It's spring! Birds are chirping, tulips are in blossom, and rain showers scatter in between sunny, blue skies. Classic spring mornings are chilly, and while the sun warms us during the day, cool temperatures return by evening to greet us once again as we prepare for dinnertime.
Weather universally influences what kind of food we crave – from what ingredients and flavors beckon, to what cooking methods will suit our needs. With the unpredictable, fluctuating temperatures of spring, the one technique that I am still drawn to at this time of year is braising. Braising is a cooking technique that by name, seems to be less familiar to home cooks. For those of you who recently prepared an Easter or Passover holiday meal, you may have unknowingly followed a recipe in which you braised --- pot roast, brisket, and lamb shanks all rely on this age old method which transforms tougher, larger cuts of meat into tender, succulent, delicious dishes.
A braise is essentially a two-step technique of first searing (or browning) on moderate-high heat followed by adding liquid and simmering in a covered pot on low heat. Coq au Vin, Osso Bucco and Short Ribs are some classic braised dishes. These meats are seared in a little bit of fat, and then slowly cooked with some liquid and aromatics in a covered pot for several hours or more. When executed correctly, the results are heavenly.
Readers, please don't panic at the sight of technical culinary terms. One of the goals for this column is to impart useful cooking information that you can repeatedly apply to create delicious meals at home with ease and success. My mantra with students: knowledge + practice = success. Recipes alone don't do the trick. Consider investing a little bit of time and energy to learn about ingredients, from pantry to fresh produce, and really understand the cooking techniques that you're using. You'll be building a foundation for cooking that will afford you greater efficiency, nourishment and satisfaction.
Braising is a useful technique for more than just large cuts of red meat. I've recently discovered that braising leaner cuts of protein as well as vegetables can produce lovely, flavorful results. For an in depth education on braising, I highly recommend Molly Steven's All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking. A James Beard Foundation Book Award winner, this cookbook is truly informative, featuring techniques, tips and recipes for braising everything from veal roast to endive, salmon to potatoes.
Today's featured recipe is Braised Swiss Chard with White Beans & Leeks. This dish has become a regular in my rotation. Chard is related to beets and has a subtle sweetness and pleasant texture that distinguishes it from other leafy greens that can have somewhat bitter overtones. The leaves are beautifully dark and ruffled, and the stems can vary in color--- white, red and even bunches that have assorted brightly colored stems sold as the "rainbow" variety. Chard happens to be one of the most nutrient dense veggies that you can eat, qualifying it as a super food, and it has a long growing season, which means that it's readily available. The beans are also worthy of nutritional praise, delivering fiber, protein and essential minerals.
I love the idea that I can create a velvety, flavorful side dish with a healthy mix of leafy vegetables and beans; the prep is minimal (there are only 6 ingredients plus olive oil and seasoning) and the cook time is short, perfect for a weeknight. The garlic and leeks lend their aromatic flavors to the chard and beans. Finished with a sprinkling of grated cheese, your taste buds will delight in the complexity of flavors and textures. This dish is hearty enough to make a vegetarian entrée (minus the cheese) or top it with a piece of seared meat fish (salmon or halibut would work), a lamb chop or a bone-in chicken breast, and voila dinner is ready.
I hope you are newly inspired by today's theme of braising in spring. Parting words from my kitchen to yours: learn, practice, taste and enjoy!
Braised Swiss Chard with White Beans & Leeks
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 leeks, white parts only, well rinsed of dirt, halved lengthwise and then slice thinly crosswise
1 bunch Swiss chard, washed & sliced into ribbons about ¼ inch thick (about 6 cups)
1 can (14 ounces) of white beans, Cannellini or Navy
2 cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
½ cup chicken stock
Freshly ground pepper
1-2 tablespoons freshly grated hard cheese, such as Parmigiano (optional)
1. In a heavy sauté pan or ceramic pot, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat. Add the leeks and garlic, season with salt and pepper, cover with a lid, and sauté for about 8 minutes, stirring a few times. Leeks should be soft and only slightly browned.
2. Add the Swiss chard to the pan and toss well to coat the leaves with the leek mixture. Add the chicken stock, cover and cook on low-medium heat for 5 minutes.
3. Then remove the lid, stir mixture and gently add the beans, allowing the ingredients to incorporate. Heat thoroughly. Sprinkle with 1-2 tablespoons of freshly grated cheese, if desired, and adjust seasonings before serving.