Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Braising Into Fall

Well I know it has been awhile.  I thought I would drop a line, send out some words and pictures.  After our crazy opening time, things have gotten into a nice groove.  We are seeing consistent guests, developing regulars in fact.  The food gets better every day and we just finished our first menu change.   We tried 50 to 60 dishes to find the 15 changes.  How it all began was looking at things on the menu that were not selling (Wine Quartet and Belly), throwing in things that were seasonally challenged (Salmon and Pesto) and then topping it off with things I either never liked or was frankly just damn tried of seeing (Walleye and Vegetable Pasta).  So we had our dishes on the chopping block. 

It was then the long difficult process of looking at ideas, tasting food, talking to vendors, thinking about fall, and making decisions.  This was the middle to the end of August.  We still had the patio so things were still hopping.  It was hot out and no one was thinking about braises and roasted vegetables. No one could understand throwing the basil and tomatoes under the bus.  So we struggled.  I was frankly in the creative wasteland. Whatever the culinary equivalent of writer's block is had invaded and wrapped it's wet blanket all around my cooking spirit.  After the heady days of opening the restaurant, teaching, leading, screaming, and working like a much younger version of myself I was spent.  The Sous Chefs (Nick, Coleen and Matt) were putting out ideas but nothing rang true with the tasters.

As September loomed and we were closely approaching the target date for a finished menu, Doug asked if we wanted to just make some small adjustments, maybe only tweek it a bit.  While I was grumpily pacing about the restaurant looking for my misplaced muse, pissing off cooks, managers, servers and vendors in the process, I knew that this needed to be a good sized shift.  That we needed to show that we were alive and not tied to past successes.  We had a few good ideas, Nick and Coleen contributed pizzas, I dug into the past for things that worked and you could see the beginning of the Fall menu taking shape.  We wanted to braise.  To take those parts of the animal that your average shoemaker would not know how to handle and really turn them into something great.  We wanted to taste the fall.  Apple Cider, Sweet Potatoes, Greens. 

It all started to turn around with the Pork Shank.  I asked Jerry Miller if had them and he came through with a beauty.   Duroc Pork Is an old breed in the US and has lots of intramuscular fat and a high Ph.  We brought the shanks in and it knocked their socks off.

So how does one go about turning this:

 Into This:

Well let's start at the beginning.  Cuts of meat that are going to respond well to the braise are tough to start out with.  They are the exercised bits, the Lamb Shanks and the Short Ribs and the Veal Breast and the Pork Belly. They are also the really flavorful parts.  It is the big secret in my world that a tenderloin while it costs a bunch and is ubiquitous lacks flavor and is really a vehicle for sauces and nice compound butters.  The Short Rib on the other hand is a beeforama.  It's not the prom queen but rather that girl you meet at the reunion who turned out to be beautiful, a doctor and also had a secret crush on you all during high school. While the prom queen is on her third marriage and ended up getting drunk at the party and falling down in a puddle of stale beer while eating, you guessed it some overcooked, flavorless Beef Tenderloin. 

So we know what kind of meat we are looking for, that underrated over-delivering kind.  So we have carted it home and now what.


Well lets start by seasoning the meat.  It would be best if you were able to even let it sit overnight with a generous bit of salt, maybe some hard herbs (thyme, rosemary, bay as opposed to basil, chervil or tarragon).  lets stay away from the wine.  Dave Snyder wants to soak his veal shanks in wine for days before cooking and I was with him on that but Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall turned my head and I am a convert.  He claims the acid in the wine "cooks"  the protein in the meat sucking it dry.  So we season, we wait. 

After all that waiting or waiting as long as you can or deem appropriate, dust your meat in flour, heat a large, shallow, heavy bottom pan with a generous amount of fat, I like the rendered pork fat that come off cooking the our bellies. So the pan is hot the fat is in there at this point just go slow, don't crowd things.  When you put the meat in the pan a few things are happening all at once.  For one the temperature dropped and second lots of steam is being released.  If you crowd the pan the heat will take longer to recover and you will end up with meat sitting in a puddle of it's own juices.  Not what we are looking for.

These are the correctly browned pork shanks.  they are this color all over.  You must brown them on all sides.  Why would you not brown them on all sides.  you are in the business of creating flavor, browning creates flavor and to leave one side unbrowned screams of laziness and a lack of true passion.  This is not supposed to be easy, if you want easy go get a prom queen and a tenderloin.  The flour does two things for us at this stage of the game.  One is that it dried the outside of the meat which promotes browning.  It also is taking on color of it's own which contributes flavor later on down the road.  And will also help thicken the resulting Braising Liquid that we are going to use for our sauce.
So the shanks are lined up like soldiers.  We always want to be organized and maximize our space with these adventures.  Uniformly brown.  The next step is Mire Poix.  Mire Poix is generally accepted to be 2 parts onion, 1 part celery, 1 part carrot.  We routinely augment this with other items to accent flavors.  For me almost uniformly there is garlic added, in the case of the pork we will add a few diced apples.  The size of the cut is determined by how long we are planning on cooking and if we are also planning on serving the mire poix as part of the dish.  If the cooking time is long then the mire poix is cut lager.  If it will not be used then a rough dice is fine.  If you are planning on using the vegetables. (think stew or pot roast) then you need to put some thought, skill and effort into cutting it to be attractive.

We will or I will always start with the carrots.  Why you might ask?  well the carrots and the onions both have lots of natural sugars.  The onions are easy to brown the take to it naturally.  The carrots are a tougher nut to crack.  So we give them a head start.
This is what I am looking for out of my browned carrot.  This is going to contribute to both the color and the flavor of the dish.  Now of course the carrot on it's own will do wonders, but sometimes gilding the Lilly is just what the dish needs.  So we brown our carrots add the rest of the veg and brown it as well.  There should be strong heat and a decent amount of fat in the pan.  Not crazy fat mind you but you hve to keep in mind that the fat is the vehicle by which we transfer the heat energy from the pan the the product.  It is the conductor.  

Next up is the tomato paste.  Not so much that we have a pan of paste with a vegetable garnish, but rather a pan of vegetables with a coating of tomato paste.  The paste needs to be browned.  Don't lose focus at this point or get lazy.  the paste will naturally stick to the bottom of the pan.  That is OK with me.  I will set one side of the pan on the heat, one side off. then when the tomato is all crusty and brown on the bottom of the pan I spin it around and let the other side get to work while the natural moisture in the pan pulls up the stuck on, browned up bits, which I then stir about to distribute.  When My tomato is more brown then red it is time to move on the the next step.  

In this case We added equal measure of Apple Cider and Chicken Stock.  We might add some wine as well.  (If we are cooking beef it is always red wine.  with chicken and pork I use white.  If you are using red wine I suggest adding a bit and then letting it reduce and caramelize over and over as opposed to adding all at once). You can also seen a rosemary stem floating about in that pan down there.  I always at herbs, frequently the stems.  Parsley always, in this case rosemary, Thyme usually and bay leaf seems to find it's way into the pot as well.

Bring the liquid up to a boil and pour over the meat to be braised. The liquid should come about 3/4s up the side of the meat.  Pop it into a low oven.  We are cooking in a large convection oven with the fan on low @275.  As the meat is cooking it forms a bit of a crust on the top.  Every half hour or so you should rotate the individual little shanks or ribs.  If you are working with really large pieces this may not be feasible or safe so can be omitted.  The idea is that the crusty bit is extra flavor that you are then adding into your sauce.

  This is a finished pan of Pork Shanks.  At this point remove the meat strain the liquid a few times and reduce.  We are adding fresh cider and a bit of maple to the reduction.

Served with Sweet Potato Hash and Braised Collard Greens This is really a wonderful dish.

Thank you Columbus.  Will write again soon.  Christian