How Dinner Makes a Difference: A Non-Elitist Tale in Braised Short Ribs, Basil Potato Puree and Apple Slaw

“If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.” – Anita Roddick

Note: I rewrote this post no fewer than six times because I feared it sounded “elitist” — a term often thrown around when people talk about slow food, “real” food, organic food, etc. After much deliberation, the best way I can think of to counter this is to explain that I am most definitely not part of an elite anything. I grew up in a solidly middle class household. Both of my parents worked full-time and made extraordinary sacrifices to provide for my younger brother and me. As an adult, I worked for years with local nonprofit organizations (nonprofit translates to “teeny paycheck,” in case you’ve never been employed by one) and for the past six years I have owned my own writing/communications consulting business.

If you look up the phrase “living paycheck to paycheck,” my picture is likely next to the definition. I am still dutifully paying off the debt I accumulated when I started my business. Because I have taken contracts in “corporate America,” I know it’s not the path for me so I charge ahead with the thing that makes me most happy — working for myself, earning clients and (hopefully) pleasing them with my work. I do hope that someday my work will lead to larger financial rewards, but for now, it’s mostly a labor of love. I scrimp and save every penny I can. Once or twice a year, I hit the consignment shops for some “new” (new to me anyway) clothes. I struggle mightily spending money on something that we don’t truly need and, if we want to replace a chair or something like that, secondhand on Craigslist is always my first option. Mostly, I just learn to be good with what we’ve got and use things until they’re run into the ground. In addition to knowing I can’t afford brand new “stuff,” I’m generally good with not buying much or buying secondhand because it extends the life cycle of perfectly good products that aren’t junk, but might otherwise end up in a landfill.

BUT, when it comes to what I put into my body, I do not compromise because what you put inside of you is a very intimate thing. It makes a big difference, not just in your health and well-being, but because it touches the lives of other beings and the world we live in.

Everything we do during nearly every minute of every day has an impact. That is an incredibly overwhelming fact. Some days, it’s too big for me to even think about. Some days, it’s all I can think about. Years ago, I made a choice to do everything in my power to make a difference with the food I choose to eat. For a recent Top Chef Night, we made chef Beverly Kim’s braised short rib over Thai basil potato puree with apple slaw (click here for original recipe). Here’s how we made her dinner home cook friendly and a rundown of how dinner can make a difference.

In our kitchen, we have a pact: If we’re going to eat meat, we’re going to honor the animal it came from by cooking it properly and (to the best of our ability) knowing the source. Often times, this means finding alternate cuts of meat because a humane option didn’t exist at the store we chose to shop at that week. After reading, listening to and watching so many pieces of information on the impact of factory farms and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) I can’t physically bring myself to eat “conventional” meat any longer. I look at the ground pork wrapped in plastic with a $3.99 price tag on it and, while the price is tempting to my wallet, I know it’s artificially low because of a screwed up farm subsidy system and because so often the scale of the farm operation means that so many pigs were crammed into a space and treated so poorly the sheer number of bodies makes up for the low, low prices. More than once, I have stared at these fleshy plastic and styrofoam packages and cried (yes, in a grocery store aisle) in remembrance of videos and photos of horrific animal abuse.

This is a complicated issue and I don’t want to knock farmers or farm workers who also make choices and face their own frustrations and financial situations. K prefers not to be meat-free and catering to two different diets is too costly and complicated to work in our household. But we do observe Meatless Monday and have several meat-free meals throughout the week. Our choice is to keep it local and humane and, if it’s not, I’ll stick with a veggie option.

K has a fondness for bacon, but does not have a fondness for my substitutions. He reluctantly agrees to them most of the time because I’m cute and convincing. This week, however, he wanted real short ribs. The co-op doesn’t carry them right now so he made a special trip, over his lunch hour, to Whole Foods. The recipe calls for 35 lbs of short ribs and, seeing as there are two of us, we went with 2 lbs instead.

Short Ribs
2 lbs short ribs
1 shallot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
2 organic carrots, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 lemongrass stalks
1/2 jalapeno pepper
2 TB organic tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 TB ginger, thinly sliced
1/2 kiwi fruit, peeled
1 box organic beef stock (or vegetable stock, if you prefer)

* K’s workplace participates in a local farm cooperative. We order things each month. They’re small, mostly family farms in Minnesota and, because you buy direct from the
farmer, the prices are VERY affordable. We get much of our meat and veggies through this program.  More companies are participating in these programs, check with your employer to see if the option exists or if you can help set one up!

In the morning or afternoon, season the short ribs with salt and pepper, sear on both sides then pop them into the slow cooker (aka the crock pot). With the back of a knife, whack (or “bruise”) one stalk of lemongrass and toss it in with the meat. With the other stalk, peel off the woody outside and mince the tender white/purplish inside (something I only recently learned you could do). Saute the shallot, celery, carrot, garlic, minced lemongrass and jalapeno until brown and tender. Add tomato paste, deglaze the pan with red wine (cheap, but still good enough to drink with dinner). Save 3 TB for the curry sauce. Dump everything into the crock pot. Add enough organic beef stock to cover the meat then let the whole thing simmer on medium through the day.

Potato Basil Puree

3 medium-sized Yukon Gold potatoes
6 large basil leaves (we couldn’t find Thai basil, so we used regular organic basil)
1/3 cup organic cream
2 TB butter (Hope Creamery makes THE BEST butter ever)
1 shallot
salt and pepper to taste

Peel and cut the potatoes into uniform sized pieces and boil in salted water until tender. Mince shallots and cut basil into long, thin strips (chiffonade is the fancy pants word for this). Saute shallots and basil then puree with cream (or milk, if you prefer). When potatoes are done, drain the water, mash them (or use a potato ricer) then stir in basil cream. Season with salt and pepper. Do this at the last minute so your potatoes will be hot when dinner is ready.

Apple Slaw

1/2 tart green organic apple
1/2 lime, juiced
1 tsp. chili flakes
salt, to taste

Peel apple and cut into match sticks. Toss in chili flakes and lime juice. If it’s too tart, add a bit of honey until it’s perfect to your taste buds.

Curry Sauce

As I mentioned, I’m a big fan of substitutions in order to avoid having to buy hard-to-find (and often expensive) ingredients that we most likely won’t use again. I also hate the taste of coconut. Hence this curry sauce dramatically modified from the original recipe.

1/2 shallot, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp ginger, minced (or 1 tsp dried ginger)
1 lemongrass stalk
3 TB fish sauce
1.5 TB lime juice (as a substitute for tamarind paste)
1.5 TB  white wine vinegar (as a substitute for tamarind paste)
two shakes of Worcestershire sauce (as a substitute for tamarind paste)
2 TB red curry paste
1/2 jalapeno pepper, minced
3 TB red wine mixture from short ribs
1/2 cup cream (as a substitute for coconut milk)

Bruise the lemongrass stalk by whacking it with the back of a knife. Saute shallots, ginger, jalapeno, garlic and lemongrass. Deglaze the pan with the red wine mixture then add curry paste, vinegar, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce and cream (or coconut milk, if you’re using it). Let simmer on low for 15-20 minutes. Strain before serving.

The recipe also included bok choy and spicy chili peanuts, but we skipped both in the interest of time and simplicity. And the end result? The meat was falling apart tender, the potatoes were a tiny bit dry, but the basil flavor was nice and the curry sauce was smooth, warm and full of flavor. The apple slaw was tart and a bit spicy and added the perfect fresh amount of crunch.

Would we make this again? Yes. Despite the enormous length of this post, this is actually a pretty quick crock pot dinner and a nice twist on the traditional roast beef with mashed potatoes.
Soundtrack: The Suburbs.

We don’t eat like this every day. Far from it. But Top Chef Wednesdays are the night we’ve chosen to cook together, build our little “team” and have fun in the kitchen. We do local, grass-fed, humanely raised and organic whenever we possibly can. It may make a difference only to us. I hope it makes a difference to small farmers, to animals with happier lives, with fewer pesticides on the land and in our bodies — but this is the way we’ve chosen to eat and I can give you numerous personal examples of how it has improved my health. I pay attention to the food we eat and where it comes from because it matters to me. Regardless of income, we all DESERVE the advantage of healthy, nourishing, real food. I may not have much money, but I spend it where I think it can make the most impact. Any positive difference, no matter how small, is still a difference.


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