of sauce until the egg is very warm but not cooked like scrambled eggs. Just before removing the sauce from the flame, stir in the egg followed by two thirds of the mozzarella. Adjust the seasonings to taste.
4. Place the macaroni in a 9x13 baking dish, or one large enough to mix ingredients safely. Pour in the cheese sauce, then add the remaining pepper Jack and mozzarella and half the remaining Cheddar. Mix well and distribute evenly. Sprinkle the last of the Cheddar on top, cover the pan with aluminum foil, and bake for 30 minutes. Just before it's done, remove the foil to allow the top to brown.
5. Serve hot or let it cool gradually to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Before reheating, bring back to room temperature and stir in additional shredded cheeses and cream to moisten. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven until hot.
Sweet 'n' savory coleslaw
Makes 6 cups
¾ cup mayonnaise, or to taste
2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup sugar
3 cups peeled and shredded carrots
1 (3-pound) head of green cabbage, shredded
¼ cup thinly sliced scallions, green part only
¼ teaspoon celery seed
1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, relish, salt, and sugar.
2. Add all of the remaining ingredients and mix to combine well.
3. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours and mix again just before serving.
Note: Mayo-less Coleslaw - Some people prefer their coleslaw with little or even no mayo. Maybe that 'show your mama made yours. It's more a German-style dish, almost like a pickled relish, and that's good, too. I just happen to like mine with lots of mayo, the way my own mother made it.
Makes 8 servings
2 quarts vegetable or soybean oil
2 cups self-rising cornmeal*
2 cups self-rising flour*
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling
½ teaspoon sugar
1 small Vidalia onion, chopped
1 small red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
1¼ cups buttermilk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
* Can't find self-rising flour or cornmeal? Make your own! 1 cup all-purpose flour OR cornmeal, 1½ teaspoons baking powder, and ¼ teaspoon salt
Variation: Hush puppies with jalapeño and creamed corn - Leave out the red bell pepper and add 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced, and 1 (8.25-ounce) can of creamed corn to the batter. Cook as below.
1. Heat the oil in a large pot to 350 degrees on a deep-fry or candy thermometer.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, salt, and sugar.
3. Mix in the onion and bell pepper. In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk and eggs. Slowly pour the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients and mix until well combined. Gently drop the hush puppy batter into the oil 1 tablespoon at a time.
4. Dip the spoon in a glass of cold water after each hush puppy. They're done when they turn golden brown on all sides (you may need to flip them in the oil) and rise tithe top, about 6 minutes. Drain them on paper towels and sprinkle with salt.
Uncle Herman's sour cream pound cake
Makes 8 to 12 servings
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon baking soda
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter (save the wrappers), at room temperature
3 cups sugar
5 large eggs, separated
1 pint sour cream
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, and baking soda and mix well.
3. In a second bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar together on high for 5 minutes, stopping once or twice to scrape down the bowl.
4. Still beating, add the yolks to the butter and sugar mixture one at a time.
Continue beating while you gradually add the sour cream. Next, beat in the vanilla extract. Finally, beat the flour mixture into the butter mixture. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl again to incorporate all of the ingredients.
5. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until fluffy, then fold them into the batter.
6. Grease a 10-inch Bundt pan with the butter remaining on the insides of the butter wrappers you saved. Spoon the batter evenly into the pan and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes to 1 hour and 30 minutes, until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
7. Cool the cake in the pan, then hit the side of the pan a couple of times with a fork (or knock it against the counter) and shimmy it from side to side before covering it with a plate and turning the cake out.
Muy fruity sangria
Makes two 16-ounce drinks
3 ounces apricot brandy
2 ounces peach nectar (I like Looza brand)
2 ounces mango nectar (Looza again for me)
1 ounce spiced rum (such as Myers's or Captain Morgan)*
16 ounces red wine (preferably merlot)
Orange slices, for garnish
Lemon slices, for garnish
Fresh blueberries, for garnish
* If you don't have spiced rum, just use any dark rum.
Combine the brandy, juices, and rum in a large pitcher. Stir in the wine and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Fill two 16-ounce glasses with ice, pour the sangria over the ice, and garnish with the fruit.