The season of the anniversary of my birth is a trying time for eaters. I daresay I tire of meat and roots and preserves. Nevertheless, with a little luck, a little patience, and an ample supply of reduced beef stock one may occasionally turn out something worth eating, perhaps even relishing. I’ll try to stop writing like MFK Fischer soon.
I seasoned a seven-bone chuck roast with a paste of salt, pepper, garlic and the trimmings of the rosemary shrub which appears to have suffered the worst of the winter. After several hours in the refrigerator and several more at room temperature, I scraped this paste off and seared the roast until it was really quite dark on either side. I then braised (slow cooked in a covered pot) it with onions, dried chilies, bay leaves and the reserved marinade paste; I added no additional liquid. This I accomplished in a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven. Upon reaching a state of toothsomeness that would best be described as unctuous, the roast was allowed to rest by the wayside while par-cooked pearl barley finished up in the pan juices which I had since thinned with the aforementioned beef stock and fortified with dried, pestle- ground Chanterrelles from fall’s bounty and some tomato paste that was aging in the fridge. A little Hungarian paprika “reddened” things up and the resulting overwhelming richness was cut with some red wine vinegar (There only being enough wine in the house for drinking.)
Some leftover cabbage and carrots were sliced thinly and sauteed in butter and olive oil until just barely wilted (what my wife would call a “stir fry.”) Luck came in the form of some green tomato jam given to me by my friend, a great cook called Scotty G., that, redolent of cayenne and the beginning of fall, lent the necessary verve and vigor to lift it from its late-winter doldrums. Preserves are to March what laughter is to the gallows.
The term (and art) of braising is, to my mind, not the same as stewing. Some claim that a braise differs from a stew in that in a braise, the meat is seared before enough liquid is added to partially submerge the meat while stew sees the meat fully submerged in its cooking liquid. That’s a negligible difference that leaves little conceptual space for the term “stew” to occupy. A stew is a stew whether you sear the meat first or not, and whether you add twice or half the volume of liquid as meat. Braising means that the beef is browned and little to no liquid is added to the pot (a splash of booze, a cup of wine), the meat cooks in its own juices and the juices get rich, really rich. Don’t let it burn, add more liquid if (absolutely) necessary and maybe turn the meat every now and again. Remember that perfection lies just this side of burnt.
Some might question the usefulness of this methodology, since I thinned everything down at the end anyway. It’s useful because, with so little liquid, the particles in the juices get time to really brown and get intensely meaty while the fat emulsifies with them. The effect can’t be duplicated by adding more liquid and cooking it down until it’s the consistency that you want. Another benefit is that you don’t need stock to make a good braise; the meat and vegetables provide all the juice you need. The rest of the internet can disagree; I’m right and the internet is wrong.
I’d also like to add that according to a greater authority than me, the lid should be left slightly ajar while braising to keep the temperature inside below the boiling point. That’s probably not going to work here. Which, I suspect, is why others (including the inventors of the Alsatian classic Baeckeoffe [and I know they call for adding a bunch of water there, I bet if you left it out it would be way better]) want a very tightly sealed lid, preferably with a strip of simple dough. I don’t do that, you could. Suffice it to say that you should keep the temperature low, around 200° F.