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Country-style pork ribs have deep flavor, friendly price

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Country ribs are great for a pork stew, easy to slice into cubes and containing the right balance of light and dark meat.

When it comes to pork, most home cooks know the chop, the tenderloin, the loin roast, even the Boston butt. But because I am a sucker for the underdog and the oddball, I have a new favorite cut of pork: the country-style rib.

Why oddball? First, it suffers from something of an identity crisis, since despite its name it’s not really a rib. Second, it has an indeterminate composition, consisting of both light and dark meat.

But like any good anti-hero, the country-style rib has hidden virtues. It has rich, deep pork flavor; it is generally the most inexpensive cut of pork at the meat counter; and it is ideal for slow-cooked dishes.

This chop is cut from the two ribs at the shoulder end of the loin. Because it comes from the intersection of the tender loin and the more fat-laden shoulder, it has qualities of both.

Butchers used to have difficulty selling this chop, because it didn’t look as lean and smooth as those from the center of the loin. So it generally ended up as an ingredient in sausages or, less reputably, secreted at the bottom of a wrapped package of “loin chops.”

Then sometime in the late 1960s or early ’70s, a Chicago-area butcher, Cliff Bowes, came up with the idea of fashioning these lowly chops into strips that resembled ribs. You can recognize these traditional country-style ribs by the slender section of rib that curves prettily along the bottom.

In a world in which everyone used the same words to mean the same thing, that would be the end of the story. But the approach of butchers tends to be more like that of Humpty Dumpty, who said in “Through the Looking-Glass,” “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” So it’s not surprising that three other cuts are often marketed under this name.

Sometimes instead of a curving rib bone, you’ll find a flat little 2- or 3-inch section of bone along one edge. Ribs fabricated in this fashion will have somewhat more fat and connective tissue and more dark meat, but are still close cousins of the more traditional cut and cook up the same way.

That’s not the end of it, though. Some butchers will cut the lower part of the pork shoulder into strips and label them “boneless country-style ribs.” They are still tasty and work well in long-cooking recipes, but you have to pay closer attention to what you’re getting and avoid those with excess amounts of fat and gnarl.

Then there’s the higher-class impostor. Sometimes boneless rib-eye chops are fashioned into long, slender pieces and called country-style ribs. You can tell them clearly from their much lighter color and higher price — usually twice as expensive as the real thing. But since this portion of the pig is much leaner and therefore cooks differently, we’ll bypass these ersatz ribs for now.

Any of the other versions, though, will work just fine, particularly in stews and braises.

In addition to its proportion of lean meat to fat and collagen, the country-style rib also has a shape that makes it ideal for stews, easier to slice up than a whole Boston butt. In a similar way, country-style ribs brown quickly and fit neatly into a Dutch oven for long, slow braising.

I don’t often go for presalting meat because I rarely think far enough ahead to do it. But these ribs do benefit from the process, which somehow evens out the cooking times of the darker and lighter sections, so I recommend it.

If you forget it, though, forge ahead. The results will still be delicious.

PORK STEW WITH PEARS AND SWEET POTATOES

By John Willoughby

  • 2-1/2 pounds boneless or 3 pounds bone-in country-style pork ribs
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 onions, diced
  • 2 bulbs fennel, fronds removed, bulb cored and sliced thin
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 2 large or 3 small sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed (about 4 cups)
  • 2 tablespoons caraway seeds
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 bay leaves
  • About 2 cups chicken stock
  • 3 pears, any variety, peeled, cored, diced
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • Grainy mustard for serving (optional)

If using bone-in ribs, cut away bones and set aside. Cut pork into 1-inch cubes, sprinkle with salt; refrigerate 1-12 hours.

Move oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees.

Dry pork cubes well; sprinkle generously with pepper. Heat oil over medium-high in large, heavy pot until shimmering. Working in batches, brown pork well (including bones if you have them), removing to a platter.

Add onions and fennel to pot and cook, stirring frequently, until onions are transparent, 7 to 10 minutes.

Add wine and bring to simmer, stirring to dissolve any brown bits on bottom of pot. Add pork (and bones if you have them), sweet potatoes, caraway seeds, allspice, bay leaves and enough chicken stock to just cover meat. Bring to simmer, cover and place in oven for 1 hour.

Add pears to pot and cook until meat is very tender, 30 to 45 minutes more.

Remove bones from pot, stir in lemon juice. Serve topped with mustard if desired. Serves 4.

BRAISED COUNTRY-STYLE PORK RIBS WITH CHIPOTLE

By John Willoughby

  • 3 pounds bone-in or 2-1/2 pounds boneless country-style pork ribs
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons dried ground chipotle peppers
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 red onions, halved and thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 3/4 cup orange juice
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 cup to 1 cup beer of your choice
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, for garnish
  • 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds, for garnish (optional)

Dry ribs well, sprinkle all over with salt and refrigerate 1 to 2-1/2 hours.

Move oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees.

In a small bowl, combine cumin, coriander, peppers and cinnamon. Dry ribs again and rub spice mixture onto 1 side and edges of ribs, pressing to make it adhere.

Heat oil over medium-high in a large, heavy pot until shimmering. In 2 batches, place ribs in the pot, spice-rubbed side up, and brown the opposite side well, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove to a platter as browned.

Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they start to brown, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute more.

Return ribs to pot and add orange juice, lime juice and enough beer so liquid halfway covers ribs. Bring to simmer, then cover, put in oven and cook until ribs are very tender, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Remove ribs from pan, cover loosely with foil; set aside. Bring liquid to simmer on stove top and let thicken, then adjust seasonings. Top each rib with sauce, sprinkle with cilantro and pomegranate seeds, if using. Serves 4.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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