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Potluck: Belly of the Beast

  • Ingredients for Belly of the Beast Rib Sloppy Joe Rub

  • Belly of the Beast, 159 Main Street, Northampton.



For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Friday, June 22, 2018

Working “the line” in a professional kitchen is an exhilarating thing, especially during busy times when one cooks purely from muscle memory because there’s no time to think. It is meditative in a way — finding peace in the chaos. But in a more practical way, working the line makes it very difficult to find time to eat. Most kitchens have “staff meals” — a designated time during the night, usually after dinner rush has happened and just before one starts the mad-dash rush to close — where everyone gets to squat at their stations for a brief moment to get a little sustenance. As kitchen workers, we do not have anyone else to make us food, so we are tasked with making our own dinners from the bits and pieces of produce that we can’t otherwise sell (too old, not pretty enough to end up on a plate, scraps that are too small for a full portion, things we have in excess). Frequently, because there isn’t a lot of time to make the meal, it ends up being pretty basic and is just there for nourishment. 

I always approached this task as a challenge — how can I make something that tastes good out of browning romaine hearts, carrots, celery and whatever vinegars, oils, or other sauces we had laying around? Some of these staff meals were failures, but there have been a few that have entered into my personal rotation of recipes. Here’s one of my favorites, below. 

This wet rub came about one day when we were lucky enough to have ribs as “extra” protein for the kitchen at another restaurant where I was a line cook, State Park in Cambridge. At the time, I had little to no time to really think about what to do with these ribs — after all, cooking ribs takes time that I didn’t have. If I were doing this at home, I would start a day ahead and put a rub on the ribs to really get the flavors melding, then cook them on a grill over indirect heat, low and slow, until the meat was falling off the bone — a good 4-6 hours. Instead, I took another approach, knowing that there is a southern tradition of boiling ribs to get them to cook fairly quickly while still keeping the meat moist, then finishing them in the oven with a rub or sauce. While still not super speedy (the boiling takes about 60-90 minutes), I had an extra burner on which I could boil water and keep the ribs going during the last part of service, and then make up some sort of rub on the spot and finish them right before staff meal.

A basic guideline that I have always followed for rubs is that they shouldn’t be too sweet, too salty or too spicy, but one should try to achieve a perfect blend of all three. The resulting flavor profile will awaken the taste buds. Adding some citrus is also a great way to get a little more flavor activity happening. I have always preferred dark brown sugar as a sweetener because it adds depth along with sweet, so that was going to be my base for this rub. My go-to heat is cayenne pepper because it gives a back-of-the-mouth heat that doesn’t hit you right away, overpowering the other flavors, but builds a little bit so you get the heat after a few bites. Adding a combination of toasted fennel and cumin seeds along with smoked paprika and onion powder gives some umami depth, and then finally some fresh lime juice adds a nice citrusy zing that awakens the palate up front.

This is a rub that is very versatile. It goes great with fatty cuts like ribs and pork belly, but also finds a nice spot on chicken. At Belly of the Beast in downtown Northampton, we do a little something different with this rub by mixing it with pulled pork rib meat to create a pork sloppy Joe. We boil the ribs, as I mentioned; then when the meat is literally falling off the bones, we pull it and mix in this rub to create a juicy, zesty pile of meat to heap on top of a ciabatta roll. In refining this rub, I’ve been reminded of those rib sandwiches that a certain fast food chain features every now and then that I enjoyed for a moment as a child growing up in Syracuse, New York — but when using locally-sourced, pasture-raised meat, as we do at the Beast, the flavor is brought to a whole new level​​.

That night’s staff meal was a huge hit. The rest of that summer, whenever we had ribs on hand, I would always jump at the occasion to remake this rub and, no doubt because of it, I was dubbed the “Staff Meal Whisperer” to the delight of everyone in the kitchen.​

Belly of the Beast
Rib Sloppy Joe Rub

1 1/2 cups  dark brown sugar

1 cup  smoked paprika

1/4 cup  onion powder

1/4 cup  fennel seeds, toasted, ground

1/4 cup cumin seeds, toasted, ground

2 tbs kosher salt

1 tsp cayenne

1 cup  water

1/2 cup  lime juice

Place the fennel and cumin seeds in a pan over a medium heat and cook, shaking occasionally, about 1-2 minutes, until fragrant. Let cool, then grind with a mortar and  pestle or a spice grinder.

Combine all of the dry ingredients (the dark brown sugar, paprika, onion powder, the ground fennel and cumin, the salt and the cayenne) and mix well.

Add the water and lime juice and mix into a slurry. 

Depending on what you will be cooking, you can use this wet rub in any number of ways:  

1) Rub on the meat a day ahead of time, then cook the meat low and slow (so the sugar in the rub doesn’t burn, and you get nice tender meat). 2) Partially cook the meat (like I did the ribs above, boil in water 60-90 minutes until it begins to fall off the bone), then slather this onto the meat and finish in a preheated 350º oven for about 15-20 minutes, or until heated through. You can par cook the meat a day or two ahead and finish it right before serving. 3) Cook meat and shred (or it would work with ground meat as well) and add this as a flavor sauce. You may need to add a little more water to get the right consistency. Once the rub/sauce is married with the meat, heat everything together until piping hot and serve.