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Proving that beef stew can be yummy
Last night was our monthly Dinner Club, a small gathering that I've wound up involved with via Kate -- basically, each month, one of her group of friends invites a few folks over for some sort of meal. Since this month is Kate's birthday, she claimed it in order to do something she's been wanting for a while: a formal dinner party. The "formal" got nipped and tucked here and there, but it was an excuse to pull out the good china and sip martinis in our best fancywear.

I spent ages dithering about what to make for the main course, but we opted for "stew" as the category (to minimize the last-minute in-tux cooking). Since it was her party, I pressed her to develop an opinion on exactly what -- she dug through a few volumes of Cook's Illustrated, eventually opting for the "Catalan-Style Beef Stew with Mushrooms" from the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of CI. Despite a few problems, it was super-tasty, so here are a few notes.

(Tangent: when you're developing a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The latest app I want in Querki isn't the Cookbook per se, it's the Cookbook *Notes* app -- something to keep track of which recipes I've tried, what I thought about them, and notes on what to do differently next time. Soon. Anyway...)

Note #1: Short Ribs -- The recipe calls for 2.5 lbs of Boneless Beef Short Ribs (and I was shooting for twice that, since we were a good-sized group) -- CI has basically decided that short ribs are the ideal stew meat, because they have the right sort of layering of fat, and come out quite well after a few hours of cooking. So we went down to McKinnon's (the local butcher in Davis Square) yesterday morning, found the bone-in ribs, asked about boneless and got told flatly "we don't have that". Humph. Well, I knew that a different issue of CI had notes on how to bone the ribs, so I went for the bone-in. That proved a mistake.

The ribs from McKinnon's were incredibly irregular, clearly not intended for this purpose. In particular, the amount of meat varied wildly. This recipe was looking for 2" cubes of meat, but many of the ribs had barely half an inch of meat on them. And I had forgotten just how much I dislike peeling silverskin off of beef, especially the stubborn stuff around the ribs.

In the end, I only got about 3.5 lbs of usable meat, out of about 8 lbs of ribs -- just enough for 10 diners, but less than I'd wanted. I suspect that next time, I go to Whole Foods and suck up the much-higher price per pound to get the cut I want. (On the plus side, I realized a third of the way through that the scraps still have lots of good stuff on them. So today, I'm going to make beef stock with the leftover meat.)

Note #2: Cooking Down -- This recipe is unusually dry, quite intentionally. One of CI's other current tricks is that you don't need to sear the beef if you keep the gravy light, because the meat that sticks out from it will brown nicely in the oven. So you basically make a sofrito -- caramelized onions and some tomato and spices -- add a *bit* of white wine and water, and stick it in the oven for 2.5 - 3 hours, stirring once.

As it happens, I think the stew was actually in the oven for about 3.5 hours, and this stew is *not* forgiving of that. By the time we were ready to serve, I discovered that all liquid had completely cooked away; indeed, the batch in my good Creuset had half-burned to the bottom. I was quite worried about that, but I combined both batches, and added another cup or two of wine to rehydrate everything, and that seems to have been enough to rescue it. (I needed some liquid to soak up the picada.)

Note #3: Check Your Tools -- The picada is a chopped mix of bread, almonds and garlic, added at the end to provide a little extra flavor and body to the stew. It is exactly what a food processor is for, but of course I've already moved my Cuisinart to Somerville. So I figured I'd just use my little KitchenAid mini-prep; for something this small, it ought to be fine. Except of course, I haven't turned it on in about two years -- and when I did so, nothing happened.

Fortunately, a blender can kinda-sorta fill in for a food processor in a pinch. The almonds didn't get as well-ground as I'd like, but it was good enough that nobody noticed the difference.

Conclusion -- All of the above aside, the "stew" was pretty great. There was no gravy at all, but the meat was tender and extraordinarily savory, and moist enough to make up for the lack of sauce. The recipe is a big win, and while it's an all-day affair, it's well worth the effort for a good dinner...

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In today's episode of "Ask the Vegetarian" - Beef ribs are not the same as beef SHORT ribs. They come from different parts of the cow.

If you stood next to Elsie, somewhere between the front and back legs, and reached out to give her a pat - those are the ribs. The ribs have the Filet Mignon and the ribeye on one side, a lot of membrane on the other, and not a lot of meat between the bones. Once the fancy cuts are removed, there isn't a lot left. It's dry meat, needs a marinade or wet rub.

If, instead of patting Elsie, you kicked her, you'd be kicking the "short plate", which is where the short ribs come from. These have a lot of meat on the inside and between the ribs, and again a lot of membrane on the outside, with the bones just sunk barely into the meat parts.

You bought the wrong bits of cow, dude. And that may be part of why the recipe burned - short ribs have a lot more fat in them (and a lot less connective tissue than ribs), so they would render out a lot more sauce. The hint was the shape of the meat - you can get 2" cubes out of that.

I believe that H-Mart is your best source of reasonable-priced short ribs - Korean Kalbi is the bomb, and the Korean store stocks a lot of short ribs. But I obviously have not tastes them for quality. (On the other hand, the Market Basket next to it has become my go-to grocery: prices are out of sight, and quality is good. Although the chicken we got for Robin this weekend was not very well butchered...)

No, these certainly *claimed* to be Beef Short Ribs on the package -- yes, I do pay attention to these things -- and the meat was marbled properly. Far as I can tell, these were just really badly butchered, cut almost randomly.

Mind, the *meat* was very juicy and tender -- when I say it was "dry", I don't mean the meat, I mean that everything *around* the meat was fairly charred. When you start with only three cups of liquid in the recipe, your margin of error on 3 hours of cooking is pretty modest.

That said, I suspect you're correct about H-Mart as a better source for the ribs -- I should go take a look at their selection...

Perhaps it was miss-marked, or something. But that doesn't sound like MacKinnons, who really are excellent butchers.

Another semi-local source for good meat, is The Meat House in Arlington. I say that, despite the fact that they don't carry our jam (their other location does). They sure are pricey, but their meat counter and prep stations look clean and the product in the cases always looks excellent.

I've heard many recommendations for MacKinnons, which is why I was so surprised. Possibly I caught them on an off-day, or the work of an apprentice butcher, or something...

OTOH, MacKinnons is the only local butcher I've been into where I've seen mice run across the floor more than once...

There was a *doubt* that beef stew can be yummy?

Actually, I'm not a fan of most beef stews. I've had some great ones, but it's telling that I often like the morning-after gruel more. Too many are just plain bland, with the beef flavor watered down in the sauce, and nothing much replacing it. Since I'm an intense-flavors fan, I'm pretty demanding on stews. But this one is impressive, for all that the ingredient list is fairly straightforward...

::Spot the guy reading comments::

We've made a few beef recipes with short-ribs from small-farm and naturally raised cows.

The difference in flavor (I always eat about a 1 gram morsel) is phenomenal.

Feed-lot cattle taste bland, and a little corn-like: which is no shock when you consider what they eat. Cows that eat a more natural diet taste like, well, cow: the neutral flavor of beef, but slightly sweeter and a little, oh, I'm thinking floral but it is just a little elevated. Like nature.

The flavor difference can easily be drowned out with spices (although the texture difference remains), so it's only worth purchasing the many-times-more-expensive meat for a few recipes.

This sounds like one of them, frankly.

Maybe we'll see you at the Somerville Winter Market this winter: it starts this weekend, but we won't be there for a while. Also keep an eye out for Chestnut Farms, John Crow Farm, and a few others that float from one winter market to another.

Have you had my schtew? I can't remember.

I should fix that, then. It involves, among other things, half to three quarters of a head of garlic.

This was one of the best beef stews I've had. I'm thinking a little more sauce would have been nice but not necessary given the rest of the menu.

You may need a different butcher. May I recommend Fairway Beef in Worcester, if you have time? They're WONDERFUL and cheap.

The suggestion is appreciated, but Worcester is an *awfully* long ways from Somerville, especially with fresh meat in tow. It's about an hour each way...

I'm intrigued by this Dinner Club idea. I may have to get one started out here. I'm very fond of creating excuses for good food and fancy dress.

The Snooty Food Party is nice, but it only comes once a year.

Edited at 2012-11-12 11:26 pm (UTC)

Well, the fancy-dress part was a one-off. But having the rotating small-group dinner once a month is nice...

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