Meeting the short rib challenge

By on November 30, 2012

Regular readers of my blog, Kitchens Are Monkey Business, know about a feature I call “Just Ask Rosie.” They ask me culinary questions and I do my best to answer them

Recently, one reader challenged me with a request for braised beef short ribs. You may thank Ange in Wisconsin for my culinary offerings today — braised short ribs in an aromatic red wine sauce on a bed of creamy, cheesy, buttery polenta.

I always like to do a bit of research whenever I’m cooking something. Beef short ribs were no exception. I learned they can come from three different sections of the cow — the rib, the chuck, or the short plate, with each cut having different properties.

The National Association of Meat Purveyors has issued The Meat Buyers Guide for butchering. An NAMP number is assigned to every cut of meat, with descriptions, specifications, and pictures. This way, a chef would be able to specify to his vendor which cut he wants by referring to the number.

In the grocery store, one doesn’t generally know which of the three short ribs one’s getting since the type of cut is rarely identified on the labels. This can be frustrating since the three types of short ribs have different attributes. For example, the plate short ribs, NAMP 123, have more muscle tissue than the back short ribs, NAMP 124, but the back short ribs are more tender. Plate short ribs also have a lot of fat. The chuck short ribs, NAMP 130, are not as fat and are tougher.

What I’m using in my recipe today is boneless chuck short ribs which I found labeled in the store as “chuck short ribs.” Chuck short ribs are from the chest area, which gets a workout, making these muscles full of connective tissue and sinew, and, therefore, tough. A cut of meat from a lazier muscle, say the back short ribs, would be more tender. Because of its toughness, this particular cut from the chuck needs to be prepared properly.

There are four basic preparations to make a tough cut tender and delicious. It can be barbecued. Roasting low and slow with dry heat and wood smoke will give you a dark exterior with flavorful, tender meat. You can also cut the meat very thinly, marinate it, then grill it over high heat as in Korean Kalbi.

A third method is to tenderize the meat by sprinkling meat tenderizer over top, then piercing the flesh with a meat tenderizer. A fourth method, and the one I’m using, is braising the meat. A long, slow cook in an aromatic liquid breaks down the tough, chewy, connective tissue holding the meat to the bone- giving you fall-off-the-bone tender. Collagen, from the bones and connective tissues of the meat, is transformed into gelatin, adding flavor and moisture to the meat.

Now that I think about it, there is a fifth method — sous-vide, French for “under vacuum.” Used in many “gourmet” restaurants, food is vacuum-sealed and cooked in a water bath at a regulated temperature much lower than normally used for cooking and for longer than normal cooking times – up to 72 hours in some cases.

I want to eat today, so I’m going with the braising method.

Rosie’s Braised Beef Short Ribs
8 boneless short ribs
4 ounces pancetta, diced
2 carrots
2 stalks celery
2 turnips
1 large onion
4 cloves garlic
2 – 14.5 ounce cans of low-sodium beef broth
or, preferably, your own homemade beef consommé
16 ounces Cabernet Sauvignon

When cooking with wine, always use a wine you would drink. Never buy a cheap “cooking wine.” If you wouldn’t drink it, never use it in cooking since the flavor intensifies.

1 bundle fresh herbs, tied — several sprigs of thyme and rosemary, about 5 fresh bay leaves
If you’re using dried, only use maybe 2 bay leaves.

freshly ground salt and pepper
flour for dredging

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare veggies: finely dice carrots, celery, turnip, onion. Mince garlic.

Cook the pancetta in a Dutch oven over medium heat. When golden, remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Reserve for later. Save the grease in the pan.

If you wanted to substitute bacon for the pancetta, you could, but I went with the pancetta because it has a milder flavor. You get the pork flavor without bacon’s smokiness. Pancetta is unsmoked pork belly, cured in salt and spices, then dried.

Lightly salt and pepper meat. I prefer Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Dredge meat through flour, shaking off excess.

When picking out your short ribs, you want meat with nice marbling in it. The marbling comes from intramuscular fat and gives the meat more juiciness, flavor, and tenderness.

Turn heat to medium high, adding more oil if you think necessary. I used an additional tablespoon of peanut oil. Place short ribs in hot oil one at a time. Sear each side.

Add in prepared vegetables and stir for a couple of minutes.
Pour in 2 cans of beef broth, scraping up any goodie bits on the bottom of the pan. This is where the flavor is. Pour in the wine.

Add the tied bundle of herbs, cover, and place in oven.
After 2 1/2 hours, stir in the reserved pancetta.
Return to oven for 30 minutes.
In this last thirty minutes, prepare the polenta. Recipe forthcoming.

A few notes on searing: You want a large enough pan so you do not crowd the pan. Too much food in the pan dissipates the heat, causing the food to steam, rather than sauté or sear. When you add the meat, leave it alone. Do not fuss over it. Resist the temptation to poke, push, and/or turn. Do not move the meat.

The meat will let you know when it’s ready. If you try and move the meat before the side has been properly seared, it will stick and you’ll tear the meat if you force it. Wait and shake the pan. If the meat releases, it’s ready to be turned. Sear short ribs on all sides. You have six sides to these cubes. Don’t miss one.

In the case of meat, dry-heat cooking, whether roasting with dry air in the oven or with heat conducted directly from a hot pan, results in the formation of a flavorful crust on the surface of the meat. Browning and flavor development are the result of a chemical process called the Maillard reaction.

This culinary phenomenon occurs when proteins in meats are heated to temperatures above 310 degrees, causing them to brown. This is similar to the process of caramelization, where carbohydrates, like sugar, turn brown when heated. Searing creates an attractive brown crust on the surface of the meat, enhancing both appearance and flavor.

Searing, or browning, is the prelude to braising. Moist-heat cooking methods, such as simmering or braising can’t generate as much heat to form this crust, since water boils at 212 degrees. That’s why we sear the meat first — to brown it and to develop the Maillard flavors. Now we want to braise the ribs to cook and tenderize them and let the flavors develop even more.

During the last 30 minutes of braising, I started on my polenta — yellow cornmeal and a flavorful meat stock, enriched with heavy cream, butter, and two cheeses.

Rosie’s Polenta
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 tsp Kosher salt
2 cups turkey consommé or chicken broth
1/2 cup cream
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1/3 cup goat cheese
2 TB butter

I use whatever I have in my freezer, which, in this case, was homemade turkey consommé. You could certainly substitute a canned chicken broth or stock. I prefer the reduced sodium broths.

Bring consommé or broth and cream to a boil.
Add in salt.
Remove from heat and whisk in cornmeal slowly so no clumps form.
Return to low heat and cook, whisking every few minutes, until thickened, about 30 minutes.
Stir in butter and cheeses.
Taste test and adjust seasoning if needed.

To serve, pool the polenta on a plate, nestle the braised ribs in the polenta, and spoon the reduced wine sauce and vegetables over top.

With the wind of a nor’easter gusting, the rain blowing sideways, the gentle roar of the fireplace humming, a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon in hand, and the enticing kitchen aromas wafting throughout the house, this meal was perfect – robust, and, dare I say, comforting. This meal made my stomach happy.

It’s Rosie’s kind of “Happy Meal,” one with a decidedly peasant feel to it.

For any holiday help in the kitchen, or for general culinary questions, feel free to e-me at rosiehawthorne@aim.com.

To see what’s cooking on the Hawthorne hearth, visit with me at Kitchens Are Monkey Business.

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