Ninja Ribs & Japanese Macaroni Salad

I’m pretty sure it started with Japanese Anime. Years ago, my son Wyatt and I watched the Miyazaki classic “My Neighbor Totoro,” and went on to see all of the director’s films. Food plays an important role in the wildly imaginative animation, so along the way we also developed a fondness for onigiri (stuffed rice balls wrapped in nori), pork dumplings, ramen, and bubble tea. In other words, our cinematic adventures inspired new food adventures.

The truth is, anyone reared on the big, bold, satisfying flavors of street food and takeout craves a fix on a weekly basis. That’s when I reach for Rib Ninja, our Asian-inspired blend flavored with garlic, ginger, sesame seeds and citrus. Tossed in a sweet, creamy dressing, this Japanese Macaroni Salad is the perfect side dish to serve alongside the savory ribs. (The noodles are also kid-friendly, and a great dish to take to a potluck or barbecue.) The macaroni salad is best if it’s prepared in advance, so it has a couple of hours to chill in the refrigerator.

Ninja Ribs & Japanese Macaroni Salad

Serves 6 to 8

  • 2 racks baby back ribs
  • 3 tablespoons Rib Ninja

Macaroni salad:

  • Kosher salt
  • 8 ounces macaroni
  • 2 tablespoons seasoned rice wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 hard-cooked egg
  • ½ cup Japanese Mayonnaise (such as Kewpie)
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons Ponzu sauce
  • 1 bunch scallions, 2 fresh bulb onions or ½ medium white onion, thinly sliced 
  • 3 Persian cucumbers, halved and sliced into half moons
  • 1 cup corn kernels

Shichimi togarashi or Rib Ninja, for garnish

Prepare the macaroni salad:

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the macaroni and cook, stirring occasionally, according to package directions (taste and ensure the pasta is not too al dente). 

Drain the pasta, transfer to a large bowl and drizzle with olive oil while it’s hot. Add the rice vinegar and sugar, toss well to combine and set aside until the pasta is completely cool.

Bring a small pot of water to a boil, add the egg, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 9 minutes for a custardy egg (a couple minutes longer for a firm yoke). Drain the hot water and run cold water into the pan (or transfer egg to an ice bath).  Peel and chop the egg. 

Peel strips off the cucumber, trim the ends, and use a mandoline or chef’s knife to thinly slice. Combine the cucumbers and the onion, sprinkle with a teaspoon of salt and use your fingers to distribute the salt. Set the bowl aside; when you see water pooling in the bowl, transfer the vegetables to a colander, give them a quick rinse to remove the salt and use your hands to squeeze excess moisture from the vegetables. 

Add the onions, cucumbers, and corn to the macaroni and toss to combine. Mix well and add the chopped boiled egg. Add the Japanese mayo and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. 

For the ribs:

Sprinkle both sides of each rib rack with Rib Ninja seasoning, then use your hands to distribute the spices evenly. Place the racks on a platter and let them rest at room temperature for 30 minutes, or wrap them well with plastic and refrigerate for up to 2 days. (Let the meat come to room temperature before grilling.)

Prepare a charcoal grill for two-zone cooking and build a medium-high fire. When the coals are glowing red and covered with a fine gray ash, use tongs to remove the cooking grate and place a drip pan with 1 inch of warm water on the side with no coals, and add a couple chunks of hardwood (such as hickory or oak) to the periphery of the fire. Wipe the preheated grill grates with a lightly oiled paper towel. Using a grill brush, scrape the grill grates clean, then carefully wipe with a lightly oiled towel again.

When the fire begins to produce a steady stream of smoke, place the ribs over indirect heat (if a portion of the rack stretches over the coals, it’s okay), close the grill, vent the grill for smoking, and smoke for 30 minutes, using the vents to maintain a temperature of 275°F to 300°F (use tongs to flip and rotate the ribs, so the opposite side is stretching over the coals. Close the grill and smoker for 11⁄2 hours more, flipping and rotating the ribs every 30 minutes, adding more coals and wood as needed to maintain a steady temperature and smoke flow, until the ribs are deeply fragrant and have a nice crisp crust.

Preheat the oven to 225°F. Cover a rimmed baking sheet with a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil and top the foil with two layers of parchment paper. Stack the racks on top of each other on the baking sheet. Wrap the racks tightly in the paper and foil packet, and cook in the oven for 2 hours. Remove the racks from the oven and let them rest in the packet for at least 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes.

To serve, unwrap the racks, slice into individual ribs, and serve with Japanese Macaroni Salad on the side.

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