Thursday, February 21, 2013

Braised and Confused

one of the things i love best about teaching cooking is that i am able to effectively illustrate just how simple and enjoyable cooking can be.  in other words, demystify it. in my humble opinion, there is nothing more rewarding than being able to create a dish that you and your family & friends will treasure and share over and over again.  many of my students, and quite a few of my readers, tell me that they are afraid to try recipes with certain techniques that intimidate them.  the technique that seems to puzzle and perplex the most is braising.  go figure!  perhaps it is because it can involve a few steps that sends some running in the other direction, but i am here to tell you that braising is actually one of the easiest, most fool-proof, uncomplicated, tastiest and economically satisfying cooking techniques of all.  as a matter of fact, i will bet that by the time you finish reading this post, you will have summoned the courage to go out and buy a quality brisket for a beautiful family2table meal.

technically, braising is nothing more than taking a few choice ingredients, putting them in a sturdy vessel with liquid, covering tightly and placing on low heat while everything inside simmers & smiles until rendered fork tender.  sometimes, this means hours. the flavors mingle slowly and are reduced and intensely flavored, creating a rich, exciting meal that warms and stirs the soul - especially during cold weather months.  braising is probably the oldest cooking technique dating back to a time when food was put in a pot and buried under the embers of an open fire.  if you have ever watched little house on the prairie, you will remember a cast iron pot that hung in the hearth.  this pot was perpetually full in the winter and the fire was always going.  meat, pork fat, drippings, onions, potatoes and whatever they were able to save in the root cellar was constantly and continuously put into this pot so that there was always something hot & hearty to eat.  braising actually requires less effort from the cook and frees us up!

some of the traditionally popular dishes that require braising are osso bucco, short ribs, lamb shanks, stews, pot roast, chicken cacciatore and many more.  as you can see, these are all very popular dishes that often wind up on fine restaurant menus.  want to know why smart chefs employ braising as often as they can in their establishments?  well, first of all they are cheaper cuts than muscle meats.  shanks, ribs, chuck roast, pork belly, breast of veal, legs & thighs, cheeks, brisket, etc. all cost less than fillet mignon, rack of lamb, veal chops, etc.  and in my opinion are way more succulent and enjoyable.  but wait, braising is not only for meat. remember? technically, you can braise anything as long as it's put into a sturdy cooking vessel with a bit of liquid, cover on and low heat till it's tender.  you can braise carrots or cabbage in chicken broth with butter and herbs....and oh my how lovely it is! endive, cauliflower, eggplant and the list goes on.  the second reason braising is popular in restaurants is that it's a one pot dish that you set up and let cook slowly.  you can't really overcook a braised dish and therefore it is considered a forgiving technique that allows for a greater margin of error in an environment where time is of the essence and every penny counts.  in all my years of kitchen experience i have never, ever had osso bucco or lamb shanks returned for being over or under cooked.  the dish is ready before service begins and is gently warmed with a reduced sauce for plating along with something traditional like polenta to soak up that beautiful, silky reduction.  also, you can use and sell a braised dish the next day. as a matter of fact....i think braised meats are always better the next day. case in point: the pot roast sandwich. say no more.

braising can happen on the stove or in the oven. another plus when you might be short on stove top space.  it also does not need to be watched. and we all know what happens to a watched a matter of fact, if you have a crock pot, braising can happen without the use of your stove/oven at all!  imagine that.  put dinner up in the morning and viola! ready by meal time.  braising can take place in a cast iron pot, a dutch oven, a simple saute pan with lid or even in a roasting pan with aluminum foil covering it tightly but not touching the food.  now here is the part of braising that i find shakes folks up a bit.  sometimes, you sear before you braise. aaaaaaahhhh!  really?! i have to do something first?!  well, actually no, you don't have to, but sometimes it's nice to.  go ahead and put some extra effort in and add color to the ingredient, or extra flavor with fat (butter, lard, coconut oil) or lock in the juices and crisp up the skin when braising meats and fish.  there is nothing worse than flabby, flavorless fish skin, blech.  creating textural complexity and "mouth feel" in your dish will take it to that next level, creating a mark of distinction between a good dish and your favorite dish.  i must say that i do not sear most grass-fed meats as it is my experience that high heat cooking - which is what searing is - tends to toughen most cuts of grass-fed beef. therefore, when i do my brisket i merely place it, seasoned into the liquid and cover it. couldn't be easier.  when do i sear? i always sear chicken skin, lamb shanks, hearty fish and some cruciferous and root veggies. 

when the dish is done and the main ingredient is tender, i like to further reduce the sauce - especially from meat dishes.  depending on the cut (duck and lamb can be fatty), i will skim off some fat and pour the braising liquid through a strainer and into a pot to simmer gently on the stove until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. yum!  an important note, which i will briefly touch on here is the nutrient density of braised meat dishes. not only are they economically sound and easy to make but they also impart essential vitamins and minerals to your body since you are slow cooking a cut that almost always contains a bone, connective tissue or marrow.  these will impart gelatin into your dish which is essential for gut health, bone integrity, brain development and many other vital body functions. perhaps this is why braising is a technique that was so often used by people following a nutrient dense traditional diet. but wait....i haven't said anything about the braising liquid yet.  what on earth are we supposed to braise in? that's easy too. you have many choices: wine, stock or broth - meat, veg, fish, miso - or perhaps le jus natural...otherwise known as water. yes, hello....water is a braising liquid too.  go for it!  personal note: homemade stock and broth from good bones is always best. boxed and canned broths tend to contain MSG and other chemical additives that have no place in our healthy bodies. 

the last bit of info. regarding braising is aromatics.  my lamb short ribs would be nothing without cardamom, cilantro and vanilla bean.  my lamb shanks an absolute flop without cinnamon stick, orange peel and fennel.  my pot roast would suffer without garlic powder, paprika and mushrooms.  infusing your braising liquid with character via the sweetness of vegetables (mire poix - onion, carrot, celery) is an integral part of lending personality to your braise. i love to play with herbs and spices. sometimes i spend hours toasting and grinding spices just to see how they bloom.  i find myself creating "teas" during the day in order to find interesting flavor combinations - i.e dried basil, clove & star anise - achieving balance with flavor is a step closer to creating something delicious.  experiment and try new things. the way into a dish is thru playful experimentation in your kitchen. i joke about my little galley in my tiny west village apartment, calling it my test kitchen as if i have an enormous laboratory in which to play.  but honestly, we all have test kitchens and every meal is a test in one way or another. either we are tested to get it on the table at the perfect time when everyone is hungry and everything is hot or we are tested to see if it will be received well for its flavor and nutritional profile.  whatever the test, braising is a technique that will stand up and succeed beautifully, leaving you, the cook, with a sense of accomplishment and pride and your Family2Table with the sense that they have been truly loved and looked after in every way. enjoy!

Traditional Pot Roast or Brisket with Enoki Mushrooms
3lb grass-fed brisket
1.5 TBS. organic garlic powder
1.5 TBS organic paprika
2 medium onions, quartered
2 packages of enoki mushrooms
2 QT beef broth or 1 QT water
sea salt & freshly ground pepper 

1. season meat with garlic powder, paprika, sea salt & pepper
2. fill pot or saute pan with beef stock or water and add onions
3. turn flame on to medium heat, add meat and bring to a simmer
4. cover meat and gently simmer for 2 hours
5. remove meat and slice (against the grain)
6. put meat slices back in and add enoki mushrooms
7. cover and simmer 2 hours more or until done. salt to taste.
8. optional ** remove meat and shrooms, strain sauce and reduce

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