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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 07:07 am

In praise of braise


The heat is finally retreating. Even when daytime temperatures are warm, the nights are deliciously cool. Best of all, the high humidity has fled.

When days and nights turn crisp, my culinary thoughts move away from salads and grilling towards stews and braised dishes.

What’s the difference between the two terms? Not much. In fact, many aspects are the same. Michael Ruhlman, in his book, The Elements of Cooking, describes the difference:

“Stews are roughly distinguished from braises in that the meats and other ingredients are cut into smaller pieces and there’s much more liquid – usually the ingredients in stews are completely submerged. Also there tend to be more ingredients, all served in the cooking liquid. Stew ingredients (meats) may or may not be browned before being submerged in liquid. Otherwise the same general rules apply: low gentle heat that’s raised slowly and never brought to a full boil.”

To that I would add that braised foods [usually meats] are sometimes served without, or with a reduced version of, their braising liquid.

While the terms braising and stewing most often include meat-based dishes, vegetables can also benefit from long, slow cooking, something that’s the subject of an article in Sauveur Magazine’s current edition. In recent decades, chefs and experts all seemed to agree that vegetables were only properly cooked “al dente,” quickly cooked and often immediately immersed in cold water to keep them crisp and bright-colored. But what about some of the most glorious vegetable cookery in the American South: succulent long-cooked green beans, greens, and smothered cabbage? In the Middle East, many vegetables are also “rendered luscious via long stewing.” The Saveur article’s author, Leslie Porcelli, quotes her culinary school vegetable instructor, Chef Ted: “You find in big cities, or with people who think they’re more educated about gastronomy, that they’ll think crunchy vegetables are properly cooked. It’s the influence of French nouvelle cuisine; it was a reaction against classical French not to overcook vegetables. Like anything else that’s good, it got misinterpreted in the wrong hands.”

One of the best things about stews and braises is that they always taste better the next day. That makes them great for leftovers, but also a huge advantage for home cooks preparing for special occasions or dinner parties: the main course just needs reheating before it’s served.

That best thing is also the most intriguing. Just why do they taste better? I always assumed it was because the flavors had longer to fully mingle, but food science guru Harold McGee has a specific answer in his book, On Food and Cooking, the Science and Lore of the Kitchen. “The capacity of meat to hold water increases as it cools, so it will actually reabsorb some of the liquid it lost during the cooking.”

 That explains the meat. But what about braised/stewed vegetables that also are most full-flavored the next day? Maybe it’s because of my assumption. And maybe just a bit of alchemy.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com

RealCuisine Recipe
Orange scented braised lamb shanks

McGee’s guidelines for succulent braises and stews:

A moist, tender braise or stew results from the cook’s cumulative attention to several details of procedure. The most important rule: never let the meat interior get anywhere near the boil.

Keep the meat as intact as possible to minimize cut surfaces through which fluids can escape.

If the meat must be cut, cut it into relatively large pieces, at lease an inch on each side.

Brown the meat very quickly in a hot pan so that the inside of the meat warms only slightly. This kills any microbes on the meat surfaces, and creates flavor.

Start the pot with meat and cooking liquid in a cold oven, the pot lid ajar to allow some evaporation, and set the thermostat to 200°, so that it heats the stew/braise to around 120° slowly, over two hours.

Raise the oven temperature to 250° so that the stew/braise slowly warms to 180°.

After an hour, check the meat every half hour, and stop the cooking when it is easily penetrated by the tines of a fork. Let the meat cool in the [pot], where it will reabsorb some liquid.

The liquid will probably need to be reduced by boiling to improve flavor and consistency. Remove the meat [and any vegetables that will be served with it] first.

  • 4 meaty lamb shanks
  • kosher or sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 2-4 T. extra virgin olive oil
  • 12 cloves garlic, cut in half
  • 2 fennel bulbs
  • 4 large oranges, peel removed with a vegetable peeler, flesh reserved for another use
  • 2 tsp. lightly crushed fennel seeds
  • 1/4 c. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 c. dry vermouth or white wine
  • 2-4 c. stock - lamb, chicken, beef or vegetable

Tie the shanks with kitchen twine to keep the meat from separating from the bone. Sprinkle the lamb shanks generously with salt and freshly ground pepper, and let stand about 2 hours to bring to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 200°.

Strip the fronds from the stalks of the fennel bulbs, mince the fronds and reserve a cup or so for garnish. Cut off and discard the stalks from the bulbs. Cut the bulbs in half, remove the core, and slice the bulb into half-inch slices. Mix with the orange peels, garlic and fennel seeds and set aside.

In a heavy pan large enough to hold the shanks in one layer, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the shanks and brown well on all sides. As they are browned, remove the shanks to a platter.

Pour excess fat from the pan and return to the heat.

Add the fennel, the garlic and the orange peel to the pan and stir to coat with the pan drippings. Add the fennel seeds, the Worcestershire, vermouth and 2 cups of the stock. Put the shanks back in the pan and add additional stock if necessary to bring the liquid halfway up the sides of the shanks.

When the liquid just begins to simmer, cover the pan tightly and place in the oven. Braise the shanks for 2 hours, then raise the heat to 250° for an additional 4-6 hours, or until the meat is fork tender and falling off the bone. Begin checking after four hours.

Let the shanks come to room temperature in the broth. You can speed this process by putting the pan in a sink filled with cold water.

At this point the lamb shanks, in their liquid, can be refrigerated for serving in the next several days.

If serving the same day, remove the shanks to a platter. Remove the orange peels and discard. Let the broth stand for a few minutes and then remove as much fat as possible from the top. If the broth seems too thin, bring to a boil over high heat and reduce until it’s slightly thickened. Add the shanks and bring the liquid to a bare simmer, and cook until the shanks are completely heated through.

If serving the following day (or the next few days), remove the pot from the refrigerator and discard the solidified fat that has risen to the top. Discard the orange peels. Set the shanks aside, scraping off and discarding any fat and returning any jelled liquid to the pot. Heat the broth; if it seems a bit too thin, bring to a boil to reduce it and warm the shanks as above.

Check the broth for seasoning, adding salt and/or pepper as needed. Serve the shanks in deep plates with the broth and vegetables, sprinkled with the reserved fennel fronds. Serves 4.

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