Mention “spare ribs” and probably the last type of cuisine with which you’d associate them would be Italian. However if, like me, you’re of Italian-American heritage, one of the first associations may be with a long cooked Sunday pasta sauce together with meatballs and/or sausage. In fact, I’ve posted a recipe for my Neapolitan aunt’s version of them on this blog.
When I recently picked up some baby back ribs on sale at the market, my thoughts went to a recipe for them from way back by Marcella Hazan. Having lost many of my cookbooks to Super Storm Sandy, I did an internet search and was able to find the specific recipe I had been thinking of. It came from one of her later books in 2004 Marcella Says… and was adapted for The Times by Amanda Hesser. (Note: The recipe in this link is part of a review of Marcella’s book and includes an interesting profile of the author.)
Like many of Marcella’s recipes, it uses a modicum of ingredients, yet yields deep intense flavors that celebrate what Italians call “la prima materia,” the fundamental ingredients. After browning, the ribs are simmered with an abundance of thinly sliced onions and a generous dose of crushed red-pepper flakes for around three hours. During this time, onions caramelize and the ribs reach the perfect fall-off-the-bone texture. The spice of the red pepper serves as the perfect foil for the sweetness of the onions.
I served the ribs garnished with fresh sage along with a side of smooth polenta and a Chianti Classico.
Two points about this recipe I should mention: (1) Don’t skimp on the chili pepper. Although a 3/4 tablespoon may sound like a lot, it’s really necessary to balance the sweetness of the onions. (2) Keep in mind that this recipe requires about 3 1/2 hours. I somehow overlooked this requirement, and we wound up having a very late-night supper.
Spare Ribs With Caramelized Onions
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 pounds baby-back ribs, split into pairs
½ cup dry white wine
2 very large onions, sliced very thin, about 6 cups
Fine sea salt
½ to 1 chopped chili pepper or 3/4 tablespoon dried red chili pepper
1. Split the ribs into pairs.
2. Pour the olive oil into a 12-inch sauté pan, turn the heat to high, and when the oil is hot, slip in the meat. Turn the ribs two or three times to brown them well. If the pan is crowded, do a batch at at time, then return them all to the pan.
3. Pour in the wine and turn the ribs once or twice while the wine bubbles completely away.
4. Add the sliced onions, salt and chili pepper, cover the pan and turn the heat down to low.
5. Cook for 2 to 3 hours, turning the ribs occasionally, until the meaty part of the ribs feels very tender and the onions have cooked down to a creamy consistency.
Wine Pairing: Chianti Classico, Alsatian Pinot Gris