Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.
During a very cold, snowy winter, I find nothing more comforting than a braised dish that cooks slowly and fills the house with wonderful smells for hours. The reward for the wait is soul-satisfyingly tender meat with a lusciously thick sauce. Braised dishes are also a wonderful option to make for guests, as you can do all the work the day before, and the sauce will be even better the day you serve it.
Most classic braised dishes not only require several hours of cooking, but a good amount of work as well. You have to chop up a pile of mirepoix and cook that down, only to have to strain the sauce later, which can get messy. You might also have to chop and cook a separate set of vegetables for serving alongside, to replace the vegetables that became soggy during the long cooking time.
To build complex layers of flavors, there really is no substitute for the traditional route. However, some days you just don’t want to work that hard. This easier version hits all the main points of a classic braise and still yields a very flavorful sauce. Streamlining a few key steps significantly reduces the prep and active cooking times.
I got the prep time down to less than 5 minutes by using baby carrots to minimize chopping for both the sauce and the side; the onion and celery each require just a couple of cuts. Rather than having to strain the sauce at the end, you can just quickly scoop out the large pieces. Sometimes, braised sauces also require you to skim fat from the top, but if you pour out most of the drippings after you sear the meat and use additional fat sparingly, you might not need to skim at all.
I did opt to cook the accompanying vegetable separately, but the baby carrots just get a quick toss with butter, salt, pepper and thyme. Challenged by the limitations of my New York apartment’s small oven, I opted to sear and then roast the carrots, which times well with the steps for finishing the sauce. If you have a large oven, you can roast the carrots in a baking pan while the ribs are cooking—just add extra cooking time to my recipe.
Most traditional braises rely on a bouquet garni with parsley and other herbs, but to reduce the number of ingredients, I narrowed it down to thyme, whose rustic, lightly peppery flavor packs enough punch to stand on its own. Also, the sauce gained balance and a little tang from the sweet onion I used. (If you opt for yellow onions and find the sauce on the bitter side, add a small amount of sugar to smooth out the flavors—a useful tip for adjusting sauces in general.)
With its rich sauce, this meaty dish begs for a big, bold and tannic red wine—also perfect for chilly nights—to match its weight and texture. One more element to consider in seeking a match: Although the sauce is savory, the roasted carrots have a light sweetness to them.
I chose to sample three red wines with ripe fruit flavors that could bridge that sweet-savory line: a Syrah-Grenache-Mourvèdre blend from France's Languedoc region; a Portuguese blend of Trincadeira and Aragonez, with a bit of Syrah, from the Alentejo region; and a Malbec from Argentina. The Languedoc blend had an herbal component that I thought would complement the thyme. However, this wine wasn’t quite big and ripe enough to stand up to the sauce, and the herbal note turned a little bitter against the dish’s touch of sweetness.
The competition between the other two wines was extremely close. The Portuguese red had a little extra acidity, making it refreshing from bite to bite. However, the riper, more tannic Malbec and the dish intensified each other—adding exactly the richness I was looking for on a cold evening. Another night, or a different mood, and the best match could have easily played out another way.
Pair with a Malbec from Argentina, such as Piattelli Malbec Luján de Cuyo Premium Reserve 2011 (88 points, $16) or a Portuguese red such as João Portugal Ramos Alentejo Ramos Reserva 2012 (90 points, $13, Top 100 of 2014, No. 56)
Total time: 3 hours, 25 minutes
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 3 hours, 20 minutes
Active cooking time: 40 minutes
Approximate food cost: $33 for 4 portions
1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
2. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a Dutch oven (or other oven-safe pot) on the stove over medium-high heat. Add short ribs and sear until browned on both sides, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer the short ribs to a separate plate. Leave a couple tablespoons of drippings at the bottom of the pot and drain off any excess.
3. Add the onions, celery and a handful of the baby carrots (about 12 or so pieces) to the pot and cook over medium-high heat until the vegetables start to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and 2 tablespoons of the flour and combine well with the vegetables. Allow the tomato paste to deepen in color.
4. Deglaze the pot with a small amount of the beef stock, scraping up any brown bits and reincorporating all the tomato paste into the liquid. Add the short ribs back to the pot and cover with the rest of the beef stock and the wine, if using. The liquid should just cover the short ribs. (If more liquid is needed for coverage, add more stock or wine, if available, or some water.) Add 2 sprigs of thyme and season with salt and pepper. Bring the liquid to just boiling, then cover the pot and transfer to the oven. Allow the short ribs to cook in the oven for 2 1/2 hours, until the ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender.
5. Once the short ribs have about 10 minutes left in the oven, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large, oven-safe pan over medium-high heat. Add the carrots to the pan, making sure not to overcrowd the pan. Toss the carrots well in the butter to coat and allow them to cook until they start to brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Strip the leaves from a couple of sprigs of thyme and sprinkle over the carrots. Season with salt and pepper.
6. Once the short ribs are tender, remove them from the oven. Raise the oven temperature to 400° F. Transfer the carrots to the oven and roast for about 20 minutes, tossing them halfway through. The carrots should be just tender. Season to taste.
7. Finish the sauce while the carrots are roasting. Transfer the short ribs to a separate container and cover to keep warm. Scoop the vegetable chunks and the sprigs of thyme from the pot, making sure to retain as much liquid as possible, and discard. Bring the sauce to a boil. To thicken the sauce faster, combine 1 tablespoon each of butter and flour, incorporating well to form a thick paste. Dot the mixture into the boiling sauce and whisk well to incorporate. Allow the sauce to reduce about 15 minutes until it thickly coats the back of a spoon. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the short ribs back to the sauce to warm through.
8. Serve the short ribs with the roasted carrots and top with the sauce. Garnish with more picked thyme leaves. Serves 4.