When it comes to the rugged vegetables of winter, the only thing that turns me off more than overcooking is undercooking. So it was really disappointing when I decided to splurge on dinner at a prestigious restaurant a few years ago and got served al dente beets. I remember the details all too clearly.
My game-bird sausage appetizer arrived, studded with pistachios and garnished with baby beets. Since I’m a beet fan, I went straight for the garnish. But instead of yielding to the tines of my fork, that still-firm beet shot straight out, skidded across the table, and landed in my husband’s lap. I was mortified, my husband was steamed, and that belligerent beet had left a magenta trail across the tablecloth. Oh, how I wished the chef had considered braising.
Braising is a wonderful way to take advantage of some of the most underutilized vegetables of the season, such as celeriac, fennel, cabbage, leeks, turnips, and, yes, beets. All these vegetables are quite sturdy, packed with fibers, which makes them perfect candidates for the gentle, moist cooking of a braise.
Before the braise, a fast sauté
After a brief browning in a drop of fat, the vegetables are covered and cooked slowly in a small amount of liquid (usually stock or wine, or both). During the braise, the vegetables absorb most of the liquid, resulting in an irresistibly sweet and truly tender dish. What braised vegetables lack in appearance (the sad fact is that braising mutes their colors), they more than make up for in flavor and texture.
Proper braising requires the right pan. Choose a heavy-based, non-reactive pan that’s shallow and wide enough to permit quick browning and even braising. It must have a tight-fitting lid so the liquid doesn’t evaporate. A straight-sided 10-inch sauté pan is ideal for braising on the stovetop, and so is a stir-fry pan with matching lid. A Dutch oven can also work, but I don’t recommend using a deep saucepan—it’s too narrow to sauté well in. Cooking times will vary depending on the pan, so you’ll need to monitor progress accordingly. If you’re using a larger pan, watch closely during the last few minutes of cooking—liquid disappears quickly on a large surface area, and the vegetables could stick or burn.
Cut the vegetables to uniform size. It’s up to you to decide whether you want chunky cubes or a dainty dice, but do stay consistent with your choice. For winter squash and root vegetables, I think larger pieces have better texture and are prettier on the plate, but a smaller chop will expose more surface area for better browning.
Braised vegetables begin with a very brief browning in a small amount of fat, which draws the vegetables’ natural sugars to the surface. The vegetables should caramelize outside without cooking inside, so use high heat and sauté very quickly. A common mistake is to add the vegetables before the fat is hot enough. Oil is ready when it ripples, butter when it sizzles.
Add aromatic seasonings to create a flavor base that complements the vegetables. Ground spices, sturdy herbs (like rosemary and thyme), garlic, and onions are good choices. I also use a generous grinding of fresh pepper. These seasonings are added before the braising liquid so the fat has a chance to absorb their flavors. For the liquid, vegetable and chicken stocks are my favorites. Wine adds a tangy dimension to braised vegetables; water works in a pinch. To use cream, use some stock at the beginning of cooking and add the cream toward the very end of the braise.
Stovetop braising for more control
Because vegetables braise relatively quickly (compared to meats) and because cooking times vary considerably depending on the pan size and the cut of the vegetables, I braise on the range rather than in the oven. The burner gives me better control over the heat, and it’s easier to see how things are progressing.
Keep the heat low. Once the liquid boils, cover the pan and lower the heat to medium or medium low. Braising time will range from 15 minutes to more than an hour, but you won’t have to tend the vegetables during that time. They’re done when a fork pierces them easily. Ideally, the liquid will be absorbed exactly when the vegetables are tender, but this doesn’t always happen. If things look too dry, add a bit more stock. If there’s excess liquid, remove the cover, turn the heat to high, and bring to a boil. While the liquid reduces to a glaze, stir gently to coat the vegetables and to keep them from sticking to the pan.