Have you ever cooked a meal for a large group of people and became overwhelmed by trying to do too many things at once? It happens to me all the time.
Professional chefs are taught the secrets to preparing large quantities of food in a timely and efficient manner. Like the vast majority of amateur cooks, I had to learn from trial and error. As the old adage goes; “We learn from our mistakes”. I have certainly made my share.
These experiences have taught me which cooking techniques are more forgiving than others. I have also learned which ingredients are more adaptable when unfortunate mishaps occur.
In my experience, braising is the most accommodating method of cooking proteins when timing is an issue. Braising is a method of cooking tough cuts of meat over low moist heat for extended periods of time. The process requires a relatively small amount of prep work. The main ingredient can simmer unattended for at least 2 hours or more. This provides ample time to prepare the rest of the meal. If more time is needed, the braised items will stay moist and appetizing in a covered bowl of warm stock.
I’ve applied this approach to the gambit of braised meats with successful results. For dinner parties, I’ll braise short ribs or lamb shanks ahead of time and let them sit in warm stock until our guests arrive. Doing so provides me with the freedom to mingle a bit, then prepare and serve the rest of the meal unencumbered.
It’s important to remember that most types of meat will eventually break down if exposed to moist heat for too long. Water begins to boil at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the meat will continue to cook and eventually fall apart. The temperature of the stock must not rise above 165 – 170 degrees.
Water can be substituted, but I prefer stock. It adds flavor to the meat and can be used to prepare other components of the meal. Veal, beef, chicken and vegetable stock all work well.
The osso buco recipe provided below is an excellent example of a simple braised dish that can be served to company. It’s an easy way to impress your guests with becoming overwhelmed in the kitchen.
Osso Buco with Gorgonzola Polenta –
Ingredients for the osso buco –
- 4 veal shanks pieces, about 3” thick, tied with butcher’s twine
- 1 medium onion, cut into large dice
- 1 small carrot, cut into large dice
- 1 small celery stalk, cut into large dice
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 3 cups veal of beef stock, divided
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2-3 sprigs of thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 4 tablespoons of butter, divided
- 2 tablespoons of flour
Ingredients for the polenta –
- 2 cups of whole milk
- ½ cup water
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ cup of coarse ground cornmeal
- 4 ounces (or more) of crumbled gorgonzola cheese
To Prepare the Veal Shanks:
Make sure shanks are as dry as possible. Blot extra moisture with a paper towel. Choose a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid. The pot should be large enough to accommodate all four shanks in a single layer. Add oil to pan and heat until shimmering. Sear shanks until evenly browned on all sides. Remove shanks from pan and drain off all but 1 tablespoon of oil. Add onion, carrot, and celery. Sauté vegetables until they begin to caramelize. Add wine and bring to a rapid boil. Scrape off all bits of caramelized proteins from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Reduce wine until about 3 tablespoons remain. Add enough stock so each veal shank will be halfway submerged when they are added to the pot. Keep remaining stock warm for later use. Bring to a gently simmer. Add tomato paste. Stir to combine. Add thyme, bay leaf and veal shanks. Lower heat so liquid in pot barely bubbles. Cover pot and simmer for about 2 ½ hours. Prepare polenta while shanks are braising.
To Prepare the Polenta:
Add milk, butter, and salt to a medium sauce pan and bring to a gentle boil. Stir frequently to keep from scalding. Slowly sprinkle small batches of cornmeal into the milk while stirring constantly. This will prevent cornmeal from clumping. Continue until all of the cornmeal has been incorporated into the milk. Continue stirring the cornmeal-milk mixture until the grainy quality of the cornmeal becomes thick and creamy. The consistency of the polenta should be loose enough to spread out a little when spooned onto a plate. It will require about 20-30 minutes of total cooking time. Add small amounts of water if it starts to get too thick. When the desired consistency has been achieved, reduce the heat to low and stir in the cheese. Remove pan from heat and continue stirring until the cheese is melted and incorporated into the dish. Place a piece of parchment paper or plastic wrap over the polenta and keep warm until service.
Finish the Dish:
Remove shanks from the pot after two and a half hours. Place them in a large bowl. Add remaining stock. Cover bowl with aluminum foil and keep warm until you are ready to serve them.
Note: Braised meats tend to dry out when they are transferred from a warm, moist cooking environment to a cool, dry location. Keep them warm in a covered bowl of stock until you are ready to serve them. This keeps them moist and tender.
Strain the braising liquid through a fine mesh chinois or a colander lined with cheese cloth to remove the cooked vegetables and herbs. Transfer the liquid into a small sauce pan and bring it to a moderate simmer. Allow stock to reduce slightly. Work the flour and 2 tablespoons of butter together until well blended. Bring stock to a rapid simmer. Stir a small portion of the butter/flour mixture into the stock at a time. Use only enough butter/flour mixture necessary to thicken the sauce. Continue simmering until it naps the back of a spoon. Taste the sauce and adjust seasonings. Remove pan from heat and stir in remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.
Place a generous spoonful of polenta on each plate. Place a veal shank in the middle and ladle sauce around the edges.