It’s funny the compromises we make in the kitchen. Especially when other diners are involved.
You’ll buy the cheap cocoa when you’re cooking for yourself but spring for the Valrhona when you make a birthday cake.
Or you’ll make creme angliase from scratch when company is coming but you’ll melt vanilla ice cream when it’s “only family.”
And don’t get me started about garnish. Or which tablecloth I use or whether said tablecloth will be ironed.
It’s fascinating to observe how many different ways the preparation and sharing of food echoes the nuances of your relationships, and how subtle distinctions and economies of effort play out. I thought about this this past Saturday when I had David and Laura over for dinner. It seemed like A good way to kick off the year, and a good way to start to emerge from the antisocial shell I’ve been hiding in for the last few months.
What was funny about the meal is that I’ve made this basically the same complete meal in three different ways -for myself (I had leftovers) as basically a date meal, and now, as a dinner party for good friends.
Why does this matter?
If I’m cooking for myself, all bets are off. I’ll skimp on ingredients (within reason, of course), rush the prep, chop veggies haphazardly and time the cooking imprecisely. If I’m cooking for myself I’m usually doing something that is within my culinary comfort zone, which means that the dish is either simple or forgiving. Either that or something I’ve mastered through sheer repetition.
But if I’m cooking for someone special there is nuance involved. And I don’t mean that in an “ooh – la la, I must impress her,” way. I mean, you cook in a way that maximizes taste while minimizing risk. OF COURSE you select a meal you’ve prepared many times before – you’re playing the percentages. Of COURSE the stew is cooked the night before. Disaster allows a restart. Of COURSE we buy the high quality ingredients and prep carefully. If I feel good about what I cook, things are much more convivial than if I’m nervous. Perpetually Nervous Jeff is not a pleasant creature.
But what I discovered this past weekend is that a preparation for a GROUP of people provides an intresting Third Path.
A dinner party provides a chance to prepare an outstanding meal while being able to step out of the comfort zone. The presence of additional guests diffuses some of the tension and lets me take more risks. Like this little guy.
I know, Celeriac. All of the more handsome veggies get all of the attention. But you’re really sweet, and it’s what’s inside that counts.
Anyway. Two Recipes. Both are more or less adapted from The Balthazaar Cookbook
Braised Short Ribs
5-7 lbs of beef short ribs, bone in. Usually this means three packages of the ones you see at any good grocery.
3 T vegetable oil
2 Carrots, peeled and diced
1 rib celery, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
2 shallots, diced
4 (at least) cloves of garlic, minced
3 T AP flour
3 T tomato paste.
4 C Strong red wine. Cabernet never dissapoints when I make this
1/2 C Ruby Port (optional)
6 Cups veal stock (I use the concentrate). Quality beef broth is fine, but don’t use bullion.
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
While the ingredients list should make the classic braise/stew preparation obvious, there are a few things that deserve some specific attention.
First, you will need to bind the ribs with kitchen twine, just enough so that the meat stays with the bone as much as possible. Not only will this make the presentation more dramatic, the larger mass will keep the ribs submerged through the cooking process.
Second, choose your oil carefully. You might be tempted to use olive oil or butter… Don’t. you will be searing the ribs in order to create a tasty exterior, and creating a roux from the fond. The fat that’s left in the pan should not be scorched, so use something with a higher smoke point.
Third, some general advice: Go slow. If there is any way that you can make this the evening before service, you really should. You can skimp on the browning time and the enthusiasm of your deglazing or how much you reduce the sauce, but this is one of those dishes where a little bit of extra effort really will pay off.
Anyway. This recipe almost writes itself:
Preheat the oven to 325
Bring your ribs to cool room temperature, tie each with about six inches of kitchen twine, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Open a window. Just, open a frikkin window. You’re searing beef.
Place your oil in the bottom of a large dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, said pot should have a tight-fitting lid. Turn the stove to mediumish.
When the oil is shimmering, sear the ribs, in batches, on the top and bottom. Pour off excess fat between searing batches so that only about 3T of fat remains in the pan.
Set the seared ribs aside under some aluminum foil.
Lower the heat to medium, and place the onion, shallot, garlic, celery and and carrot into the pot, stirring enthusiastically to clean any bits of goodness from the bottom of the pot.
When veggies are tender, stir in the tomato paste and cook for another couple of minutes.
Sprinkle in the flour, and stir into the veggie, tomato mass until no floury bits remain on the bottom of the pot and the mass starts to smell nutty.
Slowly add the wine, about a cup at a time. Bring to a boil, and reduce by about half. Mixture should be a little syrupy.
Add the ribs, in layers, along with the broth. Ribs should be covered by about an inch of liquid.
Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, place in the oven for three hours. Check the ribs every 45 minutes or so, make sure there is enough liquid and the little guys are staying underwater. Ribs will be done when you can twist the bone completely free from the meat.
If serving that day, remove the ribs from the liquid and set aside. Reduce the liquid by 2/3rds. This “gravy” will be strong and rich and your meat will be quite tender. To serve, add the port, bring to a simmer, warm the ribs in the gravy and serve when hot. This is your “company is coming” option.
Serve with pan roasted root vegetables and an improvised polenta. OMG Yum.
If serving the FOLLOWING day, which is the far superior “Date meal” option, let the pot cool and place it in the refrigerator. The next morning, you shold find a thick (1/4 inch or so) shell of solid fat resting on top of the ribs. Peel this away. You will want to use this fat as the basis for some amazing hash browns, but anyway.
NOW heat the mixture just enough to be able to pull the ribs away. Reduce the liquid until a thin gravy forms. THIS gravy will not only be rich and meaty, it will feel cleaner and lighter, and the meat, inexplicably, will be even more tender. Spoonable almost. Add the port to the gravy, cook off the alcohol, heat the ribs, serve. AWESOME.
Leftovers, btw, go really well with pasta. Or bread. or barley. or anything, really.
Creme Anglaise for People You Like (modified slightly from the Balthazaar Cookbook – I omitted the vanilla bean)
This desert custard is basically unfrozen ice cream. The proportions are very easy to memorize.
1 pint of whole milk or half and half.
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 t vanilla extract
Bring the milk to a simmer. Remove from heat.
Beat the egg yolks slightly. Then SLOWWWLY add the sugar, whisking until the mixture falls off the wisk in little ribbons.
Temper a egg/sugar mix by adding the warm milk to it, about 1/4 cup at a time until the mixture is warmed. Add back to the pot, and bring to a simmer.
The mixture will thicken all of a sudden, just before it starts to boil. Remove from the heat when thickened.
Serve over basically anything, esp strawberries or bananas. The poached pears here were fun, too.