I see no reason why "Dark Days" meals should not tilt toward the sublime. Truth be told, we are entering The Slow Cook's favorite time of year, when slow cooking yields great depths of flavor and big heavy pots left to their own devices perform transformative magic with the simplest ingredients.
Brother-in-law Tom, the oenophile, had laid down a challenge: make a meal with big, succulent flavors and he would bring some wines to match. Immediately I flashed on the recipe for braised beef short ribs from Second Helpings, the follow-up to The Union Square Cafe cookbook.
The short ribs are first marinated overnight with aromatic vegetables, thyme and a whole head of garlic, all drenched with two bottles of red wine (I used a Merlot). The following day, remove the spare ribs, pat dry with paper towels, season with salt and pepper and brown in extra virgin olive oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven. Set the ribs aside. Drain the marinade and vegetables through a colander, then drop the vegetables into the pot, dust with w tablespoons all-purpose flour and brown for a few minutes. Add the ribs back to the pot, pour in the marinade (with vegetables), cover and place in a 250-degree oven for about 3 hours, or until the beef is fork-tender.
Now remove the beef and set aside. Strain the liquid, discarding the vegetables. Return the liquid to the pot, skimming away any fat, and reduce over high heat by one half. Add 2 cups of veal stock (I use half beef broth and half chicken stock) and reduce the liquid to about 2 cups. Add a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce and a teaspoon of garam marsala. Return the ribs to the liquid and simmer until the liquid has turned into a syrupy, shimmering sauce. Serve.
In a perfect world, you will be making these ribs a couple of days in advance. The flavors will only become more intense. And once the short ribs have been refrigerated it becomes an easy matter to remove the bones and trim the tough cartilage away from the tender meat. Then simply reheat them.
Anyone who eats these ribs is overtaken immediately by an urge to get horizontal. They are extremely rich.
Prior to the ribs, we served a butternut squash and apple soup that was posted about earlier. What was extraordinary about the soup this time was the wine Tom chose to drink with it: a lightly sweet, acidic German Reisling from the Mosel-Saar region--a perfect match.
With the entree came a sweet potato and Swiss chard mash. I grew the sweet potatoes at my "chef-in-residence" plot at the Washington Youth Garden. The chard came from our garden in the front yard, where it is in full form and eager to be culled. The second side was a curry-roasted cauliflower, the cauliflower gleaned from the Saturday farmer's market down the street.
Tom couldn't have struck closer to my heart than with the big Zinfandel he chose to go with the beef. I love the complex, fruity flavors of the Zinfandel playing with the deep richness and garam marsala twist of the beef.
And for dessert, my wife made one of her famous creme brulees, in this case a pumpkin creme brulee using eggs from the farmers market. Who could ask for a more glorious repast using local ingredients?
Here I have to put in a word for SmithMeadows Meats, the source of our beef short ribs. SmithMeadows is a family farm that's been in operation nearly 200 years in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, west of the District of Columbia. They raise beef, pork, sheep, goat and chickens on pasture and send the meat to a Menonite family near Hagerstown, MD, to be butchered. It's a small operation dedicated to quality--just the kind of people we want to support. And they'll be selling their wares all winter at a few select farmers markets in the area.
We can't wait for first frost...
Note: I use the Whole Foods house brand Merlot for the short ribs marinade. At $4.99 a bottle, it's a good value, not a great wine. You can certainly spend more on a wine you like better.