I love ribs. I must admit an attraction to the barbarian bone-gnawing involved. However, I can’t abide the price that they charge at the grocery store for a food product that’s 3/4 inedible by weight and which is traditionally considered a scrap cut of meat. I mean, who ever heard of paying $5 a pound for what’s essentially a string of bones chained together with a bit of meat and sinew? So I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a few packages of particularly meaty beef short ribs at the local Harris Teeter for a reasonable 99 cents a pound–and ended up coming home with about six pounds worth.
One of the reasons why ribs have always been considered a second-class cut of meat is that, in addition to their low proportion of muscle, they are loaded with connective tissue that makes them tough and chewy when cooked using normal methods. However, it’s this very stuff that allows them to shine their brightest–if you choose the right cooking method. A long, slow cooking process, such as braising or barbecuing, causes the collagen in the meat to dissolve into gelatin, giving the ribs a buttery texture and fall-off-the-bone tenderness. I decided to braise the ribs, rather than barbecue it–thanks to the magic of the Crock Pot brand slow cooker (or any other such device) I could leave the cooking unattended for hours, whereas if I were barbecuing I’d need to worry over temperature and coal lifetimes and whatnot, and I just wasn’t in the mood. Also, this way I could prepare everything the night before, stick the ceramic dish in the crock pot the next morning, and come home to dinner.
I decided to start by slicing and sautéing some vidalia onions, because, I don’t know, they were lying around and were probably about to go bad. A couple pointers: first, I find it easier to peel onions if they’re cut in half first. This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen a lot of people trying to peel the skin off of a whole onion before they start chopping, which is about as easy as shaving a bowling ball.
Second, julienne-slicing onions is not as hard as it may seem. Take your bisected onion and, if you haven’t already, cut off the stem and root ends of it. Place the onion half on your cutting board so the big flat side is down, and start cutting into the onion with your knife nearly parallel to the cutting board–your goal is to have the knife hit the cutting board where the center of the onion would be if it were whole. Then increase the angle of your knife and make another cut, and another, etc. After a few cuts you may find the onion a bit wobbly–if it’s difficult for you to handle, tilt the onion so that your next cut is next to a face that’s actually on the cutting board.
So I julienned two large vidalia onions and put them in a cast iron skillet with oil and salt to sauté. I used a little more oil than I normally would, since part of the purpose of the sauté was to season the oil in preparation of searing the meat in it. Likewise, the cast iron would help to build tasty brown goodness on the bottom of the pan, which I would later use to my advantage.
I sautéed until the onions were well-browned, which looked something like this:
This took a good while–maybe twenty minutes. In the meantime, I prepared the ribs. First I seasoned them with a bit of salt and pepper on all sides (the “bony” side could get neglected here, but it doesn’t hurt either).
Then I put about half a cup of flour into an old Cool Whip container (the best multipurpose storage container available in the universe, as far as I’m concerned) and put the ribs inside, one by one, covered the container with the original lid, and shook the container to coat the rib. This worked great most of the time, but sometimes there were some practical complications:
Despite the practical limitations of the physical universe, I managed to get all of the ribs dredged in the flour. (And the cutlery, apparently.)
Why bother with the dredging? Well, for one thing it helps to make a nicely browned, tasty crust on the ribs. Even though the crispiness will be lost when we braise, the flavor development from the browning will contribute to the flavor of the broth. Secondly, the flour itself will help to act as a thickener for the broth as the flour gets absorbed into it.
Anyway. About that browning issue. Remember the excess oil from the onions? I left it in the pan after I removed the onions to brown the ribs in, and seared the ribs in that oil. I had to do the ribs in two batches so the pan didn’t get overcrowded (which would cause the browning to take a long time and brown poorly to boot). I browned the ribs on all sides, until they looked like this:
After the ribs were done cooking, they went straight into the crock pot (along with the onions, which I had put there previously). Now it was time to deglaze the pan. Cooking the onions and the beef had developed a nice layer of browned goodness on the bottom of the pan. In order to extract maximum flavor from this browned goodness, I poured some chicken stock into the pan and scraped the pan bottom thoroughly with a metal spatula. The combination of the boiling stock and the loosening of the browned bits helps to move that flavor into the broth. Once I had gotten the browned bits thoroughly dissolved, I moved the broth–you guessed it–into the crock pot. Finally, I added some red wine, a can of tomatoes, and a couple carrots to the pot, covered it, and into the fridge it went until morning.
(As you can probably tell, I decided to try out one of those slow cooker liner bags. While they’re not totally water-tight, the ceramic insert certainly ended up cleaner than it would have without it.)
In the morning I set the crock pot on its longest setting at low heat. Ten hours later, the ribs were done. I skimmed off as much fat from the top of the broth as I could, moved the ribs to a bowl to rest for a minute, and strained the broth into a saucepan. Then I boiled some egg noodles in the broth and combined the whole shebang. (Actually, I set aside some of the noodles without combining them with everything else, because the Picky Epicurean is not too hot about “stuff” in her food–just noodles, broth and meat for her, thanks!)
So there you have it. While a bit labor intensive as far as preparation is concerned, the reward is ten hours of not having to care about the cooking at all. That and a flavorful, hearty, and economical (one hopes) meal with a lot of possibilities for modification and creativity.