July 11, 2011

A Pork Conundrum Solved (More or Less)

While shopping at one of the Des Moines Hy-Vee stores (the one on Fleur Ave.) last week, I saw something unusual at the meat counter.   They had a cut of meat I'd never seen before, labeled "Texas Style Ribs."   At first glance they looked to be a rack of bone-in country-style ribs.  That sounded different, and they looked nice and meaty, so I bought a 2 1/2 pound rack.    I wish I'd paid more attention.

On Saturday morning I unwrapped the ribs in order to prepare them to go on the grill either that night or on Sunday.   Right away I realized I had no clue how to prepare them.   They weren't so much bone-in country-style ribs as they were a thin rib segment attached to a large chunk of pork loin meat.   They were wonderfully meaty, but I knew there would be no way I could barbecue that would not result in either the rib part being extremely under-cooked (and quite full of fat and connective tissue), or the meaty loin part being horribly over-cooked to the point of dessication.  So now what was I going to do?

I looked through cookbooks and magazines and online, but even when I found "Texas Style Ribs," I just found discussions about, and recipes for, more ordinary types of ribs - spareribs, baby back ribs, and actual country-style ribs, both bone-in and without bones - cooked with typical Texas BBQ spice blends.   I couldn't find a thing about this particular cut of meat.  Hy-Vee's website offered me no clues.  None of the major BBQ sites offered me any guidance, either.   I had to figure it out on my own.

At first I thought it might work to cut between the ribs to make individual servings, and to cook them the way I might a bone-in chop or bone-in country style rib.  As soon as I sliced one segment, I could see that wouldn't work.   Once cut thin enough for individual segments, the rib and loin portions separated off.   In hindsight, this shouldn't have surprised me, because the two parts were connected by only a thin bit of fat and connective tissue.    I was perplexed as to who on earth had thought to cut this meat in this manner, because it was obviously two different cuts.

I could have just cooked the rib and loin sections separately, of course, but that seemed a pretty poor solution.   You use entirely different techniques to cook pork loin and pork ribs, so I'd be essentially cooking two different batches of meat.  Plus, the rib section was so small that it didn't constitute anything like a proper rack, or even proper rack segment, yet it was too much a part of the whole - and the whole chunk of meat too expensive - for me to want to chuck the rib piece and just cook the loin meat.

So, grumbling, I went back to the cookbooks and magazines and recipes to figure out how I might cook this chunk of meat in the oven. 

I briefly considered a sear/braise combination, which is often used with bone-in country-style ribs, but I rejected that since I knew that cooking it long enough to render any of the fat and connective tissue in the rib sections thoroughly enough to make them tender would horribly overcook the rest of the meat.  I instead decided to go with something of an oven-smoking technique that can result in moist, tender oven-cooked ribs that, while not quite as good as what you can do with a grill, are still pretty good.  I figured that by placing the ribs on a baking rack inside a roasting pan, putting some liquid in the bottom of the pan, then covering the pan tightly with foil, the moisture trapped in the pan would hopefully keep everything from drying out too badly.   I also realized that by adding some liquid smoke to the liquid in the bottom of the pan, I'd be able to give the ribs some smoky "kinda-like-BBQ flavor" even while cooking them in the oven.

The only question was, should I go with slow, low-heat cooking, like one uses to properly cook ribs, or should I go with a shorter cooking time with higher heat, so as to hopefully render the ribs tender without overcooking the rest of the meat too badly.  I decided to go with the second option, as I was pretty sure a long cooking would dry out the loin section pretty badly.

With that decision made, I tossed together a spice rub consisting of 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of paprika, 1 tablespoon of chili powder, 1 tablespoon ground cumin, 1 tablespoon freshly-ground black pepper, 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 2 teaspoons kosher salt and 1 teaspoon onion powder.  That would be a lot of rub, but I figured extra flavor would help make up for the less-than-optimal cooking method, and that I'd also have plenty of the spice mix to add to the barbecue sauce I figured this meat would need.   I trimmed off a few areas of excess fat, rubbed a lot of the spice mixture on all sides of the ribs, then refrigerated them for about 6 hours, during which time I made lunch and cooked up a really nice skillet of cornbread.

Before getting the meat ready to cook, I preheated the oven to 375 degrees.  I added 2/3 cup of water and 1 tablespoon of liquid smoke to the bottom of the pan.   Any more moisture and I worried the meat would taste boiled or steamed, and I figured any less would not be enough to keep the loin meat from turning into pork jerky.  Then put in the baking rack and the ribs, sealed everything in foil and tossed the pan in the oven for 45 minutes.   At the end of that time, I took the foil off and let the meat cook another half hour uncovered, in attempt to give it a good, dark crust. 

Toward the end of that time, I tossed together a quick BBQ sauce.   I added a cup of ketchup, two tablespoons of spicy mustard, two tablespoons of molasses, a tablespoon of cider vinegar, a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, a tablespoon of brown sugar and a tablespoon of the leftover spice mix to a small saucepan, stirred together the ingredients and cooked it to a low simmer.  After about 5 minutes of simmering, the sauce was ready:  sweet and spicy with a bit of vinegar bite, and thin enough to add some moisture to the meat.

The result wasn't too bad.    The loin meat was indeed a bit dried out, but not horribly so, and while the rib part wasn't as well-cooked as one would expect with ribs properly barbecued, it was still quite good.   The sauce made up for the slightly-dry meat - Juli ended up dunking hers in a bowl of the sauce sort of how a kid might dip chicken fingers - and the combined flavors of the spice rub and sauce were quite nice.   Served up with the cornbread I mentioned earlier and a green bean and tomato saute Juli made, we had a pretty nice supper. 

I won't be buying that cut of pork again, but it was a learning experience, and it was nice to know I could come up with something that worked reasonably well even though I had no real guidance as to how to cook that specific cut of meat.  That tells me I've learned a lot in the past year or so of cooking, which gives me more confidence that I'll be able to handle other cooking challenges.

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