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How to braise vegetables: Tips, recipes

Braising is the remedy for the winter vegetable

Braising is the remedy for the winter vegetable blues. Credit: The Washington Post / Deb Lindsey

Even the most dedicated herbivore can get discouraged by the monotony of root vegetables, potatoes, onions and such that crowd midwinter produce sections. Fortunately, there's a surefire remedy for the winter vegetable blues: braising.

Braising refers to the age-old technique of cooking ingredients gently with a little bit of liquid in a covered pot. 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.

Most braises combine four elements: a main ingredient, liquid, seasonings and a bit of fat.

THE MAIN INGREDIENT

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.

THE LIQUID

Water will create the cleanest, lightest taste, but broth (chicken, vegetable or meat) will add a definite savory quality.

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.

A general rule is to pour in enough liquid to come about one-third of the way up the sides of the vegetable. The best practice is to peek under the lid during braising and add a few more tablespoons of liquid if needed.

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.

A BIT OF FAT

Even the thinnest thread of a tasty fat (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.

Once you've decided on the four elements (three if you're on a 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.

THE TWO-STEP

Saute your aromatic seasonings in a skillet, then add the vegetables, turning to coat them 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.

STOVE TOP OR OVEN

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. Depending on the vegetable and the way you've chopped it, the process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to more than two hours.

 

ONIONS GLAZED WITH POMEGRANATE MOLASSES

1 pound white boiling onions, about 1 inch in diameter

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 teaspoon peeled, minced fresh ginger root

1 clove garlic, minced

1 (2- or 3-inch) cinnamon stick

1 bay leaf

? teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

Freshly ground black pepper

½ cup water, or as needed

2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses (available at Mediterranean and specialty groceries)

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or parsley

Fresh pomegranate seeds (arils) for garnish (optional)

1. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil over high heat. Drop the onions into the water; blanch for 1 minute, then drain them and rinse quickly with cold water. Drain again. Use a paring knife to trim off the root ends, and peel the onions.

2. Heat the oil and butter in a medium skillet (just large enough to hold the onions in a single layer) over medium-low heat until the butter melts. Add the ginger, garlic, cinnamon stick and bay leaf; cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is fragrant and the ginger and garlic have softened, about 4 minutes.

3. Add the onions, stir to coat, and season with the crushed red pepper flakes, salt and a pinch of the black pepper. Add just enough water to come about one-third of the way up the sides of the onions.

4. Once the water begins to bubble at the edges, cover the skillet and adjust the heat as needed so the liquid bubbles at the edges. Braise until the onions are tender enough to easily pierce with the tip of a paring knife, 20 to 30 minutes, depending on their size.

5. Uncover; increase the heat to medium-high and bring the liquid to a full boil. Discard the cinnamon stick and bay leaf. When there is just under ¼ inch of liquid left in the skillet, add the pomegranate molasses. Cook, shaking the pan to prevent the onions from sticking, until the pan liquid is reduced to a glaze and the onions are well coated.

Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Top with a scattering of the cilantro or parsley (to taste) and, if using, the pomegranate seeds. Makes 4 servings.

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BUTTER-BRAISED CARROTS AND FENNEL WITH ORANGE ZEST

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large shallot, minced (a heaping ¼ cup)

1 teaspoon coriander seed, crushed

2 small or 1 medium bulb fennel, plus a few fennel fronds for optional garnish

2 strips of orange peel, removed with a vegetable peeler, each about ¾-by-2 inches

1 pound carrots, trimmed, scrubbed well and cut into ½-by-2-inch sticks

1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

Freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup dry vermouth or dry white wine

½ cup water

1. Melt the butter in a large skillet or shallow braising pan over medium heat. Add the shallot and coriander seed; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the shallot is translucent.

2. Trim the fennel bulb(s); if desired, reserve a handful of the fennel fronds and coarsely chop them. Cut the fennel bulb into ½-inch-thick wedges.

3. Stir the orange peel and fennel into the shallot mixture until evenly coated; cook until the fennel just begins to sizzle, about 4 minutes. (This will give the fibrous fennel a head start on the quicker-cooking carrots.) Add the carrots, and season with the salt and a good pinch of pepper.

4. Add the vermouth or wine; once it begins to bubble, add the water. Cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for about 40 minutes, stirring once or twice.

5. Uncover; increase the heat to medium and let the liquid reduce for about 5 minutes or until it nicely coats the vegetables. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

6. Discard the orange peel, if you like. Serve hot or warm, garnished with the fennel fronds, if using. Makes 4 servings.

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BRAISED POTATOES WITH BAY LEAVES AND GARLIC

Adapted from "All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking," by Molly Stevens (W.W. Norton, 2004).

1½ pounds small red or white potatoes, scrubbed

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup no-salt-added chicken broth, or as needed (may substitute water)

2 bay leaves, preferably fresh

2 to 3 cloves garlic, smashed

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1. If the potatoes are larger than golf-ball size, cut them in half. If you are leaving them whole, use a vegetable peeler to remove a band of skin around the circumference of each potato.

2. Place the potatoes in a saucepan large enough to hold them in a snug single layer without crowding. Add the oil, then enough broth to come halfway up the sides of the potatoes. Tear the bay leaves in half and add them to the saucepan, along with the garlic (to taste). Season lightly with salt and pepper.

3. Cover and cook over medium heat; once the broth is bubbling at the edges, reduce the heat to medium-low. Braise, lifting the lid and turning the potatoes with a spoon after about 10 minutes; cover and cook until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a thin skewer, for a total of about 20 minutes.

4. Uncover and increase the heat to high; boil, gently shaking the pan back and forth, until the water evaporates and you can hear the oil sizzle, about 5 minutes. The braised garlic cloves will break down and coat the potatoes as you shake the pan. Discard the bay leaves; serve hot. Makes 4 servings.

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BRAISED GREEN CABBAGE WITH BALSAMIC

Adapted from "All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking," by Molly Stevens (W.W. Norton, 2004).

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the baking dish

1 small to medium head green cabbage (about 2 pounds), trimmed and cut into 8 equal wedges

1 large yellow onion (about 8 ounces), cut into thick slices

1 large carrot, scrubbed well and cut into ¼-inch rounds

¼ cup no-salt-added chicken broth

Scant 1 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

? teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or more as needed

Water (optional)

1½ tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Fleur de sel or coarse sea salt, for serving

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a large gratin dish or 9-by-13-inch baking dish with a little oil.

2. Arrange the cabbage wedges in the baking dish. Scatter the onion and carrot around the cabbage. Drizzle with the ¼ cup of oil and the broth, then season with the salt, a good pinch of the black pepper and the crushed red pepper flakes. Cover tightly with aluminum foil; slow-roast (middle rack) for about 2 hours, until the vegetables are completely tender. Use tongs to turn over the cabbage wedges after the first hour. Don't worry if the wedges want to fall apart as you turn them; just do your best to keep them intact. If the dish is drying out at all, add a few tablespoons of water.

3. Once the cabbage is completely tender, remove the dish from the oven; increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Uncover the cabbage; sprinkle on the balsamic vinegar, carefully turning the wedges to distribute. Return to the oven uncovered and roast for 15 minutes or so, until the vegetables begin to brown. Taste, and add black pepper or crushed red pepper flakes as needed.

Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with fleur de sel or other coarse salt. Makes 4 servings.

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CIDER-BRAISED RUTABAGAS AND LEEKS

The cider underscores the rutabaga's inherent sweetness, making this a fine side for roast pork or chicken. If you can't find a dry cider to use here, use dry white wine or chicken broth. Sweet cider makes this too sweet.

2 strips thick-cut bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces

1 medium or 2 small leeks, white and light-green parts, halved and sliced and cut into ½-inch pieces, then rinsed well (about 2 cups)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

2 cloves garlic, minced

About 2 pounds rutabagas, thickly peeled and cut into ¾-to-1-inch chunks

Scant 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup cider, preferably a very dry European style (see headnote)

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Distribute the bacon pieces in a large ovenproof skillet; cook over medium heat until crisp, about 4 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon to a plate.

2. Add the leeks to the rendered fat in the skillet; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally over medium heat until the leeks are beginning to soften.

3. Add the thyme and garlic, and cook until just fragrant, for about 3 minutes, then stir in the rutabaga until well-coated. Season with the salt and a pinch of pepper.

4. Pour in the cider; once it begins to bubble at the edges, return the bacon to the skillet, scattering it evenly over the vegetables. Cover tightly and transfer to the oven to braise, stirring once about halfway through, until the rutabaga is tender and has taken on an orange hue, 1¼ to 1½ hours.

5. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve hot or warm. Makes 4 servings.

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