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Perfect ribs need smoke, but you don?t need a smoker. A charcoal grill and wood chips will do the trick. (Jennifer Robers for The Globe and Mail)
Perfect ribs need smoke, but you don?t need a smoker. A charcoal grill and wood chips will do the trick. (Jennifer Robers for The Globe and Mail)

In The Kitchen

Chef's recipe: Honey-garlic-rosemary ribs Add to ...

David Lee is co-owner of Nota Bene in Toronto

Ah, the May long weekend - the start of summer. Ignore your calendar and forget that summer doesn't officially arrive for four more weeks. We Canadians know better. Even if the nights are still chilly, we're going to open our cottages, plant our gardens and - most importantly - fire up the barbecue!

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And just what are we going to cook? I humbly offer my recipe for ribs, with emphasis on the "humble" as this recipe is the result of my being humbled.

Let me explain. A few years back, my wife Jennifer hired Stephanie Beallor, a personal trainer, to help me get into shape. Steph and her husband Mike soon became good friends of ours, and one night we invited them over for dinner. We served oven-baked ribs, and at the time I thought they were quite good. The Beallors, however, didn't seem impressed; their young daughters even declined seconds. I figured the Beallors weren't that fond of ribs.

Jennifer soon discovered, however, that the Beallors loved ribs - their own ribs - when she dined at their house. How good were they? My wife couldn't stop talking about how delicious "Mike's Ribs" were. She said that my ribs paled in comparison - not what a chef wants to hear from his wife.

Finally, after months of being subjected to Jennifer's constant praise of "Mike's ribs," I decided to pay the Beallors a visit and see for myself what all the fuss was about. They were good - so good, in fact, that I swallowed my pride and casually asked Mike what spices he used. He just smiled. No matter how nicely I asked, he refused to divulge his secret recipe.

So I went home humbled and empty-handed, but with a mission: I was going to duplicate "Mike's Ribs." How complicated could it be? After all, I am a chef!

I became a little obsessed (it didn't help that Jennifer was telling anyone who'd listen about the amazing ribs). I bought several rib cookbooks, and experimented with dry and wet rubs, a variety of marinades and different cooking methods - anything and everything, basically. I came close a number of times, but still couldn't get it quite right.

Then I had an epiphany: Why try to join Beallor when I can beat him at his own game? I'd come up with my own recipe, since he refused to share his.

After much trial and error, I finally nailed it: honey-rosemary-garlic ribs - or, as I like to call them, "David's Ribs."

But before I share the recipe, sparing you the weeks of frustration that Mike didn't spare me, I want to pass on a few general rib-related insights.

First, by ribs I mean pork ribs. Beef ribs can be tasty, but that's another story and another recipe. Second, regarding the great spare-rib-versus-back-rib debate, I much prefer spare ribs, which are taken from the belly, the deliciously fatty part of the pig that also gives us that most perfect of foods, bacon. As a bonus, the bone is longer, which is better for gnawing, and though spare ribs have less meat, the texture is better.

Third, according to the sort of people who debate about ribs - people who tend to live in the Southern United States - in order to cook ribs you need indirect heat and you need smoke. But you do not need a smoker. I get by fine using my Big Green Egg with high-quality charcoal and apple wood chips, and I imagine that any decent charcoal grill would work too.

The key is to heap the charcoal on one side of the grill and put the ribs on the other, preferably in a rib rack (a useful accessory that raises the meat off the grill for indirect cooking).

For those of you with gas grills, adding wood chips, turning off one side of the grill and cooking the ribs on that side will yield a reasonable result. Just don't mention that's how you cook your ribs to anyone from the South. That would be almost as bad as admitting you ever oven-baked your ribs.

Honey-garlic-rosemary ribs

Ingredients

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon chili flakes

2 sprigs rosemary, chopped

Olive oil

1 rack pork spare ribs, whole, silver skin trimmed off

1/2 cup honey

Method

Combine garlic, chili flakes, rosemary and enough olive oil to coat the rack of ribs.

Place the rack of ribs in a large, food-grade plastic bag and pour the marinade over top.

Squeeze out as much air as possible, seal the bag and refrigerate overnight.

An hour or so before you light your charcoal grill, soak four cups or so of apple wood chips in enough water to cover.

Light your charcoal, and let it burn until it's covered with a fine white ash (about half an hour).

While you're waiting for the charcoal to be ready, take your spare ribs out of the fridge and remove from the marinade. Let the excess drain off, but don't wipe the ribs.

When the charcoal is ready, put a handful of the soaked wood chips directly onto it and close the lid. Wait until they start to smoke (about 15 minutes). Check the temperature of your grill; it should be somewhere around 250F.

Put the ribs in a rib rack and place on the side of the grill above the drip pan.

Cook the ribs for 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours, rotating and flipping every 20 minutes or so, and adding coals and wood chips as necessary to keep the smoke coming.

(I give a range for the cooking time because it's difficult to obtain a particular temperature with a charcoal fire, and the size of rib racks varies as well as personal preferences on doneness. I like my ribs when the meat is just coming off, but not falling off, the bone - tender, but still a bit chewy.)

Try to minimize the time the lid of your grill is open, and keep an eye on the temperature. Anywhere between 250F and 300F is fine.

About 15 minutes before the ribs are done, take them out of the rib rack and brush some honey on the meat side. Place them meat side up on the grill above the drip pan. This is when you really have to pay attention, checking the ribs regularly and moving them if the honey starts to burn. You want to caramelize, not carbonize, the meat.

When nicely caramelized, remove the ribs from the grill and portion them according to how many people you're serving.

 

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