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Red wine-braised short ribs

All Photos: Virginia Willis

Red Wine-Braised Short Ribs with Stone-Ground Herbed Grits

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5 easy-to-learn principles that will make you a braising master, no matter the ingredients

The South has certainly seen its share of snow and cold weather this winter. Blustery days are perfect for braised meats and hearty soups and stews, such as red wine-braised short ribs made with a mirepoix of onion, carrot and celery — a classic French dish and considered the uptown version of beef stew.

For this installment of Cooking with Virginia, I’m going to delve a bit more into the technique of cooking. Julia Child supposedly once said, “If you understand the technique, you don’t need a recipe.” Now, most of us aren’t going to be Julia Child in the kitchen, but the good news is that we're going to be tackling one of the easiest techniques to master — braising. All it takes is a little bit of time.

Braising is a kitchen miracle. With very little effort, you can produce sensational dishes — short ribs, pot roast, beef stew and more — and your family will think you are a genius! Braising harnesses the power of both dry and wet heat, with a high heat sear followed by gentle, slow cooking in a flavorful, aromatic broth. What's even better is that braising is the ultimate, stress-free make-ahead dish; refrigerating any braised dish overnight intensifies flavors and allows for easier defatting, if necessary. It's truly better the next day.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of my red wine-braised short ribs recipe, I want you to step back for just a bit and consider what the recipe actually is. Don't just look at it like a bunch of ingredients and steps, instead think of it as a series of principles: building flavor through seasoning and searing, adding vegetables and aromatics, deglazing, adding liquid and cooking, and, last but not least, finishing the sauce.
Salt + Searing = flavor
It should go without saying that salt is key to building flavor in all cooking. Especially when I'm cooking meat for a long period of time, such as in a braise, I like to take the time to dry brine the meat by generously seasoning the ribs with salt, placing them on a wire rack, and refrigerating for an hour or two before cooking. When salt is applied to raw meat, the juices inside the meat are drawn into the surface of the meat. The salt then dissolves in the exuded liquid, forming a brine that is then reabsorbed. It helps to season the meat deep below its surface, and it helps it to retain its own natural juices.

Next up, searing. Tons more flavor is developed in this step, and it happens in two ways. The first is the Maillard reaction — a chemical reaction that happens when proteins brown and develop a lip-smacking umami flavor. At the same time, while you're searing, little bits of protein and sugar turns into browned goodness in the bottom of the pot. In French cooking, this is known as fond, and it will help build even more flavor in the sauce. For best results in both searing and fond-development, you'll want to use a nice heavy-duty Dutch oven. Once your meat is good and browned, remove it from the pot for a moment while you get the aromatics ready to go.
Bolster your braise with vegetables and aromatics
This is the point where onions, carrots and celery are browned in the same pan. It’s also at this phase that we are going to add any thickeners, herbs and sauce enhancers, such as tomato paste, miso paste or dried mushrooms, for even more umami. (I like to use all three.) I suggest also adding a bouquet garni, which is a fancy way to call a bundle of herbs. Inside, I use a classic French mix of thyme, parsley, bay leaves and peppercorns; in this case, I've reserved the parsley leaves to use in my grits, and I've added just the parsley stems to the braise. I like to wrap my herbs in cheesecloth, but you could also tie them up with kitchen twine. This'll make it way easier to fetch the herbs out at the end of cooking. But, hey, if this is too much to deal with or too fussy for you, just pop in a bay leaf or a sprig or two of thyme and remove them before you purée the sauce.

Bring on the wine to deglaze
If you've watched a cooking show, you've likely heard the word "deglaze." It sounds complicated, but like a bouquet garni, deglazing is actually quite simple. All it means is to add some liquid to the pot, get it simmering, and let it help you scrape up all of that browned fond from the bottom of the pot. I like to use both red wine and vinegar for a pop of flavor that really makes a difference.
Braises cook best in the oven
The cooking part is long, but easy. Add the short ribs back to the pot, along with enough stock to almost cover the meat and veggies, but not quite. (Imagine someone is in a swimming pool and they are in water up their shoulders.) Most often braised dishes are moved from the stovetop to the oven because the oven creates a gentle cooking environment that surrounds on all sides with no hot spots. Just a bare simmer, at about 190 degrees, is the best temperature for braising. You’ll want to cook it until the meat is perfectly tender — if you can't stick a fork in and out of the meat with ease, it isn't done yet.

Finish with a perfect sauce
The last and final step to braising is the sauce or gravy — ‘cause you know it’s always about the gravy! When the beef is tender, you'll remove it and keep it warm while you perfect the sauce. Most recipes you'll see ask you to strain out the vegetables and use the resulting liquid as your gravy, but I like to puree them into the sauce instead. It not only makes for a more flavorful and better textured sauce, but it also results in one less pot to clean and is less wasteful. (Call it a win-win-win-win.)
Even with this trick, though, the gravy can wind up too thick or too thin. These varying results can be because of many different things, including the size of your pot or the amount of liquid in the meat. If the sauce is too thick, all you will need to do is add a bit of stock, wine or even water and stir to combine. If it’s too thin, return the pot to the stovetop and simmer over low heat to reduce the sauce until it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Pop the meat back in the pot once the gravy is the right consistency and that’s it!

These five braising principles can be applied to making my delicious and delectable short ribs recipe — or try them out on a lamb stew, pot roast or chicken fricassee. Whether uptown or down home, braising is your answer for stress-free good cooking.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
Virginia Willis


A note on short ribs
Short ribs were once simple country fare, but they have gained popularity because of their rich, succulent flavor. They are the meaty, marbled ends of the beef rib from the chuck, rib and brisket. Short ribs are available cut two ways: English, which is cut between the bones, so each piece consists of one rib, and flanken, which is cut across the bones, so each piece consists of several bones. For this recipe, you will want to use English-cut short ribs. Flanken is used for the traditional Jewish beef stew of the same name, as well as bulgogi, or Korean short ribs.


Braised Short Ribs with Mushrooms
Note: Since the meat and sauce are so rich, I am suggesting serving the short ribs over simple stone ground grits with herbs to let the flavors of the meat and the velvety sauce shine. (See the grits recipe below.) This recipe calls for cooking in a heavy pot on the stovetop, but you can easily adapt it for cooking in a slow cooker or an Instant Pot once the meat is browned.

Serves: 4 to 6
Hands-on time: 1 1/2 hours
Total time: 6 1/2 hours

Ingredients
4 to 5 pounds English-cut beef short ribs
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 sweet onions, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon miso paste
1 (750-ml) bottle red wine, preferably Pinot Noir
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
4 sprigs fresh thyme, 4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, 2 bay leaves, tied together in cheesecloth
1/4 cup dried mushrooms such as porcini, morel, or a blend, crushed (optional)
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 to 2 1/2 cups beef stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium beef broth
1 pound small cremini mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
Stone-Ground Grits with Herbs, for serving (recipe follows)
Chopped fresh parsley, for serving

Instructions
Season the ribs all over with salt and place on a wire rack set on a rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate until the ribs have re-absorbed all of their exuded liquid, 1 to 2 hours. (See story above.)

Heat the oven to 375.

Tie each short rib with food-safe kitchen twine. This step will keep the meat attached to the bone while it braises. It’s definitely an extra step that you could skip, but it will help prevent the meat from literally falling off the bone. Season the ribs with pepper.

In a large, heavy-duty Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Brown the ribs on all sides, in two or three batches so as not to crowd them, 5 to 7 minutes for each batch. Return the ribs to the wire rack. (It’s okay, by the way, for the seared meat to come in contact with the rack that had held the raw, salted meat because the meat will be cooked further — and it will make one less dish to wash.)
Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat from the pot. Add the onions, celery and carrots, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium. Add the flour, tomato paste and miso paste and stir to combine. Cook, stirring constantly, until the flour and pastes are incorporated and they begin to stick to the bottom of the pot, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the wine and vinegar and bring to a rapid simmer, stirring with a wooden spoon to loosen the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. This step is also known as deglazing the pot. Cook, uncovered, until the wine is somewhat thickened, 5 to 7 minutes.

Return the browned short ribs to the pot and add the bundled herbs, dried mushrooms, if using, and garlic. Pour in enough stock to almost cover the meat. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Cover and bake until the meat is tender, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Towards the last hour of cooking, get the grits going (see below).

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked short ribs to a warm platter and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Spoon off any excess oil left on the surface of the sauce and discard, along with the bundled herbs. Using an immersion blender, puree the sauce and vegetables until smooth. (Alternatively, transfer the sauce and vegetables to a blender in batches and puree until smooth. Return the pureed sauce to the pot.)

Bring the sauce to a rapid simmer over medium-high heat and cook until ​​​​​​the sauce coats the back of a spoon; thin with more stock, if needed, to achieve the proper consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

To serve, return the short ribs to the sauce and turn to coat. Add the reserved cooked mushrooms. Heat briefly over medium heat if necessary to rewarm, then serve over the hot grits, garnished with fresh parsley.


Stone-Ground Herbed Grits

Serves: 4
Hands-on time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour

Ingredients
2 cups milk
2 cups water
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup stone-ground grits
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs, such as flat leaf parsley, chives or thyme

Instructions
Combine the milk, water and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Whisk in the grits, reduce the heat to low and simmer, whisking occasionally, until the grits are creamy and thick, 45 to 60 minutes.

Remove from the heat and stir in the herbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover to keep warm until ready to serve.


Author image

Georgia-born, French-trained chef and food writer Virginia Willis has made cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, catered a bowling party for Jane Fonda, foraged for herbs in the Alps, and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Her legion of fans loves her knack for giving classic French cooking a down-home feel and re-imagining Southern recipes en Français. Virginia's newest cookbook, "Secrets of the Southern Table," is currently available for here. Her previous book, "Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome," received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. Learn more about Virginia and follow her culinary exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.

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