A robust Boeuf bourguignon with the aromas of bacon, mushroom and beef paired with a tannin-rich Cabernet Sauvignon can give any diner a feeling of butterflies in their stomach and opera in their ears. A rich braised lamb shank eaten in the classical setting of dim lights, white tablecloths, and a legion of cutlery can really move a person closer to food. But why should we limit ourselves to just these classical dishes? Why not push the envelope, or in this case our braising pots, and try our hands at braising different meat, different vegetables and starches, to bring out a deep luscious taste and mouthfeel we never thought was possible? As I write this, a quote from my former employer, Chef Grant Achatz comes to mind. Describing his whimsical creation of the edible balloon in a Chef’s Table episode, he says, “When it comes to food, there are no rules. Do whatever you want.”
Food isn’t about recipes. Food isn’t about exact measurements. Food is about following your instinct. If you’ve read this far, I suggest you simply get in the kitchen and cook. Cook with your heart, make several mistakes, and learn from them. The art of braising is no different. Follow a few basic cooking principles, but don’t limit your creativity.
Here’s everything you’ll need to braise Anything:
A main ingredient – In a traditional recipe, this component will call for lamb shank, osso bucco, beef short ribs etc. But we are culinary rebels on our way to discovering ourselves, making mistakes and breaking paths. In our version of a braise, you can use anything from hard winter vegetables like squashes, turnips, yams, sweet potatoes, golden beets to fish tails and heads. Use chicken thighs, legs, and offal or whole rabbits and bratwursts. Whatever you decide to use, as the first step of the braising process, make sure you give it a hard sear and get good caramelization of the sugars in this component. This will drastically affect the final flavor and make sure that your dish has the richness and the body that classical braised dishes have bragging rights for.
The aromats – This is where you can really challenge the rules of the braising game. In addition to the traditional mirepoix of onions, carrots, and celery, add anything and everything you think tastes good. Heaps of garlic and ginger paired with whole spices can never go wrong (I’m Indian, I should know!). If you’re a fan of pork, load your aromats up with bacon or pancetta or guanciale depending on your budget. Parmesan or any hard cheese rind can give the braise an exceptional umami aroma and mouthfeel. Fresh or dried herbs like thyme, rosemary, or oregano are excellent additions. Experiment, season your food and taste as you go. A good braise is all about building layers and the aromats are the first of many.
The liquid – This component is where we have the least freedom, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play around with different liquids and see where it takes us. Although you do need some form of a stock, it doesn’t have to be a wildly gelatinous demi glace for best results. As long as your main component has intense caramelization and you’ve got a good combination of aromats in your base, you’re in for a winner.
Play around with liquids like beer, wine, whey, tomato juice etc. If you’re using alcoholic beverages, make sure to completely cook out the alcohol before adding your stock.
The add-ons – If you’ve chosen a protein as your main component, try adding a few well-seasoned vegetables and starches towards the end. Seared potatoes will soak up all of that delicious braising liquid and leave you wondering if you could have added more. Mushrooms will enhance the umami that you’ve worked so hard to build through your layers. If you’ve gone the vegetable route, add your more delicate vegetables (peas, green beans, broccoli) and greens towards the end to preserve their crunch and color. Bok choy can be a great addition as its vibrancy and crunch can make a compelling argument for vegetable braises in culinary court.
One of the most delicious braises that I’ve ever made and tasted was an impromptu lunch on a weekend trip to a local farm in Illinois. We had the good fortune of using freshly slaughtered rabbits, locally made sausages and good quality stout to build our braise. Onions, carrots, butternut squash, and potatoes were all harvested the morning of. It was a truly memorable meal, and one that still lingers in my memory to this day.
Your eccentric braised creation deserves a bold enough side. Don’t limit yourselves to just dinner rolls or pasta. Any type of starch that’s available to you; crusty sourdough bread, aromatic basmati rice, painstakingly made Parisienne gnocchi, or creamy polenta, will only elevate your experiment.
So, what are you braising today?