Winter - a season of cold, snow, packed earth, things laid to rest and freeze until the thaw of spring. It is a season of long nights, some of which are 'dark' and 'of the soul.' In order to survive the cold both inner and outer, our bodies crave warm, comforting, hearty foods to stoke our inner fires. Comfort food is often full of rich ingredients - indulgences we might otherwise not cater to in the lighter seasons: cream, cheese, cuts of meat made tender by hours of slow cooking in savory sauces. Winter vegetables boast thick skins and fleshy insides that love to luxuriate in a bath of braising liquid, or hold their own in a robust and flavorful stew. Winter is a season made for the long and the slow - and adjusting to this slowing down of life both culinarily and personally is the key to making the most of what winter has to offer. My indulgence this week was short ribs and creamy Dijon Brussels sprouts. Short ribs, funnily enough, take a long time to cook, but like all things in which time is invested, the result is well worth the wait.
Lately I've been attempting to listen to my body and following through as best I can with the messages it sends me, except perhaps the one that says "exercise." The only thing I've been exercising lately is my right to selectively choose which messages I'd like to listen to. Late one night last week my body sent me an urgent telegram: make short ribs. Not wishing to ignore this request, I promptly went and consulted some of my favourite cookbooks and went about preparing them borrowing ideas from a variety of sources.
I browned the ribs on all sides and layered my dutch oven with the heat-kissed ribs, sliced red onion, fresh parsley, canned tomatoes, chunky carrots, lots of garlic and a sprinkling of whole cloves. I then made a marinade of tomato paste, maple syrup, red wine vinegar and beef stock and poured it over-top. The lid went on and so did a movie and two hours later my house smelled like...it smelled like...like...well, I can't seem to put my finger on the appropriate adjective. Put it this way: these short ribs smelled and tasted so good I considered asking for my own hand in marriage.
Ever on the hunt for a reason to try out Deb's Dijon-braised Brussels sprouts from Smitten Kitchen, I thought they'd get along splendidly with the short ribs and add a bit of colour to the plate. Basically, halved Brussels sprouts are laid on a bed of shimmering butter and olive oil to brown slowly and are then treated to a warm bath of stock and spirit.
Deb's recipe called for veggie or chicken stock, but I had some leftover beef stock from the short ribs and opted for that. I also went with cooking sherry instead of the suggested white wine, because it was what I had on hand. Some pretty little shallots were also tossed in to caramelize with the braising liquid and add some texture.
All those worries, all those concerns and frettings - winter is the season that says: put a lid on them and let them be. Like what is going on on the stove, all the components will sort themselves out in the meantime to a delectable conclusion if you stop interfering and over-thinking.
When fork-tender, the sprouts and shallots are removed from their pan, as the brown bits on the pan bottom are married with (yep, here it comes) heavy cream and a healthy dose of Dijon mustard. This bubbles and thickens and browns a bit and is then lovingly drizzled over the Brussels sprouts.
There is something unbelievably satisfying in making (and eating) comfort food. I think the important thing to remember is that the comfort is not in the food itself, but in the creation and enjoyment of it - in the generous gift of time you give yourself when approaching a slow and soulful winter dish. Time to contemplate, time to marinate, time to stew in the thoughts that need pondering and give 'cooking time' to the ones that have been over-pondered. When your body craves this 'comfort food' I think the real message it is sending is this: Dear body, this is your soul speaking. Please set aside some time in your day to prepare yourself for the cold and the dark these winter days can hold. Do it with cream, do it with butter, do it with slow-cooked meats and hearty vegetables, but above all, do it consciously, do it compassionately, and do it with love. You need a solid and grounded foundation for the difficulties and the questions and the waiting for spring this long winter asks of you and it is not something you can go through on an empty stomach or a lean heart.
OVEN: 350 F
Freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds beef short ribs, in 2 inch lengths
2 TBSP olive oil
8 garlic cloves- I used 4 whole & 4 finely chopped
1 (28 OZ) can whole tomatoes, with juice
1 1/2 CUPS peeled and sliced carrots (1/4" thick slices)
1 1/2 CUPS sliced onions (I used red - any kind would work)
5 whole cloves
1/2 CUP chopped fresh parsley
1/3 CUP red wine vinegar
1 1/2 TBSP tomato paste
1 TBSP maple syrup
1 TSP salt
1 TSP chili powder
1 1/2 CUPS beef stock
Cover rib pieces in freshly ground pepper. Heat olive oil in a dutch oven or large heavy-bottom pot on medium heat and brown short ribs on all sides, removing once brown to drain on paper towel.
Return half of the ribs to the pot, layering half the remaining vegetables on top, ending with the parsley. Repeat with the second half of the ribs, top with second half of vegetables and finish with parsley.
Whisk together the remaining ingredients (except stock), and pour evenly over the layered meat & vegetables. Pour stock over everything and cover the pot, bringing it to a boil over medium heat.
Remove from the element and let bake on the centre rack in the oven for 1 1/2 - 2 hours (the length of a movie is perfect). Uncover, and let bake until the meat is super tender, about another hour or so.
These short ribs smell and taste like marriage proposals feel (the ones you're likely to say yes to, anyway) and eater discretion is advised. I am now my own wife, if that is any indication of their deliciousness.
Creamy Dijon Braised Brussels Sprouts - inspired by Smitten Kitchen
1 TBSP olive oil
1 TBSP butter
1 POUND Brussels sprouts
1/4 cup cooking sherry (or wine or spirit of choice)
1 CUP beef stock (or chicken or vegetable, water would work too)
3 shallots, peeled and sliced into rings
2 TBSP heavy cream
Dijon mustard, to taste (I used about 1 TBSP)
Salt & freshly ground pepper
Trim and halve sprouts. Heat olive oil and butter until shimmery in your cast iron skillet or heavy-bottom pan. Place sprouts cut-side down and cook until bottoms are brown (about 5 min). Sprinkle liberally with shallot rings and swigs of cooking sherry. Add stock of choice and bring to a happy simmer. Reduce heat to medium low, cover, and let cook till fork-tender (about 15-20 min).
Remove sprouts and shallots from pan. Add cream and mustard, salt and pepper to taste and let thicken slightly. Scrape sauce from pan and pour over sprouts - serve immediately.
These sprouts taste like coming home feels and are a very pleasant companion to the short rib recipe above. I also served mine with a side of mashed sweet potato, a sprinkling of parsley and a hearty conversation with a visiting friend. Enjoy!