In 1853, a grape varietal from the farmer Ephraim Wales Bull won first prize at an exhibition for the Boston Horticultural Society. He had been working on this particular type of grape for a decade: a sturdy, sweet-tart purple fruit that could survive the harsh winters in Concord, Mass., where he lived. These days, Concord grapes are most often sold as juice and jelly, concentrated down to their fruitiest essence.
The intense berried juiciness of grape jelly can also lacquer a rack of baby back ribs, yielding gleaming, tender batons that are ideal for watching the Super Bowl or just enjoying for dinner.
Recipe: Baby Back Ribs With Sweet and Sour Glaze
Inspired by old-fashioned cocktail meatball recipes coated with grape jelly from the 1960s and ’70s, these jammy ribs are both savory and sweet.Credit…Johnny Miller for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.
As a pairing, fruit preserves and fatty meats go way back. Just look at mint jelly and lamb chops; orange marmalade and duck breasts; strawberry jam and yangnyeom chicken. The retro combination of grape jelly and meatballs, sometimes known as “Chafing Dish Meatballs,” was a popular cocktail party recipe in the 1960s and ’70s, according to the food writer Rebecca Firkser. It’s the same reason Concord grape jelly and ribs work: The fruit’s jammy aroma punctuates the pork’s savoriness. Any lingering gaminess is tempered as well.
This recipe’s sweet and sour glaze — a glossy shellac of grape jelly, soy sauce and rice vinegar — is a glorious celebration of Mr. Bull’s amethyst fruit. The shiny, berry-dark sauce tastes divine on its own or simply brushed onto ribs, but blasting a sauced rack under the broiler chars the glaze, lending intense barbecued flavor without a smoker or a grill.
The oven is good for the meat, too: If you envelop a large rack of baby back ribs in foil, as if you’re wrapping a birthday present, and let it cook slowly in a low oven for a couple of hours, you’ll be left with melting pork that slips off the bone. Be sure to wrap the foil tightly to lock in moisture, as the steam from the ribs helps tenderize the meat, imbuing it with its own porky flavors. This is pork on pork, and one of the best ways to ensure the juiciest results.
Another is the simple glaze you then prepare on the stovetop. The trick is to use a large skillet for increased surface area so that the jelly-soy-vinegar mixture can cook down quickly and reduce into a sticky lacquer, like purple flavor incarnate. Brush the ribs with this wonderful stickiness and broil them, just for a few minutes, until your kitchen smells like Korean barbecue.
Depending on the occasion, you can serve these baby back ribs as a game-day snack with beer or as a sit-down meal with white rice. It’s up to you. One thing you should do is see if your guests can guess the surprise ingredient. When they do, they can thank Mr. Bull for the grapy sauce they’re licking off their fingers.
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