Quiet, gentle cooking turns meats, vegetables into succulent meals The Braiser's Edge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I'm going through a braising phase.

One night, hungry, I looked in the refrigerator and found two miserable turnips and part of a leek. I felt like one of those characters in a fairy tale who has fallen on hard times: "She only had an onion and a crust of bread . . . she had only a knob of cheese and a trusty dog . . . she had only two turnips and a piece of leek. . . ."

True, I could have gone to the store. Better, I thought, to rise to the culinary challenge. So I heated some olive oil in a pan, sliced the vegetables and tossed them around in the hot oil until the leek went limp and the turnips began to glisten. Then, I turned down the heat and put on the lid. This was a thick, reliable pan, so I added only a tablespoon of liquid.

I went about my business -- folded laundry, chatted with the parrot, patted the dog -- and checked once or twice to see how things were cooking. Turnips were sweating away, leeks were softening; everything was slowly acquiring a faint golden glaze.

Had I sauteed these vegetables, I would have ended up with a dry, strong-flavored dish something like American fries, only made with browned, still-firm turnips flecked with dry brown wisps of leek.

Braised, however, both turnip and leek became velvety, moist, buttery and meltingly rich, with a golden, caramelized glaze. I ate them spread over "orecchiette" (little ear-shaped pasta) with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh ground pepper and felt like the clever, blessed heroine of a fairy tale: "The meager roots on her plate turned into a golden stew redolent of the finest oils. . . ."

I wasn't always a braiser. For years, I was stuck in saute mode. For dinner, I'd heat some olive oil in a pan, stir some mix of meat and/or vegetables until done, then toss it into pasta or rice. I liked the movement of sauteing, the constant participation in the cooking process from start to finish, the immediate gratification.

Leaving something to cook slowly on the stove or in the oven always made me a little nervous, bored, fretful. It didn't feel like cooking. Food, I believed -- like pets, roses and people -- responded to attention. The proper amount of touching and nudging would coax the flavor out.

I'm over that now.

For one thing, I became busier. The few hours a day I'm home, I have better things to do -- like collapse on the couch -- than keep a pan full of vegetable chunks in motion. Braising gives me free time even as my dinner cooks.

If I don't mind a late dinner, braised meat dishes can give me a couple of hours of free time. But not all braising takes that long. Some vegetable dishes are done in less than 30 minutes.

Even they don't ask much of me. I can ignore a pan full of braising lettuce for 20 minutes -- long enough to read the cartoons in the New Yorker, take a shower, water the roses, or give each of the animals a good scratch.

The true seduction of braising, however, has nothing to do with the fact that you can fiddle while dinner cooks. The reason I braise really has to do with what braising does to its object, be it $8-a-pound radicchio, $2-a-pound lamb shanks or a lowly turnip.

Easy as it is, braising is a two-stage process and, in both stages, a certain attention to details is required. The first stage is a fast hands-on saute wherein you introduce whatever you're cooking to hot fat. With vegetables, this means a quick fry to brown tips and edges without cooking the vegetables through.

With meats, this first stage involves a good browning on all sides. (A browned crust helps produce that deep meaty flavor and roasty-brown gravy, so it is worth the time and trouble of having to wash the resulting oily film off your glasses and face and stove and walls.) Then, after the meat is browned, there's also the brief sauteing of the "mirepoix," or finely chopped vegetables, that will cook with the meat.

The second stage of braising -- for both meat and vegetables -- involves adding the liquid, covering the pot and consigning it to low heat for the duration. While this slow-cooking stage is generally uneventful, it's a good idea to give the food a peek and a poke from time to time, lest burning occur due to sheer inattention and/or uncooperative cookware. Recently, while I blithely chatted in the dining room, I inadvertently manufactured charcoal from endive in the kitchen, thanks to a new, unfamiliar pan -- the low heat was, clearly, not low enough.

Braising is the best way to prepare some of the most flavorful but problematic cuts of meat. Shanks, ribs and oxtails all require long, moist cooking in order to be chewable. In the meantime, your kitchen smells like the best home in the world.

Braising vegetables is a somewhat more delicate and faster process than braising meats. Good vegetables to braise are cabbages, celery, Florence fennel, artichokes, eggplant, okra, onions, leeks, root vegetables (turnips, celery root, carrots, beets, etc.), and chicories (endive, escarole, radicchio).

Some cooks, such as Julia Child, do not saute the vegetables first, but arrange them in a buttered pan and add a few inches of liquid, which cooks down and is used for basting. I prefer a fast saute in hot oil; I like to imagine that the heat binds the fat to the vegetable before any water touches it, so that later, as the vegetable cooks in a closed pot, the oil is pushed deep into the vegetable, where it does its slow, insinuating, softening work.

If you become a convert, you'll need to keep some braising liquids on hand. I like to use fresh vegetable broths. Some cooks call them insipid, but I prefer to think of them as subtle. Also, they're easy to make, aromatic, not too salty, and they don't impose a meat flavor on braised vegetables when I don't want it.

But meat broths and stocks, canned or fresh, with or without a -- of wine, make good braises, too. I've had excellent braised endive where the braising liquid was reconstituted bouillon. Use your imagination. I still remember some wonderful oxtails braised in bourbon.

I'm happy eating braised meat just as it comes from the pot, with the vegetables and de-fatted pan juices spooned over it, but some people like to have a sauce they can pour on potatoes or noodles. One simple way to get a sauce is to puree the cooked vegetables with the pan juices. Or you could make gravy by flouring the meat before browning it or, at the end of cooking, stirring in bits of "beurre manie" (equal parts butter and flour rubbed together into a paste) and cooking the pan juices until they thicken.

Braising is best done in good, heavy pans that conduct heat well and can move from the top of the stove into the oven. (The thinner and lighter the pan, the greater the tendency to scorch.) Cast iron is almost ideal. Due to the steam and liquid involved in braising, however, unless it's remarkably well seasoned, cast iron imparts a watery-rusty taste and can discolor vegetables.

Still, nothing stops a devoted braiser. For a long time, I finessed braised dishes with frying pans, clay roasting pans and a lot of aluminum foil. Recently, a friend advised me to buy those enameled cast-iron pans from France whose price tags make you burst into tears. For the same money as a 3 1/2 -quart oval pot, you can buy a denim jacket at Banana Republic, a portable CD player or a permanent wave with comb-out. But if you have the braising bug, the pleasures from this pot, I guarantee, are greater than all these items put together.

Still, braising is a forgiving science, and with a little vigilance, your pans, whatever they are, won't exclude you from the best results.

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This is a rich, meaty dish with intense mushroom flavor. Serve it

with pasta dressed with butter and good Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Braised Portobello Mushrooms with Pancetta

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions, halved and each half quartered

4 ( 1/4 -inch-thick) slices of pancetta, sliced into 1-inch sections

4 (4-inch) portobello mushrooms cut into 1/2 -inch slices

2 (4-inch) sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves pulled off stem.

In heavy Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-high heat on stove top. Add onions and pancetta and cook, stirring gently, until pancetta starts rendering and onions become tender, about 2 minutes.

Add mushrooms. Cook briefly, about 3 minutes, making sure everything is coated with hot fat. Stir in rosemary. Cover and cook in 300-degree oven 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until onions are meltingly tender.Each serving: 222 calories; 170 mg sodium; 15 mg cholesterol; 20 g fat; 8 g carbohydrates; 4 g protein; 0.81 g fiber.

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Stove-top braising gives bitter lettuces an irresistibly tender, melting texture. Handle gently so they don't fall apart when cooking. For a less expensive variation, substitute long wedges of Napa cabbage for Belgian endive. Even the common yellow onion takes on luxurious dimensions when handled this way.

@Braised Chicories Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, cut into 4 thick, vertical slices

2 Belgian endives, halved lengthwise

1 ( 1/2 -pound) head radicchio, cut into 4 thick slices

1/4 cup vegetable stock, about

salt

In large skillet or 2 (10-inch) skillets, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Place onions and endives in pan and cook quickly until browned. Turn, being careful not to break slices apart. Brown second side, then turn heat to low. Add 3 to 5 tablespoons of stock, or until there is small amount of liquid simmering in pan.

Cover and cook over low heat until tender, about 20 minutes. After chicories are fork-tender, remove lid, turn up heat to medium and reduce liquid. Allow vegetables to brown, turning carefully. Season to taste with salt. Remove to platter.

Each serving: 123 calories; 195 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 7 g fat;

13 g carbohydrates; 4 g protein; 2.69 g fiber.

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Have a butcher cut each small lamb shank in two. That way guests aren't confronted with hunks of meat that look like cavemen's clubs. In this recipe, the mirepoix is made of leeks, celery and carrot, then enhanced with 10 whole cloves of garlic and coarsely chopped shiitake mushrooms. If you use dried shiitakes, be sure to reserve your soaking water and use it, strained, as some -- or all -- of your braising liquid.

Braised Lamb Shanks Makes 4 servings

olive oil

4 small lamb shanks, each cut in half

1 1/2 cups chopped leek, white part only

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

10 cloves garlic

12 fresh or dried-and-reconstituted shiitake mushrooms

1 sprig fresh thyme

salt, pepper

1/2 cup beef stock

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in heavy Dutch oven or enameled cast-iron pot with lid. Brown all sides of lamb shanks over medium-high heat, about 30 minutes. Remove shanks to plate.

If browning oil is scorched, discard and heat fresh oil in pan. Otherwise use remaining oil and saute leek, celery, carrot, garlic and mushrooms over medium-high heat until brown at tips. Add thyme and enough stock to loosen cooked-on particles and fill bottom of pan. Place lamb shanks on vegetables, cover tightly and bake at 300 degrees 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until meat is thoroughly tender.

Skim fat from cooking juices and vegetables. Add stock, if necessary, to loosen cooked-on bits. Serve shanks with pan juices and vegetables spooned over them.

Each serving: 273 calories; 245 mg sodium; 54 mg cholesterol; 11 g fat; 25 g carbohydrates; 21 g protein; 2.99 g fiber.

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These oxtails will caramelize beautifully after about three hours the oven. Although one generally figures on 1 pound of meat-with-bones per person, oxtails are so rich that 4 pounds should serve six healthy appetites. Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes and a green salad.

Oxtails with Orange Makes 6 servings

2 cups fresh orange juice

20 whole cloves

5 whole allspice

2 teaspoons peppercorns

2 teaspoons coarse salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 pounds oxtails

olive oil

4 medium-large onions, chopped

2 carrots, peeled, chopped

2 tablespoons orange zest

1 cup beef stock

Reduce orange juice to 1 cup over medium heat, stirring often. Set aside.

Grind cloves, allspice, peppercorns and salt. Rub oxtails with ground spices, using only as much as needed.

Heat olive oil in heavy Dutch oven or enameled cast-iron pan with lid. Brown oxtails thoroughly on all sides over medium-high heat, about 20 minutes. Set aside. Unless oil is scorched, use same oil, adding more if necessary, to fry onions, carrots and orange zest quickly until just brown at edges.

Add enough stock to fill pan scant 1/2 inch, about 1 cup. Loosen particles sticking to pan and bring to boil. Set oxtails on top of vegetables and simmering stock. Drizzle reduced orange juice over each oxtail. Cover and bake 2 1/2 to 3 hours at 300 de

grees, until meat on bones is tender and caramelized.

Remove oxtails to platter or individual plates. Skim fat off pan drippings. Serve oxtails with pan drippings spooned over them.

Each serving: 230 calories; 960 mg sodium; 35 mg cholesterol; 8 g fat; 17 g carbohydrates; 22 g protein; 0.66 g fiber.

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In this easy soup, the sweetness of the onions and sweet potatoes is tempered by the bacon's smokiness.

Braised Sweet Potato Soup Makes 4 appetizer servings, or 2 main-course servings

5 slices lean smoked bacon (Canadian bacon or apple-wood smoked bacon), chopped into 1-inch pieces

1 large onion, chopped

olive oil, optional

1 (1-pound) sweet potato, cut into 1/2 -inch slices

freshly ground pepper

1 quart hot vegetable stock

roasted pumpkin seeds

In heavy Dutch oven or enameled cast-iron pot, heat bacon over medium-high heat until fat begins to render. Add chopped onion. If more fat is needed, add few drops of olive oil.

Cook onion and bacon together over medium-high heat until tips of onion are browned. Add sweet potato and stir, making sure sweet potato slices are coated with hot fat. Season to taste with pepper. Cover and cook at 350 degrees 40 minutes to 1 hour, until sweet potatoes fall apart at touch of fork.

.' Add 2 cups hot stock, stirring

with fork to loosen all browned particles sticking to pan, and smash sweet potato. Add another 2 cups of stock. Simmer few minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste. Garnish with pumpkin seeds.

Each serving: 277 calories; 1,134 mg sodium; 19 mg cholesterol; 17 g fat; 23 g carbohydrates; 5 g protein; 0.65 g fiber.

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This dessert is a gentler braise than most -- the pears bake in butter for the first half of the cooking, then bake in cream for the second half -- but the characteristic deep flavors and melting textures still emerge.

Pears Braised in Cream Makes 4 servings

1 1/2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 tablespoon brown sugar, packed

4 firm pears, peeled, cored and halved

3/4 cup heavy whipping cream

Rub bottom of 6-by-9-inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon butter. Sprinkle sugars evenly over bottom of dish. Place pears, cut-side down, in dish and dot with remaining butter.

Bake at 350 degrees 20 minutes. Pour cream into dish and tilt dish back and forth several times to mix with butter-sugar mixture. Bake another 15 minutes or until pears are tender when pierced with sharp knife. Serve warm.

Each serving: 312 calories; 62 mg sodium; 73 mg cholesterol; 22 g fat; 32 g carbohydrates; 2 g protein; 2.33 g fiber.

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