Good to the bone: short ribs

Los Angeles Times

Every few years a dish seems to come out of nowhere and spread like kudzu. One day it’s a novelty in a restaurant at the top of the Gold Card chain (molten chocolate cake) and the next it’s a staple in every mainstream cookbook (braised lamb shanks).


Short ribs are the latest great idea everyone seems to be having at once. They’re on menus everywhere, they’re in the glossy food magazines and they’re in just about every cookbook coming out this fall.


But this time there’s a reason for the feeding frenzy.


Short ribs are that rarity in the kitchen: good and easy. The flavor, the texture and the richness of the meat make eating them an almost primal experience. Even better, you get all three attributes from the most elemental of recipes: Brown, add liquid, stand back. Three kitchen-perfuming hours later, you’re looking at an irresistible one-pot meal that’s actually fit for company.


Short ribs used to be perceived as cold weather food, guaranteed to warm the house and stick to your own ribs. They also have a long tradition in Jewish cooking. But now, like duck confit, they have both transcended the seasons and become as omnipresent as asparagus.


Unlike most other meat, or even chameleonic chicken, short ribs take on the essence of whatever you put in the pot with them. Grill a steak and top it with hollandaise and you taste beef with sauce. Braise short ribs with ginger, garlic, star anise, soy sauce and sherry and you get beef with almost a high-rise’s worth of levels of flavor, inherent and infused.


As the beef is soaking up the spices and wine, its bones are enriching the liquid that becomes the sauce. This is not so much cooking as transmigration of soulfulness.


Even better, short ribs are amenable to just about any seasonings. You can take them around the world in 80 spices: Mexican cumin and chipotles, Indian curry powder, Japanese wasabi, Italian basil, Greek oregano. You can simmer them in red wine or beer or sake, or even barbecue sauce. And always, the beef in the end will still be unmistakably beef, but with a resonance even the best filet lacks.


Then there are the bonus points: You can cook short ribs in advance (they’re even better the next day). And you won’t have to give up a few Starbucks to afford them.


In some ways they’re like meatloaf for the millennium — doable and economical. But short ribs are suddenly socially acceptable now that top restaurants have adopted them (pricey Craft in New York says it goes through 500 pounds a week). They also hold together better than a stew or pot roast, which means you can serve a portion that looks not just presentable but almost elegant.


When you bite into short ribs, it’s obvious that you’re not tucking into a slab of beef from the prime part of a steer. This is a come-to-where-the-flavor-is cut, from the forequarter where the meat is fatty and laced with connective tissue that melts into richness as the ribs cook. The only thing comparable is veal breast, which is much trickier to handle. Oxtails are even richer and fattier, but almost too much so; they’re also more of a pain to deal with because of all the bones and grease.


Short ribs, when they’re done to perfection, literally fall off their bones. Between those bones and the fat, a good portion of what you pay for is left in the pot, which is why you have to figure on about a pound a person. If you buy meat from a good butcher, you shouldn’t have to do much trimming of excess fat, though.


As with a great stew, short ribs need to start with serious browning. That deep, dark crust lays in the ground floor of meaty taste. Some recipes call for dredging the ribs in seasoned flour as you would for a stew, but I prefer the pure flavor of bare meat.


Browning is probably the messiest part of cooking short ribs, but Jeremiah Tower offered a sneaky tip from the late James Beard in his last cookbook, “Jeremiah Tower Cooks,” from the late James Beard: Run the ribs under the broiler instead of searing them in hot spattering oil on the stovetop. You still have to turn them four times to brown all sides, but it is fast and efficient. The olive oil you need in a skillet does add a layerette of flavor, though, so it’s best to lightly brush the ribs with it before broiling them.


A number of cookbooks out now make short ribs look a lot more complicated than they need to be. You don’t really need to steep them overnight in some 23-ingredient marinade. I did find that curing them with salt, even for an hour, produces better meat, though. Adding pepper and garlic powder and letting them sit overnight, as one cookbook recommends, also didn’t hurt.


But short ribs should really only be a three-step process. A couple of times I’ve taken off my apron after shoving a batch into the oven and had a Peggy Lee moment. But that really is all there is. Cover the pan and the meat will cook to melting tenderness in a low oven, where the heat is easier to hold at a stable level than it is over a burner.


Some recipes specify cooking the ribs uncovered in a roasting pan rather than a deep Dutch oven. This creates more of crust on the meat, which can be a good thing. But if you want ribs you can almost eat with a spoon, the cover is key.


The braising liquid can be just about anything but plain water — wine or stock, or port or sherry, or Chimay ale or vermouth — supplemented by the holy stewing trinity of carrots, celery and onion. Thyme, rosemary and bay leaves are natural partners. Dried wild mushrooms like morels lay in a smoky undertone. In reality, though, you can pour a can of beef stock over browned short ribs and throw in a bunch of garlic powder and get something as good as some restaurants serve. Short ribs are very undemanding.


In buying the meat, try to get the kind sometimes labeled flanken, with three or four short bones in a long skinny strip. Individual ribs cut into two-inch squares work fine, but there’s something appealing about the strips, which you can serve whole.


The cooking liquid forms a natural sauce, but usually it has to be defatted before you serve it. If you have time, the best method is to let it cool completely, then lift off the layer of congealed fat. A little mustard or good vinegar added as you reheat the sauce will cut the richness.


Because short ribs are that unctuous, the only careful consideration is what to serve with them. Mashed potatoes (light on the butter and cream) are a natural, as is polenta or couscous or basmati rice, all of which will soak up the sauce. Plain noodles are also good. On the side, pickled cucumbers, a carrot slaw or a huge salad of arugula, tomatoes and few red onions will also counter the intensity.


More and more restaurants are cooking short ribs just to transform them into other dishes, like sandwiches or tacos or ravioli, and even a richness enhancer for overpriced burgers. You could do that with leftovers, I suppose, but I never seem to have any.


BRAISED SHORT RIBS
WITH CHINESE FLAVORS


Note: This is adapted from Leslie Revsin’s “Come for Dinner” (Wylie). The ribs can be cooked up to five days in advance and refrigerated with sauce to cover before reheating and serving.


Total time: About 3 hours
Yield: 6 servings
6 to 6 1/2 pounds beef short ribs on the bone, cut into 3-inch lengths
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup dry vermouth, fine sherry or white wine
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/3 cups drained and coarsely chopped canned tomatoes
4 whole star anise
6 large garlic cloves, crushed with side of knife and peeled
1 inch-long piece ginger, peeled, cut into 8 slices
6 scallions, cut into 2-inch lengths, plus 2 tablespoons thinly sliced on the diagonal
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Dry ribs with paper towels and season very lightly with salt and generously with pepper. Heat oil over medium-high heat in Dutch oven or heavy, flame-proof casserole large enough to hold all ribs in no more than 2 layers. When oil is hot, brown ribs on all sides in batches without crowding, removing to platter as they brown. Add more oil if necessary with successive batches.
3. While ribs are browning, combine soy sauce, vermouth, brown sugar and tomatoes in bowl and stir until blended. Add star anise and 2/3 cup water and mix well. Set aside.
4. When all ribs are browned, pour off fat and reduce heat to low. Add garlic, ginger and 2-inch-long scallions to pan, alternately tossing and pressing against bottom of pan for 1 minute to bring out flavor. Return ribs to pan and pour soy mixture over. Bring to a simmer and cover.
5. Transfer to oven and bake, turning ribs occasionally if you like, until meat is extremely tender when pierced with a fork, 2 1/2 to 3 hours total.
6. Remove ribs to serving platter and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Discard ginger and star anise and pour sauce into large, heatproof glass measuring cup or bowl. Let stand about 5 minutes to allow fat to rise to surface, then skim it off and discard. Reheat sauce, season generously with pepper and pour over ribs. Sprinkle with reserved sliced scallions and serve hot.

 

MUSHROOM BRAISED SHORT RIBS


Note: This is adapted from “Tom Valenti’s Soups, Stews and One-Pot
Meals” by Tom Valenti and Andrew Friedman (Scribner).


Total time: 4 1/2 hours after overnight seasoning
Yield: 6 servings
6 pounds short ribs (about 6 pieces)
Coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Garlic powder
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium Spanish onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
8 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 cups dry white wine
1/3 cup distilled white vinegar
9 cups store-bought, reduced-sodium beef broth
3 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cup dried morel or porcini mushrooms, rinsed under running water to
remove grit
1. Day before cooking, season ribs with salt, pepper and garlic powder.
Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
3. Heat olive oil in roasting pan over medium-high heat until hot but
not smoking. Add ribs and brown on all sides, about 1 minute per side.
Remove from pan and set aside.
4. Discard all but 2 tablespoons fat from pan. Add onion, celery,
carrot and garlic to pan. Cook, stirring often, until lightly browned,
about 8 minutes. Add wine, vinegar, broth, thyme and bay leaf. Stir in
mushrooms. Bring to a boil over high heat.
5. Return ribs to pan, cover with foil and braise in oven for 1 hour.
Remove foil and cook 3 more hours, or until meat is very tender and
falling off bone.
6. To serve, remove ribs from braising liquid and divide among 6 warm,
shallow bowls. (Leave bones for dramatic presentation.) Strain braising
liquid, reserving morels and discarding other solids. Skim off and discard fat from liquid and pass as a sauce at the table.