Veggie guru coaxes cold-weather vegetables into something wonderful
Even the most dedicated herbivore can get discouraged by the monotony of root vegetables, potatoes, onions, brassicas and such that crowd our midwinter produce sections. Fortunately, there's a surefire remedy for the winter vegetable blues: braising.
Yes, I know that most of us think of succulent, slow-cooked meats (such as short ribs and lamb shanks) when we hear that cooking term, but this method is indispensable for transforming hearty, long-stored vegetables into flavorful, soul-warming dishes.
I learned that when I wrote my first solo cookbook. It was winter when I started working on it, so I hungrily dove into developing the classic meat-based braises that I so adored -- osso buco, pot roast, pork belly, coq au vin -- thinking I'd leave the vegetable chapter for later; I didn't think it would be a very important chapter, anyway.
In short order, I found myself craving variety, and so I began to incorporate braised vegetables into my weekly recipe tests. I instantly fell head-over-heels for the way the technique added variety and complexity, and so much deliciousness, to my wintertime eating. By the time the book went to press, the vegetable chapter had become the biggest (and first) chapter in the book. Today I still love my classic meat braises, but for everyday eating I'm all about the vegetable braise.
For starters, braising refers to the age-old technique of cooking ingredients gently with a little bit of liquid in a covered pot. When applied to vegetables, braising can coax even the humblest plants into memorable dishes, and once you grasp the basic technique, the possibilities are endless.
The timing can be entirely flexible, too. In a hurry? Cut the vegetables smaller. Feeling languorous? Leave the vegetables in big chunks and let them simmer slowly. Of course, you'll get more flavor exchange when you take your time, but you won't ruin the dish by speeding things up. I find that most of my weeknight vegetable braises come together in under an hour, some in as little as 20 minutes, while I might let my weekend versions go for closer to two hours.
Most braises combine four elements: a main ingredient, liquid, seasonings and a bit of fat. When combined under the lid of a braising pot, the vegetables release their essences into the seasoned liquid, emerging infused with flavor and bathed in a savory sauce -- a true example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The key is to consider how each element contributes to the whole.
The main ingredient. Although you can braise most any vegetable, this simple technique is best appreciated with the older, full-flavored vegetables of winter. A certain alchemy happens under the lid of a braising pot that softens their rugged textures and mellows assertive characteristics. Great choices for braising this time of year are: carrots, onions, turnips, rutabagas, fennel, leeks, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Jerusalem artichokes, endive, parsnips, salsify, escarole, mustard greens, collards and daikon radishes.
When prepping vegetables for the braising pot, I tend to go for larger chunks and pieces, keeping in mind that the more slowly they cook, the more flavor they absorb. Whatever size you choose, aim for uniformity so that everything cooks at the same rate. If you're combining vegetables, chop tough-textured ones a bit smaller than tender ones so everything will be done at the same time.
The liquid. This is what defines braising, and your choice of liquid provides the basic profile for the final dish. Water will create the cleanest, lightest taste, but broth (chicken, vegetable or meat) will add a definite savory quality: that hard-to-define umami. Other favorite choices are wine, cider, beer, fruit juice, canned tomato, coconut milk and cream. Pungent liquids such as vinegar, soy sauce and fish sauce add tremendous flavor but are best used sparingly in combination with other liquids lest they overpower the dish. Building a braise is a balancing act, and you don't want any single element to dominate.
The amount of liquid is also an important characteristic of a braise. For instance, if you add too much, you'll be stewing, and the results become soupy and less concentrated. If you add too little, you're more or less roasting, and you won't get the yielding textures and profound flavor exchange.
My general rule is to pour in enough liquid to come about one-third of the way up the sides of the vegetable, but it depends on the vegetable. Dense, dry vegetables such as carrots or rutabagas might need a bit more liquid than endive or onions. The best practice it to peek under the lid during braising and add a few more tablespoons of liquid if needed. If it appears that you've added too much, wait until the end, when you can remove the lid and boil down any excess.
The seasonings. From the simplicity of salt and pepper to an aromatic mix of herbs and spices, there's no limit to the possible combinations of seasonings that you can add to a braise. Although some of my favorite recipes lean toward plainness (nothing more than bay leaf, garlic, salt and pepper with red potatoes), other times I like to amp up things by sauteing a selection of aromatic seasonings in a bit of oil (or other fat) before adding the vegetables and the liquid.
Classic choices for this flavor base are members of the onion family (garlic, shallot, leek, scallion), fresh or dried chilies, fresh ginger, ground spices, and fresh and dried herbs.
A bit of fat. This one is optional, but I urge you to consider including some fat because of its amazing ability to add depth and richness to an otherwise plain dish. Even the thinnest thread of a tasty fat (think olive oil, butter, rendered bacon fat, ghee or duck fat) added at the start goes a long way to ensure wonderfully full-flavored braised vegetables.
The most common way to incorporate fat is to begin by sauteing the above-mentioned seasonings in a little oil. A bolder take would be to fry up bacon, sausage, pancetta or the like, and use it -- and its rendered fat -- to flavor the dish. You can also just drizzle a few drops of oil over the vegetables before covering the pot and setting it to braise. Trust me: Even that little bit of added fat makes a delicious difference.
Once you've decided on the four elements (three if you're still on some no-fat regime), you get to choose how to put it all together.
The minimalist approach. Arrange the vegetables in a tight single layer in a shallow braising pan or baking dish, pour the liquid over them, add seasonings and a drizzle of fat. Cover tightly and cook over a medium-low burner or in a low oven (around 325 degrees) until tender. This is every bit as easy as it sounds, but it works -- every time.
The two-step. Saute your aromatic seasonings in a skillet, then add the vegetables, turning to coat it in the aromatics. You can even let the vegetables brown a bit at this point to add another layer of flavor. But take care not to cook them through. Add the liquid, bring to a simmer, cover and braise until tender.
The braise-and-glaze. A favorite way to finish a vegetable braise is to remove the lid at the very end and turn up the heat to evaporate any remaining liquid into a glaze that coats the vegetables. You can take advantage of the natural sweetness of many vegetables and allow the glaze to caramelize slightly, shaking the pan to take care that the vegetables don't burn.
Some cooks help things along by adding a pinch of sugar or a tablespoon of heavy cream, and I love the nuanced sweetness I get by adding a bit of balsamic vinegar or pomegranate or date molasses. This is also an opportunity to add other finishing touches, such as a scattering or fresh herbs, a squeeze of lemon or lime, a dollop of mustard or a handful of toasted bread crumbs or nuts.
Stove top or oven. As you've gathered by now, there's tremendous room for improvisation and flexibility when braising vegetables, right down to how you choose to cook them. The advantage of using the oven (set between 300 and 325 degrees) is that you don't have to worry as much about the liquid evaporating; the downside is that this takes a little longer. Whichever method you choose, remember that the liquid should barely bubble and not boil. A gentle heat plus an extended cooking time results in the best flavor and texture. Doneness is somewhat a matter of personal taste, but tender is what you're after. Depending on the vegetable and the way you've chopped it, the process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to more than two hours.
Make now, serve later. An often overlooked aspect of braised vegetables is that they improve in taste and texture when prepared in advance. The flavor exchange that happens inside the braising pot continues as the vegetables cool and are then reheated for serving. Go ahead and add any finishing touches (with the exception of fresh herbs or crunchy bread crumbs) when you first braise. Then cool, cover and refrigerate for up to three days. Reheat gently before serving.
• Molly Stevens' 2004 "All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking" (Norton) won awards from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. The Vermont cookbook author and cooking teacher blogs at MollyStevensCooks.com.