In Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked, he gets down to the basic methods of cooking. The book is organized into four parts, with each part describing one of the elemental techniques. They are: Fire (barbecuing), Water (braising), Air (baking), and Earth (fermenting).
Part Two is Water: A recipe in seven steps. I find that braising is a wonderful way to spend little time preparing a meal for a lot of people. If you have out-of-town guests coming for Christmas, bookmark this page now! The chapter titles in this part of Pollan’s book are the actual recipe:
Step One: Finely dice some onions
Step Two: Saute onions and other aromatic vegetables
Step Three: Salt the meat; then brown it
Step Four: Place all the ingredients in a covered pot
Step Five: Pour the braising liquid over the ingredients
Step Six: Simmer, below the boil, for a long time
Step Seven: Remove pot from oven. If necessary, skim fat and reduce liquid. Bring to the table and serve.
That about sums it up, but don’t worry–I will elaborate… The best cuts of meat for braising are ones that contain some fat. You can braise anything from chicken legs to beef chuck roast. We like pork butt (that is, shoulder) the best.
To the onions, you can add carrots, celery, fennel (especially with pork), garlic, tomatoes, etc. as the aromatic vegetables.
In addition to salting the meat before browning, you can rub with spices, such as black pepper, fennel seeds (primarily with pork), cumin seeds, coriander seeds, etc.
You will need a pot with a lid, because for at least part of the cooking time it will be covered. We often uncover the dish toward the end to begin the reduction of the liquid, and to brown any bits sticking out of the stock.
Your braising liquid should match your meat. For example, pick chicken stock for chicken legs, and for pork, because it will not be overwhelmed by the chicken flavor. Choose beef stock for beef, and for lamb shoulder, as well. Wine can also accompany the stock–just a glass can make a world of difference. Use white wine with everything except beef, with which you would use red. And there is always water, if you have nothing else on hand. You can also add fresh herbs at this point, such as thyme, rosemary (classic with lamb), bay leaves, parsley, etc.
When Pollan says, “Simmer…for a long time,” he means until the meat is tender and falling apart. This can be achieved on the stovetop on low heat, but we prefer to place in a preheated 250-degree oven (after bringing liquid to a simmer). A larger cut of meat might take four hours; chicken legs or rabbit could take fewer. You just have to check with a fork. A Crock-Pot can be useful here, but the temperature will be lower and therefore the cooking time longer.
Rather than skim the fat, you can cool and refrigerate the dish until the fat turns solid, which allows you to remove almost all of it. Of course, this means you will need to do your braising a day before serving, but braised meat improves in its stock overnight. After you remove the fat and all solids, take the extra time to reduce the liquid for a tastier sauce.
Truc (Tip): Do not add extra salt until after you have reduced the braising liquid, because you are concentrating the seasoning by doing so.