Cooking School TM_CS_BRAISE_FI_001

Braising the Bar

For the ultimate do-nothing meal, learn to braise.

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Among my more selfless or self-destructive hobbies, depending on your perspective, is serving as a guinea pig for medical research. I recently completed a study where in order to get a baseline blood pressure and heart rate reading, I was told, first, to sit quietly for 30 minutes. Sit. Not sit and read; not sit while scanning a Facebook feed; not even sit while making conversation. Just sit in a nondescript medical office and do nothing.

The first few minutes were excruciatingly boring. The next ten were aggravating — those who claim to relish being alone with their thoughts must be better thinkers than I. Then I dozed off. Doing nothing in life is increasingly rare. Even our favorite American pastime of “vegging out” in front of the television has been compromised with pleas for interaction: invitations to live tweet with clever hashtags or text our questions and votes to producers. The possibility that our media consumption might be limited to a single screen is not considered. And our vegging has become efficient: we can binge watch a season of anything over a weekend by cutting out the fluff.

Braising is the great do-nothing of the culinary world. The work is all in the setup. Once it gets going, the only thing you can do to mess it up is to interfere. Don’t rush; don’t futz. Just sit and do nothing. Wait. For the impatient and hungry, the wait can be painful. For the relaxed, it is magical — doing nothing in life may be criticized; doing nothing to a braise is sophisticated culinary artistry.

Braising builds on the two previous contributions to this series: simmering and stewing. Culinary students learn the method as a combination technique using both dry and moist heat. The main ingredient is first seared in hot fat — a dry heat technique — then slowly simmered in flavorful liquid — a moist-heat technique. Stewing is also a combination technique: seared then simmered. The distinction is that size matters. Stews consist of bits of food that can be eaten with a spoon directly from the dish (such as a cube of lamb), or politely made more manageable at table (such as a chicken drumstick). Braises are made with large hunks of food that need some behind-the-scenes portioning to make them manageable on the plate.

As in stewing, the long, moist cooking process breaks down tough cuts of meat through a collagen to gelatin conversion, yielding tender pull-apart meat and cooking liquid that can be made into a luscious sauce. The best cuts to use are large, tough, and seemingly impenetrable, like lamb or pork shoulder, goat leg, turkey thighs, whole small game, and so on. Braising makes them yield until formerly taut muscles can be separated by two spoons. Hearty vegetables are also ideal: pumpkin, butternut, or acorn squash, celery, leeks, turnips, beets, or cabbage.

Consistent with our approach in this Cooking School series, if you understand the technique, illustrated with some sample recipes, you can braise any food with any flavors, referencing a variety of cultural traditions: rabbit with whole grain mustard and cream; lamb with apricot, almonds, and pomegranate; duck with garlic and fermented black beans, charred cabbage, and smoky salsa; and on and on.

Here are the steps to the method:

Mediterranean Braised Lamb

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2 tablespoons olive oil
2 lamb shanks
2 large leeks, white part only, sliced
1 fennel bulb, chopped
4 ribs celery
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
¼ cup capers
¼ cup pitted Kalamata olives
2 sprigs rosemary
1 quart vegetable stock
1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 12-ounce can artichokes, drained and halved
¼ cup cream
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 275°F.

Season lamb shanks with salt and pepper.

In a large Dutch oven, heat olive oil on medium high heat. Sear the lamb on each side until golden brown, about 5 minutes per side. Remove the shanks from the pan and place on a plate to hold.

Add the leeks, fennel and celery to the pot and season with a pinch of salt. Sweat the vegetables for about 5 minutes or until they start to soften and turn lightly brown. Add the oregano, red pepper flakes, fennel seeds and tomato paste to the pot and stir so the tomato paste coats all of the vegetables. Cook the tomato paste for about 5 minutes until lightly brown.

Add the capers, olives, rosemary and stock to the pot and bring to a simmer. Add the lamb back to the pot, making sure the liquid covers about half of the meat. Bring the liquid back to a light simmer.

Cover, leaving lid slightly ajar and place in oven. Let the meat cook for about two and a half to three hours, or until the meat begins to fall off the bone. Remove the lid during the last half hour of cooking to reduce sauce.

Once the meat is cooked, remove it from the pot, place on a plate and cover, allowing it to rest. Add the beans and artichokes to the pot. Bring the sauce to a boil and cook for about 10 minutes. Add the cream and adjust seasoning to taste. For best results, return meat to sauce and chill overnight before reheating and serving.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz, Drexel Food Lab

Mustard-Braised Rabbit

2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup flour
2 pounds rabbit legs (about 8 legs)
4 stalks celery, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 gala apple, chopped
½ cup Dijon mustard
½ cup whole grain mustard
2 cups white wine
2 cups chicken stock
1 bunch tarragon, tied with kitchen twine
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 275°F.

Season rabbit with salt and pepper.

Place the flour on a baking sheet, season with salt and lightly coat each rabbit leg in the flour.

Heat a Dutch oven on medium and add olive oil. Working in batches, sear the rabbit legs on both sides or until they are golden brown, about two minutes per side. Once seared, remove the legs from the pot and hold.

Add the celery, onions, carrot and apple to the pot and season with salt and pepper. Cook the vegetables until they are soft and starting to brown. Add the mustards, wine, stock and tarragon to the pot. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Place the rabbit legs back in the pot, making sure each leg is partially submerged in the liquid.

Cover, leaving lid slightly ajar and braise for one and a half to two hours, until the meat is fork tender.

Once cooked, remove the rabbit from the pot. Bring the sauce to a boil and reduce for about 15 minutes. Remove the tarragon and adjust seasoning. For best results return rabbit to the sauce and chill overnight before serving.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz, Drexel Food Lab

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Beer-Braised Acorn Squash

6 slices bacon, chopped
1 acorn squash, seeds removed and cut into 8 wedges
1 large onion, chopped
4 ribs celery, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 parsnip, chopped
2 bottles lager beer
1 bunch thyme, tied together with kitchen twine
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 275°F.

Season squash wedges with salt and pepper.

Heat a Dutch oven to medium heat. Render bacon until crisp and golden brown. Remove the bacon from the pot and reserve.

Working in batches, sear each side of the squash in the bacon fat until each side of the squash is golden brown, about three minutes per side. Remove the squash pieces from the pot once seared and reserve.

Add the onions, celery, carrots and parsnips to the pot and season with salt and pepper. Sweat the vegetables for about 5 minutes or until they begin to soften. Add the beer and thyme to the pot and bring to a simmer. Return the squash and bacon back to the pot, cover, leaving lid slightly ajar and braise in oven about an hour, until the squash and vegetables are soft.

Once the squash is cooked, remove it from the pot and reserve. On stovetop, bring sauce to a boil uncovered and simmer to reduce by about ⅓, until it has the texture of syrup. Serve the squash with the vegetables and sauce.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz, Drexel Food Lab

Lead photo by Brandon Warren via Flickr (Creative Commons). Recipe photos by Dana Bloom, Studio 6.

Jonathan Deutsch, Ph.D. is professor of culinary arts and food science at Drexel University.

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