Many recipes for oven-baked pork spareribs or baby back ribs aim at duplicating the American barbecue experience. But porcine anatomy is the same everywhere: Italian, Spanish and other pigs have ribs, too, and somehow these get cooked without the typical barbecue rubs or sauces and without an environment dense with smoke.
Sometimes the ribs are braised, sometimes brined and simmered; non-barbecue rib recipes are innumerable. Admittedly, though, if I didn’t live in an urban apartment and if I had access to a wide-open space where I could set up a wood-fired, slow-cooking contraption, I’d probably be contentedly stuck in a hickory-smoke rut, too.
But any cooking I do has to be with regular kitchen appliances, and I’ve given up trying to duplicate what comes out of a well-tended barbecue pit. Years ago, I made the obligatory attempts — using a stovetop smoker, which is quite good for certain foods (though maybe not for ribs) and even smoke extracts – but the fact is you can go out and buy better barbecue than this city boy can make.
Jackie and I recently had friends over for what was supposed to be a purely meat-and-potatoes dinner. The original plan was to serve four racks of ribs from a great supplier, whose impeccable farm we’ve visited and the flavor of whose meat is remarkable.
Each rack was to be seasoned differently: plain salt and coarsely ground black pepper; salt and pepper plus medium-hot Hungarian paprika; salt and pepper, smoked Spanish paprika (pimenton), sliced tomato and spring-onion greens; and salt and pepper, lemon zest, sliced garlic, sage and olive oil. They would be individually wrapped in foil and cooked in a 250-degree oven for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, until tender. Potatoes — quartered length-wise with salt, pepper, olive oil, rosemary and a couple of whole garlic cloves — would share oven space with them, slowly cooking, also until tender. Then, the ribs would be removed from the oven and the temperature turned up to 375 degrees to crisp the potatoes. When these were nearly done, the ribs, unwrapped, would go in for a few minutes to brown — lightly.
Note the conditional tense in the previous paragraph. The moment we arrived at the farmers market to pick up the pork, our meat-and-potatoes scenario had to be revised. There were peas! Shelling peas! Our favorite! All of a sudden, the centerpiece of our dinner was going to be a big bowl of peas, cooked with spring onions and a little bacon, with strips of lettuce folded in toward the end to wilt.
So we froze two racks for later and chose two of the four flavorings for the evening’s meal — the pimenton version and the kind-of-Italian one with sage and lemon zest — and otherwise proceeded as planned.
This way of cooking ribs requires little work and less supervision; the cook’s only job is to get the seasonings right, which basically means not over- or under-salting and, frankly, there’s lots of leeway. The ribs come out of the 250-degree oven ready to eat, but the expectation of a lightly caramelized surface almost dictates returning them to a hotter oven for a few minutes. Unnecessary, but undoubtedly appetizing.
Both versions were eyebrow-raisingly flavorful; no sauce, no further seasoning was needed for either. For what it’s worth, my favorite was the one with lemon, sage and garlic, which could easily be the focus of an Italian dinner, with those same roasted potatoes and some sturdy greens, such as Tuscan kale, cooked with garlic and oil.
And the peas? They’re a whole other story, and one that many people, including me, have told repeatedly. All I will say is that they lifted our hearts in a way that meat and potatoes, however delicious, never quite manage to do.