The all-but-lost art of braising

Braised chicken and root vegetables

When our oven of six years gave up the ghost we had to forego roasting, baking, and grilling but we benefited by me relearning the all-but-lost art of braising.

There is plenty of tasty food that can be cooked on a cooker’s top! And a happy coincidence was that I knew we had a leftover half a celeriac, half a Swedish turnip, and some good-sized carrots occupying our fridge with some useful bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, a load of onions, a couple of leeks and a pack of smoked bacon.

It had started turning cold as November was here and the clocks had gone back, so I decided to do some braising.

Braising is one of those styles of cooking that is too often overlooked in the modern kitchen. But there are few other techniques that ask so little yet give so much.

If you have patience and can remember just four simple steps your home will be filled with the most tempting of scents as a result of the braising process.

The essentials are a Dutch oven or a covered container for cooking casseroles made out of either earthenware or cast-iron (I use a Le Creuset pot!), and a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom without scratching.

Armed with your tools, it’s what you do prior to the braise that counts.

STEP 1: SEAR THE MEAT

Season the meat you are using on all sides. Pour the oil into your heavy lidded pot which should be set over a medium-high heat, then add your meat without crowding the pot. Take your time getting a deep color all over the meat. The meat should really be taken out and kept warm, but if you are in a hurry move onto the next step.

STEP 2: SAUTE THE VEGETABLES

Chop your onions, leeks, carrots, etc., in the drippings from the meat’s searing, stirring frequently over a medium-high heat. You should aim for caramel brown colour but don’t scorching the ingredients.

STEP 3: DEGLAZE THE POT

Add your braising liquid (wine, stock, water) stirring and scraping any of the browned bits that may have formed on the bottom of the pot with your wooden spoon. These are the flavour bombs, which when dissolved in the cooking liquid enrich the dish.

STEP 4: THE BRAISE

Return the meat to the pot along with any juices that have accumulated and the broth. As you’re braising the meat should not be submerged. You’re not boiling shanks!  Bring the pot’s contents to a simmer and cover.

This is what our dinner became.

BRAISED CHICKEN WITH ROOT VEGETABLES

INGREDIENTS

  • 3  slices uncooked smoked bacon, diced
  • 4   bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
  • ¼ tsp each of salt and black pepper to taste
  • ½  lb (225 g) small potatoes
  • 1   medium onion
  • 2 small leeks
  • 1   medium carrot, peeled, cut into 2″ (5cm) pieces in half lengthwise
  • ½ celeriac
  • ½ turnip/Swede
  • a handful of mushrooms (optional)
  • 2  garlic cloves
  • 300 ml chicken stock
  • 125 ml dry white wine
  • A bouquet garni of fresh thyme
  • 2 teaspoons cornflour
  • Parsley for garnishing (optional)

DIRECTIONS

  1. Cut the bacon into pieces. Brown the bacon in the casserole dish over medium heat for 10–12 minutes or until crisp.
  2. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Brown the chicken, skin-side down, for 5–7 minutes or until golden brown.
  3. Meanwhile, cut the potatoes and onions into wedges and thinly slice the garlic. Clean and cut the leeks into 1” pieces (and half the mushrooms if you are using them). Peel and dice the root vegetables.
  4. Add all the vegetables to the pot; stir in the stock and wine. Bring to a boil, uncovered, over medium-high heat.
  5. Cook covered on a lower heat, for a further 40–45 minutes.
  6. In a small bowl, mix the cornflour with a small amount of water.
  7. Stir in the flour mixture and bring the casserole to a boil over high heat. Simmer for 5–6 minutes or until thickened. Garnish with a sprinkling of parsley and serve.

Bon Appetit!

Scalloped potatoes FAST!

Scalloped Potatoes

Don’t be fooled. People make out that it’s only on special occasions when luscious, creamy scalloped potatoes turn up at the table. It’s a fib. This is extremely easy and quick to make.

With layers of cream, onions, and potatoes all baked until lovely, rich and bubbly, people think this is a complex and indulgent dish. It is and it isn’t, but it’s possible to cook the prepared layers in the microwave in just 10 minutes!

I agree there are few other dishes which pair comfort and luxuriant elegance quite so perfectly.

Is there a difference between Scalloped Potatoes and Potato Gratin? Both are constructed with thinly sliced potatoes and then cooked in full cream milk or cream, but the difference is cheese.

Scalloped potatoes only really need to be made with milk or cream and potatoes, while gratins add cheese, either between the layers or just over the top. But if you want to add cheese, it’s fine, just that bit richer.

To give the dish a bit more acidity, I like to add some thinly sliced good-old brown onions, though red or white is good too. The layers should be: potato at the bottom, then onions, then more potatoes, and more onions etc. until the last layer which should be potato again.

The key is to choose a starchy potato – and don’t bother to peel it.

It’s the starch that will help the dairy you choose, whether milk or cream, to thicken to a velvety smooth sauce while cooking. Russets have the most starch and you will find the sauce will be creamier than when you use a more watery spud.  Russets, by the way, are the large ones, with dark brown skin and few eyes. The flesh is white, dry, and mealy, and it is suitable for baking, mashing, and chipping.

Work on the basis of one good-sized potato per person. Slice the potatoes so they are between 1/8” and ¼” thick. Using a mandoline makes this very easy and quick. What’s important is to make sure the slices are all about the same thickness so they all cook at the same speed.

If you were cooking this dish the long-winded way you may simmer the sliced potatoes in the milk or cream for a few minutes before arranging the layers. If you do it this way then remember you don’t want to thoroughly cook the potatoes at this stage. Once the milk and/or cream starts to simmer, it’s time to move on.

Place the layers in the baking dish you have to hand and pour over the seasoned cream and or milk sauce so that it seeps through all the layers. Cover this dish in cling film and put it all in the microwave. Cook on full power for ten to 12 minutes.

If you would like a slightly caramelised top then remove the cling film when you take the dish out of the microwave and finish it under a hot grill for a few minutes more.

Serving your scalloped potatoes, don’t worry if the dish is still loose and liquid, as long as the mixture is tender and bubbling everything will be delicious.

A slotted spoon or even a fish spatula will help you lift the layers and serve the potatoes in whatever shape or non-shape you like. Make sure you scoop out all that creamy sauce. Don’t leave it in the pan.  Drizzle it over the top.

Bish, bosh. Delicious!