There’s nothing quite like the deep flavor of a meaty braise that’s been gently simmering away for a couple of hours, mildly bubbling and playfully sputtering during its process towards culinary perfection. What is produced is a fragrant and magical end result, one that is certainly worth waiting the little bit of extra time for. The meat that’s been patiently cooking—gently bathing in the hot, savory sauce—becomes tenderized and softened, releasing all of the good stuff from within it, those inner characteristics that give it its body and depth; it becomes a marvelous morsel that just falls apart at the bone, and simply melts away with a smooth, glossy richness in the mouth, creating such wonderful pleasure. Scrumptious! Doesn’t it remind you a little of this process we call “life”? Coming home on a cold winter’s evening to a simple and warming braise, when soothing comfort is all that your soul truly desires, is a heavenly thing. What could be more cozy to lovingly ladle over fluffy egg noodles into a bowl, all the while warming your hands, your belly and your spirit, than a meal that contains within it those special elements of patience and nurture? Of love and care? Very little, I would think. To partake would be to ingest the warmest “welcome home”, indeed; and to experience, perhaps, one’s own heart soften just a touch, too.
It’s interesting to me how food behaves under certain influences, and how we as humans behave likewise under similar influences. Just as a fine, slow-simmering braise produces a tenderizing and softening effect on those delectable ingredients within it to ultimately create a soothing meal that nourishes, the human soul and the human heart are malleable and able to be softened when they’re immersed in the warm braise of mercy and compassion; we can’t help but to just melt in it, to have any “toughness” that is present, dissolve into tenderness. Isn’t that true? And what a beautiful thing that is, too. The moldable nature of the human heart—the possibility for it to soften and open—is the gift that keeps each one of us able to make the changes that need to be made in life, for a better and ultimately more joyful existence. The ability to soften under another’s kindness, to melt in the warm bath of another’s mercy and grace, is an opportunity to then extract all of the “good stuff” from within ourselves, and allow it to flavor and influence all that surrounds us, and give sustenance and nourishment to others in our lives. Sometimes we’re the warm, comforting braising liquid that softens another, and sometimes we ourselves need the tenderizing effect of another’s compassion. To become “tender at the bone” for us as human beings means that our hearts become more open and pliable; more willing to be humble, forgiving and grateful. Who would have thought that warmth, mercy, compassion and love, plus time, can create the glorious end result of a softening of a human heart, if it’s allowed? Sounds like the ultimate braise; one who’s benefits are never-ending.
The seasons that we find ourselves in can often create a longing for certain foods, for particular sustenance; they can also call on us to reflect and look for signs and parallels in the unexpected things that are part of our daily existence. Braised Beef in Creamy, Shiitake Mushroom and Cracked Peppercorn Sauce in the winter can certainly create the coziness that our bodies long for; and its process for becoming so delightful a finished dish can inspire our own process, if we let it.
Taste what’s good and pass it on.
Tender, Braised Beef in Creamy, Shiitake Mushroom & Cracked Peppercorn Sauce over Egg Noodles
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(Serves about 4-6)
3 ounces dried shiitake mushrooms
3 ½ cups boiling water
2 large (1 ½ lb each) beef shanks with bone (about 3 pounds total)
• Sea salt
1 ½ tablespoons, plus ¼ teaspoon, cracked black peppercorns, divided use (smash until coarse, or pulse in spice grinder)
1 tablespoon, heaping, flour
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, pressed through garlic press
1 cup beef stock, hot
¼ cup half & half
¼ cup lite sour cream
2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped, divided use
12 ounces egg noodles, cooked and drained, and held warm
-Place the dried shiitake mushrooms into a large bowl, and pour the boiling water over them; cover the bowl, and allow the mushrooms to soak and rehydrate for 20 minutes; once rehydrated, strain the mushrooms and reserve the soaking liquid, or “mushroom stock” (about 1½ cups worth), and set aside; slice the rehydrated mushrooms, and set aside for a moment.
-Place the beef shanks onto a large plate or platter, and sprinkle both sides with about 1 ¼ teaspoons of sea salt, the ¼ teaspoon of the cracked black pepper and the heaping 1 tablespoon of flour; place a large heavy bottom braising pot over medium-high/high heat, and add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil to the pot; once the oil is hot, add the beef shanks into the pot, and allow them to brown and caramelize for about 5-6 minutes on each side; once browned, remove the shanks from the pot, and set aside on a plate for a moment; next, reduce the heat to low, and add into the pot the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and the butter; once hot and melted, add in the chopped onion and allow it to caramelize for a couple of moments, scraping up any tasty brown bits on the bottom of the pot; next, add in the garlic and stir, and once the garlic becomes aromatic, add a sprinkle of sea salt and the sliced shiitake mushrooms, and stir to combine; next, add in the hot beef stock plus the 1 ½ cups of reserved mushroom stock from the soaking, and add the browned beef shanks back into the pot, nestling them into the liquid/mushrooms; bring to the boil, then cover, and reduce the heat to low, and gently braise the beef for 2 hours; after 2 hours, remove the cover, and continue to braise for an additional 30 minutes to reduce the cooking liquid a little more; after the 30 minutes, turn the heat off, and allow the beef to sit undisturbed for about 30 minutes more to allow it to relax and slightly cool; next, remove the shanks, and using a fork and knife, carefully shred/chunk the beef into large, bite-sized pieces, and set aside for a moment (you can reserve the bone from the shank for a tasty treat for your doggy if you have one); to finish the sauce, whisk together the half & half with the sour cream in a small bowl, and then add it into the braising liquid in the pot and whisk to blend in; check the seasoning and add a pinch of salt, if necessary; finally, add the shredded/chunked beef back into the pot, and add in the remaining 1 ½ tablespoons of cracked black peppercorns and 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, and stir to combine.
-To serve, combine the warm egg noodles with a drizzle of olive oil and the remaining tablespoon of chopped parsley, and ladle the braised beef and sauce over top of the noodles.