Braised Pork Ribs with Brussels Sprouts and Caramelized Onions
What is it about one-pot dishes that so compels people toward them? You can see the appeal in the proliferation of binder-clad crockpot recipe books available at supermarkets and grocery stores and it’s there in any number of classic cookbooks, too. My own attraction to them is two-fold. I hate doing dishes (as do most people), which accounts for the larger, primary, portion of the appeal. The other reason is less practical: I love the ingenuity of a seemingly complex dish that can come together in just one pan!
It started as a mild curiosity and has developed into a sort of mania: when I see a recipe my mind immediately starts to spin out equations that would allow me to reduce the number of pots and pans involved. In an ideal situation the final tally is 0, though one rarely achieves this perfect culinary math (except in the case of summer barbecuing, in which case one still has to contend with cleaning the grill, lighting fires, tending coals, all of which more than makes up for any dishes you may have been spared).
Often this mental wheel-spinning is just that: a fruitless but fun exercise in meddling with hypothetical recipes. Occasionally, though, these equations spit out something so pleasing in its economy, ease, and deliciousness that you have to rush out, get the ingredients, and make it immediately.
This is one of those recipes.
While most braised meat dishes typically only involve one dish anyway, they also typically only deliver one texture: unctuous, tender, falling-apart. Which is to say: delicious, of course, but unvarying.
I was inspired to make this dish by the late, very great Marcella Hazan, who has a recipe that involves braising a brisket studded with cloves and lardons, over a bed of onions. The recipe is a master class in the virtues of patience when it comes to cooking big hunks of meat. The brisket, after it’s been gussied up and pricked all over with cloves and little slivers of bacon, is unceremoniously lowered into a thatch of raw sliced onion at the bottom of a heavy Dutch oven. You don’t sear the meat, you don’t sauté the onions, you add no cooking liquid. It seems egregiously unlikely that putting this allium-bedded slab of raw pink meat into a low oven will yield anything even remotely appetizing. Yet, through the slow work of the oven and time, the onions give up their juices, the meat stews gently, becoming fork tender.
Near the end of the cooking time, when you remove the lid of the Dutch oven, you’re treated to the alarming sight of a steaming grey brick bobbing in a loose broth of onion cooking liquid. You persevere, turn up the heat, and let the meat cook for another half hour, in which time the onions dry up and caramelize, the edges of the meat catch the high heat of the oven and crisp up, revealing striations of copper, bronze, and iron in the finished brisket, one of the most beautifully burnished, delicately spiced things you’ll ever pull out of a home oven.
So, what’s wrong with this picture?
Nothing, obviously, and yet! The mania to meddle is, as I mentioned, overwhelming.
While I love brisket, it made sense that this treatment would work equally well with other slow-cooking cuts of meat. For example: pork. To be even more specific: pork ribs!
Pork ribs are one of those things that seem always to be served the same way in many home kitchens: slathered in sticky-sweet barbecue sauce. While I’m hardly innocent of overindulging in these, one does want a little variety from time to time.
This version braises the pork on a bed of onions, just like with the brisket of my dreams. But once you’re done cooking the pork, you remove it to a carving board, turn up the heat under the Dutch oven and tip a big bowl of shaved Brussels sprouts into it. The onions, sweet and richly caramelized, get just slightly crispy and the Brussels sprouts wilt appealingly into a soft, warm, and bittersweet tangle of greens.
Note: I use meaty spare ribs for this recipe. Two ribs will happily sate most normal diners, three will make an exceptionally hearty meal. Increase the number of ribs to suit your needs. There’s no need to increase the number of onions you use correspondingly. Just make sure you use enough to liberally cover the bottom of the pan you’re cooking in.
Braised Pork Ribs with Brussels Sprouts and Caramelized Onions
One 4–5 lb rack pork spare ribs in one piece
3–4 medium red onions, peeled and thinly sliced through the root
Salt and pepper to season
4 fresh bay leaves
2 lb Brussels sprouts, trimmed and thinly shaved on a mandoline
2 small green Serrano chiles, seeds removed and finely sliced (or to taste)
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp caraway seeds
Season the pork with 4 tsp of salt and 3 tsp of black pepper. Place in a half sheet pan and leave, uncovered, in the fridge, preferably overnight or at least for 3–4 hours.
When you’re ready to cook your ribs, preheat the oven to 325°F with a rack in the center.
Spread the onions in the bottom of a pan large enough to accommodate the ribs comfortably in one layer. If you have more ribs than will fit in a Dutch oven, you can make this in a deep roasting pan; just use aluminum foil to cover it while you’re cooking.
Season the onions with salt and pepper and toss to distribute the seasoning throughout. Add the bay leaves.
Place the ribs on top of the onions, tucking them in snugly.
Cover with a tight-fitting lid or with aluminum foil, and place in the center of the oven.
Let cook, undisturbed, for 2.5 hours or until the tip of a small knife enters and comes out of the thickest part of the pork with the greatest of ease. If the pork still seems tough, put the lid back on and return the pan to the oven to cook a little longer.
Once the pork is tender, remove the lid and turn the heat up to 425°F.
Leave the pork in the oven for another half hour, or until the onions have turned a deep, rich brown and the top of the ribs have become crisp.
Remove the pan from the oven and, using tongs, carefully remove the pork to a carving board, tenting it loosely with aluminum foil.
Using a flat spoon, remove all but 2–3 tsp of fat from the bottom of the Dutch oven, pressing the onions into one corner to squeeze all the fat and juices out of them. Remove and discard the bay leaves.
Reserve the fat for another use.
Put the Dutch oven on the stove over high heat. When the onions begin to sizzle, add the cumin and caraway seeds, chopped green chilli, and cook, stirring often, for 4–5 minutes, until you can smell the spices and the onions have dried out.
Tip in the shaved Brussels sprouts and continue to cook, stirring often, for 3–4 minutes, or just until they wilt but still retain a little of their color. If the onions begin to scorch add a splash of water to the pan. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.
Transfer the Brussels sprouts and onions to a shallow platter and top with the carved ribs.
Voila—one-pot pork perfection!