Recipe: Short Ribs, your first Instant Pot meal

Instant Pot Short Ribs

Instant Pot Short Ribs

There is much love for Instant Pot, yet it’s hard to find straightforward newbie instructions for what to do with this rather imposing device (which reminds me of a North Korean missile canister) when you first pull it out of the box. So here you go. Assemble it, wash and dry the cooking insert, then dig in. You are going to make an excellent rendition of  Instant Pot short ribs in under two hours, start to finish. Serves 4-6.

2 oz bacon or pancetta, chopped
5 lbs short ribs, bone in
Ground black pepper
Kosher salt
All-purpose flour, for dredging
1 T olive oil
3 medium onions, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 T tomato paste
1 c dry red wine
1 1/2 t dried thyme
1 t dried oregano
1 t dried rosemary
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
4 cloves garlic
2 c or more water or beef stock

Method: turn on the Instant Pot to the Sauté setting and add chopped bacon or pancetta. Very shortly it will start to sizzle. Stir with a wooden spoon till meat is crispy then remove and reserve. Add olive oil and begin to brown the short ribs: sprinkle each with salt and pepper, dredge in flour, then fry a few pieces at a time, turning till they are brown and crispy on all sides. (This took me two batches for 5 pounds of ribs.) Remove and reserve ribs, then add onions and cook, stirring, until softened. Add celery and carrots and stir 5 minutes or so till they are softened as well. Note: the Sauté setting has a 30 minute timer so may turn off toward the end of this process. Simply turn it back on (press the button) and continue.

Now, return the ribs and bacon/pancetta to the pot and dump in spices then liquids. There should be a generous amount of liquid but it doesn’t have to cover the ribs. Cover the pot and turn to lock it: it will take you a few tries but this is a safety feature, to make sure the pressure cooker seal really is tight. Flip the lever on top of the lid to the “Sealed” position. Press the Soups/Stews button and adjust the timer (press the + button in the center of the dial) to 40 minutes. Very shortly an “On” message will appear. You are done here; go do something else for the next 50 minutes or so.

When the 40 minutes are up, the Instant Pot will switch to the Keep Warm setting which it can maintain for many hours. During this time it is slowly releasing its pressure. After 10 minutes it is safe to manually release the pressure by flipping the release lever. Now open the lid and discover the magic: falling-of-the-bones short ribs in under two hours.

This is a good starter recipe because it demonstrates two of the Instant Pot’s core functions, and the result is delicious. Enjoy!

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Amazon’s Prime Sweets Button

Dash Prime Sweets Butto

Dash Prime Sweets Button

What if you could press a button and, two days later, a box of delicious ribs and brisket showed up at your door? And each box was from one of America’s finest pitmasters? Would that be something you could get behind?

Well, it ain’t happening. But Amazon appears to be experimenting with something similar: Amazon Prime Sweets. To quote the email I received, “you can be one of the first to try the new Prime Surprise Sweets, a box of curated artisan treats you can request with the push of a Dash Button. We’ve scoured the country for the best artisan treats and every time you push the button, we’ll deliver a new box that now has at least four full size items!”

This seems like an idea that is very much in the beta stage: you can’t actually sign up for the program, just request an invitation which “will be sent within one week and contain a link to purchase your Dash Button.” And they warn they won’t be delivering chocolate during the summer months, which may be a deal killer. But near-instant gourmet gratification is an interesting concept, much better than the Dash buttons for ordering detergent or toilet paper.

The button costs $5 (refundable with your first order) and the box itself is $18 (with free two-day Prime shipping, of course). If you want to get on the invite list, here is a link. Warning: it may work only for folks whom Amazon has pre-qualified through their email address.

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Why I hate restaurant coupons

Horse Mackerel at Unagi

Horse Mackerel at Unagi in Troy NY: a rare good restaurant coupon experience where we ate so much sushi that the value of our Groupon could have been a rounding error

I’ve pretty much stopped using restaurant coupons—those pay-in-advance online purchases through Groupon, LivingSocial or LocalFlavor which typically take 50% off the price of your meal. Part of the problem is the bad juju fostered by LocalFlavor, which I’ve written about previously. But there’s more.

I guess there must be a lot of fraud nowadays, because when I present the coupon the server whisks it away for a tense conversation with the manager. There’s usually no acknowledgement or reassurance once the document’s authenticity is established, so I enter the ordering process feeling like a low life penny pincher (perhaps separated at birth from Chef Colose’s Restaurant Week patrons) rather than an adventurous diner who wants to save a buck or two. Often, the server treats me throughout the meal as if I’m getting away with something (possibly because they are worried about their tip, which I always base on the full value of the meal). It turns eating out into a joyless affair.

Granted, I’ve also had restaurant coupon experiences with none of the aforementioned negativity (most typically with Groupon, but caveat emptor because they’ve started reselling LocalFlavor deals). The server is polite and gracious, the meal is excellent, and I leave feeling like I’ve had a great deal and will be back for more at full price. But you don’t know this will happen till it does.

In fact, when I use one of my dwindling supply of deals (usually from LocalFlavor since they seem to have taken over the space) I now go in with the assumption that the coupon will NOT be honored and I’ll still have my meal since I entered the restaurant with the notion of dining there. Thus, in the worst case scenario instead of saving 50% on my meal I’ll pay 150% of the retail price—what’s on the menu plus the cost of my coupon which is now worthless. I don’t think this is the way it’s supposed to work.

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Food for Thought: Teff Love

I blundered on Kittee Berns’ Teff Love on Amazon while looking for injera recipes. I don’t think I have ever seen such glowing reviews for a book. I bought it, and committed to sourcing some of the ingredients like ajiwan and nigella which are essential to Ethiopian cooking. Also picked up some teff flour and pre-mixed berbere (chili blend) at my local co-op and was off to the races.

The dishes I made for my first foray were Ye’Bamya Alicha/okra and tomato (p. 102), Ye’Misser Wot/red lentils in spicy sauce (p. 72) and Ye’Atakilt Alicha/stewed cabbage, potatoes and carrots (p. 100). These were indicated as being typical of the choices you’d find on a veggie combo platter in an Ethiopian restaurant. Indeed, they had the flavor variety I was looking for, especially because I’d taken the extra steps of making Ye’Qimen Zeyet/Seasoned Oil (p. 25) and Ye’Wot Qimen/Black Pepper Spice Mixture (p. 40). This being a vegan cookbook, I also consulted the internet and made some Key Wot/spicy beef stew to round things out.

And about the injera: I have had my own struggles with attempts to make an injera starter which I will write about at another time. But Teff Love provides a wonderful hack called Quick Teff Crepes (p. 33) which will do until the real thing comes along. Through unconventional usage of some common ingredients, this provides both the taste and texture of the spongy bread you’re familiar with.

I would buy the book for the teff crepe recipe alone, and feel very confident about the quality and reliability of the recipes as I venture deeper. (In addition to traditional Ethiopian dishes, there are some Ethiopian riffs on other cuisines, such as an Ethiopian mac-and-[vegan]cheese.) Check it out!

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Recipe: Different Wilted Lettuce

Different Wilted Lettuce

Different Wilted Lettuce

Another from the Pi Beta Phi Cookbook, contributed by Helen Rounds of Athens, Ohio. What makes this different wilted lettuce “different” is the addition of a beaten egg. Mrs. Rounds added it along with the other liquids, but that would have curdled it so I add right at the end. You could also prepare the dressing in a double boiler, but that’s a bit too fussy for these straightforward home cooks. Serves 4-6.

1 head romaine or small head iceberg lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
1-2 slices bacon*
1 T bacon grease or olive oil (optional)
1/4 c cider vinegar
1/4 c water
2 T sugar
3/4 t Kosher salt
1/4 t ground black pepper
1 small onion, minced

Method: chop the bacon and render it until the bits are crispy; you want to end up with at least 1 T fat. If you don’t, add the optional bacon grease or olive oil. Beat the egg fine and mix in sugar, salt and pepper. Add onion, vinegar and water to skillet of bacon and bring to the boil. Whisk in the egg/spice mixture and let it heat just to the point that the egg is beginning to set then pour immediately over the lettuce in serving bowl. Toss to distribute dressing so it evenly heats and wilts the leaves.

*In Mrs. Rounds’ day the bacon slices were thicker, so you’ll probably want to use two of them.

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Recipe: Harvard Beets

Harvard Beets

Harvard Beets

Harvard Beets is one of those grandma holiday side dishes that’s actually quite delicious, especially if you improve it with a bit of orange marmalade like I did. Based on Jean Trevor’s recipe in the Pi Beta Phi cookbook which I really like because a/it’s simple (unlike most, she does not bother with a double boiler) and b/the beets are diced, exposing more surface area to the delicious sauce. Serves 4-6.

1 lb red beets, cooked, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 T cornstarch
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c vinegar
2 T butter
1 t orange marmalade (optional, but delicious)

Method: mix the sugar and cornstarch in a small saucepan and add vinegar. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, till solids are dissolved and the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes or less. Add butter and optional orange marmalade, and stir until butter is melted. Mix in beets and any juice they’ve formed while sitting and allow 30 minutes for the flavors to meld. Reheat to lukewarm before serving.

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Live Uni: one and done

Live Sea Urchin

Live Uni (I know what you’re thinking, but the one with the grey area on the shell wasn’t the defective one)

On my recent trip to San Francisco, I indulged in a bucket-list checkoff: ordering live uni from Santa Barbara Fish Market. Overnight shipping is a ridiculously cheap $9.95, to California addresses only. (Elsewhere it’s $49.95.) The sea urchins themselves are $12.95 each, which seemed reasonable.

Uni Unboxing

The unboxing

They arrived in a big insulated box with a couple of cooler packs. I confirmed they were still alive (you can tell because the spines move) then refrigerated overnight and went at them the next morning. I had ready a bowl of salt water in which to deposit the meat, and a big bucket for the detritus. I also had a towel for handling, but the spines are not especially sharp.

Uni in Shell

Uni lobe in the shell

One attacks the beast with a pair of sturdy scissors, starting at the mouth which is the only soft area and cutting upward. The first thing you realize is that there is a very good chance of slicing into one of the gonads, which I did immediately. Maybe with experience one can tell where they are located but to this novice the outsides were uniformly spiny, providing no clue of the insides. Once you cut into the shell you’ll quickly release a volume of liquid which you should deposit in your trash bucket, not your lap or on the floor. Continue cutting until you are able to split the sea urchin and expose the interior.

Defective Uni

Defective uni with thin, dark lobes

The first of my three urchins was fairly clean inside and the gonads on the walls were easy to find and scoop out out with a spoon. The second had quite a bit of mucusy gunk that needed to be separated from the lobes. The third, though it looked the same on the outside as the others, was defective. The gonads were dark and not plump, and the one bite I tried was tough and tasteless.

Uni Harvest

My uni harvest, with the defective lobes in background

My entire crop is visible on the plate picture, less one lobe I scooped out and ate immediately. It’s about the same amount you get on one of those wooden trays for $10-20 in a Japanese market, and the store-bought uni would be clean and more uniform. I also confirmed that the wonderful briny taste I associate with uni is something that happens with a bit of aging. These were pleasant but very mild. And thus ends my uni experiment. I’m sure, as with shucking oysters, my skills would improve over time. But I’m happy to leave it to the professionals from now on.

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How to order steak in a seafood restaurant

Yelp has a lot of good insights, but there are a few bozos lurking here and there. Among them are people who go to a restaurant that is known for one particular type of cuisine, order something completely different, then write a one-star review because it’s not to their liking.

Consider, for example, the non-seafood items offered by a restaurant that specializes in fresh seafood. Some people just don’t like seafood or are allergic, so it’s reasonable that a seafood restaurant might have a steak, a vegetarian entrée, a chicken dish to accommodate those diners who are out with their friends or family. But it’s not reasonable to expect the same expertise and quality as on the restaurant’s specialty.

To cook steaks, for example, you need a/a grill; b/a cook who knows the grill’s heat zones; c/a cook who knows how to judge a steak’s degree of doneness. Even if you have a/ you’re not likely to get b/ or c/ if steak is ordered half a dozen times a night. Which is why my title is a trick question to which the answer is: don’t.

Another flavor of yahoo is the person who goes into a restaurant specializing in regional ethnic cuisine and demands an Americanized version of the dish. We have this in Ala Shanghai, an excellent regional Chinese place in upstate New York that borders on fine dining. They also have a huge takeout menu that includes the following pork items:
Spare Rib in Wuxi Style; Peking Pork Chop; Salt & Pepper Pork Chop; Tong-Po Pork;
Stewed Pork w. Tofu Knot; Double Cooked Pork; Smoked Pork w. Chili Pepper; Smoked Pork w. Leek; Pork w. Garlic Sauce; Pork w. Bamboo Shoot; Mo-Shu Pork (Serves w. 4 pancakes); Sliced Pork in Spicy Broth; Sliced Pork w. Fungus. What’s missing? Sweet and Sour Pork… and they take plenty of dings for it.

When I dine out I make a point of asking my server what is the kitchen’s strongest dish or, if that doesn’t produce a clear answer, what is the most popular dish. I also ask for opinions on my tentative picks. The other night I was eating in a neighborhood barbecue place and there were two different slaws. Which to order? I’d already told the server I was having potato salad and she said one of the slaws had a similar dressing, so the choice was easy. I like variety, so I ordered the other slaw.

Life is too short to have bad meals.

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Recipe: Texas Barbecue Beans

Texas Barbecue Beans

Texas Barbecue Beans. You really do want this much liquid, because the pot liquor is the best part of the dish.

This formula is as close as I can get to the manna served at Snow’s without putting you in the pickup and driving to Lexington, TX. These are Texas barbecue beans, not “barbecued’ because no smoking is involved. Serves 8-10.

1 lb. dried pinto beans (about 2 3/4 c)
8 oz. bacon ends and pieces (about 1 1/2 c) OR 8 oz bacon, finely chopped
Bacon grease
2-4 T Toné or other mild chili powder*
1 t Kosher salt

Method: soak the beans overnight in ample water (much more than enough to cover them in the pot) OR bring to the boil, turn off the heat, and allow to soak for one hour. Meanwhile, render the finely chopped bacon in a large pot until it is crispy and a good amount of fat has been produced. If there’s not a lot of fat, add a tablespoon or two of bacon grease. Pour the beans and their water into the bacon pot (so you don’t lose any of the grease), stir in salt and chili powder.

Bacon Ends and Pieces

I used this “seasoning” which is about half the price of good bacon.

Cook over low heat for an hour, adding more water as needed, then taste and correct the seasoning. (I would start with 3 T chili powder and expect to add the fourth T). Continue cooking and adding water until beans are tender but not soft, about 2-3 hours total. You can serve immediately, though these beans are even better the next day.

*I was pleased to find that substituting a store brand chili powder produced a taste very close to that I got with Toné, the brnd used at Snow’s.

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Albany shows how to do Restaurant Week right

Local Upstate NY chef Dominic Colose writes a lively blog in which, among other topics, he rails against restaurant weeks. He feels they pack his establishment with loutish bottom feeders (my words; he’s more polite) who swoop in for the spoils and will never be seen again.

While I’m sure there are some of those folks, there are also a lot of people who are lured in to try your restaurant and will come back at regular price. In fact, I lauded Chef Colose at his former establishment for a $30 meal that showed me his creativity in cooking and also in meeting a price point. And I criticized certain places that give lip service to restaurant week by, for example, tossing in a cookie with a salad and entrée at regular price and calling it a three course meal.

The 2017 Downtown Albany Restaurant Week (April 1-7) has a different idea, and I’m intrigued by it. Participating restaurants agree to serve at least $35 worth of food (which you could verify by checking the regular menu) for $20.17. It’s like a Groupon: you like getting a discount, but you know how much the meal is worth. (And, like with Groupon, you’ll hopefully know to tip on the full, non-discounted amount.)

Where am I going? Probably not Jack’s Oyster House which will serve me a green salad, tilapia and bread pudding for my $20.17. I don’t doubt their regular prices add up to more than $35, but those are the lower priced items on any menu. City Beer Hall is MUCH better with an intriguing menu that has too many good choices. I think I’ll go for the charcuterie, grilled skate wing and matcha tea panna cotta. They currently have the magnificent Rushing Duck War Elephant DIPA on tap, so I know what I’m going to do with that $15 savings.

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