Praise the braise.
This method of cooking meat in a wet environment (versus roasting it in the dry place called an oven) is the perfect porridge for winter eating. Braising’s best feature is how it pushes out the emptiness of the home and fills it with such a gorgeous aroma. But that’s just one praise for the braise; there are several more.
With meats, the main plus of a braise is the chance to use less costly cuts, high in difficult-to-chew connective tissues; the braise breaks these down into a gelatin-rich, luxurious backdrop to all the flavorings of the finished dish. As for stringy vegetables, a braise softens them too.
To underscore the most important, trusted technique underlying meat braises: Brown the meat very well. This causes the Maillard Reaction, a chemical reaction that explains the caramelization of proteins and sugars in browned foods of any sort (cookies, steaks, caramel itself, and roasted vegetables, for instance). It is named after the Frenchman Louis Camille Maillard who discovered it in the early 1900s.
To get there, be sure to allow ample space in between the pieces of meat (typical examples are beef chuck or lamb shoulder) as they brown atop the stove before the actual braise begins. Cooks who crowd the pieces of meat merely steam them. Browning also creates what the French call “fond” (the browned bits at the bottom of the pot post-Maillard) which is, as the word indicates, the foundation to the rich tastes of the sauce to come as the result of the braise itself.
Deglaze the fond in the pan with a small amount of white or red wine (depending on the heaviness of the meat) or low-sugar apple cider or tart cherry juice; 1 cup should do. Then, when adding the liquid with which you are going to braise the meat — broth preferably, although plain water works too — pour in just enough to come up halfway on the meat.
Don’t use wine or juice alone as the braising liquid. In the end, due to evaporative concentration and the leeching of the meat’s flavors, the sauce might well become too strong and clumsy.
The mantra is: deglaze with wine (or juice); braise with broth.
I always thought that it was important to cover the meat with the braising liquid, but that’s unwise. In truth, that merely diffuses flavors. Also, the meat (and vegetables, if you’re using) will give off quite a lot of their own moisture, so dearth it with the fluid.
Overall, pick and use a proper pot to guarantee successful browning and braising. A good browning requires a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or casserole. And a large, wide-open pot is better than a high-walled one so, for the braise itself, the meat ought to lay on the bottom in one layer, with the braising liquid poured evenly around it.
When you have some downtime in your kitchen, make ahead both some classic bouquets garnis and a few bouquets d’épices. The former are sprigs of thyme and parsley and a bay leaf tied together with kitchen twine. And the latter are the same ingredients, in a small cheesecloth sachet, tied at the neck with twine, that also includes a few peppercorns and a clove of peeled garlic.
For my bouquets garnis, I like to use a green “leaf” of a leek as the wrap. Both types of bouquets can be frozen and used as needed. You’ll need one or the other to flavor the braise as it cooks, then remove it for service.
Finally, I also had thought that the braising vegetables—carrots and onions are common, but turnips, celery, mushrooms and potatoes also often play—should go in with the meat. But a braise usually lasts a long time (two-plus hours isn’t uncommon) and can make mush out of vegetables as well as turn bland their flavors.
So, add vegetables for about an hour (depending on their cut-up sizes, perhaps as little as 45 minutes) before you estimate the braise will finish. Some of the fresh flavors will retain themselves and that’s a bonus.
Today’s recipe is a riff on a classic Italian treatment for pork loin braised in milk (yes, milk). It uses thick-cut pork chops instead of an entire loin. It’s delicious, especially its sauce which can end up tasting like (non-sweet) caramel or Sugar Baby candy.
Some of the best-braised meat recipes:
Pork chops braised in milk
6 1-inch or thicker pork chops
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1-2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups whole milk, at room temperature
6 garlic cloves, peeled
6 sprigs fresh sage (or fewer if leaves are very large)
Peelings of 1 small lemon (with little or no white pith)
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. In a large Dutch oven or enameled cast-iron pot, over medium-high heat, sear the chops in the mix of olive oil and butter until well browned on both sides, seasoning with the salt and ample grindings of pepper as you go.
Add the milk and remaining ingredients, being careful to avoid the milk foaming up when pouring it in. Arrange the garlic, sage, and lemon around the chops in the milk.
Bring to a simmer over the heat, then cover, with lid slightly ajar, and place in the oven for at least 2 hours, turning the chops 2 times during the cooking, until the chops are meltingly tender and the milk has begun to curdle or little liquid remains in the pot. (You also may braise atop the stove, over very low heat, for about the same amount of time.)
However, if the liquid evaporates before the pork is done, add more milk in small increments as needed to maintain the braise. On the other hand, at the end of the cooking, if significant liquid remains in the pot, remove the chops to a warmed plate and tent with foil, and pick out the lemon peels and sage sprigs. Reduce the liquid, scraping the bottom of the pot, until the sauce is nicely thickened.
Serve with oiled, herbed and seasoned roasted potatoes and steamed or wilted greens flavored with pepper flakes and garlic slivers.
Braised Belgian Endives
Fibrous vegetables, such as leeks or Belgian endives, benefit from a braise, just as meats do. From “Provence the Beautiful Cookbook” by Richard Olney. Makes 4-6 side servings.
1 1/2 pounds Belgian endives
Salt to taste
1 ounce raw ham such as prosciutto, cut into matchsticks
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Juice of 1/2 lemon
6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
Butter a flameproof earthenware casserole or heavy sauté pan of a size to just hold the endives. Arrange them in the casserole in a single layer. Sprinkle with salt to taste and scatter the ham over them. Place the butter fragments on top of the endive. Cover tightly and place over very low heat to sweat, checking from time to time and turning them over, until very tender and colored on all sides, 50-60 minutes.
Add the lemon juice and turn the endives around to coat them evenly. Pour the cream over the endives, rotate the pan to swirl the contents gently and serve.
Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]