Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tough as Nails: Part 2 - Slow and Low

The idea of a roast conjures images of Sunday evenings when a hunk of fragrant meat emerges from the oven in a transparent Pyrex dish, surrounded by potatoes, carrots, onions, and celery, then placed on the countertop to both rest the meat to retain the juices and to permeate the air with the smell of home, calling all to the table to feast. Once rested and sliced across the grain, the juices infuse the meat with rich and unique flavor.

Likewise, a one-pot meal in a Dutch oven cooked slowly over low to medium heat recalls images of the French paysanne (peasant) style of cooking, like the uber-traditional dishes coq au vin (rooster marinated in red wine with vegetables and served over egg noodles) or boeuf bourgignon (chunks of beef marinated in red wine and served with vegetables), both of which Alton Brown affectionately refers to as “big bowls of France.”. Every culture has its own one-dish braised meals, Peru has its seco de carne, Italy has osso bucco, and Mexico has mole.

These are two methods of tenderizing otherwise tough and/or gristly cuts of meat: the dry roast and the braise. Both have their merits, and both work in similar ways.

Dry roasting involves a large hunk of meat – a London broil, a large turkey/chicken, a rump roast of pork, or my favorite, a leg of lamb. The meat may be rubbed with spices or herbs before being subjected to the oven. Dried herbs usually work best because the delicate fresh herbs like basil, chervil, or parsley, when put in the oven, tend to burn easily and turn bitter. The exception to this is rosemary, which is stiffer and holds up better under the heat. The meat is then roasted without liquid for a generally long period of time, over an hour in most cases. The best recipes for this? Pork or brisket (see Mealtime in Melbourne for the address of Burrito Beach, where to find the best brisket burrito in the world), leg of lamb rubbed with garlic and rosemary, and Boston butt roast, studded with cloves and rubbed a paste of cinnamon, cayenne pepper, cumin, and coriander mixed with a little olive oil and S&P. The great thing about the dry roast is its versatility – not only can something be roasted in the oven, but a grill is also a great place for roasting, especially over smoke or charcoal to impart that woodsy, earthy, smoky flavor. The oven or grill is at a low temperature, breaking down the striated proteins in the meat and encouraging tenderization.

The braise is a similar method, the only difference being the use of a liquid (which, after the braising is over, can be reduced or thickened into a sauce for the meat – fabulous!) The meat, sometimes cut into chunks, is placed in a vessel along with some kind of liquid (called braising liquid) and then covered to avoid evaporation of the braising liquid and the gathering of moisture from steam coming from the ingredients. The best example of a common braising practice is the use of a Crock Pot. The Crock Pot cooks things for a long time over slow heat using a liquid to tenderize and infuse flavor. The great thing about braising is that there is not only a permeation of flavor from the meat, but the meat becomes like a tofu – sucking up whatever flavor is are surrounding it. Peruvian seco is a great example, chunks of (relatively inexpensive) chuck roast surrounded by a verdant cilantro sauce (also available from Goya in a fantastic bottled version that cuts down on time and is a great substitute), making for an explosive flavor along with extraordinarily tender meat. Braising goes where no dry roast has gone before – not just in the oven or on the grill, braising can happen on the stove, on low heat, of course, for over 45 minutes.

There is an ongoing war about whether or not the meat should be seared in a pan before going into the oven. Most professional and in-the-know at-home cooks will swear that yes, you must sear the meat before it goes into the oven or the heat is lowered for braising. I’m one of those people. There are several reasons why the meat should be seared before the low and slow cooking happens – there’s something really technical and scientific called the Maillard Reaction that happens to meat when it is seared, but you can read that on your own – there’s a great entry in On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee (the chef’s Bible) about it. Simply put, the meat caramelizes to create a hard dark crust on the surface of the meat. This not only imparts great flavor to the dish, but also seals the juices into the meat, which is very important in dry roasting, where the absence of liquid can make for a very dry product if the juices aren’t properly sealed in. The other option, especially if working with a piece of meat that is far too large to be seared, such as a turkey or lamb leg, is to jack up the heat on the oven to about 450 degrees Fahrenheit to cook the outside of the meat (the skin of the turkey/chicken) to brown and crispy before reducing the heat to 275 or 300 degrees in order to cook the rest of the meat. Just do it somehow – sear it. You’ll be thankful you did.

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