Ribbetjies. Spare ribs. They’re as manly as food can get. If they were human, they’d be packed with testosterone and as sexist as a bible-thumping Utah polygamist. If ribbetjies had arms and legs, they’d be as muscled as the guy on the cover of Men’s Health, and ripple like a discus thrower at the Olympics whose girlfriend is in the crowd. If ribbetjies could talk, they’d sound like Russell Crowe after a night of drinking neat Jack followed by a good round of throwing things at photographers. They’re rough – but they’re never, ever tough, if you know how to cook them.
Almost every second Alpha Male you pass in the street has his own secret, prized recipe for exactly how pork ribs should be cooked, and there is potential for war if the subject were to come up near closing time at the Keg & Thump. For no explicable reason, it’s one of those things that men make, like potjiekos, Texan steaks, and burnt chops on the braai. Ribbetjies bring out the beast in you.
So, trying to bond with my inner beast this week, or at least locate him, I hauled a slab of pork rib out of the fridge at Woolworths, lugged it home, slammed it on the kitchen counter top and gave it a good dressing-down. Being a particularly manly hunk of pork, it did not quiver, maintained staunch eye contact and dared me to cut it into strips.
But there was no point in doing that, because a strip of rib is best cooked whole, and cooked twice, and only then cut into strips and piled in no-nonsense, manly style on a really hardy trencher hewn of wood, and unplaned. Splinters are good for you. And hold the garnish.
Having said all that, being quite unlike the kind of males I have been spoofing here, I did not do the obvious thing and dunk my strip of ripped ribs in a great squodge of “steakhouse sauce”, that sweetly cloying marinade so beloved of a million South Africans, and which you can buy in plastic bottles from no-frills stores like Makro and Trade Centre. The kind of stores which, if they were men, would wash their hair with Cobra floor polish and use Spray & Cook for deodorant.
You can, if you must, buy a commercial one-recipe-fits-all marinade and pour that all over your ribs, but really, be a man and make a sauce of your own, and have some control over the end result. I don’t doubt that your own marinade will turn out more delicious than a shop-bought horror.
My idea was to try to recreate the flavours of Van der Hum, the spicy old Cape brandy liqueur classic. There’s no actual Van der Hum liqueur in this, which is not to say you couldn’t add a splash of it into the mix if you wanted to. But what I did was to take the essential elements – a blend of brandy and spices – and turn them into a sticky sauce in which to first cook the whole rib in a hot oven for a couple of hours before finishing off in a frying pan.
Van der Hum Pork ribbetjies with fried pineapple
500g pork ribs, in one piece
1 cup red grape juice
1 cup chicken stock
3 Tbs pomegranate molasses
3 Tbs tamarind paste (or pulp, seeds removed)
2 Tbs brandy
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
1 husk of mace
1 scant tsp ground turmeric (borrie)
Salt and pepper to taste
Regarding the ingredients list printed above, pomegranate molasses is an Asian product which you can buy from specialist food stores – or use something else sweet and sticky, such as apple jelly, honey or apricot jam. Mace is the husk surrounding a whole nutmeg – you buy them at spice stores or the spice section of your supermarket.
The trick with pork ribs is to cook them twice, if you want that deeply flavoured sticky sauce, super-soft meat that trips lightly off the bone, and a nice bit of browning and crisping just to finish it off.
So, in an oven dish (I used a heavy duty enamelled iron one – the kind of oven dish which, if it were a jacket, would be the kind photographers and war correspondents wear), mix all the wet ingredients and then add the hard spices and the teaspoon of turmeric, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix it to a smooth sauce and make sure there’s anough to coat the meat thoroughly – it must be immersed in this sauce.
Cover tightly with foil and bake in a 220°C oven for about two hours. Remove the rib and keep warm. Remove the whole spices from the sauce, strain the sauce into a saucepan and reduce until it’s a good pouring consistency. Brown the whole rib in butter or ghee (clarified butter) until the fat crisps nicely. Pile in the middle of a plate, pour the sauce over, and don’t bother to garnish.
I fried slices of fresh pineapple briefly in butter until they turned a pale golden, which is a silly girly touch, really. So I offset it with some really chunky sweet potato wedges which, if they were shirts, would be those blue and green ones that men who drive bakkies and make ribbetjies like to wear.
First published in Weekend Argus