Because of Labor Day, racks of pork ribs were plentiful in the supermarket this weekend and thus found their way into our kitchen. Of course, bottles of BBQ sauce were also on display, which I guess suggested the way most of these ribs would be cooked.
Now, I’ve been lucky enough to travel throughout the United States and to have had the chance to sample some of the best BBQ ribs. And during these travels, I have heard the merits of dry vs. wet, sweet vs. hot, oak vs. cherry, and so on debated by my hosts and their friends in the south and midwest.
With one or two exceptions, all the ribs I tasted were extraordinarily good, with those in Greenville, South Carolina taking the prize. None of them, however, came close to the ribs I had growing up, which my aunt would occasionally make for Sunday dinner. Coming from Italy, she knew nothing about BBQ, but her ribs were without a doubt the most succulent I’ve ever had. Simmered slowly for hours in a simple tomato sauce, they were almost always served with a large cut of dry pasta, tubular in shape, known as occhio di lupo, wolf’s eye.
So last night, I decided to recreate this dish, but not being able to find occhio di lupo, I substituted the more widely available rigatoni. I also opted to serve the pasta with the same cheeses my aunt would use, namely, pecorino Romano and ricotta salata.
3 pounds pork spare ribs cut into 2-inch pieces. (I had the butcher saw the ribs lengthwise through the racks and then I cut them into double-rib pieces. See the picture above.)
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, sliced thin
2 garlic cloves, minced fine
2 28-ounce cans Italian crushed tomatoes
1 large clump of basil (about 6 leaves)
2 to 3 cups hot water
1 pound rigatoni
1/2 cup pecorino Romano
1/4 cup ricotta salata
Season the ribs with salt and pepper.
Heat olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed dutch oven over medium heat. Brown the ribs well on both sides, not over-crowding the pot. Work in batches if necessary. This will take about 10 minutes per batch.
After they are browned, transfer the ribs to a platter lined with paper towels.
Drain the fat from the pot, reserving 4 to 5 tablespoons. Add the onions to the reserved fat, sprinkle with a little salt, and brown them until they are soft and nicely browned. About 10 minutes. As the onions are browning, scrape up most of the brown bits sticking to the bottom of the pot.
A minute or two before the onions are done, add the garlic. Cook for about a minute, watchong the pot closely to ensure that the garlic does not burn.
Add the crushed tomatoes and basil, again scraping any remaining brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Adjust for seasoning.
When the tomatoes start to boil, add the ribs. Press the ribs down so they are covered with the sauce.
When the sauce returns to a boil, reduce the flame to low and simmer for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, or until the ribs are tender, stirring occasionally. If the sauce reduces too much, add some of the hot water so that the ribs remain covered.
When the ribs are done, cook the pasta in abundant, well salted water. Cook the pasta until a minute before the al dente stage.
Meanwhile, remove the basil from the sauce and transfer about 2 to 3 cups of the sauce to a large skillet. When the pasta is done, using a spider, transfer the pasta to the skillet and toss with the sauce over a low flame. Sprinkle with some of the two cheeses and cook for about a minute or until the pasta is done.
Serve the pasta along with ribs accompanied by the two cheeses for individual sprinkling.
Wine Pairing: Sangiovese