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In Praise Of Braising

There is absolutely nothing flashy or trendy about braising. Heck, the finished product doesn’t even look particularly pretty.

Yet there is nothing more warming, more satisfying when the weather turns cool than a dish that’s been braised.

“It’s a wonderful method of cooking. Perfect for fall,” said Karla Graves, the chef-owner of Paprika on Spokane’s South Hill, where the menu is peppered with slow-cooked dishes. “It might be take some time, but you end up with tender meat and a wonderful sauce.”

Here are just a few reasons to love braising:

It requires no special skills or gadgets.

Meals can be made in advance and kept warm in the oven.

Only one pot gets dirty (for most recipes).

It fills the house with amazing aromas.

Tougher cuts of meat become fork-tender.

Leftovers taste even better than the first helping.

Braising is one of the oldest cooking methods. Long before ovens were invented, heavy pots were lowered into the hearth and covered with hot embers so the heat spread evenly.

“In some of the original French restaurants, braised dishes like coq au vin and beef bourguignon were touted as the ultimate in creative cuisine,” said Doug Fisher, a chef-instructor with Spokane Community College’s Culinary Arts Program.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, tastes shifted to more straightforward foods. Steakhouses thrived and sauteed dishes stepped in where braising had once been big.

“People just felt uncomfortable with fancy French foods. They wanted their dining experience simplified,” Fisher said.

Now, braising appears to be staging a comeback.

“Every year I ask myself if it’s time to stop teaching braising, but I see it being done more and more by master chefs around the country,” he said.

Master chefs and home cooks, alike.

Unlike many recipes that call for complicated steps, there’s nothing mysterious about this two-step process.

You simply start with a piece of meat, the tougher the better. Brown it in a heavybottomed pan. Add liquid (beer, wine, cider, stock, vinegar or a combination of those) and lower the heat, either in the oven or on the stovetop.

“You get a dish with incredible flavor, and if you do it right, very little fat,” said Graves, who trims all visible fat from the meat and simmers it in wine.

One of her most popular creations is a braised rabbit. She first marinates the meat in a mixture of dry white wine, garlic and thyme. That infuses extra flavor and helps tenderize the meat.

After at least two hours of soaking in that mixture, Graves sautes the rabbit in olive oil with onions and pancetta, an Italian bacon. Then, she adds the marinade and cooks it for two to three hours or until the meat is so tender, it falls off the bone.

“People just love it,” she said.

Chef Chip Thomas gets the same response whenever osso buco is offered as a special at Jimmy D’s in Coeur d’Alene.

“People who are familiar with the dish are so excited when they see it on the menu,” Thomas said. “It’s old-fashioned, but it’s one of those great things to pull out of the closet and dust off.”

That traditional Italian favorite is basically veal shanks braised in red wine and spices. But it gets a flavor boost with the last-minute addition of a gremolata, a mixture of lemon zest, parsley and garlic.

Vegetables and more herbs are added to braised dishes throughout the cooking process, too.

“Adding minced garlic, minced shallots, fresh rosemary, thyme or chopped parsley toward the end just gives it another dimension of flavor,” Fisher said.

Graves is also fond of braising vegetables including fennel, artichokes, leeks, endive and Swiss chard, which she pairs with pancetta.

“Sauteing them in olive oil and then adding a little garlic, lemon and chicken stock makes such a great sauce,” she said.

Classic complements to braised meals range from pasta and polenta to rice and mashed potatoes.

“Our roasted garlic Parmesan mashed potatoes go so well with the osso buco,” Thomas said.

Maybe those braised dishes aren’t exactly photogenic, but the plates seem to come back clean.

Osso Buco Milanese (Braised Veal Shanks)

This traditional Italian dish originated in Milan. Recipe from “The Woman’s Day Cookbook” (Viking, 1995).

4 (2- to 3-inch thick) meaty pieces of veal shank, about 12 ounces each (lamb shanks can be substituted)

1/4 cup flour

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup finely chopped onion

2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic

1 cup dry red wine, white wine or chicken stock

1/2 teaspoon salt (reduce to 1/4 teaspoon if using chicken stock)

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon peel

1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic

Fresh rosemary sprigs for garnish, optional

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Tie a strand of kitchen twine around each piece of meat to hold it to the bone during cooking. Coat the shanks in flour and tap off the excess.

In a lidded oven-proof casserole large enough to hold the meat in a single layer, heat the butter and oil over medium heat. Brown the shanks for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Remove to a plate.

Put the onion and garlic in the casserole and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring often, until the onion is softened. Add the wine, salt, pepper, thyme and rosemary. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil and scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan.

Remove from the heat and arrange the meat in a single layer, cut side facing up. Spoon a little of the liquid over the top of the meat. Cover tightly (using aluminum foil if necessary) and bake for 2 hours, or until the meat is very tender.

Carefully lift the shanks onto a serving platter. Skim and discard any fat from the cooking liquid, then spoon the liquid around the shanks.

In a small bowl, mix the parsley, lemon zest and garlic. Sprinkle the mixture over the shanks. Insert rosemary sprigs in the marrow of each shank, if desired.

Yield: 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving (using veal): 509 calories, 63 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 22 grams fat (39 percent fat calories), 245 milligrams cholesterol (using butter), 526 milligrams sodium (using wine).

Cider-Braised Chicken With Apples

A fall classic from “The Woman’s Day Cookbook.”

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

6 bone-in chicken breast halves (about 2 pounds)

1-1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium-size onion, sliced

1 large carrot, scrubbed and sliced

1 large rib celery, sliced

2/3 cup apple cider or apple juice

1/2 cup chicken broth

1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled

1-1/2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic

3 cooking apples, such as Braeburn, Winesap or Empire (about 1-1/4 pounds)

In a large plastic food-storage bag, mix the flour, salt and pepper. Add the chicken and shake to coat. Remove the chicken and shake off the excess flour. Reserve the flour mixture.

In a large, deep skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the chicken, skin side down, and cook for about 3 minutes on each side, or until browned. Remove the chicken to a plate.

Add the onion, carrot and celery to the drippings in the skillet. Cook 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the reserved flour and cook for 3 minutes longer, stirring often.

Stir in the cider, broth, rosemary and garlic. Return the chicken, skin side up, to the skillet. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the chicken is opaque near the bone when tested with a sharp knife.

Meanwhile, quarter and core the apples. Cut into thin wedges.

With a slotted spoon, remove the chicken to a serving platter and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Skim off and discard the fat from the liquid in the skillet. Put the liquid and vegetables into a blender or food processor, and blend or process until smooth.

Pour the sauce back into the skillet. Add the apples. Cook over low heat for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the apples are tender.

With a slotted spoon, remove the apples to the serving platter. Serve right away; pass the sauce separately.

Yield: 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 317 calories, 26 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams fat (28 percent fat calories), 69 milligrams cholesterol, 523 milligrams sodium.

Beef Paprika

This is a family favorite at Spokane Community College chef/instructor Doug Fisher’s home, especially when the weather turns cold.

2-1/2 pounds round steak, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 tablespoon oil

1 large onion, minced

2 tablespoons paprika

1 tablespoon cumin

1 teaspoon white pepper

1/2 cup distilled vinegar

1 cup dry white wine

4 cups beef stock

1/2 cup butter or margarine

1/2 cup flour

Salt, to taste

1 cup sour cream

Sear meat in oil over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed 4-quart pot. Remove meat and add onion; saute for 1 minute. Add paprika, cumin and white pepper and cook for 1 minute. Add vinegar and wine and stir to loosen residue on bottom of pot.

Return meat to pot and add beef stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and cook slowly for 45 minutes or until meat is fork tender.

In a saucepan, melt butter and stir in flour to form a roux. Add to the meat mixture, stir in completely and cook for 10 minutes to thicken. Adjust seasonings, adding salt and more vinegar as needed, and stir in sour cream. Serve over cooked egg noodles.

Yield: 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 685 calories, 49 grams fat (64 percent fat calories), 40 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrate, 170 milligrams cholesterol, 1,138 milligrams sodium.

Pollo Alla Contadina (Chicken, Country Style)

This deeply flavored dish gets a lift from the last-minute addition of lemon zest. Recipe from “In Nonna’s Kitchen, Recipes and Traditions from Italy’s Grandmothers,” by Carol Field (HarperCollins, 1997.)

1 chicken, about 3 to 3-1/2 pounds, cut into 8 pieces

Juice of 1/2 lemon

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 red onion, finely sliced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 carrot, finely chopped

1 celery rib, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

Finely grated zest of 1-1/2 lemons

1/2 cup red wine, preferably Chianti

3 small ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

1/4 cup boiling chicken broth, or 1 chicken bouillon cube dissolved in cup boiling water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

About 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated if possible)

Rub the chicken pieces with the lemon juice and set aside.

Warm 4 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 10- or 12-inch heavy skillet and saute the onion, garlic, carrot, celery, parsley, rosemary, and 1/3 of the lemon zest over low-medium heat for 15 minutes, until the onions are soft but not yet golden.

In a second heavy pan, warm the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil; add the chicken pieces and saute over medium-high heat until golden brown, about 15 minutes, turning frequently to brown evenly. Turn the heat to high, add the red wine and let it boil briskly until it evaporates.

Transfer the onion mixture to the pan with the chicken pieces, stir in the tomatoes and stock, turn the heat to low, cover and cook slowly for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the chicken is tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. Once the meat is tender, uncover and cook for another 10 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Transfer the chicken to a serving platter. Press the sauce through a wire-mesh sieve or puree it in a food processor or blender, adding the gratings of nutmeg and the remaining lemon zest. If the sauce is too thick, add a little more broth (you will have about 1 cups of sauce). Pour the sauce over and around the chicken and serve immediately.

Yield: 4-6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 505 calories, 28.1 grams fat (50 percent fat calories), 49 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrate, 144 milligrams cholesterol, 222 milligrams sodium.

Costine di Maiale Cotte nel Brodo di Polenta (Pork Chops Cooked in the Broth of Polenta)

Anyone who has avoided polenta because of the constant stirring required will be delighted with the easy approach in this recipe from “In Nonna’s Kitchen.”

7 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 pork chops (about 2-3/4 pounds), trimmed of any fat

2 large garlic cloves, minced

3 fresh sage leaves, torn (do NOT use dried sage)

1 bay leaf

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 cup milk

1 cup meat broth, plus extra if needed

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons coarse-grind polenta or cornmeal

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Melt the butter in a 12-inch oven-proof casserole. Add the chops and saute over medium-high heat, turning to brown on both sides, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Sprinkle chops with the garlic, sage, bay leaf, and rosemary needles stripped away from the sprig. Add the wine and cook over medium-high heat, turning frequently until the wine has evaporated, 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix together the milk, broth and polenta. After a few minutes, add them to the pan, lifting each pork chop and pouring some of the mixture underneath so that most of the polenta is below the meat. Stir well to incorporate the liquid polenta mixture with the pan juices, then sprinkle salt and pepper over the top.

Put the entire mixture in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, covered, adding slightly more warm broth if necessary. Cook until the polenta has thickened but is still soft and creamy. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4-6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 558 calories, 36.9 grams fat (60 percent fat calories), 37 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrate, 147 milligrams cholesterol, 366 milligrams sodium.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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