Hear the phrase "falling off the bone" and, if you are a meat-eater, you start salivating. You think of short ribs, lamb shanks, osso bucco, coq au vin - all the spectacular stews and braises that make you want to belly up to the table and dig in. All the dishes in which the meat is fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth delicious. In other words, "falling off the bone," whether or not (as in the ragout, below) there are actual bones involved.
Cooking such dishes is not only good gastronomy; it's good economy. Many slow-cooked dishes (with some notable exceptions, like veal shanks for osso bucco), use tougher, less expensive cuts of meat.
It's good planning, too: For hectic schedules, a slow-cooked dish can be made in advance and refrigerated or even frozen until needed. The beef-ragout recipe here incorporates several shortcuts, yet it is delicious and impressive enough to serve for holiday company.
"Falling Off the Bone" by Jean Anderson (Wiley, 2010) can provide many more slow-cooked recipes to add to your menu. It's crammed with luscious, meaty dishes that will get you through the work-week, weekend or whenever. Anderson draws inspiration from the flavors of Sweden, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Hungary, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, China, Latin and South America, as well as early American and Native American cookery.
The best news for busy cooks is that most soups, stews and braises are best made at least a day ahead of time, to allow the flavors to meld. Added bonus: Most need only some good bread and a salad to make a warming, festive meal. Your guests will fall off their seats for meat that is "falling off the bone."
RAGOUT OF BEEF WITH CRANBERRIES AND WILD MUSHROOMS
1⁄4 pound double-smoked or hickory-smoked slab bacon finely diced
1⁄4 cup unsalted butter or vegetable oil
3 pounds boneless beef chuck, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1-inch cubes
4 large peeled shallots or scallions, trimmed and coarsely chopped
2 large yellow onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 (8-ounce) packages sliced cremini or white mushrooms
2 small sprigs fresh thyme (preferably lemon thyme) or 1⁄2 teaspoon crumbled dried leaf thyme
1 small sprig fresh rosemary or 1⁄2 teaspoon crumbled dried leaf rosemary
2 cups dry red wine (such as a pinot noir or cabernet)
13⁄4 cups beef broth
1 cup canned whole cranberry sauce
1⁄2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms or chanterelles
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the diced bacon, and cook for 10 minutes. Drain well, and set aside.
In a large, heavy, nonreactive Dutch oven set over medium-high heat, melt the butter until it froths and subsides. Working in batches (don't crowd the pan!), brown the beef, allowing about 10 minutes per batch. As each batch is done, transfer the meat to a bowl using a slotted spoon.
Add shallots (or scallions), onions, sliced mushrooms, the blanched bacon, thyme and rosemary to the pot, and saute, stirring often, until lightly browned, 10 to 12 minutes.
Return the beef to the pot along with any accumulated juices. Add the wine, broth, cranberry sauce, dried mushrooms, salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Adjust heat so liquid bubbles gently, and simmer until beef is fork-tender, two to two-and-a-half hours. At this point you can cool, cover, and refrigerate the ragout for up to two days, or freeze it for up to three months. Thaw if needed, and reheat gently but thoroughly before proceeding.
Mix in cream, and simmer uncovered until liquids reduce to a nice gravy consistency; this will take about 30 minutes. Discard thyme and rosemary sprigs (if you have used them), taste for salt and pepper, and adjust as needed.
Serve hot with boiled potatoes, buttered egg noodles or spaetzle.
Yield: 6 servings
• Marialisa Calta is the author of "Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the American Family" (Perigee, 2005). For more information, go to www.marialisacalta.com.