As I gaze through my window at the gently falling snow and whistling frigid wind of winter, the panes of glass are gradually fogging up from the steam wafting up from my gigantic pot of simmering bones. It's officially slow cooking season in our house and I'll jump on any chance to throw a big heap of sinewy meat into a heavy pot, add my choice of aromatics, vegetables and some sort of wine and simply wait for the magic to happen. Ideal cuts for braising include, briskets, shoulder/ blade ( beef, pork and lamb) and pork hocks or lamb or veal shanks. These cheap cuts are loaded with flavor and the masses are starting to discover that.
Writing this takes me back to my cooking school days where we would be handed our recipe of the day and immediately darted around the kitchen like contestants in the amazing race scavenging for equipment before we were left with the warped pots that would scorch everything. I've learned some great tricks over the years since those days that have helped me take a simple piece of meat to that tantalizing, melt- in- your mouth place. If you pay attention to the details- that might seem trivial- they’ll help you make perfectly tender and optimally flavourful chunks of protein. Everyone has their own little secrets for success. Here are some of mine.
The braising process
To be clear, the generally agreed upon definition of braising is: “ Cook very gently in a little liquid in a covered pot”.
For maximum flavour, I always pat the meat dry, season it just before cooking and brown it in a medium hot pan that isn't too crowded. You want to leave some space around the meat, or you'll just steam it. Patience is the key.
And that leads to my next point about the gentle part. To properly yield tender morsels out of tough cuts, there's no rushing the process. If you crank the heat you will just toughen the meat. I like a temperature of around 275 D or close to where the liquid is just under the boiling point.
It's equally important to keep that moist air circulating around in your vessel of choice for the true braise. I prefer a cast iron pot that has a tightly fitting lid to maintain constantly moist gentle heat. I also prefer to pop it in the oven, instead of on the stove top, where the heat is totally surrounding the pot and not just heating it from below.
Here's my braised Muscovy Duck legs in Amarone With Cipollini onions
6 Duck legs
salt and black pepper to taste
3 tbsp.butter (45 ml)
1 lb. cipollini onions, blanched and peeled
1 oz. pancetta or bacon (30 g), cut into 1/2-inch (1cm) pieces
1 leek, washed and sliced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
3 whole cloves
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cups Amarone or other Pinot Noir red wine (500 ml)
1-2 cups chicken stock or water, just enough immerse duck legs but not fully cover
Preheat oven to 300 D.
Pat duck dry and season duck with salt and pepper. In a heavy skillet melt 1 Tbsp. of butter and sear the duck legs on medium high setting, to render off some of the fat. Turn and sear the other side, until duck is golden brown, about 10-15 minutes. Drain off fat, strain and reserve covered in the fridge for other use. Transfer duck to a plate.
Melt remaining butter in a large cast iron casserole or Dutch oven, over medium heat. Pot should be large enough to fit duck in a single layer, not overlapping. Cook onions, stirring frequently, until golden, about 3 minutes. Add the pancetta; cook, stirring frequently, until pancetta is golden. Add leek and celery and cook for a couple of minutes. Return duck to casserole, in a single layer, skin side up. Add the cinnamon stick, bay leaves, cloves, thyme. Pour in just enough wine, to cover duck half way. Add enough chicken stock so that skin of duck legs is still exposed.
Transfer to oven and simmer slowly, uncovered, until duck is tender and skin is crisp, about 2 hours.