Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ribology 101

Pork spareribs come from the chest of the pig, and are attached to the sternum (breastplate) before removal. They are the meatiest of the ribs, and have the most flavor. Back ribs, or “baby” back ribs (AKA loin ribs) come from the central section of the pig, beginning where the sparerib ends, almost connecting to the backbone. They are much less meaty, smaller, less flavorful, more expensive, more tender (but much more likely to be overcooked and dried-out since they have less self-basting fat), and more likely to be glazed with some kind of gloppy sauce. Baby backs are the rib fodder butchered for your neighborhood national chain restaurant menu, and they have nothing to do with the age of the pig. Ribologists avoid these types of restaurants, and their puny rib offerings.

“Country style ribs” aren’t technically really ribs, but are cut from the blade end of the pork loin They do have sections of the blade bone running through them, and come from an area right next to and above the head end of the spareribs. They are good and meaty, if a little lean, and grill much better than they barbecue, but they are not ribs (even though the supermarket says so).

A whole rack (AKA “slab”) of spareribs has the breast bone and cartilage intact, and any meat cooked with bone and costal (rib) cartilage equals more flavor. If the breast bone and cartilage have been trimmed off, the rack is called a St. Louis rack. Apparently in St. Louis they don’t like flavor. If they take off the skirt of meat that lies on the back side of a St. Louis rib rack, it’s then called a Kansas City rack (AKA, KC Cut, Colorado Cut, South Side Cut). This whittles a perfectly good rack of spareribs down to almost the size of a puny baby back slab. People in Kansas City apparently love bulimic racks of ribs, and like flavor even less than residents of St. Louis. Some boneheads argue that the definitions of St. Louis and Kansas City are reversed. True ribologists avoid pointless arguments. Both types are suckacious manglings of the regal sparerib.

Spareribs are sold wholesale by weight, and have their own size terminology: “3½ and down” is a rack that weighs less than 3 and a half pounds, meaning it came from a younger and more tender pig. A “3 to 4” or a “3 to 5” is a slab that weighs between 3 and 4 pounds or 3 and 5 pounds. The bigger the slab, the older the animal, and the lower and slower it should be cooked to maintain tenderness. A full rack of spareribs should have between 11 and 14 ribs, and should feed between 2 and 4 eaters, depending on their rib-storing capacity. Figure on losing about 25% of your total rack weight when you cook a slab of ribs.

Fresh is always better than frozen. All-natural or organic is always better than water-injected, antibiotic and/or hormone-laced pork. Reject “enhanced” slabs…packed with water, sodium phosphate, flavorings, and tenderizers…you want real meat. Heritage breeds such as Berkshire, Mangalitsa, Tamworth, Red Wattle, Duroc, Old Spot, Yorkshire, or Large Black will taste a lot better than one of these new hybrid disco breeds. Avoid “shiners”: ribs that have been trimmed so close by the meat processors that the bones show through; these will have little actual meat to consume. Look for slabs that have good meat coverage and nicely-trimmed fat shells.

Regardless of how you plan on cooking the ribs, or what you might be flavoring them with, the membrane on the back side of the ribs should be removed before seasoning. The sheath-like membrane covers the back side of the slab. Once removed it allows the seasonings and smoke to penetrate the meat easily, and makes the rack more tender. To remove, use a blunt-edged knife and pry up one corner of the membrane. Using a thin towel or a paper towel, firmly grasp the corner of the membrane and pull it off. One removed, the rack is called a “skinned” slab. Some folks prefer instead to make a series of shallow cuts with a sharp knife through the membrane. We like them skinned.

Slow and low smoking is preferred with ribs. Some folks steam them first, to break down connective tissue and remove some of the fat. Do this only if you are in a big hurry, and if you do it, save the de-fatted liquid from the bottom of the steamer. It makes a killer base for Chinese hot and sour soup, or for some székely goulash.. Some folks do it bass-ackwards: they smoke the ribs, and then wrap them in foil to finish them. This is, in effect, steaming the ribs, except that you ruin the nice smoky bark you have going on the outside. If you're going to ruin them with a glaze or a gloppy sauce, no loss, since you'll be destroying the bark anyway. There ought to be a quarter of an inch of bone showing on the end when they are done. The bone should not slip out of it's meat wrapper...if it does, the meat is probably overdone and mushy.

So, stick to a real sparerib for maximum flavor, and slow smoke them over some oak with a little wet fruit wood added to the edge of the coals. If you must have sauce with your ribs, add it when you eat it. Anything else violates all the rules of nature.

Mick ©

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fun! Food! Facts! The Origins of the Term “BBQ”:

There are several popular theories of the origin of the term “barbecue”. One centers on a wealthy Texas rancher accustomed to throwing huge shindigs for his pals, cooking whole sheep, hogs, and cattle over open pits. Depending on whom you believe, his name was either Bernard Quayle or Barnaby Quinn, but with either, his ranch branding iron had the letters BQ, with a line underneath, reading “Bar-BQ”.

Another has the English word barbecue deriving from the Spanish word barbacoa, which wordsmiths say came from babracot, a word referring to the greenwood (probably allspice) sticks used to form a cooking grill in the Haitian Taino dialect of the Arawak-Carib language. This is the version favored by etymologists. Texans prefer the branding iron version.

A popular cooking magazine insists that the word came from an extinct tribe of cannibalistic Indians in Guyana thought to barbecue their enemies. Others maintain it came from the French term “barbe a queue”, meaning “from whiskers to the tail” …a direct reference to barbecuing whole pigs or cows they say. Last but not least, a source in North Carolina claims it came from a 19th century advertisement for a joint that served many purposes: whiskey bar, beer hall, pool cue hall, serving roast pig. It was known, so says the story, as the Bar-Beer-Cue-Pig. Texans completely disregard versions referring to cannibals, the French, or North Carolina as transparent hogwash.

However the name evolved, it reflects a method of cooking and a taste that is dear to all Texans, ingrained and cherished from birth.
Mick Vann ©

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Frowns in the Land of Smiles:

Thaksin Shinawatra was the old Prime Minister from 2001-2006. He got thrown out on Sept 19th, 2006 by a military junta after prolonged pressure from protesters known as the “yellow shirts”, composed of intellectuals, yuppies, artists, progressives, etc. Yellow, incidentally, is the color of the King. Thaksin, the richest man in Thailand, had a slush fund of several billion dollars that he had accumulated in offshore banks (he was the one that bought the Manchester City soccer team while he was in exile in England). He set up most of his accounts in his children’s names; one was actually a dummy corporation entitled “Ample Rich”. They eventually got rid of Thaksin for tax evasion, after he funneled billions of dollars of profit from the sale of a telecom company (which was made wealthy by use of public lands) into offshore dummy corporations.

Thaksin was originally from Chiang Mai in the north, and when he was PM he made a lot of concessions to the poor peasants, especially in the north, which were partially effective in reducing their poverty. The poor love Thaksin, as he was really the first politician that ever gave them the time of day. He actually could care less about them or their problems; they are but a political tool to him. The progressive agricultural programs of the King and Queen have been much more effective in helping the plight of the poor farmer: converting Hilltribe farmers from growing opium to high value conventional crops, establishment of agricultural research stations country-wide, pushing for organic agriculture and limiting the use of pesticides and genetically-modified crops and seeds, development of alternative crops (coffee, cut flowers, fruits such as peaches, apples, pears, etc, wine grapes and vineyards, etc.).

So Thaksin is gone, disgraced, and in exile all over the world: first England, Japan for a while, Dubai, and now Cambodia. All the while he has been scheming to get back into power. Cut to 2008 when PM Samak Sundaravej is fired by the Courts for illegally taking a salary from a cooking show while in the seat of PM (he was a popular chef, but not supposed to be making money that way). On Dec 2, 2008 Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother in law, gets elected but is quickly kicked out and all three government parties are banned for election fraud, setting the stage for Abhisit to take office as PM.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the current PM (elected Dec 2008), is Eton and Oxford-educated, and from a wealthy, powerful Thai family. The UDD (United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship) poor came into Bangkok from the hinterlands, especially from Isaan and the north, to demand the resignation of Abhisit, while supporting the return of Thaksin. They all donned red shirts, in the same manner as the yellow shirts previously. This had been building up for several years; you may remember when protesters took over and occupied both airports in Bangkok for weeks, virtually shutting down tourism. It all came to a head in early April when entrenched protestors and the army started having armed conflicts, with accusations flying back and forth about use of weaponry, grenades, etc.

Abhisit eventually conceded to hold new elections in November, but the protesters didn't agree to leave Bangkok after the concession as they had promised, so Abhisit reneged on that offer. Thaksin, from outside the country, is reputed to be funding mercenaries that are fighting with and for the red shirts, using grenades and other explosives, killing police, etc. The Thai general that had joined the red shirts as their ‘military adviser’, Seh Daeng, was shot in the head by snipers (assumedly, pro-government) last week and killed, setting off violent protest for two days.

The King and Royal family have been, for the most, part strangely silent. All they have to do is say the word, and the protesters would kowtow to their demands, but the Royal Family tries to stay out of political situations whenever possible. Many Thai friends thought that the government should go in and forcibly remove the red shirts, using violence if necessary. The protests by the UDD were destroying the Thai economy, and most Thais hate Thaksin with a passion, except the red shirts, of course.

The last time I was there we had heard about a bombing that happened just a few minutes after we had passed through an intersection near Pak Kret, in north-central Bangkok. We were eating later that night at this seafood restaurant famous for its crab in crab egg sauce (delicious!) and one of the guests in our party, a Thai air force general, got a cell phone call and then announced to the group that we should leave, because the military was getting ready to set up road blocks to counteract the precursors of this current red shirt movement. On my tuk tuk ride back to my hotel, you could see armored personnel carriers setting up in key intersections downtown. While we were down south in Krabi the next few days, there were a bunch more bombings in BKK, and we saw some of that aftermath. The difference then was that life went on as usual...this time not.

After weeks of hundreds getting seriously injured and 70+ deaths, the red shirts disbanded yesterday and slipped into the shadows as the Thai army went in to rout them out. Later that day, the red shirts started over 30 major fires all over the city, burning Bangkok’s biggest shopping mall, Central World, as well as numerous banks, hotels, stores, and shopping centers, even the stock exchange.

Who knows where this will all end. My guess is that we haven’t seen the last of the red shirts, or the last of Thaksin. There have been some 18 coups since 1932, there is still great disparity between rich and poor, and corruption remains a big problem. All that aside, Thailand is one of the best places on earth, with the friendliest folks. It is “The Land of Smiles”.
Mick Vann ©

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sausage Rant!

As time goes by, sausage makers and sausages are getting dumber and worserer. By that, I mean more finely ground, leaner, and blander. Not to mention the fact that synthetic casings are even becoming more widespread. Take the classic Czech-German Central Texas style of sausage, the “hot gut” that you used to find everywhere, especially at local barbecue joints. Back in the day, any respectable BBQ joint made and smoked their own sausages. It was a way to use up meat trimmings and trimmed fat, and make a product that could add to the bottom line, that anyone could afford. Now, most joints purchase pre-made sausages. Takes too long to make them, they complain; can’t afford the man hours, they moan; I can buy sausage as good as I can make, they unjustly justify.

The meat itself has become homogeneous, culled from these blasted modern breeds that have had all of the flavor (and much of the flavorful fat) bred right out of them. Wake up people! There wouldn’t be a big movement to bring back the old heritage breeds if they didn’t taste better. This was all the result of greedy meat moguls getting a bunch of soul less egghead animal scientists to invent pigs and cows that took less time to mature while eating less food. This path gone wrong is all about money, not taste. You might as well be eating Soylent Green!

What we get now, even from the two esteemed sausage makers in Elgin, is a pale shadow of what you used to be able to buy. With sausages everywhere, the grind of the meat has gotten finer. When you have a coarsely-ground sausage, the meat usually tends to be from better cuts; it’s easier to camouflage lesser quality cuts of meat when it’s more finely ground. Line up three smoked sausages, and my money is on people choosing the one with the coarsest grind as their favorite. Every time.

The fat content of today’s sausage has definitely gone way down, with sausage makers snubbing their nose at the old adage: “fat means flavor”. They are trying to get politically correct with something as sacred as sausage, figuring that going lean is somehow healthier and that it will boost sales. Here’s a clue to the misinformed: someone eating a sausage isn’t worried about their health…they want good flavor, above all else. Eating a sausage is, or should be, a religious experience, not a protein source meant only to curb hunger. Lastly, today’s sausages have gotten too freakin’ bland. Reduced, subtracted, and downright gone is the garlic, the black pepper, and the cayenne that used to grace our precious Centex “hot gut” smoked sausage.

Hopefully, if enough people start bitching about it, we can revert back to the old ways, and sausage, real sausage, can be saved. We need to start by making sausage from good heritage breed meat. We need to get rid of all of the grinding plates with the smallest holes. We need to add more fat, and more spice, and smoke them longer. And we need to insist on getting what we deserve.
Mick Vann ©

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Fun! Food! Facts! Food's Original Mr. Freeze

Naturalist and fur trader Clarence Birdseye noticed that foods frozen by the Inuit (aka "Eskimos") during the intensely bitter cold of Canada’s winter tasted better when thawed than those foods frozen during the milder spring and fall temperatures. It all had to do with the fact that quicker freezing created smaller ice crystals, which did less cell damage to foods. In 1925 Brooklynite Birdseye developed his “Quick Freeze Machine”, a method of flash freezing foods. In 1934 he entered into a joint venture to manufacture freezer cases for grocery stores, since he realized that they were essential to the success of his frozen food product line. National distribution of frozen foods didn’t begin until 1944, when Birdseye began leasing freezer railroad cars to the railroad lines to transport his frozen foods. His innovations helped lead to the birth of the General Foods Co. Incidentally, the family name Birdseye reportedly came from an ancestor who saved the life of an English Queen by shooting an attacking hawk squarely through its eye. (For what it's worth, I don’t think a human could be killed by a hawk, even a large and really pissed-off hawk, but why screw around with great family stories…not to mention the fact that variations of the Birdseye family name date back to the year 1086.)
Mick Vann ©

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Halal/Haram Pig Stick!

Based on pregnancy pee indicator technology and some molecular gas chromatographic jackball scientifical wheelings and dealings, Kazakhstan scientists have invented a consumer test stick that will instantly detect the presence of pork. Why would one need that you might ask, unless it was to determine why something tastes so damn good?

Unlike in the majority of Muslim countries, in Kazakhstan pork is cheap and widely available. According to local news sources (and Reuters), unscrupulous Kazak chefs often augment more expensive chopped or minced beef with much less expensive and forbidden pork, even if the Qur'an takes a very dim view of the practice. This surreptitious deceit is apparently widespread, and the Mullahs don't like it.

The way the pork stick tester works is the diner breaks off a small chunk of mystery meat and drops it into their glass of water. Stir with gusto to distribute the porkossity, and then dip the test stick into the water. If pork is present, the color of the indicator on the stick changes in a minute or so, and the diner is safely alerted. No word on whether or not a fatwah is issued, or the chef is then dragged outside for a good ole public stoning.
Mick Vann ©


Monday, May 3, 2010

Fun! Food! Facts! Over-Stuffing the Pie Hole

Mauritania, in Northwestern Saharan Africa, is the only place on earth where women are force-fed (it's called gavage there, the same term used in France for producing foie gras by force-feeding geese). Females of all ages, especially children, are pumped full of sweetened milk and millet porridge every two hours because their men appreciate hefty gals as a sign of health and fertility in an otherwise underfed nomadic desert country. Voluptuous women are a sign of a man's wealth, while thin women indicate poverty and hardship. The government outlawed the practice in recent years, but it is still practiced on the sly and out in the boonies. In 2000 the government launched a big radio and TV campaign against the practice but “illiteracy has made progress slow”, according to officials. Since government resistance to the age-old practice, Mauritanian women have resorted to taking animal steroids from Pakistan and Chinese rheumatism tablets in order to gain weight quickly.
MIck Vann ©