Breaking out of a rib-rut means getting into hot water

February 17, 2002|By ROB KASPER

AS HAPPENS when you have a lot of spare time on your hands, I performed an aberrant act last weekend. I boiled some spare ribs.

There were not very many ribs - just three pairs cut in 3--inch lengths. And there was not much water involved - about half a cup. Nonetheless, the very act of putting pork ribs in water seemed like anathema to me. It has been an article of faith that pork ribs should be cooked on the barbecue grill, or in a smoker, over a low, slow fire.

The other day as I stood at the stove and watched the water bubble around the meat, I could hear the admonitions ringing in my ears from Rick Catalano, proprietor of Cafe Tattoo on Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore. "The only reason you put meat in water is to make soup," this pit boss had told me.

That advice was given several years ago. Perhaps, I wondered, the culinary perspective had changed over time.

"No way," said Catalano when I reached him by phone early this week. "It is a basic tenet of the religion that ribs don't touch water. You cook over a low, slow fire, or, if you're stuck for time, you can cook them in the oven. If you are worried about them drying out, you can put a little pan of water down in the bottom of the oven. But boiling ribs - my Lord, that is horrifying."

I was tempted to try the watery route of rib preparation by Mark Bittman, author of several prize-winning cookbooks. In his newest cookbook, The Minimalist Cooks Dinner (Broadway, 2001), he had a recipe for slow-cooked ribs that called for seasoning them with ginger, soy sauce and minced garlic. It also called for cooking them in a skillet, with water. This approach, he said, is popular with Asian cooks.

Bittman reminded me that the cooks of the world have discovered plenty of ways to cook ribs other than on the barbecue grill. He said the Asian method of cooking them wet, in water, soy sauce and other liquids, would be a good way to break out of my rib-rut, to change my decades-old habit of cooking ribs the same way, over a slow hickory fire.

He convinced me, sorta. I bought a slab of spare ribs, chopped a few off and gave them the boil-in-water-and-Asian-seasoning treatment.

It felt odd to drop ribs in boiling water, rather than to place them on a smoky grill.

It did not look right to see rib meat that turned gray as it cooked, rather than the bright pink and crusty-brown hues I was familiar with in backyard ribs. Eventually the boiled gray ribs picked up the darker, more attractive brown tones of the soy sauce.

The boiled ribs had excellent flavor but were not as tender as I would have liked. The slightly sweet sauce was good, especially when I spooned it on the side dish of rice.

As for the rest of the slab, I cooked it over a hickory fire. Change comes hard to a backyard rib fanatic.

Slow-Cooked Ribs

Serves 4

2 pounds spare ribs cut into short 2- to 3-inch pieces

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 star anise

1 dried chili

5 slices ginger

2 garlic cloves, lightly crushed

2 teaspoons sugar

Combine the meat, soy sauce, star anise, chili, ginger, garlic and sugar with 1/2 cup water in a skillet just broad enough to hold the meat.

Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low, cover and simmer for 2 hours or so, turning the meat occasionally and adding water, 1/2 cup at a time, if and when the pan dries out. The meat is done when it is tender and nearly falling from the bone. Remove the meat, spoon some or all of the juices over it and serve.

--The Minimalist Cooks Dinner by Mark Bittman (Broadway, 2001)

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