I stood, in an orange vest, in front of a vast row of beef parts, and wondered which one to cook. You’ve probably done the same thing, in similar circumstances, albeit without the orange vest. (I was in the immense refrigerated airplane hanger of The Restaurant Depot.) My task was to cook something really special for Christmas dinner, and I had a more or less unlimited budget. I had already decided on the basic protein, which this year was to be a pork “cathedral roast,” two full-rack pork loins arched up so that their bones formed the arches of Our Lady of Porcine Perfection. But I also wanted to do barbecue, and so when my eyes fell on the beef back ribs, I knew I had the perfect solution.
Because beef back ribs are a perfect paradox of beef. They are simultaneously the crudest, heaviest, most primal and rude-looking of all barbecue cuts, and at the same time one of the most tender and flavorful. The solution is simple enough. Think of a boneless prime rib. Wonder where the bones went? Well, here they are. There isn’t an enormous amount of beef on a back rib; that’s why it’s cheap. But the meat that is there is some of the best in the animal – the intercostal or so-called “finger meat” between the bones. Back ribs don’t look as appealing as short ribs, because there isn’t a huge piece of beef on top; just a little bit on the sides, as with a pork spare rib. But you don’t need to braise the hell out of it, either. It’s essentially rib steak meat, and when you cook it a long time it turns dark and crusty and the meat takes on a pink-hued smokiness all the way through.
Which makes it a fabulous complement to a more refined dish. As I said, the beef back rib is heavy and crude and big. It’s messy to eat, but that’s the very thing that makes it perversely appropriate for fancy dinners. It also makes it absolutely ideal for unfancy ones – prosaic occasions like a Super Bowl party, say, or a summer weeknight where you just sit outside and eat giant ribs and drink cold bottles of Shiner Bock.
I was cooking in New Orleans, so I wanted to use something vaguely local, and found it in the weird setsuma oranges that grow here. I made a glaze of the juice, thickened with some Kraft barbecue sauce (a good base) and various savory flavors: allspice, onion, garlic, and white peppers. It was freaking great, and looked even better. The only problem was that it made everyone’s hands hideously dirty, far more so than the elegant linen napkins could cope with. So maybe include some finger bowls for this course. That’s classy, right?