With the unofficial opening day of grilling season just a week away, it's time to prime the barbecue pit for a Memorial Day cookout. What could beat ribs on the grill and a side of juicy watermelon? How about chef Daniel Stern's recipe for mouthwatering ribs coated in a spicy watermelon glaze? It's the kind of eclectic twist on a down-home classic that the chef is known for at R2L in Philadelphia.
Raised “right across the bridge” from the City of Brotherly Love, Stern is a New Jersey native who earned his stripes under a litany of big-name chefs—Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, Gray Kunz, Georges Perrier—before opening his own restaurants. His latest, R2L, is a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner that offers skyline views from the 37th floor of a Center City high rise.
“I’m very proud and happy that we are in our eighth year here,” says Stern. “It has become such a great destination and part of Philly, and that’s exciting to me. I have a great young crew who are awesome in the kitchen and in the dining room.”
The name R2L comes from Stern’s charismatic grandmother, Rae, who “was always entertaining, never sitting down, always back and forth between the kitchen.” It is to Rae and Stern’s mother, Judy, that the chef attributes his cooking gene.
For the Memorial Day grill, Stern shares a recipe for spare ribs marinated in spices, grilled and finished with a watermelon glaze. “It’s delicious,” says Stern. “I used to put [the glaze] on chicken wings for fun, and it works really well with ribs.”
The ribs are simple, rubbed in a blend of salt, black peppercorns, garlic and grated jalapeño, then marinated overnight. The watermelon glaze, however, calls for a careful eye. “The biggest thing right off the bat is, don’t burn the spices,” says Stern. He starts with a dry, hot pan. “Not smoking hot—you want to toast them gently so you start to get the oils out of them and they start to become aromatic.”
Cooking the spices in a pan in the oven is a safer alternative if home chefs take care to stir the spices regularly. When ready, the spices should have an oily sheen and a rich smell that “makes you hungry.”
“As [the glaze] cooks, you’ll see it change,” he says. “You want it to have a nice balance. It should be tacky enough to stick to the ribs, no pun intended.”
To drink, a Chardonnay with a rich mouthfeel provides a great pairing, though Stern suggests a Pinot Noir works too. (He also concedes that beer is admissible as well. Just make sure, he says, to “pick a good Philly beer.”)
Spare Ribs with Watermelon Glaze
Recipe courtesy of Daniel Stern at R2L restaurant.
For the Spare Ribs:
- 4 full racks of spare ribs (or more if using baby-back ribs), rubbed with the ingredients listed, tightly wrapped in foil and marinated overnight
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons cracked peppercorns
- 1/3 cup garlic cloves, sliced
- 1 to 3 jalapeños, grated or coarsely chopped
- 1/4 cup canola oil
For the Watermelon Glaze:
- 1 tablespoon each: black peppercorns, whole or cracked, fennel seed, coriander seed, mustard seed
- 3 cloves
- 3 allspice berries
- 1 quart watermelon juice (from about half of a medium-sized watermelon)
- 1/2 cup cane vinegar or white vinegar
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch (add a splash of water if necessary)
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 jalapeño
- 3 tablespoons Tabasco sauce (or to your liking)
To make the Spare Ribs with Watermelon Glaze:
1. Toast the spices in a saucepan over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes (or in the oven at 375° F for 3 to 5 minutes, shaking pan occasionally). Take care not to burn them—they should be sweetly aromatic. Add the watermelon juice, vinegar, sugar and salt. Reduce by two-thirds, add the butter and thicken with cornstarch (this should take about 10 minutes). Finish with the Tabasco (as desired). The glaze's final consistency should be similar to barbeque sauce.
2. Preheat grill to medium (you can also do this in an oven at 375° F) and put the ribs in the foil on the rack. Cook for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Keep an eye on the heat; the ribs should cook gently.
3. Carefully open the foil and pour the cooking juices into a small saucepot with 1 cup of the watermelon glaze. Continue cooking the ribs slowly so that they begin to caramelize and get a little charred from the grill, turning often for another 20 minutes or so. For the final 5 to 10 minutes, baste with the glaze and serve the rest on the side as extra sauce. Serves 8 as a meal or 12-18 for barbecue-style snacking.
Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good California Chardonnays from recent Wine Spectator tastings. For more Golden State Chardonnays rated in the past year, see our Wine Ratings Search.
KENDALL-JACKSON Chardonnay California Vintner's Reserve 2015
Plush, with loads of richness to the well-honed flavors of beeswax, baked pear and lemon tart. Minerally midpalate, presenting a fresh and zesty finish that finishes with pastry notes. Drink now through 2020. 50,000 cases made.
HESS SELECT Chardonnay Monterey County 2015
Exuberantly spicy, with plenty of cream and tropical notes to the ripe pear, apple compote and dried apricot flavors. Smoky details linger on the fat finish. Drink now through 2020. 175,000 cases made.
KENWOOD Chardonnay Russian River Valley Six Ridges 2015
There's lots to admire in this rich, creamy-textured effort, with touches of citrus, apricot, honeydew and spicy oak. Starts and ends clean and pure. Drink now. 3,000 cases made.
LA CREMA Chardonnay Monterey 2015
Balanced and fruity, with juicy apricot, pear and guava flavors, accented by spice hints. Creamy notes linger on the pastry-filled finish. Drink now through 2021. 50,000 cases made.
NEYERS Chardonnay Sonoma County 304 2015
Finds a groove between ripeness, oak, flavor and finesse, folding together with a mix of fig, pear, nectarine and tangerine notes. Glides along, with a citrusy aftertaste. Drink now. 1,500 cases made.
THE SEEKER Chardonnay California 2015
Lushly fruity, with exuberant juiciness to the tangerine, pear tart, white plum and cherry flavors, accented by notes of sugar snap pea. The spicy finish lingers with hints of sage cream. Drink now through 2020. 15,000 cases made.
DAVID BRUCE Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2014
Well done and very complete, with light cedary oak adding a nice dimension to the core of pear and peach flavors. Ends with a subtle aftertaste. Drink now. 3,400 cases made.
BUEHLER Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2014
Pure and well-focused on complex pear, apple, honeydew and light spicy oak notes. An easy-to-enjoy style. Drink now. 20,000 cases made.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA Chardonnay Russian River Valley Director's Cut 2014
Gains depth, building on creamy tapioca oak flavors amid green apple and citrus notes. Walks the line between intensity and refinement. Drink now. 9,580 cases made.
MOUNT EDEN VINEYARDS Chardonnay Edna Valley Old Vines 2014
Expresses an intense mix of pithy citrus, green apple, faint butterscotch and tangerine flavors, maintaining a refreshing, mouthwatering presence and a green apple–scented finish. Drink now. 4,306 cases made.
POSEIDON Chardonnay Napa Valley Carneros 2014
A showy style, easy to drink, rich and forward, with creamy oak, vanilla, fig and honeydew amid the flavors. Drink now. 3,561 cases made.
BERNARDUS Chardonnay Monterey County 2014
Lightly aromatic, richer on the palate but also woodier, this is more solid than special, though the caramel and toasty oak flavors will be appealing to fans of the style. Drink now through 2020. 22,759 cases made.
LAGUNA RANCH Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2014
Very appealing, with a direct, rich core of peach, pear and melon, turning spicy and lightly oaky. Ends clean and refreshing. Drink now. 19,600 cases made.
FRANCISCAN Chardonnay Napa Valley 2014
Simple and openly fruity, featuring citrus and tropical fruit notes accented by light oak touches. Drink now. 130,000 cases made.