All Photos: Wendy Goodfriend
When I was in my late 20s (longer ago than I care to remember) it suddenly dawned on me that Christmas dinner didn’t need to be a re-hash of Thanksgiving dinner. For as long as I remember growing up, we’d always have turkey for T-day and for Christmas day. But I’m not a big turkey fan (unless it’s deconstructed), and the two holidays are so close together that it always meant turkey overload.
Suddenly, my decision was freeing. I could make anything I wanted! Well, sort of, because I typically spend Christmas with my family, and they seem to have opinions. Thus began the tradition of the Feast to End All Feasts. The planning usually starts in September between my brother and me (we seem to have the strongest, loudest opinions) and negotiations can take a month. Or two. I mean, you need to allow time to come up with an elaborate meal.
At the heart of the meal is always a cut of meat that is typically pricey and that we wouldn’t normally eat any other time of the year. All other elements of the meal, the starters, side dishes, and dessert, follow from and are influenced by that decision. Over the years we’ve made prime rib, chateaubriand, roast of veal, breast of veal, beef tenderloin, osso buco, bacon-wrapped filet mignon, and the list goes on. Always we choose the best quality, free-range/pasture-raised, organic meat from local producers that we can find (shout-outs to Marin Sun Farms, Prather Ranch, and Avedano’s!).
Of course, once upon a time, before I was the mother of a very active 2-year-old, I had the time and energy to do that. Nowadays, I still want our Christmas Day dinner to be elaborate and special, something we don’t do any other time of year, but I don’t want to spend the entire day sweating over the oven.
Enter the slow cooker. Now, this is a great tool for anyone who wants to mostly be hands off, but still create some delectable braised meat. You do have to take the time to brown your meat and veggies, and be mindful of not putting too much liquid into it (it doesn’t evaporate as readily as if you were braising in the oven or on the stovetop), but it will free up your oven and stovetop and once it’s in, you are pretty much done. And the best part is, you can still be elaborate and create something decadent and special.
This year, we are making braised short ribs, slowly simmered in red wine, broth, a myriad of sweet veggies, and some lovely herbs. They emerge from the slow cooker falling apart, bathed in a rich sauce, and are perfect as the centerpiece of Christmas dinner. A sprinkling of gremolata (a mixture of finely minced parsley, garlic, and lemon zest) on top adds zingy freshness, a nice counterpoint to the very rich meat.
Serve the ribs over creamy polenta or mashed potatoes, or with crispy-creamy British roasted potatoes. Any leftovers can be shredded, mixed with the sauce, and served over fresh pappardelle the next day.
Recipe: Braised Short Ribs with Gremolata
- 5 lbs English-cut beef short ribs (about 6 large pieces)*
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 2 small carrots, peeled and finely diced
- 2 small celery stalks, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 can (2 cups) diced tomatoes
- 1 cup full-bodied red wine (I used Barbera d’Asti)
- 1 cup low-sodium chicken stock
- A few sprigs each of fresh thyme and oregano
- 1 scant tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
For the gremolata:
- 1/3 cup minced fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley leaves
- Finely grated zest of 1 large Meyer lemon
- 1 garlic clove, finely grated
*Note: I like to use English-cut where the ribs are separated from one another along the bone, and the meat sits up on top. You can also use thick-cut flanken style ribs, where the meat is cut across the ribs (don’t use the very thin cut flanken style ribs, which are used traditionally for Korean kalbi).
Generously sprinkle the ribs all over with salt. In a large, heavy frying pan, warm the oils over high heat until it is nearly smoking. Sear the ribs, in batches if necessary, until deep brown all on sides. Remove the short ribs to a plate, then transfer to the slow cooker, placing them in an even layer.
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Discard all but 2 tablespoons of the fat. Reduce the heat to medium-high and add the onion, carrots, and celery to the pan. Cook, stirring, until browned and softened, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to dislodge any brown bits, about 6 minutes. Season with a little salt and pepper and stir in the garlic, tomatoes and juices, chicken stock, red wine and the herbs. Bring the mixture to a boil, then pour over the ribs in the slow cooker. Set the cooker to low heat and braise for 7–8 hours, or until the meat is very tender and is falling off the bones.
If you don’t have a slow cooker, preheat the oven to 300F. Sear the short ribs in a large, wide Dutch oven. Return the short ribs to the pan after you sauté the vegetables and add the rest of the ingredients. Cover with aluminum foil and the Dutch oven lid and place in the oven. Cook for 2–3 hours, or until the meat is very tender and is falling off the bones.
To make the gremolata, in a small bowl, combine the parsley, lemon zest, and garlic and toss together until well combined. Serve the short ribs topped with some of the braising juices and vegetables and a healthy sprinkle of gremolata.