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TODAY

Monday, March 18

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When I woke up this morning, on a sunny autumn day, I knew I was going to want a hearty meal at home. But the length of my to-do list and my desire to spend time outside before it becomes frigid combined to make me not want to spend all day cooking.

So I pulled out the slow cooker, looked at the package of beef country-style ribs we'd purchased earlier in the week and gave myself 20 minutes to get everything on to cook before I headed out for a day of errand running, garden tending, and then purse making.

One of the most frustrating parts about cooking beef is knowing the type of cooking method that each type of cut needs. Cuts that come from the muscles that are used frequently are going to be tougher, but often tastier, than cuts that come from rarely used muscles. The tenderloin is a rarely used muscle, it's very tender, but its beefy flavor isn't as strong as the flavor from cuts that come from the short plate or the round.

And I've got a general idea about what cuts come from what parts of the animal, but it is hard to remember. If you don't have a cookbook with a diagram telling you where the most typical cuts of beef come from, you can download one from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association here. Or you can browse the Ask a Butcher boards and forum.

One thing that is important to know when finding out which cut of beef is great for grilling; which cuts can handle a longer, lower bake in the oven; and which cuts are perfect for cooking low and slow in liquid, is that the names on the package have nothing to do with where they come from on the animal. For example, my package of "country style ribs" is cut from the shoulder where the meat is very tough and full of collagen — not from the ribs, which are more tender and can be cooked using dry heat methods. If I'd seen the word ribs, smothered some barbecue sauce on the meat and thrown it on the grill, I would have ended up with tough, stringy meat.

I know several people who became vegetarians because they thought they didn't like meat — because their parents would buy economical cuts of meat, cut it really thin, cook it for a really long time and then burn up all the calories they were consuming by chewing rubbery and tough meat. But knowing that you can't just pan-fry, sauté, bake or grill every cut of meat opens you up to other possibilities. The chuck is the shoulder of the animal. It's a series of tough muscles. There is a lot of connective tissue, marbling, and collagen. If cooked in a skillet you get rubber or leather. If it is braised (and maybe even brined) you get tender, juicy and very flavorful meat. Sure a lot of fat will come out of the meat, but most of that can be skimmed off and unless your doctor has put you under a very strict no-fat diet, you're not going to be eating enough of that fat to care.

Which is why I love my slow cooker. It enables me to use cheaper cuts of meat and cook them using less electricity or gas than I would on a stovetop or in the oven (it's coming up on heating bill season, folks), and I can turn it on and leave it for hours without worrying that my house will burn down. The pound and a half of beef cost me little more than $4 and it will be enough to easily feed four people, or two people twice. And it took me less than 20 minutes to get everything in the slow cooker. Even I, a person who has a tendency to sleep till the very last minute, can get out of bed 20 minutes early if it means I come home from work to a house that smells wonderful and I don't have to do much to get ready for dinner.

So without further ado, here is my inexpensive and quick dinner for beef country style ribs (although pork would also work as well) with a side dish of kale, potatoes and mushrooms.

Slow-cooked Country Style Ribs
1 tablespoon of vegetable or olive oil
1 medium sized yellow or white onion
1 1/2 pounds of beef cut from the chuck or shoulder (beef stew meat would also work)
2 cloves of garlic
2 sprigs of Rosemary (remove the leaves from the stalks)
1/2 teaspoon of salt
few grinds of black pepper
1/4 cup of pomegranate juice
1/2 teaspoon of paprika
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of dried mustard powder (or 1 teaspoon of prepared yellow mustard)
1/4 cup of tomato sauce
1 teaspoon of worchestershire sauce

Slice the onion into rings and add them and the olive oil to the skillet placed over medium high heat. Cook until the onions have started to yellow and add them to the bottom of the slow cooker (or a round casserole dish). Place the beef strips into the skillet and let it cook for about 1-2 minutes per side. While that cooks, chop the garlic and add it to the slow cooker or casserole dish along with the rosemary. Once the beef has been seared on all sides, sprinkle it with salt and pepper and add it to your cooking vessel. To remove the yummy bits of browned beef that may have been left behind, turn off the heat and pour the pomegranate juice into the skillet. Stir for a few minutes until everything has loosened up. Add the paprika, cinnamon, dried mustard, tomato sauce, and worchestershire sauce to the skillet, stir to combine and then pour over the beef. There should be enough to fully cover the beef. If not, add more fruit juice, tomato sauce or even water. By keeping the meat covered, you keep it tender. Now either turn the slow cooker to low and come back in 6-8 hours, turn the slow cooker to high and come back in 3-4, or place your covered casserole dish (a lid or aluminum foil is fine) in the middle of your oven set to 300° F and cook for 2 to 2-1/2 hours. When you pierce the meat with a fork or tip of a knife it should pierce easily and be very tender. If you're cooking this in your oven, don't leave it unattended. Makes four servings.

Kale, Potatoes and Mushrooms
1 cup of diced uncooked, unpeeled red potatoes (about 4 small potatoes)
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 Tablespoon of olive oil
8 oz. of sliced button or portabello mushrooms
2 minced shallots
2 minced cloves of garlic
salt and pepper to taste
1 lb. of kale
1/4 cup apple juice, white wine, or a broth

Place the potatoes and salt in a medium saucepan filled with water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Simmer for about 7-10 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Meanwhile, heat a skillet over low heat and add the oil, mushrooms, shallots and garlic. Stir occasionally and cook for about 10-12 minutes or until the shallots are soft and the mushrooms are tender. While the mushrooms, shallots and garlic are cooking, use the tip of a knife to cut the center spine out of the kale. Wash the leaves thoroughly and then tear them into large pieces, about the size of tortilla chips. Increase the heat to medium and add some salt and pepper to taste. Add the kale and cook everything for about 2-3 minutes. The potatoes should be done by now so drain them and add them to the skillet. Add the 1/4 cup of liquid, stir, and cover and cook. The kale should turn a very bright green after about 5 minutes and you're ready to serve. Makes four servings.

Hearty and home-cooked doesn't have to take hours. Doing wonderful things with a few ingredients can give you complex flavors that come together quickly. Remember that both of these dishes freeze well. So even if you're cooking for just yourself you can make these portions for yourself and toss the leftovers into bowls and freeze them for later. (I'm showing my bias, since the only frozen dinners I really like are ones I made myself.)

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About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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