Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “spare” in several ways: “to refrain from attacking or reprimanding with necessary or salutary severity,” in one; “to relieve of the necessity of doing or undergoing something <spare yourself the trouble>” as another; or “to use or dispense frugally — used chiefly in the negative <don’t spare the syrup>” as yet one more. Yet it’s the second category of the sixth definition for the word that I think “spare ribs” are most akin to, that it’s “to have left over or as margin <time to spare>”. Have leftover, marginally, in my freezer, is what I did have with regards to spare ribs the other day. And so I used them up (as per definition 6a). But this was actually because these ribs were cast away from a previous cooking mission, involving pork belly, much like as in definition 3.
This is because spare ribs are commonly “spared” from the cut of pork known as the belly, whose richness is so enveloping that its layers are duly used for smoking as bacon, or braising until flopping sags of hong shao rou. I will now spare you from more “spare” rhetoric (definition 3, or possibly 2), to say that these were some excellent mid-summer eatins’, and that you should spare no hesitation to make them this coming Fourth of July holiday (alright, just one more!).
Like many people with some Chinese-American heritage (or rather, confused people with 50/50 like myself), I grew up experiencing spare ribs as a common dim sum snack — this tender, bony, chewy, gooey, totally-besotted-in-its-own-braising-liquids-stuff. Then when I experienced ribs of any kind from a Western perspective, they were always crispy on the outside, reddened from its rub or marinade inside, and smoky-tasting. What the hell? Why don’t we take the best parts of both takes, I thought, and make a spare rib dish to satisfy all the senses. It would spare me the trouble of even having to think that hard about it (okay, I lied).
sparing the ribs from a piece of pork belly
- sparing the ribs from a piece of pork belly
- marinating overnight in dark soy, sake and grated garlic
- Next, the spare ribs are simply roasted at a very low heat, covered, for just about an hour for this smallish portion. Over-cooking will drain out the liquids until they singe in the pan (better check on them at 45 minutes), while undercooking will result in toughness. But if you get the timing right, checking along the way, the meat will be meltingly tender and juicy, thanks to being sealed in its own steam. Yet the surface will still have that brownish, crackly crust; you should flip the ribs once during cooking, or else sear one side in a pan right after it’s out.
- the finished ribs, ready for slicing
- Then it’s time to gorge. For such a flavorful, unctuous cut of meat, I served mine with plain rice and some fresh veggies on the side — it’s summer, after all. The pan drippings can be turned into a quick sauce with the help of hot water and some stirring, to pour over the ribs, or the rice. It was so good that I’m thinking of bringing these, just cooked and cooled down, to barbecues soon. It’ll heat up nicely on a grill — even though, as I’ve found, you can really spare yourself from grilling if you want to make good ribs at home.
- Soy and Sake-Marinated Spare Ribs
- (makes about 1-2 servings)
- 1 lb strip spare ribs (from a strip of pork belly, or multiply the recipe and buy more ribs alone)
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (or substitute 1/4 cup of light soy sauce)
- 1/4 cup sake
- 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, grated
- pinch of salt and white pepper
- Rub the spareribs with the salt, pepper, sugar, garlic, soy sauce and sake. Cover and chill overnight, or up to 2 days in the refrigerator.