Live Blogging a Slow Roast
Feeling that in the last two or three days I have been involved in far too little meat eating, I determine to braise. The splendors of having Fairway just down the street here in Red Hook have started to fade, however. It isn't that they don't have perfectly adequate meats, and it is a last-minute gourmet savior, but their tendency to price any vaguely ethnic item at fully double its price elsewhere has grown tiresome, and even insulting. While they stock crucial ingredients like Lebanese pomegranate molasses, Tuscan anchovies, and organic Basmati rice, their prices for these items implicitly recognize that no knowledgeable Lebanese, Tuscan, or Basmatian would actually purchase these items there. The sticker-price tagging guns are permanently dialed to the "hipster" setting.
I make my way to my newly refavoritized one-stop, the colorful and totally Polish Eagle Provisions, on 5th Avenue and 18th Street. (No, not in Manhattan, silly person.) Here the prices for fresh kielbasa, eight flavors of pierogi and gigantic jars of pickles resemble those one might hope for in Gdansk.
A lonely, and I'm afraid rather ruined, octogenarian woman sits near the potted plant display, outside in the Indian summer sunshine, feverishly scraping away at a square of cardboard with a nickel. I have seen her here on other occasions buying scratch-off lottery tickets, perhaps the closest thing she has to a social life. I hurry in, heading for the artichoke salad in the cold case. A few minutes later, while ordering a sandwich from the stern red-haired matron manning the deli counter, a commotion at the front of the store:
"F@#k you, you a&&H@*e! Don't tell me what to do with my money!"
"What!? You were just thrown out of here last week, young lady, and you talk to me like that? Oh my God, the mouth on you!"
I cringe, although secretly I am glad to be back in the New York of my beloved memories. The place I moved to, years ago. How is it possible to remember fondly the sight of a man deranged by anger, charging shirtless and bloody and barefoot into the middle of Essex Street, wielding a two-by-four studded with nails? What a strange way to relate to such a violent episode. Such moments from the unpublished archives of Joseph Mitchell happen rarely now, and I peer down the dry goods aisle in surprise, just in time to see the back of the alcoholic old crone, fleeing the scene.
In the meat case, a rack of beef ribs, fatty beyond marbled. Today they are practically giving away a hefty chunk of cow side. Eagle slashes the prices on their meats just before the expiration of the sell-by date. (Rather than mark them down, I suspect Fairway "sells" such meats to their in-house steam table division, where staff cooks decide when they should be turned into tomorrow's fajitas. This is only a theory, however, pure conjecture, as I also suspect they have a libel attorney on retainer.)
At the register, carrying a six-dollar slab of beef hefty enough to work out with, I ask what the hell happened.
"She won a hundred dollars. Scratch-off. You want to buy a ticket? We're hot here, obviously."
"Uh...no. So why the cursing?"
"She has a foul mouth, that one. I asked her if she was going to go over and get a slice at the pizzeria with her winnings, and she said 'I never go in there.' I know why she never goes in there, she borrowed twenty bucks from them and never went there again. So I said 'maybe you should go now, with your hundred, and give them the twenty you owe. She didn't like that one bit."
These cheap, remnant cuts of meat are every bit as delicious as anything else on the cow, so long as you cook them into submission. I waste no time. Remembering a recipe from Bill Buford's sublime chronicle of cookery, Heat, I lay the ribs at the bottom of my latest eBay score, a voluminous, rectangular turquoise dutch oven. Buford's recipe is medieval, in more ways than one. My gist is likely longer than his original, but the gist is this: put the meat in some kind of pot, pour in a bottle of red wine, cover it up. Cook it overnight, or until your children are fully grown, at 200 degrees. Fine, except I want to eat meat today, not tomorrow or the next. I imagine six hours will do just fine.
Fancying it up a bit, I salt, pepper and cumin the rack, then bury it underneath some beautiful potatoes and turnips grown just down the street on a former asphalt baseball diamond, by Added Value. In goes a quartered onion, a couple of bay leaves and a full bottle of marginal Carmenere someone brought to a dinner party. I predict the root vegetables will completely disintegrate, but nonetheless add a delicious, rooty flavor to the vinous gravy.
Before putting on the very heavy lid, a layer of foil, to lock in as much of that wine as possible.
Into the oven, on the lowest setting possible. I love my twenty-inch wide Kenmore gas stove, a spectacular white enamel relic from the 1950s that my friend Dodo discovered in her basement and gifted to me years ago. It does have one drawback, however. The "Robert Shaw" thermostat lacks precision. I don't know how the medievals managed it exactly, but for the ultimate slow braise you should aim for a temperature right around that of boiling water. I can't get the Robert Shaw below 240. On the other hand, I don't think they had oven thermometers in the thirteenth century.
Goodbye, see you in six hours. Note the after-market oven thermometer on the floor of the oven in the lower-right hand corner, a $7 device that has given this fifty-year old stove many years of extra usefulness.
The temptation to open the oven, lift the lid, and have a peek approaches overwhelming. Despite the foil seal and the closed oven door, the house is filled with the aroma of hot, bubbling beef fat, caramelizing starches and reduced essence of boiling wine. I find it difficult to concentrate on anything, and I leave the house, heading on foot to the Fairway for some Brussels sprouts, which I suddenly feel certain will make a lovely side.
Blanched Brussels sprouts sauteed with shredded zucchini, garlic, and shards of dried hot red pepper, then liberally sprinkled with caraway seeds.
The moment of truth approaches. My fear with this kind of preparation is that eventually the pot must cook dry, but the aromas, which now permeate the entire house, are divine. Even sniffing around the stove door there are no suggestions of char. Off comes the top. The vegetables, undisturbed where they lay cradled in the hollow of the ribs, have survived completely intact. I gently jiggle one rib-bone, and it immediately separates from its meat, coming away clean in my hand. The thickened remains of the wine lie underneath a thick, clear layer of molten beef tallow. I spoon as much of this rendered fat off as possible, but plenty remains to contribute its flavor to the gravy, which will be spooned over the root vegetables.
Drool and consume. No knife required.