Photo by stu spivack/Flickr CC
To try the meal that won over Sophie's dinner party guests, click here for the braised short ribs, here for the lemon mashed potatoes, and here for the roasted broccolini.
Braising is, by far, my favorite method of winter cooking. The upsides are numerous:
1. Braising is inexpensive and tasty. The common braise involves cheap cuts of meat cooked for hours in liquid, a process that breaks down the connective tissues, resulting in a succulent and juicy entrée,
2. Active cooking time (i.e. the time you spend sweating and fretting over the stove) is minimal, meaning you can shove your braise in the oven and do something else for three hours,
3. A braise can, and should, be cooked a day before serving. The night spent in the fridge submerged in braising liquid ensures a flavorful protein and means that, with a little bit of planning, your day-of cooking can be negligible,
4. It's very hard to screw up a braise. The technique involved is teeny-tiny. If you follow a good recipe, you'll be fine; and, most importantly,
5. I have a fabulous recipe for braised short ribs. Fabulous.
I like to unveil my "BSRs" only on special occasions, and I had a whopper last week. My closest college friend, L, was getting married and had one night free before the wedding. I invited her over with her fiancée, K, whom I'd previously met for a total of one hour. N, our mutual friend, was getting ready to travel to India for four months to launch a scarf company, and would be bringing A, her boyfriend, also an artist. A send-off overseas for one, to the land of the married for another.
Once we sat down, I heard the best sound a cook can hear: what my father refers to as "the chorus of yums."
When L called me last year to tell me she'd gotten engaged and was moving down to West Virginia, I threw up. Yes, I was fighting a stomach flu in a Las Vegas hotel room, but still. Married? It seemed like just yesterday L and I would meet at one of our dorm rooms for late- night cheapo wine in our sweatpants (followed by pizza and an enormous container of UTZ Cheese balls). Could wives still eat cheese balls? When did we become grownups?
So here was an opportunity to get to know the man who'd won L's heart and convinced her to move from the northeast to a state with the motto montani semper liber , or "mountaineers are always free". I wanted the meal to be fittingly impressive but require as little time in the kitchen as possible. I needed something manly enough for a West Virginian former baseball player but refined enough for two artists. Et voila! Les short ribs.
So off I went to pick up some Bucheron goat cheese and French brie for noshing, short ribs, the makings for braising liquid, potatoes, and broccolini--protein, starch, veg, done. My parents loaded me with apples from an unwanted Christmas fruit basket (endless apples this time of year), which I decided to cook down with some sugar and serve hot, over ice cream. No fuss.
A day in advance, I cooked the ribs. For the braising liquid, I used an amalgam of two recipes: one for tamarind-glazed short ribs, from Ana Sortun, owner and executive chef of Oleana Restaurant in Cambridge (a wondrous, unassuming restaurant in Boston that you must try if you're there), the other a lemongrass-ginger-soy sauce short rib recipe I'd stolen during one of my stints at a high-end New York City restaurant. The restaurant recipe makes 80 pounds of ribs, so I did some recalculating. After 3 and a half hours of cooking, I stuck the dish in the fridge overnight.
The next day's preparations took all of 25 minutes: boiling potatoes, roasting broccolini, sauteing some apples, and reducing braising liquid to a thick, rich sauce for the ribs. (When I requested an entrée portion of the ribs at Oleana a few years ago, I paid $25. The NYC restaurant charges $29. Compare this to my shopping bill: the ribs cost less than $5 each, and the ingredients for the entire meal cost me $60, or $10 per person before wine.)
When the soon-to-be-weds arrived, the first thing K did was complement me on my interior decor. The second was to rave about how wonderful the apartment smelled. Then he handed me wine and champagne. Southern gentleman, indeed. N and A arrived, all sleek and artsy, also toting bottles of wine. With a glass (or two) down, I was ready to serve a send-off meal for two of my closest friends. I pulled the broccolini out of the oven just when it started to crisp up (roasting is, by far, the best way to cook any vegetable, thanks to the crispy factor), delegated the potato smashing to N, and began loading up plates.
Once we sat down, I heard the best sound a cook can hear: what my father refers to as "the chorus of yums." L wanted to know what made the potatoes so unusual (lemon juice). N asked for more broccolini (which A happily gave her from his own plate--some people just don't like broccolini, what can I say?). After telling me that my short ribs rivaled those at a restaurant near his home in West Virginia, K asked for seconds.
When I saw the loving way K looked at L as she began to eat, the whole marriage thing began to lose its scariness. Plus, it was at this moment that I really started getting excited for L: Here was a man who could eat! So sue me--I quickly judge people based on their eating preferences. Anyone who thinks Power Bars or smoothies are meals in themselves, who has done the master cleanse more than once (I allow for one experiment), or turns down bacon for any reason other than religious ends up on my "questionable" list." On the other hand, demanding seconds of short ribs automatically secures you a spot on my "people who get it" list.
This meal was particularly heavy--not only because we ate every last bite, but also because it was layered over red wine and cheesy appetizers. I let my guests deflate a little bit before dessert, which I served in small bowls. (I plopped the leftovers on my oatmeal in the morning, which proved a lovely, sugar-filled way to start my day.)
A few days later we met up again at the wedding--in all its beautiful white snowy perfection. During dinner the bride and groom were making their rounds and they stopped by as I was polishing off my friend's superb beef entrée (I'd already finished my salmon, which was delectable). I commented on how good the food was, a rarity at large seated dinners, and K said, with no prompting whatsoever, "Yes, but I'm still thinking about your ribs."
L, you've got a keeper.