It's wintertime here in Central Ohio, and that means it's cold, gray, and probably windy/rainy/sleety/snowy. The are a few cures for the winter chill - mac 'n cheese comes to mind, stew, chili, grits - but nothing quite chases them away like a hearty braised dish, full of succulent meaty goodness.
So what is braising? Basically, it is a wet cooking method, as opposed to say roasting, which is a dry cooking method. Braising is best employed for turning lesser cuts of meat into something delectable. There would be no point in braising something like a tenderloin, first of all because it is already tender, and also because it wouldn't turn out as well as a lesser cut, because it doesn't contain as much fat or connective tissue as something like a rib or shank. Which brings us to our next point:
What cuts of meat should I braise? Anything with a bone in tact, first of all, such as our pork country ribs we did a few months back. Shanks make great braised dishes (think osso bucco, the famed Italian braised veal shank); shanks, which are cross-sections of leg, by the way, are particularly good because the bones contain lots of glorious marrow, which is indescribably delicious spread on toast. In addition to cuts containing a bone, any tough, striated cut (brisket) or cuts which are heavily marbled (short ribs), or large chunks of "roast" meats, such as rump roast. Shoulder cuts, also, such as pork shoulder (usually called butt or Boston butt), which contains lots and lots of connective tissue, which breaks down into mouth-coating savory gelatin as it braises. We'll do pork shoulder on New Year's Day, don't you worry your pretty little head.
Digression: There's a pretty interesting section of one of my favorite books, Heat, wherein Bill Buford mulls the recent trend of the short rib. Just what is it, and why did we begin serving it? The short rib, as best I can tell, come from the underside (what would the chest if on a human, as opposed to the back, where the "good" cuts, such as rib eye, etc come from) of ribs 6-10; occasionally, shoulder cuts are sold as short ribs, but they don't seem to have the tender meat you get when using the "plate," or underside of the ribs. It's rather unfortunately that so many restaurants have begun serving short ribs, as they used to cost about 99 cents a pound, and now they're closer to 5.
So, we've talked a little bit about the braise, now let's talk about how to do it. First of all, braising takes awhile, so you'll want to get started a good 4-5 hours (or even more) before you plan to eat dinner. Make your shopping list. You are going to need your short ribs, some onions, carrots, celery and garlic, and anything else lingering in your fridge which would add depth and flavor (jarred roasted red pepper and sun dried tomatoes are particularly nice; I even crumbled in a few Mexican chiles), you might also want tomato paste, and you will need lots of red wine, which will bring us to another
Digression: Let's talk about cooking with wine for a little bit, shall we? Why do we cook with wine? Because alcohol carries flavor; it adds acidity. And, while it is true that the wine will carry some of its characteristics into the finished dish (namely good things like fruitiness, and bad things like too much oak), I personally believe it is erroneous to think you should only cook with something you would drink. I think it's more important to cook with something which could, in theory, be quaffed. What do I mean by that? Well, I would never cook with what is called "cooking wine" and is sold next to the vinegar. Just as I would never drink the sort of wine which is called something generic and is sold in a jug, I would cook with said wine. If I am going to be drinking a $75 bottle of Burgundy with dinner, you better believe it is all going to go down my gullet and not into the braising pot. If you have money to squander, then, by all means, cook with your first growths. (If that statement is meaningless to you, you should definitely be cooking with jug wine. Husband thought that line was too snarky, but I'm feeling snarky today, thanks to work, so I'm leaving it in.) My general rule for cooking with wine is to avoid wines which are over tannic or overoaked. This pretty much nixes California Cabernets and Chardonnays.
So, what to cook with? Whites such as Riesling, pinto grigio - practically anything in a tall, slopey bottle, sauvignon blanc, and reds such as pinot noir, dolcetto, inexpensive french reds. I bought a $5 bottle of Italian red table wine at Trader Joe's which the staff called the "perfect patio wine." Which made it perfect for cooking. I also had an old half bottle of Australian riesling in the fridge, and threw that in, too.
Okay, so let's get started, shall we? First of All, the list:
1 pound of bone-in short ribs per person
salt & pepper
2 medium red onions, cut into 1/2" chunks
2 ribs celery, cut into 1/2" chunks
3 medium carrots, cut into 1/2" chunks
1 small can tomato paste
6 sun dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 head garlic, cloves peeled
1 bottle red wine
1/2 bottle white wine or water
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Preheat a large Dutch Oven over medium high heat and cover the bottom lightly with oil. Liberally sprinkle each rib with salt and pepper and gently place them in the hot oil, being careful not to overcrowd the pan (which will cause steaming instead of browning). You will know when each piece of meat is ready to turn by nudging it gently with a pair of tongs. If it releases easily from the pan, it's ready to turn. If not, give it another minute or so. Repeat until all sides of the meat are nicely brown. Remove the meat from the pot and place on a plate to set aside (there's no need to cover it).
There should be enough fat covering the bottom of the pan for your veggies, but you may add a little more if you have no visible fat. Dump in the onions, celery and carrots and cook for about 7 minutes to soften, then add the tomato paste. Stir to coat every piece of vegetable with tomato paste and allow everything to brown; this takes about 7 more minutes. It is okay if the paste turns very brown, but preferably not black. About halfway through this process, add your garlic and sun dried tomatoes and keep stirring.
When everything is nice an brown, pour in your wine or wine/water mixture. You should have enough liquid to cover everything; a few things peeking through the top is fine, but there will be evaporation. Cook for at least 4 hours, peeking every now and then to see if you need to add more liquid. The short ribs are ready when you pinch them with tongs, and they give way easily. This takes about 6 hours, more or less. I would start checking after 4 hours; the larger the ribs, the longer they take. Also, I've discovered that boneless short ribs take even longer - about 7-8 hours. But these are worth the wait.
Place the pot back on the stove and carefully remove each short rib and place on a plate (you can cover if you wish, but it isn't necessary). Strain the cooking liquid through a colander and discard the vegetables, reserving the juice in a wide, shallow sauce pan. Cook over high heat just to reduce a pinch (our liquid was so thick and rich we didn't really have to reduce very much, and there was so much gelatin from the meat that we didn't need to mount the sauce with butter). Taste to correct seasoning - at this point, I like to add just a pinch of lemon juice - not more than a teaspoon or 2 - which does not give the sauce a lemony flavor, it just provides a little balance with the richness of the meat.
To serve, place short ribs on plates and maybe grate a little fresh horseradish over. Spoon a little of the sauce over and make some plain old mashed potatoes.