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February 07, 1985|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

Maybe it's age-old instinct. Or maybe it's just because they taste so good. Whatever. Gnawing on meaty bones is one of the real pleasures of any carnivore, including humans. There's something especially tasty about the bits of tender meat surrounding ribs bones in particular; something that keeps enticing us to buy these less meaty portions at the meat counter.

In many parts of the world there is an almost cult devotion to ribs of one sort or another prepared however local custom deems the ultimate in flavor perfection. The Chinese prepare pork ribs with sweet-sour sauces; Basque sheepherders do wonderful things with lamb riblets; Middle Europeans braise beef short ribs with vegetables and herbs, and the American South and West vie for honors in preparing pork ribs with sweet-hot or vinegary barbecue sauces that add to their succulence.

What's the best way to prepare ribs? Who knows? And who really cares? Meaty, well-flavored ribs--however they are seasoned and cooked--are meant to be savored, not fought over. But it does help to know exactly what you're getting when you shop. It also helps if you understand which ribs need a tad of extra tender, loving care before being barbecued or roasted.

Beef ribs, for instance, whether they're marked flat ribs, short ribs, riblets, finger ribs or flanken come from the chuck, rib or short plate cuts and all are better when tenderized by braising or cooking in liquid.

Pork ribs, on the other hand, can be barbecued or roasted or braised with equal success. Country-style ribs and back ribs come from the loin section of the hog, while those long slabs of spareribs are from the lower rib section of the animal. The country-style ribs are the meatiest of the group and generally are cut into separate single bone portions. The back ribs, which come in slabs, are generally easier to cut apart to serve than the more uneven spareribs. They also usually are more expensive.

Some cooks who like to barbecue spareribs and back ribs prefer to parboil them briefly before tossing them on the grill. This eliminates much of the fat that flares up when it drips on the charcoal and it also tenderizes the meat.

Lamb ribs, most commonly found as "riblets," come from the breast portion of the animal. Occasionally they can be found in slabs as lamb spareribs, but usually they are separated into tiny individual rib portions. Braising is generally the preferred method of preparation for lamb riblets, but they can be broiled or roasted with good results. Again, parboiling before barbecuing eliminates fat and helps tenderize the meat. That, however, is purely a matter of choice. Some devotees think the parboiling destroys some of the delicate flavor. The only way to find out which is the better method for you is to try both before making up your mind.

Pork, lamb and beef ribs are the most readily available, although you may at times have to ask the butcher for the exact cut you want. Other possible sources of good rib dishes are veal and game such as venison. These latter two tend to be somewhat expensive when available. Veal is so delicate it deserves careful treatment and seasonings, and game can be tough or tender, depending on where one has acquired it.

One other small--but pertinent--point about ribs. Unless they are cooked in a way that makes the meat fall from the bone, they definitely are finger food. It would be a crime to miss all those wonderful crispy nibbles that cling so valiantly to the bone. This is one case where it's better to provide lots of napkins and ignore some of the finer points of dining etiquette. Ribs are to enjoy, not regret.

To show the versatility of these boney portions, we assembled a batch of recipes that display them at their best. Thick country-style pork ribs cooked with sauerkraut sweetened lightly with brown sugar, apples and carrots make a great one-pot meal. Or give lamb riblets some zing with lemon grass and lemon peel. Other seasonings that flattered various types of ribs well were an orange-flavored barbecue sauce and a spicy peanut sauce for pork ribs. COUNTRY RIBS AND SAUERKRAUT

1 tablespoon oil

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

3 pounds country ribs

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 cup chopped red onion

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

2 (2-pound) jars sauerkraut, drained and rinsed

1 red pepper, julienned

1 (14 1/2-ounce) can clear chicken broth

Salt, pepper

1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed

2 cups diced or sliced apples

1 cup shredded carrots

Heat oil and butter in Dutch oven over medium heat. Brown ribs. Add garlic and cook with ribs just until golden. Remove ribs. Saute red onion in drippings until tender. Add caraway seeds, sauerkraut, sweet red pepper, broth, salt and pepper to taste and brown sugar. Bring to boil. Remove from stove and top with apples and ribs. Cover and bake at 350 degrees 2 to 3 hours or until pork is tender. Stir in carrots during last 10 minutes of baking. Adjust seasonings to taste. Makes about 6 servings.


1 1/2 pounds lamb riblets

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