The Power of the Braise
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One of the difficult features of braised dishes is that they are notoriously difficult to photograph, which is why I’ve led this newsletter with Ann’s duck legs, which are also a fabulous winter dish that I will get to below. But first I want to say how I got my cooking mojo back.
In the last newsletter I bemoaned our Covid-fatigued culinary imaginations, how blah Ann and I felt. We had nothing we wanted to eat for dinner. We just didn’t care, and this really bothered me.
So I thought, enough. It’s cold January, the season of the braise. And I went back to my own cookbooks, Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto, where I remembered the fabulous braised lamb shanks and, from my How To Braise, the below red-wine braised short ribs.
Short ribs do not look appetizing. Short ribs start out tough and fatty with tons of connective tissue.
And I love that the power of braise renders them tender and succulent and delicious. And the sauce itself is generated by the cooking process. Once they’re removed from the pot (along with the bay leaves), I can use a hand blender to puree the vegetables that have cooked in the red-wine-and-hoisin braising liquid and in moments the short ribs have an ebony-colored, umami rich thick sauce, brightly speckled with parsley and lemon zest for the braise’s customary accent, the gremolata.
On a bed of buttered egg noodles, these beef ribs were a fabulous meal. (Recipe below.)
The lamb shanks—seasoned with curry powder and other spicy aromatics and cooked in a liquid whose base was a can of whole peeled tomatoes a few days later—were likewise fabulous. Ann proclaimed the lamb shanks to be one of the best dishes she has ever had. That is no small praise!
Benefits of the braise: super easy to prepare; they make their own sauce; they fill the home with delicious smells; they are delicious and deeply soul satisfying, especially in dark January; and they only get better after a day or two in the fridge so you can make this several days ahead if you want, and leftovers are even better than the original dish.
The Ways of the Braise…
Herewith, having really not braised much or thought much about one of our fundamental cooking techniques in the seven years since I published my short book on the subject, I was happy to re-engage with it and address its fundamentals.
Flour and Sear: I will never forget talking with Thomas Keller, while writing The French Laundry Cookbook, about braising. It is one of his favorite forms of cooking. Unlike grilling a steak or pan-frying a pork chop, braising is truly a transformative act. It turns tough into tender, the toughness melting into the sauce to give it body and nutrition. And the first step, flouring the meat, and searing it in oil—he looked at me and grinned.
“That floured meat? When it hits the fat? That smell? There’s nothing better. I love that.”
I could see and smell it having done it a hundred times myself, but I’d never thought to pay attention specifically to floured meat hitting hot fat.
So while it has its practical reasons—the floured crust is flavorful, and the flour has some thickening properties; also the heat sets the proteins so that they don’t appear in your braising liquid as a gray mat of foam—it also gives the cook sensory pleasure. It’s a pleasure only the cook will enjoy. Appreciate this pleasure, the many pleasures of cooking, the texture of handmade pasta, even the shape of an egg before you crack it. That’s when you’re cooking.
Temperature: You can braise at 250˚F and at 350˚F, but I’ve found that the perfect braising temperature, not too hot and not to cool, is 300˚F (about 150˚C).
The cooking liquid: it becomes the sauce. Stock is traditional, but I don’t always have stock on hand and I’m not a fan of boxed stocks (though I’ll use them when I have to). But my preference for braising is either wine or canned tomatoes.
Honey: One small bit of seasoning that’s not often noted, and which I learned about from Powder (Derek’s nickname), then chef of Lola’s in Cleveland, is adding a tablespoon or two of honey. “It really rounds things out,” he said, and I’ve been adding it ever since.
The lid: when you braise with a lid on, the liquid boils, which I think creates too much heat and turbulence. When you use a parchment lid, the temperature stays braise-perfect, and it allows for some, but not too much, evaporation. I’ve seen the most ridiculous videos on how to make them. Long ago, I made a video of how to make one to show how easy it is.
Braises are better after chilling: Because of a Zoom that went long, we skipped dinner on the night I had lamb shanks ready. When we reheated them the next day, they were even better than when I’d tasted them immediately after cooking them. A well-known feature of all braised dishes.
Gremolata: a mixture of chopped parsley, lemon zest and garlic, it adds invaluable freshness, brightness and color to virtually any braise. Two tablespoons parsley, zest from one lemon, one large clove of garlic smashed or minced to a paste.
Red-Wine-Braised Short Ribs
I’ll list the non-obvious ingredients, assuming you know how to season and flour the meat, and so on. The following is for 4 to 6 short ribs.
1 large onion, large dice
1 to 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
one 750 ml bottle decent red wine
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
3 bay leaves
Flour and sear the short ribs.
In a braising vessel, sauté the carrot and onion till they’re soft, five minutes or so. Add the chili flakes, stir, then add the remaining ingredients. Stir to combine, put the seared ribs into the pot, cover with a parchment lid (or a lid slightly ajar), and cook at 300˚F for 4 hours. (Hoisin is so sweet I don’t add honey to this one).
Serve over buttered egg noodles and, if the snow is coming down hard, eat whilst watching season two of All Creatures Great and Small.
Slow-Roasted Duck Legs…
One of Ann’s morning routines seems to be scouring her various sites for intriguing recipes. A while back, she found this recipe for slow-roasted duck legs on Food52, which has really become a fine (and lucrative) food, cooking and shopping site founded by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs. These duck legs were so good the first time around that we put them in last week’s rotation.
Since they cook for four hours, as long as most braised dishes, because they were rich and fatty and succulent they fit in perfectly with the other braises and this cold January weather.
Again, it’s that long slow cooking that’s so satisfying. Here duck legs (which we get at Whole Foods), are salted and dried for a day in the fridge, then set on aromatic herbs, garlic, shallot and lemon slices, on a rack and roasted at 250˚F for three hours.
Then you raise the temp to make sure the skin is crispy. The recipe includes a chicken gravy but we didn’t need it. The duck was so fatty and juicy it didn’t need a sauce (though some Dijon on the side is always nice), and the potatoes cooked in the rendered duck fat were likewise rich.
Somehow all the slow cooking has rejuvenated our kitchen.
Oh, and as we had tons left over, both of the short ribs and the duck. I chopped up the rib meat, cranked out some pasta , and made short rib ravioli with a sauce fashioned out of the braising liquid. And I used the left over duck to make duck sliders for our Sunday brunch movie, A Hero (see below).
What we’re drinking…
Recently margaritas, testing various recipes. It’s amazing how they vary. Proportions of the three main ingredients, tequila, Cointreau, lime juice, are different in every source I’ve checked. Many add simple syrup. Others agave syrup. I think we recently tested five or six and amazingly, the were ALL good!
But the occasion was for a zoom cocktail with the instructor’s at Eckard College’s winter writing program, Writers in Paradise (remote, Omicron). The director, author Les Standiford, asked if I could suggest a non-alcoholic cocktail, as a few participants were doing a dry January.
A neighbor had recently turned me on to Seedlip’s distilled, non-alcoholic “spirits.” And so I turned it toward our Margarita, essentially a tequila sour, flavored and sweetened with an orange liqueur, in the most basic sour ratio there is: 2 parts spirit, 1 part lime juice, 1 part Cointreau. I used 2 ounces Seedlip, 1 ounce lime juice, and 1 part orange simple syrup (1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water, zest from one orange, boiled).
It was splendid.
What we’re watching…
Last newsletter, I wrote that I didn’t see what all the fuss was about with The Power of the Dog by director Jane Campion, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a sadistic rancher (on Netflix). I stand corrected, and I highly recommend two viewings. Only on the second go-round did I really understand what had happened. Also, I was prepared for the very slow pacing of the movie and the long, lingering shot of the landscape and fabulous sets. I think it’s one of the best movies of the year, along with Hand of God.
As we munched our duck sliders and truffled scrambled eggs, with a lovely Chardonnay from Burgundy, we watched A Hero, by Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi. It’s a brilliant premise. A relatively young father is sent to debtor’s prison. His girlfriend finds a purse with 17 gold coins, nearly enough to get him out of prison. During a two-day leave he locates the rightful owner instead of paying off his debt, and what a mess it causes! Impeccably plotted, this is a movie the kept us on the edge of our seats and concluded with no easy answers. Highly recommend. (Amazon Prime.)
The Julia Child documentary! Fabulous! One of a kind personality and a lovely look at Julia’s trajectory through the world of food and television. (Prime Video, Apple TV.)
What is all the fuss about Licorice Pizza, a love story between a zitty 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman? Good performance by first time actor, Cooper Hoffman, Philip Seymour’s son, but the story, when it wasn’t being ridiculous, made no sense to us. And why was everybody always running? Delightful cameos by Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Maya Rudolph, and Bradley Cooper are not enough to recommend the film. (Only in theaters, but if you must see it, wait till it’s streaming.)
But the highlight of the past two weeks was watching the late, great Sidney Poitier in The Heat of the Night. The movie holds up and Poitier’s smoldering anger throughout is brilliant.
What we’re reading…
I just finished a terrific YA novel called They Both Die At the End by Adam Silvera. It takes place in the near future and an organization called Death-Cast knows the day people are going to die and calls to inform them. They are never wrong. Here, two strangers from widely varying backgrounds, become friends after getting the call that this is their last day on earth.
And Ann writes:
I have been Zoom teaching 3-8 hours a day since January 2, so my eyes are tired and sore. Which means I’ve done lots of listening. However I was happy to go to 1950s London with Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers in print. I had to read the ending twice it was so devastating.
The listening: The novel Luster by Raven Leilani, masterfully read by Ariel Blake. And two escapist podcasts, perfect for an exhausted Zoomer (Baby Boomer Zoomer!): “Once Upon a Time at Bennington College,” a gossipy romp through college with Brett Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt; and “Wild Things,” the wild story of Siegfried and Roy.
”Yellowjackets” and “All Creatures Great and Small” delivered perfect season finales.
Links we’re liking…
A lovely New Yorker story (with photography) about the real places that inspired southern fiction.
Also from The Guardian, which is such a great paper and site, a story that addresses what is behind the rise of extreme smells. “From tomato-scented candles to perfumes reeking of intimate body parts, the world of smell is getting weirder.” Not to mention Gweneth Paltrow’s bizarre candle.
Finally from The Guardian, a look at Charles Dickens’s mustache.
Leave it to my wife, an aficionado of nativity scenes, to discover the truly bizarre figure Spanish nativity scenes frequently include. Toilet paper, anyone?
The coffee table hasn’t been around long—so who made the first one?
An illustrated version of Pablo Neruda’s extraordinary poem, “Ode To My Socks.”
Have a great two weeks, everyone!