It's winter here in Memphis, and I've been battling a cold all last week. I'm finally feeling somewhat better, but I still wanted a hearty winter meal for Sunday dinner.
My shopping started a day ahead of time with the purchase of 24 oz. of dried cannellini beans, a popular white kidney bean used in Tuscany and throughout Italy. (The beans were filthy, by the way. It took three rinsings to clean them.) I soaked the beans overnight and then heated up the venerable enameled cast iron Dutch oven. I cooked some diced, salted pork belly until the fat began to render, then I tossed in a diced shallot. Next came the drained beans, followed by a pint of turkey stock I made and froze last Thanksgiving. For color, flavor, and nutrition, I added a bunch of sliced Swiss chard. I would have used rapini, but it's not looking too good right now, and the batch growing in my backyard is nowhere near ready to harvest. Finally, two sprigs of fresh rosemary were added for flavor and aroma. I let it all simmer, covered, for three hours. (Honestly, this could easily be mistaken for a batch of white bean soup with ham and a sprinkling of greens.) Tomorrow, I can just reheat the beans, or add some water and enjoy them as soup, or puree the whole pot and use it as a dip for toast points.
That's one of the nice things about making a big pot of beans at the beginning of the week: lots of options. Or as they said way back when, "Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old." Last Sunday I made traditional Boston baked beans using northern white beans, molasses, a smoked ham hock, etc. Decent, but definitely benefited from a dose of hot sauce and a little brown sugar on the reheating.
During the same time period, I was braising the beef short ribs. Two pounds, dusted in flour and seared in hot butter and olive oil. I added three cloves of sliced garlic, and began reducing a can of unsalted beef broth. Once I had reduced the volume by half, I added a cup of red wine (more on that later), and let it all simmer down some. Then came a cup of tomato sauce, a reduction in temperature, and then I left it alone for three hours, covered. (Meat on the bone always tastes better, and in this case you get the marrow leaking out to help improve the sauce.) The zest of one lemon was added at the end to perk it up.
In the finished product, you can see the rich sauce created from the ribs. I skimmed off some of the fat, but all of the flavor remained. The beans here worked not as a separate dish but more as a richly flavored starch to accompany the meat. Both dishes, while simple and dead cheap, were delicious and could easily be made in a pair of crock pots.
The wine used for help with the sauce and for pairing with the finished product was the 2005 Quattro Mani Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from the Le Marche region, right on the border with Abruzzi. Quattro Mani means "four hands" and refers to the four winemakers who helped create the wine. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is the grape/DOC name, and it's one of those unappreciated treasures that can often be found at ridiculously low prices. (If you've ever had the Zaccagnini "twig wine", that's the same grape.) This one cost $10, and was very enjoyable. Black currants on the nose, followed by full dark fruit flavors yet low tannins. A slight bite on the finish just to let you know it's there.
I don't often discuss final food cost unless I got a great deal on something, but the entire cost of what you see in the photo (minus the fruit in the corner) was about $4. On everything (including wine) I probably spent $20, and will get around five plates out of the whole mess. Beef short ribs can be cheaper than ground beef or chuck roast, yet have luscious, savory flavor. Growing your own herbs is perhaps the cheapest and easiest way to make your dishes taste great. Aside from that, don't be afraid of a little hard work and the investment of time.