Except for when I was scrambling eggs or boiling pasta, most of my early forays into cooking served at least a table full. Friday night Sabbath dinners were a big social event in my crowd, done pot-luck style to lessen the load on whoever had a proper dining table. I recall a spinach, chickpea and cumin combo which got a lot of play in those years. The spinach was frozen, the chickpeas in a can, but it was tasty in a generically ethnic way. At Oxford, the etiquette of potlucks was less well-developed, and I often found myself not only playing hostess, but cooking up a dozen servings of vegetarian chili or a few casserole dishes of baked ziti so as to ensure that guests had more than baguette, hummus and brie to eat.
With a move to London, the cheap and outsized cooking and serving dishes were jettisoned, and I began cooking for two, perhaps four at a pinch. It’s remained that way ever since.
The challenge came not with an unexpected dinner party for ten, but with a few kilos of short ribs. Bought in a tizzy of excitement at a fancy butcher, I soon discovered that they were substantially larger than even my largest pan. Cooking them in foil in the oven was an option, but would have precluded the use of aromatics and a braising liquid. None of our knives was up to the task, and we doubted whether our puppet-making neighbour would want to use his lathe on raw flesh. Eventually, I brought the meat to a local Portuguese butcher (which we frequent for excellent own-cured olives and fresh vegetables), presenting a shambolic story about the ribs having been a gift. Manuel looked at me curiously, then guided the meat through the band saw.
From there, it got much easier. We chose a dark ale with a hint of sweetness and picked some thyme from the window pots. Carrots, leeks and bit of celery were chopped up and sautéed. And the now-manageable chunks of meats got a good browning before everything was combined in my Staub and placed in the oven.
I was vetoed on drinking the same beer with dinner, but we happily comprised on a pungent, barnyardy southern French red . The beef was unsurprisingly delicious, but was almost upstaged by a pile of mashed potatoes, tangy with crème fraiche and shot through with a rasp of horseradish and chives.
With a loan of a few pots (and indeed some more plates), this could well be on the menu for our apartment’s first substantial dinner party.
Beef short ribs braised in beer
adapted from Molly Steven’s All About Braising and The Boston Globe
Total time: 3 ½-4 hours, plus an option on an overnight rest; Active time: 40 minutes
The ribs I used were English style, which is bone-in, with slices cut parallel to the bone. I see no reason why this method couldn’t also be used with flanken-style ribs, or, with minor adaptions, to braise stewing beef off the bone. With English-style ribs, figure about ½ kilo, or 1 rib, per person. For ease of cooking and serving, have the ribs cut into large chunks.
2 kilos bone-in beef ribs
2 stalks celery
2 bottles full-flavoured ale
handful fresh thyme
2 bay leaves (preferably fresh)
salt and pepper
Trim any excess fat off the ribs, retaining any connective tissue or membrane-like skin (silverskin). Heat the oven to 120°C.
Cut the carrots, leek and celery into large bite-size pieces. In a large lidded Dutch oven (or other similar pan), warm a thin film of olive oil on medium heat. Add the vegetables, turning occasionally, until softened, at least 10 minutes. Season well with salt and pepper. Remove from the pan and set aside.
In the same pan, brown ½ of the meat until brown on all sides, at least 8 minutes. Season well with salt and pepper. Remove from pan and set aside. Repeat with 2nd 1/2 of meat, then remove and set aside.
Raise the heat to high and pour in the beer. Bring to a boil and scrape down any solidified bits on the bottom of the pan. Turn down the heat to low and return the meat and vegetables to the pan. Add the thyme and bay leaves, cover and place in the oven.
Check the meat after 3 hours. It should be fork-tender and coming off the bone in long strips.
Allow it to fully cool at room temperature. If serving on the same day, skim off as much fat as possible. If holding overnight, the fat can be removed very easily once the dish is refrigerated.
Serve with mash—made either with potato or root vegetables.