An Everlasting Short Rib
My favorite meal for a crowd also leaves the greatest scraps.
If I am cooking for more than four people, my first thought is braised short ribs. The meat comes out velvety tender every time, and the cooking bends to your schedule—whether you want to pull a gleaming pot out of the oven a cool 30 minutes after your guests arrive, or you want to make something the day beforehand and let it become even more delicious in the fridge overnight. Braised short ribs also mean lots of rich sauce, for which you’ll pick a soft, comforting base: I often go for polenta, but the last two recipes I’ve followed in this style (Alex Raij’s Basque spin on osso buco; Lara Lee’s sticky short ribs with chili) have both suggested mashed potatoes. My only quibble with the latter is that I never want to do anything with leftover mashed potatoes, while I’ll always, happily, messily pan-fry some cold polenta as a bed for a morning egg. Rice works, too.
I was a vegetarian when I started getting into cooking, so there’s still a wide swath of meat preparations I haven’t mastered; steak stresses me out. But short ribs, like roast chicken, are easy to get the hang of and tough to ruin. The first time I made short ribs they made my eyes bug out. It’s a format with an aggressively high ROI. It’s bountiful in more ways than one: it feeds a crowd, sure, but it always leaves you with useful scraps. At the very least there are bones, which I’ll ask my guests not to throw out, then shove into a freezer bag. Eventually, when I have few free hours at home, they will become stock bolstered with whatever vegetable scraps they’ve been bunking with.
This cut of meat also renders an aggressive amount of fat, which is especially notable when you refrigerate your braised short ribs before serving: A thick layer of cooled fat will pool around the hunks of meat like an icy lake surrounding rocks. Recipes will tell you to skim that off, and I’ll do you one better by urging you to save it. Sticking it in the freezer (you’ll notice a trend here) is your safest bet, as it will keep for months. My friend Clio recently made pan-fried potatoes with her leftover short rib fat, which I’ll be trying as soon as I can. But who says you can’t fry a piece of toast in it? Who says you can’t use it to cook down some onions?
Sometimes your guests will hoover up all the meat but save a little gravy, which is a particularly lush scrap. Spoon it over that polenta, over rice, over toast, over ramen, or yes, you can even stick it in the freezer. (As a rule, I freeze anything that will add flavor to a future pot-of-something.) Tejal Rao recently wrote about how she uses her leftover kimchi soondubu jjigage broth to make pasta sauce, or braised vegetables, or noodle soup. She lovingly describes these moves as “slothful”, but really they’re a way of teaching your kitchen that grating corporate lesson: work smarter, not harder.
The latest short rib recipe I’ve made is particularly generous in its leftovers, and it has become my new favorite thanks a deep, tangy, barely-sweet sauce and an unforgettable condiment. It comes from Coconut & Sambal, Lara Lee’s 2020 cookbook that collects recipes from across Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. These sticky beef short ribs with chili, or iga bumbu dendeng balado, were one of the first recipes I bookmarked as I rifled through the book. I recently made them when I had some friends up to Massachusetts for a weekend, relishing the opportunity to once again cook for a crowd.
Most braised short rib recipes follow a shared formula: sear short ribs in a Dutch oven until they’re a deep golden brown on all sides (this part always takes longer than you expect), then braise it in a liquid spiked with aromatics for a few hours. Lee’s is a riff on the typical seasoning of dendeng balado, a jerky-like beef dish served with a chili sauce. Where many short rib recipes have you cook vegetables in the beef fat rendered from searing, then add stock and/or wine, here you make a spice paste in the food processor, and fry it until it darkens and softens. It then goes into the pot with water and a handful of seasonings. After a few hours in the oven, it becomes deep and dark and soft, its gravy punchy and tart thanks to tamarind paste, and caramel-sticky thanks to dates.
The balado sauce—a sautéed mix of red chilis, scallions, and makrut lime leaves—is the perfect leftover, since it’s mega-flavorful and won’t quickly spoil. I used it as a heavy-hitting garnish for a litany of simple meals that following week: over eggs, sardine rice, salmon bowls, a tiktok tofu recipe. It’s the sort of thing that will keep lazy meals from being boring. (Tejal is right, of course; there’s nothing wrong with a little sloth.) As I finished up the last of it, spread across some avocado toast, a pot of stock simmered on the stove made from the beef bones and a freezer bag of vegetable scraps. I didn’t rinse the bones of their sauce before freezing them, because why would I throw away free flavor?
I realize that not everyone is constantly thinking about the bits and bobs in their fridge and freezer, about the permutations of every single meal. But I do think that one of the ways to make tastier food without spending more money or time is to know a flavorful, useful scrap when you see one, then to stow it away safely1, and—this last part is the hardest—not forget about it. This is the most important lesson I learned from Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, a book that I really will not shut up about, and one that significantly shaped not just how I cook but how I think about my kitchen.
In it, Adler teaches cooking through the questions the process requires, starting with: what do I want and what do I have and ending with do I like it? Is it done? Adler’s meals are “everlasting” in part because they connect to each other through leftovers, pot liquors, broths, scraps, and the ever-holy rinds of parmesan cheese. Tonight’s chicken is tomorrow’s broth; that broth turns dried beans into a bowl of gold, to which you can add a handful of tiny pasta for a surprisingly luxurious dinner. Here the chicken lasts far longer than its meat, and the kitchen is something that lives, breathes, and sustains itself. The book taught me to think of my kitchen as an ecosystem, where the life cycles of dishes and ingredients tangle together, and feed into each other. It’s nose-to-tail cooking, even when the ingredient has neither. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder to save the few tablespoons of leftover fat these short ribs might leave you: they hold so much promise.
Lara Lee’s Sticky Beef Short Rib with Chili (Iga Bumbu Dendeng Balado)
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