Our neighborhood is rich with little Mexican groceries, each with a small produce section and dairy case (that shuns anything low fat), aisles of canned goods and imported candy, and – no matter how tiny the store – each with its own fresh meat counter, presided over by a living, breathing butcher.
The other night, during one of the rare breaks in the snowfall, I was walking around looking at stuff in the neighborhood and remembered we were out of, well, everything fresh. So I clomped across Diversey Avenue to the store we now like the best.
The butcher counters at these little shops are minute and, while they do offer some conventional American products, such as chicken parts and straight-up ground beef, they primarily feature cuts aimed at the Hispanic market – often, very thinly sliced, marinated beef and pork. Everything is always fresh and the butchers are always helpful and happy to see us. What caught my eye on this outing was the costillos de puerco – pork short ribs. They looked so fresh and inviting and soon I was walking out the door with two-plus pounds, wrapped in paper.
What to do with my impulse purchase? A quick trip through the Internet suggested classic treatments with Mexican spices and peppers, but instead I went for what felt right at that moment – the country French comfort approach: oven braising with aromatic vegetables.
There’s something about oven braising in the winter that always soothes me – the way the apartment warms up and fills with the luscious aroma. Simply the perfect antidote to days of polar vortex.
This country French treatment is a great thing to have in your vocabulary. You can swap in boneless pork shoulder roast (or “stew meat”), cut into 2-inch cubes, beef short ribs, chuck roast also cut into cubes, or even pieces of chicken or duck. Just be sure to adjust the time accordingly – way more for beef, way less for fowl.
Finally, you can also play with the herbs and spices. Next time, instead of black pepper, I am going to use grains of paradise, powdered in our ex-coffee grinder. Grains of paradise are very like black pepper but more aromatic and citrusy. (You can also mix them with whole black peppercorns in your pepper mill.)
And finally – finally – I made this rather lateish the other night – I started cooking at 9:30 p.m., aiming to serve the next night. That worked out really well for two reasons: It was easier the next day to skim and discard any fat that rose to the top, and overnight, everything had mellowed together and become even more meltingly luscious. This is one of those wonderful cold-weather dishes whose flavor deepens and expands with a night in the fridge.
Braised costillos de puerco, French style
Serves four (see Kitchen Notes)
3-1/2 to 4 pounds costillos de puerco, or 2 pounds of boneless pork shoulder
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 medium onions, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
4 medium carrots, peeled, topped and cut on the diagonal into 1/2-inch pieces
8 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup parsnip, peeled, sliced into 1/2-inch diagonals
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1/2 bottle red wine (may substitute cooking wine)
1-1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup amontillado sherry (optional, see Kitchen Notes)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Put the pork ribs on a plate. Salt them and then thoroughly grind black pepper all over them. Put about 1/3 cup of flour in a clean paper bag, then add the meat pieces, fold the top closed and shake shake shake until everything Is lightly coated. Discard any flour that doesn’t stick to the meat.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, lidded, oven-safe nonstick sauté pan over medium-high flame. I used our Calphalon Williams-Sonoma Elite Nonstick sauté pan. Brown the ribs well in the hot oil on all sides, working in batches, if necessary. Transfer to a plate.
3. Wipe out the pan and add a tablespoon of olive oil. Reduce heat to medium and add all the vegetables, the bay leaves, and thyme, and sauté about 6 minutes, until the vegetables start browning, stirring frequently. Add the tomato paste and stir, over the same heat, for a minute or two. Then pour in the wine, sherry (if using), and stock and stir everything together, scraping up any brown bits. Return the short ribs to the pan, along with any accumulated juices, nestling them into the mass of vegetables and liquid. Bring to a boil. Then cover tightly and move the pan into the hot oven. Check from time to time, say every 15 minutes or so. You don’t want the liquid to cook away, and you don’t want the meat to overcook and become dry and ropy. After about 90 minutes, the costillos should be very tender.
4. When the meat is ready, gently remove it and the vegetables to a plate and reduce the stock so that it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon – you don’t want really it runny and liquid, and you don’t want it to have that heavy clotting thing. If the stock is already right, and it probably will be, you may skip this step. It is now ready to serve, or to be cooled down and stored in the fridge in a covered container, for serving the next day.
5. You can serve this with a simple salad plus boiled potatoes (buttered and with fresh parsley), mashed potatoes, puréed celery root, buttered noodles or one of those mash-ups of potatoes and other root vegetables that are so nice when the weather is chilly. If you have some meat left over, the next day you can pull it off the bones and use it as a taco filling. We had it with avocado, finely chopped fresh white onion, and cilantro, and that made us really happy, too.
How many servings? This recipe can be scaled up or down to serve any number of folk.
Amontillado sherry is a nice addition to this dish, adding to the mellowness, but it is not essential. Instead you may use any medium sherry or Marsala, or you can omit it entirely.
How much meat? If you are making this with costillos de puerco, allow about 3/4 pound per person – there’s a lot of bone. If you are using boneless meat, allow the usual dialed-back 1/3 to 1/2 pound per person.
Wrapping the leftovers in tortillas. Chicago is a never-ending cavalcade of great, fresh, locally made tortillas, and if your part of the world has any sort of Hispanic population at all, with minimal effort you should be able to find a good local example, local and fresh. Even though I was shopping rather late at night, I realized, when I put my hand in the carton to choose a package, that they had come from the factory just a little while before: they were still warm.
By the way, when you are shopping for tortillas, if you have the choice between fresh tortillas in a plastic bag or in a paper wrapper, choose the paper wrapper. They will cost less (the pack I bought cost 25 cents), and they will most likely have fewer industrial additives. The entire list of ingredients on the brand we bought, from Tortilleria Los Comanches: corn, water, lime, and they smelled, and tasted, so immaculate and clean. Keep them in the fridge and, as with any tortilla, consume soon.