Why is it that whenever I decide to grill outdoors in New York, it turns out to be the hottest day of the century? This has occurred several times this season.
Most recently, I had intended to light the coals and cook up a pile of ribs. But then I caved. Did I really want to stand over a hot fire in the scorching midday sun?
It was easy to opt for an alternative. I turned the oven to 250 degrees, popped in the pork ribs, and retired to an air-conditioned room, cool drink in hand. Over the course of an hour and a half, I visited the ribs occasionally, flipping them over and daubing them with some of the marinade in the pan. The major work was essentially done. Later, I would paint them again and let them sizzle and glaze.
The ribs themselves were not the giant slathered-and-barbecued kind; those are best left to the pros. Friends were coming over, and I wanted irresistible finger food on hand. Baby back ribs, cut Asian-style into three-inch, bone-in pieces, would be just the ticket. To determine how to cook them, I leafed through cookbooks.
Andy Ricker’s “Pok Pok: Food and Stories From the Streets, Homes and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand,” published in 2013, had a recipe for Thai-style ribs that looked promising and not too complicated. The straightforward marinade combines honey, soy sauce, ginger and sesame — the chef concedes the recipe is Chinese-influenced — rather than the lemon-grass and coconut-milk versions I had encountered elsewhere.
I also liked Ricker’s stubborn stance on how long to cook these ribs. “Not falling-off-the-bone tender!” he insists. Thai diners prefer ribs on the chewy side, with a little tasty, crunchy cartilage or gristle in the bargain. I concur, having found pleasure nibbling on chicken wings and drumsticks with similar features.
There’s no real way to hurry these ribs. The longer they stay in the marinade, the more flavorful they become: two hours at minimum, or overnight if possible.
I stayed faithful to the spirit of the “Pok Pok” recipe but, of course, couldn’t resist adding my own flourishes. I stirred in a bit of tamarind paste to complement the honey, and upped the hot pepper a fraction. This way, the ribs had enough oomph to forgo a dipping sauce. But feel free to serve them with a spicy dip if you want something more incendiary. You’ll have fire on the tongue, but at least you will have circumvented the heat of the grill.
Thai-Style Spare Ribs
YIELD: 4 to 6 servings
2 racks of baby back ribs, 3 to 4 pounds, halved lengthwise to make 3-inch ribs (ask your butcher to do this)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon tamarind paste or hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of grated nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne
2 tablespoons Shaoxing cooking wine, mirin or sherry
3 tablespoons chopped garlic chives or scallions, for garnish
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems, for garnish
1. Lay the ribs flat in a roasting pan. (You will have 4 long pieces.) Season lightly with salt on both sides.
2. Make the marinade: In a small bowl, combine honey, soy sauce, tamarind paste, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, red pepper, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and cayenne. Add the wine and 1/4 cup hot water and whisk well.
3. Pour marinade over ribs to completely coat. Marinate at room temperature for 2 hours, turning once or twice, or cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
4. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 250 degrees. Transfer the roasting pan, uncovered, to the rack. Roast ribs for 1 1/2 hours, basting with pan juices and turning ribs over every 20 minutes or so. If pan juices seem to be drying out or burning, add a little water to the pan. (Alternatively, cook ribs over indirect heat in a covered charcoal grill, turning ribs every 20 minutes or so.)
5. Pour juices from the roasting pan into a small saucepan. Spoon off fat from surface of sauce, then simmer sauce for a few minutes until slightly thickened, then use the juices to paint the ribs.
6. Turn up oven heat to 400 degrees. Return ribs to oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until nicely glazed. (Alternatively, return ribs to the grill to glaze.)
7. Use a sharp knife to divide ribs, cutting between the bones. Pile ribs onto a platter, sprinkle with garlic chives and cilantro, and serve.
And to Drink …
As you sit down to eat these Thai-style ribs in the August heat, your natural inclination may be to reach for a cold beer. Who could object? A brisk lager of any type would be delicious. So would a tart gose-style beer, or any relatively straightforward low-alcohol brew. If you would prefer a wine, look for the same characteristics, beginning perhaps with carbonation. A simple sparkling wine in the pétillant-naturel category would be excellent, particularly if it has a touch of sweetness as some do. Lightly sweet still wines, balanced with lively acidity, would also go well, like German kabinett rieslings, or even demi-sec Vouvray. Other alternatives? Good, dry rosé, the wine of the moment, is a natural. Or you could try a fresh red, whether from the Loire Valley, Beaujolais, the Veneto region of Italy or anywhere else.
— ERIC ASIMOV