With cooler days, it's time to braise

click to enlarge Braised lamb shanks with eggplant, dried apricots, and chickpeas. - PHOTO COURTESY SPOON AND STABLE
photo courtesy Spoon and Stable
Braised lamb shanks with eggplant, dried apricots, and chickpeas.
When you live in a school bus, without the amenities of central heat or AC, you become closely aligned with the changes of the seasons. When days are long and the weather is hot, I try to keep the heat out of the bus kitchen and plan my meals around what I can cook outdoors. But when the sun starts setting in the early evening and the temperature drops, I want to keep the heat in the kitchen, and I start thinking about braises. This is the time to put away the grills and bring out my old battle-scarred orange Le Creuset Dutch oven.

Braising is a method that involves cooking food by partially submerging it in liquid in a covered pot. This technique is a combination of roasting and steaming, resulting in tender meat and vegetables and a flavorful sauce. I usually start the braise on the stovetop and finish it in the oven. Braising is a way to make even the toughest cuts of meat fork-tender. The slow moist cooking dissolves collagen and connective tissue into gelatin, creating a rich sauce. Braises taste even better the second or third day.

Braising meat involves three steps. You need a heavy-lidded pot. An enameled cast iron Dutch oven is perfect. You season your meat with some salt. Then you warm the pot over medium-high heat and coat the bottom with a thin layer of fat, such as butter, bacon grease or cooking oil. (Don't use your expensive extra-virgin olive oil for this; save it for your salads.) You place your meat in the pot and sear it on all sides until golden brown. Then you remove it and set it aside. Next you add a mirapoix: chopped onions (or shallots), celery, carrots and perhaps some garlic. The mirapoix is cooked in the drippings until it starts to brown. Then some liquid is added – this can be stock, wine, beer or water. You scrape up all the brown stuff (known as the fond) that's stuck to the bottom of the pan. This is called deglazing. The fond is full of flavor and adds deliciousness to your sauce or gravy. After the pot is deglazed, the seared meat and any of its juices are returned to the pot, along with some additional cooking liquid. The added liquid should come about one third of the way up the sides of your meat; it should not cover the meat. You bring the liquid to a simmer, put the lid on the pot and transfer it to a 375-degree oven.

The time required for optimal braising varies with the toughness or firmness of the protein. Tough cuts like beef brisket or lamb shanks may take 2 to 3 hours of simmering to soften the collagen. Softer proteins like poultry require less time. You can speed the process up by using a pressure cooker or instant pot, but the low, slow method coaxes out the most deliciousness.

You can also braise vegetables. Braising works best with sturdier vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, celery root, turnips, rutabaga, potatoes, fennel, artichokes, winter squash and collards. Vegetables take less time to become fork-tender than tough cuts of meat, so if you are doing a combined meat and vegetable braise, the vegetables are best added later in the cooking process to avoid getting mushy. A good rule of thumb is to add them about 45 minutes before the meat is done.

Braised lamb shanks with eggplant, dried apricots and chickpeas

Lamb shanks are a tough cut of meat, but slow braising makes them fork-tender.

Serves 2

Ingredients

For the braised lamb:

2 one-pound lamb shanks

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup onion, diced

1 cup celery, diced

1 cup carrot, diced

1 sprig each thyme, parsley, bay leaf, rosemary – tied together with string

2 cups red wine

6 cups chicken stock, homemade or commercial low-sodium

For the eggplant, apricots, and chickpeas:

4 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 onion, minced

1 carrot, diced large

12 whole, dried apricots

2 cups dry chickpeas (soaked in water overnight)

5 cups chicken stock, homemade or commercial low-sodium

1 parsley sprig, 2 thyme sprigs, and 5 black peppercorns, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied

2 cups eggplant, diced large

Mint, parsley, orange zest to garnish

Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Preparation

For the braised lamb:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Using a large pot, sear the lamb in oil over medium-high heat on all sides until dark and caramelized all over.

Add onion, celery, and carrot and herb bundle, and sweat for 5 minutes.

Deglaze with red wine, and reduce the liquid by 3/4.

Add chicken stock and put the lid on the pot.

Transfer to the oven and cook until tender, about 2 hours.

Remove shanks, and strain the liquid. Return the liquid to the pot, turn up the heat and reduce by half.

For the eggplant, apricots and chickpeas:

Using a medium-sized pot, sweat garlic, onions, carrots, in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until translucent, with no color.

Add the dried apricots and soaked chickpeas.

Cover with chicken stock and add the herb bundle.

Cover and slowly simmer until beans are tender, about one hour. Drain.

In a separate pan, cook the eggplant in 1 tablespoon of oil until tender.

Add the eggplant to the cooked beans, and season to taste.

Serve the lamb shanks on a bed of the chickpea and eggplant mixture, and garnish with mint, parsley, orange zest and a drizzle of olive oil.

Adapted from a recipe by Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis.

Radishes braised with shallots and vinegar

If you've only eaten radishes raw, you'll be surprised how delicious they are braised.

Serves 2 as a side dish

Ingredients

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

2 large shallots, thinly sliced

2 bunches of radishes, tops removed and reserved

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon maple syrup

Water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preparation

Wash and drain the radish tops to remove any sand. Cut radishes into halves or quarters, depending on size.

In a heavy pot with a lid over medium-high heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the shallots and sweat until translucent. Place the radishes cut-side down in the pot and cook until lightly browned, about 3 minutes.

Add the apple cider vinegar, maple syrup and just enough water to come about of the way up the sides of the radishes. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover the pot and braise for about 5 to 10 minutes, or until the radishes are tender. Add the radish tops and continue to braise until wilted.

Transfer the radishes and tops to a serving dish. Increase the heat and reduce the liquid until it becomes syrupy. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter and season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce over the radishes and serve.

Peter Glatz sends greetings from Savannah, Georgia, where he's learning all the tricks of low-country cooking.

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