Thursday, February 9, 2012

Aged Short Ribs with Fennel on Saffron Potato Puree

Short ribs are delicious. They are on the working part of the animal so the muscles get a lot of use and are constantly being stressed and recovering, which means there is a lot of biological activity, and that creates strong flavors. Rule of thumb, the more biological activity, the more complex the flavors. Ripe fruit is more tasty than immature fruit. Bread is tastier than flour. Cheese, yogurt and creme fraiche are all tastier than milk. Cheese with veins of blue is tastier yet. Wine is tastier than grape juice, vinegar is tastier than wine. The same holds for meat. Loin muscle hardly does anything, so it has the least flavor. Rump, shoulder and shank are working most of the time so they are tastier. Short ribs are the muscles that control the body cavity, keeping the animal's body in line and contracting for things like taking a dump and ruminating. Inside the body cavity, skirt steak and hanger steak muscles do the most work, contracting the diaphragm all day so the animal can breathe, so they are more tasty yet. Same goes for the heart. Super tasty. Deeper in the animal are the guts, each of which has a specific biological function and hence specific flavor. In short, for flavor, go to where things happen.

Short ribs also have some marbling of fat, and the connective tissue web that holds the ribcage together has a lot of collagen and other structural molecules that break down when braised and add the unctuous richness specific to braised beef. Why doesn't spellcheck recognize "ribcage?" Holy shit, just checked with Scrabble and it won't allow RIBCAGE either. I'll bet a hundred bucks I've played RIBCAGE as a bingo word at one point or another. I guess it's "rib cage," or "rib-cage" like a goddamn Englishman. Rib-cage. Pfft. At least Scrabble recognizes "PFFT."

Short ribs are also cooked on their bones, so the bone and marrow enrich the cooking liquid, making the sauce and braised vegetables more delicious, and serving short ribs without them as compliment would be unthinkable.

I started work on these ribs immediately after buying them, about a week before cooking. I rubbed them all over with a modified Midyett rub (espresso, sumac, salt and sichuan pepper) and let them rest in the refrigerator to encourage a little more of that biological activity I've been crowing about. The secondary biology of beef in repose could be described as decay, but that sounds so indelicate I prefer the more culinary term "age." I let the short ribs age for a week. Sounds better than "I let them rot for a week."

When the ribs were old and weird looking, indicating sufficient decay age, I trimmed their more rotten aged extremities and prepared to cook them in the dutch oven by rendering some thick bacon planks in a little olive oil. I seared all sides of the short ribs in the olive oil and bacon fat, then removed them and added the vegetables, fennel wedges, carrot and onion, salting them so they'd give up their liquid a little and start to caramelize. When they had a little color, I nestled the short ribs in among the vegetables and glugged about a half bottle of red wine in there. As noted previously I know nothing about wine, but this was an Italian variety from California with an understated label, so it got the nod. I never buy wines with irreverent names like Peace Feet,  Fish Guts or Shitty Wine, for no other reason than I hate things being made cute and I want these wineries to fail. I know, they'll fail anyway, but my point is I hate them. I would rather have one of Spiegel's celebrity wines. Call me a small man, but I prefer bad to stupid, and would rather suffer the indignity of cooking with wine made by Drew Bledsoe or the dude from Tool than something called Zin Your Face.

After the pot came up to a boil, I turned it down to a wee simmer and let it go for a couple of hours. Maybe three. When I looked at them next the ribs were beautiful, blackened by the searing and Maillard reaction and falling apart from the slow braise. The carrot and onion were at the stage of near-collapse I find perfect for sauce, while the fennel had a nice gentle consistency that retained some texture. What a great vegetable fennel is. I wonder if there are some assholes out there who don't like fennel.

Continuing my recent minor (extreme) saffron indulgence, I decided to puree some saffron-infused potatoes to serve under the meat. I boiled the potatoes as described one post below but didn't shock them. Instead I quickly made a stiff puree with the hand mixer, enriching them with some greek yogurt. This makes the potatoes quite firm, almost gluey, which would be bad for a lot of uses, but under a substantial and stinky piece of meat like this, the starchiness gives the puree enough body not to seem trivial. I could have used polenta or a risotto instead, but potato puree was the first thing to come to mind.

I plated the potato, then sorted the ribs out, spooned some of the fennel and sauce on the dish and scattered chopped chives over it. The bright color of the saffron potato and chives kept the plate from looking too stodgy, which is a real problem with braised meats. I made more than we could eat, which is fine, because that gives me stuff to make food out of later. After removing the remaining meat from the dutch oven for future ravioli or spring rolls, I whizzed the vegetables and jus into a puddle, which I intend to use as a pasta sauce.

If there are fennel-haters out there, they and the brussels sprouts guys should start an asshole club. Call it England. Or the aged rotten asshole haters of the delicious club.