(We took a break from our January detox menu–savoring the comfort and smells of braised short ribs for dinner tonight!)
I’m assuming since you’re reading this blog, you are comfortable with the French verb “sauté”, which commonly means to cook food in a bit of fat over direct heat, such as the burner on your stove. I probably use the word in every recipe I write which involves cooking.
But there’s something a bit chef-techie, a little edgy, about the verb “braise”. Some of you may have questions if you see this word in a recipe without some form of explanation.
You may, however, have been “braising” for years, without even realizing it. If your favorite pot roast recipe begins by searing the roast in hot fat, then slowly cooking the roast in liquid, you’ve been braising. Any recipe that involves first searing, then finishing the cooking process with moist heat qualifies as a braise.
You can braise fish, chicken, vegetables, even tofu. Obviously each meat or vegetable protein involves different cooking times. Braising meat is about breaking down tough tissues by applying moist heat for a relatively long period of time.
There are certain sinewy types of meat best suited for braising; short ribs are the perfect candidate for a braise because they are too chewy and fibrous if not braised. Most importantly, if you don’t mind carving off the visible fat, braised short ribs are a deliciously satisfying cut of beef with a rich, deep, earthy flavor. Braising a tender cut of meat, such as a fillet mignon, would be a waste of time, money and flavor.
These short wintry days and long dark nights summon cooking techniques, such as braising, which help satisfy our personal desire for continuous, slow heat. Braising season, as well, requests the proper tools, particularly a Dutch oven.
“Dutch…say what?”, you may ask. “You’re losing me.” I can hear you now. A Dutch oven, which is a heavy, cast-iron, enamel pot, is a braiser’s best friend. But if you have a heavy-bottomed baking dish and roll of aluminum foil, for tightly covering this dish, you’re good to go.
I spent more time on-line researching consumer reviews regarding cast iron, enameled Dutch ovens prior to a purchase, than I did researching my last car before heading to the dealership. For good reason. I was looking for top quality 5 1/2-quart Dutch ovens, which easily cost around $250.00, but I wasn’t willing to pay that much.
I don’t mean to boast, but I found a bargain at TJ’s for $66 including tax. It’s a 5 1/2 quart, heavy gauge, cast iron beauty weighing in at 14 pounds, with an 1/8-inch wall thickness. The lid on this baby fits as tight as a drum. The shiny red enamel, admittedly, clashes with my kitchen decor but the complementary mustard-colored model, though “Made in France”, did not appear as sturdy.
The best braised short ribs recipes I’ve found generally include carrots, celery and onion or leek with similar braise ingredients and techniques. To name a few, check out chef stars Mario Batali’s, Anne Burrell’s, and Michael Chiarello’s recipes for braising short ribs. They involve more steps and technique than my recipe, but the brines and horseradish gremolitas may be worth the extra effort.
Indeed, Ann Burrell’s “crud” of puréed vegetables sounds intriguing.
As for the resulting sauce at the bottom of the pan, from that lip-smacking marriage of gelatin, wine stock and vegetables, as my brother would say, “That be some good stuff”. I served the saucy ribs with creamy polenta, but noodles or mashed potatoes would be delicious. This is a great make-ahead dish as the reheated leftovers taste even better the second day.
I can’t imagine greater pleasure than braising away a winter evening. Put on some Coltrane, light a fire, and let the smells of the meat, vegetables and wine permeate your soul. Pour a glass of wine for yourself, stretch out on the couch, and let your braise finish the work.