I learned a lot from culinary school and subsequent jobs: flashy garnishing techniques, mother sauces, how to fillet a whole salmon and spin sugar into golden thread. With all of the excitement I didn't realize until years later that, though the term was new to me at the time, the glories of braising were far from it and remain some of the most delicious meals of my memory.
My dad is a master at the traditional Sunday dinner. I would say a good ninety-nine percent of my childhood Sunday meals consisted of meat so tender it fell to pieces in your mouth, whipped potatoes (lumps aren't tolerated in an Idaho family where mashing is only the first phase; potatoes were intended to be whipped into fluffy oblivion), milk gravy, and sweet green peas with jell-o on the side. While you may think this repetition got old, I assure you of quite the opposite; we looked forward not only to sitting down at the kitchen table decked out with my parents' sunshine-yellow wedding china, but indeed the whole process. It was no secret that the keystone of this whole experience was the meat that started while the rest of us were still rolling out of bed and rubbing our eyes.
Dad would lift our heavy-duty casserole onto the stove, I’m told it was once a glorious disco-era gold, but by the time I arrived on the scene most of that had rubbed off, giving way to taupe with patches of matte metal here and there. He started with butter—an ingredient whose inventory never dipped below two pounds in the house without a panicked run to the grocery store—melting it until bubbly in the bottom of the pan and then covering it with what he affectionately dubbed a ‘little color’ of salt and pepper. To this simplicity he added the roast, the chops, the chicken thighs or drumsticks or slices of loin, sometimes floured all over, sometimes not. The sizzling heard throughout the house was as delicious as the aroma of meat hitting hot butter and incited equal amounts of salivation.
As I got older, spending more and more of my time in the kitchen, I watched this process with an eagle eye. Nothing short of deep brown was turned over, often bits of charred crumb clung to each piece or dropped off into the hot fat of the pan to grow darker still. Once he was satisfied he’d browned each piece sufficiently, coming to the edge of acceptable before touching on burned, my dad added a small cup of water, turned the heat down to its lowest setting, and placed the heavy lid on top of it all. His work was done, and usually this was the point he removed his apron, donned his tie, helped my mother herd us kids into the car, and drove to church while magic happened in that big, golden pot.
Braising remains one of my top picks when it comes to cooking methods, and though my spin is often different than my dairy farm-raised dad and we save the mashed potatoes for visits home, we still find ourselves braising in one way or another nearly every week. This is our latest favorite and, while incredible on its own with some crusty bread or our favorite crackers, it also plays exceptionally well with others. Think along the lines of chili bar or build your own burrito with all the fanfare. Spoon it over a baked sweet potato or try my favorite breakfast, using it as the base for cooked quinoa, fresh spinach, Greek yogurt and a fried egg. Be forewarned, the leftovers are even better than the original dish, and as with most of what we do around here, feel free to vary the ingredients. Beef is excellent, chicken as well, but bear in mind that bone-in, dark meat and tougher cuts work best here (bonus: they’re usually the cheaper ones!) The braising timetable is perfect for breaking down that toughness and drawing deep flavor from homelier cuts.
Black Bean Pork Braise: A Tutorial
1 ½ - 2 lbs pork shoulder, butt, or ribs, extra fat trimmed
1 Tbs kosher salt
1 Tbs. avocado oil
1 Tbs. butter
1 medium onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup chopped carrot, celery or red pepper
1 ½ -2 cups water
2 (15 oz.) cans low-sodium black beans, drained and rinsed well
2 tsp cumin
1 ½ tsp chili powder
1 ½ tsp oregano
½ tsp coriander
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
fresh cilantro, chopped (optional)
A day or so before you want to devour the braise, take a few minutes to place the pieces of trimmed pork in a glass dish and generously coat them with kosher salt. Using tongs, turn the meat over and salt the other side. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 6 hours and up to 36. Salting ahead of time (at least several hours) is a phenomenal way to add flavor without much effort. Salting meat will draw the water out of it, something we assume is bad and it is, if it happens right before cooking. But if the meat is allowed to sit for several hours (refrigerated, of course), the water pulled out of said meat will mingle with the salt and then, as salt water, be pulled back into the meat— salting it more thoroughly than the surface layer, and delivering more mouth-watering flavor. Whew! So key idea here is to salt 6-36 hours ahead of time and then get pumped for what’s in store.
Mise en Place
Mise en place is a French term for ‘put in place’. Taking the time to prepare beforehand will add ease and joy to your time in the kitchen. Who can stress or burn dinner when there’s a waiting bowl of ingredients at your elbow just when you need it most? So before ever turning on the stove or grabbing an oven mitt, set up a chopping station and mince or dice all of your vegetables. Keep two receiving pans at the ready: one to catch the garbage (peels, root ends, etc.), and the other for the finished product. Though not strictly tradional, we’ll call this mix the mirepoix (meer-pwah). When you’re finished combine the spices in a ramekin, and set it aside.
Let Them Sing
Heat a heavy-duty casserole over medium-high heat and add the avocado oil and butter, melting and swirling the two together to coat the bottom of the pan. When the butter starts to foam and bubble, work in batches placing chunks of pork into the hot fat, being careful not to overly crowd pan. What you’re working for here is a deep golden brown on every possible side of the meat, so take a breath and don’t rush it. As one of my chefs once said, ‘You gotta let it sing before you stir!’
As a piece becomes gorgeously golden, use tongs to move it from the pan to a separate plate or bowl—something that will catch all those escaping flavorful juices so you can add them back into the braise later.
Low & Slow
Once all of the meat has been moved to the side plate, reduce the heat to low and add the mirepoix. Use a wooden spoon or tongs to move the vegetables around, working up all those yummy browned bits from the pan. Key words here are low and slow. Cooking the onions and garlic at a low temperature for 25-30 minutes with only occasional stirring will develop a complex flavor, replacing the sharp bite they’re known for with sweet caramelization.
Once the vegetables are soft and aromatic, it’s time to put this braise together. Place the pork on top of the bed of vegetables and add any reserved liquid, the black beans, spices and just enough water to give it all something to nestle into without becoming soup, not quite covering the meat. Top it all with a lid and, keeping the heat on low, let it be for three to four hours. Step away, clean your kitchen, read a book or play with your kids, coming back only occasionally to give it a look and a stir. Once the meat falls easily to pieces with a fork and the sauce has thickened (feel free to crack the lid for a while if it’s looking too soupy for your taste) check for extra seasoning, toss in a little chopped cilantro and call the troops to the table.
Dinner is served.