Photo By: Photos by Garrett Miller/Special to the Town Crier
In my book, cooking at home should be fun. It should be a relaxing, reinvigorating experience that engages the senses. And, most of all, it should be simple.
My favorite recipes are those that are familiar, those that are both easy to cook and easy to eat, and those for which I don’t have to stress about having the exact amount of every ingredient because it can be substituted or omitted. And for this time of year, that kind of recipe usually means a hot, hearty braised dish or a gently bubbling stew.
These kinds of dishes are comforting, thanks to their therapeutic warmth and the soft textures of slow-cooked vegetables and falling-apart meats, and they make few demands on a cook’s attention, energy or pantry, all of which can be stretched around the holidays. That’s because – and here’s my dirty little cooking secret – most of these dishes are essentially the same. They follow the same steps and employ the same mostly hands-off cooking methods, just with different ingredients. So, whichever ingredients you feel like cooking with (or happen to have laying around), you can follow these simple steps to a comforting meal.
Brown meat. Season meat with salt and pepper and sear it so that you get a nice brown crust, which lends flavor to the finished dish. Remove and set aside.
Sauté aromatics/seasonings in fat. Onions, garlic and shallots are always good bets. Add any dry spices to toast them and enhance their flavor. As for the fat, oil works fine, but bacon grease or lard makes for an even richer flavor. Cook vegetables until soft. Typically, 8-10 minutes is all you need for this step.
Add liquid and walk away! Liquid ingredients like broth, crushed tomato and water create a flavorful, tenderizing bath for the meat.
Return meat to the pot, submerge in liquid and let the dish simmer for one to three hours, until tender.
For these dishes, a long-cooking, cheap cut of meat is ideal. Some of my favorites are beef short ribs, lamb shanks, veal shanks, beef chuck and pork shoulder.
As for the flavorings, that’s where the variability comes in. You can make great, four-ingredient braised short ribs with garlic, broth and red wine; a rich beef, beer and onion stew; or one of my favorites, braised lamb shanks in a rich tomato sauce perfumed with Indian spices (see recipe on page 26).
Garrett Miller is a freelance writer, food blogger and graduate of Los Altos High School and UC Santa Cruz. For more of his comfort-food recipes, visit www.noodletherapy.com.
Indian-Style Braised Lamb Shanks
• 1/4 cup vegetable oil
• 4 meaty lamb shanks
• 20 shallots, peeled but left whole
• 8 cloves garlic, crushed
• 2 serrano chiles, finely chopped
• 2 small cinnamon sticks
• 8 whole cloves
• 2 whole star anise
• 2 14.5-ounce cans diced tomatoes (I use the “fire-roasted” variety, but this isn’t essential)
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
• 2 teaspoons garam masala
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• 2 cups chicken stock
• Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 F. Season lamb shanks generously with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Heat oil over high heat in large ovenproof pot (choose one that has a lid). When oil is hot, add lamb shanks and brown on all sides, approximately 8 minutes total. Do in two batches so that shanks don’t get too crowded. When fully browned, remove shanks and set aside.
Add shallots to oil and brown them, approximately 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and add garlic, chiles, cinnamon sticks, cloves and star anise. Stir and cook for 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, cayenne pepper, garam masala, coriander, cumin and salt to taste. Stir and leave mixture to cook for 5 minutes. Add chicken stock and stir again.
Return lamb shanks to pot, submerging them in liquid as much as possible. Place lid on pot and bring contents to boil. Place covered pot in oven for 50 minutes. Turn lamb shanks over, put lid back on and return to oven for another 50 minutes.
Turn lamb a final time. Reduce heat to 300 F and leave lid off. Cook until lamb falls away from bone, approximately 20 minutes.