In my last post, some of you may have detected the barely concealed restraint as I described what a gearhead is. While I was snapping photos and typing away, the gearhead was busy in the barn, methodically removing pieces off the front end of my car, replacing the broken bits, and with the patience of a saint rarely exhibited elsewhere in his daily routine, reassembling everything back into place. This was triggered by a passing comment I made last week that the front end of my car was making a clunking sound at slow speeds. Presto change-o, car no longer makes said clunky sounds.
Therein lies the rub. The advantages of having a live in mechanic (carpenter, mason, lumberjack, architect, electrician and plumber) can’t be understated. They must be weighted against the numerous metal specimens waiting their turn for the gearhead’s magical hands[wife edits: and that I take every opportunity to complain about]. Marriage, as in most things, is about balance. So it’s with a whiff of apology that I offer up today’s recipe: a counterbalance to the recent vegetarian fare, pork ribs; gratefulness embodied.
It pays to source your pork back ribs from a happy pig; that is, one that’s had a frolicking good time during its abbreviated life, with ample space and fresh air and good kitchen scraps to eat. You might be imagining green pastures here, but any pig worth its salt will pile through grass faster than any tiller – the resulting mud that they love to wallow in is good sunscreen. All these aspects of a pig’s lifestyle will be transferred to your plate with flavour and texture that we, in turn, can be thankful for.
Ensuring a good pig is half of the challenge; the other half is making sure the happy pig connects with a good butcher (with a very quick and respectful dispatch between). Here’s a great blog entry of part 1 of butchering a pig (warning: graphic). To understand pork ribs, its good to use your own as a guide. Run your fingers along your own ribs, they’re relatively long, curved bones emanating from the spine (back), aren’t they? If you were a pig, the ones up nearer the shoulder are called the rib end (yes that’s confusing) and the ones surrounding your middle are the centre ones.
Although there are lots of different names for cuts of ribs, they all describe those cut from the “back” or “side” ribs. “Back ribs” are those cut from the back, “side ribs” are split from the back ribs (imagine your own sides) – they’re great for long braised winter dishes (they have more cartilage and fat that’s not pleasant at a backyard BBQ to have to gnaw through). The meat between the back ribs is very tender and the layer of the meat on the ribs varies with the butcher (and of course the pig)(you can ask to have meat from the ribs cut down, but I’m not really sure why you would bother unless you like the rib aesthetic). Back ribs with less meat or a lot of meat may be prepared the same way and either cut are equally delicious. Ask the butcher to cut away the membrane that covers the inside portion of the ribs – it makes eating them much easier [wife edits: those of you who notice small details will note that I forgot to do this with the ribs in the photo].
Back ribs are best when they have cooked slowly at low heat, allowing some of the fat to render and baste the meat, followed by short exposure to higher, dry heat (like a grill) with some flavourful sweet sauce or spice rub to finish them off.
Here’s the method I always turn to, derived from my days working as a waitress at Chez Piggy restaurant. I usually improvise with the BBQ sauce; here, the addition of 5 spice powder, with its star anise and cinnamon, provides some warm, alluring notes without being overwhelming. The bonus of course is how beautifully these flavours pair with Shiraz reds and their licorice-like scents. For whites, try one that is not too oaky but that’s young and dry, a non-oaked Chardonnay, or Chablis, for example. Or of course, the same beer that you use in the sauce, an amber ale or dark stout will be lovely.
For Ribs – serves 4- 6
4 lbs/about 2 kilograms pork back ribs
¼ cup/60 ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
¾/175ml cup water
1/3 cup/80 ml beer (a malty beer with caramel flavours is good but not necessary, some ales or stouts for example)
¼ cup/60 ml blackstrap molasses
¼ cup/60 g dark brown sugar
¼ cup/60 ml soy sauce
3 tablespoons/45 ml tomato paste
3 cloves of garlic, pressed through a garlic press or finely minced
1 small chili (piri piri) finely minced (remove seeds if you prefer less heat – don’t rub your eyes after mincing!)
2 teaspoons/10 g Chinese 5 spice powder
juice of 2 limes
Place the ribs in a roasting pan and preheat the oven to 300F/150C. Combine lemon juice and water, and set aside. Place ribs in the oven uncovered. Cook slowly for 2 hours, basting with the lemon water every half hour or so. If your ribs have more meat on them, they may need an extra half hour. Remove the ribs from the oven. At this point you can cool them and keep them covered in the fridge for a day before finishing them off (great for a dinner party where no one minds eating with your hands).
For the sauce, combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. If not using immediately, remove from heat and cover and set aside (in the fridge if not using soon).
To finish ribs, preheat a bbq grill or oven to 375F/190C. Warm the sauce over medium heat. Brush the ribs with the sauce and cook just to the point they’re heated through and some of the sauce starts to caramelize and blacken, maybe 10 minutes, being careful not to burn them. While cooking, check and baste with the sauce every so often. Cut between the ribs before serving. Have lots of napkins and finger bowls handy.