Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Five Spice Smoked Beef Ribs

It is known as the "wonder powder," a concoction whose five ingredients bring together the five flavors: namely, sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty. It is a fixture of Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine, finding its way into many of the dishes.  it is Chinese Five Spice powder.

I have always had a jar of the spice mix, but it has rarely found its way into any of the dishes that I have cooked.  To be sure, I used it when I make Larb (which I love) or Crispy Salt and Pepper Squid (which is good too).  I just measure out an amount of the five spice, or I eyeball it, but I never gave much thought as to what makes up the wonder powder or how that powder even came about.

Those questions gave rise to this blog post.  The post is a story about five spices brought together to help propel some beef chuck ribs into a tasty dish.

It all began with a desire to smoke some beef chuck ribs.  I had made smoked beef ribs a few weeks earlier, and, I liked the result so much that I wanted to make them again.  And, this time, I wanted to try some thing different.  I purchased a couple packages of ribs and headed home.

The first effort at smoked beef ribs kept it simple.  Just a rub of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.  I needed a new rub. Something that would work with beef ribs.  I started looking through jars of different spice mixes for ideas.  That is when I saw it, the jar of Chinese five spice powder.  The eureka moment so passed and I put the jar back.

Picture from Instructables
But, that was not the end of the story.  I then went to the Internet to do some research.  Simple is great, but I did not want this to be easy.  I began researching recipes to make my own Chinese Five Spice powder, and, in the process, learn about the sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty aspects of this mixture. The "sour" and "salty" comes, presumably, from the Sichuan peppercorn.  The peppercorn is not actually a peppercorn at all.  (The Sichuan peppercorn is unrelated to black peppercorns or chiles; instead, it is the pinkish, outer husk of a prickly ash shrub of the genus Zanthoxylum.) The bitterness comes from star anise and fennel seeds, both of which also provide a slight licorice note to the powder.  The sweetness comes from cinnamon sticks, which are ground and added to the powder.  Finally, the pungency comes from cloves, which are perhaps one of the strongest spices that provides a definite sense of warmth the powder.  Together, those five spices and the powder they create is known as Chinese Five Spice Powder.  

Just like that jar of Chinese five spice powder, I set aside the internet recipes.  I decided to use a recipe from a tried and true source: Steven Raichlen.  His book, Barbecue Sauces, Rubs and Marinades, contained a recipe that followed those I read on the Internet, bringing together star anise, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds and Szechuan peppercorns.  So, instead of one jar of five spices, I pulled out five jars of individual spices and created my own mix.

There is something to be said about making your own spice.  Apart from the fact that you can tweak the recipe, as many do with Chinese Five Spice (making it six or seven spices), it just seems to always taste better than the pre-made stuff.  The homemade spice definitely made these Five Spice Smoked Beef Ribs a great success, one that, lasted long after eating them (thanks to the slight numbing properties of the Szechuan peppercorn, but that will have to be left for another post). 

Rub recipe from Steven Raichlen's Barbecue Sauces, Rubs and Marinades, pg. 43
Serves 4

4 pounds of beef ribs
3 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks (3 inches each)
3 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
Sesame seed oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Vegetable oil
Few chunks of alder or apple wood

1.  Prepare the rub.  Heat a dry skillet over medium low heat.  Add the spices and toast until fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes.  Transfer the spices to a bowl and let cool completely.  Break the star anise and cinnamon sticks into pieces, grind the spices into a fine powder in a coffee grinder or spice mill.  

2.  Prepare the ribs.  Brush all sides of the beef ribs with a little vegetable oil.  Apply the five spice rub to all sides.  Cover the ribs with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes to a few hours. 

3.  Prepare the grill.  Soak the wood chunks in water for about 1 hour.  Prepare the fire and coals in the smoker until you have a temperature of around 250 degrees Fahrenheit.  Oil the grate and place the ribs in the smoker.  Cook until you get an internal temperature of about 185 degrees Fahrenheit, about 3 to 3 1/2 hours.  Remove the ribs from the smoker and let rest for 10 minutes.

4.  Finish the dish. Using a brush, dab the top of the beef ribs with the sesame oil.  Sprinkle the toasted sesame seeds over the ribs.  Serve immediately.


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