I’m a huge fan of braising. This simple cooking technique makes a great winter meal because it favors hearty foods naturally available in the winter like root vegetables and warmer, richer flavors. It’s also a great way to cook a tough or less expensive piece of meat.
The braising technique relies on cooking over low heat (usually either on the stovetop or in the oven – although sometimes in a crockpot) in a sealed container with moisture. Braising works really well for tough cuts of beef such as stew meat, chuck roast, game meats, or pot roast.
When you braise, you break down the collagen in the meat and the fat melts through it, making it more tender and flavorful. While many people think braises are stringy, they don’t have to be. Coq au Vin is a braise, as is Osso Bucco, and Boeuf Bourguignon. If you use enough moisture and select the right cut of meat, your braise will be fork tender and not at all stringy.
Here’s what I really like about braising: it allows you to develop flavors, and if you know how to do it you can create any number of dishes simply and easily.
Ready to create a braise? The steps are simple.
- Select your meat. Don’t use an expensive, naturally tender cut like a rib-eye or filet mignon. This method does not work well for those meats. Instead, choose something that is less tender and, frankly, cheaper. I like chuck roast, bottom round, and brisket. You can choose similar cuts of pork, as well.
- Select your aromatics and herbs. What flavors would you like in your braise? I recommend starting out with a basic mirepoix – a dice of one carrot, one celery stalk and one half onion. To that you can add just about any herb. Some of my favorites with beef are garlic, thyme, rosemary or tarragon.
- Select any vegetables you might like. Beyond the basic mirepoix, would you like carrot chunks, parsnips, tomatoes, mushrooms, or others? Root vegetables work well in braises.
- Select your braising liquid. I usually use about half chicken stock and half wine or beer. Other add ins to braising liquid may include citrus or other juices (I once braised a pork roast in pomegranate and orange juices with chicken stock and some cayenne. It was fantastic!), or a hard liquor such as whiskey or rum (use sparingly.) You can also use something acidic, such as vinegar, but balance it with stock.
Once you have your basic flavors, make your braise.
- Season your meat with salt and pepper.
- In a large pot, use some kind of fat (I’m a fan of cooking a little bacon to toss into the braise for flavor and searing the meat in the bacon fat) to sear the meat on all sides. Leave the meat in contact with the pan to caramelize it for several minutes on each side before moving it.
- Remove the meat from the pot and set it aside.
- Using the same oil, add your aromatics (except garlic). Allow them contact with the hot pan for several minutes without stirring in order to caramelize and add more flavor. Stir and brown aromatics. If you are adding garlic, toss it in for the last 30 seconds in this step, just until it releases its scent.
- For more flavor, add a tablespoon of tomato paste if you want and allow it to brown with the aromatics. This will deepen the flavor without giving it a tomato taste.
- Leave the aromatics in the pot and add a few tablespoons of flour. The flour will thicken your final product. Stir the flour with the oil until it is a tan color. This will remove the raw flour flavor and add an additional depth to your dish.
- Add your alcoholic beverage (or vinegar) to the pot, using your wooden spoon to scrape up all of the brown bits (called fond) on the bottom of the pot.
- Add the stock and stir to combine. Total liquid should go about half way up a roast.
- Return the meat to the pot and add any vegetables and herbs.
- Bring the pan to a simmer, and cover tightly.
- Either leave the tightly covered pot on the stovetop over low heat or in a 300-350 oven. Braising time will vary depending on the cut of meat you are cooking. For chicken, it may take just an hour. For small cuts of beef chopped up, it takes around two to 2-1/2 hours. For a full roast, it may take as long as six hours. Look at a recipe for something similar to your braise to estimate a cooking time and temperature.
- When the meat is cooked, remove the lid and turn up flame on the stove. Remove the meat and simmer liquids to reduce. Taste for seasoning and adjust.
- Serve with a starchy side covered in your braising liquids. Good sides include rice, polenta, mashed potatoes, spätzle, and herbed egg noodles.
Easy, right? Here are a few combination suggestions.
- Beef short ribs and bacon with red onions and thyme, braised in Guinness Stout and chicken stock. Serve with smashed red potatoes.
- Chunks of beef roast with bacon, mushrooms and pearl onions, braised in red wine and chicken stock. I like thyme to season this one. Serve with egg noodles or spätzle.
- Whole chicken pieces with bacon and pearl onions, braised in white wine and chicken stock with tarragon. Serve with rice or egg noodles.
- Pot roast and root vegetables seasoned with rosemary and garlic, and braised in beef stock and red wine.
- Veal shanks braised with mirepoix, sliced carrots, garlic, and chopped tomatoes in white wine, juice of an orange, and chicken stock (osso bucco). Season after cooking by stirring in a chopped combination of parsley, garlic, and lemon/orange zest (gremolata). Serve with egg noodles.
How to Make Roasted Poultry Stock
- Preheat your oven to 450.
- Arrange about four pounds of turkey and chicken wings in a roasting pan in a single layer, and roast for one hour.
- Remove the poultry from the pan and add one cup of water to the pan, scraping to remove all of the flavorful browned bits from the bottom.
- In a large stockpot, saute two ribs of celery, two carrots, and two onions roughly chopped in a few tablespoons of oil until tender. Add poultry, water from roasting pan, and about one gallon of water to the pot and bring to a simmer.
- Meanwhile, wrap 1/2 teaspoon of peppercorns, several sprigs of parsley, several sage leaves, two bay leaves, and several sprigs of fresh thyme in cheesecloth and tie with kitchen twine. Drop it in the simmering water.
- Simmer, uncovered, for three hours. Allow to cool and strain out solids. Store in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container.
You can use homemade stock in gravy, soups, sauces, and stews. It has much better flavor than canned broths.
It’s been a little blustery here in the Pacific Northwest the past several days. Weather like this makes me want to cook comforting foods that warm the belly. I am also in possession of my last CSA box, which contains beautiful organic leeks and potatoes.
It’s amazing and wonderful the earth gives us warmer, heavier foods as the weather changes. I started in spring with scapes and baby lettuce that made light spring and summer dishes, and have progressed through the season to these wonderful fall delights. Local, seasonal vegetables add variety to the menu, encouraging you to make the most of them as the earth offers them up.
The cold weather and the vegetables are telling me – it’s time to warm things up. While I’ll miss the gorgeous juicy tomatoes, I’m pretty happy with the potatoes and leeks, too. After all, on a blustery fall day when faced with a box of organic, fresh potatoes and leeks, what else is there to make but potato leek soup?
The good news about potato leek soup is it doesn’t have to be difficult. I think all told with my vegetable chopping prep and 20 minutes of simmering on the stove, this recipe took me 30 minutes. My version is minimalist and rustic, allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves.
When cooking with leeks, you need to clean them well because dirt gets trapped between the layers. To clean, chop the leeks and place them in a bowl of cold water. Swirl the leeks around in the water and then empty into a colander. Repeat this two to three times to remove all of the dirt. Allow the leeks to drain in a colander while you chop your potatoes.
Easy Potato Leek Soup
- 1/2 pound of bacon, chopped
- 4 leeks, chopped, including green parts
- 1/4 c. flour (sweet rice flour for gluten-free)
- 4-5 potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1″ pieces (any work – but I especially love Yukon golds)
- 6 c. gluten-free chicken stock
- Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, to taste
- Chopped chives
- Cook bacon in a large dutch oven until crisp. Remove bacon from oil with a slotted spoon and set to drain on paper towel.
- Add leeks to bacon grease and saute until they begin to soften, about five minutes.
- Add flour and stir to combine, cooking for about two minutes to remove raw flour flavor.
- Stir in chicken stock, scraping the bottom of the pan to remove all browned bits.
- Add potatoes and bring to a simmer.
- Allow to simmer for about 20 minutes, until potato softens.
- Remove from heat and process about half of the soup in a blender, leaving the other half chunky. Add pureed soup back to pot and stir to combine. Alternatively, you can puree all of the soup for a smoother preparation.
- Taste and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve topped with crisped bacon and chopped chives.
- This is great with a nice salad and a crusty bread.
Note: When you puree hot soup in a blender, be really careful. I once saw my mother spray lentil soup from a food processor all over the kitchen ceiling. This can happen because the pressure of steam builds up during pureeing if you don’t allow it to escape. When pureeing hot soup in a blender or food processor, place a folded towel over your hand to protect it, and allow steam to escape every few seconds.
Even though school has started, summer is not quite over. Here in the Pacific Northwest, late summer and early fall offer up gorgeous weather that entices you outdoors before the rainy season begins again.
One of my favorite seasonal dishes for this time of year is steamer clams. While many people head to the beach at low tide to dig for these local delicacies, I typically buy mine at the farmers’ market where someone has already done the majority of the work for me. You might also be able to find small manila clams at the grocery store in the seafood section.
You can purchase steamer clams several hours ahead of cooking and keep them refrigerated or on ice until you use them. Always use steamer clams the same day, and make sure your source is providing the freshest clams possible.
I live in a household that loves clams. Resultantly, I buy them in bulk when I plan to cook them for the main meal. Jim and Tanner by themselves can put down about five pounds of the bivalves and still look around for something else to eat. As an appetizer, however, you can cook fewer.
I prefer making the clams in a simple wine and butter broth redolent with herbs. It not only provides tremendous flavor to the clams, but it also serves as a delicious base for dipping crusty bread to supplement the meal. To round out our traditional late summer supper of clams and bread, I include sweet corn on the cob, a simple green salad with whatever seasonal veggies I have around and a crisp white wine or beer.
Cooking steamer clams isn’t so much a recipe as a series of steps I follow. I don’t really measure – I just toss in ingredients.
How to Cook Steamer Clams
- Grass-fed butter
- Chopped shallots or sweet onions
- Chopped fennel bulb
- Dry white wine
- Fresh lemon juice and zest
- Fresh cracked pepper
- Salt to taste
- Chopped fresh tarragon
- On the stovetop, melt butter in a large pot.
- Saute shallots or onions and fennel in butter until soft.
- Add clams, white wine, juice of one lemon, zest from half the lemon, and pepper. Stir to combine.
- Cover the pot and allow to steam, stirring occasionally, until all of the clams have opened. Discard unopened clams.
- Taste for seasoning and stir in tarragon.
Replace fennel with chopped garlic and tarragon with chopped fresh basil. Stir in fresh chopped tomatoes with the basil.
As we move towards fall, it’s the perfect time to incorporate soups and stews into your rotation. Many delicious seasonal vegetables are available throughout the fall that you can toss into a hearty soup or braise.
One of the things I really like about soups and stews is they are never the same twice. In fact, you can use pretty much whatever you have on hand to create something unique and flavorful. I don’t really follow recipes to create soups and stews, but I do utilize certain techniques to layer flavors and bring out the best in my ingredients.
Techniques – Soup & Stews
Creating soups and stews is pretty easy. In this case, a stew is merely a thickened soup with bigger chunks of vegetables and heartier chunks of meat. Here are some basic techniques.
- Start by sauteing your protein in a little bit of olive oil using the pot in which you will be cooking your soup or stew. Season the protein with salt and black pepper, and then place in preheated olive oil. You can use chicken, beef, turkey, Italian sausage, bacon, pancetta, hamburger, or other meats you might enjoy in a soup. Remove the protein from the oil with a slotted spoon and set aside.
- Build your flavor base with aromatic vegetables. I almost always use mirepoix, which is merely a dice of two parts onion to one part carrots and celery.
- Saute the mirepoix. If you are going to add garlic, do so in the last 30 seconds to a minute before you begin adding other ingredients.
- If you are making a stew or braise, add about 1/4 cup of flour to the vegetables and oil. Stir for a few moments to remove the raw flour flavor.
- Add liquid. I prefer adding chicken, vegetable, or beef stock. In stews, I add about a cup of wine before adding the stock, and I stir to thicken it. Then I add the stock. You can make your own stock or purchase store bought; however, if you are using beef stock I recommend making your own. If I do use store-bought stock, I prefer aseptic packaging.
- Add meat back into the pot, along with any vegetables you’d like to include such as mushrooms, squash, potato chunks, beans, peas, zucchini, etc. Sometimes I also add canned tomatoes or canned kidney beans.
- Add herbs like thyme, parsley, or sage and a little cracked pepper. For some heat, add a dash of cayenne or red pepper flakes. A little goes a long way.
- Simmer until vegetables are tender and meat is completely cooked.
- Taste for seasoning and adjust.
Tips for Building Flavor
- Fresh and seasonal ingredients taste better than canned, boxed, or jarred. Whenever possible, build your meals around fresh ingredients that are in season where you live.
- Purchase the best ingredients you can afford.
- Opt for fresh garlic and onions rather than dried or powdered.
- When you cook garlic, it is done as soon as it becomes fragrant. Overcooking or using too high of heat can make it bitter.
- Dried herbs tend to be more potent than fresh herbs, but both impart great flavor.
- A little bit of salt brings out flavors. Don’t skip it.
- Other than seasoning your protein before you cook it, don’t season until the end of cooking. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary.
- As you saute your meat, when you first place it in the pan, leave it in contact with the pan for several minutes before you move it in order to develop flavorful caramelization. Once the protein browns (after about 4-5 minutes), turn it and do the same thing.
- Avoid overcrowding the pan with meat, because it will prevent caramelization.
- Do the same thing with your mirepoix. Leave it in contact with the pan for 3-4 minutes to develop caramelization before you stir the vegetables.
- Add even more flavor by adding a tablespoon or two of tomato paste to the cooked vegetables and allowing to saute for 4-5 minutes. This develops a deep, rich, brown flavor.
- When you add the flour to the oil and vegetables, allow it to get a little bit of color. A slight golden color to your roux (the combination of flour and oil) will add tons of flavor.
- When you first add your liquid, use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits off the bottom of the pan, which has huge flavor payoff. This is called deglazing.
- If you are making an Italian soup or stew, simmer a little Parmesan rind in with the soup and remove before serving.
- Tips for Making Your Own Stock
- Making stock is not difficult. Simmer protein (such as chicken), herbs and vegetables in water for a long period in order to extract as much flavor as possible. Remove solids. Some tips:
- When I chop and peel veggies, I place the trimmings in a ziploc bag and toss it in the freezer. Then I use those trimmings to make the stock.
- Since I am going to be removing all solids anyway, I don’t really chop my vegetables. Instead, I cut onions in quarters, cut carrots in half, and toss celery in whole. I also add whole fresh herbs and peppercorns. For your flavor base, make sure you use two parts onion to one part each celery and carrot. Whatever else you toss in there is up to you.
- For seafood stock, you can add things like shrimp shells, which have a lot of flavor and will be filtered out anyway.
- Since you’re pulling the flavor out of the meat and into the stock, it’s best not to reuse any meat after you pull it out of stock. It’s pretty flavorless. Because of this, you can buy meat you wouldn’t normally put in a finished dish – like chicken necks or beef bones.
- I simmer my stock for 2-3 hours. It’s not the classical 8-hour way of cooking it, but for homemade soup, it’s fine.
- You may have heard that you need to never boil stock and constantly skim it. This is pretty time consuming. For most soups and stews, you can skip this and just pour the finished product through some cheesecloth to remove the worst impurities.
- Avoid salting stock if it is going into something else. Instead, make it without salt and then season your final dish.
- For an even more flavorful stock, roast your bones and meat first.
One of my favorite weekend activities is a trip through the farmers’ market. I enjoy watching the produce offerings change throughout the seasons, starting with tender baby greens in early spring, progressing to glistening berries in June, to colorful vegetables like radishes and carrots throughout the summer, finally winding down to fragrant apples, squash, pumpkins and heartier winter vegetables in October and November. Regular walks through the farmer’s market show you the natural progression of the food harvest cycle, and allow you to find ways to eat seasonally as earlier generations must have done in the days before produce was shipped all across the country and available year-round.
This week’s offerings are among my favorite of the summer. Ears of sweet corn, small red potatoes, sweet onions, fennel, colorful heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, and summer squash. Finding corn on the cob at the farmer’s market is bittersweet. It means the end of summer is quickly approaching, giving way to the crisp days of autumn and the start of the new school year. In a month or so, my urge to cook apples will kick in, and my kitchen will be filled with applesauce, pie, and spicy, crunchy apple crisp.
I have found the perfect meal to make the most of the seasonal vegetables available at the farmer’s market right now. While sweet corn is, of course, amazing by itself on the cob, tossed on the grill, and then lightly buttered, if you’re looking for another way to serve it while incorporating much of the other seasonal bounty, then I suggest making a sweet corn chowder.
Sweet Corn Chowder
- 1/2 pound thick cut pepper bacon, diced
- 2 sweet onions, diced
- One carrot, peeled and diced
- One stalk fennel, diced (if you don’t like fennel, you can replace this with celery)
- 1/4 cup flour (or sweet rice flour for gluten-free)
- 8 cups gluten-free chicken stock
- Diced red potatoes (2-3 medium or several small)
- 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh thyme
- 1/8 to 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes (or to taste – this is optional, but I like a little kick in the chowder to complement the sweet)
- 4 ears sweet corn, husked and cut from cob, with juices reserved.
- 1/4 cup heavy cream (optional – eliminate for dairy free)
- Salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste
- In a large stock pot, cook bacon until it is crisp. Remove the bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil. Reduce heat to medium high.
- Add onion, carrots and fennel to the pan and saute stirring occasionally until vegetables soften and start to caramelize, about 5 minutes.
- Add flour to the vegetables and stir constantly to keep it from sticking, about 2-3 minutes.
- Add chicken stock, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to remove any brown bits on the bottom. Stir constantly for a few minutes until flour and liquid are well combined and liquid starts to simmer and thicken slightly.
- Add potatoes, thyme, and red pepper flakes. Reduce heat and simmer until potatoes soften, about 1o to 15 minutes.
- Add bacon, sweet corn and juices and simmer for a few minutes to soften corn and incorporate flavors.
- Add heavy cream, and stir to incorporate.
- Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve the chowder with a crusty bread and a dry Riesling (Columbia Cellermaster’s Riesling is a great choice), unoaked Chardonnay, or a Pinot Grigio.