Last Friday, Dan and I had dinner with our friends Megan and Butch. A few days before, Megan touched based with me via email, making sure we were still coming, asking if there were any foods we didn't like to eat, sending directions--the usual pre-dinner party exchange.
Except that there was a P.S. at the end of the email. She wrote: "I don't remember either of you having any issues with animals, which is good because we are now the foster parents for a baby flying squirrel. It's a long story."
I sort of skimmed through the P.S. at first, reading that we were having flying baby squirrel for dinner. (Which we've all thoroughly debated on the comments section of this blog.) Why would Megan serve squirrel for dinner? I know the Times says it's trendy, and you know, times are tough, but that's so not like her. Then I re-read it and having a squirrel for a pet suddenly seemed totally okay. Fantastic, even. Just not on my plate.
So this is how I came to meet Geronimo, the flying squirrel. And also eat Megan's delicious short ribs and mashed potatoes. Geronimo ate a pecan with almost as much relish.
As far as dinner companions go, Geronimo was quite well-behaved. He didn't fly around the room and dive at our heads. (I envisioned many scenarios like this on the walk to their apartment.) Most of the time he stayed in his cage, curled in an oven mitt. When Megan let him out he scurried up and down her arms and legs, even as she moved around the room. Apparently flying squirrels are social creatures, happiest when they're around (or on) people.
When I offered my hand, Geronimo tentatively jumped on it and made a beeline for my hair. Then Butch said something about burrowing and nesting so I put him back down. Quickly. His tiny clawed feet felt creepy, but he was cute in a chipmunky kind of way. (Apologies for the dim photos; I didn't want to blast him away with my flash.)
My point in giving Geronimo so much real estate here is that he was quite the party trick. Almost as fun as playing Wii Fitness after dinner (Verdict: I have the balance skills of a drunken toddler and the body of a 54-year-old in Wii terms. Yikes. But I am "normal" weight. Whew. Someone else had a bad run-in with this at a dinner party recently with much worse results. Sorry, AG.)
But in spite of the eccentric pet and the scarily addictive Wii session, the food was really the highlight of the night. And that's saying a lot. I mean, they have a flying squirrel.
Dinner with Megan & Butch (and Geronimo)
Proscuitto-wrapped dried apricots
Garlic dip with crudite
Arugula with roasted tomatoes and pecorino
Short ribs with mashed potatoes
Deconstructed blueberry crumble
There's a lot to say about this meal. It's a lot of food, but thanks to Megan's leisurely pacing, we had plenty of breathing room in between courses so it didn't feel like a gut bomb. (I even managed to play a sad round of Wii hula-hooping after dinner, which says a lot.) If you haven't had proscuitto-wrapped apricots (and I hadn't) you really should make them. It's a great seasonal twist on the traditional ham-melon combo, which is lovely in summer, but can seem a bit anemic in winter. On to the short ribs...
Braised short ribs with mashed potatoes
Megan's an avid food blog reader and got this recipe from Smitten Kitchen. She simplified it quite a bit, but you'd never know. The meat was meltingly tender with lots of lovely little charred bits, and the sauce was deep and flavorful. Megan says she reduced the beef broth in the recipe by about a cup because she wanted a wine-ier taste. She also kept the ribs in the oven for an hour longer than the recipe called for because she wanted them to be a little more tender. I'd say that was a good decision.
(Serves 4 to 6 people)
6 beef short ribs, about 14 to 16 ounces each (ask for 3 bone center-cut)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon thyme leaves, and 4 whole sprigs thyme
1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup diced onion
1/3 cup diced carrot
1/3 cup diced celery
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 cups port
2 1/2 cups hearty red wine
6 cups beef stock (or 5 cups stock, with about 3 1/2 cups wine)
4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Season the short ribs with 1 tablespoon thyme and the cracked black pepper. use your hands to coat the meat well. Cover, and refrigerate overnight. Take the short ribs out of the refrigerator an hour before cooking, to come to room temperature. After 30 minutes, season them generously on all sides with salt. When you take the ribs out of the refrigerator, preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Heat a large Dutch oven or a large saute pan, over high heat for 3 minutes. Pour in 3 Tbsp. olive oil, and let it get hot and smoking. Place the short ribs in the pan, and sear on all sides. You can do this all at once or in batches. Smitted says to be very thorough, it may take up to 45 minutes. When the ribs are nicely browned, transfer them to a plate to rest.
Turn the heat down to medium, and add the onion, carrot, celery, thyme springs, and bay leaves. Stir with a wooden spoon, scraping up all the crusty bits in the pan. Cook 6 to 8 minutes, until the vegetables just begin to caramelize. Add the balsamic vinegar, port, and red wine. Turn the heat up to high, and reduce the liquid by half.
Add the stock and bring to a boil. Arrange the ribs in the pot, bones standing up, in one layer. (If you used a saute pan for previous steps, transfer the ribs to a braising pan at this point.) Scrape any vegetables that have fallen on the ribs back into the liquid. The stock mixture should almost cover the ribs. Tuck the parsley sprigs in and around the meat. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and a tight-fitting lid if you have one. Braise in the oven for about 3 hours.
To check the meat for doneness, remove the lid and foil, being careful of the escaping steam, and piece a short rib with a paring knife. When the meat is done, it will yield easily to a knife. Let the ribs rest 10 minutes in their juices, and then transfer them to a baking sheet. Turn the oven up to 400 degrees. Place the short ribs in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes to brown.
Strain the broth into a saucepan, pressing down on the vegetables to extract all the juices. Skim the fat from the sauce and if the broth seems thin, reduce it over medium-high heat to thicken slightly. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Serve with extra sauce over mashed potatoes.
Megan says she considering topping the potatoes (a tweaked version from SK via Cooks Illustrated) with fried shallots but decided it was overkill. It would have been a nice touch, but everyone inhaled the potatoes so quickly I don't think it would have made that much of a difference. A few tweaks to this recipe too, mainly using Boars Head horseradish, a nice touch.
2 lbs. potatoes, scrubbed
1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted
2 Tbsp. Boars Head creamy horseradish
2/3 cup milk, warmed
1 1/2 tsp. salt
Place the potatoes in large saucepan and cover with 1 inch of water. Bring to boil over high heat; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until potatoes are tender (you should be able to slip a a paring knife into and out of the center of the potatoes easily), about 20 to 30 minutes. Drain the potatoes. Set a food mill or ricer over now empty but still warm saucepan (you could also use an electric hand-held mixer). Spear the potato with dinner fork, then peel back skin with paring knife. Repeat with remaining potatoes. Working in batches, cut peeled potatoes into rough chunks and drop into hopper of food mill or ricer. Process or rice potatoes into saucepan. Stir in butter and horseradish with a wooden spoon until incorporated; gently whisk in the milk, salt, and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.