ShareThis Page

Braise those blues away with cold-weather vegetables

| Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Even the most dedicated herbivore can get discouraged by the monotony of root vegetables, potatoes, onions, brassicas and such that crowd our midwinter produce sections. Fortunately, there's a surefire remedy for the winter vegetable blues: braising.

For starters, braising refers to the age-old technique of cooking ingredients gently with a little bit of liquid in a covered pot. When applied to vegetables, braising can coax even the humblest plants into memorable dishes, and when you grasp the basic technique, the possibilities are endless.

Most braises combine four elements: a main ingredient, liquid, seasonings and a bit of fat. When combined under the lid of a braising pot, the vegetables release their essences into the seasoned liquid, emerging infused with flavor and bathed in a savory sauce — a true example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The key is to consider how each element contributes to the whole.

The main ingredient. Although you can braise most any vegetable, this simple technique is best appreciated with the older, full-flavored vegetables of winter. Great choices for braising this time of year are carrots, onions, turnips, rutabagas, fennel, leeks, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Jerusalem artichokes, endive, parsnips, salsify, escarole, mustard greens, collards and daikon radishes.

The liquid. This is what defines braising, and your choice of liquid provides the basic profile for the final dish. Water will create the cleanest, lightest taste, but broth will add a definite savory quality: that hard-to-define umami. Other favorite choices are wine, cider, beer, fruit juice, canned tomato juice, coconut milk and cream. Pungent liquids such as vinegar, soy sauce and fish sauce add tremendous flavor but are best used sparingly in combination with other liquids, lest they overpower the dish.

The seasonings. Classic choices for this flavor base are members of the onion family (garlic, shallot, leek, green onion), fresh or dried chilies, gingerroot, ground spices and fresh and dried herbs.

A bit of fat. This one is optional, but I urge you to consider including some fat because of its amazing ability to add depth and richness to an otherwise plain dish. Even the thinnest thread of a tasty fat (think olive oil, butter, rendered bacon fat, ghee or duck fat) added at the start goes a long way to ensure wonderfully full-flavored braised vegetables.

After you've decided on the four elements, you get to choose how to put it all together.

The minimalist approach. Arrange the vegetables in a tight single layer in a shallow braising pan or baking dish, pour the liquid over them, add seasonings and a drizzle of fat. Cover tightly and cook over a medium-low burner or in a low oven (around 325 degrees) until tender. This is every bit as easy as it sounds.

The two-step. Saute your aromatic seasonings in a skillet, then add the vegetables, turning to coat them in the aromatics. You can even let the vegetables brown a bit at this point to add another layer of flavor. But take care not to cook them through. Add the liquid, bring to a simmer, cover and braise until tender.

The braise-and-glaze. A favorite way to finish a vegetable braise is to remove the lid at the very end and turn up the heat to evaporate any remaining liquid into a glaze that coats the vegetables. You can take advantage of the natural sweetness of many vegetables and allow the glaze to caramelize slightly, shaking the pan to take care that the vegetables don't burn.

Stovetop or oven. As you've gathered by now, there's tremendous room for improvisation and flexibility when braising vegetables, right down to how you choose to cook them. The advantage of using the oven (set from 300 to 325 degrees) is that you don't have to worry as much about the liquid evaporating; the downside is that this takes a little longer. Whichever method you choose, remember that the liquid should barely bubble and not boil. A gentle heat plus an extended cooking time results in the best flavor and texture. Doneness is somewhat a matter of personal taste, but tender is what you're after.

Make now, serve later. An often-overlooked aspect of braised vegetables is that they improve in taste and texture when prepared in advance. The flavor exchange that happens inside the braising pot continues as the vegetables cool and are then reheated for serving. Go ahead and add any finishing touches (with the exception of fresh herbs or crunchy bread crumbs) when you first braise. Then cool, cover and refrigerate for as long as three days. Reheat gently before serving.

Molly Stevens in the author of “All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking” (Norton), a blogger at MollyStevensCooks.com and a contributing writer for The Washington Post.

Onions Glazed With Pomegranate Molasses

Look for walnut-size boiling onions at the market. Pearl onions work, too, but they are fussier to peel because they are smaller, and they might cook more quickly. If you happen to find fresh baby or spring onions (not skinny green onions), skip the blanching step. Instead, leave about 12 inch of the green stem and peel away only the thinnest outer membrane before braising.

The dish can be refrigerated as long as 5 days.

Water

1 pound white boiling onions, about 1 inch in diameter

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 teaspoon peeled, minced gingerroot

1 clove garlic, minced

One 2- or 3-inch cinnamon stick

1 bay leaf

18 teaspoon crushed red pepper

12 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or parsley

Fresh pomegranate seeds (arils), for garnish, optional

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil over high heat. Drop the onions into the water; blanch for 1 minute, then drain and rinse them quickly with cold water. Drain the onions again. Use a paring knife to trim off the root ends, and peel the onions.

Heat the oil and butter in a medium skillet (just large enough to hold the onions in a single layer) over medium-low heat until the butter melts. Add the gingerroot, garlic, cinnamon stick and bay leaf; cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is fragrant and the gingerroot and garlic have softened, for about 4 minutes.

Add the onions, stir to coat them, and season them with the crushed red pepper, salt and a pinch of black pepper. Add just enough water to come about one-third of the way up the sides of the onions. about 12 cup.

When the water begins to bubble at the edges, cover the skillet and adjust the heat as needed so the liquid continues to bubble at the edges. Braise until the onions are tender enough to easily pierce with the tip of a paring knife, for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on their size.

Uncover the pan; increase the heat to medium-high and bring the liquid to a full boil. Discard the cinnamon stick and bay leaf. When there is just under 14 inch of liquid left in the skillet, add the pomegranate molasses. Cook, shaking the pan to prevent the onions from sticking, until the pan liquid is reduced to a glaze and the onions are well-coated.

Taste, and adjust the seasoning. Top with a scattering of the cilantro or parsley and, if using, the pomegranate seeds. Serve hot or warm.

Makes 4 servings.

Braised Potatoes With Bay Leaves and Garlic

You might not have cooked potatoes this way before, but this recipe will persuade you to do so again and again. They become deeply flavorful, fragrant and tender.

Look for small potatoes that you can leave whole, such as fingerlings and two-bite red potatoes.

The potatoes taste even better after a day's refrigeration.

1 12 pounds small red or white potatoes, scrubbed

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup no-salt-added chicken broth, or as needed (may substitute water)

2 bay leaves, preferably fresh

2 to 3 cloves garlic, smashed

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

If the potatoes are larger than golf-ball size, cut them in half. If you are leaving them whole, use a vegetable peeler to remove a band of skin around the circumference of each potato; that will allow the flavors of the braising liquid to penetrate.

Place the potatoes in a saucepan large enough to hold them in a snug, single layer without crowding. Add the oil, then enough broth to come halfway up the sides of the potatoes. Tear the bay leaves in half and add them to the saucepan, along with the garlic, to taste. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Cover and cook the potatoes over medium heat; When the broth is bubbling at the edges, reduce the heat to medium-low. Braise, lifting the lid and turning the potatoes with a spoon after about 10 minutes; cover and cook until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a thin skewer, for a total of about 20 minutes.

Uncover the pan, and increase the heat to high; boil, gently shaking the pan back and forth, until the water evaporates and you can hear the oil sizzle, for about 5 minutes. The braised garlic cloves will break down and coat the potatoes as you shake the pan.

Discard the bay leaves; serve hot.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Braised Green Cabbage With Balsamic

The cabbage is cooked in big wedges here, so it requires an extended cooking time — more than 2 hours — to render it intensely tender and sweet. A sprinkle of fleur de sel before serving adds a crunchy counterpoint to the supple cabbage.

Serve alongside beans or mashed potatoes for a comforting supper. The dish can be refrigerated for as long as 1 day.

14 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the baking dish

1 small to medium head green cabbage (about 2 pounds), trimmed and cut into 8 equal wedges

1 large yellow onion (about 8 ounces), cut into thick slices

1 large carrot, scrubbed well and cut into 14-inch rounds

14 cup no-salt-added chicken broth

Scant 1 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

18 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or more as needed

Water, optional

1 12 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Fleur de sel or coarse sea salt, for serving

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a large gratin dish or 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish with a little oil.

Arrange the cabbage wedges in the gratin dish. Scatter the onion and carrot around the cabbage. Drizzle with the 14 cup of oil and the broth, then season with the salt, a good pinch of the black pepper and the crushed red pepper. Cover the gratin dish tightly with aluminum foil; slow-roast the vegetables (middle rack) for about 2 hours, until the vegetables are completely tender. Use tongs to turn over the cabbage wedges after the first hour. Don't worry if the wedges want to fall apart as you turn them; just do your best to keep them intact. If the dish is drying out, add a few tablespoons of water.

After the cabbage is completely tender, remove the dish from the oven; increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

Uncover the cabbage; sprinkle on the balsamic vinegar, carefully turning the wedges to distribute the vinegar. Return the gratin dish to the oven uncovered and roast for 15 minutes or so, until the vegetables begin to brown. Taste, and add black pepper or crushed red pepper as needed.

Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with fleur de sel or other coarse salt.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Butter-Braised Carrots and Fennel With Orange Zest

The sunny hue of this dish brightens any cold-weather meal. Serve it alongside something meaty, like steak or chops. But it's also a fresh counterpoint to a bowl of whole grains.

The dish can be refrigerated as long as 4 days.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large shallot, minced (a heaping 14 cup)

1 teaspoon coriander seed, crushed

2 small bulbs or 1 medium bulb fennel, plus a few fennel fronds for optional garnish

2 strips orange peel, removed with a vegetable peeler, each about 34 inch by 2 inches

1 pound carrots, trimmed, scrubbed well and cut into 12-inch by 2-inch sticks

1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

Freshly ground black pepper, as needed

14 cup dry vermouth or dry white wine

12 cup water

Melt the butter in a large skillet or shallow braising pan over medium heat. Add the shallot and coriander seed; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the shallot is translucent.

Trim the fennel bulb(s); if desired, reserve a handful of the fennel fronds and coarsely chop them. Cut the fennel bulb into 12-inch-thick wedges.

Stir the orange peel and fennel into the shallot mixture until they are evenly coated; cook until the fennel just begins to sizzle, for about 4 minutes. Add the carrots, and season with the salt and a good pinch of pepper.

Add the vermouth or wine; when it begins to bubble, add the water. Cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for about 40 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Uncover; increase the heat to medium and let the liquid reduce for about 5 minutes or until it nicely coats the vegetables. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Discard the orange peel, if you like. Serve hot or warm, garnished with the fennel fronds, if using.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Cider-Braised Rutabagas and Leeks

The cider underscores the rutabaga's inherent sweetness, making this a fine side for roast pork or chicken. If you can't find a dry cider to use, use dry white wine or chicken broth. Sweet cider makes this too sweet.

The dish can be refrigerated as long as 3 days.

2 strips thick-cut bacon, cut into 12-inch pieces

1 medium or 2 small leeks, white and light-green parts, halved and sliced and cut into 12-inch pieces, then rinsed well (about 2 cups)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

2 cloves garlic, minced

About 2 pounds rutabagas, thickly peeled and cut into 34-to-1-inch chunks

Scant 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup cider, preferably a very dry European style

Heat the oven to 325 degrees.

Distribute the bacon pieces in a large ovenproof skillet; cook it over medium heat until they are crisp, for about 4 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon to a plate.

Add the leek(s) to the rendered fat in the skillet; cook them for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally over medium heat until the leeks are beginning to soften.

Add the thyme and garlic, and cook until they are just fragrant, for about 3 minutes, then stir in the rutabaga until it is well coated. Season with the salt and a pinch of pepper.

Pour in the cider; When it begins to bubble at the edges, return the bacon to the skillet, scattering it evenly over the vegetables. Cover the skillet tightly and transferit to the oven to braise, stirring once about halfway through, until the rutabaga is tender and has taken on an orange hue, for 1 14 to 1 12 hours.

Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve hot or warm.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.