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Spicy ribs make most of cilantro’s power

                                Sweet and spicy ribs with cilantro and cucumber.


    Sweet and spicy ribs with cilantro and cucumber.

There are a few ingredients that I now keep safely up my sleeve and add to my food only as an absolute last resort. I do this because I know that if I were left to my own devices, I would probably use them in every single meal.

I guess nothing is terribly wrong with this, but as someone who writes recipes for a living, I am worried about using up my credit in certain ingredients. I know that I have hit my lemon quota a vast number of times and that I am pretty close to reaching my limit with feta, yogurt and tahini. It is simply too easy to transform a dish with a hurried drizzle, or a sprinkle, or a scatter of one particular kind, that I worry about becoming a culinary con.

Cilantro — both the leaves (known as coriander in many places) and coriander seeds — is similarly concerning. Nearly all of the cuisines that give me infinite amounts of playful pleasure are big on cilantro.

My favorite version of cooked Moroccan carrot salad, with lots of cumin, paprika and garlic, gets its spark from freshly chopped cilantro, which highlights the sweetness of the carrot and the acidity of the lemon. Similarly, Mexican salsas and salads get their particular accent from cilantro and, just as in Morocco, they often rest on the interplay of cumin and a sharp citrus (lime, in the Mexican case). Indian cilantro-mint chutney is a condiment I’d be happy to bathe in. These make it almost impossible for me to finish a dish without a flourish of chopped cilantro or a handful of crushed coriander seeds.

I routinely make this gesture because it really does lift many kinds of dishes to new peaks, whether it’s a simple chopped salad, scrambled eggs, a bowl of steamy rice, a stew or a piece of grilled fish. But my need to stay within my cilantro quota means that I now reserve its use to meals in which the cilantro effect is seriously amplified, so that this brilliant herb shows itself in all its glory, right at the core of a dish.

There are two ways to push cilantro into the spotlight. One method, which many cooks revert to instinctively without even knowing they’re doing so, is pairing it with other members in a large family of ingredients called Umbelliferae.

This biological grouping may sound obscure, but carrot, parsnip, celery, parsley, dill and cumin all fall under this umbrella and so, unsurprisingly, go well together. My beloved Moroccan carrot salad is so delicious exactly because of the different umbellifers echoing and complementing one another like lines of good poetry.

The other route to take is to usethe seeds, leaves, stem and, if you can get them, the roots. When added at different stages of cooking and to different parts of a dish, they can create layers of flavor that underpin the dish and give it lots and lots of character. So many Indian curries are based on this clever layering of warming coriander and cumin seeds (plus a whole bunch of other spices) with the intensity and freshness of the fresh leaves.

This kind of focus on different registers of cilantro flavor is also what I had in mind for these sweet and spicy ribs. Similar recipes often run the risk of being sweet and sticky. Not a bad thing at all with fatty ribs, but the addition of coriander seeds and cilantro appearing in a number of ways offers a welcome contrast to a familiar unctuous sweetness. It is a very appropriate opportunity, I find, to bring out an ingredient I am trying to use in a measured and considerate way.


By Yotam Ottolenghi

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup (40 grams) peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger (from a fat 2-inch knob)
  • 1 small jalapeno, finely chopped, seeds and all
  • 1-1/4 cups pomegranate juice
  • 3/4 packed cup (30 grams) roughly chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/3 packed cup (75 grams) light brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup (75 grams) hot mango pickle, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, roughly crushed using a mortar and pestle
  • 2-1/4 pounds baby back ribs, cut into 4 equal sections of about 4 ribs each, stabbed a few times on the bony side with a small sharp knife
  • 12 ounces (about 4 large or 8 medium) shallots, peeled and left whole, or halved lengthwise if large
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Black pepper, to taste

>> Cucumber raita:

  • 1/2 tablespoon crushed coriander seeds
  • 1 cucumber (about 12 ounces), halved lengthwise, seeds removed and thinly sliced into half-moons
  • 1/4 packed cup (10 grams) roughly chopped fresh cilantro
  • 3 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Black pepper, to taste

Heat oven to 300 degrees.

Add oil to large skillet and heat over medium-high. Add ginger and jalapeno; stir until fragrant, about 90 seconds. Add pomegranate juice, cilantro, sugar, mango pickle, tomato paste and crushed coriander seeds; bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

Place ribs, shallots, salt and plenty of pepper into a 10-by-13-inch roasting pan. Toss, arranging ribs flesh-side up. Pour sauce on top, wrap tightly with foil, then transfer to the oven to cook for 2 hours.

Turn heat up to 375 degrees, remove foil and baste ribs with sauce. Continue to cook, basting once throughout, until ribs are a deep chocolate brown and sauce is sticky, about 25 minutes more. Let cool slightly while you make the raita.

To make raita: Heat coriander seeds in a small skillet over medium-high. Toast until fragrant, shaking pan occasionally, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl along with remaining ingredients; toss to combine.

Divide ribs, roasted shallots and raita among 4 plates, spooning some sauce over ribs. Serves 4.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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