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Winter Savory Soups, Stews and Braises

Contributor: © Ron Fenolio, CEO, Veedercrest Estates

When wintertime approaches, fresh-grown tomatoes, fresh-grown peaches, fresh-grown melons—all are gone. The water in the swimming pool has gotten too cold for swimming and the grill is covered to protect it from the coming rains during the winter season. We light the fireplace. And our cuisine changes to dishes that warm us when we come in from the cold. It is time for us to turn to winter-warming soups, stews and braises.

Creating soups, stews and braises is all accomplished with a similar technique: long, slow simmering with more or less liquid. The liquid can be composed of combinations of water, broth (as distinguished from soup), various types of alcohol or vinegars. “Cucina povera” (a common term for “poor people’s cooking”) used this method of cooking to turn inexpensive, tougher cuts of meats into succulent delights. Historically, the butchers of Paris and Rome sold the best cuts of meats to the wealthy patrons. They took home what they couldn’t sell, and their wives, mammas and nonnas did their magic. They used every part of the animal—liver, heart, tongue, sweetbreads, with tripe being a favorite. These parts collectively were called the “fifth quarter” (that is, the “inside” quarter, as differentiated from the forequarter and hindquarter) and provided many nutritious and tasty dishes in the hands of home cooks.

It is important to understand the differences between soups, stews and braises. Soup is easy: more broth—enough liquid to at least cover the contents of the pot, and often more. (Soups will be covered in more detail in a separate article.) As a soup gets thicker and thicker, it begins to approach a stew. A stew uses meat cut into pieces, whether they be bite-size or the size of a modest serving, and the broth covers anywhere from half-way up the pot’s contents to just covering them. A braise uses larger cuts of meat that require carving or slicing after cooking, such as a roast. (The American pot roast is a form of a braise.) Braises use much less liquid, perhaps covering less than the bottom quarter of the meat. Just a little liquid in the bottom of the pot (historically cast-iron or clay) prevents sticking and creates steam. The pot is topped securely with a tightly sealed, heavy lid so the steam cannot escape. The steam then recirculates in the pot, dripping from the lid to baste the meat, tenderizing it and keeping it moist. Soups and stews, on the other hand, do not depend on steaming so do not require a cover.

Braises

The choice of meats for a braise is extensive. Braised beef can be made with short ribs, chuck roast, rump roast, oxtail, brisket or other inexpensive cuts. Country-style pork ribs make an excellent braise. One can also play with the composition of the braising liquid. For starters, lots of cookbooks tell you to cook your braise or stew with water, but water has no flavor! Use broth.

For acid balance and complexity in your braising liquid, add some form of alcohol such as wine, beer or brandy. Variations abound, as usual! If your Nonna lived in Piemonte and your Nonno was a winemaker, then the braising liquid would be a mixture of bone broth and Nebbiolo wine. In the Flemish/Belgian region of Europe, where beer was the beverage of choice, the wine was replaced by beer. In Normandy, the alcoholic/acidic component of the braising liquid would be apple cider and some Calvados (an apple brandy). Farm families used what they had on hand from their own region.

The size of pot is also important. Don’t crowd meat when browning it. It will not brown properly, that is, it won’t caramelize and create that nice outer crust—it will steam instead. On the other hand, if the pot is larger than needed your braise will be more akin to a soup as too much liquid will be necessary. So try to match your pot to the quantity being prepared.

An Adventure in Braised Beef

Let’s make braised beef this evening. Start off by buying a boneless chuck roast, 2-3 pounds. Ask the butcher if he has “prime grade” chuck roast—the higher the quality of the cut of beef, the better will be the result. Trim the meat so that there are not any large solid fat pieces. You want to start with 6-8 ounces of meat per person (it will shrink while cooking). You can also use a mix of short ribs and oxtail in which case you will have to increase the portion measure of to account for the weight of the bones. These can add amazing flavor and also thicken the sauce because of the cartilage in the bones.

Browning the Meat
Start by heating your enameled cast iron casserole with a film of oil on the bottom. Note: As discussed in another essay, “Weights and Measures,” you should learn to make your own measuring judgments. In this case, learn what a “film on the bottom of the pan” represents. Cookbook authors who give you measurements will tell you “two tablespoons.” Measure two tablespoons into a 10-inch or 12-inch pot. Look at it and learn what a “film of oil” in the pan means. But two tablespoons may be too much for a 6 or 8-inch pan and way too little for a large stew pot the size of a roasting pan. So adjust as necessary.

Place the meat into the hot oil. Note that olive oil has too low of a smoke point, so vegetable oil is preferred. Cook for at least 5-8 minutes per side until you have a nice browning. If the oil starts smoking your pan is way too hot, but it must be hot enough to cause the Maillard reaction, that is, to caramelize the meat. This process requires close attention. It is but a moment from nicely caramelized to over-caramelized to burnt, that is, turning into charcoal! (A “burn” is what you get on the beach under the hot sun without sunscreen; here, you want your meat cooked by “tanning”). At this point, remove the meat, and replace with the battuto, raw chopped aromatic vegetables, for the flavor base.

Flavor Base/Aromatics/Odori: Sofritto/Mirepoix/Refogado/Holy Trinity
What quantities of chopped vegetables should we use to make a nice sofritto (flavor base)? The classic French mirepoix is 50% onion, 25% carrot, 25% celery. So start with a medium onion, diced. Look at the pile of diced onion. Make a pile half that amount in size of carrots and another of that size with celery. Remember, Nonna did not use a measuring cup. If you are making a braise or stew for twelve people instead of six, you might need a very large onion or two medium ones. In which case the pile of chopped onion will be larger and so you will need more diced carrots and celery to complement it. Put all these piles of battuto in the pan and gently cook over low heat for five to ten minutes, until the onion, celery, and carrots have started to soften. The onions will begin to look clear, and eventually, all will “tan.”

The variations for the aromatic flavor base are many. (See my earlier essay on Aromatics/Odori). If you are in New Orleans, the cooks will leave out the carrots and use red bell peppers—which add sweetness and a slightly different finish. If you are going to braise in beer, double the amount of onion and leave the carrot and celery out. If you love garlic put 2-4 cloves of chopped garlic into the pan for the last two minutes. Watch carefully so as not to burn the garlic, it could happen quickly—just gently tan it. (Burned garlic tastes very bitter and you will have to throw out the whole batch and start over.)

Remove the vegetables from the pot and pour off any excess fat. Return the hot pot to the stove and deglaze by adding some wine, beer, brandy, or vinegar to lift up the flavorful fond from the bottom. Return the vegetables to the pot along with a few more cloves of raw garlic and a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary. Place the meat on top of the vegetables and rosemary base. Hopefully, you will have the perfect size pot so the meat just fits (not too large, not too small, as mentioned above). Pour in your liquid, a mixture of half-broth and half-wine; if you wish to shift the flavor away from the slightly sour wine taste, use the proportions of ¾ broth to ¼ wine. (For beef, use any fully-structured red wine, such as Barolo, Burgundy or Cabernet.) Pour enough braising liquid into the pot to bring the liquid up maybe a quarter of the side of the meat and covering the vegetables, but not more than halfway up the meat. More than that and you are making a stew.

Cooking the Dish
Now the technique of braising gets a little controversial even among cookbook authors and professional chefs. You want to cook it at a slow simmer (that is, not large bubbles, just “small pearls” of bubbles). And you want it in a pot with a tight-fitting lid. But at what temperature and for how long? Some chefs say: “very, very low heat, a 200-250-degree oven.” Other writers and chefs say: “275 to 300 degrees.” And then there are those who suggest “a 325-350 degree-oven.” No one, however, recommends a very hot oven. Cooking times will also vary. The lower the temperature and the larger the piece of meat, the longer the cooking time. The smaller the cut or the higher the temperature, the shorter the cooking time. Cooking at too high a temperature will cause the muscle fiber to contract quickly (toughen), so “long and slow” is the better technique. You can start testing the meat after 1.5 to 2 hours if using higher heat. At a very low temperature, you can cook it as long as 5-9 hours. So from time to time remove the cover and test the meat. If it is “fork tender” it is done. If not, cook for another half-hour or hour and test again, continue until fork tender. However, the best way to test is with an instant-read meat thermometer. Braised meats are usually cooked past the “rare” or “medium rare” levels because rare is 120 to 130 degrees internal temperature and medium is 130 to 140. But the collagen does not begin to break down until the meat’s internal temperature is 160. The breaking down of the collagen is what allows you to get to a ‘pulled pork,’ for example (that is, take a fork and pull it apart; thus, “fork-tender”). An internal temperature of 170 would be ideal, and some suggest as high as 190. The critical point is when to stop cooking—if the internal temperature gets too high, the meat will become tough and dry. Just mind this important technique hint: “long and slow moist cooking in a sealed pot” until the desired internal temperature is achieved so the meat will retain moisture and flavor.

Seasoning
Season with salt and pepper to taste near the end of the cooking.

Sauce or Gravy for Braised Meats:
Remove the meat to rest on the sideboard, covered, while you use what is left in the pot to create a sauce. Remove the rosemary sprigs and the vegetables, and to the liquid that remains, whisk in a little Wondra (instant) flour. Depending on the size of your pot and amount of liquid you might need more or less. (“Wondra” is the brand name of a precooked flour that will thicken sauces without clumping.) If you don’t have Wondra, use corn or potato starch, or use a roux of equal parts flour and butter. Slice the meat and serve with the sauce.

Another important technique hint: do not let meats cooked in this way sit for long outside the pot or without sauce as they will begin to dry out.

Variations are endless.
Variation #1 – If you wish it to be more like a “Sunday gravy” than a wine sauce, add a can of whole tomatoes, crushed with your hand. Include the liquid from the tomatoes if you wish a little more sauce.

Variation #2 – Would you prefer a stew to braised beef? Before browning the beef, cut it into bite-sized pieces, being careful to make them uniform in size so that they will cook evenly. Brown the meat pieces and return them to the pan. Use more liquid, covering at least half-way up the meat to almost the top. Cook uncovered rather than covered. A nice touch is to add a can of black olives with its juice. The juice adds a nice foundation to the sauce. Add fresh chunks of potato, carrots and other vegetables to cook for the last hour.

Variation #3 – Would you prefer a Carbonnade à la Flamande rather than a Boeuf Bourguignon? Use twice the amount of onions, caramelized, and leave the carrots and celery out. Use a bay leaf or two instead of rosemary. The braising liquid is composed of a broth and beer. No wine.
Variation #4 – Do you wish to deepen the flavors of any of the preparations? Preserved fish is one of the secret ingredients cooks use for umami. For example, a couple of anchovies and their oil will do wonders. No one will taste the anchovies but they will help develop a deeper flavor. An alternative is Worcestershire sauce—if you read the label you will see fermented anchovies are among the ingredients!). Asian cooking uses many fish-based sauces, and even the Romans had a similar fish sauce called Garum. But don’t add too much. You are not supposed to taste the fish, it is not to be a recognized flavor.

And the Variations Go On…
• Veal braised in apple cider, brandy and cream: yes!
• Coq au Vin is usually braised in a dry white wine (Riesling is often chosen) and if stewed with tomatoes (Chicken Cacciatore), it will be prepared with red wine.
• Braised chicken finished with a vinegar is wonderful.
• Braised pork country style ribs: just use onion for the aromatic odori base and then add prunes and port wine. Add cinnamon and cloves for a nice touch of flavor.
• If you wish for a goulash rather than a beef stew use paprika.

In Summary: The Nine Steps to a Memorble Winter Meal

It is really just nine steps to a memorable winter meal. Regardless of the endless variations, here are the basics which are uniformly applicable to this style of long, slow cooking:

  1. Brown (caramelize) the meat.
  2. Caramelize the vegetables.
  3. Pour off the excess fat.
  4. Add the vegetables and meat back after deglazing the pot or pan.
  5. Add the liquid of choice; the amount depends upon whether you are making a soup, a stew or a braise.
    Long, slow cooking.
  6. Add fresh vegetables to a stew or soup nearer the end so they don’t fall apart.
  7. Adjust seasoning.
  8. Serve and savor!

In other words, contrary to what your Mother may have taught you, do play with your food! And just enjoy…

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