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How to Make a Braise: Basic Comfort Food

The day is cloudy and grey. Our country’s spirits reflect the weather outside. We have been asked as a society to stay home, to limit our tasks to those that are essential. To take care of those around us. To take care of ourselves.

As I consider what those essential tasks actually are at the moment, cooking and eating delicious, simple, healthy meals seems to be a priority. With everything on our minds, simplicity is the theme of the day. The need for inexpensive meals is also looming in the shadows.

The challenge for us is to stock our pantries with a combination of perishable and nonperishable ingredients that when combined in the right way will be delicious and good for us.

When I think about easy foods that are filled with healthy ingredients, I think of soups and braises. They both can have protein, usually in the form of meat, and several vegetables and fruits. The principles involved in their creation are similar.

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A beef, mushroom, and carrot braise over boiled potatoes

The Braise

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s talk about how to create the basic braise. This is an all-around dinner option that is very flexible regarding which ingredients are included as well as what they are served with. It is defined as a method of cooking food in a closed vessel with very little liquid at a low temperature and for a long time. Typically, the finished product is then served over a starch such as potatoes, pasta, or rice.

Beginning the Process

Only a handful of ingredients go into creating flavor in this dish. The first is the meat. I prefer using tough, inexpensive, less than ideal cuts. Surprisingly, these cuts, when cooked low and slow, become fall-apart tender, all the while creating a rich savory sauce. Cut the meat in two-bite chunks, saute with oil in a heavy-bottomed pot until the pieces are the color of dark caramel. The bottom of your pot will now be turning a medium brown color. This is good. This crust (or fond, as it is called in the culinary world) will help provide the flavor in the final dish.

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In the process of turning the beef. Notice the browned sides on the right half of the image and the fond developing on the bottom of the pot.

Once the meat is nicely brown on all sides remove it from the pan and set aside for a few minutes. Add vegetables such as onions, celery, carrots, and garlic to the hot pan. You may need to add a little more oil at this point. Check the heat to make sure it’s medium to medium-low. You don’t want the fond to go from brown to black. Saute these vegetables until light brown. If you are adding spices (often called aromatics) to the dish, stir them in at this point. It adds flavor to have them cook for a minute or two before adding liquid.

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This is the color you are aiming for when you are finished sauteing the meat. Notice the spacing between pieces of meat and the dark fond on the base of the pot. Now I remove the meat and saute the vegetables.

Deglazing

This brings us to the next step in the process. That is the deglazing of this fond. Here we use the second category of ingredients. These deglazing agents usually have an acidic nature to them. Some of my favorites include broth, wine, tomato juice, vinegar, water, sherry or port.

Add your chosen deglazing liquid now. Let it cook for a couple minutes before stirring. This way the fond can soften and start to dissolve before you pull it off the bottom of the pan with your spoon. Once it has softened for a minute, stir and gently scrape the bits off the bottom surface.

Now put the meat back into the pot. Add more liquid (this can be any of your deglazing ingredients except maybe vinegar) and any other vegetables or fruits that you are using in your dish. For this braise specifically, I ended up using a combination of port, tomato sauce, concentrated beef stock, and water. I don’t cover the mixture with liquid but rather have about one-third to one-half of the meat and vegetables showing on top.

Into the Oven

Cook on the stove top until the mixture reaches a simmer, and then cover the pot and put it into your oven at a low temperature. The ideal braising temperatures range between 275 and 325 degrees F. I tend to choose on the low end of this range and bake the dish for a longer time frame. Typical braising time in the oven ranges from one to three hours. For bigger or tougher pieces of meat, allow for a longer bake time. You’ll know the meat is ready when it falls apart easily when you handle it.

When it has baked to your satisfaction, pull it from the oven, and add salt and pepper to taste. If you have used a higher fat meat, the rendered fat will float to the surface during cooking. Skim this off using a large wide spoon. It is now ready to serve, either alone or with your favorite accompaniments.

The Braise Menagerie

Versatility certainly defines a braise. Because of the ability to choose between many types of meat, vegetables, deglazing agents, fruits and accompanying agents, it enables you to make it even with a limited pantry. Do you have small amounts of this or that ingredient? Put it in the braise. For example, do you have dried plums, an onion, a lemon, and a couple of chicken thighs? You can make a braise out of these. How about a lonely piece of beef in your freezer, a can of mushrooms, and some onion and garlic? You can make a braise. Search through your cupboards for your most flavorful deglazing options. Do the same with your spices.

As you look through your kitchen, do you discover something that would be a tasty addition? Maybe something you need to use up? I did. In the bottom of my vegetable drawer were some gorgeous carrots that I had picked up last week. They were chunked up and added to the pot right before it went into the oven. In the end they were a sweet and colorful addition.

Final Braising Tips

A simple creation. A frugal fare cobbled together from the stores in your kitchen, delivered to your dining room table with grace and confidence. You will be amazed with yourself. You can create something very delicious from almost nothing at all. Just remember the key steps to create flavor.

Let the fond develop on the bottom of the pot by not overcrowding the pot when sauteing the meat. Cook it on medium heat, and stir occasionally to sear on all sides. Use the most flavorful spices and deglazing ingredients you have on hand, and bake the whole menagerie low and slow. Tuck into this delectable dinner with the confidence that this simple and economical dish is the healthy comfort food you’ve been craving. Eat well, be well.

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At this time of crisis in our world, in lieu of offering classes, I would like to extend the invitation for anyone that has questions regarding cooking, creating meals from your pantry, planning and planting a garden for this summer or needs any advice on keeping you and your family healthy through cooking and gardening, please reach out to me via email. I am here to help you and answer any questions you may have.

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The Winter Blues

It is a hazy day, one of those calm, icy days where our souls can take a deep sigh of relief. Today is a needed respite from the frigid climes we have endured this winter. In the past few weeks, we have seen many twelve degrees below zero double wool sock days. Today, one pair of wool socks will do.

The ice on the sidewalks has been so thick and hard that the ice cleats attached to my winter boots have had a hard time poking through the ice to provide the grip I need when out walking the dog. I end up walking in the soft snow along the edge of side streets rather than chugging through snow banks.

It is mid-winter in the north country. Storms plow through with magnificent force. Snow. Ice. Wind. Cold temps. Blizzard conditions. 

Blue Food

My best defense against this frigid situation is to counter all the dreariness with the winter blues. Using every blue arrow in my quiver, I am replacing what could potentially be a blue season with a blue menu. I am stocked up. Stashed in every nook and cranny of my kitchen is blueberry basil kombucha, huckleberry beer, blueberry açaí ale, lavender melon kombucha, blueberries and deep blue grapes, blue cheese,  grape jam, even blue potatoes. Blueberry pomegranate smoothies are a daily breakfast fare. Bluefin tuna, Blue Diamond almonds, Blue Mission figs. We’ll celebrate with savory and sweet blueberry pizzas. Just to make sure all my bases are covered, I have a blue and white can of Snowstorm beer on hand. 

A Time of Clarity

You ask why I’m fighting white fury with blue bounty? I say why not? For many, this post holiday season can be cold, lonely, depressing, and filled with discarded New Year’s resolutions. Why not do something bold and intentional to make it both fun and interesting? Or use the extra time in your schedule to whittle down the flotsam in your closets? Or do both.

For me, this is a clarifying season. A time to clean, to organize. This is the opportune time to do all those indoor projects I was too busy to do during the gardening or holiday seasons. When my schedule clears, so does my mind. So I take advantage of this to do projects that perhaps take more focus. 

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Blue foods

Winter Bounty

Let’s get back to food, shall we? The new year tends to be a time of new beginnings for our personal health and well being. We come off a December of feasting and want to corral the beast we call diet. This is actually a great time to start this endeavor. The grocery stores are replete with nutritious winter fruits and vegetables. Ruby grapefruit and blue potatoes, mangoes and kumquats, figs, pears, persimmons, pomegranates, mushrooms of all kinds, microgreens, and sprouts, beets, Brussels sprouts, onions, and carrots. The list goes on. 

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Roasted blue fingerling potatoes with Maitake mushrooms

All these foods contain nutrients such as antioxidants and phytochemicals. From anthocyanins in blueberries to plenolics and carotenoids found in citrus fruit, winter fruits and vegetables do not play second fiddle to their summer counterparts in the nutrition department. You can walk into the produce section of your grocery store and choose with abandon, knowing that as you choose and eat the rainbow, you are benefiting your health. 

Researchers have studied pockets of centenarians around the globe and examined the practices and circumstances surrounding this phenomenon. Several commonalities have been noticed, including but not limited to a vegetable based diet, stress management, regular exercise, and a priority placed on family and elders. These population pockets have been fittingly dubbed Blue Zones.

Cooking a Blue Meal

Here is my blues interpretation. I am roasting blue fingerlings, sautéing Maitake mushrooms in butter and garlic. Then I toss mushrooms with the crusty potatoes and sprinkle it all with truffle salt and freshly ground black pepper. A fluffy tousle of microgreens makes me wonder if the meal is having a bad hair day. A tapenade of Kalamata olives served on seedy crackers and topped with grape jam and Gorgonzola cheese adds another dimension to the meal. 

Earlier I threw together some pizza dough, and now the creativity flies as I roll out small rounds and dress them up with blueberries, prosciutto, crème fraîche, heirloom tomatoes, pears, shallots, pea sprouts, wild mushrooms, basil, red onions, truffle salt, black pepper, fresh mozzarella pearls, and parmigiano reggiano. Each combination of ingredients piques the palate in a unique way. Once you know the basics of a perfect crust, the art of delicious pizza is just a matter of building flavor with great ingredients.

A Sweet Finale

For a sweet capstone, I’ve assembled personal galettes filled with crème fraîche, pear slivers or plump blueberries, and blue cheese. These freeform tarts start with a buttery, flaky crust rolled out paper thin. I cut these out using a small bowl as a template. After spreading the crème fraîche, I scatter fruit and cheese over top and then sprinkle on vanilla-scented raw sugar to add a little crunch and sweetness. These tarts are always a great option because the ingredients that top them are flexible based on your pantry, the season of the year, and the rest of your menu. The two versions I have chosen are a sweet-savory counter and will be the perfect finish to a celebratory meal. 

To complete the picture, favorite Blues tunes are the musical backdrop. This is turning out to be quite the party after all. So, while the weather outside is frightful, my escapade into fending off the winter blues with the winter blues is delightful. And delicious.