Smile Politely

Celebrate Chinese New Year with spicy short ribs

One of my favorite things to order in winter is Mala beef tendon. Braised for hours with chillies, anise, and cinnamon, it is the kind of dish that can warm you from the inside out on a cold day. And while I don’t mind the chewy connective tissue, some folks do. So, for Chinese New Year, I wanted to make something more approachable.

I began with beef short ribs since they are available from local farmers and they actually have meat on them. Of course, short ribs can be one of the fattiest dishes going with the exception of pork belly, so, you’ll want to remove the bones and save them for stock. Leave the bones in this dish and you will be skimming it for days. I write this from experience; note the bones in the picture.

I also opted for Western chillies. They provide spice, but with less heat than the Eastern chillies Mala dishes typically contain. You can find these at local Mexican marts and World Harvest. Ancho and chipotle chillies are smoky, while the pasilla is fruity. Dried chillies are inexpensive; go ahead and buy a bag of pasillas even though the dish calls for only one. You can always make mole with the extras. Use the remaining chipotles and adobo to flavor mayonnaise and pots of chili.

Orange zest isn’t part of the traditional mix, but it is really nice in this dish and oranges are in season now. Common Ground Food Co-op has some of the best ones in town. Let your nose be your guide. The more fragrant the citrus, the better this dish will be. On the day I bought ingredients, the coop’s oranges were wonderful, but the Minneola tangerines were stellar. Common Ground also has a quick turn on star anise if you only want to buy a small amount, as well as a good turn on organic ginger root.

You can buy Sichuan peppercorns in bags from most Asian marts. Pick through them for the flavorful red caps and discard the black seeds. Sichuan peppercorns aren’t hot like capsicum peppers. When heated, they have a flavor that is at once slightly earthy and flowery, hence their translated name “flower pepper.” Sichuan peppercorns also have a small amount of hydroxyl-alpha-sanshool. This compound creates a slight numbing sensation on the tongue which brings out the flavors of the other spices in the dish.

You can substitute anise extract for the anise liqueur, but an entire bottle of Llord’s will only set you back a few dollars more and is a lot less harsh. Of the extracts, McCormick tends to be more powerful than some of the organic brands. If in doubt, go with the low side of the range and if necessary, add a bit more when you add the vegetables.

  • 5 to 6 dried ancho chillies
  • 1 dried pasilla chili
  • 2 ½ c water
  • 6-7 pounds of short ribs approximately 3-4 inches wide and at least 1 inch thick
  • 2 t salt
  • 1 t freshly ground black pepper
  • oil for browning ribs
  • 2 canned chipotle chillies in adobo plus 1 T of adobo sauce
  • 1 piece of quarter-diameter ginger 2 ½ inches long, peeled and thickly sliced
  • 1 whole head of garlic, peeled
  • ½ c anise flavored liqueur (Pernod, Ricard, sambuca, ouzo, or Lllord’s) or substitue 4 to 8 t of anise extract
  • ¼ c tamari or soy sauce
  • 1, 3-inch stick of cinnamon
  • 6 whole star anise
  • 2 T of Sichuan peppercorns
  • 2 squares of fine mesh cheese cloth and cotton string for spice bags
  • zest from 1 large orange, 2 Minneolas, or equivalent amount of fragrant citrus
  • salt to taste
  • a pinch to 2 t of sugar (optional)
  • 1 large onion sliced into ½-inch vertical strips
  • 3 large carrots sliced into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 daikon root the size of two soda cans peeled and sliced into 1 ½-inch cubes
  • 1 bulb fennel, end trimmed, center cored and sliced into ½-inch vertical strips

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Remove the stems, ribs, and seeds from the dried chillies, being careful to avoid touching your eyes. Boil 2 ½ c of water. Place chillies in water and soak for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the ribs. Remove the covering membrane aka silver skin and the fatty layer containing the bones from the meaty portion by slicing underneath it with a knife or by simply pulling it away with your hands. Trim any remaining hard fat from the other side. Sprinkle the rib meat with salt and pepper. Heat a dutch oven or other heavy pan over moderate heat. (You can use a large skillet, but you will probably need a splatter guard.) Add 1 T of oil or enough to just coat the bottom of the pan. Place in rib meat, but do not crowd the pan as you want to brown the meat, not steam it. You may have to brown it in three batches and add more oil as necessary. If you need to cut the meat smaller to fit in the pan, that’s fine. Cut it in half as opposed to trimming off small pieces. Place the browned pieces of meat in a single layer in a lasagna pan or other large, rectangular baking pan.

Zest orange with a zester or use a vegetable peeler. Remove only the orange part and leave the white pith. Slice peel into thin threads or mince.

Taste the soaking water from the chillies. If it is smoky and flavorful, keep it to thin the sauce. If it is bitter, discard it and use 2 ½ c of plain water instead to thin the sauce. Place the softened chillies, along with the chipotles, adobo, ginger, and garlic in a blender. Add just enough liquid to puree into a paste. Then add remaining liquid, anise liqueur or extract, and tamari to thin the sauce. Taste the sauce for salt, adding more if necessary. Add a pinch or more of sugar to round out the sauce if desired. Blend once more to combine and pour over rib meat. Turn the meat to coat it with sauce. The sauce should come up to at least half the depth of the meat. If it does not, add enough water to bring it to that level.

Next, break the cinnamon stick in half. Tie one half of the cinnamon, half the anise stars, and half the peppercorns in a square of cheese cloth. Then do the same with the remainder. Yes, it’s a pain, but it saves having to pick out or strain the peppercorns from the sauce later. Place the spice bags in the pan with rib meat. Sprinkle the ribs with orange zest.

Cover the pan with foil. Braise in the middle of the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Meanwhile, prepare vegetables and set aside. After 1 1/2 hours, remove pan from oven and carefully remove foil. You may want to wear oven mitts or start with a corner facing away from you to avoid the steam. Turn ribs. Add vegetables and additional anise flavoring if necessary. Recover pan and return to the oven for 30 to 60 minutes more, until a fork slips easily in and out of the cooked meat and the vegetables are just tender.

Remove the pan from oven and allow the ribs and vegetables to cool for 20 to 30 minutes with the foil in place. Again, carefully remove the foil. Remove meat and cut into bite-sized pieces. Place meat and vegetables in a large casserole or serving dish. Discard spice bags. Pour sauce into a separate bowl or large measuring cup and skim fat with a large spoon. Combine sauce with meat and vegetables. Serve immediately or chill for later. The dish’s flavors will continue to develop for up to two days. Serve with rice or chewy, long noodles for luck. Serves 8.

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