I've never before made ribs. I've eaten my fair share. In fact I have a great talent for stripping, chewing, and gnawing every bit of meat off a bone, leaving each of them completely and perfectly clean. As a teenager, my best friend Steve and his parents and I would take occasional trips down to Memphis where we'd stay at the famed Peabody Hotel (they have live ducks splashing around in the fountain in the ornate lobby) and then make a pilgrimage to a decades old dive that you entered through a back door down an alley, called The Rendezvous. The restaurant was cluttered, dark and loud and all the servers had been there probably since they were teenagers, which for most of them, was long before Elvis and Priscilla ever started dating. Dressed in starched white shirts and black bow ties, they never needed to write down orders. Not that the orders would be difficult to remember. Everyone just ordered ribs, slabs and slabs of ribs. Up until that point, all the barbecue I'd been familiar with was always slathered and dripping in thick sauce. In fact, my mother more or less braises her barbecue in the sauce. However at the Rendezvous, the ribs are coated with a dry rub consisting of garlic powder, oregano, celery seed, paprika, and chile powder. It was my first encounter with such a thing. I was skeptical at first and yet, once I sunk my teeth in and began the process of working shreds of meat from the bone, I was hooked. I then got my parents hooked. And then some friends in college. When a couple of them got married, my parents had the Rendezvous send them a couple slabs of ribs as a wedding present. To this day, for their anniversary, they always have ribs flown in. You can't beat the power of great ribs.
But as I said, I've never actually made them. With summer coming to and end and an impending three day weekend, I thought it was high time to give it a try. Now I didn't dare attempt my own version of what the Rendezvous has perfected. Instead, I decided to give an intriguing recipe in Susan Spungen's fantastic cookbook Recipes a try. (You might remember another Susan Spungen recipe that met with great success) Although these ribs do not have a dry rub, they do have an interesting sauce made from honey and espresso. Another bonus is that the ribs can be made in the oven, which makes it accessible for those of us who don't have space for a grill. Of course you could do them on a grill and I'm sure the results would just be that much better.
(For the barbecue sauce)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 cup espresso or strong brewed coffee
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup ketchup
3/4 cup honey
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
cayenne pepper to taste
(For the ribs)
1 1/2 pound racks baby back ribs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
First make the barbecue sauce. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and saute until it turns a golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the espresso, vinegar, ketchup, honey, soy sauce, cayenne pepper and a grinding of black pepper and whisk to combine. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens, about 30 minutes.
Remove from heat and let cool. You should wind up with about 2 cups of sauce. Good news. It can be made up to 2 weeks in advance and stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F. Place the ribs on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Generously season with salt and black pepper. Bake for 2 1/2 half hours. Remove from the oven and let cool.
When the ribs are cool enough to handle, cut each rack in half and place in a resealable plastic bag. Pour half the barbecue sauce into a measuring cup and thin with a little water and then divide it between the two bags, making sure the ribs are coated evenly on all sides.
Place the bags in the refrigerator to marinate for up to two days. Turn the bags a few times so they marinate evenly.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and remove ribs from refrigerator and let come to room temperature. Place the ribs on a baking sheet lined in heavy-duty aluminum foil and bake for 30 to 45 minutes brushing them with some of the sauce every 10 minutes, until they are heated through and glazed. Alternately, you could grill the ribs over a charcoal or gas barbecue until hot.
Cut the racks into individual ribs and serve with a small dish of the reserved sauce.
I'm a little disappointed that I waited until the end of summer to first attempt making ribs. But I guess we'll have warm weather for at least two more months (thanks global warming) during which I can do them again, and then when it gets cool I can try braising some of those short ribs that every other restaurant is serving now. Anyway, these were pretty great. If I don't sound overly ecstatic it's only because the ribs weren't as juicy and fall off the bone succulent as I'd been hoping for. I'm not really sure why. I'm going to have to play around with cooking methods. But don't get me wrong. They were really good, meaty, flavorful, not at all greasy, very satisfying.
The sauce on the other hand. Oh that sauce. That sauce is love. The color of shellacked mahogany, the sauce is so thick and sticky, it has the consistency of molasses, or sorghum, or honey or some other slow-moving, sticky-sweet substance. And yet the sweetness is not at all cloying. The bitterness of the espresso balances it out and adds a really rich depth of flavor. The cayenne, depending on how big a pinch you are brave enough to commit to gives the sauce a welcome heat without being overtly spicy. Then the soy sauce sauce imparts an interesting versatility making the glazed ribs work just as well with sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and thinly sliced scallions and served with some steamed bok choy just as well as it does with potato salad and corn bread. I decided to play up the Italian influence that comes from the espresso and served them with corn on the cob sprinkled with grated Parmesan cheese, potato salad with basil oil, and for dessert, homemade ricotta sorbet with balsamic strawberries. It's nice to have options.
Serves 4 to 6