A surprising percentage of the public apparently is afraid of bones, skin, fat, and any other part of the meat that betrays its living origins. I’ve encountered people who refuse to eat chicken on the bone, fish on the bone, shrimp with the shells, not to mention the heads. It’s a shame, because any cut of meat that includes the bone gets a flavor bonus, as well as a nice textural boost from the collagen in the bone and in the meat near the bone.
Strangely, one very popular exception to the boneless chicken ranch approach to meat eating is the pork spare rib. Maybe it’s because the rib is pretty user-friendly even though the bone figures prominently, or perhaps it’s on account of that – the bone serves as a built-in utensil, and the meat pretty much falls away without any resistance, so you don’t have to get as up close and personal as with a chicken leg or a whole fish. I’ve been racking (ha) my brains trying to remember the first time I tasted a barbecued rib, and I can’t remember when that was, so I must have been pretty small. I do remember my parents making them from time to time, and I also remember that, in the battle of the bottled barbecue sauces that raged during the Seventies, my family joined the side of Open Pit, original flavor. (My husband, I have learned, came from a family of Kraft loyalists. It’s like we’re from two different worlds here.)
The Seventies were a very sensory time – any of you old enough to remember will recall the decade’s fetish for shag rugs and chenille, Peter Max, and smelly things like fruit-scented markers, novelty shampoos, and scratch and sniff. I was crazy about all those things, sometimes to my detriment. In second grade, I became obsessed with the smell of strawberry shampoo and took to combing it into my hair every morning before school – after washing – to intensify the scent, a practice that came to an abrupt halt a few days in when my mother, appalled at how sticky and matted my hair had become, discovered that the stickiness turned to foam when washed and smelled exactly like strawberry shampoo. The next year – at the bicentennial – I became enamoured of two wall calendars, one featuring glow-in-the-dark Disney characters, and the other sporting a different thematic scratch and sniff food for each month (chili for February, pumpkin pie for November … you get the idea). When the food calendar lost its olfactory punch, I sought to make my own scratch and sniff book. My mother had given me this great cookbook of international dishes for kids called Many Hands Cooking, and I thought that dabbing a little Open Pit on every illustration of a tomato would be a great way to DIY. Witness, for example, the crimes I committed against the picture accompanying “Padstools:”
To anticipate your question, the Open Pit-impregnation method of producing scratch and sniff doesn’t work. The tomato illustrations smelled like Open Pit for about an hour, until they dried. Eventually, I found more suitable ways to express my feelings about barbecue sauce. When I started cooking, for example, one of the first dishes I learned to make was slow-roasted spareribs. Of course, back then my conception of the rib was limited to its most commonplace form – rubbed in a salt-ish spice blend and basted in Open Pit – but it felt like real cooking nonetheless.
These days, I find my favorite way to prepare and eat pork ribs is not roasted or barbecued, but braised. For some reason, although beef ribs conventionally are braised or subjected to other moist-heat cooking, pork ribs most often are given the dry heat treatment. But braising takes advantage of the bone, which provides great flavor and gelatin to the braising liquid. As you know, I’ve been working with the ibérico de bellota pork from Ibérico USA, and hate to waste any part of this rich, sweet pig. So to make full use of the bone, I like to braise the whole rack of ribs, and turn the braising liquid into a sauce.
One of the best and simplest ways to prepare this cut of ibérico pork, not to mention conventional pork ribs, is to braise in a tomato- and stock-based sauce (tomato on its own I feel is a little too thick). When finished, remove the meat and blend the cooking medium down into a nice tomato sugo – the sweet flavor of the meat seeps into the sugo during the long cooking.
Braised Ibérico rib, tomato sugo, penne
There’s no need to be particularly precise about cooking times when it comes to this braise, and it can be cooked, chilled down, and stored for later. Whether cooking or reheating, just remember not to bring up the temperature too much; it shouldn’t boil at any time. Boiling causes the muscles to tighten up too much and will make the meat fibrous and dry-stringy. Keeping the temperature to around 180F/82C will ensure moisture and tenderness.
2 racks, about 8 ribs each, of costillas de ibérico – if you don’t have these, use pork spareribs
one medium onion, peeled and small dice
1 small leek, white only, washed well and thinly sliced (reserve green for another use)
2 medium carrots, peeled and small dice
2 stalks celery, peeled and small dice
1 c dry white wine
1 28 ounce can tomatoes, broken up by hand
6 cloves garlic confit
2 c chicken stock
6 branches thyme
1 lb dried penne rigate
Salt and pepper
Remove the membrane from the underside of the rib racks (if you don’t, the membrane shrinks, and pulls the ribs into too much of a c-shape; also, you don’t want to serve the membrane). Season generously with salt on both sides.
Place a saute pan over medium high heat and, when hot, add just enough oil to film. Place the racks meat side down in the oil and brown well (if you are using ibérico, a considerable amount of fat may render); turn over and brown a minute more. Remove and set aside; spoon off all but about 1 1/2 tbsp of the fat. To the pan add the onions and sweat until translucent; add the carrot and celery and continue to sweat until all the vegetables just lose their bite.
Add the wine and reduce by half. Add the tomatoes and garlic confit and bring to a simmer, breaking up. Add the stock and herbs and bring to a simmer again. Return the ribs to the pan – meat side down is best to ensure they are fully submerged.
Reduce heat and cover. Keep just below a simmer until ribs are tender, about 2 hours. Alternatively, place in a 180F/82oven for about 4 hours. If necessary, cook longer; the ribs should offer no resistance to a knife tip.
Remove the ribs and separate the meat from the bones. Discard the bones. Transfer the tomato and vegetable braising liquid to a vitaprep or use an immersion blender to blend down into a sauce. The sauce need not be especially smooth. Season with salt, espelette, and pepper to taste. Return the ribs to the pot with the sugo and hold.
Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente. Drain and toss with the sugo; plate and top with the rib meat.
Special thanks again to the people at Wagshal’s/Iberico USA for providing the panceta for this dish.