I find it’s easy to fall into long-standing habits with the main meat dish for everyday dinners. I keep returning to preparations that use ingredients I keep on hand, that are too familiar to need a recipe, that don’t demand a great deal of tending, and that are always a simple pleasure to eat. In the case of pork spareribs, a rack of which often populates my freezer, I almost invariably make them one of these ways:
- In sauerkraut, with onions, bacon fat, white wine and/or broth. Sometimes caraway seeds. Alongside, boiled potatoes. Maybe sauteed apples.
- In tomato sauce, with garlic and olive oil. Accompanied by pasta, of course, and crusty bread.
My latest batch of spareribs would undoubtedly have met one of those two fates had it not been for a chance discovery: While taking down Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking one evening, to recheck her way of making batter-fried cauliflower (requested by Beloved Spouse), the pages flipped over to a recipe for Costicine di Maiale alla Trevigiana. Though I’ve had the book since it first came out in 1978, I haven’t used it much in recent years, and I’d forgotten about many of the things in it – including that recipe for Pan-roasted Spareribs, Treviso Style.
Marcella’s headnote calls this a “deeply warming, most satisfying” dish, with the ribs “browned in hot oil, then cooked with garlic, sage, and white wine.” Those are unquestionably good flavorings for pork, and it certainly looked easy enough to do. So a few days later I gave it a whirl.
The recipe calls for a three-pound rack, cut into individual ribs. That’s very small for a set of American spareribs, and the rack I had was particularly meaty; I used only half of it, which was nearly that weight. I was to brown the ribs in half a cup of vegetable oil. That’s a lot of oil for an already fatty cut of meat, but I followed the instructions. My ribs stubbornly refused to brown very much – beige was about the most they would do – so I moved on to add thinly sliced garlic cloves and chopped fresh sage.
Continuing to follow directions, as soon as the garlic colored lightly I added a cup of white wine (also a lot, it seemed to me), raised the heat briefly to get it bubbling, salted and peppered the meat, covered the pan, and cooked until the ribs were tender. Marcella suggested that would take about 40 minutes, but my thick ribs took much longer – well over an hour.
Next, after removing the meat and keeping it warm, I was supposed to draw off some of the fat and add water to deglaze the pan. I didn’t need the water because my pan still had a lot of liquid in it – so much that I wouldn’t call this a pan-roast at all: I’d call it a braise.
Since the ribs had been in so much moisture for the whole time, they hadn’t browned very much more, nor did the finished gravy turn into the predicted “dark, dense sauce.”
The ribs were nevertheless quite tasty, though we couldn’t actually discern garlic and sage flavors in them; those must have just blended into and enriched the flavor of the meat. There were still visible fat layers, but since much of the fat had liquefied, what remained was mostly a sort of tender lattice for former fat cells, light and tasty enough to let us persuade ourselves we weren’t indulging in too much real fat, just its flavorful ghost.
Bottom line: Something like this preparation might well become #3 in my set of reliable sparerib recipes, but I think I’d turn it into a more conventional pan roast by using much less wine, reducing it almost to evaporation right away, and doing the main cooking in the oven. That way, I think I’d achieve more browning, which should intensify the flavors, as well as more rendering of fat from the ribs.