In 1853, a grape variety from farmer Ephraim Wales Bull won first prize in an exhibition for the Boston Horticultural Society. He had been working for a decade on this particular type of grape: a firm, sweet-tart purple fruit that could survive the harsh winters of Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived. These days, Concord grapes are usually sold as juice and jelly, concentrated to their fruitiest essence.
The intense berry juiciness of grape jelly can also lacquer a rack of baby back ribs, yielding glossy, tender batons that are ideal for watching the Super Bowl or simply enjoying at dinner.
As a combination, fruit preserves and fatty meats go way back. Just look at mint jelly and lamb chops; orange marmalade and duck breast; strawberry jam and jannyeom chicken. The retro combination of grape jelly and meatballsalso known as “Chafing Dish Meatballs,” was a popular cocktail party recipe in the 1960s and 1970s, according to to the food writer Rebecca Firkser. It’s the same reason Concord grape jelly and ribs work: The jammy aroma of the fruit accentuates the flavor of the pork. Any lingering wildness is also tempered.
This recipe’s sweet and sour glaze—a glossy shellac of grape jelly, soy sauce, and rice vinegar—is a glorious celebration of Mr. Bull’s amethyst fruit. The glossy, berry-dark sauce tastes divine on its own or just brushed onto ribs, but when you blow a sauce rack under the broiler, the glaze chars, creating intense barbecue flavor without a smoker or grill.
The oven is good for the meat, too: If you wrap a large rack of baby back ribs in foil, as if wrapping a birthday present, and let it cook slowly in a low oven for a few hours, you’re left with melting pork that’s the bone slips. Be sure to wrap the foil tightly to retain moisture, as the steam from the ribs helps tenderize the meat and give it its own pork flavors. This is pork on pork and one of the best ways to ensure the juiciest results.
Another is the simple frosting that you then prepare on the stovetop. The trick is to use a large skillet for a larger surface area so that the jelly-soy-vinegar mixture can cook quickly and reduce to a gooey varnish, like the incarnate purple flavor. Brush the ribs with this delicious stickiness and grill them, just a few minutes, until your kitchen smells like Korean barbecue.
Depending on the occasion, you can serve these baby back ribs as a game-day snack with beer or as a sit-down meal with white rice. It’s up to you. One thing you should do is see if your guests can guess the surprise ingredient. When they do, they can thank Mr. Bull for the grape sauce they’re licking off their fingers.