Cooking Techniques: Braising to Maximize Tenderness and Flavor

Pans of braised carrot, turnip, burdock (gobo) along with roasted butternut squash just about ready to serve to the Monday Night Dinner crowd in Palo Alto

When you have time,  one of the best ways of cooking root vegetables is to braise them. So, what does that involve? In “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Julia Child defines braise this way:  “To brown foods in fat, then cook them in a covered casserole with a small amount of liquid.” By way of explaining how I’ve adapted braising to vegetable cookery, let me tell you how I cooked the burdock you see pictured  (after the jump)

I choose braising as the cooking method because burdock is a firm, dense, strongly-flavored root which benefits mightily from long, slow cooking so it can tenderize and absorb flavors from the broth.  After being washed, I cut the burdock lengthwise, then into half-inch pieces. I also peeled and sliced some onion. Using a large, thick-bottomed pot, I sautéed the burdock and onion in a little canola oil, the purpose here is to add flavor by lightly caramelizing the surface. Ideally you want a large enough pot so that the veggies all come into contact with the bottom surface, this allows for even cooking.  Then I added enough water (vegetable stock would be even better), and a little salt, soy sauce and mirin to about half cover the vegetables (the only sure way to know how much seasoning is to add it a little at a time and taste, taste, taste). I continued the process in the oven, covering the pan and baking at 400º F for about an hour and forty-five minutes, stirring occasionally (burdock’s one of the slowest cooking vegetables, most will take less time). Alternatively, you could choose to continue cooking on the stove top, covering your pot and turning the heat very low for a slow simmer. Check from time to time to make sure the vegetables are not going dry. What you are looking for is for the cooking liquid to reduce to just a small amount, at which point your vegetables should be tender and flavorful.

Other sorts of veggies can be braised, but I think root vegetables are your best candidates because they benefit most from slow, steady, moist cooking. Judge the cooking time of various vegetables by how much resistance the vegetable offers your knife as you cut it. Daikon, for example,  cries out to be braised, utterly transforming from crisp and spicy to melt-in-your-mouth sweet, tender and almost translucent.

Braising appeals to me most in the fall through spring.  In warmer weather, quicker, lighter cooking methods make more sense. In the end, I combined the burdock with braised carrots and turnips and roasted butternut squash for the sort of vegetable dish which could be the centerpiece of a lovely meal.

Burdock (Gobo) oven braising with onions

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