Garlic-Stewed Sparerib Nuggets

豆豉排骨

This is one of my cold-weather favorites—a cozy, northern-style potful of sparerib nuggets, garlic, and Chinese black beans, stewed for hours until the meat falls from the bones and the sauce turns rich and ambrosial. It is a very simple dish with an earthy character I find immensely appealing. You may add the optional chili flakes and scallion rings for a central Chinese touch, or include some chunky vegetables—½ pound fresh broccoli flowerets, or ½ pound of roll-cut carrots—to make a complete one-pot meal. Either way, it is delicious.

  • Look for very fresh and meaty spareribs with a rich red color. I like to buy them from a butcher who will show me the whole rack. Otherwise, if you buy them prepackaged, hold the package up to eye level to check what is underneath the top layer of ribs—more meaty spareribs, or simply a hunk of bone—and complain or buy an extra package accordingly. If possible, have the butcher cut the ribs crosswise through the bone into inch-wide strips with an electric saw, so that all you need do at home is to cut the strips into nuggets. You can chop the bones at home with a thick-bladed Chinese cleaver designed for such heavy-duty tasks, but it is an ear-shattering, neighbor-arousing job.
  • Like most all stews, this one may be done days in advance and reheats beautifully. It also freezes well, so feel free to double the recipe if you are expecting a long winter.

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Ingredients

  • 2–2¼ pounds lean, meaty spareribs, trimmed of extraneous fat and meatless bone (weight after trimming), cut crosswise through the bone into 1–1¼-inch nuggets on a butcher’s electric saw (see directions below if you need to cut them yourself)
  • 2 tablespoons corn or peanut oil

Seasonings

  • tablespoons Chinese salted black beans (not the variety seasoned with five-spice powder)
  • 5–6 large, hard cloves garlic, stem end removed, lightly smashed and peeled
  • 2 tablespoons thin (regular) soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 cup hot water

Optional aromatics

  • ½–¾ teaspoon dried red chili flakes
  • 3–4 tablespoons thin-cut green and white scallion rings

Method

Preparations

If you are chopping the spareribs at home, first cut off the flap of lean meat that is usually attached to the upper back of the rack. Trim off any fat, then cut the meat into 1–1¼-inch squares and put them aside. Divide the rack into individual spareribs and trim off extraneous fat. Chop the ribs one at a time through the bone into 1¼-inch nuggets, putting the rib curved side down on a sturdy cutting surface and chopping with a heavy, thick-bladed cleaver designed to chop through bones. Do not use your thin-bladed, everyday Chinese cleaver for this task. The bones will nick it badly. To chop, grip the cleaver handle securely and chop forcefully and snappily so the bones cut cleanly without shattering. Keep your free hand safely out of the way, pausing in between chops to straighten the rib if it spins out of place. Once cut, combine with the squares of lean meat.

If your butcher has already cut the rack through the bone into long, strips, trim them of extra fat and divide each strip into individual nuggets.

Trimmed and cut, the sparerib nuggets may be sealed airtight and refrigerated up to a full day before stewing.

Making the stew

If you do not have a spouted plastic fat separator, plan to cook the stew at least 3 hours prior to serving, in order to chill the sauce and congeal the fat. Otherwise, you may begin cooking as little as an hour in advance of serving.

Chop the black beans coarsely. Do not wash them. The salt on the beans has been counted into the seasonings for the stew. Combine the black beans, garlic cloves, soy, sugar, and water, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Have all the ingredients within easy reach of your stovetop.

Heat a deep, heavy skillet or stockpot over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil and swirl to glaze the bottom and lower sides of the pot. If you are adding the chili and scallion, test the oil with a single piece of scallion. When it foams, add the chili and scallion to the pan and stir gently until fragrant, 10–15 seconds, adjusting the heat so they foam without scorching. Then add the ribs to the pot. If you are cooking the ribs plain, wait until the oil is hot enough to sizzle a single sparerib nugget, then add the spareribs to the pan.

Toss the ribs briskly until they are no longer pink, about 4 minutes, adjusting the heat so they sizzle heartily without scorching. Give the seasonings a stir and add them to the pot. Raise the heat to bring the liquids to a boil, stirring to coat the ribs. Reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer, then cover the pot and simmer the spareribs for 40–45 minutes. Lift the lid after several minutes to check the simmer. Stir midway through stewing to redistribute the seasonings.

When done, turn off the heat and remove the pot from the burner. Hold the ribs in place with the lid, then tip the pot to pour the sauce into a heatproof bowl. If you have a fat separator, then degrease the sauce immediately. Otherwise, wait for the fat to rise, skim as much off as possible with a broad, shallow spoon, then refrigerate or freeze the sauce until the fat congeals and you can scoop it off.

Once the sauce is degreased, you may serve the ribs and the sauce directly (heating them together in the covered pot if they have cooled), or refrigerate them up to 3–4 days, sealed airtight.

To reheat the stew, I transfer the ribs and sauce to a Chinese sand pot, layer the top with roll-cut carrots or chunky broccoli flowerets, then heat it covered over a low heat for 20–30 minutes until the vegetables are tender. I then serve the stew directly from the sand pot. If you do not have a sand pot, reheat the stew over moderate heat in a heavy pot, and serve it in a warm serving bowl of contrasting color.

Set the table with Chinese porcelain spoons or soup spoons so that everyone can drink greedily of the sauce. An empty bowl for bones is also useful. If you are eating the stew Chinese-style, you will suck on the cut ends of the bones and gamer every delicious drop of sauce.

Leftovers may be refrigerated for several days and reheated a second time.

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