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My mother loved barbequed pork ribs but, like many her favorite foods, they had to be prepared to her liking. When it came to ribs, she had no taste for what she called “sticky finger, dribbly-chin ribs that come off the grill or smoker with the meat falling off the bones, and smothered with that sticky sweet sauce.” Her favorite BBQ rib was the the dry rub variety coated with herbs and spices and slow cooked in a smoker until the meat was tender and juicy, while still retaining a delicate chew without the meat falling off the bones.
Every summer for several years we were invited down to the town of Mashpee, on Cape Cod, to stay with friends for a few days. One of the meals during our stay usually consisted of these ribs with side dishes of hardy greens like collards or kale (cooked southern style), and Hoppin’ John — a dish made with black- eyed peas and rice and served throughout New Orleans on New Years’ Day.
For the past several years I have experimented with various recipes and production methods for preparing dry rub ribs. The results, however, have been mixed. There are endless variations of the classic dry rub used to coat these ribs. The classic Memphis-style rubs proved to be consistently the best-tasting. So I made some minor adjustments in spice and herb quantities that suited my taste. That was the easy part of this process. Figuring out how to cook the ribs was a bit more problematic.
I don’t own a smoker, and I already own more limited-purpose cooking gadgets than I can store properly when not in use. So I decided to turn my Weber grill into a smoker. I called a chef I had worked with years ago in a popular restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He shared with me a method that teams my Weber grill with my electric oven to produce ribs that have all of the qualities of ribs cooked in a high-end smoker in half the time. I decided to give this method a try.
When you place any food on a hot charcoal grill to cook, you set into motion a series of chemical and physical events that will determine if that food will be edible after it is cooked. Fortunately, there are many reliable methods that you can use to help you monitor and control the cooking process and insure success.
The most popular method for cooking food over charcoal is grilling. Grilling usually involves cooking steaks, hamburgers, chicken, chops, or vegetables over an even layer of charcoal. Grilling is a simple and effective method for adding a distinctive flavor and texture to any food.
Barbequing is also a popular method for cooking meat, seafood, and vegetables using hot charcoal. The main difference between the two is that grilling incorporates high heat to quickly sear food to lock in the juice, which allows the food to continue cooking without drying out. Of course, overcooking is easy with this method, which will dry food regardless of searing. Barbequing usually involves cooking food at very low temperatures (200° to 300° F) for extended periods of time (8 to 12 hours and longer). This allows for wood smoke to be added to the preparation procedure.
But smoking food requires extended cooking times and often marinating or brining, depending on the type of food being cooked. The complexity of barbequing allows the cook to incorporate many variables that will infuse the food with a customized taste and/or texture.
In the weeks that follow I will discuss some of these variables and how to use them. The following recipe offers a fail-safe method for any cook with a 22-inch, Weber-style kettle grill to prepare and serve barbeque smoked pork ribs that are both tender and loaded with flavor. Also, this can be accomplished in 5 hours or less with a minimum of fuss.
I suggest that you follow my formula when you prepare these ribs for the first time to get an idea if it works for you. Then you can customize it to suit your personal taste and texture preferences.
The Rub (Read the rub formula before you mix the ingredients. Cayenne pepper contains a fair amount of chili-heat. You can increase or decrease the amount of cayenne pepper to suit your personal taste.)
Combine all of the rub ingredients in a small bowl and set it aside.
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon table salt
2 teaspoons celery seed
2 teaspoons mild chili powder
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1½ teaspoons garlic powder
1½ teaspoons onion powder
1½ teaspoons cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dry mustard
22-inch Weber-style kettle grill
50 charcoal briquettes
Large half-size (9-inch x 12-inch x 2-inch deep) disposable aluminum pan
1 cup applewood chips (soaked for one hour)
An electric or gas range with an oven capable of holding a reliable temperature of 300° F
1 rimmed cookie sheet with a minimum cooking surface of an 18×14-inch and a footed wire rack to fit the sheet
Wood chips for smoke
One hour before you plan to start cooking, add 1½ cups of warm water to the wood chips.
2 racks St. Louis-style pork ribs (2 to 3 pounds each)
Remove the ribs from the package and wipe them with paper towels to remove excess moisture.
Place the ribs in the rimmed cookie sheet and coat both sides of the ribs with the spice mixture. Press the rub firmly with the palm of your hand to insure that it sticks to the ribs. Set the ribs aside.
The Mop (This vinegar and cider mop is used to add additional flavor to the ribs and replace moisture lost from the ribs during the cooking process.)
2/3 cup apple cider
4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Mix the ingredients for the mop and set it aside.
I have specified when and how much of this mixture to use during the cooking process. It is important that you do not exceed what I have specified. Excess moisture added to the ribs while cooking will result in what pit-masters call “stall.” In other words, the extra moisture added back to the ribs will stop (stall) the cooking process until it evaporates. This can add as much as an hour to the cooking process.
Prepare the grill by setting it up according to the photo below.
Open the bottom vents halfway.
Place 15 briquettes on one side of grill and the remaining briquettes in the chimney starter. The aluminum pan under the starter in the photo there to give you an idea of its exact size. Place it in that location with about an inch of water added when you are ready to cook.
Light the briquettes in the chimney starter and let them burn until they are lightly coated with a thin layer of ash. This usually takes about 10 minutes. Empty the contents in the starter onto the unlit briquettes.
Place the aluminum pan with one inch of water added to the now empty side of the grill.
Put the cooking grate in place, cover the grill with the lid, and heat the cooking gate for about 5 minutes.
Sprinkle half of the drained wood chips over the coals. Place the ribs, meat side down, on the cool side of the grill, cover the grill with the open top vents over the ribs, and cook for 45 minutes.
Flip the ribs to meat side up, and switch the positions of the slabs. The slab closest to the coals moves to the rear and the other slab moves to the side close to the coals. Distribute the remaining wood chips over the coals. Brush the meat side of the ribs with about two tablespoons of the vinegar/cider mix and continue cooking the ribs for another 45 minutes. After 30 minutes, set one of the oven racks to the middle position and preheat the oven to 300° F.
Transfer the ribs to the wire rack fitted in the rimmed cookie sheet, as shown in the photo below. Add two cups of water to the pan. Brush the meat side of the ribs with another 2 tablespoons of the vinegar/cider mix. Carefully set the pan on the middle rack and continue cooking the ribs for one hour.
Brush the ribs with another 2 tablespoons of vinegar/cider mix. This will be for final mop brushing. Continue cooking the ribs until the thickest meat reaches 190° F. Remove the pan from the oven and cover the ribs with loose tent of aluminum foil. After a 15-minute rest, cut the ribs between the bones and serve.
Note: St. Louis-style spareribs are the best ribs for this formula. These ribs are trimmed of the excess belly fat, cartilage, and skirt meat found on regular spare ribs. No additional trimming is necessary.
Baby back ribs are too lean and usually become very dry during the extended cooking procedure outlined in this formula.
The best rib cut for this formula
The photo below shows the most efficient grill set up for barbequing these ribs.
The most effective set up for transferring the ribs from the grill to the oven.
It is time to eat and enjoy first class barbecue.
Next post — A taste of Hawaii
Both of my parents were World War II Army veterans. My mother was especially proud of her military service. Her favorite symbol of our country’s victory in this costly struggle was the U.S Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. When I graduated from high school in 1961, she took me to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorial. She believed that the thousands of Americans who died during this war should never be forgotten. She kept a small framed black and white photo on a nightstand next to her bed. This photo was moved to the living room on Memorial Day.
The photos below are of the National Iwo Jima Memorial located on the New Britain/Newington town line in Connecticut. This memorial was dedicated on February 23, 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the original flag raising to salute the 6,821 Americans who died fighting on the last strategic stronghold before the planned invasion of Japan. I visit this park every year as Memorial Day approaches.
National Iwo Jima Memorial
An eternal flame provided by Connecticut Natural Gas
Two engraved tablets honoring the chaplains and medical corps that served on Iwo Jima
Walter James Duffy and Virginia Lee Blunt —two of my favorite heroes
Once a year I drive to the Massachusetts National Cemetery to visit the grave sites of Jim Duffy, brother of Dave Duffy, and my mother. Their sites are within walking distance of each other. I park at the administration building and walk to both grave sites; rich, well-maintained landscaping here makes a visit seem like a tour of a National Park. It is a fitting final resting place for Americans who served the country in the military. Both of these brave soldiers were volunteers, and never voiced any regret over their decision join the military. The war cost my mom her marriage and she was left to raise a son on her own. She considered succeeding at this difficult task to be her greatest achievement.
Remembering Fun Times
The photo below was taken in the late 60s in Washington, D.C. Dave and I were visiting Dave’s older brothers Hugh and Bill. On this particular day, Hugh, Dave, Jim and I decided to visit the Capitol Building. As we approached, I started to complain about the hot sun. Jim listened to my complaints, smiled, took off his hat and put it on my head and said, “Always happy to help a wimp.”
In 2005, Dave wrote a salute to his brother Jim, in which he describes the highs and lows in Jim’s life. However, as he described Jim’s classic interception at a football game against a rival football team, he failed to mention that I was the second string offensive center on the same team, and was standing on the sideline with them. At football practice Jim and I often contributed to mess up some of the best plays executed by the first string offense. From time to time, for no apparent reason, one of our many practice field antics comes to mind. This always brings a smile to my face, and thoughts of other fun times off the field. You can read Dave Duffy’s article in Issue 95, September/October 2005 — Sgt. Jim Duffy an Ordinary Hero, that is an inspiration for my comments.
Memphis Style Ribs
During the frequent hot summer days of the late 50s and 60s my mother was invited to spend time in the Cape Cod town of Mashpee at the summer cottage of an long-time army friend; my mother said this friend belonged to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.
Because electricity had not yet reached this part of the cape, portable gas lamps were used for light at night, and most cooking was done on wood fired stoves or BBQ grills. One of my mom’s greatest pleasures was preparing meals for everyone using recipes that she developed. Over the years I have been able to reconstruct some of my mom’s favorite recipes from this period. Next week I will begin posting some of these recipes and cooking techniques she used during our summer visits. I will post the first one this month, and, if possible, I will post at least one or two recipes a month. My mother was great cook, and I am sure that you will agree after preparing and sampling her recipes.
In the late 1980s a local airport located in Plainville, Connecticut decided to expand its runway. Building the extension required the filling of four acres of wetlands along the Pequabuck River, which runs through several towns in the area, including Farmington. This, unfortunately, would destroy a major portion of a vital wetland area. To mitigate the loss of the wetlands, the town of Plainville turned an adjacent sand pit into a four-acre wetland by meticulously removing the wetland soil, vegetation, and animals from the construction site and transporting them to the current location in the nature park. To say that the area survived all of this and thrives to this day would be an understatement.
There is an abundance of wildlife living in Tomasso Nature Park: the eastern painted turtle, common snapping turtle, northern water snake, great blue heron, Canada goose, northern rough-winged swallow, raccoon, white-tailed deer, muskrat, and more. The park is also filled with a wide variety of vegetation common to a healthy wetland area. Footbridges were built to help visitors cross streams and wet areas. Plenty of benches and large rocks are available to visitors while exploring the park.
My first visit to this park was in November last year, two days after the park had been closed for the winter. I returned early in March when it reopened, but the snow and cold of Connecticut’s long winter made exploration difficult. Also, to reach the park I had to walk down a paved path alongside a fenced hazardous waste area on one side and a housing complex on the other. This short walk made me wonder if a nature park could really exist in an area like this. However, I returned in warmer weather a few weeks later to find high grasses and wildflowers swaying in a gentle breeze and dozens of painted turtles sunning themselves on rocks, lily pads, and stumps in man-made ponds. As I walked down the short entry road, several swift-flying birds caught my eye, as they as they seemed to vanish into a sand-like embankment near the waste dump. Later I discovered that they are rough-winged swallows tending their nests dug tunneled into the sand bank. I knew then that this park was going to be a rewarding discovery.
After entering Tomasso Nature Park, it took me only 20 minutes walking at a comfortable pace to go completely around the park. But this walk could have easily taken much longer had I paused to enjoy the many varieties of birds and other wildlife moving freely around the park. Another feature that I liked was the absence of crowds that I often find in other nature areas. I could actually hear and identify several different bird calls during my short walk.
When I returned home after my last visit to the park, I called my daughter Sarah and shared my experience with her. She suggested that we visit the park with Mom on Mother’s Day if the weather was nice. My wife, Tricia, has an arthritic condition that is sometimes aggravated in cold weather, and this past winter made some days very uncomfortable her. She likes to walk with me when I visit parks, but not during the winter cold. The visit to Tomasso Nature Park would be her first of the warm weather season.
Below: Sarah and Mom enjoying the scenery and warmth of the sun.
Tomasso Park’s crab apple trees were in bloom.
Below: the largest pond in the park
All of the interesting or unusual trees in the park have identification tags.
This Tree-of-Heaven is our favorite.
Below is the swallow nesting area located near the entrance to the park.
Rough-winged swallows were tending their nests.
It would not be a wetland area without Canada geese.
Sarah and Mom are both teachers in a local school system. As we left the park, they promised to return again and bring some of their students back on a nature walk. This year, Mother’s Day was a huge success.