Growing up, my grandfather often worked hard over his grill to prepare some dinners that I still long for. To give us a special treat, he would spend an afternoon slowly smoking spareribs over charcoal and pieces of mesquite he cut at his ranch. Those were the days. I would watch him cook, noting his technique, and being me, always wished I could speed the process along to dirty my face with tender meat that fell off the bone. With just a touch of fall in the air, or maybe a return to normal temperatures, I went to work on a rack of spareribs.
My grandfather always parboiled his ribs in water, to tenderize them a bit more, and remove some of the surface fat. I took this idea a step further by using about 40 ounces of beer to parboil the ribs. Pour the beer into a five-quart saucepan, and add a teaspoon of minced garlic, a half teaspoon each of paprika, cayenne pepper and black pepper. Bring the beer to a roiling boil, and add the ribs- cut into smaller segments from a larger rack if need be.
We don’t want to cook the ribs in the beer, just tenderize them and infuse them with flavor. Cover the pot and allow them to boil for just five minutes, until some of the meat begins to retract off the bone, and set them aside off the heat.
Preparing a fire for ribs is another skill learned from my grandfather. He always thought I used too much charcoal during my younger years. Build a medium-sized fire in the grill. Once the coals are white all over, push them to the side. In the other half of the grill, place a fireproof pan of fresh water for a wet smoke, which will steam the ribs tender. Clean the cooking grate with a brass brush and place the ribs over the water pan end of it.
The second best part of eating ribs is the smoky flavor. If you don’t have any good hardwoods for smoking, buy chips in the barbecue section of the store. I blended mesquite with hickory for a unique flavor. For extra taste, add lemon peels, apple or pear cores, garlic cloves, etc. Soak a half-cup of each kind of wood in water for a half-hour before cooking. This keeps them from burning up too quickly. Once the meat goes onto the grill, toss a handful of chips onto the hot coals. Leave the vent at the opposite end of the grill from the fire, so the smoke passes over the meat. Keep the grill covered for a half hour, then flip the meat over, add more chips and re-cover.
While grilling, you may have to rotate the meat around to cook it evenly. After an hour, it is a good idea to do just that, and to baste the meat with sauce.
My gran always came up in a big way with barbecue sauce. As a child, I preferred the sticky sweet stuff in a bottle. Being a little older, if not wiser, I’ve come to love her special home made sauce. Gran’s sauce is perfect for ribs, as it is vinegar based and sticks on the meat better than any of the sticky stuff. A good sauce is the best part of the taste of ribs.
Start with the juice of one lemon, then add two teaspoons of flour, one teaspoon of both cayenne and black pepper, two tablespoons of mustard powder, a teaspoon of minced garlic, and a half teaspoon of both sugar and salt in a measuring cup. Add enough white vinegar that the level of the mixture reaches the one-cup line. Melt two sticks of margarine in a saucepan and add the vinegar mixture. Simmer the sauce, stirring frequently for about three minutes to allow it to thicken.
Most people know I prefer butter to margarine, though the latter works best for barbecue sauce. It won’t burn quite as quickly as butter, which keeps the ribs from being crunchy.
Once the sauce is blended, turn the ribs again, and baste them on top. Add more smoking chips and cover the grill for 15 minutes. Repeat the process for the other side, and they will be ready to serve, packed with tangy mustard flavor.
My gran is notorious for doctoring canned goods to add extra taste. Her baked beans often accompanied slabs of ribs. She would start by frying about 3 strips of bacon in a skillet, then adding a quarter-cup of diced onions to sauté with the bacon and the fat. She had to make sure the onions softened, because my mum detests crunchy onions. Once soft, she added a can of baked beans and mixed everything well. For a bonus of flavor, she added a tablespoon of brown sugar, a teaspoon of mustard (the condiment, not the powder) and a tablespoon of ketchup. I am sort of guessing at the proportions on this, but it tastes right.
Hawkins and I sat down to messy fingers and faces with tasty ribs, which had a hint of beer flavor underneath the vinegar mustard sauce. A perfect blend of sweet, smoky meat and a medley of spices. With a slab of ribs, we piled our plates high with baked beans, coleslaw and steamed squash as we sat down to watch our new favorite show, “Dexter.” It’s a bit morbid I suppose, and even if the protagonist has an odd habit or two, we find ourselves as ardent supporters as he takes matters into his own hands dealing with misanthropes. Cooler weather, great barbecue, our Labor Day holiday, and some quirky TV ensured that a good time was had by all. Good eating.
For the rest of this story, read this week's Cadiz Record.