Monday, December 17, 2007

Lemongrass Pork Riblets


My most recent cook-book purchase (on the advice of fellow food-blogger Holybasil) is Andrea Nguyen's superb 'Into the Vietnamese Kitchen.' It's one of those rare cookbooks that you can read almost like a novel. She details the ordeals of her family leaving Saigon in 1975 and establishing a new life on the West Coast, and she talks about how her mom persisted in preserving and recreating authentic meals despite the limited American grocery supply. I like this book so much because it really underscores the crucial role that food plays in the maintenance of cultural heritages, especially in expat communities.

My paternal family also fled from Saigon, probably a few short months after Andrea's, and I grew up in a thoroughly Canadian culture. I don't speak the language, and I've never been to Vietnam. Food, and the family rituals that surround it, remain as my strongest link to my cultural inheritance and I've learned to treasure that.

These little riblets are a real treat and they were really fun to make. The key ingredient is lemongrass, a long-stalk, husk-like vegetable that has all the aroma and freshness of lemon without the acidity. A medium-sized bunch set me back 99 cents at the local asian market. The other secret ingredient is a wonderful caramel sauce called Nuoc Mau, that Andrea Nguyen explains how to make both in her book and on her blog here. In a pinch though, honey will work just as well. The riblets are marinated for 24 hours and then roasted in the oven. They weren't quite as tender as I thought they'd be (I think I will try adapting this recipe by braising them beforehand) but they were packed with flavour. A warning though: they are really messy to eat!


1 rack of spareribs or babyback ribs, cut lengthwise into 2 inch pieces
1 cucumber, to serve

For the marinade
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 large shallot, chopped
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
2 tablespoons of soy sauce
2 tablespoons of honey or Caramel Sauce
1 tablespoon of fish sauce (nuoc mam)
2 tablespoons of canola oil
2 lemongrass stalks, trimmed and minced

To prepare the ribs, carefully peel off the tough white membrane along the back of the ribs. This will take a bit of force, so be careful. Cut between the bones into individual riblets.

For the marinade, mix the garlic, shallot, lemongrass and oil and blend them in a mortar and pestle or small processor. Add to a large bowl. Add in the brown sugar, black pepper, soy sauce, caramel sauce and fish sauce and mix. Add the riblets and, using your hands, coat the meat in the marinade, cover with plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge overnight.

30-45 minutes before cooking, take the bowl out of the fridge to let the meat get to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit and put a rack on the top shelf of the oven. Arrange the riblets on a foil-lined baking sheet with the meat side up. Reserve the marinade. Cook for about 7 minutes, remove from the oven and quickly brush with the marinade. Put them back in the oven for another 5-7 minutes depending on how big they are. Serve with sliced cucumber, some small chiles and some soy sauce for dipping. And, of course, a hefty supply of paper towels to clean up afterwards!

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