The most talked-about dish in Los Angeles right now isn’t some daring fusion of distant ethnic cuisines. It isn’t a whimsical, gravity-defying construction. It doesn’t involve foie gras or truffles or any other expensive ingredients. It is served at Jar, Mark Peel and Suzanne Tracht’s new restaurant, and it is pot roast.
After decades of menus based on quick-cooking sautes and grills, chefs and diners are rediscovering the pleasures of slow food. The braise is back.
It is one of the hallmarks at Jar, which opened five months ago near the Beverly Center. “We wanted to focus on meats but be different than the steakhouses, so we decided to focus on braises,” Tracht says. “We were sitting around talking one day and Mark just said ‘pot roast,’ and we knew it was right.
“Anybody can make a great New York steak taste good or foie gras. But to take a tough piece of meat and make it delicious is a little bit of a challenge.”
Of course, they’re not the only ones embracing what was once considered the homeliest of cooking techniques. A couple of blocks away at Lucques, chef Suzanne Goin is going through braised short ribs like nobody’s business. She says she sometimes serves 50 orders a night, which means cooking more than 100 pounds every day.
“I don’t know what’s going on with the short ribs,” Goin says. “Part of it is that everyone’s talking about it, so, of course, everyone wants it. And there’s also the comfort food thing. They were really hot over the holidays because everyone was bringing their family in--short ribs are something Grandpa will eat. Food lovers love them, but so do people who think squab might be too exotic.”
At its most fundamental, braising refers to the long, slow cooking of meats in a covered pan with some liquid. Usually, only the toughest cuts are used, because the tougher cuts have more flavor.
“There’s an inverse ratio between tenderness and flavor,” says Peel. “A tenderloin is very tender but it has no flavor. A brisket has great flavor, but you wouldn’t want to eat it rare. Braising develops rich flavors and tenderness you can never get from the so-called best cuts of meat.”
What makes meat tough is connective tissue, which develops in muscles that get a lot of exercise. Connective tissue is a protein, but it cooks differently than normal muscle. When raw or rare, it is stringy. But when it is cooked to a higher temperature with moisture present, it melts, making meat juicy and flavorful.
The common butcher’s advice is that the cuts that are closest to the ground are the ones that are best for braising. That means shanks, bellies, short ribs (which come from the end of the rib cage near the belly), brisket (the belly) and similar pieces. On menus today you’ll find braises made from everything from duck legs to pork bellies.
Though pot roast is classically made from a cut from the shoulder--pot, chuck, blade or seven-bone roast--at Jar they use short ribs, though a special restaurant variation that has removed the thick pad of meat from the bones.
“I talked to our meat supplier and told him I wanted to do pot roast, but that I wanted it to be a little different,” Tracht says. “He said he had the perfect thing, that he’d been trying to sell it to chefs but without any luck. They call it a denuded short rib, and it is the big piece of meat on top of the short rib with the bones taken off and everything cleaned up. That’s the tenderest piece of braising meat I’ve ever seen.”
Not only are the cuts of meat used in the Jar and Lucques braises similar, but many of the important points of technique are too. Both chefs emphasize the importance of browning the meat well before you add any liquid.
“One key is get a really, really good sear,” says Goin. At Lucques, the short ribs are browned in heavy black cast-iron pans placed over the highest heat. “Most people don’t have the right pans or don’t use a high enough heat. When I’m cooking with my mom, that’s the biggest mistake she makes. I’m always saying, ‘Mom, you didn’t get the pan hot enough.’”
Once the meat is browned, put it in a braising pan. At home, it’s best to use a Dutch oven or other cast-iron pot with a close-fitting lid to seal in the moisture. On the other hand, at both restaurants they braise in “hotel pans"--flimsy aluminum boxes that are covered with aluminum foil (at Lucques, they first use a tight seal of oven-proof plastic wrap, but that can result in some nasty steam burns if you’re not careful when you unwrap it). What’s important is to use a pan that will neatly hold the meat. If the pan is too much bigger than the cut you’re using, the meat will be swimming in liquid and won’t be as fully flavored.
There will be a lot of good browned bits that have stuck to the bottom of the searing pan, and you’ll want to make sure to include those. Pour off the leftover fat and deglaze the pan. Usually this is done with a liquid--wine or stock--but at Lucques they add diced carrots, celery and onions and the moisture released when they cook does just as good a job.
Which liquid you’ll add to the braise is critical. It can be as basic as water, or as complex as you want to make it. At Lucques, Goin uses a combination of balsamic vinegar, reduced Port and red wine along with veal stock. At Jar, it’s simply Sherry and chicken stock. This is what makes the dishes so different: Lucques’ short ribs come in a sauce that is dark purple, intensely flavored and thick while Jar’s is tan, clear and light in texture.
At Lucques, the liquid is added to the level of the top of the meat. At Jar it only comes three-quarters of the way. “That way you get a nice brown crust on top,” says Tracht. “When that comes out of the oven, we have to put an armed guard around it or everyone will be picking at it.”
There is no hard and fast rule for how long a braise needs to cook. The only way you can tell is by touch. At first, the meat will tighten up and feel hard and dry, then it will begin to relax. When a braise is done, you can stick a meat fork in it with almost no resistance.
“It’s like when they made Kickapoo Joy Juice in ‘Li’l Abner,’” says Peel. “When someone asked how they knew it was done, they’d say, ‘When you feel in your heart that it’s done, it’s done.’”
When the meat is done, let it cool in the cooking liquid. This can be done either before or after the liquid has been strained of any cooking vegetables and it helps ensure a really moist, tender dish.
Finally, make sure that the cooking liquid is well skimmed of fat. Because these tough cuts also contain a lot of marbling, they can render an astonishing amount of fat. This will make the sauce unpleasant and heavy. At home, the easiest way to remove it is to chill the liquid separate from the meat. The fat will solidify on top and you can skim it off with a slotted spoon.
All this can be done well in advance. Braises actually improve with cooling and reheating. Which is one of the reasons restaurants are now so fond of them.
“They’re a great pickup dish,” says Tracht. “All the work is done at the beginning, all you have to do is reheat it and put it on the plate. When people order them, it really takes a lot of pressure off the saute and grill stations.”
Back in the days of nonworking moms, this was one of the braise’s chief selling points at home too. A stew could be started in the morning and then left by itself while other household chores were taken care of. With everyone working--and longer and longer hours--we now go to restaurants to eat that kind of food.
Of course, there are other reasons to braise in your own kitchen--things that might be more appreciated by the modern home cook. First, of course, they’re economical--tough cuts are usually the cheapest. (Though not always; osso buco has skyrocketed in price. Tracht says she once complained to her meat man that she remembered paying only $2.50 a pound for veal shanks and he responded, “Yeah, and I remember walking to elementary school.”)
Braises smell great, too, filling a room with a sense of home. In fact, that may be the key factor in their renaissance.
Says Tracht, “The biggest comment we get from people is, ‘That’s even better than my mom’s.’”