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Easy ribs and fennel slaw won't tax the budget

By JeanMarie Brownson, Special to Tribune Newspapers

April 6, 2011

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Every week this cook stands at the meat counter examining packages and pondering. What's affordable? What's easy to cook? What's versatile enough to be served regularly?

Time and again, pork country ribs prove the answer. When carefully cooked, these super-meaty, inexpensive cuts from the sirloin or rib end of the loin yield great flavor and satisfying richness. Unlike cuts from the more expensive, leaner loin, brining to add moisture is unnecessary.

Instead, employing moderate cooking temperatures and indirect heat helps render out excess fat while maintaining juiciness and flavor.

During winter months, we enjoy pork country ribs in the slow cooker with added flavor from broth, barbecue sauce or even salsas. However, during grilling season, our preference leans toward the dry heat of the grill coupled with a bright-tasting homemade dry rub.

Simply put, a dry rub consists of dry seasonings mixed with salt. A coating of the rub on meats and vegetables before cooking gives them flavor and a tasty crust. The best rubs have layers of flavor, such as aromatic dried fennel with fresh lemon rind or sweet paprika with spicy red chilies.

If you prefer, start with a store-bought rub and add a little freshness — in the form of chopped garlic, citrus rind, green chilies.

Apply the rub with your hands right before cooking or up to several hours in advance for more penetration. Store the rubbed meat in a covered container in the refrigerator.

For a refreshing slaw, shred a fresh fennel bulb on a four-sided grater to mix with the cabbage. A shredded apple adds a touch of sweetness.

Cost-cutting tips

1. Check sales and make lists — really. Impulse buying gets us all in trouble.

2. Bone-in meats and poultry generally cost less; be sure to check the price per pound.

3. Cook with plenty of flavor — even if it's just salt and fresh pepper. Properly seasoned food tends to be more satisfying, requiring smaller portions.

4. Share spices. Jumbo bottles at club stores may seem like a bargain but only if the spices get used up when still fresh.

5. Neighbors and friends will thank you if you split those pricey bottles with them.

6. Make side dishes ultra-appealing — meaning less dependence on expensive proteins to fill up the family.

Lemon-fennel country ribs

Prep: 15 minutes
Marinate: 30 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes
Servings: 6

Note: These ribs also taste terrific when cooked in the oven. Simply arrange the ribs on a rack set over a baking sheet. Cook at 325 degrees until juices run clear, about 40 to 50 minutes. For crispy edges, broil the ribs for a couple of minutes just before serving.

Ingredients:
3 pounds bone-in pork shoulder country-style ribs (or 2 1/2 pounds boneless)
1/4 cup lemon fennel rub, see recipe below
Chopped parsley, chives or fennel tops for garnish

1. Coat ribs on all sides with the rub. Put into a container; refrigerate 30 minutes or up to several hours.

2. Prepare a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill to medium-high. Push the coals to the sides or turn off the burners in the center of the grill. Arrange the ribs on the grill grate away from direct heat source. Cover the grill. Cook; turning once, until juices run clear, 40 to 50 minutes. Garnish with parsley.

Lemon fennel rub:
Heat 1 tablespoon fennel seeds in a small skillet set over medium heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Grind in a mortar until powdery. Transfer to a bowl; stir in 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Stir in the grated rind of 2 small lemons.

Nutrition information
Per serving: 254 calories, 53% of calories from fat, 14 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 28 g protein, 1,224 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.

Lemon fennel slaw

Prep: 20 minutes
Servings: 8

Ingredients:
Juice of 2 small lemons
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons whole grain Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 to 5 cups (about 1/2 head) shredded green cabbage, preferably savoy
1 bulb fennel
1 small Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored
1 cup halved seedless green grapes, optional

Whisk together lemon juice, oil, mustard, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add the cabbage; mix well. Coarsely shred the fennel and the apple on the large holes of a four-sided grater. Add to the cabbage. Toss well. Add grapes; serve.

Nutrition information
Per serving: 122 calories, 63% of calories from fat, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 241 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.

More rub variations

Red chili spice: Mix 1 tablespoon each: sweet paprika, crushed red pepper flakes and salt with 1 teaspoon black pepper.

Garlic herb rub: Mix 2 tablespoons garlic-parsley salt (such as Lawry's) with 1 teaspoon basil, 1/2 teaspoon oregano and black pepper.

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