I put a pile of pork ribs on the table the other day hot from the oven - sweet, sticky and spice-flecked. Within minutes the entire table came to life, with everyone passing the wooden platter of fat-marbled, chewy ribs around, opening bottles of beer for their neighbour, offering sauce and abandoning cutlery in favour of fingers and thumbs. There was a splintering of crackling, a clatter of gnawed bones, the immediate hubbub of a meal shared. The plate of bare bones got precariously higher and the table turned into a sea of empty bottles.
I wondered, briefly, whether I'd ever again serve individual plates of food. Ribs invite informality and a good time. I guess you can't really eat them politely. I kept a few of them back for the next day, tore the belly meat from the bones, and stuffed it, with a handful of home-pickled onion rings, some of the cooking juices and some avocado and sour cream, into soft, warm wraps.
I had cooked the ribs in an unusual fashion, simmering them in a thick mixture of spices, mustard seeds, brown sugar and tomato, then roasting them. The sauce was then boiled down to the point where it could possibly be described as a ketchup, though not one for keeping.
If you are buying your ribs at a butcher, ask for the skin from the belly pork. You can cook it, slowly, glistening with coarse salt and crushed peppercorns until it is as crisp as ice. Put it on the table with the ribs, or tuck it, in jagged strips, into your pork belly wraps.
Maple pork ribs with tomato chutney
Ask the butcher to remove and score the skin for crackling, and slice the belly into about 8 ribs.
pork ribs 8, large (2.5kg)
onions 2, large
a little oil
garlic cloves 6, whole
fennel seed 3 tsp
Demerara sugar 3 tbsp
mustard seed 3 tbsp
hot-smoked paprika 2 tsp
star anise 3
bay leaves 3
maple syrup 8 tbsp
tomatoes 2kg, chopped
Peel the onions then roughly chop them. Warm 2 tbsp of oil in a very large, deep saucepan, then add the chopped onions and let them cook over a moderate heat, stirring from time to time. Peel the garlic cloves but leave them whole, then stir them into the onions. Leave all to fully soften and turn pale gold.
Add the fennel seed to the softened onions, then stir in the Demerara sugar, mustard seed, smoked paprika, star anise, bay and 3 tbsp of the maple syrup.
Roughly chop the tomatoes, add them to the onions and seasonings, together with a generous amount of salt and black pepper. Push the ribs down into the mixture, then bring to the boil. Lower the heat and leave to simmer for an hour.
Heat the oven to 220C/gas mark 8. Remove the ribs and place them on a foil-lined rack over a roasting tin. Brush the ribs with the remaining maple syrup and roast for 20 minutes till sizzling and deep golden brown. (Check them regularly, they burn easily.)
Turn the heat up under the tomato and onion chutney mixture and leave to bubble, stirring regularly, until the liquid has reduced and the chutney is thick and rich. Check the seasoning and correct with salt and pepper. It should be sweet, sharp and slightly spicy. Serve with the roasted ribs.
It is worth noting that some people find Schezuan peppercorns can cause irritation in quantity.
skin from the pork belly (see above) about 400g
sea salt flakes 3 tbsp
Schezuan peppercorns 2 tbsp
celery seeds 1 tbsp
Set the oven at 160C/gas mark 3. Using a very sharp knife or box-cutter, score the outer side of the skin deeply, cutting almost through to the chopping board, at 1cm intervals. Turn over so the fat side is uppermost and place on a foil-lined baking sheet.
Coarsely grind the salt, pepper- corns and celery seeds in a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder. Rub the spice mix over the fat side of the skin then bake for about 40 minutes, till deep honey gold and totally crisp.
Pulled pork rib wraps
leftover pork ribs (see above) 2
tomato chutney (see above) 2 tbsp
a red onion
white wine vinegar 6 tbsp
half a small cucumber
soured cream 150g
tortilla wraps 4
crackling a few thin strips
Cut or tear the meat from the rib bones. Discard the bones, then, using two forks, tear the meat into large, rough pieces and place it in a mixing bowl. Fold the chutney into the pork.
Peel and finely slice the red onion, put it in a shallow bowl, then pour over the vinegar, toss gently and set aside for 20-30 minutes. The onion will become soft, more mellow in flavour and pale pink in colour.
Peel the cucumber, halve it lengthways, scrape out the seeds and discard, then dice the flesh. Quarter the radishes. Toss together the onion slices, cucumber and radishes. Peel, stone and slice the avocado. Place the tortilla wraps flat on the work surface, add some onion and cucumber salsa, a couple of spoonfuls of pork and chutney, then a few slices of the avocado and a squeeze of lime. Finally, add a spoonful of soured cream and a piece of the crackling. Roll or fold the wrap and serve.
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Roll up: pulled pork rib wraps. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin