The last time I made braised short ribs, things did not work out so well.
It’s a long process, and drawn out. The short ribs, which are a tough cut of meat, need to simmer gently in liquid for hours to get to the desired point where they nearly fall off the bone, where you can literally cut them with a spoon. Meanwhile, the house fills with a tantalizing aroma, promising an extraordinary meal when it is finally ready but agonizingly tempting before then.
I was in the final stages of cooking; the ribs had been braising for a couple of hours and were nearly ready to be served. Inhaling deeply all the while, I impatiently watched the minutes tick away. My heightened sense of anticipation was matched only by my heightened awareness of a dull pain in my side.
As the pain became less dull and rather more urgent, it eventually overtook my desire to sit down to a long-awaited dinner of braised short ribs. We turned off the oven and made a quick trip to the doctor’s office, which became a longer trip to the emergency room for what turned out to be a kidney stone attack. Some six hours later (apparently, someone forgot about me in my little curtained-off corner of the E.R.), I was home again — and very hungry. We tried reheating the ribs, but they just did not taste as spectacular as we had hoped.
Maybe it was the shock to my system. Maybe it was the Percocet.
Anyway, I was officially spooked. I went years without trying to make them again.
In recent years, short ribs have become quite fashionable. Their tremendous appeal lies in the way they combine comfort food with sophistication. A short rib, after all, is just a rib, a tough, inexpensive cut of meat. But when cooked with the right amount of wet heat, they become meltingly soft. They are hearty, yet served with a sumptuous and glossy sauce made from reduced red wine.
My interest in trying to make them again was probably aroused in early November when chef Sara Moulton came to town. I interviewed her before a private event and, because of the season, I asked her how she cooks her turkey for Thanksgiving.
No turkey, she said. Her family’s Thanksgiving tradition is to make braised short ribs. Her description of how she makes it put any thought of kidney stones out of my mind. I decided to make them again.
I set aside a Sunday to make them because they do, after all, take hours. Although the previous time I had made them I used beer to make my braising sauce, this time I decided to go with red wine. Both are traditional media — beer makes it more or less carbonnade à la flammande, while red wine makes it akin to beef bourguignon.
I scanned my cookbooks for likely recipes, but they were fewer than I would have thought. I finally found one that looked good, in Alex Hitz’ My Beverly Hills Kitchen. Mr. Hitz’ recipe originally came from the private chef of Betsy Bloomingdale. It is perhaps most distinguished by its finishing touch: after the ribs have simmered for a total of about 4 hours, they are briefly broiled to caramelize them before serving them with the reduced sauce.
But there were a couple of things about the recipe that did not appeal to me. One is that they are simmered for four hours, most of that at 350°, which would essentially turn them into mush. Another is that it just does not use enough red wine. For me, it’s a full bottle or nothing.
So I called up Ms. Moulton’s recipe, because, after all, she had indirectly caused me to start craving them again. Her recipe uses a full bottle of red wine (ha!) and simmers for three hours at 300°, which seemed like a more reasonable time and temperature. She also uses garlic, which always helps, though I decided to use a little less than she calls for. And she removes the rib bones before serving, which makes the dish just that more elegant.
I did not, however, take her suggestion of kneading together flour and butter, to thicken the sauce. Yes, it would have tasted better, but no, I did not need the calories.
I wound up picking and choosing the best of both recipes, which put me in mind of the Hegelian Dialectic. If the thesis is Alex Hitz’ recipe and the antithesis is Sara Moulton’s recipe, then the synthesis is rich, dreamy, and soul-satisfying short ribs.
Contact Daniel Neman at: email@example.com or 419-724-6155.
Braised Short Ribs
3 pounds short ribs, cut by a butcher into 3-inch pieces
1 teaspoon salt, divided
¾ teaspoon black pepper, divided
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 medium carrot, coarsely chopped
1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 sprig fresh thyme or ¼ teaspoon dried
1 bay leaf
1 bottle red wine
3 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Cook's note: This dish is much better if prepared the day before.
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 300°.
Pat the ribs dry and season on all sides with ½ teaspoon of the salt and ½ teaspoon of the pepper. Put the oil and butter into a Dutch oven or flame-proof roasting pan large enough to hold the ribs in a single layer. Heat on medium high until the butter melts and the foaming subsides. Add ribs and brown — really, truly brown — on every side, until they are crusty. This will take several minutes per side, and is perhaps the recipe's most important step.
Transfer the ribs with tongs to a platter, lower the heat to medium, and add onions, carrots, and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are golden, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic, thyme, and bay leaf, and cook two minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer the vegetables to the platter with the ribs.
Add the wine to the Dutch oven and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until it is reduced by three-fourths (about 1 cup). Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Return the ribs, vegetables, and any juices that may have accumulated on the plate to the Dutch oven. Add the remaining ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper, and press a piece of aluminum foil or parchment paper right on top of the ribs. Cover the Dutch oven tightly, place it in the center of the oven, and braise for 3 hours or until the meat is tender and falling off the bones.
Transfer the ribs to a plate with tongs and let stand until they are cool enough to handle. Remove bones and any residual fat from meat, and return meat to broth. Remove bay leaf and discard. If possible, refrigerate overnight; otherwise, place in freezer (transfer to another bowl, if necessary) for about 30 minutes.
After the broth has cooled, remove the fat from the top, and discard. Bring to a boil over high heat, and reduce liquid by about half. Add the parsley.
Serve as is or transfer meat (but not liquid) to a broiling pan and broil 5-7 minutes, until caramelized. Allow meat to rest 5 minutes before serving with the sauce.
Serve with mashed potatoes or buttered noodles.
Yield: 4 servings
Source: Adapted from recipes by Alex Hitz and Sara Moulton