“Best.” In the six years that I’ve been writing this blog, I don’t think I’ve used the word too often. But after preparing the recipe for Braised Oxtails with White Beans, Tomatoes, and Aleppo Pepper from “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS, the subject of today’s post, I believe it ranks among the best dishes I’ve ever prepared. In fact, I can easily say that I’ve never made a better braise in all my years of cooking.
Slow and steady, so they say, wins the race. A perfect example is Marcella Hazan’s Ragu Bolognese, which requires six hours of simmering to yield “when clinging to the folds of homemade noodles,” to quote Marcella, “one of the most satisfying experiences accessible to the sense of taste.” But when you’re really hungry, especially after a nerve-racking day, sometimes quick and easy is the way to go.
“Not with a Bang but a Whimper” might well be an apt title for this post on Jamie Oliver’s “Bangin’ Beef Stew,” from his 5 Ingredients cookbook, which promised much bang but delivered little. Don’t get me wrong, the stew was not a disaster, but rather a rough disappointment.
A great sale on beef short ribs at my local Whole Foods triggered our Sunday supper. After returning home from the market, I started to look for recipes and found one I thought would be perfect for a late-summer night, Jacques Pepin’s “Beef Short Rib, Mushroom, and Potato Stew.” The fact that it utilized a pressure cooker made it especially appealing, as we were having a bit of a heat wave. I made another trip to the market to pick up the potatoes and dried shiitake mushrooms called for by the recipe. Back home, as my husband was unpacking the shopping bag, he asked what the mushrooms were for. When I told him, he looked a bit perplexed and said: “Didn’t you write that one up already?” I searched my blog and, sure enough, I had done a post on the dish last year.
Another cook-book search for a recipe that wouldn’t require another walk to the market (We don’t have a car.) yielded one that could use the just-purchased potatoes and didn’t call for anything I didn’t already have on hand. The source was Mark Bittman’s tome How To Cook Everything; the recipe, “Short Ribs Braised with Potatoes and Mustard.”
Sunflowers brought home by husband from our local farmers market evoked intimations of Tuscany that motivated me to prepare the subject of today’s post, peposo, a peppery Tuscan beef stew with a long history.
Every so often, our local grocery store gives away something for free; sometimes it’s a protein bar; other times, a can of soup. The most recent giveaway was a kielbasa, which coincided serendipitously with the publication of a recipe for Hasselback Kielbasa on the New York Times “Cooking” website.
The site’s stunning photo of the dish, along with the above confluence of events, pulled me from my typical traditional stance in the kitchen to give this recipe a try. With so few ingredients involved, most of them, including the kielbasa, already on hand, there wasn’t too much at risk.
For the longest time, I’ve been wanting to make oxtails like the ones I enjoyed years ago on my first trip to Rome. It was in that city’s Testaccio district that I had coda alla vaccinara, a dense stew of oxtails braised with vegetables, primarily celery, tomatoes, and white wine.
The Testaccio was the location for Rome’s slaughterhouse from 1888 to 1975. Here the need to use every part of an animal led to the district’s reputation for offal, or in Italian, the quinto quarto, the fifth quarter. The best known dishes of the variety include pajata, veal intestines; trippa alla Romana, tripe, and the subject of today’s post coda alla vaccinara. All dishes that are associated with Italy’s cucina povera, or peasant cooking.
I looked through a number of cookbooks for a recipe and found some excellent ones in Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds (the most authentic), David Downie’s Cooking the Roman Way, and Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook. Ultimately, however, I chose a recipe by Amanda Hesser in the New York Times. It seemed the most straightforward; though I did modify it with elements from the other recipes, for example increasing the amount of celery and onion or adding raisins during the last hour of braising.
The dish required at least 30 minutes of prep and more than 3 hours of cooking. And there were some hiccups along the way. Lacking marjoram (either fresh or dried), I substituted fresh oregano. Increasing the amount of onion and carrot required using a bit more oil than called for; my pancetta being somewhat lean didn’t render enough fat to thoroughly brown the oxtails; my soffritto (diced onions, carrots, celery and pancetta) always looked like it was about to burn. Nevertheless, the end result was exceptional. A richly flavored thick sauce, with hints of cinnamon and cloves, coated succulent fall-of-the bone pieces of meat accompanied by silky slivers of celery.
As I was cooking for two, I used a little less than two pounds of meat; however, I kept close to the original amounts of the recipes other ingredients. Fortunately, doing so yielded plenty of left over sauce for pasta later this week.
Finally, don’t be tempted to substitute red wine for the white. The latter allows the flavors of the meat and the celery to take center stage.
Oxtail Braised with Tomato and Celery Coda alla Vaccinara (Adapted from Amanda Hesser in the New York Times)
¼ pound pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 large carrot, peeled, finely diced
1 medium onion, peeled, finely diced
7 inner stalks celery, 1 finely diced, 6 sliced into thirds (about 3-inches long) pieces ¼ cup raisins
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 pounds oxtail (trimmed weight), severed at each joint into pieces about 3 inches long
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups white wine
3 sprigs fresh oregano
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 (28-ounce) can peeled Italian tomatoes, partially drained
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a deep, heavy casserole or pot that can fit all the oxtails in one layer, combine pancetta, carrot, onion and diced celery and enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan (about 3 tablespoons). (Note that the size of your pan will play a part in determining the amount of olive oil; I had to use 4 tablespoons.)
2. Place pan over medium heat and cook until pancetta renders its fat, about 15 minutes.
Season oxtails on all sides with salt and pepper, add to the casserole, and brown well on all sides, turning them only after they’ve browned. Using tongs, remove oxtails from pan and place in a bowl. Set aside.
3. Add the tomato paste to the vegetables in the casserole and cook, stirring, until paste caramelizes, about 2 minutes. Stir in wine and mix, being sure to scrape up any browned bits sticking to the bottom of the pan. Heat to boiling and cook 3 minutes. Add oregano, cloves and cinnamon and then tomatoes, squishing them between your fingers as they fall into the pan.
4. Return oxtails to pan. Liquid must be as high as one-third of the ingredients. If not, add a little water. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover pan and place in oven. Braise for 1 1/2 hours, turning the oxtails now and then.
5. Add the remaining celery and the raisins, then continue cooking until the meat is tender and falling off the bone, about 30 to 60 minutes longer. (I opted for 60 minutes.)
6. Remove the pan from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve on a large platter or in shallow bowls, making sure everyone gets a bit of the pulpy sauce and celery.
Wine Pairing: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
Keeping with my seasonal-cooking bent, I chose on Sunday to make a stew of beef short ribs, mushrooms, and potatoes from Jacques Pepin’s Fast Food My Way. I selected this particular recipe for two reasons: 1) it’s fall, the perfect time for short ribs; 2) the shortened cooking time made possible by the pressure cooker.
Fortunately, I was able to find some beautiful, thick, and relatively lean bone-in short ribs at my local market. The recipe called for 2 pounds of meat (4 ribs) “as lean and meaty as possible.” Mine weighed about 2.4 pounds. The other ingredients were similarly easy to find, even the dried shiitake mushrooms, which were surprisingly small. I was off to a good start.
The prep was also straightforward: trimming the meat, chopping the onion and the parsley, breaking the mushrooms in half and removing the stems, washing the potatoes, etc. Next was browning the meat, a simple task in an electric pressure cooker. All that was left was to add the remaining ingredients to the pot, lock the lid, set the cooker to high-pressure for 30 minutes.
Of course, as with any pressure-cooker recipe, there’s the wait time for the cooker to reach full pressure. So altogether the cooking time was 45 or 50 minutes, during which time the aroma from the stew whetted our appetites. Because I was craving carbs, I also prepared some whole-wheat couscous as a side even though the stew had plenty of potatoes.
The timer went off; I released the pressure, carefully lifted the lid, and wow everything looked perfect.
The mushrooms, which as directed by the recipe had not been soaked, were wonderfully chewy and packed with flavor; the potatoes were smooth and silky and had absorbed the cooking juices; the ribs. . .Well, that’s another story.
After taking his first bite of the meat, my husband shot me a glance that immediately let me know something wasn’t right. So I took a bite and yep; something was definitely wrong. The flavor was exceptional, beefy and woodsy from the mushrooms; but the texture was tough, far from tender.
I’m not sure what went wrong; maybe the ribs were too thick; perhaps I should have extended the cooking time by another 15 minutes. Not being an expert with the pressure cooker, I’m not certain. Most of the cookbooks I checked afterwards seemed to agree with Pepin’s 30 minutes.
Thankfully, we had two ribs with loads of sauce, mushrooms, and potatoes left over. I was determined to get a better meal the next time around. So yesterday, Monday, I decided to reheat the stew in a small enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, covered and placed on a very low flame for an hour. To provide some moisture, I added a good splash of the same white wine I had used the night before.
I’m happy to report that this time the meat was perfectly tender and, as is often the case with left-over stew, even more richly flavored. I’ll definitely make this recipe again, but more than likely, I’ll forego the pressure cooker in favor of my dependable cast-iron Dutch oven—even if it takes 4 times as long to cook.
2 pounds beef short ribs (4 ribs) as lean and meaty as possible (I used about 2.4 pounds.)
1 tablespoon canola oil
8 dried shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, and caps broken in half
12 small Yukon Gold potatoes (about 1 pound total) peeled or unpeeled
8 dried shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps broken in half (Do not soak; becuase mine were so small, I used 12.)
1 1/2 cups chopped (1 inch) onions
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1-Remove any surface fat and sinews from the short ribs. Place them in a pressure cooker with oil and brown over high heat for about 8 minutes, turning occasionally, until well browned on all sides. Remove from the heat and pour off any fat.
2-Add the mushrooms, then the remaining ingredients, except the parsley, and cover tightly with the pressure-cooker lid. Cook over high heat until the gauge indicates that the stew is cooking on high pressure. Reduce the heat to maintain the pressure and cook for 30 minutes.
3-Decompress the pressure cooker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Open the pressure cooker and taste for seasonings, adding additional salt and pepper if needed. Divide the stew among four warmed soup plates, sprinkle with parsley, and serve immediately.
As with any pressure-cooker recipe, be sure to follow the instructions of your cooker’s manufacturer.
Wine Pairing: Cotes du Rhone
Although I attribute my passion for cooking to my Neapolitan aunt, who I used to observe closely whenever she prepared, solely from memory, one of the multitude of dishes in her repertoire, it was Marcella Hazan who really taught me how to cook classic Italian dishes.
I remember how her first book, published in 1976, inspired me to try so many new dishes like baked semolina gnocchi, vitello tonnato, pork loin braised in milk, her unique ragu Bolognese, etc. etc. Over the years, I’ve collected almost all of her books and often refer to them either for new recipes or for cooking wisdom. It is the latter of these, sage advice, that makes up the greater part of her last book, Marcella Says, published almost 30 years after her first.
From that final collection, comes the recipe for today’s post, Polpettine di Manzo con i Peperoni, Spicy Beef Meatballs with Bell Peppers. These are nothing like the spicy meatballs one may associate with the legendary Alka Seltzer commercial or with the Italian-American versions that are part of many a Sunday sauce. Rather, they are small and delicate bundles of meat, gently mixed with parsley, chopped onion, and jalapeño pepper, and bound with egg and a white-bread panade, made from torn white bread soaked in milk.
Another difference is that there’s no tomato sauce. After frying, the meatballs are simmered along with a load of bell peppers, peeled and sliced. How long the peppers are cooked is up to you. If you like your peppers with some body, you can opt to cook them for as little as ten minutes. Or if, like me, you prefer a more tasty, succulent sauce, you can continue the simmer for about 30 minutes, or when the peppers just begin to dissolve.
My only problem with this recipe was with the size of the meatballs. The recipe says they should be the size of a very small egg, which I interpreted to be about 1 inch in diameter and made 16 meatballs. However, when I reread the recipe, I noticed that the yield should have been 30 to 35 balls.(I guess Marcella may have had a different egg in mind.) Nevertheless, I thought my size choice made for the perfect bite especially when accompanied by a piece of the soft red pepper. (Should you choose to make smaller meatballs, you may want to chop the onions, pepper, and parsley a little finer than I did.)
One final note. I was surprised by the inclusion of a jalapeño and almost substituted some crushed red-pepper flakes. But Hazan made a good case for using it since in her words it adds a “fine fragrance and mellow style of spiciness.”
4 meaty red bell peppers
2 tablespoons chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
½ cup chopped onion
Chopped fresh jalapeño pepper, 2 to 3 tablespoons, or to taste
⅔ cup torn fresh breadcrumb—the soft crustless part of a slice of bread
⅔ cup whole milk
1 pound ground beef chuck
Fine sea salt
1 ½ cups fine, dry, unflavored bread crumbs, spread on a plate or a sheet of wax paper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
A warm serving platter
Yield: 30 to 35 meatballs. serving 4 persons
1 – Cut the bell pepper lengthwise along the creases, remove the stem, seeds, and pithy core, and skin them with a swivel-blade vegetable peeler. Cut the pepper into strips about 1/2 inch wide.
2 – Put the parsley, onion, and jalapeño pepper in a bowl and mix together well.
3 – In a small bowl soak the fresh bread crumb in the milk.
As soon as the bread is saturated with the milk, squeeze it out gently in your hand and add it to the onion mixture, working it until combined.
4 – Add the ground chuck, egg, and salt, kneading the mixture very gently with your hands.
5 – Pull off a piece of the meatball mixture about the size of a very small egg and shape it in your hands into a ball, being careful not to squeeze it too hard.
6 – Roll the meatball in the bread crumbs. Pull off another piece of the meat mixture and repeat the procedure until you have used all of it and the balls have been rolled in bread crumbs.
7 – Pour the oil into a 12-inch skillet and turn the heat on to high. When the oil is hot, slip in the meatballs. Brown them to a dark color on one side, then turn them to do the other side. Do not turn them more than once. If the meatballs do not fit into the pan in a single uncrowded layer, do a batch at a time. When you have browned them all, put the meatballs into the pan before continuing. (I used a little more oil than called for in the recipe, but removed it after the meatballs were browned.)
8 – Add the peppers with a little bit of salt, turn the contents of the pan over using a wooden spoon and a light touch, lower the heat, and cover the pan.
You have a choice of how long to continue cooking. If you want the peppers to star—that is, if you would like them to maintain enough of their shape to show on the plate—cook them just until a fork slips easily into them, about 10 minutes. If you think that you may enjoy them more as a sauce, and a very tasty sauce it would be, just continue to cook them until they begin to dissolve. When the peppers are done to taste, transfer the contents of the pan to a warm platter and serve at once.
Wine Pairing: Barbera d’Alba
It wasn’t that long ago when I was eating steak four or five nights a week. Excessive? Yes. But I was single then, often on the road, and a simple strip or sliced steak was my comfort food as well as the perfect foil for the Italian wines I was representing at the time. Alas, my quasi Paleo diet caught up with me when my cholesterol level neared 300 and my doctor, along with my spouse, said basta.
Now on a more healthful diet, which has brought my cholesterol way down to normal levels, I enjoy red meat at most once a week. More often than not, when indulging, I still opt for steak, but once in a while I go for grilled, roasted, or braised dishes like short ribs or lamb shanks or, as I did the other night, a roast beef.
This roast, however, was not the typical rib, sirloin, chuck, or round roast. It was a tri-tip roast. I had never heard of this cut before, but a quick search on my phone informed me that it’s a popular west-coast cut and so tender that it’s sometimes referred to as the “poor man’s prime rib or filet mignon.” I was still hesitant to try it, but when my better half pointed out that it was on sale at 60% off, I thought I’d give it a go.
When we returned home, I went back online to search for a recipe and found many. I finally settled on what was perhaps the easiest and fastest, which I found on the New York Times “Cooking” website, Grilled or Oven-Roasted Santa Maria Tri-tip. It had two ingredients: a tri-tip roast and a beef-rub of your choice. As I’m not much into grilling or rubs, I opted for the oven-roasted version and followed the recipe’s link to an All-Purpose California Rub.
This roast proved to be perfect for a weeknight meal, taking around 40 minutes to cook, or a little more if you prefer your beef more cooked. The rub takes only minutes to prepare. After it’s massaged into the meat, the roast should be covered and refrigerated for at least an hour or even better overnight.
I think our tri-tip lived up to its reputation for being tender and I would say had more flavor than a filet mignon. I served the roast with steamed herbed potatoes and peas. A few days later, we enjoyed it sliced thin at room temperature accompanied by a salad.
Below is the recipe for the oven-roasted version of this dish. If you prefer grilling, click on the New York Times link above for the full recipe.
1 whole tri-tip, about 2 pounds
3 tablespoons beef rub of your choice
2 tablespoons finely ground coffee
1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt
1 ½ tablespoons granulated garlic
1 heaping teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon brown sugar
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Combine all ingredients and store in an airtight container
1. Trim silver skin. The meat may have a thick layer of fat, some of which can be sliced off, but keep a good amount to help baste meat.
2. Sprinkle meat with rub and massage lightly all over.
3. Cover and refrigerate at least an hour or as long as overnight. Remove from refrigerator an hour before cooking.
4. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil or other cooking oil to a large, heavy ovenproof pan. On stove top, heat on high until pan is very hot, then add tri-tip, fat side down. Turn heat to medium-high and sear roast for about 4 minutes.
5. Turn the roast and put it in the oven. Cook it for about 10 minutes a pound, checking with an instant-read thermometer until it reaches 130 degrees for medium-rare.
6. Rest roast on a cutting board 10 to 20 minutes. Slice against the grain. The roast is shaped like a boomerang, so either cut it in half at the center of the angle, or slice against the grain on one side, turn the roast and slice against the grain on the other side.
Two days later, the roast made its way back to our table.
Wine Pairing: Rosso di Montalcino, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon