Here’s a question for you: what do Geert Wilders, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Straw Dogs and beef short ribs all have in common?
Any ideas? Yes, you at the back? Correct answer! They have all, at some point, been banned from Britain by the government.
Thanks to the BSE crisis – a result of abhorrent farming practices – for two years between 1997 and 1999, it was illegal to buy or sell beef on the bone.
Steaks were fine, burgers likewise, topside and rump all legal but a request for forerib or shin of beef would be met with sirens, a lock down and a near instantaneous crack SWAT team swooping in to make arrests.
Even after the ban was lifted, getting hold of beef short ribs was harder than quoting Darwin to a Jehovah’s Witness without being interrupted. As a result this dish has probably been on my ‘Must Cook’ list for longer than any other.
Short ribs have never managed to segue their way into the British collective culinary consciousness in the same way they have in France or the States. Ask for short ribs here and you are likely to walk away with pork rather than beef.
But that seems to be changing. Finally. Whilst it might still necessitate a special request to the butcher, you will likely to be able to source them rather leave empty handed. And this, I can now affirm, is a good thing. A great and wonderful thing.
Why? Because this is quite possibly the tastiest cut of beef imaginable, not to mention being one of the cheapest. For the price of a small piece of fillet, you could buy enough beef to feed at least eight. An entire slab of short ribs will set you back about 15 quid and that will feed a small platoon.
After some lengthy discussion (‘no, not rib of beef. No, not pork spare ribs.’ Et cetera et cetera) I finally managed to secure a good sized chunk with no clue as to what to do with it.
It was one of those trips to the butcher when I just went a little crazy and named all the pieces of meat I could think of that I’d never tried but always wanted to: Marrow bone, pork hand, lamb breast. They just kept coming. I’d only gone in for half a pound of mince.
But there it was. The biggest piece of beef I’d ever seen and no idea how to cook it. who to turn to in moments like this? Hugh? Gordon? Nigel? No. This was clearly a Keller moment.
For a cookbook that is notoriously complicated, there are moments of sublime simplicity in Keller’s The French Laundry book. His Parmesan Baskets with Goats’ Cheese Mousse is an exercise in near effortless minimalism. And a tasty one at that.
And so it is with his braised beef short ribs. The beauty of slow cooking is that you can let the ingredients – and the oven – work for you. People tend to avoid slow cooking because they see numbers like ‘4’ and ‘5’ followed by the word ‘hours’. In an era where we are time short, this seems like an extravagance.
But with slow-cooking the actual hands on time is close to zero. Some peeling, some chopping, some browning and then that’s it. You’re free to go.
And when the final result is so extraordinarily tasty it almost feels like cheating.
After separating the ribs along the natural lines they were seasoned liberally with salt and pepper, lightly dusted with flour and browned in a little vegetable oil closely followed by a crude mirepoix of leeks, carrots and red onion.
The whole lot went into the biggest pot I could find and was covered with red wine (choose a butch one, something with balls like a new world Shiraz or Cab Sauv), and half chicken and half beef stock (homemade beef, chicken from a cube).
Instead of a lid, Keller recommends a cartouche with a whole cut into the middle so that’s exactly what I did - a circle of greaseproof paper placed over the top of the bubbling mass which then went into a cool oven (125 degrees C) for four hours.
After twiddling my thumbs, doing a crossword, getting impatient and finally falling asleep, it was ready. Sort of. This being Keller there was still a fair amount to do. I’ll admit now I didn’t follow him to the letter. I went a little off road from here on in but it was getting late and I wasn’t trying to retain my Michelin Stars.
The meat was removed from it’s tasty bath and left to cool while the cooking liquid was drained and reduced by about three-quarters. While this was all going on I diced up some carrot, parsnip and swede and cooked them off in salted water.
‘Looks like school dinner vegetables,’ said the Girlfriend. I bet Thomas Keller doesn’t have to put up with those sort of comments. But she was sort of right.
The meat was cut into cubes fried off in a smidgen of butter and then added to the reduced sauce along with the veggies.
Anything rich, saucy and meaty, for me, shouts out for mashed potatoes (or pommes puree seen as we are going all haute cuisine) so we knocked up a swift batch of lazy-mash (put potato in microwave. Cook. Mash with butter, milk and seasoning) and then sautéed some spring greens.
The dish was topped off with a small disc of bone marrow, fried after being rolled in seasoned flour and then, finally, it was time to eat. And it was well worth the wait.
This is food so tasty that it makes you want to sing from high on the rooftops. It was revelationary in the finest and truest sense and all I can now do is urge, plead and beg you to go out immediately, find and cook some beef short ribs and then go forth and spread the word.
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