I love the chillier temperatures of late autumn and winter. The brisk air and snuggly sweaters make this my favorite time of year. I also especially love the food with its heartiness, big flavors and comforting textures. Cooking for my own family, for friends and clients is also a pleasure as everyone is actually hungry in the winter! People’s appetites are more timid in the warmer months, but everyone likes to eat when it is cold.
This is the time of year when dishes that take a long time to cook, like short ribs, stews, soups and casseroles, are a cook’s best friend. Not only can you create a satisfying hearty meal, but long slow braises benefit from TLC. You can really tell when a cook has put some love into their braised dish, because the end result has succulent flavorand texture. Here are some chefs hints to make your braised dish luscious and amazing.
Braising is a term that describes a cooking technique. First the meat or sometimes vegetables are browned in fat (my favorite, duck fat, olive oil, or canola oil). Then the aromatics are browned, and herbs, wine and stock are added to the mix. Finally, the whole gorgeous concoction is covered in a heavy-duty casserole dish or Dutch oven and cooked slowly for a long period of time.
Braises utilize the economy cuts of meat. These are the cheaper cuts that have a lot of connective tissue and are tougher meats. They require a long, low heat cooking session. The end result is a tender, richly flavored dish with meat that can be cut with a spoon. The braising liquid is
skimmed to remove the fat, and then reduced until it coats the back of a spoon. The flavors intensify and the sauce becomes a glaze. There are no shortcuts when braising and the method will test any chef or home cook’s mettle, but there is big payback in flavor and texture.
Use aromatic vegetables, such as onions, garlic, fennel and celery, which all have big flavor and add to the dish. These aromatics are the backbone of a good braise. I like to add carrots, turnips and tons of FRESH herbs.
A Bouquet Garni is French for “Garnished Bouquet” and is a professional chef’s secret flavor weapon. The stems of fresh herbs have tons of flavor in them and a long slow braise in liquid unlocks that flavor. I use unbleached (I do not want bleach flavor in my food!) kitchen twine and wrap my herbs together in a tight bundle. When the dish is done, I pull out the bundle and discard it. The herbs have released their flavor and added an earthy essence.
Wine and Stock
I like to use good quality wine when I braise. For heavier beef cuts, I use red wine. For poultry and vegetables like mushrooms and root vegetables, I use white wine. The important thing here is to only use a wine that you would drink. So-called cooking wines are not palatable and not of good quality. Remember each ingredient going into the dish must be good unto itself. There is no amount of cooking time that will make up for inferior wine. I also only use homemade stocks; richly flavored and with tons of body. I know when I use a homemade stock in a braise, the sauce will end up intensely flavored and delicious.
The most important step in braising is browning the protein. Browning the meat, poultry or vegetables creates deep, rich and intensely flavored food. The natural sugars caramelize and the surface of the meat becomes crispy, resulting in a multi-textured dish. No, this step does not seal in the juices—but it makes it taste better. Whenever I teach classes and demonstrate a braised dish, the first thing I am asked is if the browning step can be skipped. The answer is NO. You can certainly skip the browning and get dinner on the table, but the dish will not be deeply flavorful.
Browning is essential. It may take a bit more effort, but it is worth it.
So, bring on the winter weather, the snow and the cold. I am going into the kitchen to make satisfying soups, stews and my favorite short ribs and Osso Buco. It is my favorite season after all!
Photos by Sasha Gitin
As seen in the Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller Magazine Purim 2012 – Subscribe Now.