It had a beautiful aroma. There was something roasted, like coffee or chocolate, then a stronger smell suggesting some fruit (perhaps dried cherries -- or was that coconut?) together with a note of spice: cinnamon, maybe nutmeg.
The mystery substance was mesquite flour -- the sweet, finely ground seed pods of the same mesquite tree we have to thank for hot-burning mesquite charcoal and delicate mesquite blossom honey.
This impressive flavoring has been on the American market since around 1990, mostly used in baked goods -- muffins, pancakes, cookies -- and mostly confined to the special-diet ghetto. (It happens to provide both flavor and fiber, two of the hardest things to get from gluten-free baked goods.) With all due respect to the gluten-free people, and to bakers, mesquite flour deserves to be used in main dishes too, such as spareribs that get their flavor not from being grilled over mesquite charcoal but from a perfumed mesquite-flour rub.
Mesquite’s sweet, exotic flavor seems particularly suited to Caribbean ideas (and Moroccan and East Indian too). This was our first inspiration: Marinate shrimp in tangerine juice, rum and bitters, then bread them in mesquite flour, crushed almonds and tangerine zest and fry them to a crisp, golden brown.
The mesquite works beautifully -- it brings out the sweetness in the almonds and gives the breading a richness that contrasts nicely with the tangerine notes.
Those mesquite-rubbed pork ribs were a sort of Caribbean-Indian inspiration. They’re marinated in orange and lime juices (mesquite loves citrus), brown sugar, habanero chiles and rum, with an Indian addition of coconut milk and fresh ginger. Before being grilled, the ribs are rubbed with mesquite flour.
It gave them a sweet floral note -- an effect as far as you can imagine from the smokiness of mesquite charcoal barbecue. They weren’t like any ribs we’d ever had, but mesquite isn’t exactly like another ingredient.
True, it is related to carob, and its flavor has a family resemblance, but with a unique quality of its own. USDA research chemist Gary Takeoka, who has been studying the elements of mesquite’s flavor, says it seems to depend on an unknown compound that hasn’t yet been described in the scientific literature.
Even more than carob, mesquite loves arid climates. It’s native to desert regions of the New World such as northern Argentina, eastern Peru and the desert Southwest of the U.S. For thousands of years, indigenous people in all these areas have considered mesquite pods a staple food.
Mesquite is a fascinating, incredibly tough plant that thrives in soils that are too salty and alkaline for anything else. As a result, mesquite flour has the potential to be an economic resource for people living in bitterly harsh climates (though you have to be careful where you plant it or it tends to take over).
For our tests, we used an Argentine mesquite from Casa de Fruta, available on Amazon or at www.casadefruta.com.
It makes a sort of sense that mesquite is such a hard-working plant. Its sweet pod is a hard worker too, a versatile ingredient that brings something special -- even in a small quantity -- to a wide variety of foods. You can throw it in pancakes -- that’s a no-brainer -- or feature it in muffins. You don’t even have to cook with it; you can just sprinkle some on ice cream. Or on pork chops. Why not?
We have the feeling we’re just getting started with mesquite. We can’t see any reason that it wouldn’t go into a Moroccan tagine or a California trail mix. Or let’s see, mesquite chicken curry? Hmm.
Peel the silverskin from the spareribs, then rinse, pat dry and place in a large, nonreactive baking dish. In a small bowl, combine 1 1/2 tablespoons salt, the pepper and 1 1/2 tablespoons mesquite flour. Massage the rub into the ribs along with the olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours.
Heat the oven to 250 degrees. Place the onions on the bottom of a large roasting pan and place the ribs on top of the onions.
In a food processor or blender, blend the juice, zest, oregano, habanero, ginger, brown sugar, dark rum, coconut milk, mustard and the remaining one-half tablespoon salt and one-fourth cup mesquite flour. Pour the marinade over the ribs, and cover the roasting pan with heavy foil.
Place the ribs in the oven and cook for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until the meat is tender and curled away from the ends of the ribs (you should see about one-half inch of bone at the end of each rib). If finishing them on the grill, save the drippings for basting. The ribs can be prepared to this point and refrigerated for up to a day (warm them in the same pan, covered, for about 20 minutes at 200 degrees before finishing).
To finish the ribs in the oven: Remove the cover from the pan and cook the ribs an additional 20 to 30 minutes (at 250 degrees), so the ribs form a “crust” on top. Serve immediately.
To finish the ribs on the grill: Heat a grill over medium heat. Oil the grill, then grill the ribs for 10 to 15 minutes, turning every 5 minutes and basting with the pan drippings, to caramelize the outer skin and get a good “crust.” Reduce the heat if the ribs start to burn. Serve immediately.
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