The Accidental Cookbook Author
How-to: Bruce Aidells’ new tome is the meatiest yet.
Growing up, Bruce Aidells was not the kind of kid you’d figure would write a cookbook about meat. His mom, “wanting a life,” as he says, opted for convenience cooking, which involved “using canned soup as your major flavor ingredient.” On Sundays, when his family ate out at inexpensive ethnic restaurants in the Los Angeles area, Aidells wasn’t all-meat-all-the-time, and he often ordered seafood. As for writing? Hated it. Aidells’ education was in the sciences, and had he told his parents he was going to have a career in food, he says, “They would have cut me off.”
Still, Aidells’ parents had committed what he refers to as “a fatal error” in taking him to all those ethnic restaurants around L.A., starting him on a lifelong adventure with food that has included helping transform sausage in this country from a breakfast side to a national fixation, becoming the country’s foremost authority on meat, and publishing 11 cookbooks. His latest, The Great Meat Cookbook (on sale starting October 2), is everything you ever wanted to know about Aidells’ favorite topic as well as a nonstop parade of gorgeous big-boy meat recipes.
When it comes to recipes, Aidells is the real deal. He’s in the kitchen virtually every day, and his home in Healdsburg (his primary residence is in the Berkeley hills) may possess the only privately owned mega-showplace cooking space that actually gets used. More than half of the recipes in his new book are original, and he credits friends, family (including his wife, award-winning restaurateur Nancy Oakes), and ethnic classics as the inspiration on others.
His new book not only has recipes for blockbusters such as standing rib roast with porcini-spinach stuffing, toasted peppercorn and whiskey sauce, and horseradish cream, it also offers lessons in making lard from pork fat and making your own bacon.
His love is genuine: “Meat is just so satisfying. There are so many things to do with it, so many ways to cook it.” Still, he seems a little defensive when asked when meat became his favorite food group.
Are there times when life gets too meaty for him? Like, does he ever wake up in the morning thinking, I’m going to make me a big pot of vegetarian chili?
“Vegetarian chili is not high on my list,” he admits, “but maybe vegetarian Indian food …”
Aidells says he fully recognizes that having a plant-based diet is better for the planet, pointing out that many people who eat meat these days pay careful attention to how the meat was raised, an issue that permeates his new book. In fact, Aidells adds, the book revisits the topic of his 1998 comprehensive look at meat, The Complete Meat Cookbook, because information about environmental friendliness, humane treatment of animals, and the health of meat eaters has expanded exponentially.
“Pork chops are still pork chops,” Aidells says, “but a lot of the questions people are now asking didn’t exist when I was writing the previous book.”
Meanwhile, Aidells says he prefers meat that has been raised according to the new rules of ethical meat eating. “It tends to taste better, and frankly I’m interested in putting the best stuff on my plate.”
A Recipe for Every Cut
The Great Meat Cookbook provides recipes for all kinds of meat cuts for three reasons. It helps sustainable ranchers, who pay a premium to bring their animals to market and need to sell every part. Also, underutilized cuts are cheaper. And many of these cuts are downright delicious. Here’s a list of lesser-used cuts, with a few tips provided by Aidells.
Sirloin tip steak, cross rib steak, and chuck arm steak: Well-marbled ones can be grilled or roasted. Otherwise, braise.
Rump roast, bottom round roast, and cross rib roast: Best braised, although a true rump roast can be roasted.
Beef rib bones: Delicious grilled or roasted.
Brisket, chuck roll, and chuck under blade roast: Great pot roasts.
Shanks: Cook low and slow, using any pot roast recipe.
Cheeks: Stew or braise.
Tongue: Especially good in tacos.
Grill-braised Vietnamese short ribs with sweet vinegar glaze
Five-spice powder, a Chinese flavoring, is also popular in Vietnamese cooking. One of the spices that gives five-spice powder its characteristic licorice flavor is star anise, which is also used whole in this braise.
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1 tablespoon mild pure chile powder, such as New Mexico or California, or Hungarian paprika
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dark brown sugar
8 flanken-style beef short ribs (about 4 pounds)*
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 cups chopped onions
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons minced peeled fresh ginger
3 cups homemade beef stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
¼ cup plus 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 whole star anise
2 cups thick, soft fresh Asian rice noodles (or cooked dried linguine)
2 cups fresh bean sprouts
Thinly sliced scallions
Fresh cilantro sprigs
*Alternative cuts: boneless or English short ribs, any chuck roast or brisket cut into 3-inch chunks, beef shanks, or oxtails (up cooking time by hour or more).
1) Five-spice rub: Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl. Sprinkle generously over all surfaces of the ribs. For the most flavor, place the ribs on a platter, wrap in plastic wrap, and let rest for at least 2 hours at room temperature, or refrigerate overnight.
2) Heat a gas grill to medium-high. Place the ribs over the heat, and sear for 1 to 2 minutes per side, turning until all sides are nicely browned, turning if they begin to char. Set aside to cool while you begin preparing the braise. Once cool enough to handle, tie the ribs to the bone with a couple of loops of butcher’s twine.
3) Place a 6- to 8-quart Dutch oven directly over medium heat, and when hot, add the oil. Add the onions and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and ginger, and fry and stir for 1 minute more. Pour in the stock, fish sauce, ¼ cup of the rice vinegar, the soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of the brown sugar, and the star anise. Bring to a boil, and lay in the short ribs. Set up the grill for indirect cooking (if your grill has a thermometer, it should read about 350˚ F), and place the pot so it’s not over direct heat. Cover, then close the grill lid, and cook for 30 minutes. If all the ribs are not submerged in the simmering liquid, move them around so the uncovered ones spend time in the liquid. Adjust the heat to maintain a slow simmer, and cover. Check again 30 minutes later, and move ribs around if necessary. After another 30 minutes, check the ribs for tenderness. You should just be able to pierce them with a fork, but they should not be falling apart. If they are not tender enough, cook longer, covered, checking every 15 minutes (mine take 1½ hours, but yours may vary). Remove the ribs and set aside.
4) Skim the fat from the liquid, and taste the sauce; it should have a nice rich flavor. If too watery, return to direct heat and reduce until it becomes flavorful and suits your taste. Set aside. Refrigerate overnight, or proceed with the recipe.
5) To make the sweet vinegar glaze, pour 1 cup of the braising liquid into a small saucepan and stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons brown sugar. Stir in the remaining 2 teaspoons rice vinegar. Place over high heat or, if your grill has a side burner, use it to reduce the glazing liquid until it becomes syrupy (reduce to about 1/3 cup), 5 minutes. Brush the glaze over one side of each rib, and set the ribs on the grill over medium-high heat until the glaze begins to bubble and lightly darken. Brush another surface with the glaze, and turn the ribs. Continue to brush and glaze, turning frequently, until all sides are nicely glazed. Transfer ribs to a warm pan or platter. Drizzle the remaining glaze over the ribs.
6) Cook the noodles in the boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes, until tender, and drain.
7) To serve, divide the noodles between four large shallow soup bowls. Ladle over the braising liquid. Mound some bean sprouts over the top. Remove any remaining strings from ribs, and lay 2 ribs and any juices on top of the noodles in each bowl. Sprinkle with scallions and a few sprigs of cilantro.
This recipe is a more concentrated version of the classic Vietnamese soup pho. To turn this recipe into pho, don’t reduce the sauce, and use 6 cups chicken broth and 4 tablespoons fish sauce. Serve 1 or 2 short ribs per serving. As pho, this recipe will serve 6 to 8.
Serve the more concentrated dish one night, then add stock and serve as a soup another day for lunch.
From The Great Meat Cookbook by Bruce Aidells with Anne-Marie Ramo. Copyright © 2012 by Bruce Aidells. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.