I was all ready to pack the slow-cooker away to prove that, yes, winter is finally over now that it's May, but then I remembered: We still have another month of baseball and soccer ahead of us. A whole month of practices and games, 80% of which eat into the weekday dinner hours. Maybe I shouldn't be so hasty. Crockpots aren't just for the winter, after all. With a little advanced planning, they can save us from the temptation to eat from the concession stand three to four nights a week instead of having a proper meal. Which is something I would totally do and then not tell you.
So here's one of those 8 o'clock post-game meals the kids loved. Serve these tender, sticky, sweet and sour ribs with leftover mashed potatoes and microwave peas (for example) and you'll have dinner on the table in under 20 minutes. That's enough time for both kids to emerge from the shower squeaky clean and willing to eat whatever you put in front of them. Especially when it's awesome.
Maple Balsamic Slow-Cooker Ribs
Throw the ribs in the crockpot before work and then finish them in the oven right before dinner so you get the best of both worlds: the tenderness of long, slow cooking combined with high heat caramelization.
1 3-lb. rack of spare ribs, cut between the ribs into 4 slabs
Salt and black pepper to taste
6 garlic cloves, peeled, smashed
2 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh sage
1 cup water
1/3 cup maple syrup, preferably Grade B
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, smashed
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
Blot the ribs dry with paper towels and sprinkle both sides generously with salt and pepper. Arrange 4 of the garlic cloves in the bottom of the slow-cooker along with the bay leaves and sage. Set the ribs on top, overlapping slightly. Pour in the water. Cover the pot and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours or on high from 4 to 6 hours until the meat is very tender and threatening to fall right off the bone (times may vary).
Twenty minutes before serving, combine the maple syrup, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, remaining 2 cloves of garlic, ginger, salt, and pepper in a small pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the mixture thickens slightly, 5 to 7 minutes.
Preheat your broiler on high. Carefully remove the ribs from the crockpot and arrange on a rimmed baking sheet. Brush one side with the sauce and broil about 2 minutes until glazy and caramelized but not burned. Keep a close eye on the meat as broiler times may vary. Remove the pan from the oven, flip the meat carefully, and brush the other side with sauce. Again, broil 2 minutes. If you have any sauce left, you can flip once more, apply the glaze, and broil for one minute longer, but you don't want to dry out the meat, so leave it at that. Let cool slightly. Serves 4.
Pork: Chestnut Farms, Hardwick, MA
Maple syrup: Williams Farm Sugarhouse, Deerfield, MA