"Never use meat which, if it falls on the ground, does not leave a wet patch, or [never use meat] which is warm after having been left overnight."Yin Shan Cheng Yao, Imperial Cookery Book of the Mongol Dynasty
In August 1972, I was 23 and a senior at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Don't ask why it took me so long to get to be a senior. My best friend, Kurt Westfall and I had just opened our first exhibit of photography, a two-man show, in Cedar Key, Florida. After the opening I felt like a rock star. I decided to go to the big city and make my fortune as an artist.
On the way back to Gainesville I picked up two hitchikers who told me that they were making an unbelievable $3.75 an hour working on the assembly line at Ford's Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. I made a quick stop at my apartment, tossed my clothes and camera gear into the car, and drove them all the way to Detroit.
When we got to Dearborn, wouldn't you know it, the factories were all shut down to re-tool from one model year to the next, as was customary in August. They knew, but conveniently forgot to tell me.
After a few months I went to Chicago to see an exhibit of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago by my mentor and inspiration, Jerry N. Uelsmann. After one look at Chicago I decided not to go back to Detroit. Chicago was so much more beautiful and the arts and food communities were so much more vital (OK, Detroiters, send me your hatemail). I got a job at Foremost Liquors in Skokie and rented a room upstairs in a woman's home.
A few days after I started work I stopped at a Chinese restaurant, the Nine Dragon Inn. It was opening night and I was their first customer. Over the next few months I ate there often. I even kept a case of white wine in their walk-in cooler because they had no liquor license, and I hung around the kitchen watching them cook. I took friends, customers, and even my future wife there on our first date. The owners' two young girls, Jean and Ada, found endless fascination in my beard, and played under the table while I ate. They called me something like toy-ya-ya, which I thought was a term of endearment, but I later found out meant "smelly feet".
I loved everything they made at Nine Dragon, but I especially loved their grilled ribs. I have tried Chinese ribs many times since, but never found a restaurant that made them the same way. The owners later moved to the west coast, and I have lost track of them. So I was forced to try to replicate their Asian-style ribs recipe, and I've come pretty close while also adding a BBQ element by finishing them on the grill. Sadly, I have never come close to the affection I had for Jean and Ada. Hopefully some day they will Google Nine Dragon Inn and find this article, and me.
Hoisin Ribs Recipe
Makes. Two slabs of baby backs
Takes. Marinating takes 3-12 hours and cooking time is about 4 hours
2 slabs baby back ribs
2 cups of hoisinful marinade
1/4 cup honey
Optional but excellent garnishes
2 finely chopped scallion whites
2 teaspoons fresh orange zest
2 teaspoons white sesame seeds
About the ribs. If you are using spare ribs or St. Louis Cut ribs, add a bit more rice vinegar or orange juice as needed to coat everything. They will take about 20% longer to cook.
1) Soak the meat in a large plastic zipper bag (you may have to cut the slabs in half) for a minimum of 3 hours or better still, all day or overnight.
2) Roast the ribs in a grill or smoker set up for 2-zone cooking using indirect heat or over a pan of water, at 225°F for 4 hours. Skip the smoke. Let the marinade do the work. Paint both sides with the marinade every 30 minutes or so. You must stop painting about 30 minutes before serving to make sure the marinade does not contaminate the meat. During the last 30 minutes any bacteria that may be in the marinade will croak.
3) Place the slab meat side down over direct heat, grilling until it browns and sizzles. Watch it so it does not burn.
4) Remove from the grill and pour the honey lightly over the meat side and spread it around with a brush or spoon. Put it back on the direct zone, honey side down, for 5 minutes or until it bubbles. Don't let it burn.
5) Garnish with the scallions, orange zest, and sesame seeds. Cut into individual ribs and serve.
1) Marinate as in step 1 above.
2) Line a baking pan with heavy duty aluminum foil. Place the ribs in the pan and bake on the middle shelf in an indoor oven at 225°F for 4 hours, painting both sides with the marinade every 30 minutes or so. You must stop painting about 30 minutes before serving to make sure the marinade does not contaminate the meat. During the last 30 minutes any bacteria that may be in the marinade will croak.
3) Remove from the oven and pour the honey lightly over the meat side and spread it around with a brush or spoon. Switch the oven from bake to broil and put the meat back under the broiler for five minutes or until it bubbles.
4) Garnish with the scallions, orange zest, and sesame seeds. Cut into individual ribs and serve.