I can’t think of any seasonal eating that I’m more enthusiastic about embracing each year than the arrival of braised dishes for fall. These recipes bring together complex and concentrated flavours with decadent textures, all in a way that is so indulgently and innately satisfying. Part of the pleasure of braised dishes is the impact of time; the fact that these dishes require lengthy cooking to fully integrate all the various ingredients into a harmonious medley of interconnected textures and tastes.
While there are plenty of ways to cook meals more quickly, there is no short-cut I’ve seen that can replicate this tried and true method of low temperature slow cooking. Throughout the world, this style of food is used to showcase practically every conceivable collection of ingredients, flavours and regional cuisines – and today we want to walk you through the three basic steps in “improvising” a recipe that uses whatever flavours you might be feeling on a particular day, and if you prefer to cook with more of a firm game plan in mind, we’ve also put together a short list of some of the recipes we think making for perfect eating this fall.
Choosing a Star of the Show
It all starts with choosing the featured ingredient – with options as varied as meats like beef, pork, lamb or poultry, right through to hearty fall and winter vegetables like squash, cauliflower or sweet potatoes, or even your favourite beans or ancient grains can take centre stage. The meats most commonly used for braising are not the choice or most tender cuts, but rather than tougher and more flavourful pieces, remembering that the larger the piece of meat, the longer it will take to fully tenderize. If you’re planning to feature vegetables rather than meat in a braised dish, you’ll find they generally don’t take quite as long to become tender, and you’ll be best served to focus on firm and hearty vegetables that will retain some integrity through the extended cooking process. In the case of vegetables, the long slow cooking process is more about infusing and integrating flavours than it is about tenderizing these morsels.
Selecting the Perfect Liquids
Once you’ve settled on the main feature ingredient for your low and slow braise the next step in the process is to choose the liquid (or liquids) that you want to use as the base for your dish. There are two overarching priorities here – first, to create a sufficient volume of liquid so that there is enough in your pan to keep the solid ingredients submerged even as you lose some volume to evaporation during cooking, and second, to create balanced and complementary flavours that will taste great as the infuse the meat and/or vegetables you’ve chosen to include. I find that using stock from your star ingredient is a great base – i.e. beef stock if you’re using beef shortribs or fish stock if you’re braising fish, and so on. This component should make up about 2/3 of your liquid volume, with the balance comprised of liquids that will add complex and delicious flavours to your dish, such as wine (either white or red), beer (the more flavourful the better), flavourful oils (like sesame or chili infused oil) or even small additions of sweet items (like honey or maple syrup) balanced with sour items (like balsamic vinegar) balanced with salty (soy sauce) balanced with hot/spicy (mustard or Sriracha). In this last respect, less is often more – pick one or two of these ingredients that work with the main star ingredient and that complement one another.
Agents of Flavour + Accompaniments
The final step in improvising a delicious braised dish is bringing it all together and adding the finishing touches with herbs and spices – and choosing the secondary vegetables and grains for your braise that will serve as something of a side-dish. First, your “aromatic” vegetables are generally cooked at medium to medium higher temperatures in the pan before you add the meat or liquid. These will more or less disappear as the dish cooks, but provide rich, deep and complex flavours to braising liquid. Common aromatics used in braised dishes include onion, garlic, carrots and celery – but can also include more adventurous flavours like diced fennel, leek or lemongrass. If you are using dried herbs, this is also the point at which you’d add them to the mix – however, if you’re planning to use fresh herbs, they are best added much closer to the end of the cooking process as they tend to break down faster than their dried counterparts. Finally, you will want to pick one or two hearty vegetables to include in your braised dish with the intent that these items “survive” the long slow cooking process and can be served along with your main attraction. Root vegetables like potatoes and carrots are commonly included in braised dishes, but squash, zucchini, eggplant or beans, lentils, rice or grains can also be used in this same way. You may want to add these items to your pan part way through the cooking process to ensure they don’t overcook, depending on how long you plan on cooking the main ingredients.
[ Recipes ]
Braised Halibut w/ Leeks + Clams: RECIPE
Wine Match: White Grenache from Languedoc or Southern Rhone
Chicken Braised in White Wine + Whole Grain Mustard: RECIPE
Wine Match: Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, New Zealand or California
Braised Butternut Squash + Black Beans w/ Bok Choy: RECIPE
Wine Match: Dry Riesling or Pinot Gris from Alsace
Soy + Shitake Braised Beef Shortribs: RECIPE
Wine Match: Syrah/Shiraz from Northern Rhone or Australia
Pyrenees-Style Sherry + Paprika Braised Lamb: RECIPE
Wine Match: Grenache based red from Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Priorat