Saturday, September 8, 2007

In Celebration of Fall

I love Labor Day. Not because of the day off (which is always cool) and the barbecue, but because it is the unofficial start of Fall (my favorite season.) The temp is just right (at least in some states), the leaves turn, clothes are better and comfort food makes a comeback.

This week I changed my kitchen colors from oranges, golds and red to black and brown. I pulled out the vanilla-scented potpourri. I fell in love again with my Mahogany dinnerware. I'm giving some thought to what my Christmas colors will be. (Hey, I do not go down to my storage unit after the first week in October. It may be snowing and I am not hauling Christmas ornaments up icy steps.)

Best of all, I made a fall dish without feeling guilty. This was a pot of love. I seared a bone-in turkey breast and braised it with turnips, onion, acorn squash, garlic and sweet potatoes. (I'm choosing to omit the secret ingredients) Garnished with fresh sage and rosemary -- now you have a bowl of love. Sometimes rustic is the way to go.

I tried to take a picture of it plated, but the camera phone did it no justice. I'll take some pics when I get my new camera. In the meantime take a gander at the pot that made it all happen, my All-Clad Dutch oven.

Braising 101

Braising is a slow cooking method. It makes large and/or tough cuts of meat tender and juicy. If you know how to cook a roast in a slow cooker, your already there!

The keys to a good flavorful braise are high heat and moist low heat. Let me explain. Caramelization of meat and veggies occurs when the sugars in the foods brown. It happens when easiest during searing or grilling, which are high-heat applications It's that sizzle when the steak hits the fry pan.

Many of us never get foods to caramelize because we like to move the food around in the pan instead of letting it cook and developing fond in the pan. (more about fond later). This is why many TV chefs instruct you to place the food item on the hot surface and walk away. How do you know when your food has properly caramelized? It will readily release from the pan when you try to move it. Once you lift it, you'll see the golden brown color.

Let's say you're working a turkey breast, as I did above. I heated the Dutch oven until it was nice and hot. I added just enough canola oil to cover the bottom of the pan and plopped the breast in. After caramelizing the skin side (always sear and fry the skin side first), I flipped it to sear the other side. I repeated the process until every possible inch was golden brown. I then removed the breast from the pot. Remember that I used high heat because I wanted to brown the outside quickly without cooking the inside. Braising is a two-step process, I had to save room for the low heat to work.

Next comes the veggies. Almost everything tastes better when caramelized, so I caramelized the veggies in the pot in batches. I did not clean the pot as I progressed because I wanted plenty of fond. Fond is the tasty dark brown bits left in a pan after searing or roasting. The more the merrier, but be careful not to allow it to burn. To prevent the fond from the turkey from burning, I lowered my searing temperature slightly when browning the veggies.

Deglazing is the act of removing fond by adding a liquid. Your pan should be hot and the liquid should hiss and bubble when added to the pan. This happens to be the foundation of a good pan sauce. You can deglaze with wine, water, broth, etc. Obviously water will give you the least flavor. As you add the liquid, use a wooden utensil to scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen the fond. My favorite tool for this is the Oxo wooden turner.

After adding enough liquid to remove the fond, I added the veggies and turkey breast back into the pot. I added enough liquid to come about halfway up the turkey breast and covered the top of the meat with the veggies. I then adjusted the seasonings, covered the pot and placed it in a pre-heated 350 degree oven. I let it cook for about two hours.

The liquid and low heat from the oven create a wet sauna for the turkey. This is braising. Anything you cook in this manner will bring you a pot of love.

Now you can use a thermometer to check when your food is done. I usually go by sight. I like braising because you also get a delayed "thumbs up" the next day to let you know if you cooked the food properly. If you've braised something bone-in and your liquid has gelatinized the next day, pat yourself on the back. You've broken down the collagen in the bone to extract maximum flavor. Eat your leftovers with pride, job well done!

Braising tips:

  • Throw in a bay leaf when you put the dish in the oven
  • Leave out the fresh herbs until the food goes into the oven
  • Season well and season as you go
  • Searing is for color, not cooking
  • Make sure your pot has a tight-fitting lid. Many quality braising vessels have domed lids to maximize the amount of moisture in the pot.
Tools of the trade:

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