IN the superficial rush to cook with only the finest and most sought-after ingredients, the most dedicated followers of food fashion can be frightfully forgetful. Eagerly pursuing all the latest foodie trends, these latterday descendants of the Carnabytian Army march on from one fad to the next, guided by gurus clothed in white who spew wisdom and profanity in the same breath.
When lo, they say unto us that the next best thing is celeriac or Jerusalem artichoke, milkfed spring lamb or suckling piglet slaughtered under a crescent moon within an hour of being plucked from its sow’s aching breast, we cancel the order for two chickens and a pocket of potatoes and arrange a dinner party to show off quite how up to speed we are with what’s going on in the fickle foodie world.
Somewhere in the back of the foodie’s cranky mind, though, is a dim and unwanted memory of meals eaten in an earlier, simpler age when we didn’t think much about provenance and perfection and merely made dishes that we had tried once before and really liked. Some of these dishes, in my remembered experience, often involved meats that were chosen for their affordability. And I happen to believe that there are many of us who do have to watch the budget.
One of my favourite cuts of meat, ever since I was in my 20s, is beef shortrib. Back in the day I used to try my luck with various cheap cuts of beef to be slow-cooked, this being the only way to be sure they’ll turn out super-tender. The texture of some cuts is not great, and others are insanely fatty.
But the king of the cheap cuts, for me, is shortrib. It is blessed with superb layers of very tasty meat, marbled with fat, with slim bones at the lower end which add to the flavour during cooking and a neat finishing touch of fat on top to both enhance the taste and give you the opportunity of browning it for a final bit of aplomb on the plate and palate. It is, if we’re honest, a fabulous cut of meat which in no way deserves relegation to the end of the supermarket fridge where they keep the chuck and shin. But it does, like some of the best dishes in the world (notably in France), need time and patience.
Shortrib lends itself to a wintry dish, so the present shoulder season (in the southern hemisphere) is a chance to bring out this cut one more time before the summer kicks in and we turn our attention to less hearty meals. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, you might want to make this a few times through your long winter.
You’ll notice that the layout for this column is a little different. This is because we have decided to set out the ingredients for you in the traditional way, which doesn’t always suit my style of cooking – I am really not one for measuring, as I tend to cook instinctively – but I will try to get things in some kind of order as it does make sense for the reader. Just don’t be slavish about my approximate quantities.
Here’s the beef shortrib recipe I concocted the other day, which was satusfyingly appropriate for what was a cold and rainy night. It’s essentially peasanty in the French way with a gentle Asian kick from the rice vinegar and a delicious twist from the herb.
Beef shortrib with porcini and sage
800g beef shortrib
2T olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
3 fat cloves garlic, crushed with the flat side of a large knife
100g dried porcini
1 cup (250ml) red wine
½ cup (125ml) rice vinegar
10-12 sage leaves
20 or so baby carrots (4 or 5 each)
Salt and crushed black pepper to taste
Soak the dried portcini mushrooms in the red wine and rice vinegar for about 45 minutes. In a heavy oven dish that can take stove-top heat, gently simmer the onions with the garlic in a little olive oil until soft. Remove. Add a little more olive oil and on a medium heat brown all the shortrib pieces on all sides. Return the onions and garlic to the pot and add the soaked mushrooms with their marinade, and the sage. Season with salt and pepper, and cook in a 160° oven for two-and-a-half to three hours. If you like, you can choose a lower heat, say 150°, and let it cook for four or even five hours, but keep an eye on it as the meat may disintegrate altogether (which can also be nice, more like a ragout in which the intention is to have the meat incorporated into its sauce). About 45 minutes before the end of cooking time, add the scrubbed baby carrots and make sure they’re immersed in the sauce. Remove from the oven to the stove top and leave for five minutes for the liquids to settle. The fats will rise to the surface. Skim the fat off and discard. Now carefully ladle the skimmed liquids and strain into a saucepan (through a sieve, Daisy). Reduce over a high heat until the sauce thickens of its own accord (you’ll notice that I don’t ever – ever – thicken a sauce with flour or, God forbid, Bisto. I always reduce. Shortrib is lovely served with creamy mashed potato. Don’t try this one on your more pretentious foodie friends. It can be our little secret.