Braised Perfection

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If you haven’t tried braising before, this is the season to challenge yourself and learn a simple, easy, one-pot, cold-weather cooking technique. The resulting meat is fall-off-the-bone tender. Adding fresh vegetables and herbs completes the dish. Using bacon with its smoky flavor and good fat content adds even more flavor.

Looking out my window, the snow has accumulated on sidewalks and lawns. It’s all very beautiful, but chilly. What I need is a good dose of comfort food. A good braise is a great way to fill up the kitchen with wonderful, warm cooking sweetness.

I learned many of the cooking techniques I use from my mother and grandmother. But braising wasn’t one of them.

They sautéed, baked and boiled. I don’t know why braising wasn’t in their kitchen arsenal. Happily, I learned the technique years ago and use it frequently because the vegetables and the protein (poultry and meat) make the sauce.

If you know how to sauté and boil, you know how to braise

By first sautéing poultry or meat, fat in the skin or muscle caramelizes. That first step benefits braises as well as roasts. In the debate about whether or not a pot roast should be seared before roasting, I am definitely on the side of the searers!

But searing means lightly browned. Be careful you don’t burn the outside. Some chefs recommend using high heat to sear. I prefer a medium flame to control oil from splattering and to protect the delicate crust I am creating. Over-searing creates bitterness. Lightly browning brings out the sweetness, which is the goal.

Then, after the excess fat is poured off and a liquid is added — and that can be water, stock or wine or a combination thereof — the sweetness from the vegetables and protein transfers to the liquid, helping create a full-bodied, luscious broth or, as I suggest below, with further reduction, a richly flavored sauce for pasta.

Lesser grades of meat, like beef short ribs, when braised, become the objects of fine dining. With chicken, braising works best with the bone-in parts, such as thighs, legs and wings. Chicken breasts can be braised, but they cook more quickly and can dry out.

Recipe suggestions

If you prefer to serve deboned, bite-sized pieces, braise the bones along with the chicken pieces and remove the bones before serving.Chicken wings sautéed for braising.

You can adjust the amount of broth to your taste. Sometimes I like to serve the braise with a lot of broth so it is almost like a country style soup. If I want the braise tossed with pasta, I’ll cook down the broth so it becomes a sauce.

A suggestion about braising: Add the vegetables after the meat is tender to avoid overcooking.

Bacon braised chicken

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 chicken thighs
2 chicken wings, disjointed, tips used to make stock
2 chicken legs
2 bacon strips, finely chopped
1 cup shiitake or brown mushrooms, washed, dried, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 medium onion, peeled, root and top removed, roughly chopped
1 cup Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, roughly chopped
2 carrots, washed, peeled, ends removed, cut into ½-inch thick rounds or roughly chopped
2 cups broccoli crowns, washed, separated into individual florets
1 cup corn kernels, off the cob
4 cups chicken stock or 2 cups chicken stock and 2 cups water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
sea salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

  1. In a 3- to 4- quart stock pot, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and season with sea salt and pepper. Add the finely chopped bacon and cook until crisp. Remove the bacon bits and drain on a paper towel.
  2. Sauté the chicken pieces in the olive oil and bacon fat until lightly browned on all sides. Remove the chicken and drain on a paper towel.
  3. Pour the accumulated oil into a coffee can for disposal. Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, heat and season with sea salt and pepper. Sauté garlic, onions and mushrooms until lightly browned, add the parsley, bacon bits and chicken pieces.
  4. Add the 4 cups of stock or a mix of stock and water. Stir well to combine. Cover and simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the meat is tender.
  5. Add the carrots and broccoli florets and, if the volume of liquid is too low, 1 cup of water. Continue simmering another 10 minutes uncovered or until the vegetables are tender.
  6. Taste and adjust the seasoning with sea salt and pepper as needed. Add the pat of sweet butter if desired.
  7. Serve with slices of fresh bread with butter, mashed potatoes, freshly made pasta or steamed rice.

Variations

  • Instead of Italian parsley, add 1 tablespoon finely chopped, fresh rosemary leaves, stems discarded, to the sauté.
  • Instead of Italian parsley, add 2 tablespoons fresh sage, finely chopped, stems removed to the sauté.
  • For heat, add a pinch of cayenne to the sauté.
  • Instead of broccoli florets, use 3 cups spinach leaves, no stems, washed, roughly chopped.
  • Along with the bacon, add 1 link, Italian sausage, sweet or hot, cut into quarter rounds.
  • For the braising liquid, use 2 cups chicken stock and 2 cups white wine.
  • Instead of putting the bacon bits into the braise, sprinkle on top of the fully cooked dish before serving to take advantage of their crispness, or, double the amount of bacon to 4 strips and do both.
  • Use dried shiitake mushrooms instead of fresh by soaking them in boiling water for at least an hour or overnight. Add the soaking liquid to the braise, being careful to discard any grit.

Zester Daily contributor David Latt is a television writer/producer with a passion for food. His new book, “10 Delicious Holiday Recipes” is available from Amazon. In addition to writing about food for his own site, Men Who Like to Cook, he has contributed to Mark Bittman’s New York Times food blogBittenOne for the Table and Traveling Mom. He continues to develop for television but recently has taken his passion for food on the road and is now a contributor to Peter Greenberg’s travel site and the New York Daily News online.

Photos, from the top:

Braised chicken on the bone with vegetables.

Chicken wings sautéed for braising.

Credits: David Latt

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