The first time Braising short ribs was a big step in my culinary education. Braising summed up so much what I liked about cooking: in this case, sear the meat, gently sauté the carrots, onion, shallots and garlic that perfumed the kitchen with their aroma, then give the whole thing a long touching bath in good red wine. .
The ribs I made were from The Balthazar cookbook, and this recipe is a mix of practical time and letting a slow process work its magic, a recipe that has a lot of wiggle room built in and a high wow factor, leaving you with an incredibly tender and decadent dinner.
Basically, a classic long ember is the OG version of a high-end chef’s goal of making a food taste “more like itself”. With the creative flavor searing, with a long bubble of flavorful broth or wine and its own juice, braising does this by default. Your food becomes tender, the cooking liquid becomes a sauce and a parenthesis is carved out of the winter cold.
In the early 2000s, when Balthazar came out, I missed one of his contemporaries, Molly Stevens’ All about braising, which is a shame, because it would have become one of my favorite reference cookbooks much sooner.
One risk of reviewing a cookbook that grows to 20 is that people may have changed the way they eat and cook since arriving. Many of us, myself included, are now eating less meat for environmental, ethical or health reasons. Again All about braising has aged quite well in that regard. To my surprise, 60 of its first hundred pages are devoted to braising vegetables. Brace yourself, carnivores – I spent a very long time testing in this area.
I started with the first course of the book and immediately started improving my game. This is the kind of five ingredient recipe you think, I know where it’s going, when it takes a pleasantly sudden and intelligent turn. I put a pound of little red potatoes in my Pan essential with olive oil, bring a little broth to their equators, put garlic and berry and close the lid, leaving the small orbs to wobble in the moist heat for 20 minutes.
When they were tender, I took off the lid, turned up the heat and let the sauce bubble in garlic frosting and – voila! – there you go, potatoes so good I can’t even remember what I served next to them.
The next day I braised escarole and cannellini beans, which I would never have thought of on my own but which makes perfect sense when you grab a bite to eat. There’s no searing here, but the escarole is wilted in a generous amount of sliced garlic and red pepper flakes, then combined with the beans and a little broth, creating a simple yet sophisticated dish. I immediately thought of two ways to eat it: served with a piece of crusty bread for a nice solo lunch or as a dinner for two with a sausage and a glass of wine.
Next came the braised leeks, which I wanted to cook just because the book also had a quiche recipe that used them on the next page, but they turned out to be a thing of their own. Stevens calls leeks “the tallest and most attractive member of the onion family,” as if describing a favorite nephew, and she’s a great in-depth explicator on how to treat them; Pruning and cleaning leeks has two steps in the recipe, a great helper for novices and a good refreshment for more experienced cooks.
Without provocation, my wife Elisabeth declared this quiche “my favorite of your recent braising dishes,” a top slit she clung to for just a few days. My favorite part of this was how Stevens used some leek braising liquid with the eggs and cream for the garnish, the quiche equivalent of a dirty martini.
Even modest celery gets its own braised in the book, cooked with a mixture of shallots, vermouth and finely chopped celery hearts, tops and leaves. Sprinkled at the end with breadcrumbs and Gruyere, it’s like a magic coin trick, making a pretty side dish out of ingredients in a nearly empty fridge.