Simply put, braising is the slow cooking of a tough meat or vegetable that has been submerged halfway or so in a liquid. The pot is always covered by a lid to retain the flavors and keep the liquid from evaporating, and it can be cooked either on top of the stove or in the oven.
Braises take a long time to cook, so they are good to save for the weekend. But most of that time is spent with the food in the oven, so you are free to do other things. You don’t even need to check on the pot while it cooks – after you know it is simmering, it will continue to simmer if the temperature is right.
Osso buco is perhaps the ultimate expression of braising. The famous dish from Milan is a bit of a paradox – a hearty dish centered around the delicate taste of veal. Though it is often served as a high-priced feature at some of the best Italian restaurants in this country, in the country of its origin it is an inexpensive dish made from a cheap cut of meat, the sort of thing served toward the end of the month when money is tight.
That only proves there is not necessarily a direct relationship between flavor and cost. And it is so easy to make that neither does there seem to be a connection between flavor and the amount of labor required to make it.
The basic idea of osso buco is simple: veal shanks simmered until tender in a mixture of meat stock (chicken works best if you don’t have veal stock) and dry white wine. Onions and garlic are always a help, and most cooks today add tomatoes, carrots and celery. The original version, which dates back to the 19th century, used cinnamon in place of tomatoes.
If you want, you can even go crazy and use cinnamon and tomatoes. Just don’t forget to eat the marrow out of the bone for a true delicacy. Osso buco even gets its name from this cherished part of the meal; in Italian, osso means bone and buco means hole.
For a braised chicken dish, we turned to an old Bon Appétit magazine recipe for a remarkably flavorful meal. Spicy Braised Chicken with Mushrooms and Star Anise draws a bold, full taste out of relatively few ingredients. But that’s the magic of braising; all the flavors have time to meld together into one exotic, homogenous whole.
2 to 2 1/2 pounds veal shanks
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 carrot, sliced thin
1 stalk celery, sliced thin
1 (14 1/2 -ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs thyme
For the gremolata:
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 cloves garlic, minced
Zest of 1 small lemon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pat the shanks dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Put the oil in a Dutch oven over medium high heat, and thoroughly brown the shanks on both (or all) sides. Do this in batches if necessary.
Remove the meat from the pot and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 seconds. Add the carrot and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes.
Stir in the tomatoes, wine and chicken broth, and deglaze the pot by stirring up any brown bits from the bottom with a wooden spoon. Add the bay leaf and thyme, and return the meat to the pot. The sauce should come at least halfway up the side of the meat, without covering the meat entirely. If not enough sauce, add more tomatoes, wine and/or broth; if too much sauce, remove some with a ladle until you can see at least the top of the meat.
Bring to a boil, cover and place in the oven. Cook until fork tender, about 1 hour for shanks that were sliced by the butcher and up to 2 hours for a whole shank on the bone.
While the veal cooks, make the gremolata by combining the parsley, garlic and zest in a small bowl and stirring to mix well. When the veal is done, stir half the gremolata into the sauce, and sprinkle the remaining half over the individual servings on the plates. Makes 3 to 4 servings.
Spicy Braised Chicken with Mushrooms and Star Anise
1 tablespoon peanut oil
4 chicken-breast halves with skin and bones or 4 leg quarters
12 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps quartered
2 cups chopped green onions, divided
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
2 (14 1/2 -ounce) cans chicken broth
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
4 whole star anise
4 cups Napa cabbage cut in 3/4 -inch strips (about 1/2 small head)
1 tablespoon hot chili sauce (such as sriracha or sambal olek)
Heat peanut oil in heavy, large pot over medium-high heat. Add chicken; sauté until brown, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer to bowl. Add mushrooms, 1 1/2 cups green onions, garlic and ginger to pot. Sauté until mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes. Return chicken to pot. Add chicken broth, hoisin sauce, cabbage and star anise. Bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes for breasts or about 35 minutes for leg quarters.
If desired, remove chicken from pot, cool slightly, remove skin and bones, and cut meat crosswise into 1/2 -inch-wide strips. Return to pot.
Stir in chili sauce. Transfer to bowl. Discard star anise. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup green onions, and serve with steamed rice. Makes 4 servings.
– Adapted from Bon Appétit
1 (3-pound) chuck roast or rump
2-3 tablespoons cooking oil or rendered fresh pork fat
1 1/2 pounds (6 cups) sliced onions
Salt and pepper
4 cloves garlic, mashed
1 cup beef stock
1-2 cups Pilsner-style beer
1 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar
6 sprigs parsley
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1 1/2 tablespoons arrowroot or cornstarch
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Pat the beef dry with paper towels. Put a thin coat of oil or fat in a Dutch oven and heat until almost smoking (the oil will seem to shimmer). Brown the beef well on both sides, and remove from the pot.
Reduce heat to moderate. Stir the onions into the oil in the skillet, adding more oil or fat if necessary. Brown the onions lightly for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon to scrape up the brown bits stuck to the bottom. Season with salt and pepper, stir in the garlic and cook about 1 minute.
Add the stock and use the wooden spoon to scrape up coagulated cooking juices, if any. Return the meat to the pot and add enough beer to come about halfway up the side of the meat. Stir in the brown sugar.
Place the parsley, bay leaf and thyme in a piece of cheesecloth, if you have one, and tie them all together with twine. Place this herb bouquet under the surface of the sauce, or stir the spices directly into the sauce if you don’t have the cheesecloth. Bring the pot to a boil, cover and place in the lower third of the oven. Cook at a very low simmer for 2 1/2 hours, until the meat is fork-tender.
Remove the herb bouquet or bay leaf. Bring the pot to a simmer on top of the stove. Mix the arrowroot or cornstarch with the vinegar, and stir this mixture thoroughly into the sauce. Simmer for 3-4 minutes, until the sauce is thickened.
Serve with potatoes or noodles. Makes 6-8 servings.
– Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck