Fourth of July has come and gone, but there will be many more grilling opportunities (I’ve heard some of you even grill in the snow — you know who you are). I spent the glorious Fourth where I usually do, at a backyard barbecue and singing party in Martinez, CA. My friends there have a small swimming pool, a gas grill and heaps of hospitality. Like-minded souls gather there year after year to play tunes on fiddle, guitar and concertina, to sing chorus songs and solos and, of course, to eat.
Every year I bring something different to grill. One year it was marinated steak. Another year it was my Mom’s traditional chicken recipe. Another time it was lamb shish kebab. One year I made homemade hamburger buns.
This year Mom happened to notice that Smart and Final had a Fourth of July special on pork ribs for $1.79 a pound. We went and looked at them. They were huge slabs of ribs, nine pounds or more. The butcher’s assistant mentioned that they also had baby back ribs, although they had none out. He encouraged us to shop for awhile and come back to get them. We strolled around the store, looking for inexpensive pumpkin (We found it in number ten cans) and molasses, which we bought by the gallon for $17.00. When we came back to the meat department the ribs were in the case: the only problem was that they were three times the price per pound of the regular spare ribs.
We discussed this briefly and bought a nine-pound slab of regular ribs. Once home, Mom hacked it apart and stashed some in the freezer while I went to work mixing up my favorite dry rub, cadged from a Ray Lampe recipe in a newspaper article and modified to include fresh garlic, to skip the allspice and to eliminate horrendous amounts of salt (it is still plenty salty). While I mixed up my spices, salt and sugar, she put the ribs in a Dutch oven, covered them with water and simmered them on the stove. Since she forgot about them, they parboiled for two hours, but she says you can do it in forty-five minutes. The long cooking makes them exceptionally tender though and softens the bones themselves so that you can actually chew on them like little foxes if you are so inclined.
Dry Rub for Spare Ribs (which also works on chicken)
1/4 cup raw sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup paprika (I use some hot and some sweet)
1 Tbsp each black pepper, dried onions, cumin and chili powder
3 cloves minced or pressed garlic
1 tsp each dry mustard and coriander
1/2 tsp cayenne.
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Place spare ribs in shallow container. pat rub generously onto ribs, both sides. please. Let sit in refrigerator. Mine marinated for eight or nine hours before grilling, all told. Four is probably adequate. You will have more dry rub than you need, most likely. You can save it in a glass container for another use, or you can put a pot of pinto beans to soak and use the excess rub to season the beans after you cook them.
While the meat sits, absorbing flavor from the dry rub, you can make a simple barbecue sauce. This sauce is not especially sweet, not especially vinegary, not especially tomato-y, not particularly strong of molasses — it is a good middle-of-the-road sauce that seasons without calling attention to itself, infinitely modifiable to suit your tastes. It is based on a recipe from our beloved Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook (They call it Texas Barbecue). While the original sauce calls for tomato juice, we started from a partial can of whole tomatoes that we had in the freezer and I used 1/4 tsp cayenne because we don’t have a 1/8 tsp measure and our cayenne is kind of old. I also used a bit of a “secret ingredient” — a few teaspoons of Prego left in the saucepan from a prior pasta meal. We nuked the tomatoes to defrost them and then did our best to squeeze the juice from them and break up the pulp, using a potato masher.
“Texas” Barbecue Sauce
Combine in saucepan:
A few tsp of Prego marinara (not essential)
1 cup juice squeezed from canned whole tomatoes
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp paprika
1 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp cayenne
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup ketchup
1/2 cup water
Simmer on stove for 15 minutes until slightly thickened. Puree in blender to remove any hard bits of tomato pulp.
I grilled the ribs for about ten minutes a side at the party — just enough to develop a little color and grill flavor. I put the barbecue sauce on the table so that people could help themselves. Mom and I were eating leftover ribs two days later and she commented that they were flavorful with no sauce at all — that’s the dry rub.
The dinner table held tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole, fresh corn, platters of fresh tomatoes with basil, feta and olives, bowls of mixed berries and cherries, fruit crisp and three different potato salads. The chief discussion before the singing got going was about books and reading. Some of us still prefer to read paper books that we can hold in our hands, like those on the shelves at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, while others pointed out the convenience of storing large libraries on their Kindles while traveling. Someone mentioned the ecological cost of paper and I countered with the ecological cost of toxic e-waste. Paper can be made of hemp or bamboo: bamboo, in particular, is a fast-growing grass — making books does not have to involve cutting down trees, but making Kindles currently involves manufacturing plastics with their unknown additives (industry secrets) and incomplete disposal: most hard plastic just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces and presents a hazard for wildlife. Just saying. Everyone at the table still reads, which gives me hope for the future (but nobody’s children were there this year). At any rate, I hope you enjoy some time this summer with a good meal, friends and a good book. And if you get to Paris, have a look at the upper room at Shakespeare and Company, a reader’s and writer’s paradise.
Things to Eat Right Now ( at least if you live near me in Northern California):