Happy Chinese New Year! What better way to usher in the Year of the Pig than with a plate of succulent, tender, juicy ribs, glazed with an almost unbearably yummy sauce? Forget those hard, dry little ribs found on your last Pu-Pu platter. These bad boys are the bomb. They are sticky, sweet and savory all at once. You may cry with joy. You may want to set off some Chinese firecrackers to celebrate. I found this recipe on the New York Times Cooking website, which has become one of my favorite places to find divine new recipes. The recipe author noted that in China ribs are not merely served as an appetizer, as they are in many Chinese restaurants here. They are frequently enjoyed as a main course served with rice and a green side.
This recipe is actually fairly easy once you figure out how to set up the cooking pan. The instructions were a source of enormous debate and confusion amongst the cooks who reviewed this recipe. Don’t worry. We are including photographs to show you exactly how we did it. Once you understand it, these ribs are a breeze to make. The confusion arises because the ribs are steamed in your oven to make them juicy and tender. I used a sheet pan with a one inch rim and a rack:
Here are the ingredients. Nothing especially exotic is needed:
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
4 green onions, white and pale green parts only, plus additional sliced scallions for garnish
¾ cup Hoisin Sauce
½ cup ketchup, or 4 tablespoons tomato paste or Chinese red bean paste (nan ru). I used ketchup and it was fine. Don’t run out to an Asian market to look for the red bean paste unless you want to. It’s not necessary.
¼ cup honey
¼ cup soy sauce
1/3 cup Chinese rice wine or vodka. I had cooking sherry on hand I wanted to use up, so into the sauce it went.
¼ o ½ teaspoon of Chinese five spice powder (The recipe calls for ½ teaspoon, but some reviewers found it overpowering. I figured I could always add more if needed, so I started with a ¼ teaspoon and it was plenty.)
2 racks of baby back ribs or St. Louis style spareribs. Note: Most of the reviewers agreed that the recipe is more successful with the baby backs, so that is what I used. Ribs have a membrane on them that may make them hard to cut. You can ask your butcher to remove the membrane (also called the “fell”). If he is nice he will do it. If he is not nice and refuses, it’s still not that big a problem. I forgot to have it removed and some of the ribs were a little harder to separate when I cut them apart. Not a big deal.
In a food processor or blender, mince the garlic and scallions. Add the rest of the ingredients through the Chinese Five Spice Powder. Process until smooth and well blended. It should not be candy-sweet, but more like barbeque sauce sweet. Add vinegar or honey to adjust the taste.
Set aside 1/3 cup marinade for basting. Cover the ribs with the marinade in a pan or in food storage bags. Turn the ribs until well-coated. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, and up to two days, turning occasionally in the marinade. I used a zip lock bag. It took up less room in my always crowded refrigerator, and it was easy to turn the bag from time to time. Just make sure it is well sealed!
Okay, this is the step that had the reviewers in a tizzy. It is not difficult. I will do my best to explain and the photos will help. Take a sheet pan and line it with aluminum foil. Place the rack in the pan. Put the pan on the bottom rack of your oven. Preheat the over to 300 degrees. You will need two cups of very hot water. I filled a 2 cup measuring cup and heated the water almost to the boiling point in the microwave. I then poured the hot water into the sheet pan and left it in the oven until the oven temperature was 300 degrees. Without removing the pan, place the three half racks of ribs on the rack in the pan. Shut the oven door and cook the ribs for one hour. At one hour, open the oven and check on the ribs. Also check the water level. You want to make sure there is water in the pan thorough out the entire cooking process so that the ribs continue to steam. Then close the oven and let the ribs cook for another thirty minutes. Note: the recipe says to cook baby back ribs for one hour. However, many of the reviewers complained that the ribs were tough and seemed underdone. Even though we no longer freak out over pink pork, I prefer my ribs well done. The extra 30 minutes of cooking time rendered them very tender and fully cooked.
At the end of 90 minutes, remove the pan from the oven. This is the only tricky part, because you have to be pretty careful to pick up the pan, with liquid in it, and get it to the top of the stove without spilling it. I asked my husband to do this for me, because if he spilled and made a mess, it would be his fault and not mine! Remove the ribs to a platter. They should be a little “floppy” if they are sufficiently done. Drain the liquid from the pan. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. The recipe states 450 degrees, but some reviewers complained that the ribs burned at that temperature so I tried 400 instead. Place the ribs on the rack, and baste them with one half of the reserved marinade. When the oven is heated to 400 degrees, put the pan back on the bottom rack of the oven and cook them for 10 minutes. Check the ribs. If they are getting too dark on the edges, reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Baste them with the remaining marinade. Cook them for an additional 10 minutes. Remove them from the oven. When they are cool enough to handle, cut them into individual ribs.
Garnish your exquisitely beautiful ribs with sliced scallions and cilantro. I served mine with rice and an Asian cucumber salad. If you want to add a little heat, gochujang sauce works nicely with flavor of the ribs.
When you bite into these tender, flavorful ribs you will be amazed! Gong hei fat choy as the Cantonese say! It will be a happy new year’s day, indeed, when you feast on these wonderful ribs!