So you’d think after four decades I might at least have the basics figured out. What pocket to keep my keys in, where the umbrella should go, having a consistent wake-up time or remembering not to touch my face after I slice hot peppers - stuff like that. For such a creature of routine as I am, it feels simultaneously hilarious and crippling that I can never ease my way into one. Instead, most of the time, I go through life feeling like my shirt is on inside out and backwards.
Oxford shirt, and, yes. I’ve done that.
Even in the kitchen, that one space in my world where the rules seem clear and I feel safe within a radius of my instincts – I go through weeks when I find myself feeling clumsy and error-prone. Not that I expect perfection from myself, but, again, I’m at the point where a stir-fry or a roast chicken or a loaf of bread shouldn’t present many technical difficulties.
It’s more like a feeling that certain things I prepare frequently really should taste a LOT better than I’m willing to candidly admit. And maybe it was time for a couple of tweaks. . And sometimes, luckily, I can even get things right.
I mention this because the first couple braises of “the season” really didn’t turn out too well. I added too much liquid, completely over salted, and cooked neither lowly or slowly enough. As forgiving as a slow-cooked piece of meat can be, there is nothing more frustrating than investing four or five hours in a dinner that tastes only mediocre.
So I tried to fix.
I was even given a boost from an unlikely source. The folks at Urban Accents, a spice company based in Chicago, are, evidently, observers of these pages, and after I mentioned to them on Twitter how much I liked their Spanish spice mix (“San Juan Sazon”), they sent me a couple of small packages to try.
What I like about a good spice blend is that it should taste like a lot of something, but not much of anything in particular – it should be a “mood,” that heightens the flavor of the target ingredient without being one-dimensional or overly salty. In this case, both of these seasoning mixes contributed a LOT of flavor without interfering with the cooking process (by, say, interfering with the osmotics of brining or depositing bits of themselves in the searing pan.) These flavors really work.
Now, in re-booting my preparation, I decided to cut waywayway back on the liquid that I used, and, as much as I can’t stand this phrase, “trust the process.” This meant a quick sear, a tightly sealed vessel, and a small quantity of flavorful liquid and a few veggies to exude some brighter flavor notes and a bit of moisture. I was careful not to simply boil a piece of meat. The temperature never rose above 200 degrees for either of these dishes:
Simply Braised Pork Shoulder
3 lbs pork shoulder with no small amount of fat still attached
5 or 6 or 20 cloves of garlic
1 14ounce can of tomatoes
1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 cup of chicken broth
“some” spices. I used 2T of Urban Accents’ “Perfect Pork” – make sure that if you are using a spice mix, check the salt level to make sure you are not adding too much (or too little) salt. This one was perfect – it has hints of smokey and cedar and pepper… a very vibrant, yet flexible combination that has worked well for both pork and chicken lately.)
Turn oven to 200 or 225. Again, low.
Go Goodfellas on the garlic, and sort of deposit the slices in the nooks and crevasses of the meat.
Apply the seasoning, then sear on high heat over your cast-iron skillet until a crust forms.
Place the pork in a small gratin dish, or braising vessel (or simply wrap in tin foil), along with the onions, garlic, tomatoes, and chicken stock) – place in the oven.
Check the meat every hour or so, flipping the meat each time before re-sealing. Cooking time will depend on the size and shape of the meat.
Braised pork is done when the meat is VERY tender. It should pull completely away from any bone (the collagen has transmogrified into gelatin!) and offer little resistance to a knife, or, more critically, to the tooth. One of the reasons this recipe might seem a little parsimonious with the liquid is because I’ve realized that what happens too often is that too much liquid can just “boil” a very tasty hunk of meat.
That said, however, what liquid is left should be dumped into a pan, reduced into a sauce, and ad that point, anything goes… right?
Which brings me to the other braise… a very simple pot roast.
The recipe is much the same as above, save for the fact that the meat is a 3lb bone-in chuck roast, the liquid was a cup of strong coffee, and I skipped the tomato.
This time, I used the “Maple Glaze,” seasoning they sent, and, again, really liked it. I am not quite sure I used it in the “right” way, but as an apartment dweller who leads a mostly grill-free existence, concessions to reality have to be made.
This is why I am not a chef: I know that maple can be used in savory dishes, but I had never thought of it as the sort of brooding, sultry flavor it can become when cooked slowly. It retained a sweetness, but the sort of sweetness that roasted vegetables have, rather than, say, pancakes.
And of course, the gravy. And the sandwiches.
Crisis over. I’m back. Happy 2012 everyone.