Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The New Economy; Or, Braising!

The New Economy, for me, has meant more crappy frozen dinners (logic tells me I should cook everything at home, but desperation says, sure, it's made of corn syrup and hydrogenated oil, but it only costs $1.59!), fewer meals at restaurants, and stretching my food budget to five or ten bucks a day. In the winter, what that means for me is means braising--searing then slowly stewing tough, cheap cuts of meat in a low oven for several hours until all the fat and connective tissue has melted down into the sauce. Once you get over the fact that you're eating something not ordinarily found in the supermarket meat case (tongue, tail, hoof, whatever)--and embrace the fact that they take an extremely long time to prepare--these fatty, "weird" bits are actually some of the most satisfying cuts of meat you can buy. Especially in winter.

A couple of weeks ago, I headed down to Fero's Meats in Pike Place Market for five pounds of oxtail. The nice man behind the counter (we'll call him Fero) offered to show me what a whole one looked like. Wanna see?

Most everyone I've shown that photo to (or, even better, this one) says it's squicky. But to me, perhaps perversely, a whole tongue or oxtail seems less gross than plastic-wrapped "parts" or ground beef, because at least you know they're not from a dozen anonymous animals on a factory farm somewhere. Ever since I gave up vegetarianism (somewhere between college and old-ladyhood), there's something about whole cuts of meat--pieces of meat that look like the animal parts they actually are--that has fascinated me. Shortly after I started eating meat again, I remember my tablemates watching in mild disgust as I chewed my way through a plate of curried goat meat hacked crosswise into anonymous, unidentifiable chunks; for people who grow up eating nicely differentiated boneless skinless chicken breasts or even ribs, I imagine not knowing just what the hell you're eating comes as a shock. But for me, meat is meat: It may not be my favorite cut, but none of it (OK, maybe sheep eyeballs) is really gross.

So back to braising. Last week, I spent Sunday cooking the oxtails--searing them first, then braising them roughly like this. I didn't have the Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry, so I used rice wine vinegar instead (figuring the long cooking would mellow the vinegar's bite); I sliced the lemongrass up instead of just bruising it; and I didn't have any scallions so I tossed a sliced shallot in instead. Otherwise, I stuck to the recipe. Oh, except for one thing: where the recipe says to "cover oxtails and sauce and refrigerate overnight," I read "spoon the fat off the best you can and eat at once." I can't help it; I'm impatient that way. And damn, it was good.

This past Sunday, I made another trip to Fero's for three pounds of short ribs (Fero, Jr.--much surlier than Senior, but equally efficient--helped me this time), stopping afterward at a market stall to pick up fennel and parsley for Mark Bittman's braised short ribs with mustard and another Bittman recipe I'll make later this week.

This time, I browned the (salted, peppered) ribs on all sides (sneaking outside to thin my lettuce and mustard sprouts while they cooked), then sauteed an onion and some garlic, tossed in a bit of thyme from the herb garden, and added the ribs back to the pot along with a couple cups of homemade beef stock from the freezer. After forgetting about it for about three hours, I came back and halved a pound or so of Russian banana fingerling potatoes (the subject of a forthcoming post tentatively titled What To Do When Your CSA Gives You Five Pounds of Potatoes and You Even Don't Like Potatoes!!) and added them to the pot. After about 20 minutes, a couple tablespoons of Dijon mustard went in, along with a handful of chopped parsley and some more salt and pepper; and that was that. The ribs were meltingly tender and still crisp on the outside from the initial browning, and the mustard cut perfectly through the fatty sauce (again, without refrigerating it overnight).

In my heart, of course, I know I should practice patience, but four hours is about my limit. That said, both these dishes were far better the second time around. And when I took each one out of the refrigerator for reheating, I removed at least a cup of rendered fat--fat that, according to five minutes of rigorous Internet research, I should now flatten in Ziploc bags and freeze. Don't know what I'm going to do with it all yet (sukiyaki? refried beans? meat pies?) but in these economic times, to waste anything, even beef tallow, seems like a sin.

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