Ribs are the original hand-held food. They are portable; you can walk around surveying your domain as you gnaw on a bone.
They feel good in your hand, creating a primal balance, especially if you have a cold beverage in your opposing hand. And when done right, they taste outasight. To paraphrase Professor Harold Hill of The Music Man, I consider the hours I spend with a rib in my hand to be golden.
Until recently, most of my rib reveries came courtesy of pigs. Pork spareribs, those big boys cooked low and slow over a hickory fire, have been the centerpiece of many memorable feeds. Even those smaller pork ribs, baby backs -- which some of us regard as "wuss ribs" -- can be pretty tasty, especially if you smoke them.
But the other day I switched providers. Instead of pork ribs, I feasted on beef ribs. These were some spicy beef short ribs, a recipe I found in Steven Raichlen's new paperback Ribs, Ribs, Outrageous Ribs.
Raichlen is the local boy, the alum of Milford Mill High School who grew up, moved to Miami and became the prince of barbecue, author of The Barbecue Bible! and host of the Barbecue University series on public television. (He will be in the Baltimore area June 25, running an afternoon grilling session at the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills. Tickets, which include a copy of Raichlen's rib book, are being sold at $35 each at the JCC.)
I spoke with Raichlen by phone shortly after he had cooked burgers on The View television show, promoting his new book. We discussed the ribs of many creatures.
Raichlen did not quite buy my contention that beef ribs were America's forgotten meat. The real overlooked ribs in America are lamb ribs, he said, which are popular overseas.
A large segment of "planet barbecue," smoky cooks residing in the Mediterranean region, the Middle East and Indonesia as well as Australia and New Zealand, are crazy about lamb ribs, he said. The Aussies, he said, have a lamb-rib treatment, detailed in his book, that brings ginger, rum and pineapple together in a felicitous union.
But in America, lamb ribs are at the bottom of the ladder. Beef ribs are next in popularity, running a distant second to king pork. "Beef ribs account for only about 5 percent of rib sales," Raichlen estimated. Lamb, he figured, accounts for 1 percent of our rib intake, and the rest is all pork.
Beef ribs do have some selling points, and Raichlen ticked off a few, including their meaty flavor. "You are eating meat close to the bone, which is where most of the flavor resides. And there is a primal, cave-man pleasure of holding a rib," and that, he said, "is pretty cool."
Beef ribs, he said, come in two basic types, long ribs and short ribs. The long ribs -- also known as beef spareribs, back ribs or Texas ribs -- are what remains after the butcher bones a prime rib.
Usually these ribs are not very meaty because the butcher has an economic incentive to trim as much meat from the bones and sell it as top-dollar prime rib, rather than leave it on the less-expensive cut of ribs.
Short ribs, Raichlen said, come from the steer's lower rib cage and from the chuck end. They are usually about 2 inches long.
These anatomy lessons were brought home to me when I visited Henry Reisinger, a butcher who runs Fenwick's Choice Meats in Baltimore's Cross Street Market.
Reisinger showed me the large beef ribs, the ones called dinosaur bones that surrounded a luscious-looking hunk of prime rib. He also showed me the stubby, bony pieces of short rib. As he spoke, he was sawing short ribs into very thin pieces. This cut, he said, known as a "flanken-cut," was for a customer who wanted to grill the beef ribs quickly.
Most beef ribs, I learned, require long, slow cooking and while short ribs are full of flavor, their tough meat usually requires a marinade or other softening procedures to tenderize them.
I softened the 4 pounds of short ribs I bought from Reisinger by slathering them with a potent rub found in Raichlen's book and letting them sit in the fridge for 24 hours before cooking.
The ingredients in the rub were similar to those used in making pastrami, another of my favorite meats. But until I saw this rub recipe, I never thought that the twain of beef ribs and pastrami spicing would meet.
Late one night I made the rub, tossing coriander seeds, mustard seeds, star anise, black peppercorns, brown sugar and nine -- yes, nine -- cloves of garlic in a food processor fitted with a metal blade.
Pouring in a little canola oil, I pulsed the mixture until it thickened into a paste. While applying the paste to ribs, I took a small taste of it. It was so potent it made my eyes water. When I put the coated ribs in large plastic bags to sit overnight in the fridge, I added another bag, a second layer of protection. I was afraid this mighty rub could eat through one bag.
The next evening I made a charcoal fire in my backyard kettle cooker, tossed on chunks of well-soaked hickory wood and cooked the beef ribs slowly. The kettle lid was on and the ribs were positioned away from the fire, cooking for a little over two hours, basted with a mop sauce of ginger ale, salt and vinegar.
When the ribs came off the grill they were dark brown, sizzling and had an aroma redolent of pastrami. The spices had been mellowed somewhat by their night in the fridge. They did not make my eyes water, but they were far from shy. The meat was moist. Most of the beef fat on the ribs had melted in the cooking process, helping to tenderize the meat.
These spicy beef ribs were pleasing. While they would not replace pork spareribs at the pinnacle of my pyramid of rib pleasures, they did offer a toothsome change of routine. They also delivered that winning twosome, good flavor and the primordial joy of holding a bone in your hand at mealtime.
Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.
Grandpa's Barbecued Pastramied Short Ribs
3 to 4 pounds bone-in beef short ribs
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 1/2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 whole star anise, broken in pieces, or 1 teaspoon aniseed or ground anise
2 tablespoons mustard seeds
3 tablespoons dark-brown sugar
1 large head of garlic (8 to 10 cloves) broken into individual cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1 to 2 tablespoons canola or other vegetable oil
1 cup ginger ale
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1 1/2 cups wood chips or chunks, soaked in water for at least 1 hour
Using a sharp knife, deeply score the meaty top of each rib in a crosshatch pattern. Cuts should be about 1/2 inch deep and 1/2 inch apart. Place in a nonreactive roasting pan. Place the coriander seeds, peppercorns, anise, mustard seeds and brown sugar either in mortar and pound them with a pestle, or in a food processor fitted with metal blade, running the machine in short bursts.
Add the garlic, either by pounding it in if using the pestle or pulsing it in if using the food processor. Add 2 tablespoons of salt and enough oil to obtain a thick paste.
Using a spatula, spread the rub over the ribs on all sides. Cover the ribs tightly with plastic wrap and let them marinate in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours.
Just before you plan to grill, make the mop sauce by placing the ingredients in a small nonreactive bowl and whisking until the salt dissolves.
Set up a charcoal grill for indirect grilling (coals to the sides) and preheat to medium, 325 degrees to 350 degrees. Place a large drip pan in the center of the grill under the grate.
Place ribs, bone side down, in the center of grate, away from the heat. Toss wood chips on coals. Cover the grill (with vents in lid open) and cook the ribs for 45 minutes. Baste the ribs on both sides with the mop sauce. Re-cover the grill and continue cooking the ribs until cooked through and very tender, 45 minutes to 1 1/4 hours or up to 2 hours. Mop the ribs once or twice more, and if they start to brown too much after 1 1/2 hours, wrap them in aluminum foil.
Transfer the ribs to a platter and let rest a few minutes. Serve the barbecue sauce of choice.
From "Raichlen on Ribs, Ribs, Outrageous Ribs" by Steven Raichlen
Per serving: 918 calories, 38 grams protein, 74 grams fat, 30 grams saturated fat, 25 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams fiber, 154 milligrams cholesterol, 3,389 milligrams sodium