Praising the power of braising

It’s an ideal, easy cooking style for cool weather

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photoThis image taken on January 30, 2012 in Concord, NH shows balsamic braised short ribs. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

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Cool days call for cooking that is low, slow and wet. Which is to say, braised.

And it’s simpler than you might think. Braising is just cooking food, usually meat, for a long period at a low temperature in some kind of liquid. Pot roasts, stews and many slow-cooker dishes are examples.

A long, slow simmer breaks down and tenderizes cuts of meat that otherwise would be tough and unappealing. This is why many braising recipes call for the fattier or tougher (and cheaper!) cuts of meat -- chicken thighs over chicken breasts, pork shoulder rather than the lean tenderloin. Goat and lamb, especially the shanks, are frequently braised to produce succulently tender meals.

Don’t limit braising to meat. Fibrous vegetables (such as fennel or winter greens) and root vegetables (such as parsnips and carrots) take well to braising and don’t take as long as meat.

Often in braising, the meat or veggies are seared prior to adding the liquid. The browned, caramelized surfaces deepen flavor. Liquid and seasonings then are added to come half to two-thirds up the side of the food. Then the dish is brought to a low simmer and kept that way, on the stove or in the oven.

Either way, this is a relatively hands-off process. Once the dish is cooking, just let it do its thing. Sometimes the cover is removed toward the end of cooking so the liquid can reduce some and the food can brown on top. And sometimes the liquid is reduced further to serve as a glaze or a thickened sauce. At whatever consistency, some of the liquid is almost always served with the food.

Short ribs are the perfect cut of meat to be braised. They have quite a bit of marbling and can be tough if not properly cooked. For the best flavor, buy them on-the-bone.

This braise is a tangy blend of balsamic vinegar and seasoned stock. A lot of flavor comes from the caramelizing of the meat and the vegetables, so don’t skimp on the browning. After the meat is tender, boil the liquid down to a glaze. Serve the ribs and glaze over potatoes, creamy polenta or egg noodles.

Balsamic Braised Short Ribs

Start to finish: 2½ hours (30 minutes active). Servings: 6.

1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil

6 bone-in short ribs (about 3 pounds)

2 leeks, white parts only, sliced

2 medium yellow onions, sliced

2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 cloves garlic, chopped

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

3 sprigs fresh rosemary

½ cup balsamic vinegar

¼ cup packed brown sugar

1 quart unsalted beef stock

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot such as a Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium. Working in batches so as not to crowd the pan, sear the short ribs for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, or until well browned. Transfer to a plate.

Add the leeks, onions, carrots, celery and garlic to the pot and brown well, stirring occasionally, about 12 to 15 minutes. Add the red pepper flakes, salt, pepper and tomato paste, then cook until the tomato paste turns a brick-reddish-brown color, about 6 to 7 minutes.

Add the mustard, rosemary, vinegar and brown sugar. Scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Return the short ribs to the pot, then add the beef stock. Bring the mixture up to a low simmer and cover.

The pot can be left on the stovetop on low heat or placed in a 325 F oven for 1½ to 2 hours, or until the short ribs are very tender when pierced with a fork.

Carefully transfer the meat to a platter. Cover with foil and a couple kitchen towels to keep warm. Using a slotted spoon, remove and discard the solids from the liquid. Bring the liquid to a boil on the stovetop and cook until reduced to 1 cup. Drizzle the glaze over the short ribs and serve.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 550 calories; 240 calories from fat (44 percent of total calories); 26 g fat (10 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 135 mg cholesterol; 29 g carbohydrate; 48 g protein; 3 g fiber; 650 mg sodium.