To think that it’s only 20 years or so since butchers would bin their pork ribs – then along came the Chinese and made them popular. Today’s prices reflect their arrival – ribs for four cost not far short of the same as half way decent rump or rib-eye steak for the same number of diners.
The Chinese, who it’s said will eat anything on four legs except a table and anything with wings bar a ‘plane, valued the meat that was for gnawing off these rib bones of the pig.
Beer on a Sunday in Missouri?
They too brought about the earlier spare rib sensation in the USA where they are a phenomenon. I was once in Branson, Missouri on a Sunday being hosted by some locals who split their time between Springfield (MO) and Chicago. We stopped for lunch and the baby back ribs were a must – I’d never tried them in-situ. “What to drink?” asked the server – “Beer” I replied. Our table and tables alongside went silent – the boy from London just ordered a beer in Missouri on a Sunday.
Lucky for me was that I come originally from Wales where we had exactly the same puritanical streak bred into us. I laughed off my humiliation and ordered mineral water – more derision and mineral water was probably yet to arrive in Branson, now the rival country music centre to Nashville – or so they told me. Root beer or coughee was all that was left – I chose faucet water.
Why then are they spare ribs? There’s no clear definition – some say it’s because there’s ‘spare’ meat in between the bones, other reckon it’s because the rack cut away from the belly is spare, meaning it’s good for nothing else.
We like spare ribs, but admit the preparation far outweighs the end result. Eating in a roadside diner is maybe better, but making your own always seems the right thing to do. American is one route and Chinese is the other – yet everyone from the Irish and the Norwegians to the Germans and Poles have their national preparations.
For Best Results, Follow the Masters
Most important is the start point. For me the ribs must be to soften the gently poached to soften the meat and loosen it from the bones - either in plain water or with aromatics. The Chinese make a poaching stock of soy, rice wine or sherry, five spice and a little vegetable oil – this gives a deep colour to the ribs before the real cooking process begins. For any recipe Chinese, please reference the greats – Deh-Ta Hsiung, Grace Young or Yan-Kit So. I’m no more than a messenger.
Once poached, allow them to cool before marinating. The American rib marinade is roughly a mix of soy sauce, fresh orange juice, tomato sauce (not ketchup for once, but fresh made cooked tomatoes as in ‘sugo’ for pasta), hot paprika and fresh garlic. Cook and strain so you have a smooth marinade.
To cook you have two options – roast or barbecue. I prefer roasting for its all-round bake. Without a kettle lid, barbecuing is mostly grilling and that’s one dimension cooking. Check they are not catching as the marinade has a pretty high sugar content all in all and which will caramelise in a moment. For me pork ribs work best, but I have enjoyed beef ribs in Chicago which were good too.
This subject is taking us dangerously close to the best street eat of them all – Jerk Pork and Chicken. Again, pork wins for me because you cook it in a large piece and being belly, the lean to fat ratio is just about perfect for this style of food.
I make good Jerk – I learned over time from some masters – I watched them at the roadside jerk pits. But I wouldn’t approach the subject on my blog without special family friend Stephanie. She’ll give us the home version for peas and rice too – working from scratch. Stephanie is one special cook. I’ll check her availability before the summer is out – jerk is the original party food and needs eating with the fingers, helped down with ice-cold Carib, rum cocktails, soca and jump-up.