I’m finally realizing that I don’t need a light box to take photos. Just a bit more imagination. In the meantime, thank goodness for friends, who come to dinner with a fresh perspective. Here is my friend’s shot of last night’s dinner: short ribs and turnip greens over a Vallarta bean puree. OMG. So good. So, so good.
Vallarta beans are alleged to be the favorite of celebrity chef Thomas Keller, of French Laundry. (http://tkrg.org/) But in The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide, Steve Sando is less than enthusiastic, confessing, “When I first cooked it, I was underwhelmed and in fact didn’t really like the super-thick, almost peanut butter texture of the bean.” However, he did fall in love with the beans when their richness was cut by bitter greens.
I, not being a fool (at least when it comes to food), took this advice to heart. But I wasn’t quite sure what else to serve. Until inspiration struck in the form of my visiting friend’s dietary requirements, which, atypically, include lots and lots of red meat. To make more blood. Weird, right? But fascinating. I sometimes forget that all of our bodies have different needs, which can be diametrically opposed. Fun challenge to cook with another person’s body type in mind!
My other challenge in coming up with a menu was timing, as life outside of dreamland has been busier than usual. What could I make in the slow cooker that would showcase this rich, super-thick bean? I considered pot roast, but that didn’t seem right. Meatloaf, meatballs, beef stew, braciole. No, no, no, no. None of these sounded like a good foil or showcase for extra-special Vallarta bean. Then I remembered short ribs.
Several years ago, at the tail end of my dinner party hey day, short ribs were a bit of a fad. I made them just once. They were delicious but super fatty and not a lot of bang for the buck. These days I’m less flush with cash and also, because of my much healthier diet, do not easily digest fatty meats. But I kept coming back to the idea. Short ribs sounded perfect. And I couldn’t think of any other make-ahead, red meat option that sounded good. So I decided to go for it. And I’m so glad I did.
Because I’m a slow cooker junkie, I have two, one fancy new model, and another, straight from the 70s in its avocado green and curly brown font, that I picked up at a garage sale. The older version is small and round, perfect for cooking beans. But I typically use my newer model because the older one does not have a timer. Yesterday, however, I got to use both, the older one for the beans, and the newer version for the meat. You cannot imagine how happy this made me all day, to know that not just one, but two separate dishes were simmering away, at home, while I was out in the world.
Before being introduced to Rancho Gordo, I had my own style of bean cookery, which is incredibly basic: beans, water, and kombu in a slow cooker, seasoned with salt at the end. I like adding aromatics as per the Rancho Gordo way. But after being warned about the richness of Vallarta beans, I decided to go with my own approach, to meet the bean on its own, without any distraction.
I put the unsoaked beans (2 cups) into the slow cooker, covered with 2″ of cold water, added a thumb-sized piece of kombu, and cooked, covered, on low for about 9 hours. When I got home the beans were perfectly tender and just covered by a rich, thick broth. I added salt and let them cool in the salted broth, to infuse beans with salt. The presalted taste didn’t wow me, but, after tasting the seasoned bean I’m definitely in Thomas Keller’s camp. Vallarta beans are delicious. Rich and creamy, similar to baby lima beans but without being overly sweet. To puree, just pluck out the kombu and use an immersion blender to combine the beans with their pot liquor. The result is a perfect companion to the heady short ribs. But I also think it would be wonderful as a bed for roasted Brussels sprouts, which I will likely try tomorrow. And, honestly? The puree on its own was so good that I literally (if carefully) licked the immersion blender. Which is embarrassing. But true.
For the short ribs, I adapted a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, which I found here (http://www.thelittlekitchen.net/2011/02/22/red-wine-braised-short-ribs-slow-cooker-recipe/). My version is pretty similar. But I used fewer ribs, because there were just going to be two of us, and I did not bother with separating meat from bones. I also used just one onion and subbed arrowroot powder for the original recipe’s flour, to make the recipe gluten free. Oh, and, as always, I used olive oil instead of vegetable oil. Just ’cause.
Review? I was happy with the end result except it was really fatty. I skimmed a lot of fat off the top before serving. But, in future, I will try to make the dish one day ahead in order to chill overnight. Refrigerated fat is much easier to remove. Okay. Now for the recipe.
3 lbs. beef short ribs
salt & pepper
1 T. olive oil
1 onion, chopped medium
1 carrot, peeled and chopped medium
1 celery rib, chopped medium
1 T. tomato paste
1 t. dried thyme
3 T. arrowroot powder
2 c. dry red wine
2 T. balsamic vinegar
2 c. low sodium chicken broth
2 bay leaves
1. Wash and dry the short ribs. Season generously with salt and pepper, rubbing the seasoning into all sides. Heat the oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Brown the ribs on all sides, about 1 minutes. Transfer to the slow cooker.
2. Add onions, carrot, celery, tomato paste, and thyme to the skillet. Saute over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the onions are softened and lightly browned. Stir in the arrowroot powder and cook for another minute. Then slowly whisk (or stir) in the red wine and vinegar. Simmer for another 5 minutes or so and transfer to the slow cooker.
3. Stir the broth and bay leaves into the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 9-11 hours, until the beef is tender. Mine was perfect at 10 hours.
4. Transfer short ribs to a serving platter and tent loosely with aluminum foil. Let the braising liquid settle for 5 minutes, then remove fat from the surface using a large spoon. Serve on top of the bean puree or mashed potatoes or riced cauliflower. If you want a smooth sauce, strain the liquid, discarding the solids, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Or, for a more rustic dish, top the finished plate with a spoonful of solids, as I did.
For the greens, you want something bitter to cut the richness of the Vallarta beans, especially if you’re adding extra richness of meat. I decided to go with turnip greens for three reasons. First, they were the best looking option at the market. Second, they were the most affordable option at the market. Third, I love them. I’m a big fan of slow cooked Southern-style greens. But for this dish I went a different route, following a recipe I read the other day in the gorgeous, gorgeous cookbook, Coming Home to Sicily, by Fabrizia Lanza. (http://www.powells.com/biblio/62-9781402787836-0) I’ve adapted the original only by the type of greens (she calls for wild greens and recommends subbing Swiss chard, kale, broccoli rabe, mustard greens, dandelion, spinach, arugula, and/or escarole) and reducing the oil from 1/4 cup to 3 T.
Whatever greens you choose, wash, trim, and boil in well-salted water for about 10 minutes. Drain, cool, and chop. Heat about 4 T. olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a peeled clove of garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, being careful not to let the garlic get too brown. Then add the greens and cook for another 10 minutes. Arrange the greens on top of the bean puree, around the ribs or roasted vegetables or, if you’re a purist, just around. Enjoy!