This holiday season, taking it slow in the kitchen could spare you some stress and save you some cash.
If you’re serving up a meaty holiday feast, consider skipping pricey – and more easily overcooked – steaks, chops and tenderloins. Instead, consider a low and slow roast of a cheaper cut, such as the shoulders, legs and ribs.
Turning those tougher meats into succulent, memorable meals requires some patience. But in return there is plenty of down time for all that other holiday revelry and a near foolproof holiday dinner that doesn’t compromise on flavor.
“I cook with roasts all the time because they are inexpensive and if you know how to cook them right, they are extremely flavorful,” says Tanya Steel, editor-in-chief of Epicurious.com.
“The most important thing is that it’s going to take longer to cook,” she says. “But personally I think the outcome is a lot more exciting. It’s more flavorful and you can slice them table-side.”
Steel cooks short ribs or beef ribs almost every holiday dinner. She typically cooks for 13 or 14 people and meaty ribs for that many people typically cost about $30, at least half of what it would cost for a typical roast.
Much larger than their pork counterparts, short ribs are considered a second or third cut, terms that refer to heavily worked (which translates to tough) muscles on the animals they are cut from.
Ribs typically come in 6- to 8-inch portions. Ask the butcher to cut the ribs into 2-inch serving portions, also called an “English cut.”
For the best results, short ribs must be cooked for 2 1/2 hours or longer at 250 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. This long, low-temperature roast breaks down fat, muscle and cartilage, resulting in tender meat that falls from the bone and a thick pan sauce.
Don’t be tempted to crank up the heat to speed things along, says Stephen Stryjewski, chef and owner of Cochon restaurant in New Orleans. “It won’t just be chewy, but it will also be tough because it is all dry on the outside,” he says.
The same approach also can be used with steak tips, pork or lamb shoulder, lamb shanks and brisket, one of the most popular roasts during holidays. The cooking temperature is about the same, but timing will vary by the size of the cut.
This step is optional, but bathing the meat in a tasty solution of salt, acid and spice helps begin the cooking process by breaking down muscle enzymes that make the meat tough while also infusing it with flavor.
This can be as simple as a brine of salt, water and sugar; a more trendy marinade of coffee and onions; a classic mix of red wine, leeks, salt and pepper; or a sweet, salty, spicy mix of soy sauce, brown sugar and Sichuan peppercorns.
“You want to marinate the meat from two to 24 hours using a marinade that has an acid in it with a food enzyme like an apricot,” Steel says. “After 24 hours, the acids and the enzymes in the marinade break down the meat too much and make the meat mushy.”
Simply combine the ingredients for the marinade in a deep pot or zip-top bag, submerge the meat, then refrigerate.
Once the ribs are marinated, discard the marinade or reserve for a sauce. If using as a sauce, be sure to boil for five minutes to kill off any bacteria from the raw meat.
Once the meat is marinated, there are two ways of thinking here.
The exterior of the meat can be browned on top of the stove, then slowly roasted with vegetables and a spice rub at about 250 degrees. Or it can be browned, then braised in liquid and seasonings at a bare simmer (about 250 to 300 degrees) until the meat is fork-tender.
“With the cooking liquid, the meat sucks in all that flavor,” says chef Paul Kahan of Chicago. “And if the liquid is well salted, the meat is in the end.”
The flavor combinations are only limited by the imagination. Onions, carrots and leaks with garlic salt, pepper and red wine is pretty classic. Soaked chickpeas, russet potatoes, Thai red curry paste, garlic, onion and beer lends a South Asian flavor.
Just be sure that any vegetables are large (2-inch chunks are ideal), or they will become mush by the time the meat is ready.
To do a simple braise, first brown the meat, then remove it from the pan and brown the vegetables. Deglaze the pan with liquid, then return everything to the pan. Fill about two-thirds with liquid and cover tightly with foil. Place in the oven and take a peak every 45 minutes, turning the meat and making sure the liquid is not boiling. When the meat has a little give with the prick of a knife, it is done.
Another bonus is that this can be done a day in advance; it only tastes better with time. Reheat the meat just before serving.
Stout-Braised Short Ribs
Recipe adapted from the March 2005 issue of Gourmet magazine. Ribs improve in flavor when braised, especially when done a day or so in advance. To do ahead, cook as directed, then cool the ribs completely, uncovered. Once cool, cover and refrigerate. To serve, reheat the ribs, covered, in a 350-degree oven for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Serve these short ribs with buttered egg noodles tossed with chopped fresh parsley, or mashed potatoes or rice.
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon paprika (not hot)
1 tablespoon curry powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
4 to 41/4 pounds beef short ribs, cut into 4-inch pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only), chopped
4 medium carrots, chopped
3 celery ribs, chopped
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup chopped garlic
2 cups beef broth
Two 12-ounce bottles stout, such as Guinness
Two 14-ounce cans diced tomatoes
In a small bowl, stir together the brown sugar, paprika, curry powder, cumin, pepper, salt and mustard.
Use paper towels to pat the ribs dry. Arrange them in a single layer in a shallow baking pan or a shallow baking dish, then generously coat all sides of ribs with spice mixture. Chill, uncovered, for 1 hour.
Place an oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
In a large Dutch oven over high heat, heat the oil until hot but not smoking. Add the ribs, working in batches if necessary, and quickly brown them on the three meaty sides (but not bone side), about one minute per side.
Transfer the meat to a large plate, then add the leeks, carrots, celery and bay leaves. Cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook for about 1 minute.
Add the broth, beer and tomatoes with their juice, then add the ribs and any juices accumulated on the plate. Bring to a boil, uncovered. Cover the pot tightly with foil, then the lid. Place in the oven and braise until the meat is very tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. A paring knife inserted into the meat should have little resistance.
Skim off excess fat from the surface of sauce. Discard the bay leaves before serving.
Yield: 6 servings