Sunday, January 26, 2014

Winter's journey and braised beef shanks

Tora's real food

Virginia in winter is subtly beautiful. Delicate, blackened bone trees. Raw, sweeping curves of hills. A colorbox of strange halftones: olive green, bleached orange, gray-brown, salt white. Sometimes hard to perceive, the beauty is always there if you look for it: the eerie, lonely noise of geese ringing through cold, bell-clear air; the hazy bluish-purple of a certain kind of shrub; a splendid sunset.


Virginia's winter beauty wasn't really on my mind yesterday when I set off on a little trip to The Whole Ox, a wonderful artisanal butcher shop in an old railway station in the Plains. I just needed a respite from being stuck at home for a week, first because of school closings due to snow and bitter cold and then due to sickness. I also wanted to find an excuse to have the oven running all day to dispel some of the chill. But as I sailed along the roads, rising and falling with the curves, that beauty took hold of me again and reminded me why I love Virginia.

Coming back, stocked with a meaty pair of beef shanks and some other odds and ends (The Whole Ox is a lot like a treasure cave; I can never leave with just what's on the list), I passed a pair of foxes in a field. Their red bodies echoed the reddish-orange grasses that stuck up through the snow. Robin's egg sky and tumbledown wooden fence framed the scene. The foxes ignored me as I slowed to watch them--a pair of teenagers getting into trouble: one the instigator and the other slightly hesitant, hanging back. I longed to take a picture of them, but the stretch of road was too dangerous to stop for long. And so I've turned the image over and over in mind like a smooth stone, polishing and holding on to it. Maybe it was just as well I didn't get the picture. It wouldn't have been as good as the one in my mind. 

Once home with my goodies, I quickly started the braise. After three hours of slow cooking in the oven, we had a gorgeous meal of braised beef shanks (so tender the meat fell off the bones), mashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts slaw. A wonderful meal that made a cold and ordinary Saturday into a special occasion.

Tora's real food


  • 3 lbs (or thereabouts) beef shanks (preferably big meaty ones with big bones)
  • 1-1 1/2 cups orange juice
  • 1/2-1 cup soy sauce
  • 3 Tbsps vegetable oil (for searing)
  • 3-4 Tbsps flour (for dredging)
  • salt, pepper
  • smoked paprika (optional but oh so nice)
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 whole head of garlic, individual cloves peeled
  • 5-6 whole medium carrots, peeled and ends trimmed


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. Pat the beef shanks dry with paper towels and very liberally sprinkle salt, pepper, and smoked paprika all over them. Rub the seasonings into the meat.  Then dredge the meat with flour.
  3. Heat the vegetable oil to medium-high heat in a frying pan. Sear the meat on all sides, for about 1-2 minutes per side. (You should have a nice golden brown crust on the meat.)
  4. Transfer the meat to a Dutch oven. Arrange the garlic cloves and carrots around the meat. 
  5. Add the orange juice, soy sauce, cumin, and coriander to the hot frying pan. Scrape at the browned bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pan. Let the mixture cook for a minute or two, just enough to bring all the ingredients together. Taste the braising liquid. It should be quite strong. Make any tweaks you like at this point (such as add a touch of honey, a splash of vinegar, more spice) and then pour the braising liquid over the meat and vegetables. Then slide it into the oven for about 3 hours. 
  6. Take the meat out of the oven about 20-30 minutes before serving to let it cool down a little before eating. Use the braising liquid as a sauce over mashed potatoes or something that will soak up the juices. And do not forget to suck the marrow out of the bones, for that is truly one of life's pleasures (if you're an omnivore, at least). 
Now, I also promised my friend Clythie at Run Cook Eat Repeat to share the recipe for the Brussels sprouts slaw, so here it is:

Brussels Sprouts Slaw

  • Rinse and grate 1 to 1 1/2 lbs Brussels sprouts that are brilliant green without brown blemishes on a coarse grater. Use the hard whitish ends to hold onto the sprout and then discard that part. I highly recommend getting a protective glove for doing this job. Alternatively, you could shred the sprouts in a food processor. If you do it this way, trim the hard white stem ends first. Add the shredded Brussels sprouts to a medium salad bowl.
  • Coarsely grate about 1/2 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Mix with the shredded sprouts.
  • In another bowl, whisk together
    • 6 Tbsps good quality oil (I used avocado oil, but a good quality extra virgin olive oil or walnut oil would be wonderful too)
    • 4 Tbsps red wine vinegar
    • 1 tsp honey (ish, more or less to taste)
    • 1/4 tsp (or so) salt
    • pinch of pepper
    • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • Taste the vinaigrette for seasoning and adjust according to your taste.  
  • Pour the vinaigrette over the sprouts and cheese and mix it all together. Eat! 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Snow day chili with beans and a hint of cocoa

Yesterday it snowed--the first significant snow in a few years here in Northern Virginia. On the tail of the snowstorm came the polar vortex--a mass of cold, hard air as inexorable and weighty as a glacier. Warmth flees before it. And the cold wind blows snow devils into the air, glittering in the sun. It's beautiful, stark, and harsh.

Cold days are good days to make chili. Filling chili, with a touch of warming spice (or a lot, depending on your taste) that satisfies hunger and banishes the cold. Serve it on rice with sour cream, a sprinkling of cheese, and some chopped onion (or any combination that you like).

What's a little different about this chili is the addition of unsweetened cocoa powder. Not to worry, it doesn't make the chili taste like chocolate, but it adds depth to the flavor and a beautiful dark color. And yes, this chili has beans, which I know  is sacrilege in some food circles, but I will gladly offend in this case, ha ha. Beans are incredibly nutritious, full of protein and fiber that will make you feel full for a long time. In this recipe I've used canned beans (organic, of course) for convenience (I know, I'm slipping), but if you are in the mood to cook your own beans, use this no-soak method, which works well for me.

Another nice thing about this chili is that you can switch up the protein: Use ground pork, ground beef, ground turkey, or ground lamb, whatever you have handy. The same is true of the beans. I like a two-to-one combination of white and pinto beans, but you can use any combination of beans.


  • 1 lb ground beef or pork or turkey or lamb (or a combination?)
  • 3 Tbsps extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 2 15-oz cans of white beans (such as cannelini or Great Northern), rinsed and drained
  • 1 15-oz can of pinto beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 28-oz can of ground tomatoes
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1-3 Tbsps chili powder
  • 2 tsps unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp salt (or to taste)


  1. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat (or other large-ish, heavy pot with a thick bottom). Add the onions and cook them until they are soft and slightly brown, about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally and adjust the heat as needed so that the onions don't burn.  
  2. Add the ground beef/pork/turkey/lamb and cook through.
  3. Add crushed garlic and stir until you can smell it, about a minute. 
  4. Add tomatoes, beans, chili powder, cocoa powder, brown sugar, and about half of the salt. Stir everything together and let it simmer for at least 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Longer is fine if you want to start it early in the day and just let it stew. If so, keep the heat on the lowest setting, keep the lid on, and stir from time to time.
  5. Before it's time to serve, have a taste and add salt as needed. Then sever it over rice and with any additions that you like. I prefer sour cream and sometimes some chopped onion. Also, if you like it hot, you could always add some sliced jalapenos.   
 Now enjoy the cold weather and keep warm.