Cleaving and Craving Braised Short Ribs

What do you do if you are Julie Powell, author of the Julie-Julia Project blog turned best selling book and blockbuster movie, after all your dream comes true?

You do your best to f– it up.

Then you write about it, in a book called Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession.

Don’t expect to like Julie very much as she has an affair on her saintly husband Eric, then proceeds to obsessively crave her lover even as she remains in her marriage, which she further strains beyond anyone else’s breaking point by living part-time in upstate New York for 6 months while she learns the art of butchery.

It’s okay, though, because Powell doesn’t like herself much either.

Powell is brutally, painfully honest in this chronicle of her journey into self-absorption, obsession, selfishness and stupidity, even as she is clearly excelling at butchery while making dear friends at Fleisher’s Meats in Kingston, NY. She is also often brilliant as she draws beautifully written analogies between her screwed up life and her work. Tales of her repeated  failed attempts to sever her relationship with her lover Damien are juxtaposed with detailed descriptions of the difficulties separating the tenderloin from its surrounding muscle and the skirt steak from its membrane. And after it becomes clear that Damien will no longer take her back, Powell begins to wonder if the detritus that builds up on the outside of an exquisitely aged beef steak, and which must be cut away to be able to enjoy the exquisitely tender steak beneath, represents her obsessive love, her or her marriage?

I listened to Cleaving as an audio book, and I would recommend that you do the same. I’m an impatient reader, and imagine that I might have skimmed many of the long descriptions of butchery –  which would have been a shame, because they are really so well-written and a fascinating listen. Powell does an excellent job narrating her book and I enjoyed most of it immensely, even as I found myself occasionally yelling “YOU’RE AN IDIOT!” at the car dashboard.

Unfortunately, Powell finally lost me, when, finished with her butchery training at Fleisher’s, she heads off on Eric once again, this time to find herself among the slaughter yards in Buenos Aires, and then to the Ukraine and Tanzania. A travelogue of no real importance, and no great moments of realization, just a gradual return to her husband, as if Julie had finally gotten as tired of herself as her readers have become.

What rescues Cleaving from being merely the story of an idiot is the meat.  Grass-fed, locally farmed meat, prepared and sold by the endearingly warm, funny, and wonderful group of folks at Fleisher’s, who are at the forefront of a movement that will surely save our food supply from certain doom. The great news for my fellow New Yorkers is that Fleisher’s is now delivering in Manhattan, and at quite reasonable prices. Powell’s book must have been great for business, and for that alone she deserves immense credit.

I wish her well.

Braised Short Ribs

You’re sure to find yourself craving meat while reading this book. The one cut of meat I found myself thinking about most, other than roast beef (which Fleisher’s cooks it on a bed of marrow bones and topped with butter), was braised short ribs.

Powell gives us a rather simple, traditional braise recipe in her book. I made it using top rib, a short rib cut that produces small rectangles of meat, as opposed to the English slab or the Flanken long cut. Adding carrots, thyme, a bit more garlic and some tomato paste seemed right to me. Celery would also been nice had I had some around, so I’ve added it here.

3-4 lbs short ribs (8 pieces)
4 strips bacon, cut into 1 inch pieces
salt and pepper
2 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
2 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
1 large onion, diced
2 large carrots, diced
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced or chopped
2 stalks minced celery
1-2 cups red wine
1-2 cups beef broth
2 tbsp tomato paste

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Render the fat from the bacon in a large cast iron or other oven-proof deep-sided skillet or Dutch oven. Remove the bacon bits and save for a salad or something. While the bacon is rendering, rinse and pat dry the meat, then season well with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the chopped thyme and rosemary. Brown the ribs on all 4 sides in the skillet on high heat. Do it in batches so you don’t over-crowd the pan, removing the ribs to a plate when browned. This is a most important step, and requires patience so as to get a well-formed caramelized crust on the ribs.

Once the ribs are browned, remove all but 3 tbsp of fat from the pan and lower the heat to medium. Cook the onions, carrots and celery till softened and slightly caramelized, at least 10-15 minutes, adding the garlic in the last 4-5 minutes so it does no over brown.

Deglaze the pan with the wine, then add the broth and tomato paste. (Start with 1 cup each wine and broth, adding more depending on how deep your pan is. I ended up using about 1.5 cups of each.) Add the ribs back in carefully so as not to spill any broth. Cover the pan with foil and place on a baking sheet in the oven to catch any spills.

Cook for at least 2 hours,until the ribs are tender and falling off the bone, turning halfway to be sure they do not dry out. Remove to a serving dish. Skim any excess fat off the gravy, and boil down a bit if needed (mine did not need it). Pour gravy atop the ribs and serve.


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