What To Cook When It’s Colder Than A Gravedigger’s Backside
You know those people who say they hate winter? You know the type; walking speedily and angrily through the icy streets of Toronto all bundled up in two wool sweaters, knitted scarves, long johns, enormous wool coats, and toques with those silly flaps that cover their ears. They are walking speedily because they HATE being outside as soon as the weather dips below 5˚C. Cold weather is like the Death Star to these people. As soon as you think it’s gone for good it pops right back up again. They are walking angrily because they are upset with themselves for continuously choosing to live in this climate. They know they can move somewhere else, like Vancouver, where the temperature is a little more moderate (unfortunately it rains all the time and three quarters of the population have grow-ops in their sheds – FACT), but they choose not to. It could be because their families are here, or their lovers, or their butcher – who knows. All I know is once December’s first frosty night rolls around these people are speedily and angrily walking around saying poetic things like: “arrrgh, this weather sucks” or “why do I live here again?” Well, I’m gonna tell you why you should still live here and why the cold weather DOESN’T suck. Braised meat. There are a lot of reasons to enjoy winter in the city. You can go crazy sledding down the hills at the St. Clair Reservoir (be verrrry careful though…my dad almost got himself killed going down those slopes). You can have a skate and hot cocoa at Nathan Phillips Square. You can build a kick-ass snow fort and battle little kids in Withrow Park. And you can braise meat. This is, in my opinion, the single best thing about the colder weather. Summer is great and all, with its banana hammocks and grilled sausages, but when the temperature cools off a little and the sweaters come out, I crave stews and braises. (I also crave a bourbon, a little Ella & Louis on the hi-fi, and my sweetheart wearing a Snuggie® and a smile, but that’s a story for a more adult blog.) In fact, I have a beef shoulder in the oven right now, swimming in simmering liquid flavoured with onions, carrots, celery, red wine, and beef broth. That’s how I roll when it’s raining and ten degrees out. Ain’t no thing. But it can be. I can be a pompous jack-ass sometimes, as can most people who already have the power of cooking on their side. People who know how to cook should share their knowledge with people who can’t, but not in a way that is condescending, patronizing, or elitist. This attitude will just turn people off cooking. So I’m going to turn the jack-ass knob from ten down to like, four. I hope it works because I really want everyone to enjoy a nice bit of braised meat. Everyone should have at least one braised dish under his or her belt; a dish one can dream about while looking out of one’s office window watching the rain/sleet/snow/Armageddon-Hail fall. Question: What is braising? Answer: Braising is searing, and then simmering a piece of meat in flavoured liquid until it is tender. Question: How is it different from a stew? Answer: Quite simply put, you braise a big piece of meat and you stew little bits of meat. Really, that’s about it. Question: Why do we need to differentiate the two? Answer: Well, I guess we don’t really, except it’s kind of like saying a sunflower and a daisy are the same thing. They aren’t. I love a stew. A properly made bœuf bourguignon is probably one of the most delicious things ever. But there is something a little magical about taking a big, hard, tough, rugged muscle and turning it into a luxurious, soft, fork-tender pillow of protein. You know that feeling you get when watching an old movie at Christmastime? You know what I mean – that warm, reflective, teary type of movie that reminds you about what it was like to believe in Santa? That’s how a well-made braise makes me feel. It takes a long time to make, but once you open the oven and remove the pot lid it’s like revealing a bit of heaven. It’s probably what the Nazis were expecting when they opened the Ark of the Covenant. But a good braise will only melt your face in the same way a wicked Slash solo will. In ecstasy. Common Braising Cuts: Beef: Boneless Blade (Best for pot roasts) Chuck Short Ribs Brisket Shank Oxtail (It’s not from an ox; it’s from a cow) Cheek Tongue Pork: Anything from the shoulder – Boston Butt or Picnic Ribs – Back Ribs, Side Ribs, even Spare Ribs Belly Shank Cheek Chicken: Drumsticks and Thighs Lamb: Shank Ribs Boneless Shoulder Neck One thing all of these cuts have in common is that they are the hardest working muscles on each animal’s body. Shoulders especially, as they not only have to share the load of the animal’s back with its hind quarter, but the shoulder also has a big heavy neck and fat head to carry around. A lot of work that is, so the muscles are pretty tough cookies. You can’t just go and grill these cuts, as you’ll just be chewing for decades. These cuts need Tender Loving Care. Braising in Seven Easy Steps: 1. Choose a cut of meat from the list above, season it with salt and pepper, and brown it all over in a deep-sided pot. (I like using equal parts of butter and vegetable oil to do my browning). Remove the browned meat from pot and put it aside for a second. 2. Slowly caramelize flavourful vegetables IN THE SAME POT. Flavourful vegetables can be (but don’t have to be): onion, garlic, carrot, celery, parsnip, turnip, peppers, or anything else you like that has a sweetness to it. Starchy vegetables like potatoes don’t really do much here. 3. Deglaze the pot with a bit of flavourful liquid. After you have caramelized the flavourful vegetables you will notice there are brown bits at the bottom of the pot. If you add a liquid this will come off and add to the overall flavour of your braise. Liquids I like to use are: red wine, white wine, vinegar, beer, orange juice, etc. You can use whatever you like. The point is the liquid you deglaze a pot with will add to the flavour of the whole braise, so it’s best to use a strong, flavourful liquid here. 4. Add your flavour enhancers. Fancy talk for herbs and spices. Anything goes here, from bay leaves, thyme and peppercorns (classic French) to lemongrass, ginger and star anise (a little more Asian perhaps). 5. Put your meat back in the pot, and then almost cover it with more liquid. The liquid used here is more neutral, perhaps chicken, beef, or vegetable stock. Or just water. No one will judge you if you use water. Besides, if you have a nice amount of flavourful vegetables, wine, enhancers AND meat you’re basically making a broth if you add water anyway! When braising, it is important to barely cover the meat with the liquid. This will keep the meat moist while cooking without making a big pot of soup. 6. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then put a lid on the pot and put it in an oven that has been pre-heated to 325˚F. Check it once and a while until it is fork-tender. This basically means what you think it does – if you can easily stick a fork in the meat and it gives no struggle on its way out, it’s done. Depending on the cut you choose, this can take anywhere from two to four hours. 7. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT!!! Let the braised meat cool a bit in the liquid before taking it out and slicing it. If you take the meat directly out of the pot that came out of the oven, then sliced it, any moisture you worked so hard to keep in the meat will be lost in a puff of steam. Wait at least thirty minutes. Even better to wait a few hours to let the meat cool in the liquid. Gently reheat the meat and slice it before serving, and then thicken the braising liquid (maybe by puréeing the cooked vegetables in the liquid and straining the results) and have it stream over the meat like a nice sauce should. Yeeeeahhhh!!! That’s what I’m talking about!!!! Ca-Na-Da! Ca-Na-Da! I dare anyone who “hates” winter to deny themselves the most pleasurable of all winter’s pleasures. Hey, a cold day can totally suck. Anyone who has had to walk through the snowy streets with a hole in his/her boot can vouch for that. Slush is a pain, especially on the stairs down to the subway. Driving behind snow ploughs ranks pretty high on my “things I want to shoot myself in the foot before doing again” list. But just think of that delicious braise you made on Sunday–the one you just have to heat up after work that will fill your kitchen with the lovely smells kitchens are meant to smell like; the braised meat that could even defrost Mr. Freeze. Think of that braise and I promise you winter won’t feel like the worst time of year. That would totally be those two weeks in July when it’s so hot you could fry a duck egg on the hood of a Toyota Yaris.