by James Villas ’60
When I invite friends to dinner these days at my home on Long Island, there’s rarely any question that they’ll be served the inimitable Southern food that nurtured me when I was growing up and living in my native North Carolina. Some folks, of course, expect classic fried chicken, others my Brunswick stew with ham hock and still others the genuine slow-cooked Carolina barbecue I’ve pretty much mastered using only a simple kettle grill.
But no doubt the dish that solicits the most raves and is closest to my Tar Heel heart is my granddaddy Paw Paw’s simple but luscious short ribs of beef that my mother taught me how to cook as a youngster in Charlotte, that I baked repeatedly at my small house on Valentine Lane in Chapel Hill while I was a student at UNC and that I still fix on a fairly regular basis depending on the availability of quality ribs.
Memories pertaining to great Carolina short ribs are varied and rich, and perhaps none is more indelible than that of Mother shopping for ideal ribs when I was a kid. Predictably, most home cooks settled for packaged ribs at the supermarket, but since Mother could really sound off if those were “too scrawny” or not properly marbled with fat or blemished by bone discoloration, usually nothing would do but to head straight for her trusty butcher in Charlotte, Mr. Hoard, inspect a whole rib plate and have him custom-cut the exact meaty, 4-inch-wide by 3-inch-thick, perfectly proportioned short ribs she demanded.
Years later in Chapel Hill, I learned to follow Mother’s example, discovered a good butcher on the outskirts of town in Carrboro and even virtually trained Jerry to call me when he had some particularly beautiful ribs. As for subsequent years, I’ve usually managed to locate friendly butchers here and there, but suffice it to say that I often wonder whether I spend more time trying to find the delectable short ribs that are so readily available in my home state than I do heavenly country ham and whole-hog sausage.
Today, of course, short ribs of beef are no longer the inexpensive, neglected cut of meat they once were; the days of finding them in markets at 99 cents a pound are long gone, and they are now featured in one guise or another at even the most upscale restaurants all over the country. What most trendy chefs have yet to learn, but what Southern home cooks have known for centuries, is that there’s one way, and one way only, to transform tough, cartilage-laden short ribs into a tender, juicy, mouth-watering wonder: simmering them slowly and patiently in liquid for hours. No dry heat cooking, no roasting or frying or grilling, no quick method whatsoever will break down the meat fibers and soften the fat in the right manner, and the technique I’ve used for years involves both boiling the ribs (which really can’t be overcooked), then baking them with vegetables for optimum succulence. These Southern short ribs should not be “enhanced” with any additional ingredients; they need no herbs, spices or other extra seasonings (“Why fool around with perfection?” Mother was forever scolding). And since they have the components of a one-dish meal, I serve nothing else but a simple tart green salad; a basket of fresh buttermilk biscuits; plenty of beer, ale or dry red wine; and, for dessert, homemade pound cake with maybe scoops of vanilla ice cream.
James Villas ’60 (’61 MA, ’66 PhD) earned three degrees in Romance languages at UNC, taught at three universities before changing professions and was food and wine editor of Town & Country magazine for 27 years. His work also has appeared in Gourmet, Food & Wine, Saveur, Bon Appetit and The New York Times, and he is the author of 18 cookbooks and books on food, four of which have been nominated for a James Beard Award and one of which won the award. His books on Southern cookery include The Glory of Southern Cooking, My Mother’s Southern Kitchen, Pig: King of the Southern Table and Southern Fried, and he also has published three novels. He lives in East Hampton on Long Island, N.Y.
Makes 4 to 5 servings
6 meaty short ribs of beef, 4 inches wide and 3 inches thick
12 small onions, peeled and scored on root ends
10 small red potatoes, peeled
1 16-ounce can whole tomatoes with juices
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste