January Monthly Mingle: Comfort Foods

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This is where the ingredients picture would have gone if I had remembered to take it. Have some onions instead.

My favorite mid-winter dish to prepare on a cold, lazy weekend day: Belgian beer-braised short ribs. For this edition, I went with Asian-inflected short ribs with a hoisin-beer reduction, a blue cheese potato-parsnip puree, and some simple wilted spinach. It’s been a while since I’ve made short ribs, and I offer profuse thanks to What’s For Lunch Honey and the Monthly Mingle (for which this entry was written) for inspiring me to give it another go.

If you have not been braising short ribs at all, I urge you to start. If you’ve been braising your short ribs in wine, I urge you to give beer a try. If you’ve been braising your short ribs in beer but have been using a stout, as most beer-based recipes recommend, I urge you to try a variant using a good Belgian; I paticularly like Chimay Reserve or Corsendonk Brown Ale for this dish, both of which can usually be found in your better liquor stores or the beer section of Whole Foods. There are also some good domestic brewers putting out admirable Belgian-style beers, like Ommegang in New York.

A good Belgian or Belgian-style beer is complex and robust without being overly dark, and usually has pronounced fruit and nut flavors (often raisin and plum) that give way to just enough bitterness to create balance. In this recipe, the sweet side of the Asian flavor spectrum – hoisin, Chinese 5-spice and plum sauce – pick up on the fruit tones in the beer, adding further layers of flavor to both meat and sauce; while a touch of chili paste and the beer’s natural dryness keep things from getting cloying.

The parsnip in the potato-parsnip puree also picks up on the nutty sweetness, but the blue cheese adds a fantasic salty pungency that is the perfect foil. The puree coupled with the tender, shredded beef produces an unctuous mouthful of luxurious flavor that is comforting and just bold enough. The simple spinach helps lighten things a bit (but not too much; “light” is not usually what I go for in a winter comfort food) with both its texture and punchy flavor.

We had some friends over to share this meal, and several of us nearly had cardiac incidents while eating.

It does sound a bit complicated for comfort food. But the beauty of braising means that you spend 30 minutes getting everything ready and then ignore it for the next three hours. Mashed potatos never taxed anyone unduly, and I’ve had sneezing fits that lasted longer than the time it takes to wilt a pan of spinach. Plus, you can make the short ribs a day or two before you’re going to eat them, and they’ll taste *even better* after spending more time resting in their beer bath. Truly, one cannot go wrong.

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I gave my love a chicken, it had no bones.

To kick things off, I roasted the short ribs in a fairly hot oven to render out some of the fat and get some color on ‘em; this has the side benefit of producing some fond in the roasting pan that will add even more richness to the final sauce when deglazed. My oven has a convection setting, so I flipped that on to help the browning along.

While the ribs roasted, I started my braising liquid. As with all good recipes, this starts with onions and garlic, sauteed in olive oil.

Some people create the braising liquid in the rib pan once the roasting is done, but I like to start it on the stove to both save some time and give the flavors time to meld. This also gives you a chance to do a bit more flavor correcting before the actual braise begins. I have braising-liquid-related paranoia, so having this extra time is important to me.

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A symbol of man’s hubris.

When the onions had taken on a hint of golden-brown color, I added crushed tomatoes, an accidentally-still-frozen block of chicken stock, and the hoisin, plum sauce and chili paste, and let everything simmer together while the ribs finished up in the oven.

At this point, the entire enterprise almost came to a crashing halt when I underestimated the amount of steam that had built up in the 450 degree oven and leaned over to take out the roasting pan without giving it a chance to dissipate. I think I may have screamed silently, or used some dissolute language. I was also fairly certain that I’d lost the top layer of skin. But I powered through, so great was my desire to mingle.

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Who can take a sunrise, and sprinkle it with dew?

Resist the tempation to pick at this meat, no matter how good it looks. Short ribs are a tough cut, fatty with lots of connective tissue, and they will be unyielding as your husband’s grandmother when you tell her you’re getting another tattoo. Or, you know, whatever your life’s equivalent would be. The point is: tough as hell. It takes the long, slow, low braise to break that tissue down and turn this cut into the food of the gods.

Put them aside, and content yourself with the aroma.

I got rid of the truly frightening amount of melted beef fat that had collected in the roasting pan, and set the pan on the stove to deglaze with the beer. Delicious, delicious beer. I used an entire 750ml bottle of Corsendonk, taking only the tiniest glass for the cook. I’m too good to you people.

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The candy man can, ‘cuz he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good.

I let the beer reduce a bit, then poured it into the pot of braising liquid. You have another chance to correct the flavor a bit before tucking the pan back into the oven (which I’d knocked back to 300 for the braise).

I can’t really explain what happened next, except to say that it was a moment of kitchen inspiration that came to me unbidden from the ether. I thought my braising liquid lacked a little depth, and was concerned that maybe I’d taken the chili paste a little too far. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d stirred about a third of a cup of maple syrup in. I don’t know why, and I must have realized the oddity, because I quickly stashed the bottle back in the fridge when I heard Brian coming into the kitchen so I wouldn’t have to explain why I put syrup in the short ribs.

It totally did the trick. So: if you try this recipe and your braising liquid seems to lack a certain ineffable something, dump in some maple syrup and call it a day.

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Who can take a rainbow, and wrap it with a sigh?

Halfway through the braise time, I decided to put the potatoes together so that all I’d have to do when the dinner guests arrived would be the spinach. I decided I wanted a smooth texture so I actually peeled the potatoes, something I almost never do. I also peeled and chopped up a single freakishly-large parsnip.

While the roots cooked, I heated butter, some creme fraiche that had been lingering in the fridge since the leek noodles, and a nice hunk of Maytag Blue (NOTE: this could have been the actual cause of my guests’ cardiac incidents).

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Soak it in the sun and make a berry-lemon pie?

To get smoothness without needing to haul out the food processor, I put the roots through a ricer before whisking in the blue cheese sauce. Again, the whole project almost collapsed when I nearly sat down on the floor with the pot of potatoes and a giant wooden spoon to gorge myself. Oh. my. god.

But what would have happened if Columbus had just sat down on the deck of the Santa Maria with a pot of mashed potatoes and stopped looking for the new world? A lot of Native Americans and West Indians would not have died of smallpox. Probably it would have also helped Columbus stave off scurvy. So he probably should have done it. But since neither smallpox nor scurvy are currently threatening downtown Jersey City, I pressed on.

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The Candyman. Listen when I tell you things.

A stashed my roots in the warming drawer and pulled out the ribs, which had been braising for about 3 hours. I left them to rest while I pulled the reduction together: Strain vegetable matter out of braising liquid. De-fat. Pour strained, fat-less liquid into a scorching hot pan. Reduce until you have a sauce that coats the back of a spoon. I punched it up a little with some extra five-spice and chili flakes, which I strained out of the final reduction.

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Cheer up, Charlie.

Once our friends arrived, I quickly wilted the spinach and re-heated the roots. And then: Dinner.

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It’s blurry because it traveled so fast from the plate to my mouth.

Amazing. Silky, rich, perfectly balanced between comforting sweetness and warming boldness. The meat was infused throughout with the flavors of the braising liquid. The potatoes were the Platonic ideal of mashed potatoes. The spinach both sopped up the sauce and added a touch of green that lent the dish a symbolic veneer of health.

The awesome thing about this dish, aside from the fact that it’s so good that you’ll want to have a cigarette afterward, is that it’s simple and easily dressed up or down. Having a dinner party? Puree the roots smooth, pour your reduction into a squeeze bottle, and create a beautiful plate. Want something simpler and more rustic? Leave the potatoes unpeeled, smash by hand and skip the reduction.

One thing I guarantee: No matter how many pounds of short ribs and potatoes you buy, you will never have leftovers.

Beer-Braised Short Ribs with Asian Flavors, Blue Cheese Potato-Parsnip Puree and Wilted Spinach, 4 hearty portions

For the beef:
4-6 beef short ribs
s&p

For the braising liquid & reduction:
2 large onions
1 head garlic
3 tbsp. olive oil (or canola/veg oil, or butter)
2 c. chicken stock
1 28oz. can crushed tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
1/2 c. hoisin sauce
1/3 c. plum sauce
1 tsp. chili paste (like srihacha)
1 tbsp. Chinese Five-Spice Power (if you don’t have this, sub cinnamon and star anise)
1 750ml bottle Belgian beer
s&p
Optional: Maple Syrup

Pre-heat the oven to 450. Arrange the ribs in a single layer in a roasting pan or dutch oven, preferably one that can also be used on the stove, and season with salt and pepper. Roast in the over for 40 minutes, flip the ribs, and roast 15-20 more minutes until brown.

Meanwhile, roughly chop the onion and cut off the top fourth of the garlic to expose all the cloves. Put a large pot over medium heat and heat the oil. Add the onions and cook until translucent and slightly golden, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, tomatoes, stock, hoisin, plum sauce, chili paste and Five-Spice; let simmer while the ribs are roasting.

When the ribs are browned, remove them from the roasting pan and pour off the fat; knock the oven temperature down to 300. Put the roasting pan on the stove over medium-high heat. Pour in the beer, making sure to scrape up any beefy bits sticking to the bottom of the pan. Let the beer reduce by about 1/3.

Pour the reduced beer into the braising liquid, and adjust the taste/seasonings. Return the ribs to the roasting pan and pour in enough liquid to come 2/3 the way up the sides of the ribs, being sure to get the garlic and some onions into the pan.

Cover the ribs (use heavy-duty foil if you’re not using a dutch oven with a cover) and return to the now-300 degree oven. Cook 3 hours, turning every hour or so, until you can pull the meat apart easily with a fork. Put them aside to rest. Do not pick at them.

When the ribs are done and are resting, strain the solids out of some of the braising liquid and use a fat separator to get rid of the fat (if you make the ribs the day before, skip this step – just put the whole pan in the fridge and let the fat congeal on top overnight, then peel it off, discard and proceed). You want to have about 2 1/2-3 cups of liquid.

Heat a pan over high heat until very hot, and pour in the defatted liquid. Reduce until syrupy, making any flavor adjustments you want (I threw in a little dried chili at the last minute). Set aside.

Blue Cheese Potato-Parsnip Puree

3 lbs. creamy potatoes, like Yukon Golds
1 large or 2 medium parsnips
4 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/3 c. creme fraiche
3 oz. blue cheese (I used Maytag)
s&p
optional: Whole Milk

Peel and chop the potatoes and parsnip. Add to a pot of cold, salted water, bring to a boil, and cook until roots are easily pierced by a fork. Drain off the water and return the cooked roots to the pot over heat. Toss them around to evaporate out any excess water in the roots. When steam is no longer coming off the roots, take them off the heat.

While the roots cook, heat the butter, creme and blue cheese together.

Mash the roots as you choose (by hand for a simple rough mash, with a ricer for more smoothness, in a food processor for ultimate smoothness) and whisk in the blue cheese sauce. If needed, thin with some whole milk for a more puree-like mash. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Do not sit on the floor with a wooden spoon and consume the whole pot.

Wilted Spinach

12 oz. fresh spinach
s&p

Put a large skillet (with a lid) over medium-high heat, add a bit of water to the pan. Dump in the spinach, add some salt and pepper and cover until you start seeing steam. Uncover, and toss until wilted.

Plate, eat, and try not to fall into your potato puree when you swoon.

5 thoughts on “January Monthly Mingle: Comfort Foods

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