Update (1/22/11): This short rib ragu won Food52‘s contest for Your Best Short Ribs, and will be included in their next cookbook, out later this year!

Maybe it’s the tomato tooth I was born with instead of a sweet tooth, maybe it’s the towering heels I rock when my old bones let me, or maybe it’s only that Marcello Mastroianni was perfection on two legs, but I’ve always wanted to be Italian, just a little bit.


Exhibit A: Photographic evidence of alleged perfection, minus corroborating proof of two legs.

It isn’t that I don’t love a good bowl of shrimp & grits or that I don’t get a nostalgic glow from a breakfast of couche-couche and cane syrup, but polenta has been my go-to corn base of late. And after a long work week, what could be a more welcome sight or more soul-satisfying over cheesy, buttery polenta than a ragu of braised short ribs, I ask you?

It’s a dish that’s nearly impossible to mess up, which I think we all can appreciate in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. With so much else on the mind, it’s nice to throw something into the oven for a few hours and get on with other things. Of course, the initial prep work takes some time — chopping the vegetables, trimming and searing the beef, getting all of the elements in balance before the extended stay in the oven — but your time and patience will be well-rewarded by the outcome.

If you can manage not to devour it right away, let the ribs sit overnight in the refrigerator. This serves two purposes: as we all know, this type of dish is always better on the second day, and you’ll be able to remove some of the ungodly amount of fat the ribs throw off so much easier than if you only skimmed the surface while it was still hot. Of course, chilling the ragu overnight doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a little quality control while it’s still hot, just to put your mind at ease that you have, in fact, made something that will be worth the wait.

Too bad I didn't make more.

But woman cannot live by polenta and short ribs alone. As a nod to the tables of so many of my fellow North Jerseyans, I made a Sunday gravy recently. It’s not something I tackle more than once a year because of the sheer effort and number of calories involved, but man, this makes for a pleasant food coma. I make no claims to authenticity, but I’m not sure too many others can either; it’s one of those dishes that seems to have as many variations as people who make it. The recipes may disagree on specifics, but all are unified in the insistence on Meat And Lots Of It. Me? I only used a paltry four types — pepperoni (not too much of it), sweet Italian sausage, pork butt and beef & pork meatballs. I browned everything but the pepperoni, then simmered it all for hours in tomatoes swimming with garlic until we were going mad (in the best possible way) from the smell.

not perfected yet

My gluten-free adaptation of this polenta cake didn’t quite pass muster, but with a little creme fraiche, it was still a nice way to end the meal. I’ll keep working on it and report back when I’ve found success.

recipe after the jump

Short Rib Ragu

5-6 lbs. short ribs
kosher salt
1 tablespoon bacon fat, lard or oil
1 large onion, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon anchovy paste
1/2 bottle red wine
1/2 28-oz. can whole fire-roasted tomatoes and sauce
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce
1 oz. dried mushrooms reconstituted with 2 cups boiling water
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 large sprig rosemary
2 bay leaves
chicken stock or water
gremolata, recipe follows

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Season ribs well with salt. Heat oil in large, heavy pot (I used a 5-qt. enameled cast iron dutch oven) over medium heat until shimmering. Brown ribs in batches for 2-3 minutes per side, then set aside. Pour out all but 1 tablespoon of accumulated fat from pot, then sauté onion, carrots and celery until soft. Add garlic and stir until fragrant.

Create a hot spot in the pot by moving vegetables aside and leaving about a 3-inch radius bare. Add tomato paste and anchovy paste to the bare spot and stir vigorously until caramelized, then stir into the vegetables. Add red wine to deglaze and cook until liquid is reduced by half. Add tomatoes, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, mushrooms and soaking liquid (minus the last 1/4 inch to keep sediment out of your dish), plus herbs.

Add ribs to pot and fill with chicken stock or water until ribs are nearly covered. Bring liquid to a boil, then cover tightly and braise in oven for at least 3 hours or until ribs are fall-apart tender.

If you want to get rid of as much fat as possible (and I recommend it, as short ribs are very, very fatty), cool the dish to room temperature then refrigerate overnight. The next day, remove the pools of fat that have solidified on the surface, then reheat gently over medium heat. Remove ribs from liquid and set aside until cool enough to handle, then discard bones and large pieces of fat and shred the beef. Using an immersion blender, purée the braising liquid until thick and set over medium-low heat to reduce to your desired consistency. Add shredded beef back to the pot.

Refrigerate overnight. This recipe makes a LOT of ragu, so it’s perfect for a dinner party or family gathering. Serve over polenta, sprinkled with gremolata.

Gremolata

1 large clove garlic, minced
zest of 1 large lemon
1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon olive oil

Mix ingredients in a small bowl and let sit at room temperature for an hour before serving.

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