Making Room for Ribs.

Let me start by saying this: it is nearly impossible to write about baby back ribs without the jingle from a national restaurant chain becoming implanted for hours within my subconscious. I’ve literally put off writing this post for more than a week, for just that reason.

While I’m hardly a vegetarian, I rarely cook meals where a big chunk of non-poultry meat is the centerpiece. It was only a sale price on ribs combined with my handy Epicurious iPhone app that led to the unlikely occurrence that I’d head home with two racks and accompanying ingredients for a Southeast Asian dinner party.

Prior to the Itinerant Foodies trip to Asia this past April, I purchased (upon the recommendation of Columbus food blogger Lisa the Waitress, who had previously taught a class on Asian cuisine at the store) Hot Sour Salty Sweet, a beautifully photographed coffee table book featuring recipes from the southern portion of the Mekong River. Eager to try out one of the recipes, I decided to accompany the ribs with rice and a cabbage dish flavored with anise, ginger and garlic. I altered the recipe a bit (replacing the pork with bacon fat), but ultimately – due to my burning the garlic – the dish was the low point of the meal.

The high point was the sauce for the ribs. A few years back, I took a trip to Cambodia and fell in love with a dish called loc lac: meat marinated and served over lettuce with onion and tomato and served with a dipping sauce called tuk meric. Tuk meric (fresh lime, salt and white or black pepper) was easily my favorite component to Cambodian cuisine. While the ingredients are simple, the flavor they create when combined is complicated and incredible. This sauce, it turns out was the dipping sauce meant to accompany the ribs in Bon Appétit’s recipe. My guests raved and so did I. There’s no danger of being immodest when the recipe is simply: put three ingredients in a bowl; let your guests mix them.

The ribs, themselves, were pretty amazing, too. Enveloped for four hours in a marinade made up of lots of ginger and garlic and equal parts honey, soy sauce and fish sauce, they were tender and perfectly-flavored. Once more, I am astounded at how an ingredient so horrid on its own – fish sauce – can transform a dish from bland to interesting. I altered the cooking method offered in the recipe and chose to cook them through in the oven and finish on the grill.

After my guests and I devoured the falling-off-the-bone ribs, we sat around the fire outside for one of the last warm evenings of the season, drinking beer and telling stories and, every half an hour or so, bringing up the ribs and their citrusey, peppery, heavenly and light dipping sauce. It became a repetitive cadence far into the evening, erasing the old jingle with a new one: Damn, those were good.

Ginger and Honey Baby Back Ribs
adapted from Bon Appétit, July 2009

Ribs and marinade:
2 2 1/4-to 2 1/2-pound baby back pork rib racks, cut into 6-to 7-rib sections
1/4 cup chopped peeled fresh ginger
6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
Dipping sauce:
6 teaspoons coarse kosher salt, divided
6 teaspoons ground white pepper, divided
3 large limes, halved
Nonstick vegetable oil spray

For ribs and marinade:
Place rib racks on work surface. Using small sharp knife, carefully pry papery membrane off underside of each rib section (use caution—it will be slippery). Place ribs on large rimmed baking sheet.

Combine ginger, garlic, sugar, 1 tablespoon coarse salt, and black pepper in processor and puree to blend well. Add honey, soy sauce, and fish sauce and process until blended. Spread spiced marinade on both sides of ribs (about 2 tablespoons marinade per side for each rib section). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead; baste ribs occasionally with accumulated marinade on baking sheet. Keep chilled.

For dipping sauce:
Place each of 6 very small bowls on each of 6 small plates. Place 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon ground white pepper in neat mounds side by side in each bowl, then place 1 lime half on plate next to each bowl.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place the ribs in a roasting pan with 1 cup of water. Cover tightly with foil and roast ribs for one hour at the bottom third of the oven and 30 additional minutes at the top third of the oven. Remove when tender.

Spray grill rack with nonstick spray. Prepare barbecue (medium heat). Spoon any juices from baking sheet with ribs over ribs before grilling. Place rib racks, rounded (meaty) side down, on grill rack. Grill ribs, uncovered, 6 minutes per side.

Transfer ribs to cutting board. Cut between bones into individual ribs. Transfer ribs to platter. Before serving, allow each diner to squeeze juice from lime into bowl with coarse salt and white pepper and stir until mixed, then dip ribs into sauce.

Stir-Fried Cabbage with Ginger
adapted from Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

1 small cabbage
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons bacon fat
4 cloves garlic, minced
three 1/4-inch slices ginger
1 star anise, broken in two
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons soy sauce

Thinly slice the cabbage, then coarsely chop. Or grate it on a coarse grater. Discard any tough stems. This should make about 4 cups cabbage. Set aside.

Heat a large wok over medium-high heat. Add the oil and swirl it around to coat the wok. Toss in the bacon fat (or bacon) and garlic, lower heat to medium, and stir-fry for about 2 minutes, until the garlic begins to change color. Add the ginger and star anise and continue to stir-fry for 2 minutes longer. Raise the heat to high, toss in the cabbage and stir-fry for about 1 minute, pressing the cabbage against the sides of the wok. Add the salt and continue to stir-fry until the cabbage wilts and softens, about 5 minutes. Add the soy sauce and then stir-fry for another minute or so, again pressing the cabbage firmly against the hot sides of the wok, until the cabbage is quite soft and wilted, with the occasional very slight bit of crunch. Taste of seasoning and adjust if you wish.

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