Monday, December 30, 2013

A Holiday Menu for my Family

Unless you happened to have read the post I wrote a few years ago about my first experience of ratatouille (the dish...not the movie), it would probably come as a surprise to regular visitors that I grew up in a "meat and potatoes" family.  Now, as is obvious from a quick glance at my recipes page, vegetables are among my favorite things to cook and eat.  Most of my family, on the other hand,  is still solidly in the meat and potatoes camp.  So on those occasions during the holidays when it falls to me to prepare a meal for a family gathering, I like to try to choose a menu that straddles all of our food worlds.  The ideal menu is something that is solidly in the meat and potatoes-style favored by my brothers, and at the same time includes foods that I love, prepared in a way that appeals to me, and hopefully presented in such a way that almost everyone at the table will enjoy almost all of the food.  I served a menu like this yesterday to a gathering of a small part of my family...and it seemed to be a success all around.  Everyone loved it...and since most of it could be prepared ahead, I was able to truly enjoy being with my family.

When I was considering what to prepare for dinner last night, it occurred to me that I had never prepared beef short ribs for my family.  I'm not sure why...anyone who loves pot roast (and this includes everyone in my family) will really love short ribs. Like the chuck roast and the brisket (the two most commonly "pot roasted" cuts of beef), short ribs are a tough, sinewy, fatty cut that require a long, slow, moist cooking procedure to turn them into something tender and edible.  For our dinner last night, I just made a simple and standard red wine braise.  It is quite similar to a recipe by Tom Colicchio that appeared in Food & Wine a few years ago.  I only made a few adjustments that had more to do with availability and timing than anything else.

Colicchio's recipe calls for cross-cut or "flanken-style" short ribs.  Traditionally short ribs are portioned for sale by cutting in between the ribs.  This produces a rectangular block of meat attached along the length of a wide, flat bone that is about four inches in length.  This is sometimes called "English style".  The cut that Colicchio's recipe calls for is made by cutting the rib section into slices perpendicular to the bones—producing a longer, more elegant-looking rectangular piece of meat with three or four 1- to 1 1/2-inch ribs arranged like the rungs of a ladder along one side of the meat.  In my experience, this style is preferred by most chefs because it makes a nicer presentation on the plate.  Also, there is a more even distribution of meat and fat along each portion.  The English-style short ribs vary widely...some ribs are quite meaty and others seem to be mostly fat.  (When you purchase short ribs—no matter what style, look for meaty ribs.  When you get them home, trim away as much fat as you can without sacrificing the meat.) 

Short ribs cut in the traditional way..."English Style"

I prefer the flanken-style cut, too.  Unfortunately what was available to me when I made my trip to the store on Saturday was the English-style.  But since they were beautifully meaty, and already well-trimmed, they worked just fine in the recipe.  After braising, I prepared the  ribs for serving by removing the rib bones (the bone will practically fall out anyway if you have braised them properly) along with the rubbery, connective-tissue "sleeve" that attaches the bone to the meat.  Both the bone and the connective tissue can then be discarded (since they will have already given up their flavor and gelatin to the braise).  You may then serve the large chunks of meat as individual portions, or do as I do and using two forks, gently break each chunk in half (giving an admittedly rustic look...which is just fine with me) to accommodate the variety of appetites present at a family table.  The bones and connective tissue of the flanken-style may be removed in the same manner, but occasionally chefs will leave the bones in and serve the portion on its side with the cut, cross-sections of the bones facing up.

I have already written a long post on the how's and why's of the braise (and if you are new to braising, it would be a good thing to read before you prepare your short ribs), but I wanted to re-emphasize one point here.  That is that the braising time of a particular cut is not always predictable.  Typically something like a short rib will take two to two and a half hours after the liquid has been added to reach the desired state of melting tenderness.  But you can't always count on this.  My recent batch of short ribs had to cook for four hours before they were tender.  Since I prepared them on Saturday to be served on Sunday, this didn't cause me any distress.  I was surprised that they weren't tender at the three hour mark, but I just kept cooking them until they were tender.  If I had prepared them the day that I wanted to serve them, this would have caused me a huge amount of hour is not a small chunk of time when you're planning the timing of a meal. 

Besides the unpredictable timing involved in preparing a braise, there are other reasons to prepare them a day ahead.  First and foremost, everything about a braise improves when it is allowed to sit overnight.  The meat will absorb even more flavor and will become even more tender as it rests in its braising liquid.  Also, when allowed to cool overnight, any fat that you were unable to skim off while the braise was still warm will have solidified and can be simply lifted away and discarded. 

Finally, preparing the braise ahead makes for the easiest entertaining imaginable—all you have to do is gently reheat (in a low oven or over a low burner) and serve.

To accompany my short ribs I served a couple of sides that I have already posted here on my site: carrots, cooked my favorite way—roasted, with a bit of honey—and celery root mashed potatoes.  I have never served celery root to my family before, but tucking some into mashed potatoes is a great way to introduce people to it.  Happily, it seemed to be quite well-received.  Both of these side dishes can be made a bit ahead so you aren't stuck in the kitchen when your guests arrive.  The celery root purée can be made earlier in the day (or even the day before), reheated and folded into the hot, riced potatoes...and the finished celery root mashed potatoes themselves can be held for an hour or so in a covered bowl sitting over a pan of barely simmering water.  As for the carrots, peel and cut them ahead.  Then toss them with the oil and seasonings and roast them an hour before you are ready to serve.

To finish out our menu I prepared a variation on a dessert I have been making for years.  Chocolate Truffle Squares with Candied Orange Peel is one of my favorite holiday desserts.  My family loves the combination of chocolate and orange, but unfortunately my holiday supply of homemade candied peel had almost disappeared (having gone into a batch of white chocolate, dried cranberry and orange scones for Christmas breakfast) by the time this dinner rolled around.  I have always felt that this dessert could be flavored in any way you much the same way that truffles themselves can be flavored.  So I decided to make a raspberry version using Chocolove's Raspberries in Dark Chocolate bar.  

It was delicious!  You could of course cut the finished dessert into small bars for a buffet-style, finger food-type dessert, 

but for our dinner I opted to cut the dessert into wedges and serve with raspberry sauce, fresh raspberries and whipped cream.  

I'm pretty sure I will be making this one again.          

As I write this post, I realize that it comes a bit late for the holiday entertaining needs of most.  Fortunately though, it is a menu that will work well anytime during the cold winter months to come (and there is of course always next year).  If you make it, I hope you and your family will enjoy it as much as we did.    

Red Wine Braised Short Ribs

Olive oil
6 short ribs with bones (about 4 pounds); see Note
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large or 2 medium onions (about 12 oz.), halved and thinly sliced
2 carrots (5 or 6 oz.), topped & tailed, peeled and sliced
1 large celery rib, trimmed and sliced
4 to 5 garlic cloves, peeled and thickly sliced
1 T. double concentrate tomato paste
1/4 c. brandy (optional)
One 750-milliliter bottle dry red wine
3 or 4 well-branched thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 T. butter (optional)
1 T. flour (optional)

In a large, deep sided skillet or braiser, heat some oil until shimmering. Season the ribs well with salt and pepper. Add them to the skillet and cook over moderate heat, turning as necessary, until they are well browned all over...20 minutes or so. Transfer the ribs to a plate. 

Pour off all but about a tablespoon of fat from the pan and add the onion, carrots, celery and garlic.  Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until they are beginning to soften and are lightly colored—10 to 15 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring to distribute it evenly—for a minute or two.  Add the brandy, if using.  Reduce to a glaze.  Add the wine and thyme sprigs and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce by a third to a half.  Return the meat to the pan and add water (or chicken stock if you prefer) until the liquid comes about 3/4 of the way up the sides of the meat.  

Bring to a simmer, cover and transfer to a preheated 325° oven. 

Cook, checking occasionally to make sure the liquid is at a bare simmer.  If it is boiling hard, reduce the oven temperature as necessary.  When the meat is beginning to be tender—after about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, uncover the braise and turn the meat over.  Continue to cook, turning the meat every half hour or so and adding hot water to maintain liquid to about a depth of half way up the sides of the meat, until the meat is meltingly tender—a fork or a paring knife inserted into the meat will not encounter resistance or "grab".  The total braising time will be anywhere from two to four hours. 

Transfer the meat to a clean shallow baking dish, discarding the bones as they fall off. Strain the sauce into a heatproof measuring cup (pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible) and skim off as much fat as possible (it is not unusual to skim off as much as  a cup of fat).  You will have about 11/2 to 2 cups of skimmed sauce.  Pour the sauce over the meat.  Cool. Cover and chill overnight.

The day you are planning to serve, pull the meat out of the refrigerator a couple of hours before serving.  Scrape off and discard any solidified fat that is apparent on the surface.  Transfer the meat and sauce to a deep-sided sauté pan and warm gently (covered) over low heat.  When the meat and liquid are hot, remove the meat from the pan.  If the sauce is not as thick as you would like, you may reduce it.  Reducing it will concentrate the flavor too, so if you are pleased with the flavor and it is too thin, prepare some kneaded butter or a roux with the flour and butter.  Whisk the roux/kneaded butter into the simmering sauce a bit (half teaspoon or so) at a time until the sauce is lightly thickened.  Gently pull away any remaining connective tissue from the area where the bone was attached to the meat and discard.  Using two forks, break the meat into the size portions that you prefer—or leave whole.  Return the meat to the sauce and keep warm over the lowest heat until ready to serve.  If you prefer, the meat and sauce may be reheated in the oven instead of on the stove top. 

To serve, transfer the meat to individual plates or a deep serving platter, spoon the sauce on top and serve.

Serves 6 to 8.

*  You may use English-style or Flanken-style short ribs...just make sure that you choose meaty ribs that are well-trimmed of excess fat. 
*   To prepare kneaded butter, simply combine the tablespoon of flour and a tablespoon of softened butter to form a uniform paste.  I prefer to prepare a roux because it allows you to cook off the raw taste of the flour.  Simply melt the butter in a very small saucepan or sauté pan.  When the butter foams, whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly until the mixture is a very pale cream color and is bubbling all over—about a minute.

(Recipe adapted from Food & Wine July 2008)

Chocolate & Raspberry Truffle Tart (or Squares)

Graham Cracker Crust:
5 oz. graham crackers, finely ground (to make 1 1/3 cups crumbs)
3 T. granulated sugar
5 T. unsalted butter, melted

Line a 9- by 9-inch baking pan with foil, leaving an overhang.  Butter or spray the foil.  Combine the crust ingredients until homogenous and press into the pan in a compact even layer. Bake in a pre-heated 350° oven until just beginning to brown—10 to 12 minutes.  Cool.

2 large egg yolks
1 1/3 c. heavy cream
2 88 gram Chocolove "Raspberries in Dark Chocolate" bars, finely chopped  (see note)
4 oz. fine-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (no more than 60%),  finely chopped (see note)

Lightly beat yolks in a small bowl.  Bring cream to a simmer in a 2-quart heavy, saucepan and remove from heat.  Add about one third of hot cream to yolks in a slow stream, whisking constantly, then pour yolk mixture into remaining cream, whisking.

Cook custard over moderately low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or heat-proof rubber spatula, until it is thick enough to coat back of spoon and registers 170°F on thermometer, 1 to 2 minutes (do not let boil).  Remove from heat and add chopped chocolate, whisking until smooth. 

Pour filling evenly over crust and chill, uncovered, until firm, at least 2 hours.  Lift out of the pan using the foil, trim the edges.

To cut into 16 "triangles" cut the square in half.  Then cut each half cross-wise into four rectangles.  Cut each rectangle on the diagonal.  Serve with raspberry sauce (purée and strain fresh or thawed, frozen raspberries, adding sugar and lemon juice to taste), softly whipped cream and fresh raspberries.

Or, cut into 24 small rectangles:  Cut the square into four strips one direction. Then cut each strip cross-wise into six.  Garnish each square with a small rosette of whipped cream and a fresh raspberry. 

Serve chilled or at cool room temperature. 

Note:  You may use any combination of the chocolate raspberry bar and semi-sweet/bittersweet chocolate as long as your total amount of chocolate is 300 grams or 10 1/2 oz.


Anonymous said...

At the beginning of 2013, I decided to prepare every recipe you posted during the year. While I still have a few to go, I wanted to say how much I've enjoyed the process and what a tour it has been! The year has led me to new ingredients, new combinations of familiar foods, a little new equipment, and some new standby recipes. Thank you for all the effort you put into your posts, and for the passion you bring to your work. With kindest regards, Rachel

Paige said...

Thank you Rachel. When you first let me know you were doing this I was amazed and humbled...still am. Thank you for letting me know how it went, thank you for your kind words...and thank you for trusting me enough to even embark on the journey. Happy New Year!