Friday, August 22, 2008

How Much for One Rib?

Barbecue is one of those truly easy foods. Well, a pause here: real meat recipes--your dry rubs and your smoke--are for sure more challenging, but since they require either $1200 worth of smoking hardware if you want to half ass it, or infrastructure if you want to slowly smoke the whole animal (which is to say, do it right), then within some approximate Puritan bailiwick, I'm doing my best with respect to real food. (And by the way, here's the only thing about the area I miss even a little. Worth the stop if you're going down I-95.) To make real pit barbecue, it helps if you have an aproned paunch, drawl, and only the minimum necessary number of teeth to leer. Because, you know, authenticity matters. Fortunately however, there are things you can get away with here in the Northeast, and it's likewise no coincidence that the cooking magazines all have a barbecue issue that conveniently centers, every July, on the sauce. If you have even a vague sense of proportion, the sauce is nearly impossible to fuck up. I have little explanation as to why any bottled sauce is so reliably treacly and vile.

Barbecue sauce speaks to exactly the sort of chemist I am, one who's better at influences and trends than at punctilious quantitation. Truth be told, I let my wife take care of the dirty mechanics of grilling, and I prefer to chuck in dashes of flavor on the range, according to music or mood. She can't reproduce a single sauce I make, but she's a much better baker, and to the point, can make our crap-sack grill cook more or less evenly.

Ribs are forgiving like sauce is, which is another reason they make the cover of Bon Appetit every summer. They're better grilled for hours--I get that--but they're delicious just by nature too. If you're making do with that middle-class schedule and that middle-class technology, then trust me, you can cut corners by chucking them in the oven for an hour, so long as you're sure to braise or steam them, so long as you don't think of applying any drying heat until those last twenty minutes or so on the grill, where that aforementioned sauce graciously agrees to take one for the team.

We have three or four sauce recipes that range somewhere between awesome and kickass, and the beauty of any of them is that they're all totally forgiving on proportions and whatnot. Garlic or horseradish? Ginger or red pepper? Cola or molasses? The answer is yes.

We're a little hard up for friends here at Chez Keifus, which I may have mentioned, you know, like, often. It's some unfortunate combination of geeky intelligence, debt-constructed poverty, and early-inflicted parenthood that wedges us poorly into this blue-collar town. We're sensitive to like minds, though they appear to be rare here, but still, you have to give people credit. My younger girl's friend's parents, it turns out, are pretty damned agreeable, got that cynicism and wit, and it's working for us, for that now and again. They're evolving food dorks too, and that's one good connection.

Let's call them Jim and Patty. Jim toughs it through a thankless night shift while Patty works days and somehow crawls her way through grad school at the same time, gets on with the path that will make them prosperous some time in the indefinite future, or so the story goes. They like food for similar reasons we do, life's short and all that shit, and anyway, everyone loves barbecue, right? Who doesn't drool over ribs?

Jim had planned to stop by for dinner, and we circled the hearth like witches hoping to entrap Greek soldiers or Scottish kings. Triple triple, shimmer and ripple, sugar glaze and bourbon tipple. Ear of corn, leaf of chard, hack the back of a newborn hog. How much for just one rib? Obligations came up though, as they do, and he arrived (with warning) too late for dinner. Still. Come on, Jim, one bite, have you nothing better to do? Will you go home hungry? Dude, it's ribs. One bite bro, one bite.

Like in any quality neighborhood, I grew up with a surrogate parent or two, and it's good to have second-generation friends, because the old world has kept track of traditions that Americans have evidently forgotten, and not all of them suck.

"Keith, will you stay for dinner?"

"Uh, gee, Mrs. V., I-I'm full, and my Mom, she, uh, ummm..."

The pressure would mount here, perilously enough, and now and then, back in those days, Mr. V. would also wander into the scene. "The pierogies? I made them myself," he'd say, and he'd clap me on the shoulder, as if I were a son-in-law. "Stay."

And how could I refuse? I liked to eat then, too, and if the pierogies were great--and oh man, they were great--then let me tell you someday about the Polish delis that dot eastern Connecticut. I frequently made those trips with my friend too. Yeah, good times.

Mrs. V. had a habit of pushing against my weak will until she gained purchase, at which point she'd dig in and push harder. "Stay. Eat," she'd plead, and I'd frequently find myself broken to her matronly resolve. She'd push food, and accepting it would put me in her thrall, some kind of passive-agressive exchange of power, and there I was at the bottom of it. To the right person, it set hooks. She broke me, and I love her to this day. She gets more beautiful every year she gets older.

And so here I am yesterday with Jim, and if I haven't mastered gingerbread, then we've got a bitchin' approximation of barbecue. "One rib, Jim. Come on."

"Well, Keith, I-I- my wife--"

"Dude, one rib."

"Well ...okay." He pokes carefully with a finger. "Well, shit, I may just take you up on that. They smell so good."

Yes. Yeeessss.

(Thanks Michael, I didn't bothered to search for it.)

UPDATE: The recipe got a request (or maybe two). This one my wife has made the last couple of times, so I don't know all the twists she's worked in. Good chance there's a little freshly snipped rosemary (got a little tree in the kitchen), possibly a little chipotles in adobo sauce (if she thought of it), possibly some ancho chili powder. Good chance we up the vinegar content too. But the basic version just comes from a magazine. Here it is:

couple cloves of garlic
half an onion
olive oil (or butter, or clarified butter)
about a cup of catsup (or pureed tomatoes)
1/3 cup brown sugar (that's what it says--does it hurt to add a little more or less? not for something like this)
1/4 cup vinegar (more?)
1/4 cup of bourbon (Omit if Keifus drank it all. D. tells me it calls for apple juice, and she used it. As if.)
squirt of honey
dash worcestershire
tsp liquid smoke
salt and pepper
dash of cayenne
dash celery seeds
(ancho powder?)

a little can of pineapple juice
(fresh snipped rosemary?)
pork ribs.

We wrap the ribs in foil usually, season the crap out of them, pour over the pineapple juice and wrap 'em up. Bake them in the oven for an hour. (Or else here is where you smoke 'em if you got 'em.)

Mince up the onions and garlic and saute them until they're soft, and then add the rest and cook it a while, simmering down and/or adding vinegar till you get consistency and flavor you want. We then grill the ribs over modest heat for maybe twenty minutes, basting each side with the sauce till it gets gummy and toasted.


twiffer said...

bourbon, yes. and as for apple juice, why use that when you have cider vinegar?

i've never used liquid smoke, because a) i have a smoker and b) dude, spanish smoked paprika. that stuff is awesome. as is this, which, having discovered, i now put on everything i can.

Keifus said...

Now see, this makes the whole "having a blog" thing worth it. The liquid smoke is okay used sparingly, where all you want to do is get a little something underneath. It never occurred to me to go with smoked paprika instead. That's an awesome idea.

Does the smoker work pretty well?

[Now that chili (Chile) powder looks great too. But as for "Great for dipping with olive oil, or sprinkling on nuts", ow?]

Bourbon ends up as kind of a sweet flavor in sauces (and pies, mmm), and even though it's really good, recipes in family publications often swap apple juice to avoid alarming the prudes (and so I always read "bourbon"). Switching apple juice + vinegar for cider vinegar makes plenty of sense, but it doesn't really sub for the booze that I think should be in there.


("Working at home" this week, and it's gorgeous out. I can barely concentrate on any of this stuff.)