Cooking with cola is a Southern tradition undoubtedly dates back to the days when the first glass bottles clinked onto the shelves of the Piggly Wiggly and the Jitney Jungle. Frankly, in most parts of the South, cola means Atlanta’s own Coca-Cola, or as we call it Co-cola. I love to cook with cola, from rich chocolaty co-cola cakes to ribs cooked in root beer. I have even made red-eye gravy with co-cola instead of coffee. And the magnificent country hams of my childhood were often glazed sticky and black with co-cola.
As for drinking the full on sugar-rush of regular cola straight, it is not something I engage in. Regular cola makes my teeth itch. Since my transition into teenage girl-dom, I have followed the crowd, downing first TaB, the pink can my constant companion in those awkward teenage years, followed by an admitted lifelong addition to Diet Coke. They know my name at Sonic.
But I will admit a fondness for Royal Crown Cola and not just because it is the perfect and fabled accompaniment to that other Southern treat, the Moon Pie. My grandparents lived in a small town in Middle Tennessee, where there seemed to be a preponderance of RC Cola, why I don’t know. Or maybe I just remember it that way, because the old-school drink vending machine at the farmers’ co-op in town dispensed RC from behind that narrow glass door that snapped open and closed so fast it took real skill to grab a bottle without getting slapped by the door. The other option in that machine was Sun-Drop, an even yellower, even sweeter precursor to Mountain Dew. Our grandfather would let us go to the co-op with him, and we would wonder around trying on old-man hats and marveling at the huge pairs of overalls and long johns on sale. When Granddaddy needed to get down to business, he’d give us each a nickel (yes, the co-op machine took nickels) so we could go out to the soda machine – sometimes with a no Sun Drop warning. We’d extract our drinks from the machine and sit on an old bench on the porch outside the co-op, swinging our legs and watching the world go by. Sometimes, we’d be treated to a bag of salted peanuts to eat, or to pour into the bottle of RC. And when we spent two weeks with or grandparents every summer to go to camp, my grandmother would tape quarters to the inside of the lid of our metal lunchboxes (I believe one of us had a Dukes of Hazard version) so we could get an RC out of the machine at lunch (but not Sun Drop).
So I wanted to create a recipe to pay tribute to my childhood fondness for Royal Crown Cola. Something rich and comforting, like my memories.
Royal Crown Short Ribs
Okay, if you can’t get your hands on RC, any cola will do – as long as it is full-sugar. No diet versions here. Serve these with creamy grits.
3 ½ – 4 pounds meaty short ribs
Salt and pepper
¼ cup bourbon
3 carrots, peeled
3 celery stalks
1 medium onion
6 cloves garlic
12 ounces tomato paste
3 cups Royal Crown cola (or your preferred brand)
2 cups water
3 bay leafs
7 – 8 sprigs of thyme, tied into a little bundle with kitchen string
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Season the short ribs liberally on both sides with kosher salt and black pepper. Pour in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of a large, heavy Dutch oven. Brown the short ribs in the oil on all sides until nicely browned and some of the fat has rendered out. Give this time to evenly brown the meat, 10 – 15 minutes. Remove the browned ribs to a plate. Don’t crowd the ribs, you may need to do this in batches.
While the ribs are browning, cut the carrot, celery, onion and garlic into chunks and place them in a food processor. Grind them to a paste, with no big chunks left. Now you have a sofrito to season your sauce.
When the ribs are browned, discard the oil and return the pan to the heat. Carefully pour in the bourbon and scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Cook until the bourbon is mostly reduced, then add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and heat. Add the vegetable paste, season well with salt and pepper and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom occasionally, until the vegetables are nicely browned and soft. Add the tomato paste, stir well and cook until it begins to darken. Pour in the cola and the water, and bring to a bubbling simmer. Nestle the short ribs down into the sauce, doing your best to cover them with sauce. You can add a bit more water if needed, just enough so the top of the ribs are not exposed. Tuck the bay leaves and the thyme bundle down into the sauce, cover the pot and place in the oven. Braise the ribs for 3 hours, checking occasionally to see that the sauce is not scorching on the bottom of the pot. You can add a bit more water if it is. Turn the ribs over in the sauce half-way through the cooking time.
When the ribs are ready, the meat will just peel away from the bones. Remove the ribs from the pot, pull away the bones and serve doused in the sauce.