The Ancient Art Of Braising

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First Sizzle, Then Slow And Low

For those of us who try to eat something fresh at every meal, the cole family is definitely our best friend in winter. When the markets are full of imported produce, it’s especially pleasant to wander out to my deck and pick a flavorful assortment of winter greens. Of course there are many kinds of kale, as well as mustard greens, chard, beet greens, turnip greens, collards, arugula, radicchio, and various choys. A leaf or two of each type of foliage is all it takes to make a lovely batch of greens for myself, and if company is coming, I can pick a handful of each.

My current preferred cooking method for winter greens is braising. Braising is a very old technique that developed when most cooking was done over a woodstove or even an open fire. In general, braising starts with searing something quickly at high heat, then reducing the heat to very low and simmering it until tender. I like to braise both greens and vegetables in their own juices, which makes for extremely concentrated and flavorful dishes.

Braising Greens

Many grocery stores now offer bulk bins of braising greens, which are generally dense, somewhat thick leaves. Flimsier ones can work; braised endive is a classic French side dish, though whole small endive heads are used rather than individual leaves. Here’s a lovely way to try braising greens:

Basic Braised Greens

1 teaspoon fruity olive oil
6 kalamata olives, chopped
2 cups per person mixed braising greens
(i.e. kale, collards, mustard greens, chard, and beet greens)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon cider vinegar (or any)
few grains freshly ground black pepper

In a wide shallow pan, heat oil and olives over medium high heat. Add greens, stir to coat, sprinkle with salt. Cover pan, reduce heat to low and simmer until tender (5-10 minutes). Sprinkle with vinegar and pepper and serve hot. Serves at least one.

Braised Onions, Garlic, and Leeks

The initial step of searing or browning whatever you plan to braise is important, because it has a delicious caramelizing effect, especially on vegetables. If you like a glazed effect on your veggies, use some butter as well as oil for searing. Cook any of these onion relatives alone or in combination for a very tasty treat.

1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 head garlic, peeled
2 white or yellow onions, peeled and quartered
4 leeks, sliced (white and palest green parts only)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
fresh lemon juice

In a wide shallow pan, combine oil and butter over medium high heat. Place onions in pan, sprinkle with salt and gently brown. Add garlic cloves and brown briefly (1 minute), turning several times. Add sliced leeks and brown (2 minutes). Cover pan, reduce heat to low and simmer until tender (10-12 minutes). Uncover pan, increase heat and reduce liquid to a glaze. Serve hot with a splash of lemon juice. Serves 4 as a savory side dish.

Braised Garlic

2 tablespoons fruity olive oil
2 heads garlic, peeled

Warm oil over medium low heat. Add garlic cloves, cover pan and simmer over lowest heat for 5 minutes. Uncover pan and simmer, stirring often, for 12-15 minutes or until garlic is soft and pale yellow. Serve with grilled fish or chicken or roasted vegetables. Store in a closed jar in the fridge for up to 3 days. Makes about 1/3 cup.

Braised Endive With Snow Peas

The crunch of pea pods makes a lovely contrast to tender endive.

1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 small head endive per person
1/4 cup snow pea pods per person
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 lime, quartered

In a wide, shallow pan, combine oil and butter over medium high heat. Add onion, sprinkle with salt and brown gently, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add endive, spritz with half the lime juice, cover pan and simmer over lowest heat until tender (8-10 minutes), turning endive heads several times. Add pea pods and pepper, cover pan and cook for 1 minute. Serve hot, spritzed with remaining lime juice.

Braise Whatever

You can braise all kinds of things, from carrots, parsnips, turnips, potatoes, and sweet potatoes to celery and broccoli. Thanks to the enticing combination of light caramelizing and slow simmering, everything you braise tastes fabulous, especially if sprinkled with minced fresh herbs as garnish. For variety, you can supplement the natural braising liquid with various kinds of vinegar, citrus juice, a dry wine, cider, or apple or pear juice. Apricot or mango nectar (unsweetened) also works nicely with sweet things like carrots and sweet potatoes.

Garnish braised greens or vegetables with fresh herbs, toasted seeds (sesame, pumpkin, fennel) or chopped nuts (peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts). A sprinkle of hard cheese (peccorino, Asiago, parmesan) is also lovely, as are crumbles of soft goat cheese.

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