Annals of the Unnecessary

On Saturday night, I made something that might actually rival bacon as the most extraneous-to-modern-home-preparation food item that I have yet created. 

I made ketchup.

As I have reiterated over and over to colleagues and acquaintances, it’s not that I’m so concerned with self-sufficiency–it’s just that I think it’s cool and fun to make things from scratch.  I haven’t eaten ketchup in years, but when I determined to make a recipe that included it as a major ingredient, I figured: why not make my own?

For the past several weeks I’ve been seeing slabs of pork ribs for sale at the grocery meat counter.  I’d never in my life cooked a rib of anything (chicken doesn’t count–it comes attached to the rest of the bird), and I don’t actually know if I’ve ever eaten pork ribs.  There was a barbecue place that my family frequented when I was growing up, and I know they served ribs there (Iowa=big on pork), but my childhood self was fixed upon the foot-long hot dogs.  Even when I lived in Texas, my barbecue meat of choice was brisket, followed, if absolutely necessary, by smoked sausages.  Ribs never made it into the picture.

I do not know why, therefore, I zeroed in on those ribs at the meat counter.  For some reason they called out to me, and after three weeks of staring at them out of the corner of my eye, I bought a slab.  Now what was I supposed to do with it?

Pork ribs, it seems, are almost universally barbecued.  Given my lack of experience with the subject, it’s quite possible that there’s some iconic method of preparation that I’m unaware of, but barbecue-sauce-glazed, heat-blistered pork ribs are almost an American cultural byword.  This, then, is what I decided to make. 

I had the main ingredient: pork ribs.  Or is that the main ingredient?  Whole cookbooks have been written on barbecue sauce, and there are so many bitter rivalries among sauce afficionados as to make the Scandinavian sagas look peaceful. 

Sauce, therefore, was important, and should be phenomenal.  A major problem inherent in this realization is that I don’t like commercial barbecue sauces, for most of the same reasons that I don’t like commercial ketchup.   They’re too sweet, lacking in complexity, and with only the passing memory of a glance at a tomato.

You are shocked, I know, to hear that I decided to make my own barbecue sauce.   And, since most barbecue sauces start out as modified ketchup, I decided to make my own ketchup.

I did not, however, start with fresh tomatoes.  One kitchen appliance that I do not have is a food mill.  The idea of peeling and seeding the poundsandpounds of tomatoes necessary for even modest ketchup production is enough to give me the vapors.  Also, and more embarassingly, I don’t own a splatter screen; thus, I didn’t want to make anything that would require hours of boiling and reduction, for fear that the majority of the resultant ketchup would end up on the stove (the walls, my shirt, the dog) and not in the pot. 

So.  Yes.  Cheat-worthy as it is, I started with tomato paste. 

I put the contents of 2 6-oz cans of tomato paste into a big nonstick skillet, then added a minutely diced shallot and a practically pulverized stalk of celery (courtesy of what Teacherman would call his “mad chopping skillzzz”).  The pot also took in small quantities of all the winter spices–cinnamon, cloves, mace, allspice, nutmeg–some salt, a few cups of water, a little white wine vinegar, and a tiny bit of sweetener.  I brought it to a boil, smacked the lid on, and left it there for a few minutes, hoping that I wouldn’t ever have to expose the volcanic contents to the open air.

Alas, I did have to–even when you start with tomato paste ketchup still requires SOME reduction.  Through careful monitoring, I was able to keep the stove free of anything more than a light freckling by the time the sauce reduced to the point I wanted.  I strained the mixture through a wire strainer, pressing on the celery and shallot flakes to squeeze out all of their juices.  I let it cool, then tasted it–I ended up adding another spoonful of vinegar, but that was it.  I divided it into four cup-sized portions and froze three, leaving the last cup to be modified into barbecue sauce.

This modification was easy–I added soy sauce (thinking of bulgogi), garlic powder (because chopped garlic would be too strong), chipotle powder (because I wanted both more smoke and more heat), and a little more sweetener, to make it sticky.  I let the flavors meld overnight in the fridge, and voila: barbecue sauce.

After all of that, the ribs were effortless.  I baked them at a very low temperature for 2 hours, then covered them in sauce (and an extra sprinkling of chipotle powder, at Teacherman’s request) and broiled them until bubbly and nearly blackened.

The were both delicious and beautiful.  I meant to take a picture, but forgot entirely in the rush to taste one of the delectable things.  The result?  Tangy, porky bliss.  The pork was flavorful and toothsome in of itself, and the sauce added a sticky sheen and just enough ancillary flavor to complement the pork without overwhelming it.  This is one uncomplicated and ‘unnecessary’ sauce that I’ll be making repeatedly. 

Now pardon me while I go finish gnawing on the bones. . . .

Published in: on October 8, 2007 at 7:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

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