Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dinner on the Cheap

     I've been reading Bill Buford's excellent book Heat: an amateur's adventures as a kitchen slave, line cook, pasta maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany (which is an terrific read--I doubt you can get through it without reading choice passages aloud!) in which he describes braising at it's most basic. So today, while in a local grocery store, while thinking about Buford and Anthony Bordain, I picked up a tray of the cheapest meat I could find. Described on the package as "pork bones for stewing," I could see that there was actually a fair bit of meat on the bone, and that this would give me a chance to pursue braising as described by Buford.
     Talking about braising short ribs at Mario Batali's three star restaurant in New York, Buford writes:
After the browning, the rest is straightforward. [...] There are five remaining steps.
One. remove the now brown and glistening ribs (using tongs, por favor) from the rondo and make a braising liquid, the stuff that's going to cover the ribs while they cook. In this method, the liquid is the essential ingredient, and it doesn't matter what it is as long as it's wet and plentiful (in an Irish pot roast, it's water), although the ideal liquid is both flavoring and flavorful and is made from one part wine (at Babbo, about three magnums' worth, which, as it happens, is not the Barolo of the dish's name but a perfectly acceptable, very cheap California Merlot) and one part meat broth (say, a chicken stock), plus loads of vegetables: some carrots, an onion, two stalks of celery, and five peeled cloves of garlic, all roughly chopped, which you throw back into the rondo, still hot, and stir. You add the wine, the broth, a can of tomatoes, and cook for a few minutes.
Two. Put the now-browned ribs in a roasting pan, pour the braising liquid over them, add some rosemary and thyme, put a lid on top, stick it in the oven (350 degrees), and forget about it.
Three. (Three hours later, the ribs now cooked.) Turn the braising liquid into a sauce, although the instruction itself raises an obvious question: what is a sauce? In this preparation, for instance, this is what you do: first you remove the ribs and set them aside to cool; then you pour the liquid they were cooked in through a strainer into another pot. This liquid, even before you'd begun cooking the ribs in it, had been pretty rich, being a broth that had been made from chicken feet, plus lots of vegetables, herbs, and plenty of wine. Then the ribs themselves had been cooked in it. (The bones of any animal, simmered slowly, make for a wet, intense expression of the meat; here you're getting a double expression, like a broth made from a broth.) Next, you take this dense, aromatic, already highly extracted liquid and hammer it: you put it back on a burner and boil it to hell. Just torch it. Full blast. Lots of yellow-frothy melted fat will rise disgustingly to the surface. You skim this off and keep boiling the thing until it's reduced by more than half, when, lo and behold, it is no longer a braising liquid or a broth: it's a sauce. The result is very, very, very concentrated. (In fact, it's really almost French.)
Four. Once the ribs are cool, you discover that the bones have loosened themselves from the meat and come right out. You also discover that what's left is really quite ugly. It consists of two parts: a muscly tendon of some kind (the texture is non unlike a baseball catcher's mitt) that is smooshed, by way of a fatty sinew, to the meat. The two parts can be pulled apart by hand. The bit that looks like a catcher's mitt is, in addition to being very ugly, entirely inedible. With great pleasure, you throw this away. The other bit is quite yummy, although you need to trim it into a rectangle, eliminating any fatty goo. But, curiously, mixed in with your good short ribs are a number of mutants. In these, for some reason, there is no distinction between the two parts, the bad and good bits (that is, catcher's mitt and dinner). They're all mushed together, and you can't pull them apart without tearing the thing to shreds, which is what you do: tear the thing to shreds to find something, anything really, that Cesar can use to make the family meal with.
Five. Assembly. Your meat is now arranged like so many dead toy soldiers, neatly tidied up. The sauce has been skimmed of fat and reduced to something that could be described as the food equivalent of most male movie stars: dark, rich, and thick. Everything is ready, Next you want to put it away in a fashion that allows you to retrieve it quickly, blast it in an oven, and serve: say, six short ribs in a half-hotel pan (which isn't a pan, either, but a tray, and is half the size of the full hotel not-actually-a-pan-but-a-tray pan, or in normal life what you cook brownies in), pour some sauce on top to keep the meat moist, and bundle the whole thing up first with plastic wrap, then with foil, tightly, tightly, so that, once stacked on the floor of the walk-in, it can be stepped on (and in the frantic rush of service, things happen--they always happen) without short-rib juice squirting out and adhering to the bottom of your shoes, leaving a disgraceful track to the toilet when you finally get a chance to go. What you now have is a wholly typical restaurant preparation, in which most of the work is done long before the dish is even ordered (and if a restaurant can do it, why can't you?). It keeps for a week.
These steps--brown meat, make a liquid, cook meat in it, remove it, and reduce the liquid until it's a sauce--are the same for every braised dish everywhere. Lamb shanks are done this way; so, too, are lamb shoulders, veal shanks, wild boar hams, venison shoulders: it's all the same.

pp. 74-75

Now, I didn't use a "a perfectly acceptable, very cheap California Merlot". Instead I used a mediocre Marquis Philips 2007 Shiraz. My meat broth was a duck stock I pulled from the freezer. And, dealing with what I had on hand, I didn't add any celery, garlic, or tomatoes. But I did throw in some dried sage and a couple of bay leaves (though no rosemary or thyme). I browned the pieces in olive oil and dumped the lot into a large non-stick roaster, mixed up the braising liquid and poured it over the works. Covered with tinfoil, it went into the oven for the required three hours.
A bit later (okay, after the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Superstar") I thin-sliced some potatoes into a buttered baking dish and made a white sauce (butter and rice flour for the roux, buttermilk (~1c --the last I had after making pumpkin soup) some salt and pepper, and ~2c of milk, all heated to boiling to thicken) and poured it over the potatoes. Into the oven for a while with that.

 The meat after braising

     When the meat was done, I pulled it out, transferred the meat to a plate to cool, and boiled down the remains a la Buford into a sauce. And he's right--the sauce that comes out is insanely rich--a broth from a broth then reduced to intensify. Wow, so strong! I separated the meat off the bones

 Meat on the left, bones on the right

and started the bones boiling to see if I can recover a small stock out of them, and fed the tendons to the dogs (who have re-affirmed their love for me quite adequately).
I grated some cheese over the potatoes and put them back in the oven to finish, put both the meat and sauce back in the oven to stay warm, and quickly wrote this up. Now....

 A completely un-styled  photo of dinner

     Gotta say, the reduced braising liquid used as a sauce added a kick to the meat. The pork was tender and tasty, and the potatoes were great. The meat was priced at $2.19/kilo and delivered a little under a half kilo of pork, and with the braising, delivered an excellent dinner. I could have served four meals out of what I've cooked, making this a pretty good deal. A few cloves of garlic would have improved things, but then, garlic always improves things. The buttermilk was nice, but unnecessary (especially if I had garlic on hand). All in all, I was quite pleased with Buford's technique for the use of the braising liquid.

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