THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Fire burn and cauldron bubble

columnist-logo_ryantatsumoto_FINALOr in my kitchen, it’s more likely to be “electric heating element warms and Le Creuset bubble.” Also, there’s no eye of newt or toe of frog in my Le Creuset, but since that chill of winter is still with us, what better meal is there than slow braised beef, pork or chicken … or other parts? And it usually doesn’t take a lot of effort once the chopping is done, as time, heat and liquid do the rest of the work.

The Proper Braise

BRAISE AWAY ­— Chicken and steak are among the protein options the Gochiso Gourmet recommends for braising. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

BRAISE AWAY ­— Chicken and steak are among the protein options the Gochiso Gourmet recommends for braising. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

It usually starts with browning your chosen protein or the Maillard reaction, which creates and adds additional flavor compounds to your dish. If you’re making a traditional beef stew, this usually involves browning cubes of meat. And you can’t crowd your cooking vessel because if too much liquid is released from the meat, the liquid inhibits browning. Then multiply by six sides for each cube. Whew! That’s a lot of time and effort. That is, until I discovered the oven browned method, all due to an episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” at the Broken Record in San Francisco. They created an oxtail ragu where the oxtails were browned in a 500 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Not only was this faster, but the uneven surfaces of the oxtail browned a lot more evenly. I now also brown my cubes of beef in this manner, flipping the cube just once for the one unexposed side. So now, the step to a proper braise that used to take the most time is almost effort free. 

If you’re a fan of “real” Texas chili, there probably won’t be any vegetable matter in your braised concoction, as Texas chili is just meat, spices and sauce. But if you’re like me, the aromatics will probably place a major role in your braised dish. And it just depends on what I’m creating, though most basic stews contain that trinity of French aromatics, also known as the mirepoix of carrots, onions and celery. And I rarely cook without garlic, so the “stinking rose” is always included. If I’m creating a Cajun or Creole type of braise, then I’ll either substitute green bell peppers for the carrots or just add it to the mirepoix. Middle Eastern-inspired dishes may get celery root, parsnips or cauliflower, while French-inspired stews may get whole baby onions in place of chopped onions, mushrooms or roughly chopped fennel bulbs. And if I hadn’t planned on serving any side starches alongside my dish, I may also add baby potatoes regardless of the ethnic lean.

The key to vegetables lies in when to add them to the braising liquid. Add potatoes too early and they may simply dissolve into your stew. Add aromatics too late and they may not properly flavor the cooking liquid. I like my garlic to dissolve into the liquid, so I always add the whole cloves at the very beginning.

To Grain or Not to Grain

Along with added vegetable matter, I also like to fortify my braised dishes with whole grains like barley, farro and wheat berries. And while it’s not a grain, legumes like beans and lentils also fortify your dish with additional fiber and low glycemic index starch. When added dry, the grains (and legumes) benefit by absorbing the flavorful liquid as opposed to simply boiling in plain water. And they also add another textural sensation, as they add a “chewiness” to the dish, while simmered proteins and vegetables usually lose their texture once they’re done.

But again, the key is adding your grains and legumes at the right time because overcooking grains and legumes will simply leave you with grain or legume “mush.” I usually follow the package cooking instructions and add another 10 to 15 minutes, since your liquid will be a slow simmer versus a rolling boil that is usually employed. And make sure that you have enough liquid in your cooking vessel. Dry grains and legumes will absorb liquid, and it’s easier to finish your braising uncovered to evaporate excess liquid than to try to remove scorched flavors in your dish because it went dry.

Herbage and Spices

Your choice of herbage or seasoning depends on what ethnic flavor you select. It also depends on your choice of protein. Poultry usually marries well with most herbs and spices. The same usually goes for pork. It’s those red meats that usually favor certain herbs and spices, like lamb or tougher cuts of beef. Heartier herbs and spices can stand up to the stronger flavors of these red proteins. And because I usually use dried herbs and spices — I find that fresh herbs lose flavor after two to three hours of slow simmering — I add them at the beginning to fully infuse the cooking liquid.

Low and Slow or Under Pressure?

If you choose the low and slow method, then you first must choose the appropriate cooking vessel. For any braising that lasts more than an hour, that means cast iron, mainly because the heavy lid minimizes moisture loss. If you’re simply braising poultry parts or pork belly for an hour, your liquid evaporation probably won’t be enough to lead to “scorchage,” but if the braising time is two to three hours, you do need a tighter seal on your pot cover to minimize evaporation and potential burning. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my All-Clad cookware, but they’re not the perfect cooking vessels for long oven braising like cast iron vessels. And since tougher cuts of protein benefit from an acidic medium in your braising liquid, the ceramic coating of cast iron prevents metallic flavors from getting into your food like say, aluminum vessels may cause.

If time is of the essence, how about employing a little pressure, as in pressure cooker. Several years ago, I purchased a combination slow and pressure cooker. I use it at least two to three times a month to quickly tenderize those flavorful but tough cuts of protein, like oxtails, lamb and pork shanks, and even to braise dried shiitake as tender as “buttah.” Basically, the additional pressure employed reduces the cooking time two to threefold. Or sometimes, I simply employ pressure to make proteins literally break down into individual muscle strands as desired when creating the perfect ropa vieja or shredded Cuban flank steak with vegetables. As an added bonus, these combination slow and pressure cookers allow you to simply release the pressure, add your veggies or grains then continue the slow braise using the slow cooking mode. Less pots to wash! Sweet!

General Guidelines

Here’s general braising suggestions from the Gochiso Gourmet, though I always feel personal experimentation works best.

Use two to three cups of braising liquid for every three pounds of protein or cover your protein by at least an inch. Remember to start with or add more liquid if you’ll be adding dried grains or legumes at the end. I always add some wine for tougher proteins like oxtail and shanks for their inherent flavoring and acid.

So while Old Man Winter still has his icy grip on us, counter his chill with hearty braised dishes. Warms both the body and the soul. And also great with hearty red wines … but that’s another column.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

 

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  1. […] THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Fire burn and cauldron bubble If you're a fan of “real” Texas chili, there probably won't be any vegetable matter in your braised concoction, as Texas chili is just meat, spices and sauce. But if you're like me, the aromatics will probably place a major role in your … Middle … Read more on Nichi Bei Weekly […]

  2. […] THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Fire burn and cauldron bubble And you can't crowd your cooking vessel because if too much liquid is released from the meat, the liquid inhibits browning. Then multiply by six sides for each cube. Whew! That's a lot of time and effort. That is, until I … but they're not the … Read more on Nichi Bei Weekly […]

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