Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Once upon a midsummer's night's ribs

Once upon a midsummer night cheery, I thought to myself, "Oh deary,
"I have yet to think of a dinner for,
"The midsummer night's feast that comes a'creeping,
"The luscious fruits of which we must have more,
"The roasted meats upon which we will feast, evermore."

All right, all right, wrong midnight creeping, I know, but I thought it was funny. So I'm easily amused.

Obviously, I wanted to do something with A Midsummer Night's Dream, but it was hard. All that came to mind was some sort of "pork-butt-Bottom the Weaver" kind of joke and a "what the Puck." I couldn't make it all come together. At least not quickly, and I do want to get this post out before Midsummer Night's Eve.

OK, OK, so technically the summer solstice was yesterday, but they won't be celebrating Midsummer Night's Eve in Sweden until this Friday, so I think we're good. This is a story of some amazing pork ribs that I highly recommend grilling for a midsummer night feast or the fourth of July or any other summer-y celebration. Heck, these would be good in winter, and nothing beats tending a grill in wild weather. But here's fair warning: Grilling ribs right takes a lot of time. You want at least three hours on the grill, and more is better. Why? Ribs have a lot of cartilage, which is tough connective tissue. It takes a long time before it melts, but when it does, you have tender, juicy meat heaven. (Apologies to my vegetarian friends; these ribs make me quite the savage.)

First, here are some notes about my grilling setup. I use a Weber kettle grill with charcoal. Lump charcoal, not briquettes (I don't like the way they burn and I believe they leave a chemical aftertaste in the food). So if you have a gas grill, you might want to check out a book on grilling to get more info about how to do this with your equipment. Steve Raichlen's BBQ USA has been a good source for me.

I start by applying a dry rub to a four-pound slab of ribs from Haskins Family Farm (if you know me at all, this is obvious; I like the family, I like their attitude about farming, and I love their products). A dry rub is a blend of salt, sugar, and spices that you rub on meat and leave on for a few hours. This is my blend (and it makes a lot, so that you can either double the amount of ribs or use about half of the rub and set the rest aside for another time):

3/4 cups salt
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
2 Tbsp dried mustard
2 Tbsp paprika
2 Tbsp cumin
2 Tbsp coriander
1 tsp black pepper

This deviates quite a bit from Alton Brown's formula of 8 parts sugar, 3 parts salt, plus 2 parts spices/flavorings, which is a great formula, so if you want to come up with your own blend (and I highly recommend doing so), go ahead and use that.


Lay the ribs out on a baking sheet with some paper towels underneath and rub big handfuls of your blend all over the meat (both sides). Set it aside for at least two hours, but you could probably leave these overnight (if you have a refrigerator that will accommodate. I don't, so I put the pan in a nice cool spot where the dog can't reach the ribs. You don't really have to worry about any bacteria buildup because of the high salt and sugar content of the rub).

Now, while those sit and soak up flavor, make the mop (you can also do this a day or two ahead if you'd like). A mop, in grilling terms, is basically any liquid goodness that you smear on the rubs while they are cooking (others may call it barbecue sauce, but because this is grilling not barbecuing, I try to call it a mop; also, I like the word mop). This mop uses blueberries, but almost any juicy summer fruit will work well (fruit and pork are just so happy together). These are the ingredients:

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium to large onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cup frozen (wild) blueberries (I prefer frozen here because the freezing process breaks down the cell walls and lets the juices flow freely)
3/4 cup light soy sauce
5 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp ketchup (optional, but it can add to the tang)
3 Tbsp sherry vinegar (you can replace this with cider vinegar or red wine vinegar, but you may want to increase the amount to 4 tablespoons because sherry vinegar is typically very strong)

Heat the oil in a pot and add the onions. Let them caramelize over low heat (takes about 10 minutes). If they burn slightly, it's not a disaster. If they burn a lot, you'd better start over. The bitterness of slightly burnt onions actually adds to the flavor.

 
Then add the rest of the ingredients and let them simmer over low heat for at least an hour. Don't forget to stir occasionally so it doesn't stick to the bottom. The blueberries will partially fall apart; you can buzz the sauce in a blender if you'd prefer it to be smoother, but I don't usually worry about it. If you are using fruit like cherries, peaches, or anything with some skin, you may want to peel the fruit first or strain out the skins.

About three hours and 40 minutes before you want to eat the ribs, start the grill. It takes about half an hour to get the coals going when you use charcoal. By the way, I finally got myself a chimney starter for the coals, and it's fantastic. It does away with having to use chemicals to start the fire (which may affect the flavor), and it's surprisingly efficient.


When your coals are hot, pile them all on one side of your grill. When you grill food for  a long time, you use indirect heat; otherwise you end up burning your food to a crisp, and what a shame that would be. Place the meat on the side of the grill where the coals aren't and close the lid (make sure the vents are open so the fire gets some oxygen). The shape of a kettle grill ensures that the hot air circulates around the meat (it basically works a lot like an oven). You can use wood for smoking as well (I didn't the last time I made these ribs because I find the smoke to be a bit overpowering sometimes). If you do use smoking wood, make sure to soak it in water for at least half an hour before adding it to the coals.

Now, let the fire do most of the work. Every half hour, turn the ribs and mop them with your sauce. Be generous with the mop. Every hour, add about 12 fresh coals to the fire (and smoking wood if you are using it). Just keep doing this for three hours or more. Eventually, the slow heat will dissolve the cartilage in the ribs that can make them so tough. You will also notice that a lot of fat will melt off and the bones will start to poke out. If the bones are turning black, you can wrap them in tin foil. After at least three hours of this treatment, take the ribs off the grill and let them rest for 10 minutes before serving. The ribs will be unbelievably tender and so good you will want to suck every ounce of meat off them.

In the immortal words of the Animaniacs, "Helloooo nurse!"

Serve with potato salad and salad. Or with baked potatoes (you can do these on the grill as well if you like) and sour cream and salad.

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