Dinner Parties 101: The Beauty of Braising

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The calendar tells me it’s March, and my mind is impatiently anticipating the blooming daffodils and 70-degree temperatures. But the last few days when I’ve stepped outside, Mother Nature seems to taunt me, saying “Eh, eh, eh—not so fast!”

Instead of being bitter about the lingering chilly nights, why not ride out these last few weeks of cold weather with a good braise? The Food Lover’s Companion defines a braise as “a cooking method by which food (usually meat or vegetables) is first browned in fat, then cooked, tightly covered, in a small amount of liquid for a long period of time.” Along with being ideal comfort food, braised meats are economical and virtually indestructible (think of the culinary version of Corelle dinnerware). They’re almost impossible to under- or over-cook, all preparation can be done in advance, and they utilize less expensive cuts of meat while still producing a hearty, tender, and flavorful dish. 

Tips for a good braise:

1)    Always prepare your meat first by trimming off all exterior fat.
2)    Before braising, sear the meat on high heat in a small amount of oil to give you a nice caramelization that can’t be achieved with braising alone. After searing meat, deglaze the frying pan with either stock or wine, and add this liquid to the braising dish.
3)    Your braising medium (which most of the time is stock, wine, or a combination of the two) should reach half way up the meat before cooking. 
4)    After all ingredients are in your dish, create a tight seal with aluminum foil in order to prevent liquid from evaporating and meat from getting too dry. Secure foil with the pot lid.
5)    Braising can be done one of two ways—on top of the stove on a low simmer, or in the oven at 325 degrees. Either way, the dish should be covered and liquid should never come to a full boil. 
6)    Braising can take anywhere between 1 1/2 to 4 hours, depending on the size and cut of your meat. You know your meat is done when you can insert a skewer with little to no resistance. Generally, a braise should never be pink.

In my opinion, a braised dish is the ideal way to host a low-key, Sunday evening meal.  So this Sunday, invite some old friends over, put on a pot of one of the following two recipes, turn on the Academy Awards, and enjoy ogling your favorite celebrities with a little comfort food in tow. 


Indian Lamb and Spinach Curry

Courtesy of Williams-Sonoma Food Made Fast: Slow Cooker

Yes, this curry is technically a braise. For an easy mint pilaf to serve with the curry, bring 3 1/2 cups of water to a boil, add 2 cups of rinsed basmati rice, turn the heat to low, and cook for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed. Just before serving, add about 3 tablespoons of minced fresh mint. Fluff mint and rice together with a pair of forks.

Ingredients
1/3 cup canola oil
3 yellow onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
2 tsp ground cumin
1 ½ tsp cayenne pepper (can use less if desired)
1 ½ tsp ground turmeric
2 cups high-quality beef broth
3 pounds boneless leg of lamb, cut into 1 inch cubes
Salt to taste
6 cups baby spinach
2 cups plain whole milk (full fat) yogurt

Instructions
In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, warm oil. Add onions and garlic, and sauté until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in ginger, cumin, cayenne, and turmeric and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour in broth, raise heat to high, and deglaze the pan, stirring to scrape up the browned bits on the bottom. When broth comes to a boil, remove pan from heat.
Put lamb in a Dutch oven or large oven-proof casserole dish and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon salt. Add contents of frying pan and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Cover with lid and cook in the oven at 325 degrees. Cook until meat can be penetrated easily with knife (about 3 to 4 hours).
 
Return the dish to the stove, add baby spinach to pot and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until spinach is wilted, about 5 minutes. Just before serving, stir in 1 1/3 cups yogurt. Season to taste with salt. Spoon into shallow bowls and serve, passing remaining yogurt at the table to add as a garnish.
 
Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Braised Citrus Pork

This dish can be served solo, with rice, or with my favorite accompaniment—a thick, piece of country toast drizzled with olive oil. You can also use veal shoulder instead of pork for a delicious variation.

Ingredients
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 ½ pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into cubes
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups chicken stock
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, halved
Herb bouquet (stalk of celery, bay leaf, sprig of thyme, sprig of parsley, and one well-washed leek, tied with string or in cheesecloth)
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2/3 cup juice from orange
1/4 cup juice from lemon
Zest of 1 medium orange
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon snipped chives
1 teaspoon minced parsley

Instructions
Heat oil in skillet and add a few pieces of pork at a time, browning meat on all sides without cooking the insides. Do not crowd the skillet (brown in batches if necessary).  After all meat is browned, transfer to large Dutch oven or ovenproof casserole dish. Pour out any remaining fat from skillet and deglaze with the white wine. Pour skillet contents in with the meat. Add the stock, onions, garlic, herb bouquet, tomato paste, salt, and pepper.  Cover and simmer on a low stove or in a 325° oven for about 1 ½ hour or until the meat is tender and can be skewered with no resistance. Remove meat from dish and cover to keep moist. Discard the herb bouquet.

Add orange and lemon juices and orange zest to pan juices. Boil liquid down to about two cups. Add the heavy cream, bring to a boil and reduce again until you have a thick sauce (about 1 ½ cups). Readjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if needed.

Add meat to the sauce and garnish with chopped fresh herbs.

Serves 6 to 8

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