Since my move to Bermondsey, my Saturdays have fallen into a pattern. I get up early, so I can get to the Butchery (now only a five minute walk from my flat) soon after they open. Then I slaver over the meat case, which Nathan the butcher and his young disciples have stocked full of lovely cuts of rare breed meat. Then I count my money, which usually isn’t enough. (Like most of the Maltby Street traders, the Butchery only takes cash.) After I’ve made my purchases, I call friends Jess and Will, who (I like to imagine) have been waiting by their phones like addicts waiting for a call from their dealer, and I announce what I’ve bought. My first Saturday back from Seattle, it was, “dry-aged Dexter flatiron, Old Spot streaky bacon, and marrow bones!” Two weeks ago: “Two whole pork jowls!” And last week: “two kilos of white park dry-aged short ribs! Oh my god they’re so beautiful! Streaky bacon! And one-and-a-half kilos of marrow bones!”
Short ribs, of course, are one of the so-called lesser cuts of beef which were “discovered” by chefs and restaurateurs in the mid-90s. (They’ve been used in Asian cookery for aeons.) They are glorious. Slowly braised, short ribs become so unctuously tender they barely need to be chewed. After the Butchery, at Booth’s (a fruit and veg stall on Druid Street) I pounced on some beautiful cepes that were not horrifically expensive, and a Dinner Was Born.
Cooking with Will and Jess always presents me with a quandary. On the one hand, they are, bar none, my very favourite people in London to cook and eat with. On the other hand, due to childcare issues (theirs not mine) we always cook at their flat, and their lighting is terrible for photographs. I have become obsessed with the quality of my photographs on this blog and I get all twitchy when I can’t take nice photographs of my food. So a lot of the really lovely things that Will and Jess and I cook together never get blogged. But this dish is quite special. Cepes, also known as porcini, king boletes or, if you’re “picking” mushrooms from the car with my mom, “STEINPILZ!!!” have a deep, dark, nutty taste like dried meat and moss and ancient loamy forests. In addition to being outrageously delicious, they’re wonderfully versatile; they can be simply sautéed, slowly stewed, dried, or frozen and used as if fresh. In sauces, dried cepes add a powerful savory aroma, rich brown color, and profound, earthy flavour.
Here, I simmered dried cepes in bone marrow stock, browned my beautiful short ribs in bacon fat, and then braised them with the stock, red wine, herbs, and a LOT of garlic, until the meat was falling apart. We reduced the sauce and served the meat with additional sautéed fresh cepes and polenta. Ideally, you want to braise your short ribs for at least four hours. If you cook this recipe at home, however, you can do everything except the final step a day in advance. And braising is incredibly easy. Once you’ve whacked everything in the pot, you can basically forget about it until it’s ready. Polenta was a nice accompaniment, but if polenta seems like too much bother, you can serve this dish with gnocchi or pappardelle. The dried cepes are essential, but if fresh cepes are hard to come by or prohibitively expensive, you can omit the garnish, or garnish with chopped fresh herbs or crispy fried garlic. You will need:
A heavy skillet
A deep heavy oven-proof casserole dish, for braising
A gravy separator (optional)
2 kg (about 4.5 pounds) short ribs
4-5 rashers of thick-cut unsmoked streaky bacon, chopped into 1 cm (1/2 inch) pieces
1 large head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled, and the large cloves cut in half
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
750 ml (a scant quart) beef stock or, ideally, bone marrow stock
500 ml (about two pints) medium-bodied red wine suitable for cooking
25 g (about an ounce) dried cepes
To garnish (optional)
50-75 g (2-3 ounces) fresh cepes, washed and sliced
75 g butter (about a tablespoon)
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
Preheat your oven to 150 degrees Celsius (300 degrees Fahrenheit).
In a saucepan, warm your stock until it is simmering and stir in the sugar, mustard, and dried cepes. Allow to stand while you brown your meat. Season your short ribs liberally on both sides with salt and pepper. Brown the bacon in a heavy-bottomed skillet and then scoop it out into a dish so it doesn’t burn, leaving the fat in the pan. Brown the meat on each side.
Cut a parchment “lid” by tracing around the lid of your casserole dish on a piece of parchment paper and cutting. Layer the meat in the casserole with the garlic cloves, thyme, bay leaves and bacon, and then pour your stock mixture and wine over all. The liquid should cover the meat but if it does not, it’s fine to add a little water. Place the parchment lid directly over the meat (it helps ensure more even cooking) and then cover the pot. Put in the oven and allow to braise for at least four hours, or until the meat is fork tender.
Remove the meat from the pot and then strain the braising liquid into another container, reserving the mushrooms and bacon pieces. (At this stage, or after you’ve reduced your braising liquid, you can refrigerate for up to a day.) De-fat the liquid either by using a gravy separator, chilling it (the fat solidifies making it easy to remove) or carefully spooning the fat off. Put the de-fatted liquid in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat to reduce, and simmer until it is reduced by at least half. With this dish, the flavours are so intense and the textures so nice that an overly thick sauce can be too rich, but that’s a matter of personal taste. Remember that the sauce will thicken as it cools, and that it’s going to be reheated with the meat. When the liquid is reduced to your liking, taste and adjust seasonings (it shouldn’t need much).
While the liquid is reducing, thinly slice the dried cepes (which should be nice and soft after braising with the meat) and return to the pot, along with the meat and bacon. Pour the reduced sauce over the meat, cover the pot, and return to the oven to heat through. While the meat is reheating, lightly sauté the additional garlic in a frying pan and then stir in the cepes and thyme, seasoning with salt and pepper, and cook until cepes are golden and tender, about 10-15 minutes. Serve the short ribs topped with a spoonful of the fresh sautéed cepes and plenty of sauce.
Serves 4-6 very greedy people.