Fall Ready: Tuscan Cannellini Beans with Rosemary and Braised Pork Ribs

Tony writes: When all is quiet on the Cook Angel front, I tend to do my own thing. Which is to say, I obsess about whatever new thing I’m cooking or eating. A funny thing happened this week in obsession-land: it got cold in New England. Not really cold, but nighttime chilly, especially if you’re approaching middle age like me (just turned 37; feeling a little frail). So, this late August chill came along, threw me for a loop, and caused me to start nesting, culinarily-speaking, for the upcoming fall.

What’s of interest to you is not that I’m aging gracelessly or that in response to a cool spell, I made a pot of beans. Rather, it’s that I used sprareribs unorthodoxly in a braise, as a supporting player to flavor legumes. And so should you (the spareribs part). As we head towards cooler nights and the seasonal pull to hardier fare, follow this meaty flavoring trick and use ribs as an embellishment for vegetable stews or braises or slow simmered sauces (think marinara). Then pull out your sweaters and flannel sheets and complete the rest of your fall prep.

The trick: Ribs as a flavoring for vegetables/legumes: These days, we’re all trying to eat less meat. One solution (a good one) is to use just a little meat (a couple small chunks of something flavorful) to add complexity and depth to a whole lotta vegetables. Bacon has gotten overworked in this equation. There are only so many pork bellies to go round. Spareribs are “spare” because they are what is left after removing the belly (the bacon) from the animal. Spareribs, though the last thing you may consider braising, do admirably in this preparation, rendering their flavorful fat, adding a more nuanced, all-purpose richness to a vegetable-centric braise than bacon. In the recipe below, I braised spareribs with white beans, though you could just as easily add them to a basic marinara sauce or to a stew with potatoes and greens or to lentils or chili or most any hearty vegetable-based stew or braise. The basic method for these dishes follows the one below: brown the ribs and reserve, brown some aromatic vegetables, then simmer both with legumes or hearty greens until the ribs are tender and the vegetables soft.

The recipe:

1. Soak the beans overnight (a 1-lb bag cannellini beans is 2 1/2 cups; soak in 3 quarts cold water). The soaking is not necessary, but I prefer it. It allows the beans to cook more gently (less splitting). It also has an old-fashioned feel that I dig.

2. Simmer the beans separately: No matter whether it’s vegetables or meat I’m cooking with the beans, I like to boil the beans separately first to get them just tender (this adds certainty to the braise time so neither the beans nor any additions overcook). To simmer the beans, rinse them under cold running water, pick through and discard any pebbles (you’ll occasionally find one – most beans are sorted by machine, not hand), add them to a large pot, and cover with cold water by a couple of inches (about 10 cups). Bring to a boil and then simmer, covered, for 1 hour so the beans just start to get tender, but are still a little toothy. Remove from the heat.

3. Meanwhile, brown the ribs: Searing the ribs does not seal in the juices (as many cooks inaccurately suggest), but it does create caramelized flavor which serves as the base for this dish. Use a separate pot for searing the ribs; something heavy based with a large surface area like a Dutch oven which will retain heat and brown the ribs evenly. Set the pot over medium-high heat for 1 1/2 minutes (a droplet of water should instantly evaporate), then add a drizzle of oil (about 1 Tbs. –  you don’t need much oil, the ribs will render their own fat) and 8 trimmed spareribs (about 1 1/2 lb.; cut into individual ribs; this isn’t much but this dish is about the beans).  Sprinkle the ribs generously with salt and pepper and cook the ribs, without touching for 2 minutes, until they brown and easily release from the pot when you lift up an edge, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook the other side of the ribs in the same manner. Transfer the browned ribs to a large plate.

4. Saute aromatics: Anything goes here: onions, carrots, celery, pepper, garlic… I had some carrots, celery and garlic hanging around so that’s what I went with. I cut up about 2 cups each of celery and carrot (1/2-inch dice). To cook them, add the diced vegetables to the pot, sprinkle lightly with salt, and saute directly in the pork fat (should be 1 to 2 Tbs. left behind), stirring occasionally, until they become tender and just start to brown lightly. Add some minced garlic if you like and stir for 15 seconds. Add a splash of white wine (about 3/4 cup) and cook, scraping the bottom of the pot to incorporate any browned bits left behind from the ribs, until the wine almost completely cooks off, about 1 minute.

5. Braise the ribs and beans together: Add the beans and their broth, some chopped fresh rosemary (1 tsp.) or a couple of bay leaves and bring to a simmer; add some more water if the mixture is too thick. Reduce the heat to medium-low, nestle the ribs in the broth as well as some thinly sliced jarred roasted red pepper (I used Spanish piquillo peppers), cover, and cook, flipping the ribs occasionally, until the ribs are completely tender and render all of their fat (the meat will literally start to “fall off the bone”) and the beans are soft, but not mashed up, about 1 1/2 hours. Stir in 1 to 2 Tbs. red wine vinegar (so the broth has a pleasant tang to match the richness of the ribs) and salt and pepper to taste. Note: you can fold in some greens like spinach if you like.

6. Serve: Ladle into shallow bowls and serve with a good crusty loaf of bread and a green salad. Serves 4.

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