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How to braise vegetables for deeper, richer flavor

James P. DeWan
Chicago Tribune
Toss the steamer. Braise your vegetables instead for better flavor.

God bless the interwebs and its eternal preservation of knowledge. For all I know, you may be reading this deep into the distant future, long after I've shed this mortal coil. In fact, you're probably not even reading this at all; I'll bet it's being read to you, isn't it? By Zandor, your talking robotic chimp butler. But, listen to this, intrepid Prep Schoobot: It may be all sunny and warm in your future habitat on the third moon of Nebulon 7, but here in Chicago in March 2015, we're just climbing out of a cold winter. And the chilly not-quite-spring-yet winds have me pining for something warm and comforting. Something like braised vegetables.

Why you need to learn this

Braising is one of the classic methods of cooking (along with other, more common methods like sauteing, roasting, poaching, etc.). Once you understand the process, you'll be braising like there's no tomorrow (how's that for irony, future peeps?) Better yet, you'll be relatively recipe-free as you churn out steaming, sumptuous sides and hearty main dishes.

The steps you take

Braising, at least as far as vegetables are concerned, is what's called a moist heat cooking method. This means simply that the vegetables are cooked in liquid. Unlike other moist heat cooking methods, though, like boiling or simmering, which use large amounts of water, the amount of liquid used in a braise is relatively small. Further, also unlike boiling or simmering, braising more often uses a flavorful liquid, like stock or broth, wine or some combination thereof. That liquid can then be used as is to moisten the vegetables, or it can be reduced to form a more substantial sauce.

I should also point out that braising vegetables is different from braising meats. Sure, they both end up cooking slowly in a small bit of liquid, but braising meat involves an extra step: Before it's plopped into the liquid, the meat is seared. Vegetables are not.

Also, braising has an added benefit for meat: That low heat slowly melts the meats connective tissue, tenderizing it while contributing body to the sauce. While the slow cooking does tenderize vegetables as well, without that connective tissue, the braising liquid does not really gain any mouthfeel.

Here, then, is a general method for braising. As with most cooking, start with a heavy pan that's just big enough to hold everything you'll be putting into it. Remember, too, that there are countless variations to this method, and not every step or every ingredient is used every time. Familiarize yourself with these steps, however, and the next time you look up braise recipes, I swear you'll notice how they're all basically the same:

1 Get your pan hot and add your fat. That can be anything: butter, oil — I love bacon fat. (Start by cutting bacon into small pieces and crisping it in the braising pan. When the fat renders — or melts — and the bacon crisps up, remove the bacon and use the fat to saute or sweat the remaining ingredients. Save the bacon to garnish the dish later, or just casually pop the pieces into your mouth like smoky, porky Skittles.)

2 If you're using aromatics, add them here. Not every braise uses these, but, if you want to add some extra flavor, typically it's onion, celery and carrots. A little bit of garlic or shallots never hurt anyone either. For light-colored vegetables, like braised leeks or Belgian endive, sweat the aromatics over medium-low heat so they don't color but only get soft. For darker braises, like braised red cabbage, you can saute the aromatics over medium-high heat to get some color.

3 Add your main ingredient. This can be stirred in, as with cabbage or pearl onions or mushrooms, or layered neatly, as with leeks, asparagus or heads of Belgian endive.

4 Add any herbs or spices along with just enough liquid to come about halfway up the vegetables. Water is functional but somewhat lame, flavor-wise. Why not go the extra light year and use something flavorful like homemade vegetable or meat stock or canned broth? Wine works, too, either by itself or more typically in consort with stock or broth. Whatever you're using, bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and allow the liquid to simmer until your vegetables are tender. This can be anywhere from 10 minutes to well over an hour. Also, you can do this stovetop or in a slow oven — about 325 to 350 degrees.

5 When the vegetables are tender, you can serve them immediately. Alternately, especially with large vegetables like leeks or fennel, you can remove them to a warm plate while you reduce the liquid. When the liquid is reduced to a glaze, season it with salt and pepper and add a splash of cream or a knob of butter if you want to get all crazy. Pour the sauce over the vegetables and be glad that you and Zandor are living in the future, making the braises, just like the old days.

James P. DeWan is a culinary instructor at Kendall College in Chicago.

Braised red cabbage

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 1 hour, 20 minutes to 2 hours

Makes: 8 servings

This is a great, basic recipe. Do not get obsessive about the amounts. Use one medium head of cabbage, half a big onion and an apple or two. Core the cabbage and cut it into thin, thin strips, known as "chiffonade." You also could think of it as shredded.

2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil

4 ounces bacon lardons

4 ounces onion, medium dice (about half a large onion)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium head red cabbage, cut in a chiffonade (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 cup red wine

1 cup chicken or beef broth or stock

2 ounces cider vinegar

1 tablespoon brown sugar

2 bay leaves

Salt and pepper

1 or 2 apples, peeled, medium dice (about 1/2 pound)

1 Heat a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the oil and let it come up to temperature, about 30 seconds. Add the bacon; cook, stirring, until it crisps up and the fat renders (melts). Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon; reserve.

2 Add the onion; saute until lightly brown, 2-3 minutes.

3 Add the garlic; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

4 Stir in the cabbage to coat with fat; cook, stirring, 5 minutes.

5 Stir in the wine, broth or stock, vinegar, brown sugar and bay leaves. Season with salt (about 1/2 teaspoon) and pepper. When the liquid comes to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low (or place in a 325-degree oven) and braise until the cabbage reaches the desired doneness. This is entirely up to you and could last anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. (Julia Child suggests 4 to 5 hours!) The longer you cook it, the more tender it will get, and then it will start to get a little mushy. Totally up to you. One thing: Give the occasional check on the liquid level. If it starts to dry out, add more stock and/or wine. Trust me, you don't want the cabbage to scorch.

6 When the cabbage is nearly done, add the apples and reserved bacon; cover again and cook until the apples are tender, about 5 minutes.

7 Correct seasoning; serve immediately, or cool and hold in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Nutrition information per serving: 106 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 254 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

Note: Here's a thought: After you remove the bacon, crank the heat and sear a seasoned 3- to 4-pound pork loin roast in the pot. Remove the roast and reserve, then proceed with the red cabbage recipe. When the cabbage has cooked down a bit, nestle the pork roast into it, cover and continue braising in a 325-degree oven until the internal temperature of the pork roast reaches 145 degrees, 45-90 minutes.

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