Take one cold, rainy, miserable day. Add one slow cooked pot roast or perhaps a pork stew or chicken fricassee simmering quietly on the stove. The aromas make your mouth water, and suddenly, all is right with the world.
Braising (cooking large cuts of meat, poultry, even vegetables) and stewing (where the meat is cut into bite-size pieces) are age-old methods of cooking, and they remain as easy and as popular as ever. Braising is an art that allows the cook to complete most of the work several hours, or even days, ahead of time. There’s an added bonus, too. It’s the tougher, less-expensive cuts of meat that are best suited to the long, slow cooking in liquid that yields those meltingly tender results. Getting hungry? Here are the general steps to the perfect braise for almost any meat. Each recipe will differ slightly, but with these guidelines, you’ll have the basics firmly under your belt.
First, season meat with salt (preferably kosher) and freshly ground black pepper sprinkled or rubbed over all surfaces. You may want to add your own favorite spices, and most ethnic dishes will call for a particular spice mixture. Next, dredge the meat in flour and shake off any excess. Do this right before you begin to cook the meat, or it will absorb the flour and give the meat a gummy texture.
Next, brown the meat well. Heat oil over medium high heat in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pan until it is hot but not smoking. Add the meat and brown it very well on all sides, turning the meat with tongs to prevent piercing and allowing the juices to escape. Try not to turn the meat until it has formed a nice golden crust.
Brown cubes of meat in batches, transferring the browned meat to a large platter. Browning creates caramelizing that lends both color and flavor to the final dish.
Next, add the vegetables. Pour off all but a tablespoon or two of the oil. Do not remove the browned bits that cling to the bottom. They will contribute wonderful flavor to the final dish. Add a mixture of chopped onion, carrots and celery to the pan. (This is called a mirepoix, pronounced meer-PWAH.) Sauté the vegetables over medium heat until they are softened but not browned. Chopped garlic can be added about halfway through the sautéing process to avoid burning it.
Next, deglaze the pan. Liquid, primarily stock and/or wine, is added at this point over high heat. When the liquid comes to a boil, use a wooden spatula to scrape the bottom of the pan and dislodge and dissolve any crusty bits. More seasonings plus additional vegetables such as chopped tomatoes may be added at this point. Return the meat to the pan and cover it. Cook the meat on the stovetop or in the oven set at 325ºF, or at the temperature indicated in your recipe. The length of time will vary depending on the meat, but count on at least two hours and up to three or more for tougher meats. The meat is done when it can be easily pierced with a sharp knife, but is not falling apart.
Often, additional vegetables such as carrots and potatoes are added to the pot about an hour into the cooking time, or if the recipe directs, they can be added closer to the finish time.
Finally, transfer the meat to a warm platter, skim the grease from the juices and reduce the liquid on the stovetop. Discard the vegetables if they have disintegrated, or purée them to thicken the sauce. Stewed dishes do not require any finishing. Just serve the meat in the sauce.
Braised dishes not only keep well, they seem to improve the next day. If cooking a large piece of meat such as a pot roast, I like to cool the meat briefly, then slice it and place it back in the pan. This allows the juices to permeate the meat, making it even more moist and flavorful.
Another advantage of refrigerating the meat overnight is that you can easily skim off and discard the congealed fat. If the juices are very thin, they can be degreased, then set on the stovetop and reduced to a thicker consistency. If desired, a mixture of flour and butter (beurre manié) or cornstarch can be mixed with a bit of the pan juices and whisked into the sauce.
The cuts of meat best for braising include the following:
For beef: round or chuck, arm or shoulder steak, brisket, short ribs, shanks and chuck roast, top round or rump roast. For pork: shoulder, pork butt (also called Boston butt), picnic shoulder or arm roast, hocks, shanks and ribs. For lamb: shoulder, shanks, neck and ribs. Veal shanks (for making osso buco) are ideal, as are the breast (stuffed) and shoulder. Large chickens and duck legs are good for stewing.
The best cuts for stewing include beef round, chuck, brisket, shanks and short ribs. For pork, the shoulder, Boston butt, picnic shoulder or arm roast. Lamb shoulder, shanks and neck are suitable, as are veal shoulder, chuck, neck, breast and shanks.
A Dutch oven made from cast iron and lined with enamel is my favorite pot for braising and stewing. A capacity of 7 to 8 quarts is preferred. For larger cuts, a heavy roasting pan works well. If you own a baking stone, place it directly under the pot while it’s in the oven to help maintain an even temperature.
Inevitably, during these chilly months, our chefs turn to braised dishes to satisfy their patrons’ palates, so we turned to some of our best to see what was cooking in their kitchens.
Chef Brian West is known for his extensive mastery of, and love for, Spanish cuisine. As executive chef at the Hotel Contessa, he serves an extraordinary array of small plates, or tapas, and a daily asado selection — either lamb, pork, veal or beef, as well as a full menu from the exhibition-style kitchen at the hotel’s restaurant Las Ramblas. During these cool months, West features braised lamb shanks with a Spanish sherry-spiked sauce. It’s a hearty yet refined dish in keeping with the hotel’s decidedly Spanish theme.
CHEF BRIAN WEST’S BRAISED LAMB SHANKS WITH SPANISH SHERRY DEMI
6 lamb shanks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Oil, for searing shanks
1 cup red wine
3 carrots, peeled, roughly chopped
15 Roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
3 onions, roughly chopped
5 guajillo chiles
2 oranges, cut in half
4 cinnamon sticks
1 1/2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
Approximately 1 gallon veal stock, enough to cover meat (Chef suggests Swanson unseasoned veal stock or beef or chicken stock)
2 cups sherry
1 stick butter
Preheat oven to 275ºF. Season lamb shanks with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large sauté pan. Brown shanks on all sides in batches, as needed. As the shanks are browned, place them in a large roasting pan, bone up. When all are browned, add the wine to the sauté pan, bring it to a boil and deglaze, scraping all the browned bits off the bottom with a wooden spoon. Scrape it into the roasting pan along with the shanks. Add carrots, tomatoes, onions, chiles, oranges, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, thyme and oregano to the pan. Add enough veal stock to cover the lamb. Cover the pan and roast for 3 hours, or until shanks are extremely tender but still attached to the bone. Remove lamb from pan and allow it to cool, bones up. (This will allow a dark crust to form.) Strain the liquid and set it aside.
Heat the sherry in a saucepot, and reduce it by three-quarters (to 1/4 cup). Add the strained braising liquid and reduce it by one-third. Whisk in the butter to complete the sauce. To serve, place lamb shanks on individual plates and spoon sauce over the meat. Makes 6 generous servings.
At Guajillo’s restaurant, tagged “the shortcut to Mexico,” executive chef and proprietor Dianko Barajas features the famous Yucatecan pork specialty called Cochinita Pibil. The cooking method illustrates an ancient means of slow cooking tough cuts of pork with liquid to render it tender and flavorful. In the past, after the meat was rubbed with a brick-red seasoning paste, or recado, it was wrapped in banana leaves, placed in a two-foot-deep pit lined with stones, covered with earth and slowly steamed until tender. Fortunately, Barajas shares his modern instructions for preparing this succulent dish — and there’s no need for a shovel.
The spice mixture called achiote paste is generally available in Hispanic markets, and you can also make it at home. (Barajas uses a paste he imports from Mexico called Marín annatto seasoning paste.) The banana leaves are in the freezer cases of both Hispanic and Asian markets, and I found fresh ones at Central Market. Seville oranges are the sour ones, but since they are seldom available, I used Texas oranges and added a bit of lime juice. The cooked meat is shredded, then mixed with the juices, rolled in soft corn tortillas and topped with pickled onions. Barajas suggests serving Cochinita Pibil with your favorite salsa and black beans.
GUAJILLO’S CHOCHINITA PIBIL
2-3 ounces achiote paste (available at International Food Market at 2451 Nacogdoches), or homemade (see *Note)
Juice of 2 sour (Seville) oranges, about 1 cup, or orange juice mixed with a tablespoon or two of lime juice
1/4 red onion, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled
3 bay leaves
2 banana leaves, defrosted if frozen
3 pounds pork — a combination of pork butt and pork loin, cut into large chunks
Pickled Onions: Thinly sliced red onion marinated in 3/4 to 1 cup fresh lime juice and fresh thyme leaves (prepare this the day before serving)
Corn tortillas and your favorite salsa
In a blender, mix the achiote paste with the orange juice, red onion and garlic until puréed. Stir in 3 1/2 cups of water; set aside. Put a banana leaf, shiny side up, on the bottom of a large heavy pot, Add the meat, cover it with the achiote spice mixture, add bay leaves, and cover with the lid set slightly ajar. Cook at a low temperature either on the stovetop or in the oven, allowing only a bare simmer, for at least 3 hours. Remove the meat, cool slightly, then shred it very thin, removing excess fat, and place the meat back in the pot, add salt to taste, cover with another banana leaf and simmer gently for another 2 hours. Discard bay leaves. Serve with warm corn tortillas and pickled red onions. Makes about 6 cups filling — enough for about 9 to 10 servings. *Note: To prepare your own achiote paste: In a coffee or spice grinder, combine 2 tablespoons annatto seeds, 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, 1/4 teaspoon oregano, 12 black peppercorns, and 3 whole allspice; process to a fine powder. Mix with 3 tablespoons sour orange juice or mild vinegar and 2 large cloves garlic, crushed.
Joshua Cross is chef/owner at Oloroso, a charming Mediterranean-style restaurant situated in a historic building in the King William district.
Cross is a native San Antonian, and he worked in several of our finest kitchens, including those of Bruce Auden, Damien Watel and Cappy Lawton, and continued honing his skills with some of New York’s most celebrated chefs such as Alain Ducasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Tom Colicchio and Mario Batali.
When the days grow chilly, Cross loves to prepare braised dishes, and the recipe he shares with us can be made with many different meats. He likes to use oxtail in this preparation but he also suggests veal or lamb shanks, or even chicken. Oxtail can be ordered from specialty meat stores such as Bolner’s and Central Market, but I found it at the Farmer’s Market at Pearl Brewery as well. In bygone days, this cut was actually from oxen, but these days it’s the tail meat from cows, which, when braised, turns sublimely tender and flavorful. Veal shanks, used in the classic osso buco, work beautifully in this recipe.
OLOROSO’S SPANISH-STYLE BRAISED VEAL WITH BEANS
4 veal shanks, or 4 to 6 oxtails, or 4 chicken quarters
Salt and pepper
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup brandy
1 white onion, diced
4 ribs celery, sliced thin
3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
6 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons smoked paprika or pimenton
(traditional Spanish paprika)
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves (save the stems)
2 cups red wine
1 1/2 cups white beans such as cannellini or navy, soaked overnight, then drained
1/2 cup grated manchego cheese (or other hard sheep’s-milk cheese)
Zest of one lemon
4 eggs, fried
Additional olive oil, for drizzling
Season the shanks liberally with salt and pepper. In a large pan, over high heat, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil and sear all sides of the shanks until dark brown. In a separate pot, heat the chicken stock. Deglaze the pan with the brandy, reducing the liquid and scraping up the brown bits from the bottom, then add the onion, celery, carrots and garlic. Cook until the vegetables are soft. Transfer the shanks and vegetables to a deep (4- to 6-inch) pan. Add the paprika, thyme, bay leaves, parsley stems, red wine and hot chicken stock. Cover the pan with aluminum foil. Cook at a low heat (200 to 250ºF) for 4-6 hours. When the shanks are soft and separating from the bone, they are ready. Remove shanks from the liquid and add the soaked and drained beans to the pot. Cook over low heat for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until soft. By this time the braising liquid should be rather thick. If not, remove the beans and reduce the liquid. Shred the meat from the shanks (by hand), and add back to the beans. To serve, place the shank/bean mixture in a bowl. Top each serving with chopped parsley, cheese, lemon zest and a fried egg. Drizzle a little olive oil over the top.
Makes 4 servings.