I'm going through a braising phase.
One night, hungry, I looked in the refrigerator and found two miserable turnips and part of a leek. I felt like one of those characters in a fairy tale who has fallen on hard times: "She only had an onion and a crust of bread . . . she had only a knob of cheese and a trusty dog . . . she had only two turnips and a piece of leek. . . ."
True, I could have gone to the store. Better, I thought, to rise to the culinary challenge. So I heated some olive oil in a pan, sliced the vegetables and tossed them around in the hot oil until the leek went limp and the turnips began to glisten. Then, I turned down the heat and put on the lid. This was a thick, reliable pan, so I added only a tablespoon of liquid.
I went about my business -- folded laundry, chatted with the parrot, patted the dog -- and checked once or twice to see how things were cooking. Turnips were sweating away, leeks were softening; everything was slowly acquiring a faint golden glaze.
Had I sauteed these vegetables, I would have ended up with a dry, strong-flavored dish something like American fries, only made with browned, still-firm turnips flecked with dry brown wisps of leek.
Braised, however, both turnip and leek became velvety, moist, buttery and meltingly rich, with a golden, caramelized glaze. I ate them spread over "orecchiette" (little ear-shaped pasta) with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh ground pepper and felt like the clever, blessed heroine of a fairy tale: "The meager roots on her plate turned into a golden stew redolent of the finest oils. . . ."
I wasn't always a braiser. For years, I was stuck in saute mode. For dinner, I'd heat some olive oil in a pan, stir some mix of meat and/or vegetables until done, then toss it into pasta or rice. I liked the movement of sauteing, the constant participation in the cooking process from start to finish, the immediate gratification.
Leaving something to cook slowly on the stove or in the oven always made me a little nervous, bored, fretful. It didn't feel like cooking. Food, I believed -- like pets, roses and people -- responded to attention. The proper amount of touching and nudging would coax the flavor out.
I'm over that now.
For one thing, I became busier. The few hours a day I'm home, I have better things to do -- like collapse on the couch -- than keep a pan full of vegetable chunks in motion. Braising gives me free time even as my dinner cooks.
If I don't mind a late dinner, braised meat dishes can give me a couple of hours of free time. But not all braising takes that long. Some vegetable dishes are done in less than 30 minutes.
Even they don't ask much of me. I can ignore a pan full of braising lettuce for 20 minutes -- long enough to read the cartoons in the New Yorker, take a shower, water the roses, or give each of the animals a good scratch.
The true seduction of braising, however, has nothing to do with the fact that you can fiddle while dinner cooks. The reason I braise really has to do with what braising does to its object, be it $8-a-pound radicchio, $2-a-pound lamb shanks or a lowly turnip.
Easy as it is, braising is a two-stage process and, in both stages, a certain attention to details is required. The first stage is a fast hands-on saute wherein you introduce whatever you're cooking to hot fat. With vegetables, this means a quick fry to brown tips and edges without cooking the vegetables through.
With meats, this first stage involves a good browning on all sides. (A browned crust helps produce that deep meaty flavor and roasty-brown gravy, so it is worth the time and trouble of having to wash the resulting oily film off your glasses and face and stove and walls.) Then, after the meat is browned, there's also the brief sauteing of the "mirepoix," or finely chopped vegetables, that will cook with the meat.
The second stage of braising -- for both meat and vegetables -- involves adding the liquid, covering the pot and consigning it to low heat for the duration. While this slow-cooking stage is generally uneventful, it's a good idea to give the food a peek and a poke from time to time, lest burning occur due to sheer inattention and/or uncooperative cookware. Recently, while I blithely chatted in the dining room, I inadvertently manufactured charcoal from endive in the kitchen, thanks to a new, unfamiliar pan -- the low heat was, clearly, not low enough.
Braising is the best way to prepare some of the most flavorful but problematic cuts of meat. Shanks, ribs and oxtails all require long, moist cooking in order to be chewable. In the meantime, your kitchen smells like the best home in the world.
Braising vegetables is a somewhat more delicate and faster process than braising meats. Good vegetables to braise are cabbages, celery, Florence fennel, artichokes, eggplant, okra, onions, leeks, root vegetables (turnips, celery root, carrots, beets, etc.), and chicories (endive, escarole, radicchio).