Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, by Bill Buford, our current Cook the Books Club selection, was a fascinating glimpse into life behind the scenes, at the three-star New York restaurant, Babbo. Buford, a reporter and editor at the New Yorker, took on the commission of a profile on Mario Batali, larger than life, restaurant owner, Chef, TV personality, and author, with an extreme dedication. This book is his account of the experience, which brought him to not only hook up with Batali, but to work for him, learning the food business firsthand, which he continued to do, even after his profile, The Secret of Excess, was completed. Heat incorporates all that and much more, with frequently humorous reflections on food, cultural influences and history.
I truly admire Buford's incredible verisimilitude in reporting. To go through learning all the steps, from hours, months of mundane prep work, to apprenticing at the stations for pasta, grill work and plating, not to mention, of course, enduring the intense heat (physically and emotionally) back there in the kitchen, including real abuse from some of the chefs. His book could have alternatively been titled, Life on the Line. It sounded like hell to me. Not anywhere I'd want to be. Though, I'm glad he did, so we could read about it. An outstanding read, which I truly enjoyed, perhaps excepting only the last section of the book, where for further hands on experience, he apprentices with a butcher in Tuscany. Vegetarians should be forewarned. Too much gory detail, but hey, at least he got to hear Dante quoted in between times. Didn't Dante write about hell?
All of which brought to mind a recent article in Bon Appetit, written by Molly Wizenberg, of the popular blog Orangette, entitled, "If you can't stand the heat...." It was penned shortly after she had worked four months as a cook at Delanceys, Seattle, the restaurant Wizenberg and her husband had just opened. As she tells it:
"But a restaurant kitchen operates at a speed and on a scale that few home kitchens will ever know...Great restaurant cooks thrive under pressure. They're performers. They may swear and sweat, but they like the challenge, the intensity, the urgency. I am not a great restaurant cook. I don't know if it's a matter of genes or temperament or both, but when faced with a dozen orders, I do not get an adrenaline rush. I get weepy....
I didn't understand this until I worked in our restaurant, but for me, cooking is not a performance. It's more intimate, more private than that. I like a small kitchen."Yes, exactly, as I frequently feel that way in my very own, quiet, little kitchen. I often want out of there, it's just too darn hot. And, the pressure! I mean, getting a meal on the table that tastes good, is composed in a balanced way, and served some time before The Late Show? As intense as I want to get. Actually, to be honest, I don't like entertaining all that much, for the above reasons. It's not entertaining me any. I'd rather go out, let someone else do the sweating. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy cooking, trying new things, serving delicious food to the people I love, .....eating. But, no pressure. Mixed feelings, I guess.
I've had the cookbook, Babbo, by Mario Batali, for over a year now, so Buford's read was all the more engrossing, and just the prod needed to begin cooking right through it. Bob is happy about that. He said of Mario's Braised Short Ribs last night, that they were the best ever, giving it a notch above grilled tenderloin, even edging out MEATLOAF and (my) Mac'n Cheese on his favorite dinners list. The following night, when it did not show up on his plate again, (poor guy, I made an eggplant custard) muttered that he wants those ribs at least once a week. They were that good. I guess we would have to agree with NY chef, Tom Valenti, Mario's inspiration for introducing them to his menu years ago, and who told Buford, "I liked short ribs much more than any other beef cut: they are rich and marbled and full of so much fatty flavor that they never dry out."
So, as far as inspiration, there was that aplenty in Buford's book, especially with Mario's tome to provide the apropos recipes. His Braised Short Ribs are an inexpensive cut of beef, brought to haute level (Chapter 8). Says Buford, "I found myself needing to understand short ribs", and I decided with him to learn about this cut. In the past, what I thought were short ribs, as it turns out. might have come from another planet. I ordered these from our local natural foods store, asking that the butcher cut them in 3 inch pieces on the bone. When he took a look at them before browning, Bob asked if we were having elephant for dinner. Those hunks are big.
From Bufords description (Chapter 14) of the Babbo ideal, slow-simmered polenta, it sounded like a perfect complement to the ribs. I absolutely love polenta, but had not paid much attention, in the past, to doing a slow cook, (would just get things to the really thick stage) so I was curious to see what a difference long simmering might make. Though I did not go to the extent of a 2 hour carmelization on the bottom, it was indeed sweet.
Alongside the short ribs, Babbo serves a Gremolata (condiment) of horseradish, lemon and parsley, which brings a zesty, fresh balance to the meal. Altogether, it was an awesome combination. The rich, hearty short ribs were perfectly paired on a backdrop of creamy, golden polenta, with the palate cleansing, green herbs.
Braised Short Ribs
adapted from the recipe by Mario Batali in Babbo
4-5 lbs. beef short ribs (ask your butcher to cut them into 3 inch pieces on the bone)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
4 carrots, peeled and roughly cut
1 turnip, peeled and roughly cut *
2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
5 garlic cloves, sliced
2 cups Barolo or other full-bodied red wine
1 16 oz. can peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand, with their juices
1 cup beef stock
2 branches of thyme
1 branch of rosemary
2 tablespoons of oregano, chopped (I have the large-leafed, thick kind)
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only (you could also use mizuna - I used some of both)
zest of 2 lemons, cut into julienne strips - or 1/2 preserved lemon, rinsed and sliced thinly
1 tablespoon horseradish (to taste really - he calls for 1/4 lb. fresh, grated)
Preheat the oven to 375F.
2. In a large heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over high heat until smoking. Season the ribs with salt and pepper and cook them over high heat until deep brown on all sides, about 15 minutes total. Remove the ribs to a plate and set aside. Add the vegetables and garlic to the pan and cook over high heat until browned and softened, about 4 min. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the red wine, tomatoes and juices, stock and herbs, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen the brown bits. Bring it to a boil, return the short ribs to the pot, bring down to a simmer, and cover tightly. Cook in the preheated oven for 2-3 hours (I did 3 which was perfect), or until the meat is tender and falling off the bones.
3. At this point, though he doesn't say to, I discarded the bones, and next time would also strain the meat and veggies from the pot and remove as much of the fat as possible from the juices. Then return to serve with the ribs. Vegetables cooked in that fantastic braise are soooo good, I would definitely recommend plating them with the meat. Which is why I increased the amount of carrots in this.
* Mario's recipe didn't call for the turnip, but mine (from our CSA) was hysterically fantastic in there, trust me, and next time (and there will be many, if Bob has anything to say about it) I will add in more if I can possibly get them.
4. Make the gremolata: In a small bowl, combine the parsley, lemon zest (or slices of preserved lemon) and horseradish. Toss loosely. Without thinking too much about it, I grated my lemon zest, and it worked out fine.
I am going to include my recipe for polenta, as over the years I have come across so many that tell you to pour the polenta into boiling water, stirring madly, or to mix a part of it in some of the water, then pour into boiling water. Why, I do not know. Maybe the little grains of corn when encountering boiling water do a special number. I do know it is liable to cause burn spatters. So, with that in mind:
makes 5 3/4 cup servings
When your short ribs are about 1 hour from finish, whisk 1 1/4 cups cornmeal into 3 1/2 cups water in a medium pot. Turn up the heat and whisk every now and then, until it boils. Turn down to a simmer, add 2 tablespoons butter. Continue occasionally stirring to prevent lumps or bottom sticking. After about 45 minutes, you should add a little hot water from time to time when stirring. You can add grated cheeses, but for this meaty meal, I wanted to keep it simple, creamy and soooo good.
What a fantastic introduction to a really over-the-top chef from Bill Buford. A must read for anyone at all interested in food, history, the restaurant business or cooking. Check out the review and inspired recipes round-up, hosted this time by Johanna of Food Junkie Not Junk Food.