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"I really love it when winter comes," announces the chef with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

"Because you don't sweat as much?" ventures the doctor.

"That's not why - it's always warm in the kitchen," he replies. "For me, it means the shpondra (short ribs) season has begun."

"Ah-hah."

"There's no cut of meat I like better than shpondra," confesses the chef.

"I used to go to New York just for the short ribs there," says the doctor. "American steaks get most of the publicity, and a lot of people treat the Peter Luger Steakhouse and Smith & Wollensky as pilgrimage sites, but the really marvelous meat is a supposedly inferior cut. Poor immigrants from Eastern and Northern Europe brought an appreciation for beef stew to American culture. These immigrants, I think, were mostly Jews, and the most important thing American Jewry contributed to the world, aside from Albert Einstein, was a taste for shpondra."

"The shpondra there isn't quite the same as you find here," the chef comments.

"I understand that shpondra isn't a single cut," interjects our friend Uri, who is ravenously following the conversation. "Doesn't each part have a different use? Or are they all the same?"

"Americans differentiate between flank, without which no cholent can truly succeed; brisket, which is the optimal cut for lengthy cooking in liquid; and the meat that covers the edges of the ribs (called short ribs when it's beef and spare ribs in other animals) and whose flavor - derived from bone, marrow, fat and flesh - is just perfect. Local butchers refer to all of the above as 'shpondra,' while South Americans call the beef from the ribs asado. But the main thing to remember is that all parts of the shpondra are wonderful."

"I love them all," enthuses the chef. "In France," he adds, "I learned for the first time the huge difference between our boiled meat and their pot-au-feu, and I fell in love. And to think that they're basically using the same shpondra."

"Did you ever eat a bollito misto in Italy?" inquires the doctor.

"You bet."

"The dish is a collection of boiled meats, each one cooked with a slightly different technique. The main type of meat used is brisket."

"Now it's all clear," sighs the chef wistfully.

"Let's cook some shpondra," they chime in unison. (All recipes serve six.)

Romanian-style chorba soup

Chorba is actually a Turkish word that means "soup," a culinary contribution of the Ottoman Empire, of which the area now known as Romania was a part for 500 years. Traditional Romanian chorba features shpondra prominently. Poor Romanians used the bones (breast bones and ribs) and the rich used the meat itself. Both seasoned their chorba with a herb called lovage, which can be found in the big produce markets. If lovage is not available, celery leaves may be substituted.

This soup is prepared in two stages. The road is long, but the result is splendid.

On the first day, take a piece of shpondra (bones included) weighing at least two kilos and trimmed of excess fat. Place it in a pot, pour on two liters of water (preferably mineral water), and add a tablespoon of coarse salt. Bring to a boil, lower heat to the minimum and simmer, covered, for three hours. Then carefully remove the meat and let the stock cool. Refrigerate overnight and skim off the layer of fat so you can begin to prepare the soup itself.

1 medium carrot, coarsely grated

1 parsley root, coarsely grated

1 celery root, coarsely grated

1 pickled red pepper, chopped

1/2 cup rice

1 bunch lovage leaves, chopped (celery leaves may be substituted)

strained juice of 1 lemon

Bring stock to a boil. Add the carrot, parsley root and celery root, bring to a boil again, then lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the rice and cook until soft (about 10 minutes). Add the chopped pepper, lemon juice and boiled meat and bones. Bring to a boil once more and then turn off the heat. Add the lovage, wait five minutes and serve.

Shpondra in chicken broth

This is the ultimate way to prepare shpondra. As we've already discovered, one secret for cooking this meat is very simple - simmering over very low heat. Basically, the liquid should not look like it's boiling. All you should see is an occasional tiny bubble on the surface. Rapid boiling would wreck everything.

The second secret is chicken stock. Soup powder is not even an option. Prepare a simple stock from a half-kilo of wings and a few necks cooked in one and a half liters of (preferably mineral) water along with an onion, a carrot, a bunch of parsley and a small bunch of thyme. Let this simmer for about an hour and a half, after it first comes to a boil, over low heat. Season with coarse salt just before the end and strain. Then prepare the following:

3 kg. shpondra, without the bones, trimmed of excess fat

1 onion, quartered

3 carrots, quartered

4 garlic cloves, peeled

1 celery root (celeriac), peeled and quartered

1 parsley root, peeled and halved

1 dry bay leaf (or 2 fresh bay leaves)

salt and pepper

Place the meat in a pot and add one and a half liters of chicken stock. Bring to a boil, lower heat to the minimum or transfer to an electric hot plate and simmer for half an hour. Add a just little salt to taste (the stock already has salt) and pepper and the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat again. Simmer for three hours, covered. Wait half an hour before carefully removing the meat and placing it on the serving dish. Strain the soup. Discard the vegetables.

Slice the meat crosswise (against the grain) and serve with a boiled vegetable (potatoes or beans, or a green vegetable like broccoli). Pour a little of the broth over the meat and the vegetable.

Chill the broth in the refrigerator. The next day, skim off the layer of fat and keep the rest - it's a wonderful stock.

Shpondra and broad bean stew

1/2 kg. dry broad beans (ful) soaked for eight hours in cold water

2 kg. shpondra with bones (asado) cut crosswise into large pieces

flour

2 onions, thinly sliced

1 bunch parsley, chopped

2 tbsp. tomato paste

6 thick slices of dark bread (one per serving)

salt and pepper

olive oil

Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy, medium-sized pot. Dredge the pieces of meat in flour and shake off the excess. Brown the meat in small batches so as not to let the oil cool. Set the browned meat aside. Add the onion and parsley to the pot and fry while scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. Add the beans and stir to combine. Add the tomato paste and one cup of hot water, and stir. Season with salt and pepper and then return the meat to the pot. Add one and a half liters of water and bring to a boil. Lower heat to the minimum and simmer for two hours, covered.

Fry the bread in olive oil. Place one slice of fried bread on each dish and pour the stew on top.

Roast shpondra with beans

This is a type of cholent, only this time it has a Mediterranean accent rather than a Galician one. All you need is a large pot with metal handles, one that can go into the oven. There are several stages to preparing this dish, but overall it's not complicated and the final result is your reward. Best to plan on having it for lunch; the cooking commences the evening before and then the dish roasts in the oven all night.

The main ingredients of this dish are a piece of shpondra weighing at least three kilos (four or more is good, too, and don't worry, it will all be eaten) with the bones (what's known as asado) sliced crosswise between the ribs into large pieces; and a half-kilo of dry beans soaked for 24 hours in cold water.

To cook the beans, you will also need:

2 carrots, thickly sliced

1 medium onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tbsp. thyme leaves

1 tsp. rosemary leaves

2 sage leaves

For the meat's marinade:

1 medium onion, minced

3 garlic cloves, minced

lemon peel, grated

1 tbsp. thyme leaves

1 tsp. rosemary needles

strained juice of 1/2 lemon

1/2 cup olive oil

salt and pepper

For the roast:

3 onions, thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 tbsp. thyme leaves

1 tsp. rosemary needles

1 cup dry red wine

1/2 kilo crushed tomatoes

olive oil

salt and pepper

chicken stock or water to cover

Start with the beans. Put them into a pot with the onion, carrot, garlic and herbs. Add water to cover and bring to a boil. Lower heat to the minimum and skim off the foam. Simmer for 45 minutes, covered, and remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, use a food processor to chop the ingredients for the marinade and coat the meat well with it. Marinate for one hour.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in the large pot and brown the meat in it in small batches to keep the oil from cooling. Set the meat aside. Add the onion and garlic to the pot and fry until golden while scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. Add the wine and let it evaporate a bit. Add the tomatoes and herbs, season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes. Put the meat back in the pot. Add the beans. Gently shake and stir the pot. If more liquid is needed, add enough chicken stock or water to cover well. Bring to a boil.

Cover the pot tightly with aluminum foil and place in the preheated oven for half an hour; then lower the heat to the minimum - 100 degrees Celsius or less. Leave in the oven overnight without opening the oven door.

After 12 hours of cooking, turn off the oven, but leave the pot inside until just before serving.

One more thing: If you feel like improvising, go ahead and add a few potatoes to the pot when it goes into the oven. Then you'll get a real cholent.