Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Final Braise

If I had to choose my favorite cooking technique for meat I might have to go with braising: browning the meat on the stove, adding liquid and then simmering long and slow. There are so many things to appreciate about it: the flavorful, tender meat that results after the extended cooking time, the concentrated flavors of the sauce, the largely hands-off time for the bulk of the preparation. Coq au vin and beef bourguignon, two of my favorite classic French dishes are both braised. You can braise on the stovetop, but often dishes are braised in the oven making this technique a natural for days when you want to feel cozy and warm.

So, basically, May 31 is not an ideal day for a braise, especially when it’s warm and muggy outside like it was today. And, if you ever get tempted (or suckered) into braising in the dead of summer – with the oven on 350 or 400 for an hour or two or more and sweat pouring down your spine – you may just swear off the technique forever. Do yourself a favor: no more braising until October.

But, I signed off on a high note, with a flavorful and earthy recipe from The Girl & The Fig cookbook that Danielle gave me a year or two ago. This book is one of my favorites – really one of only three or four cookbooks that I use regularly. It’s written by Sondra Bernstein, the owner of The Girl & The Fig restaurant in Sonoma, California. The book highlights the restaurant's rustic French dishes with an emphasis on some of my favorite flavors: figs (of course), fennel, shallots, dried plums, tarragon, thyme, and wine. I’ve made a few things from the book including coq au vin, basil-scented potato cakes, shrimp cakes, potato leek soup, and cauliflower gruyere soup. With some tweaking here and there they’ve all been standouts.

Tonight I tried Braised Chicken with Prunes, Olives, and Capers. The sweet plumbs and the briny capers and olives were a fantastic match with the tender chicken. I served it over mashed potatoes with a crisp green salad on the side. Had it been February the meal would have been sublime. Since it was the end of May I’ll peg it at very, very good.

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