In Praise of Braise

Lately I’ve been trying to get a handle on a few basic techniques, one of which is braising meat. I’ve always had good luck with making stew but mixed luck with braising. After gaining some insight through failed practice sessions, I think I finally cracked the code this weekend. So here is what you do.

First, buy a big heavy soup pot. I’ve had the best luck with my old Le Creuset enamel on cast iron dutch ovens. I tried to use my beloved light weight All- Clad pots to do the same thing but they don’t work as well. The Le Creuset pots are heavy and a bit small, but they seem to hold an even low temperature more effectively and their lids aren’t warped like my All-Clad seconds sale lids.

Next, buy your favorite cut of cheap meat. Whatever you get should have

1. Bones.

2. Some fat.

3. Some tendon and other connective tissue.

Short ribs and any kind of shank are great for this scheme. This weekend I did lamb shanks. I had six. You can adjust the quantities for however many you have.

Put your meat in a large bowl and season it with a liberal amount of salt and pepper. One or two pinches of salt per shank and a few turns of the pepper mill. Now heat up your pot on medium to medium low heat and when it’s hot, add some olive oil. Put the shanks in the pot two or three at a time, depending on what fits without stacking. Brown the meat until it’s a nice golden brown on all sides. This will take 10-15 minutes per batch. Don’t rush it. Set the browned meat aside until you get all the batches done.

While the meat browns, pour most of a bottle of red wine into another pan and start it simmering. You will want to reduce it by around a half, but the exact amount is not critical.

Now dice one large onion or two smaller ones, two carrots and a couple of ribs of celery. Add more more oil to the pan and throw in the aromatics. Add salt and pepper, two or three bay leaves and your favorite fresh or dried herbs. I happened to use some thyme.

After about ten minutes the veggies will be soft. Add the wine, and a cup or two of chicken stock. Let that cook a while then put the shanks back in the pot. Add a bit more water or wine to get the liquid level to go most of the way up the meat. If all the shanks don’t fit conveniently in one pot, you can split things and use two. This is what I ended up doing with my smaller Le Creuset pots so that I could fit all the meat on the floor of the pot.

Put the pots into a 250 degree oven. Set the timer for one hour. At the end of each hour, turn the meat over and add some water if the liquid level is getting precariously low. After about four or five hours you should be able to take the meat apart with chopsticks. That’s when it’s done. Don’t forget to use the time to practice your Halo skills.

Take the meat out of the pot and pour the left over liquid into another sauce pan. If you want to get fancy at this point add some chopped shallot and cook the sauce for fifteen minutes. Then pour it through a strainer then back into the sauce pan. Put the pan on the stove and reduce by at least half or until it coats a spoon. Add a pat of butter and whisk it in for that extra something special. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

If you’ve done things right the sauce will be a wonderful alchemy of the wine, the aromatics, the stock and the gelatin from the bones. When cold it should turn into a nice red wine reduction jello.

This is best when served with some kind of soft fluffy starch like mashed potatoes, polenta, or those fashionable purees you get at fancy places. Just put each shank on a plate and pour the sauce over it and the starch of your choice.

You’ll also need a vegetable for this. So here’s one:

1. Get a bag of brussel sprouts from Whole Foods (really, trust me).

2. Cut the sprouts in half, add to a pot of cold water. Bring the water to a boil, cook for six to eight minutes. Drain.

3. Meanwhile, chop up about 14 pound of bacon or pancetta into tiny pieces and cook them until they are crispy.

4. Mix the sprouts with the bacon and however much of the bacon fat you want. Sprinkle some dried thyme on top. Add a bit of chicken stock and cook for five minutes.

Done and done.