Saturday, July 27, 2013

Braised Short Ribs with Mushrooms, Kale and Tortellini

   Remember my review of Little Napoli?  In that review I stated that one of my favorite dishes is the braised short ribs with mushrooms served over tortellini.  Well, one of the advantages and, to a point, luxuries of my profession is that I have the ability to sometimes break down a dish from restaurant and figure out how to make it at home.  After years of working with and preparing food you tend to recognize certain techniques and ingredients in said preparation of food to the point where you have a relatively good idea of how to recreate a dish. Thus is the case with this particular dish.  The short ribs were on sale at HEB, so I figured, why not give it a go.

   First thing first, you will need some hardware.  You will need a heavy bottomed pot that can hold heat very well or even go into the oven.  I prefer to use our, (even though my wife claims it is only hers) enamel coated cast iron dutch oven.  The method of cooking for this dish is braising so the heavy bottom will help protect against scorching.  If you don't think your pot is up to the task, then you can alleviate this problem by sticking it in the oven.  Just make sure your pot can handle that. 

  This first thing I did was gather and prepare all of my mise en place, which is as follows:

1 small to medium white onion

2-3 cloves of garlic
1-2 shallots
1 1/2 -2 cups of flour
Salt and pepper
 olive oil
2 lbs beef short ribs
1 lbs mushrooms
1 qt beef broth
1 bottle red wine
1 lbs kale
1 lbs of tortellini

After you have gathered everything you want to dice your onions and chop your shallots and garlic.

Next, season your flour with salt and pepper and use and whisk to mix it all together.

After that cut your short ribs, which will more than likely com in slabs, into individual pieces.

Dredge the ribs in the flour until they are completely coated and look almost ghostly.

There are some variables to this step.  Instead of seasoning the flour with salt and pepper, you could season your meat directly.  In fact, some might prefer that so that the salt will help draw out some of the moisture from the ribs and help the flour stick to them better.  You could also season at both steps, but just be careful not to over season.  Remember, you can always add,  but you can't remove seasoning.

Next but your pot on the fire and let it come up to temp.  You want the heat pretty hot since you are going to be searing your ribs.  Keep in mind that cast iron does take a while to come up to temp.  Once the pot is hot, add your oil.  You will need enough to cover the bottom of the pot, adding more as you go along.  The reason you might have to add more oil as you go along is because the flour will have a tendency to absorb the fat as it cooks. Sear your ribs in batches, adding only enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Sear and flip so that they are dark brown on each side.

After you have seared your ribs, it is time to add your aromatics.  Add more oil, if necessary, to your pot and allow it to heat up.  Add your onion, garlic and shallots to the pot and allow them to cook until you can smell them and they become translucent.

After they are cooked add your wine.  Now, you don't need an entire bottle of wine, but you can reserve what you don't use and have it with dinner.  You really only need about a cup to cup and a half.  When you add your wine, make sure to scrape the bottom of the pan to release all the tasty little nibblets stuck on there

After you have deglazed your pot, add the ribs back in and cover them with the beef broth.  If for whatever reason you don't have enough broth, you can either add more wine, or just add water.

The next step is easy to do, but requires patience.  All you have to do next is wait.  Set your heat on a low to medium low, slap a lid on the whole thing and let your ribs braise.  Like I said before, it is important that your pot have a heavy bottom.  This will help the liquid from scorching.  If you don't have a heavy bottom pan, you can stick it in a 325 degree oven, or just open the lid every once in a while to stir. The ribs will take anywhere from 2 to 3 hours to cook.  The slow cooking time will allow the meat to become tender and for all the connective tissue to break down.  It will also allow some of the collagen from the bones to seep out into the liquid.

Now while you are waiting, you can do other things such as prep your mushrooms or cook your pastas.  You can always buy pre-sliced mushrooms to cut down on prep.  This time, we bought whole button mushrooms and I quartered them.

You don't want to add your mushrooms right away since the meat will take so long to cook.  Wait until the ribs are almost done, say when you have half an hour to an hour to go.  The kale can wait until the ribs are done.  Just add it to the pot and allow it to cook a little bit.  Now, if you don't like kale, you can substitute spinach.

The tortellini should be cooked so that it will be nice and ready when the rest of the meal is.  You can do it well ahead of time and just refresh in some hot water.

Once everything is in the pot you only need to do two things: taste and adjust the seasoning and adjust the thickness of your dish.  The first thing is easy enough to do.  If the ribs need more salt and pepper, just add some more.  The braising liquid will thicken a bit on its own due to the flour and the collagen, but sometimes it needs a little help.  To thicken, well, pretty much any hot liquid,  you just need a little cornstarch and water.  Just mix up the cornstarch, say 2-3 tablespoon, in half a cup of water, then add that mixture to the hot liquid.  You want to add a little at a time  so that you can control how thick you get the liquid.

The final, and best, step to this is to serve your ribs over hot tortellini and enjoy!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Food vs Service

  I decided to write this post because of a conversation I had with my sous chef.  He and I were discussing the merits of a restaurant that had great food, but not so great service.  While he and I both agreed that the food was the important part of the equation and that it can make up for bad service, we had some coworkers who did not agree.  This got my curiosity going so I decided to find out what people thought on the matter.  I did a little research asking professionals in the culinary field, friends, and various other people.

   In all, eighty-three people responded to my inquest on this matter. My survey consisted of one simple question with four different answers.  I asked "What is more important in bringing you back to a restaurant?", with the possible answers being the food, the service, both, or neither.  Based on the numbers alone my theory was sound.  38.5% of the people who answered said that food was the most important.  Granted, that answer was the second highest picked.  People who answered that both were important led the charge at 56.6%.  What was kind of surprising was that the people who thought service was the most important only came in at 3.6%.  While I was not expecting that service would get the same numbers as everything else,  I did not think it would be as low as it was. 

   My personal thoughts on the matter are that in an ideal world any given restaurant will have both good service and food.  However, in the real world this is not always the case.  For me, food goes a long way towards making my dining experience a good or bad one.  Service, while important, is always going to be secondary to the food.  I have been to some places where the food was fantastic, but the service was always slow or otherwise less than excellent.  The food at these places was so good in fact, that I did not mind putting up with the service.  Since I have been going back, I also know what to expect so it is no longer a shock.
   On the other hand, I have also been to a place where the service was down right terrible. In fact, they even forgot to bring out my wife's order.  So this restaurant was already at a disadvantage.  Once we got our food it was mediocre at best.  Needless to say, my wife and I have not been back.  I contend that if this particular restaurant had served us amazing food, we would at least have been back once more to give it a second chance.

   The thing about the world we live in is that it is never as cut and dry as percentages from survey would indicate.  Some of those who completed my survey also left comments.  It is in these comments that I learned the most about what people really thought when eating out.

   One thing that everyone seemed to agree on and that I had not even considered was the price point of a restaurant.  The way of thinking was that the higher priced a place would be, the less margin or error it had with either food or service.  If you are paying enough, both damn well better be good.  On the opposite side of the spectrum is where most people were a bit more forgiving, especially if the food was good.

   Another aspect I had not counted on was availability of options.  In a place where good food is plentiful and one has a plethora of options, then both the food and the service are paramount.  If either is lacking, there are more than enough competitors to fill that void.  However, in places where the opposite is true, you tend to put up with more simply because you don't have that many place to go.  

   One person pointed out that the service generally hints at how the restaurant is being run/managed.  If a place has good to great service but the food was a little sub-par, chances are it was an off night for the kitchen.  A well run front-of-the-house will indicate that problems will be resolved and that management will also take any and all complaints and concerns seriously.  One of the culinary professionals also pointed out that a lot of chain restaurants make their money off of their service rather than having great food. 

   After reading the comments I was able to discern that while everyone agreed that both food and service were important for a restaurant's success, most were willing to forgive bad service if the food was good enough and the price (the lower the better) was right.  Most were also in agreement that service could not make up for terrible food.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Iron Chef Party: Potluck with a twist

            Do you remember several years ago when the Food Network was still in its infancy?  Celebrity chefs were still kind of a novelty.  And a quirky little food competition made the leap from Japan to the States to find that it was absolutely loved by American audiences.  Then years later after the original had run its course Food Network tried to revive it with the American version.  Well, what if I told you, you could still have that beloved show, only in your own Kitchen Stadium.  What I am talking about is an Iron Chef Party.  This is a potluck dinner party that combines all the elements of eating interesting food, having people cook "competitively", and just a great excuse for a social gathering.

            Let me start with some of the ground rules.  The point of the Iron Chef party, much like the show, is centered on a main ingredient.  The person hosting the party is considered to be the Chairman and thus they choose the ingredient.  In the case of couples it is usually considered that they are both hosting and therefore co-Chairperson, especially if they are married or living together.  The ingredient is chosen anywhere from a couple of nights beforehand up to a week but not much more than that.  You still want a little bit of an element of surprise.  


            Once the ingredient is chosen all the participants prepare a dish using said ingredient.  The day of the event, everyone, including the chairman, brings their dish to the host's place and shares with everyone else.  Now people can bring their dish already prepared or, if the host is willing and able, people can finish prepping at the host's locale.  This proves to be useful for hot entrees or side dishes.  

            Once everyone has shared their dish there is a vote to decided the best dish.  The chairman/host is not in the running since he or she was the one to decide the ingredient in the first place.  How you vote is entirely up to you.  Secret ballot using slips of paper and pens works well.  At one such gathering a friend of mine who is technologically inclined set up a Google doc and had us all vote electronically via email.  Yeah, that is way over my head too.

            After the voting is concluded the winner is announced to the adulation of his peers.  What do you get when you win an Iron Chef party?  Bragging rights, a point of pride or whatever you would like to give out.  My group of friends have made an Iron Chef hat that is passed around when someone wins.  That person keeps the hat until the next Iron Chef party and if someone else wins, they get the hat.  

             So, how do you get started?  Easy, you just declare an Iron Chef party.  You can do this via email or in person or however you would like.  The idea is to try to get together as many people as possible.  In the case of an Iron Chef party the more the merrier is a good mantra.  No good potluck parties ever had only a few people.  Let me give you this one piece of advice.  When you are preparing your dishes, keep in mind that you are not giving everyone a full portion.  We have learned this the hard way over time.  If you have 12 people coming over and everyone is preparing food to feed 12 people...  Well that is a lot of food.  All anyone really needs is a taste.
And what about those people who can't cook for whatever reason?  We have built into our Iron Chef parties what we call wine passes.  Can't cook because you will be stuck at work until party time?  Bring a bottle of wine!  Can't cook because all you know how to make is toast and you burn that?  Bring wine!  Just keep in mind that this is a potluck and you do not want more wine than food or having just  a couple of people feeding everyone else.  One time the host decided to challenge everyone to bring a complimentary bottle of wine with each dish.  We ended up with 13 bottles of wine and 11 participants!

            When you decide to throw an Iron Chef party here are some suggestions for you.  Like with any party pick a time that will accommodate the most number of people.  It's no fun if no one can make your party.  Also keep in mind that there will be large amounts of food and possibly beverage.  That is why I like to have mine on Fridays or Saturdays.  The best ingredients are usually ones that are very versatile.  You want to have a wide range of foods from appetizers , to entrees, to even desserts.  Some of the ingredients we have used have been wine, beer, goat cheese, honey, lime, zucchini, just to name a few.