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.
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Technique: Braise

In a traditional French braise, the item to be cooked is seared in a pan on the stove, liquid is added, and there usually follows a very long simmer, either on the stovetop or in the oven. In Chinese cooking, braises are usually much briefer, but the basic concept is the same:

  1. Start by stirfrying the item quickly on high heat to coat it with oil. The food may get a few brown spots from the hot wok, but the point is NOT to caramelize the entire outside of it.
  2. Add the liquid and seasonings, and bring to a boil.
  3. Reduce to a simmer, cover slightly, and cook just until desired doneness is reached.

This method can be used for almost any vegetable – the cuts vary as do the cooking times. (For a very detailed list of vegetables that can be cooked this way, check out Gloria Bley Miller’s Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook.)

If you are trying to eat more vegetables and cut the fat in your diet, this is a great way to do it, as the amount of oil needed is minimal. You can vary the liquid and seasonings used according to you taste: the most common liquid is water, broth, or stock; seasonings can include salt, sugar, soy sauce, pepper, herbs. If you want to include some ginger (helps with digestion!), “explode until fragrant” a few peeled slices in the oil before you add the food to be cooked.

Technique: Blanch & Shock

Sounds a bit too much like shock and awe, but this is a method used to precook items (usually vegetables, with the exception of starchy ones, like potatoes) that would not cook through in a quick stirfry, or for when you want to prepare something ahead and quickly finish the cooking later. It’s also a great way to set that bright green color for vegetables you want to serve not-quite-raw (broccoli, asparagus, green beans…).

Blanch – cook slightly (NOT until cooked through) in boiling water.

Shock – immediately plunge just-blanched vegetables into ice water: this halts the cooking process and sets the color. As soon as the vegetable is cold, drain and let dry, or you will end up with soggy veggies and a huge splattering if you are using them for stirfry.

“Explode until fragrant”

This is a quick method for flavoring a stirfry or braised dish. In Mandarin, the word is baoxiang, which literally means “explode until fragrant.” The explosion refers to the high heat and instant sizzle when the ingredient hits the wok.

Used with seasonings such as fresh ginger root, scallions, and garlic, it quickly flavors the oil that is used to cook the main ingredient.

method

  1. Heat the wok over high, then add the oil.
  2. Add the seasoning (ginger, scallion, garlic…) and stirfry QUICKLY just until the fragrance is released. Do not allow the seasoning to brown or you will have an unpleasant bitter taste, particularly with garlic.
  3. Before the seasoning has time to brown, add the ingredient to be stirfried – this will cool the wok down sufficiently to stop the seasoning’s cooking process.