Photo: Kevin Pang

Umami Issues is The Takeout’s exploration of cooking food with the rich, savory, mysterious taste sensation known as umami. 

Life’s too short to work through cookbooks trying to find that elusive knockout recipe. The last few dishes I’ve added to my home-cooking repertoire came straight from restaurants—these were dishes I sampled and found so delicious, I leveraged my position as a food writer to politely beg the chefs for their recipes.

I recently attended a food event and met Rebecca Wilcomb, chef de cuisine of Herbsaint, regarded as one of the finest restaurants in New Orleans. Wilcomb served a dish that featured a flavor combination I’ve never experienced before: beef short ribs topped with an olive-caper vinaigrette, draped with an anchovy fillet, and served at room temperature.

A few days later after tasting this, I was still thinking hard about it. It featured the flavor profile of puttanesca, but what really knocked me for a loop was the unctuous chunks of fatty beef paired with the savory, salty hit of anchovy. And I can’t remember the last time I had a dish where the protein was served at room temperature—the flavors seemed more pronounced when it isn’t too hot or cold.

So I called Wilcomb, who told me the dish was inspired by a dish she tasted in the Sicilian capital of Palermo several years ago. There she had a tuna with tomatoes, anchovies, dried oregano, potatoes, and olive oil.

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“The tuna was compact and meaty—I could have sworn it was beef,” Wilcomb said. When she returned home she began experimenting, and soon her version with short ribs appeared on Herbsaint’s menu.

I was delighted when she told me the beef was simply cooked in a low and slow simmer of water. Indeed, three hours after dropping the short ribs into a pot, the beef emerged tender with the slightest tug of resistance.

The completed dish was strange but strangely delicious. It felt both peasant-like and cosmopolitan, its ingredients unattached to any season. It’s neither hot or cool. It’s doesn’t feel like a starter nor a main course. And the pairing of beef and anchovies is foreign to most palates. But as soon as I dragged crusty loaves of bread through the garlicky-salty-tart oil and olive detritus, I realized the dish was even better than I initially remembered.

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Sicilian Beef with Anchovy and Olives

Recipe by chef Rebecca Wilcomb of Herbsaint in New Orleans; serves 4-6 people

This photo was taken before I smashed the tomatoes to release its juices. Do it! It’s better that way.
Photo: Kevin Pang

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For the beef

  • 3 lbs. of short ribs, whole bone-in plate or individually cut
  • 4 sprigs rosemary
  • 1 Tbsp. whole black peppercorn
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 6 cloves of garlic, halved
  • 1 Tbsp. kosher salt

For the vinaigrette

  • 3 Tbsp. olives (castelvetrano and kalamata), sliced lengthwise
  • 1 Tbsp. capers
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. chili flake
  • 1 tsp. lemon zest
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Everything else

  • 3 large or 6 small Yukon gold potatoes
  • 1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 tin anchovies in oil (look for good ones from Spain)

To prepare the beef

Place the short ribs in a pot large enough to hold the slab comfortably. Add rosemary, black peppercorns, bay leaves, garlic. Cover with cold water (about an inch of water above the top of the short ribs) and bring to a simmer. Then turn the heat to very low so water is barely moving. Add more water if needed. Let cook for about three hours, or until very tender. You know it’s done when a skewer is inserted into the beef with little resistance. Once cooked, removed the short ribs from the broth and place on a plate to cool. Once cool enough to handle, remove the bones and discard.

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To prepare the potatoes

Cut the potatoes into one-inch chunks. Place in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn down to a simmer. Cook until fork tender, about 6-8 minutes. Drain the potatoes and lay them out in an even layer on a towel to dry.

To prepare the vinaigrette

Rinse the capers, roughly chop, and place in a bowl along with all of the ingredients—except the olive oil and garlic. Smash the garlic into a paste using the back of your knife and add to the bowl. Slowly whisk the olive oil into the bowl. Adjust seasoning to taste.

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To put it all together

The key with this recipe is serving everything at room temperature. With the short ribs, trim off any connective tissue attached to the bones. There’s no need to be too choosy—even the connective tissue and fat will be tender and delicious. Cut the beef into 1 1/2-inch chunks. Cut the tomatoes into chunks similar in size to the beef. Smash the tomatoes to release the juices. Scatter the tomatoes, potatoes, and beef on a platter. Lay an anchovy over each piece of beef and spoon the vinaigrette over the top. Garnish with parsley leaves.