In the early years of the 21st century, pork bellies were reserved for commodity traders, and few chefs risked serving food that quivered in its own fat. Yet in less than a decade, this rich, braised cut of meat has ascended to restaurant staple. Its versatility has also helped reinvigorate a cooking method once known more for substance than style.
“Historically, that was the slam on braises: They weren’t pretty,” says Suzette Gresham, executive chef and co-owner of Acquerello in San Francisco.
That slight doesn’t ring true for the elegant oxtails and short ribs Gresham and her chef de cuisine, Mark Pensa, churn out. And they’re not the only ones. Bolstered by rising protein costs, creative techniques and global influences, chefs are moving beyond pork belly and giving everything from chicken to beef tongue the low and slow treatment.
At The Radler in Chicago, Chef-partner Nathan Sears is making a case for beef tongue with sauerbraten (a sweet-sour German preparation). Sears marinates the tongue in red wine, vinegar and spices for five days until it is nearly pickled and then braises it gently until tender. Thin slices of the tongue are griddled to order, and at tableside, servers pour gravy made with the braising liquid and thickened with gingersnaps. Though tongue won’t usurp pork belly anytime soon, Sears is willing to take a hit on the menu price to entice more people to try one of his favorite preparations.
“You are getting people to eat something that doesn’t cost much but tastes delicious."
-Chef-partner Nathan Sears of The Radler
“You are getting people to eat something that doesn’t cost much but tastes delicious,” he says.
Some of the world’s most popular braises emerged out of this very idea: Take a tough, awkward cut of meat and make it delectable. The enduring popularity of osso buco is one such example, and the dish is typically on the menu at Abboccato Italian Kitchen in New York. Executive Chef David Arias braises a variety of proteins, from pork shank to monkfish, but the more traditional route is slow cooking 14-ounce veal shanks in white wine, stock and mirepoix, finishing with garlic, shallots, tomatoes and parsley. But he also adds a piece of dark chocolate.
“I really like mole,” says Arias, explaining the chocolate inclusion. “You get a little bit of bitter chocolate flavor, and there is a nice color on the sauce.”
HEAT AND SERVE
At Remedy Wine Bar in Portland, Oregon, Chef Ingrid Chen wanted to offer a wine-friendly braise on the menu. The problem: Her kitchen consisted of a single induction burner and a small oven that couldn’t fit much more than three quarter-sheet trays.
“I love a braise,” she says. “I wanted to find a compelling way to serve it at the wine bar without cutting corners.”
She found her answer in shepherd’s pie. The day before serving, she braises seared lamb shoulder in a commissary kitchen, using a mix of white and red wine, and water or stock. The next day, she heats the meat with some of the strained braising jus and blanched carrots, peas and pea shoots. The mixture goes into individual gratin dishes, topped with mashed potatoes mixed with a grated sheep’s milk cheese, like pecorino. To order, she heats the gratin dish in the oven until browned on top and warmed through.
“Lamb shoulder is really great,” Chen says. “The yield is high for the cost, and it’s good for something like a shepherd’s pie when the meat is broken up into pieces.”
When Adam Keough took over as executive chef at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in San Francisco, he quickly learned coq au vin would be in his future. “The chef before me took it off the menu and there was a bit of an uproar,” he says. “When I started, I was asked 150 times if I was going to bring it back.”
He has since embraced the dish, which takes three days to prepare. On the first day, Keough butchers the chickens—separating the legs from the bone-in breasts—seasons the meat and makes a stock with pig’s feet and chicken bones. The next day, he braises the bone-in breasts and legs separately in stock and reduced red wine for even cooking. The final day, he cuts the breast meat off the bone and strains the braising liquid, which he fortifies with bacon, garlic, thyme and reduced red wine, and then thickens with roux.
Once that’s done, the pick-up is simple. Like Chen, Keough assembles the dish in a heat-and-serve vessel. On a night the symphony plays, Absinthe will seat 100 people in an hour. “This is the type of dish that saves the day,” Keough says.
Bird is the Word
While the growth of braised dishes on menus across the country has been flat, the number of dishes with braised chicken grew 6 percent in the first quarter of 2014 over the same period in 2013, according to Technomic, a foodservice research company.
Part of the reason is cost (although chicken prices keep rising), but most of it has to do with versatility. Braised meats of all kinds are integral to the Mexican menu at Villalobos in Montclair, New Jersey, but braised chicken is especially flexible.
“It could be in a torta, it could be a filling for tamales, it could be in a taco, it could be a filling for sopes,” Chef-owner Adam Rose says.
Rose brines chickens with epazote and arbol chilies for 24 hours. The next day, he slightly flattens the meat, sears the birds and braises them with caramelized carrots, onions, garlic, toasted arbol and guajillo chilies, stewed tomatoes, chicken stock and bay leaves until tender. “We also add chipotle peppers in adobo sauce,” he says. “It gives the chicken a subtle smoky flavor.” Once cool, he separates the birds from the liquid, breaks each one down into eight pieces and pulls the meat off the bones.
“I love a braise. I wanted to find a compelling way to serve it at the wine bar without cutting corners.”
-Chef Ingrid Chen of Remedy Wine Bar
Faced with an overabundance of fat left from cooking carnitas, Executive Chef Kyle Rourke uses it (along with some leftover bacon fat) to confit chicken thighs and drumsticks at Red Star Tavern in Portland, Oregon. After lightly curing the chicken, he cooks them in the fat at 180 F for 12 hours. To order, Rourke deep fries the chicken and serves it with a chili-caramel sauce.
The dish has a low food cost—the thighs have a 16-percent food cost while the drumsticks average 12 percent—and it has become a staple on the happy hour menu. “It has that salty-sweet thing going on,” Rourke says. “Beer goes really well with it.”
About four years ago, Mark Pensa started experimenting with a new stovetop pressure cooker at home. Technological advancements produced results encouraging enough to bring it to Acquerello to prepare oxtails and other tough meat cuts.
“The evaporation level of the liquid was almost nonexistent,” he says. “When you cook with it, it leaves a more intense flavor in the meat.”
Because presentation suffers with this preparation, he tends to reserve the pressure cooker for pasta fillings. When presentation matters more, Pensa and Gresham have found success with sous vide. Pensa sears short ribs with butter, herbs and garlic before cooking them vacuum-sealed in a water bath at 62 C for 24 hours.
“When you slice it, instead of seeing the grayish-brown, it is pink inside,” Gresham says. “But it eats like a braise.”
No matter the equipment, fundamentals, such as seasoning the meat well and evenly searing it before cooking, still apply. “The technique doesn’t change,” Pensa says.
Kate Leahy is a San Francisco-based writer, cookbook author and regular contributor to Food Fanatics.
Stock up on these ingredients for a better braise
Wine: At Remedy Wine Bar, Ingrid Chen mixes white and red wines together to avoid an overly tannic braise. If she doesn’t have stock to cut the wine, she uses water and adds roasted stock bones, which essentially creates a stock in the braise.
Pig’s foot: When braising pork shoulder or chicken at Absinthe, Adam Keough throws in a soaked pig’s foot to fortify the braise with flavor, marrow and gelatin. It’s an old French cooking trick, he says.
Apple sour: Carlo Apolloni favors apple sour when deglazing the pot for slow-cooked wild boar ribs at Grissini in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. He likes its clean, light flavor that complements apples in the braise.
Cola: Cooking carnitas with cola isn’t so different from basting ham with the soda—it infuses the meat with a subtle sweetness, says Adam Rose of Villalobos.