Braising can take the chill out of winter

I am not a winter person.  But I must admit, there’s nothing like a hearty winter meal followed by a good brandy or a hot cup of tea in front of the fireplace.  Historically man consumed rich and robust fare in winter to counter the cold and add some thermal padding.  Culinary anthropology aside, I simply love spending a cold winter Saturday or Sunday preparing soul warming fare that fills the house with its embracing aroma.

It starts with a technique called braising.  Braising refers to cooking food, often meat with vegetables, in a relatively small amount of liquid, at low heat for an extended period of time.  If you cut the food into bite size pieces and cover it completely with liquid it is then known as stewing.  The cuts of meat most suitable for braising are ones that are tough, (frequently used muscles), are attached to the bone, and have at least moderate amounts of fat.  The best choices include the shank, chuck, brisket, and short ribs.  Cuts from the round are tough and can be braised but their fat content is too low to produce the same quality.

Well exercised muscles contain more connective tissue which serves to hold the muscle fibers together.  Surrounding the connective tissue is a protein called collagen.  Time, heat, and moisture breaks down the collagen into gelatin, the substance that brings body to stocks and decadently lavishes your palate.  However, as the proteins in muscle tissue cook, they tighten and squeeze out their moisture. This actually reduces their tenderness.  However, the gelatin, as well as the fat in the meat, more than compensate for this loss of succulence.  A tender cut of meat with low fat, such as from the loin, would taste terrible if braised.  It would lose all it’s tenderness with little gelatin and fat to take up the slack.  Thus, braising can turn a tough piece of meat into a tender, fall off the bone, comfort food.  I can think of no better example than the classic dish osso buco, made from veal shanks.

4 veal shanks
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 and a half  cups parsnips, roughly chopped
1 and a half  cups turnips, roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup red wine
1 cup beef or veal stock
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon rosemary, chopped
1 tablespoon thyme, chopped

1) Season the shanks with salt and pepper and brown them in a large skillet with the olive oil, for about 5 minutes on each side.
2) Place the shanks in a large ovenproof casserole dish with a tight fitting lid.
3) In the same skillet you browned the shanks, sauté the vegetables for about 3-4 minutes adding more olive oil if necessary.  Add the garlic and tomato paste and sauté for a few minutes more, being careful not to burn the paste or the garlic.
4) Add the stock, wine, and herbs and bring to a boil.
5) Pour everything over the shanks and place the casserole dish in a preheated 350 degree oven for 1 hour and 45 minutes.
6) Add salt and pepper to taste at the end.

This recipe has a lot of leeway.  First, you can use beef shanks but veal produces more gelatin and hence, more tenderness.  Lamb shanks would be an excellent substitution.  You can also use carrots in place of the parsnips and potatoes instead of turnips.  Whichever ones you choose, cut them into large pieces, (about an inch and a half), so the extended cooking doesn’t turn them to mush.  (This is why root vegetables and not delicate vegetables are used).  The specific herbs and quantities can be adjusted to suit particular preferences.  And please, do not use cooking wine.  I am a strong advocate of the time honored adage that if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it. 
Your casserole dish should be large enough to hold all the ingredients and have a snug fitting lid so the liquids do not evaporate.  I use a round, glass casserole that is 4 and a half inches deep and 10 inches across inside. 
Lastly, the dish would not be complete without a loaf of bread to dip in the juice, (pure heaven), and the right bottle of wine.  Go with a full bodied and hearty wine such as Bordeaux, a northern Rhone, Brunello di Montalcino or my favorite, Barolo.