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The Virtual Gormand 16: Something Different

Monday October 6, 2014

I want to be clear about something. I don't like barbecue. I LOVE barbecue!

Smoky. Spicy. Saucy and tangy and sweet. Pork, chicken or beef. From the grill or from the smoker. I love it all.

My wife, the Nurse, swears my blood type is barbecue sauce. Barbecue is the one food I never tire of, and the one thing you can always find in my home.

Whether it's a dry-rubbed brisket, a batch of mustard-sauced chicken quarters, a pulled pork shoulder or several racks of ribs - if there isn't any in my icebox, then check my grill. I grill or smoke three times a week, no matter what the weather. Six inches of snow and winds 'blowing' the temp to below zero? Fire up the Weber or the smoker!

For me, barbecue is like sex. Even if it is awful, it's still pretty good.

DSC00172Pork prices, while on the upswing (due to the Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus or PEDV for short, increased costs of feed and the weakened dollar), have been moderate of late. Knowing that pork is going to become increasingly expensive and therefore a lesser part of our future diet, I've been indulging in it this summer while it is still affordable. Consequently, I found myself last week with three racks of baby back (also known as loin back) ribs in my fridge that needed to be used.

Now, I could easily blame the family for being tired of barbecue. I also can't deny that I was more interested in sitting on the couch, drinking craft beer and watching football on TV. I simply didn't want to be 'tied to' the smoker all afternoon. What it all added up to was something different for dinner.

Since I wasn't interested in tending a fire all day, I decided to use (GASP!) the oven to roast those ribs. Sweet and spicy was still an attractive option to my palate. But I also needed a strategy that wouldn't require smoking to bring out the flavor of the pork. Roasting the ribs in the oven meant that I could maintain an even temperature (something that is key to making succulent ribs) and still lie comfortably on the couch, drink beer and watch the SEC beat the snot out of the other conferences (and each other) with impunity.

The family hadn't eaten anything Asian for awhile, so that tact ended up being my main focus.I grabbed the ribs out of the fridge, opened and rinsed them and started to prepare them for dinner.

Baby back ribs come from the top of the rib cage, just below the spine and behind the loin. They are often included in what is known as the crown roast of pork, where the meat between the ribs is trimmed and the loin cut so as to create a ring of meat between the two racks (which are usually then tied together).

DSC00173Baby back ribs are the easiest type to prepare for the grill, as they need no trimming (unlike spare ribs, which come from the belly part of the rib cage). All that's required is to remove the membrane along the ribs themselves. And this is a breeze to accomplish.

I've found that the easiest way to remove the membrane is to work your fingernail between it and one of the middle bones of the rack all the way through. From there, all that is needed is to pull the membrane over to one side of the rack until it is free, and then pull the whole membrane off of the other side. If you have trouble getting a grip on the membrane, a paper towel makes the job that much easier. Removing this membrane will not only make the ribs easier to eat, but will also allow the spices you are going to apply to penetrate and season the meat further.DSC00174

Now that the ribs are prepped, let's turn our attention to the seasonings. I already knew I was going to use a Thai sweet chile sauce to glaze the ribs, so the task at hand was to season the ribs to give them a spicier kick. Generally, folks mix up a rub - a combination of spices - and coat the ribs with it accordingly. I chose instead to apply each seasoning and spice one at a time.

The ribs that I purchased were already treated with a 15% saline solution, so the trick was to not make them too salty, lest they take on a more 'hammy' flavor and texture.

The proportion of spices can be adjusted to your taste, but here's what I used for each rack: 4 teaspoons of Kosher salt, 2 teaspoons of coarse-ground black pepper, 1 teaspoon of garlic powder and about a ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper. As I said, this mixture is adjustable according to your own tastes. Make it the way you like it.

After seasoning the ribs, I covered a baking pan with aluminum foil (to make cleanup easy) and placed the ribs on a baking rack suspended above it, bone side down. Doing this allowed the ribs to roast evenly and permitted the fat to render out without making a huge mess. I then put the ribs into an oven pre-heated to 275 degrees, and went back to my beer and the ball game.DSC00177

When smoking baby back ribs, the general rule is to keep the temperature between 225 and 275 degrees. The typical method is to smoke them for two hours, wrap them in foil with some sort of liquid, and then finish them off with sauce for the last hour. That clearly wasn't going to work here, and I anticipated that the ribs would be done faster than in four hours.

The other typical test for doneness is to pick the racks up from the center with a pair of tongs, and observe how far they bend. If they break, you're already past done.

Generally, a 45 degree angle on either side indicates that the ribs are perfectly done. However, you can also test them by temperatue. When the meat between the bones registers roughly 160 degrees across the rack, it is time to sauce them and begin preparing to pull them when they reach 190 degrees or so, depending on the rack. Every rack cooks differently, and no matter how hard you try to get multiple racks that are of similar weight, there are still going to be differences in how each rack cooks. Be patient.

DSC00180Now for the sauce. I chose to use a sweet chile sauce that is popular for dipping spring rolls, and is available these days at most grocery stores in the Asian foods section. Known generically as Nuoc Mam Cham, this sauce is usually labeled as Spring Roll Dipping Sauce. I've included a picture of the empty bottle so you can recognize the label on the shelf. The sauce contains shredded carrots and chile pepper flakes, so I would suggest you drain it through a fine mesh strainer with a rubber spatula to remove the fiddly bits and to make a nice smooth glaze. I generally start glazing the ribs when they reach about 160 degrees or so, and apply the sauce every fifteen minutes until the racks are done.DSC00178

You will want to let the racks rest for 15 minutes to let the juices redistribute. If you are worried about them getting cold, you may wrap them in foil and put them back into your (now turned off) oven.

Now to the sides. I saw the first recipe prepared on America's Test Kitchen a few weeks ago and it intrigued me. It makes a skillet potato dish that delivers the creaminess of boiled potatoes and the crispiness of fried potatoes all in the same pan. I tried it later in the week, and it was an amazing hit with the family. The best part is of the recipe is that it involves only two real steps and only one pan. More time for the ball game, I figure.

  • 1 1/2 pounds small red potatoes, unpeeled, halved
  • 2 cups water
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled (more if you like)
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh chives

Instructions

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1. Arrange the potatoes in a single layer, cut side down, in a 12-inch nonstick skillet. Add water, butter, garlic, thyme, and salt, and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, cover and simmer until the potatoes are just tender - about 15 minutes.

2. Remove the lid, and use a slotted spoon to transfer the garlic to a cutting board, discarding the thyme. Increase the heat to medium-high and vigorously simmer, swirling the pan occasionally until the water evaporates and the butter starts to sizzle - 15 to 20 minutes. When it's cool enough to handle, mince the garlic to a paste. Transfer this paste to a bowl and stir in the lemon juice and pepper.

3. Continue to cook the potatoes, swirling pan frequently, until the butter browns and the cut sides of the potatoes turn spotty brown - 4 to 6 minutes longer. With everything off heat, add the garlic mixture and chives, and toss to thoroughly coat the potatoes. Serve immediately.

The only part of this recipe that is essential is to swirl the potatoes as they brown. Otherwise, they will stick to the pan - even to a non-stick skillet, in my case.

The other side is the easiest vegetable dish you will ever prepare. I would recommend that you prepare it before tackling the other parts of any meal you wish to serve it with, as it needs to chill.

DSC00188Take two bunches of asparagus. Holding each spear at the bottom and roughly in the middle, bend it until the woody stem pops off. Repeat until all of the stems have been removed. Place the spears in a 9x9 Pyrex baking dish, cover them with plastic wrap, and microwave on high for 5 minutes. This will effectively blanch the spears.

While the asparagus is in the microwave, shake and pour a bottle of your favorite Italian or vinaigrette dressing into a sauce pan. Bring it up to a boil over medium heat, whisking it every so often to keep it emulsified. When it reaches a boil, add an packet of liquid pectin (you can find this alongside the canning supplies at the store, as it is a common ingredient in jelly making) and bring the sauce back to a boil, whisking constantly. The pectin keeps the dressing emulsified and revents it from separating.

When the asparagus comes out of the microwave, pour the dressing over it (be careful removing the plastic, as there will be quite a bit of steam to release) and allow everything to cool on the counter. Then cover and refrigerate the asparagus. That's it. You even serve the dish cold!

DSC00189 The ribs are rested, the potatoes are both creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside as well as perfumed with lemon, garlic and chives, and the asparagus is fully marinated and chilled.

It's time to assemble the final plate. Carve up a couple of those sweet and spicy ribs, spoon up some of the potatoes and lay the asparagus next to them. Delicious and easy enough that you can prepare an elegant meal indoors and still watch a ball game or two while it cooks.

I showed a glass of wine in the final plating picture. Wine isn't often served with ribs, but I ran out of beer by the time I made the photograph!

DSC00187

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bigoPublisher/Owner/Executive Chef BigO (Jason Clabaugh) resides in the north Atlanta suburbs with his family.