Cooking for a crowd can be intimidating even for experienced cooks. With the endeavor comes responsibility, and it can sometimes beget marvelous expense. High expense is the consequence if the host chooses to feature expensive ingredients, such as fish or prime cuts of steak.
The first and most important rule of cuisine is to begin with the best ingredients one can afford. This regulation comes with no obligation to purchase rib-eyes or expensive fish. While the quality of ingredients is paramount in any meal, the techniques used to transform them are equally as important.
For example: braising.
Lest those at the dinner table become herbivorous, the most prominent piece of a meal is protein — the flesh and muscles of Bambi, Nemo and Babe.
While the prime cuts of protein — steaks, racks and chops — may seem the most obvious choice to impress guests, friends, acquaintances and potential mates, those nursing dependence on New York strips and pork chops are casting aside the true glory of meat cookery.
Lying underutilized in refrigerated supermarket shelves beside the rib-eyes and common cuts of beef and pork are rumps, shanks, ribs and briskets. They are sold cheaply to those who know cuisine’s regenerative secret of braising.
The technique involves first browning the meat to create a tasty crust and letting it simmer untouched in flavorful liquid like stock, wine or court bullion. While simmering, the meat is alongside mirepoix — a mixture of browned carrot, celery and onion — for several hours until it is fork tender. The characteristics of meat and its braising medium mingle over time, evolving as lovers do and sharing subtle traits and aromas. What results: a meal that transcends further than the sum of its elements.
A braise is gastronomic alchemy — the use of slow, moist heat. The technique is showcased in pot roasts and stews. It brings inexpensive cuts of meat to a peak of flavor never reached by steak, no matter its quality.
A smoky rest over hot coals may give meats new life, but to braise gives them new soul. The process gently penetrates stubborn fibers of tough cuts of meat and softens connective tissue, which is made of collagen. Collagen is the protein which lends strength to muscle tissues (and ridiculous lip sizes of Los Angeles housewives). They are made of three separate protein chains wound closely together like a sailor’s rope, making the strands resilient enough to withstand the tension of muscular contraction.
After hours of simmering, the stubborn collagen transforms. The steady heat causes the rope-like protein chains to unravel and dissolve in the liquid. Meat fibers once held tightly together by rubbery collagen melt from bones in unctuous shreds.
The finished braising liquid should not be discarded. The meat’s cooking medium thickens with gelatin, creating the base for a luscious, meaty sauce. After being skimmed of fat and impurities, it must be simmered until reduced to a sauce consistency. While you may be tempted to consume your creation as soon as it is pulled — steaming and perfectly cooked from hours of simmering — the temptation is best resisted. As there can be no love without a partner, a braise must be served with sauce to reach its potential. Without sauce, the meat will have depth, but lack richness. Without meat, the sauce is too vivacious to be palatable.
Braising requires time and heart, just like a meaningful conversation at the dinner table. At its pinnacle, a dish of braised short ribs can be the truest expression of love. Laborious and time-consuming, its preparation requires hours of sacrifice. The house in which lamb shanks are braised fills up with the seductive aroma of transformation as air lingers with savory perfume of wine, herbs, meat, stock and aromatics marrying in harmony. The smell alone has power enough to soften icy hearts and make diners swoon.
A braised meat abounds with comfort. Its richness and aroma can lift spirits. The hearty meat and luscious sauce are heavy enough to warm freezing guests on frigid evenings. A stomach full of braised meat is more than satiating. It is fulfilling. A final warning to ambitious cooks: should the braising method turn out well, the dinner may feel complete.
In bustling kitchens, chefs want to create meals with more than their hands. To taste a cook’s braise offers diners a glimpse of his heart.
But a braise requires little expertise. To make one well is simply a matter of care.
Braised Short Ribs
Adapted from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook
Red Wine Marinade
One 750-ml bottle of red wine
½ cup carrots cut into 1-inch dice
2/3 cup leeks, cut into 1-inch dice (use only white and pale green parts)
½ cup onions, cut into 1-inch dice
3 cloves garlic, smashed
10 sprigs italian parsley
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
3 ½ pounds boneless beef short ribs or 8 pieces bone-in short ribs
Salt and Pepper
Flour for dusting
2 to 3 cups chicken stock
2 to 3 cups veal or beef stock
1. Assemble the marinade. Place all vegetables, aromatics and herbs into a large pot with the wine and bring to a gentle simmer. Ignite the wine with a long kitchen lighter or match to rid the marinade of excess alcohol. Let cool and pour over short ribs to marinate from 8 to 24 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 275°F
3. Remove the short ribs from their marinade and strain the vegetables from the liquid. Set aside Season the ribs with salt and pepper and dredge in flour, platting them lightly to rid them of excess.
4. Sear the ribs in oil within a large saute pan over high heat until richly browned on all sides. Remove the ribs to a heavy ovenproof pot or casserole large enough to hold the meat in one layer and caramelize the vegetables over medium heat.
5. Spread the browned vegetables over the meat and add the marinade and 2 cups of each chicken and beef stock. The meat should be covered with liquid. If not, add more.
6. Bring the liquid to a simmer atop the stove and cover with a a lid or aluminum foil. Wish the ribs goodnight and transfer to the oven and let them braise for 5 to 6 hours for boneless short ribs and 3 to 4 hours for bone-in ribs until the meat is meltingly tender and falls apart when probed with a fork.
7. Let the meat cool to room temperature in its liquid and remove it from the pot. Discard the vegetables. Once covered and refrigerated, the meat can be stored for up to 2 days.
8. Skim the layer of fat atop the braising liquid and strain. Reserve a third of the braising liquid for reheating the ribs before serving. Transfer the rest to a saucepan and reduce to a sauce consistency, about 2 cups.
9. To finish, pour the reserved braising liquid over the ribs in a pot or straight-sided saute pan and heat it gently until the ribs are warmed through.
10. Serve the ribs over mashed potatoes or root vegetables, spooning sauce over the meat so that it coats the ribs and drips to the vegetables below.
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