This article appears in the February 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit Loumag.com.
Home cooks tend to fall into one of two categories: 1) serious epicures who do not need help from the likes of me; or 2) those who watch hours and hours of Food TV, then pick up the phone to order a pizza.
In a random survey I conducted over the holidays of people from ages 18 to 88, I came across a lot more of the latter than of the former.
“But why do you watch, if not to make the dish?” I asked a niece.
“A girl can dream,” came her reply.
“To work up an appetite,” said an elderly auntie.
“Because my roommates get high, and that’s what’s on,” chimed in one young man who’d best not be identified. Right. His roommates.
I refused to let up on the subject because I fluctuate from being perplexed to infuriated that there is so much food coverage on television yet so little actual cookery taking places in people’s homes.
And I’ve heard more out-of-town visitors than I can count marvel at how the restaurant business here continues to boom in a recession.
It is indeed a marvel. So many talented chefs — not to mention the farmers who produce the food they work with. But at the same time it’s hard not to shout, “It’s because no one cooks!”
Thus I persisted in my queries.
What I discovered is that most people do not want to deal with the steps and stages of cooking, particularly if a recipe involves moving a dish from one heating venue to another — from stovetop to oven or grill (or vice versa) or from one kind of pan to another. They want Velveeta mac-n-cheese ease.
There is a worse bugaboo, and I know I’ve mentioned it before in this column. It’s being daunted by the print on the page. For some reason, it seems nearly impossible for novice cooks to comprehend the importance of conceptualizing the stages of what will happen with the ingredients once they come together. I keep telling my son that reading a recipe before beginning to cook is like reading the dust jacket before beginning a novel. You want to find out what it’s about before you crack it open. His riposte: “You know I don’t read novels.”
I won’t go into how that breaks my heart. But seriously, no matter where your recipe comes from, if you just take a couple of minutes to picture how the process is going to play out, it will make the whole thing so much easier to execute.
At the same time, I do understand the horror that one of my OCD pals suffers at the notion of grease popping all over his stovetop or the reluctance another feels to waste precious downtime, standing at the stove and stirring while a sauce reduces.
And this is why every week I offer a thank-you to the universe for the Italian home cook who, decades ago, taught me that making meatballs is about a thousand times easier if you brown the damn things in the oven rather than in a frying pan. Recently I have applied her advice to just about every kind of “browning” situation. I can’t tell you how it has simplified both cooking and cleanup.
This one-pot recipe takes pages from both the Italian cook’s playbook and from the Texan I know who taught me about slow-cooking barbecued brisket. It really is insanely easy, as the dish practically cooks itself. You can put the oven temperature even lower, let it cook all day while you’re at work and come home to a done dinner.
Remember: eyeball the recipe first! And keep this in mind, as well: Short ribs cost about a 10th as much at the grocery store as they do off the menu of your favorite restaurant.
The recipe: Braised Short Ribs with Greens:
6 beef short ribs
1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 Spanish onion, peeled and diced
12 petite baby carrots
2 cups cheap dry red wine
1 16-ounce can top-quality diced Italian tomatoes
2 cups beef stock
½ cup aged balsamic vinegar
1 box baby arugula
Season the short ribs with the thyme and cracked pepper, using your hands to coat the meat well.
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Pour the oil into a large thick-bottomed pan, then place it in the oven and wait a couple of minutes until the pan is very hot and almost smoking.
Place the ribs in the pan and sear them until they are nicely browned on all sides. (Depending on the size of your pan, you might have to sear the meat in batches because you do not want to crowd the meat or it will steam and turn gray, rather than golden brown). This part should take about 15 minutes.
Toward the end of the browning time, add the onion and carrots. Stir with a wooden spoon, scraping up all the crusty bits in the pan. Allow the vegetables to begin to caramelize. Add the red wine and keep the heat up in the oven until the wine reduces by half.
Add the stock and tomatoes and bring it all back to a boil. Arrange the ribs in the pan — lying flat, bones facing up, in one layer. Scrape any vegetables that have fallen on the ribs back into the liquid. The stock mixture should almost cover the ribs. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid.
Turn the heat back to 225 degrees and braise the ribs in the oven for about five hours. To check the meat for doneness, remove the lid and, being careful of the escaping steam, pierce a short rib with a paring knife. When the meat is done it will yield easily to a knife. Taste a piece if you are not sure.
Turn the oven up to 400 degrees. Leave the lid off the pan and let most of the liquid evaporate. Pour the balsamic vinegar over the ribs. Let them roast until the majority of the liquid has evaporated — approximately 15 minutes. Add the arugula at the very end. It will rapidly reduce and absorb the flavors of the meat and sauce. Remove the pan from the oven and dish out the ribs with a mound of mashed potatoes. Serves four.
Photo: Courtesy John Nation