Beef, Leftover Recycling, Pasta, Quick Meals

Recycling is good: the Please Let It Be Autumn edition

Our freezers are really, really full. I realized this when, the week we returned from our vacation, I had to stop rummaging through the plastic tubs in the freezer to find a couple of chicken leg quarters out of frustration. This happens from time to time, and it’s my fault. My mother was big on using every last bit of every meal if possible, and I picked up her aversion to waste. So trimmings from vegetable brunoise go into stock; bits of potato get fried up, transformed into hash or potato cakes; meat trimmings become sausage.

Throughout the fall and winter, braised meats are big in the kitchen. These are classic cold-weather fare – you have to eat them warm, because they’re no good chilled. They tend to be rich from all the gelatin. They take hours to cook, and warm your kitchen nicely in the process. Braises are rustic, and for the sake of presentation, I often trim braised meat into squared-off shapes – the trim goes into bags, vacuum sealed, labeled, and stored in one of the plastic tubs in the freezer along with any leftovers and what’s left of the savory reduced braising liquid.

A basic short rib braise involves three common elements in addition to the meat: a vegetable base, usually a classic mirepoix of onion, celery, and carrot or one of its analogues (such as soffritto); an acidifier, like tomato or wine (usually both); and the braising liquid, generally stock but sometimes water. To this, you can add a variety of dried fruits, or aromatics – thyme, bay, and leek are classic; pimentón is a favorite flavoring in my kitchen; licorice, star anise, or cinnamon provide a sweet note. Long cooking at low temperatures allows the meat to become tender and the collagen in the short rib to break down to gelatin, yielding that distinctive and unctuous mouthfeel. During the New Year holiday, I posted the basic recipe for a reader who wanted to make a spectacular and festive dinner. I’ve made this dish – and its variants – many times, and we have the freezer full of trimmings to show for it.

When you have a long commute, getting dinner together can be a problem. It’s too late to cook a meal involving a lot of prep. That’s where the trimmings come in. Rather than resorting to takeout or pizza – or some kind of supermarket ready meal – the trimmings are a perfect accompaniment for pasta, polenta, gnocchi, or even rice. Start to finish, it takes about 20 minutes, but almost all of that time you can spend unwinding with a glass of wine rather than cooking. Not bad for a hasty weeknight meal.

Not too shabby for leftovers.

Short rib, sedanini

If, like me, you have a vacuum sealer or a FoodSaver, and you’ve sealed up your leftovers or trim, you can throw the bag into simmering water until it’s good and hot, which takes about the same amount of time as cooking pasta or rice, and a little less time than making polenta, and leaves almost no mess to clean up. The recipe below features pasta.

1 lb dried pasta, preferably a short, textured variety like sedanini or orecchiette
about 12 ounces leftover short rib, whole chunks or trimmings with or without reduced braising liquid
fresh herbs and aromatics – thyme, flat-leaf parsley, chives, lemon or orange zest
salt and pepper

Optional (see recipe):
1 tsp tomato paste
2-3 tbsp dry red wine
2-3 tbsp veal or chicken stock, or a good quality commercial stock or broth

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta until al dente (usually between 8-10 minutes depending on the type of pasta and the strength of your stove). Meanwhile, if you have vacuum sealed your short rib, bring a separate pot of water to a simmer, add the bag of short rib to the pot, and simmer until hot. If you have not, heat the short rib slowly, over medium-low heat. If necessary, you may add a little pasta cooking water (just a tablespoon or two) to loosen the rib.

If your trimmings or leftovers are completely dry – devoid of any sauce at all – you may want to “doctor” them slightly. Add a small quantity – not more than a couple of tablespoons – of wine to the short rib and bring to a simmer, reducing until the wine is nearly gone and it no longer smells alcohol-ish. Add the tomato paste and the broth, and simmer until a thick and barely evident sauce forms. Taste for salt and season with salt (if necessary) and pepper.

Drain the pasta and toss with the short rib. Plate and garnish with herbs and, if using, lemon zest.

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