Five-Spice Brined Ribs and….

I’ve become a big fan of brining (soaking an animal protein in a mixture of salt, sugar, and water before cooking), and this recipe is the result of an experiment in that arena. (You can find an excellent in-depth discussion of the basics of brining in Cook’s Illustrated.)

I have made this recipe with beef short ribs as well as pork ribs – cooking time will vary greatly, so plan on testing at regular intervals; otherwise, this is a great recipe that involves almost no prep time whatsoever. The brine will also work for other proteins – chicken, duck, rabbit, fish…and even tofu! (Count on 1/2 lb of bone-in poultry or 1/4 lb of fish or tofu per person).

Five spice powder is a spice mix found in Chinese cooking that it includes all 5 flavors found in Chinese cuisine: sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and salty. You can make your own by combining equal parts whole Sichuan (or other) peppercorn, cinnamon sticks, cloves, fennel seed, and star anise. After toasting the spices lightly, grind in a mortar or with a coffee or spice grinder. If you’re in a hurry or don’t want to mess with that, five-spice is also available pre-mixed in Asian markets and in some conventional groceries – try the Asian section first, then the baking/spice aisle.

brine – count on 1 pt (2 c) per lb of ribs

  • 1 c water
  • 1 c peach nectar
  • 1 tsp five spice powder
  • 1 T sugar, preferably brown or raw cane
  • 2 T kosher salt

ingredients:

  • beef shortribs or pork ribs (spareribs, back ribs, or country style) – count on about 1 lb per person

method:

  1. Combine the brine ingredients in a glass baking dish large enough to hold the ribs in one layer, stirring until the crystals are completely dissolved.
  2. Add the ribs to the brine – the liquid should just cover the meat.
  3. Refrigerate for 3-8 h, then remove the ribs from the brine and pat dry.
  4. Preheat the oven to 275F.
  5. Place the ribs on a roasting rack in a pan, and roast until very tender. For pork ribs, this can take as little as 1.5 h; for beef ribs, count on at least 2.5-3 h. Test for doneness: the meat should be sliding off the bones and easily pierced with a knife or skewer. If the meat begins to brown too much, cover with foil and reduce the temperature to 250F.

Pig trotters simmered in black vinegar

One of the major advantages of buying meat from a local farmer is that you usually get to choose the cuts and packaging you want: so many chops, cut so thick, so many to a package. Another advantage (?!?) is that you get cuts you would perhaps never buy in the grocery store. Take pig trotters (feet), for example. I know they’re a staple of southern cooking in America, but I’ve only ever eaten them in China. In many conventional stores in America, you won’t even see such “unmentionables” – but if you ask, they might have some in the back!

After looking at a number of recipes, I decided to take a crack at the trotters in my freezer and discovered that they can be very easy to prepare and extremely tasty. In traditional Chinese food lore, pig trotters are served to women who have just given birth, and the dish also contains hard boiled eggs – the food is meant to help the woman recover from childbirth and increase her strength. I’ve left the eggs out, but you can simply shell some hard-boiled eggs and add them to the liquid when you reheat the dish. I’ve also eliminated browning the trotters before simmering – a messy step that ultimately doesn’t seem to make a huge difference in the end result.

The meat is fatty, but no more so that pork ribs would be, so the long, slow simmer is great for eliminating a lot of the fat – if you make this dish ahead and refrigerate it, you can simply lift the fat off the top on the second day. Not the world’s healthiest dish, but if your approach is to eat everything in moderation, it’s fine – serve with brown rice and a lot of healthy vegetable dishes!

ingredients:

  • 2 lbs pig trotters, cut in 1/2 lengthwise (having them further cut into crosswise chunks is also an option)
  • 1 T cooking oil
  • 2 oz fresh ginger root, cut into thick slices
  • 1 c Chinese black vinegar
  • 1/4 c rice wine vinegar
  • 1 c brown sugar
  • 1 T dark soy sauce

method:

  1. Place the meat in a pot large enough to hold them in one layer, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cook 1 m, then drain off the water. At this point you may need to use a paring knife and/or tweezers to remove any remaining bristles. (This is the point at which my daughter said, “Ugh!” and left the room.
  2. Heat the oil in the same pot over medium high heat, just until it shimmers, then quickly explode the ginger until fragrant.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil, allowing the sugar to dissolve completely.
  4. Add the trotters back to the pot and add enough water to cover them.
  5. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the meat is falling off the bone, approximately 1.5 – 2 h, less if the trotters have been cross-cut as well as sliced lengthwise.
  6. Bring to room temperature in an ice bath in the sink, then refrigerate overnight – this step is optional, but it enhances the flavor and allows you to easily skim the fat off the top.

do ahead:

This dish is best made ahead – a minimum of 12 h, or up to 3 days ahead is fine. Reheat the meat gently in the liquid, then serve.

variations:

  • If you prefer a more syrupy sauce, remove the meat from the liquid after reheating, then boil the liquid over medium high heat until it becomes syrupy. Pour over the meat and serve.
  • This same preparation could be used for pork ribs, cut into sections containing 3-4 ribs.

More on small-scale slaughterhouses, straight from the farmer’s mouth

This past Thursday, I attended the Food System Economic Partnership annual conference in Jackson, MI, where there was a lot of discussion about strengthening the local food system. While it was interesting to see and hear what various individuals and organizations are doing to grow the Southeast Michigan food system, it was disappointing to hear very little discussion about how to make fresh, local food available not only to the wealthier consumers now flocking to the “good food” movement but also to underserved communities in our region. As one of my colleagues pointed out, “the room got real quiet” when someone hazarded a question in this realm.

On another topic, one of the panelists I heard speak was John McLaughlin of McLaughlin Farm, LTD. I purchase my beef from this farm and cannot recommend their product highly enough! John was kind enough to give me some comments on the small-scale slaughterhouse issue I mentioned in my June 13 post, “A chance to act.” So here it is, straight from the farmer’s mouth, with my thanks to John for taking the time to comment so thoughtfully and passionately:

Processing is the single biggest problem for a Michigan meat producer, at least in the south central part of the state. In order to sell retail (by the cut), to restaurants, or at farm markets, we must use USDA processing. Michigan has acquiesced to federal law and does not have it’s own inspection system (as Indiana, Wisconsin and others do). That results in limited processing for retail oriented producers. Many of the remaining local facilities can’t or won’t comply with the ever growing list of federal requirements. Some of the local processors do an outstanding job, but unfortunately they are unavailable to us for most of our needs. Ever increasing regulatory requirements such as these play into the hands of large scale producers that can afford to hire staff to handle regulatory compliance. this situation kills small processors, producers because they cannot afford the overhead to comply with the ever growing regulatory requirements. The consumer suffers when the small producer and processor is forced out of business. One small meat processor said that it would take 1.5 employees just to comply with HACCP paperwork and that would not add one customer, because they are already at capacity!

Unfortunately the “Farm to Fork” “Eat Local” movement is on a collision course with this type of regulation. Consumers need to act! Add to these requirements new accounting and tax reporting requirements and other regulatory compliance and many small businesses will be overwhelmed with compliance and reporting issues, with the likely outcome being that they close shop! There needs to be a balance in this realm; unfortunately, it seems that most legislators have no idea how to run a business or what it takes to comply with the never ending list of requirements they like to creat. Somehow the people need to seek common sense solutions and stop the regulatory nightmare that we are faced with in agriculture and in other aspects of our daily lives. Ironically, it seems that most food borne illnesses reported recently have been created by large processors of both meat and vegetables, not by farm market vendors, small processing plants, etc.

The due date for public comment mentioned in the June 13 post is past, but if you love your grass fed meat and want to support your local small businesses all along the supply chain, I urge you to keep track of this issue and get involved as you can.

A chance to act

I’ve often extolled the virtues of locally rasied grass-fed meats (good for your body! good for the local economy! good for the environment!), and if you are in the habit of purchasing grass-fed, you should be aware of the most recent developments in the processing sector. There’s a quick summary about the issue on FoodRenegade, and the original article referred to there can be found in The Atlantic, where Joe Cloud, of True & Essential Meats writes:

Picture an hourglass and you’ll understand the sustainable meat crisis: there are plenty of willing consumers out there, and there are more and more farmers looking to “meat” that consumer demand (sorry—couldn’t help myself!), but the real bottleneck is processing capacity. Small, community-based meat processing plants have become an endangered species, done in by an ocean of super-cheap industrial meat and the challenge of meeting the Byzantine demands of USDA regulations without a Ph.D. in microbiology….

For small meat businesses in America, catastrophic events result from changes high up in the regulatory food chain that make it very difficult for small plants to adapt. The most recent extinction event occurred at the turn of the millennium, when small and very small USDA-inspected slaughter and processing plants were required to adopt the costly Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety plan. It has been estimated that 20 percent of existing small plants, and perhaps more, went out of business at that time. Now, proposed changes to HACCP for small and very small USDA-inspected plants threaten to take down many of the ones that remain, making healthy, local meats a rare commodity.

Need more information? Speak with the farmer from whom you purchase your grass-fed meat.

The date for submitting your comments has been extended to June 19 – let’s not forget that if we don’t exercise our right to make ourselves heard, we forfeit the right to complain about an undesirable outcome!

Want to take action? Visit Extension.org.

Broccoli Stem Stirfry

If you tend to have leftover broccoli stems, don’t toss them! We tend to use the crowns down to the main stem for a green vegetable with western meals, but that leaves us with quite a lot of long stems. These can be cut into “matchsticks” and stirfried into a delicious vegetable (or meat) dish.

ingredients:

  • 3-4 broccoli stems
  • 1/2 red bell pepper
  • 1 T oil
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced
  • salt, to taste

method:

  1. Peel the broccoli stems and  cut into 1/8 x 1/8 x 1.5″ matchsticks.
  2. Cut the bell pepper into 1/4″ dice.
  3. Heat the wok over medium-high heat, then add the oil just until it shimmers.
  4. Add the garlic and explode just until fragrant.
  5. Add the broccoli and red pepper and stirfry just until crisp-tender, approximately 2-3 m.
  6. Season to taste, then serve.

variation:

  • If you want to use some meat in this dish, a bit of diced bacon or ham cut into strips makes a nice addition. If you use bacon, you should cook the bacon first, then remove it to drain some of the fat. You can either use the bacon fat to stirfry the vegetables or dump it out and use oil. If you use ham, add it at the very end of the cooking process, just to heat it through. In either case, you’ll need to use less salt.

Stirfried Ham & Tofu with Chinese Chives

We’ve gotten some lovely ham from our local meat supplier, Back Forty Acres, (looking forward to the bounty of the 1/2 hog that’s on its way this month!) and we’ve started to use it more and more for stirfrying.

Chinese (or garlic) chives, jiucai in Mandarin, are available in Asian markets and at farmers’ markets that have vendors of Asian produce. The look like a long, flattened version of our chives. When fully grown they are not hollow at the center and sometimes have buds at the tips (which you can just add to the stirfry). If you can’t find them, you can substitute the more commonly found chives (reduce the cooking time) or scallions cut into thin 2″ long strips. The flavor won’t be identical, but it will be tasty all the same.

Pressed beancurd, called doufu gan (sort of translates into “tofu jerky!”) is literally tofu that has been pressed to squeeze out excess moisture. The result is a firmer texture that some people compare to meat, although the flavor is of course different. Pressed tofu comes in a variety of flavors – the most common one for this dish is five-spice, which has a dark, slightly smoky exterior and an off-white center. You can easily substitute baked tofu, now readily available in most conventional markets, for this ingredient. For this dish, try to find a block that is unflavored and relatively moist – the ham is the dominant flavor ingredient here.

Leftovers? This stirfry is excellent mixed into Fried Rice.

ingredients:

  • 3 oz smoked ham, cut into 1/2″ cubes or matchsticks
  • 3 squares pressed beancurd or baked tofu (unflavored)
  • 4 oz garlic chives (or use 2 oz chives or 4 scallions as mentioned above)
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, cut into 1/4 x 1.5″ strips
  • 1 T oil
  • 1/4 tsp salt, or more to taste

method:

  1. Rinse the beancurd under hot water to remove some of the oil, then pat dry.
  2. Slice the beancurd 1/8″ thick, then cut the slices into shreds approximately 1.5″ long.
  3. Wash the chives well and cut into 1.5″ lengths – you can keep the buds intact if there are any.
  4. Heat the oil in the wok just  until it shimmers.
  5. Add the tofu and stirfry to coat with the oil and heat through.
  6. Add the chives and red pepper strips and stirfry gently until the vegetable just wilts but is still bright green.
  7. Add the ham and stirfry to heat through.
  8. Adjust seasoning, then slide onto the serving plate.

Five-spice Pork Tenderloin

I was happy to receive a sample of pomegranate juice in the mail from POM Wonderful (Thanks, Ryan!) and managed to keep some of it from being consumed directly from the bottle (our daughter is a huge fan!) Here is a fusion recipe I came up with that uses the juice both as a marinade and a sauce.

The other main flavoring is five spice powder, a spice mix found in Chinese cooking that it includes all 5 flavors found in Chinese cuisine: sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and salty. You can make your own by combining equal parts whole Sichuan (or other) peppercorn, cinnamon sticks, cloves, fennel seed, and star anise. After toasting the spices lightly, grind in a mortar or with a coffee or spice grinder. If you’re in a hurry or don’t want to mess with that, five-spice is also available pre-mixed in Asian markets and in some conventional groceries – try the Asian section first, then the baking/spice aisle.

Pork tenderloin is a perfect cut of meat to use when you’re in a hurry—it absorbs the flavor or marinades and rubs easily, cooks quickly, is deliciously tender, and looks very elegant when sliced and arranged on a plate. Here I’ve marinated it overnight to really let the flavors sink in, but you could also marinate it as little as 2 hours. If you use sustainably raised pork from a reliable source, you need not worry about cooking it to medium, rather than to well-done.

Makes approximately 6 servings.

ingredients:

  • 1 pork tenderloin
  • 4 oz POM Wonderful pomegranate juice
  • 2 oz dry white wine
  • 2 oz dark soy sauce
  • 1 T sugar
  • 1 tsp five spice powder

method:

  1. Combine all ingredients except the pork in a bowl.
  2. Pour the marinade over the pork in a glass dish, and marinate in the refrigerator for up to 24 h.
  3. Preheat the oven to 450ºF (425ºF in a convection oven).
  4. Strain the marinade off the meat into a saucepan, then place the meat on a rack in a roasting pan.
  5. Roast 25-40 m (20 m will yield a medium roast, 40 m will be closer to well done), turning the pan once half way through the roasting process.
  6. While the meat is roasting, bring the marinade to a boil, then let it reduce to about 1/2 c—it will be slightly syrupy.
  7. Let the meat rest for 10 m before slicing on a slight diagonal and serving with the sauce.

variations:

  • The meat can be grilled or broiled, depending on your favorite cooking method.
  • Add pomegranate seeds (called anils) or diced pineapple to the sauce just before serving.