Tuesday, March 10, 2015

When In Doubt, Braise It! Beef Short Ribs

Thanks to Rocking Chair Ranch Cattle, there are several packs of grass fed beef short ribs from the half cow we got last year in the freezer.  They've been taunting me every time I open the door.  On the previous half cow we got, I opted to have the short ribs just done up in ground beef because I didn't know how to cook them.  This time, I told myself that I'd have to figure it out.  Alas, most of that half has been used up and we're getting down to the cuts that we tend to use the least (or don't know what to do with at all).  So, now it was time to put up or shut up with those short ribs.

As luck would have it, I recently listened to a podcast from the illustrious Chef Keith Snow from Harvest Eating.  In it, he described braised beef shanks.  I didn't have beef shanks... but I did have short ribs.  And darned if at the end of the episode if he didn't talk about other cuts you could prepare the same way, beef short ribs being one of them!

For those not familiar with braising, if you've done a chuck roast in a crock pot, you've essentially braised it.  I'll outline the process here.

A pile of short-ribs
Like any good braised short rib recipe should, it starts with the short ribs.  So... get some short ribs.  Short ribs are a pretty tough cut of beef - lots of connective tissue, fat, and such.  And with all that comes lots of flavor... like a chuck roast.

I had a couple packs thawed - about 4lbs or so.  Some of them were great big chunks, with a big bone and others were slimmer... all depending on which part of the rib that chunk came from.  Season with salt and pepper.

I heated up some lard from a recently butchered hog in an enameled dutch oven and browned the meat.

There are some who think that searing the meat will trap moisture and keep it locked up inside the tissue.  I think the science actually proves otherwise.  That said, searing the meat DOES have value in the form of the "fond" that forms at the bottom of the cooking pot... you know, those little brown bits and fat that you eye suspiciously, wondering how much elbow grease it'll take to remove it from the pan?

That fond is a concentrated meat flavor that forms as a result of a process called the Maillard reaction.  And you want to preserve as much of that as possible.

So after you've nicely browned your meat, remove them and set aside in a bowl.  Toss in a couple chopped carrots and onion into the pot and cook until tender.  You don't have to go full on carmelize mode - but some brown isn't a bad thing.  Add some other aromatics here as well - minced garlic, thyme, rosemary... whatever works well with your tastes.

Now, toss in some tomato paste - a couple tablespoons and keep it moving in the mixture.  Everything should get pretty sticky and really start to brown onto the cooking surface.  Act fast here to make sure you don't over cook it and scorch the paste that gets stuck onto the sides and bottom of the pot.  Just when you think you're about as far as you can go without burning, start stirring in some red wine (a cabernet perhaps - or whatever you have left in that bottle from last night).  This will deglaze the pot (meaning remove all those brown bits that have been getting stuck to the surface) - help it along with a wooden spoon to be sure you've scraped up all the fond and gotten it up into the braising liquid.  I added about half a bottle of wine.

Get braising, you little ribs!
I then nestled the ribs back into the pot, trying to arrange them in so that they were pretty well packed in.

I had so many short ribs in the pot that I needed to add some beef broth so that most of them were covered.  I had a few poked up out of the liquid - which is good.  As they braise in the 250 degree oven (which you should be preheating by now), the ones sticking up will brown further, giving us even more flavor.

Make sure you have a really good heavy lid that seals well.  Le Cruset dutch ovens are good for this.  Cover the pot and put into the oven.  You'll know if you lid is any good when you check it after an hour and it doesn't appear that any liquid has cooked off.  If it has, be sure to add some more wine or broth.  Total cooking time should be at least 3 hours.  Four is better and five is great.  Much more than that though, and you'll probably start to dry the ribs out.

Time to skim the fat.
You can tell when you are getting done. Things should start to look like this and you'll be able to pull the meat right off the bone with no effort.

The fat should have rendered out a lot.  Skim the fat as best you can.  This is one of those dishes that works even better the next day so if you have time to wait, let it cook down on the stove top and then toss in the fridge over night.  When you remove it tomorrow, you'll be able to lift the solid fat out with a spoon or fork with no trouble before you heat it all back up.

Round these parts, we call 'em grits!
Tradition would dictate that this dish be served with mashed potatoes.  I didn't have any.  So I made creamy corn grits (or polenta for those of you so inclined) and served it over that.  Rice would work in a pinch too.  Just remember that this classic comfort food.   And while you could serve it along side some sauteed kale, you're missing out if you don't hit the starch hot and heavy with this dish.  The sauce is too tasty to let go to waste on a bare plate... get some bread in there and sop it up!

I've made this dish twice and have just about used up our short ribs.  A chuck roast would be good this way... Next time, I'll ask for the beef shanks and save them from the grinder.

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