Ask my daughter Octavia what her favourite food is and she will shoot back, without hesitation, “braised ribs.” Who doesn’t love the comforting meaty aroma that fills the house from ribs cooking slowly in Dutch-oven full of savory, gently-bubbling liquid? That’s wintertime comfort-in-bowl if you ask me.
Braising is a long-honoured method of cooking which coaxes out tenderness and deep flavours from tougher cuts of meat. The basic technique involves a Dutch oven and four main steps: brown the meat and remove, cook the mirepoix (chopped onion, celery and carrot), deglaze the pan with liquid, and finally return the meat to the Dutch oven, cover and let cook low and slow in the oven or on the stovetop until tender. Pork shoulder, brisket and short ribs are excellent candidates for braising with high fat content and tough flesh that need hours to soften.
My whole family loves braised beef ribs, but I wondered how easily I might be able to swap out a leaner cut of meat without alienating my little fans? Turns out: cutting out a bunch of fat was pretty easy. I sliced up a bottom round roast (about 1 1/2 inch-thick) into chubby sticks, about the size and shape of ribs, and I just called them “boneless ribs” at the dinner table. The kids marveled at the ease of eating without the bones and no one was the wiser on the lower-fat swap. (Plus, I saved money too, which was a bonus.)
Without the full fat and bones, however, I needed a smidge more work to get that richness and flavour of traditional braised ribs. First, I added mushrooms to the braise for earthiness and savory umami with nary an extra calorie to be found ‚Äî either halved or chopped will work, depending on whether you want them to be visually present, or disappear.
Second, I learned not to go too low in fat, or the resulting meat will be dry, despite being soaked in sauce. Bottom round was a magical happy spot; top round was less successful. Third, if you can, use the oven for the braising; the stovetop required a little more temperature management. Last, note that braising times will vary, so taste and test. Lower fat meat will not need as long as the fattier connective tissue-laden cuts we usually braise.
You can even serve your lower fat braise on cooked quinoa, brown rice, or sauteed cauliflower rice for an extra-healthy version. Or do what we did: mix half whole wheat couscous and half quinoa for a happy kid-friendly compromise.
BRAISED BEEF RIBS
Start to finish: 3 hours, including about 2 hours inactive braising time
2 1/2-pound bottom round, (or eye of round) about 1 1/2 inches thick
1 tablespoon grapeseed or other neutral cooking oil
2 tablespoons flour
1 yellow onion, chopped, about 1 cup
1 carrot, finely chopped, about 1/2 cup
1 stalk celery, finely chopped, about 1/3 cup
5 cloves garlic, smashed
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, minced, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
4 ounces baby bella mushrooms, wiped clean, trimmed and halved or chopped
dash of red pepper flakes (optional)
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup red wine
1 1/2 cup beef broth
1 bay leaf
water, as needed
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 325 F.
Pat the meat dry gently with a paper towel and slice crosswise into boneless “ribs.” Season with salt and pepper and then sprinkle all over with flour, rubbing the flour gently with your fingers to coat meat on all sides. Heat the oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven or braising pot over medium heat.
Brown the meat on all sides until golden and crusty, about 3-4 minutes per side. Remove the meat with tongs and place on a plate and set aside. Add the onion, carrot and celery to the Dutch over (do not wipe it out) and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until vegetables begin to soften, about three minutes. Add the garlic, thyme, mushrooms and pepper flakes and cook, stirring until very fragrant, about two more minutes.
Add the tomato paste, and cook for another minute so it caramelizes and deepens in flavour. Deglaze the pan with wine and broth, and let bubble for a minute or two to let most of the alcohol evaporate. Add the meat back into the pan, along with any juices. Add another 1/2 cup or so of water so the liquid covers the meat about halfway. Cover the Dutch oven with a lid and bake until meat is tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Check the meat halfway through and add a little water if the braising liquid gets low. Serve the meat with the braising liquid spooned on like gravy.
Nutrition information per serving: 280 calories; 69 calories from fat; 8 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 95 mg cholesterol; 223 mg sodium; 10 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 36 g protein.
Food Network star Melissa d’Arabian is an expert on healthy eating on a budget. She is the author of the cookbook “Supermarket Healthy.”