I always feel a little glum on the day we switch the thermostat from air conditioning to heat. It means we’re bracing for winter and cold weather, heavy clothing and darkness by 4:00. There’s a smell too as the oil burner turns over for the first time to send hot air through the house.
But after a day or so I remember the bright side. First, I live in New England where the foliage is so glorious that people from everywhere drive up to take a look. So outside my window the view is entrancing.
And there’s the food. After months of light salads and grilled everything my family and I long for the warm, nourishing, rib-sticking dishes that give us comfort when the weather turns fierce.
Like braised meat, perfuming the house as it cooks, enticing us to eat and enjoy a meal with family safe inside. Braised meat is fork-tender and glossy with gravy. It’s my bulwark for the new season.
Braising has an added make-it-ahead virtue. On Sunday I sometimes cook up a storm, make lots of food and pack it into containers that I can freeze and then take out as needed. Like for during the week when I don’t get home until dinnertime, and the thought of preparing an entire meal is beyond me. As an accompaniment to something I’ve braised I can fix a quick veggie like sautéed spinach or kale and maybe a side order of rice or noodles.
Most Jewish women already know how to braise. We’ve seen our mothers and grandmothers make brisket, haven’t we? And we’ve cooked it too, probably.
But my husband and kids and I have always liked more variety. And so do my brother Jeff and sister-in-law Eileen, who live nearby. We see each other frequently for dinner at one or another’s house during the week. So, when cool weather comes, and I cook lamb and veal shanks, chuck, short ribs and coq au vin, everyone is happy.
Braising is one of the easiest techniques and the recipes are wonderfully forgiving. It’s basically this: brown meat in a pan, add some liquid and seasonings, put a cover on top and slow-cook the dish on the cook top or in the oven until it’s tender.
Really, that’s all there is to it. It’s the same whatever cut you choose. Use a heavy pan, add some vegetable oil and brown the meat. You can flour it first if you like a darker look (flour also thickens the sauce a bit). The only caution is to not crowd the pan. Brown the pieces a few at a time.
The liquids? That depends on what you like and what you have. Wine, stock, juice, cider, even water will do. You can add a bit of brandy if you like.
Seasonings also depend on your personal tastes. Fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, savory, etc.) or dried. Once in a while I make a braised dish that includes dried fruit, so I add so-called “baking” spices: cinnamon, ground ginger, nutmeg and so on.
Most of the time I include vegetables. Not only do they give the dish more flavor, they add color too, and some, like tomatoes, onions, celery and mushrooms, add moisture.
Kosher meat cuts are ideal for braising. Shank, short rib, chuck, lamb breast, veal breast all cook to tenderness and taste perfection when you cook them slowly. Over the years I have learned that that means VERY slowly. I’ve seen that many recipes will tell you that 350 degrees is best, cooked for an hour or two (or the comparable heat on the cook top). But I always let the dish take more time, with 225 degrees as my guide. Yes, you have to wait longer, but the results are more than worth it.