'Tis the Season of Braising
"Of all the various culinary operations, braisings are the most expensive and the most difficult," Escoffier wrote in his tome on French cuisine, Le Guide Culinaire. "Long and assiduous practice alone can teach many difficulties that this mode of procedure entails, for it is one which demands extraordinary care and the most constant attention." The authority devotes ten dense pages to the technique's many variants and nuances.
Despite greenhouse gas emitters' best efforts, it's still the season of braising, a technique that warms the house and the stomach. A recent New York Times Magazine article included recipes for braised duck legs, beef stroganoff, and pork belly.
I recently surveyed several friends who I consider experts in the kitchen and they all seemed to be braising something on a regular basis. And, in contrast to Escoffier's warnings, these friends all favored the technique for its relative ease. "This is one case where I disagree with the master," said Jack Bishop, a neighbor in Sag Harbor, New York, and executive editor of Cook's Illustrated. "Braising is very forgiving."
Jack's recent contribution to East End braising efforts was braised lamb shoulder with assorted root veggies. "This recipe I made was very simple," he emailed me. "I started with a boneless lamb shoulder from White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Connecticut, that was tied into a neat roast. I rubbed the meat with a cumin and olive oil paste and then browned the roast in a large Dutch oven for about 15 minutes, making sure to put a really good crust on the meat." He even stood the roast up on either end so the sides of the roast would brown.
He then removed the roast from the pot, wiped the pot clean with a wad of paper towels (he noted the cumin had burned in place), and returned the roast. He added a bottle of Côtes du Rhône (his recipe, which came from foodandwine.com, suggested Syrah), along with a bundle of fresh thyme sprigs and several cups of chicken stock, and then braised the meat in a 350 degree oven until it was "fall apart-tender," about 3 hours. "I removed the roast to a platter and reduced the sauce on the stovetop to a sauce consistency," Jack continued. "The meat was truly unctuous, with a jellylike consistency and the flavor of the sauce (1 bottle of wine and 4 cups of chicken stock reduced to just 1 1/2 cups) was great." He served it with mashed potatoes and turnips made with browned butter.
"It's a slow, wet cooking technique," was the simple and sexy summary from Christopher Tracey, another neighbor who is also winemaker at Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, New York, and a French Culinary Institutetrained chef. My family and Christopher's recently split a half hog, and Christopher plans on "braising the bellies in wine with some mirepoix and herbs." Mirepoix is a French trinity of carrots, onion, and celery that adds depth and complexity and layers of flavor. As for the herbs, Christopher is leaning toward "a bunch of thyme and a sprig of rosemary."
He will then cut the belly into individual portions and finish them on a slow grill "to achieve that crisp factor everybody fantasizes about. Yummy, crisp skin, melting fat and tender meat. Maybe some parsnips, celeriac, squash, and a bottle of our Meditazione [a skin-fermented white wine that Paul Grieco of Hearth and Insieme called the best white wine in America] or Radikon's Ribolla Gialla."
Although Carpenter finds pork belly "a tough sell" for most customers, he implied that braising helps make odd meat cuts better. "You braise it and a lot of that fat is going to render off. A lot of that meat in between there is going to be very tender and flavorful because of that."
Carpenter will be featuring this dish at a James Beard dinner in April in conjunction with Wolffer Estate wines, and accompanied by braised baby turnips, parsnips, and salsify. He has also braised veal short ribs with a little lobster, producing a sort of wet, warm surf and turf. Still, Carpenter says, for all its benefits, braising is a winter thing. "You ain't gonna sell none of that in August."
About the author: Brian Halweil is the editor of Edible East End, the magazine that celebrates the harvest of the Hamptons and the North Fork. He is also publisher of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. He writes about the things we eat from the old whaling village of Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his wife tend a home garden and orchard and go clamming when the tides allow.