Michael Ruhlman is steaming up the windows again.
Outside his Cleveland, Ohio, kitchen, he can still see vast snow drifts. Ice clings to the eaves and coats the walkway.
“They’re forecasting minus 30 degrees,” he said by phone on this recent extra-chilly morning. “It’s super cold – intense and protracted cold. We’ll have ice and snow until April. It’s a great time to braise.”
Ruhlman follows his own advice. A pair of lamb shanks is calling him back to the stove.
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For more than 20 years, Ruhlman has been cooking and writing about food. A James Beard Award-winning author, he recounted his restaurant kitchen adventures in “The Making of a Chef: Mastering the Heat at the Culinary Institute of America” (plus its sequels). He teamed with famed Napa Valley restaurateur Thomas Keller on a series of cookbooks celebrating Keller’s landmark institutions including The French Laundry, Bouchon, Ad Hoc and Bouchon Bakery.
Part professor, part scientist and all foodie, Ruhlman dissected the finer points of single ingredients in “Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient” and “The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat.” He sliced into cured meats in “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing” and “Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Cooking.” And his “Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking” offered kitchen tutorials on necessary skills, helping to elevate the hesitant home cook into a confident mealtime master.
Braising is one of those skills and, now, the subject of his latest cookbook: “How to Braise: Foolproof Techniques and Recipes for the Home Cook” (Little, Brown and Co., $25, 148 pages). Following last fall’s “How to Roast,” it’s the second installment in Ruhlman’s “how to” series devoted to basic cooking skills.
Readers are hungry for cooking instruction, he noted. “Our whole country is getting interested (in learning how to cook). It’s simple. Our (fast) food is making us sick. We’re realizing we feel better when we cook our own food. It’s better for us, better for our family.”
Braising ranks among the oldest cooking methods known. Food is quickly seared with high (usually dry) heat, then slow cooked in low (and moist) heat until tender.
“You can skip the searing, but it’s not quite as good,” Ruhlman said. “You lose that caramel color.”
For cooking liquid, it depends of what’s on hand. Water, wine, stock, beer; they all work.
Ruhlman recommends veal stock; he makes it from scratch and stores it in the freezer.
“It’s the most generous stock,” he said. “It takes in the flavor of anything you cook with it. But most people don’t have veal stock on hand. Water and wine are fine because they’re on hand. Any liquid will draw out the flavors of the solids (meats and vegetables). It extracts the flavors.”
Ruhlman said he’s a fan of using carrots and onions; they sweeten the broth. He adds celery only with beef. A spoonful of tomato paste gives another dash of sweetness and color. Bay leaf is a common seasoning.
To survive a blizzard-filled winter, Ruhlman swears by braising. It’s not just the food, which is wonderfully flavorful and hearty. It’s what it does to our psyche.
“Cooking is actually about food transformation, and nothing is more transformative than braising,” he explained. “It’s low (heat) and slow; it releases so much aroma. ... . It reduces stress. What I derived about braising is that it’s inherently good. You start with a bargain piece of meat and end up with something marvelous and nourishing. It’s the most generous way of cooking.”
In winter, nothing may be more comforting than the rich, intoxicating scents of slowly braised foods. Just a whiff of the stock seems to make worries disappear.
“When my wife and I first got married and money was tight, I always made braised short ribs when it was time to make out the checks to pay the bills,” Ruhlman recalled. “It made the bills easier to pay.”
This being mid-March, corned beef with braised cabbage most certainly will be on his table soon. Tuesday is St. Patrick’s Day.
“My wife is Irish, so we’re big on corned beef,” Ruhlman said with a laugh. “I really encourage people to corn their own (beef brisket or chuck roast); it’s really terrific food and so much fun.”
Ruhlman covered how to corn beef in “Charcuterie” and also tackles the topic on his website, Ruhlman.com.
Donna Turner Rulhman serves as her husband’s principal taste tester. A professional photographer, she also captures the mouth-watering photos that illustrate many of his cookbooks as well as his blog.
Ruhlman still makes short ribs, even when no bills are due. For him, braising holds a particular and practical mystique.
“Braising is real cooking,” he said. “And it’s not just about meat; braised vegetables are amazing. Fennel; it even looks cool and tastes delicious. Braising pulls out the flavors of fennel like no other (cooking) method. Butter-braised radishes; they’re gorgeous and delicious.”
His favorite recipe in the new book? It’s for dinner.
“The lamb shanks,” he said without hesitation. “It’s the most iconic recipe. That’s how I learned what a braise was, how I learned the basic technique. It’s really emblematic of all the characteristics of this technique.”
Ruhlman learned two secret braise ingredients from chef friends: honey and Asian fish sauce. He uses both to deepen and accent the flavors of the braise.
“You don’t taste the honey,” he explained. “It doesn’t make it sweet, just richer. You use just a little fish sauce; you don’t want to taste saltiness but the effects of the salt, the other flavors it brings out.”
While dealing with record snow, Ruhlman is working on upcoming installments of his how-to series: how to sauté and how to grill. Both books are due to his editors before the snow melts.
“I sure picked the wrong season to write a book about grilling,” he said.
For right now, he’ll concentrate on the lamb shanks. They smell too good to ignore.
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.
Braised cabbage with corned beef and new potatoes
Adapted from “How to Braise” by Michael Ruhlman. Recipe Courtesy Little, Brown and Co.
1/2 large cabbage, cored and sliced into wedges about 2 inches wide at the outermost point
1 pound new or red potatoes, quartered
1/4 cup butter
1 corned beef, poached according to package instructions and poaching liquid reserved
1 tablespoon whole-grain Dijon mustard
Freshly ground black pepper, optional
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives or flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
Sprinkle the cut faces of the cabbage wedges with salt 10 minutes before cooking to pull some of the water out.
Dredge the cut sides of the cabbage wedges in flour. In a skillet that has a lid (otherwise you’ll need to cover it with foil), heat about 1/4 inch of oil over high heat. When the oil is hot and you can see currents in it, reduce the heat to medium-high. Tap any excess flour off the cabbage wedges, lay them floured-side down in the skillet, and cook until nicely browned, a few minutes. Turn them carefully with a spatula to keep them intact and brown the other side in the same manner.
Meanwhile, put the potatoes in a saucepan and cover with water by an inch or two. Bring to a simmer over high heat, reduce to a very low simmer, and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Strain when done and add the butter, stirring gently to coat. Season with salt and cover to keep warm until ready to serve.
Add about 2 cups of the corned beef poaching liquid to the cabbage skillet, enough to come about halfway up the cabbage. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook the cabbage wedges until they’re tender but not collapsing, about 10 minutes; they should still have some bite, so err on the underdone side.
To finish, stir the mustard into the sauce, spooning it over the cabbage as you do. Slice the corned beef against the grain. The corned beef can be held in the pan with the cabbage and sauce, covered, if you wish to keep it all warm until serving time. Divide the corned beef and cabbage among four plates and divvy up the potatoes. Spoon the sauce over the beef (it should be loose to mingle with all). Grind pepper over the potatoes if you wish, and garnish them with fresh herbs. Serve.
* Or corn your own beef. Directions under “Quick corned beef” recipe, above.
Note: Cabbage can also be braised in wine or stock for an economical, nutritious side for any number of entrées. You can season or even add to the flour; a mixture of half flour, half cornmeal will give you an extra crunchy crust, especially if you dip the cabbage in buttermilk before dredging.
Or vary your fat; render some small lardons and sear the cabbage wedges in the bacon fat for an especially flavorful braised cabbage.
If you’re a fan of stuffed cabbage, instead of rolling cabbage leaves around ground beef and stewing them in tomatoes, you can braise cabbage wedges in puréed tomatoes for a fabulous side for meatloaf.
Butter-braised radishes with English peas
Adapted from “How to Braise” by Michael Ruhlman. Recipe Courtesy Little, Brown and Co.
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound French radishes (or ordinary red radishes, quartered)
1 cup shelled English peas
Blanche English peas for 60 seconds in boiling water; then plunge them in ice water until thoroughly chilled.
Put the butter in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. When the butter begins to melt, add the radishes and a four-finger pinch of salt. Swirl and toss the radishes in the butter till the butter is melted and the radishes are coated. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low, and braise the radishes for 5 minutes.
Add the peas, increase the heat to medium, and cook, stirring and tossing until the peas are heated through. Serve.
Braised lamb shanks with mint gremolata
This is the quintessential braised meat, prepared in a classic manner.
4 lamb shanks
Freshly ground black pepper
1 Spanish onion, sliced
2 carrots, chopped
10 garlic cloves, smashed with the flat side of a knife and then roughly chopped
4 cups veal or chicken stock
2 cups dry red wine
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce
2 bay leaves
Beurre manié (see note below)
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.
Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper at least 10 minutes and up to 3 days before cooking them. Dredge them in flour just before cooking; shake off the excess.
Add plenty of vegetable oil to a Dutch oven that will comfortably contain the shanks. Sear the shanks over medium-high heat (in batches if necessary). Remove them, wipe out the Dutch oven, and return it to the stovetop.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to your braising vessel and cook the onion, carrots, and garlic over medium-high heat until softened, 5 to 10 minutes.
Return the shanks to the pot and add the stock, wine, honey, fish sauce, and bay leaves. The shanks should be about two-thirds submerged (add more water, stock, or wine if necessary).
Bring the liquid to a full simmer and cover the pot. Place the pot in the oven and cook until the lamb shanks are fork-tender, 2 to 3 hours.
Remove the shanks from the pot. Strain the braising liquid through a fine-mesh sieve and remove the fat that rises to the top. Return the defatted braising liquid to the pan, bring it to a simmer, and thicken it as you wish with the beurre manié. Return the shanks to the pot.
If you won’t be serving immediately, cover the pot and store the shanks in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Reheat gently on the stovetop until piping hot.
As close as possible before serving, combine the mint, garlic and lemon zest to make the mint gremolata.
Serve the shanks on top of mashed potatoes, rice, risotto, couscous, warm wheat berries or other starch, spooning the sauce over the shanks and finishing with the mint gremolata.
Note: To make beurre manié, mash together equal parts flour and butter, brought to room temperature. This can stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic, and ready for use as needed.
Quick corned beef
Michael Ruhlman likes to corn his own beef roast for St. Patrick’s Day – or any time. This method takes 24 hours to cure the beef.
The pink coloring may not penetrate all the way to the center; that’s OK. In fact, you can skip the pink salt and bright color altogether; the taste comes from the salt, sugar and pickling spice.
2 quarts water
3/4 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pink salt, optional (sold as DQ Cure No. 1, Instacure No. 1, Prague Powder No. 1)
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons pickling spice, divided (recipe below)
1 beef brisket or chuck roast, 2 inches thick or thereabouts
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons mustard seeds
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons hot red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons allspice berries
1 tablespoon ground mace
2 small cinnamon sticks, crushed or broken into pieces
4 bay leaves, crumbled
2 tablespoons whole cloves
1 tablespoon ground ginger
Combine all the brine ingredients, except 1 tablespoon of the pickling spice, in a sauce pan and bring to a simmer, stirring until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove the pot from heat and allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate the brine until it’s completely chilled.
Place the brisket in a 2-quart zip-top bag along with brine for 24 hours (get all the air out of the bag, and flip the bag a couple times during the cure).
Remove the brisket from the brine and rinse it thoroughly under cool running water and refrigerate until you’re ready to cook it.
Place the brisket in a pot just large enough to hold it and add enough water (or stock) to come halfway up the meat. Add the remaining pickling spice and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer gently for about 3 hours, turning the brisket once and making sure that the water doesn’t cook off (add more water as necessary). Cut off a small piece and taste it. If it’s too salty for your taste, cover it with water, add another tablespoon of pickling spice, bring the pot to a simmer and continue to cook for another half hour or so. The brisket is done when it’s fork tender. It can be kept warm in the pot for about an hour.
Remove the corned beef from the cooking liquid (which can be used to moisten the meat and vegetables, if that is what you are serving). Slice the beef and serve warm, or cool, then wrap and refrigerate until you are ready to serve, or for up to one week.
To make pickling spice: Lightly toast the peppercorns, mustard seeds, and coriander seeds in a small dry pan, then smash with the side of a knife just to crack. Combine the cracked spices with the remaining ingredients, mixing well. Store in a tightly sealed plastic container or glass jar.