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Praising Braising : Cooking With the Lid On

October 27, 1994|JOAN DRAKE

Stewing and braising are moist-heat cooking methods, used to tenderize tougher (and generally more flavorful) cuts of meat.

The main difference between the two techniques is the amount of liquid used during cooking. Stewed meats are submerged in simmering liquid, while braised meats are cooked in just enough liquid to cover the bottom of the pot and keep the meat from sticking. Meat is usually left in a whole piece if it's going to be braised, but cut into small chunks for stew.

A heavy Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid is ideal for both methods. The slow simmering can be done either on top of the range or in the oven.

Often the meat is browned before the liquid is added, though this isn't necessary. The meat may be just patted dry with paper towels and browned in its own juices, allowing the excess fat to be rendered. This technique, called "sweating," reduces the amount of fat in the stew.

The meat may also be dredged with flour, which enhances the browning, helps to thicken the liquid and gives the finished stew a rich color. Place some flour in a plastic food bag or clean paper bag, add the meat (Step 1), then close the bag and shake until evenly coated.

Whichever method you choose, brown the meat slowly over moderate heat. If the meat is cut up, cook only a few chunks at a time. Crowding the pan lowers the heat, and the meat will turn gray instead of browning.

Turn the meat (Step 2) until cooked evenly, then remove to a bowl. Continue this process until all the meat is browned.

Pour off any excess fat left in the pan. Return the meat to the Dutch oven and add just enough liquid (Step 3) to cover the meat. Water, stock, wine or a combination may be used.

Cover the pan and place over high heat until the liquid begins to boil. At this point, reduce the heat or transfer the Dutch oven to an oven.

The pan should be left covered during the slow-cooking period, and the temperature needs to be controlled to maintain a simmering temperature. This gentle cooking tenderizes the meat, leaving it succulent and flavorful.

Timing varies with the size of the pieces of meat, but about three hours is usually sufficient. Vegetables and additional seasonings may be added during the last hour of cooking (Step 4).

During cooking, the liquid thickens, becoming a sauce. If it hasn't reduced to the consistency desired, make a flour-and-water slurry and stir into the simmering stew (Step 5). Continue stirring as the liquid thickens.

Although stews take a considerable amount of time to prepare, they can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen. Reheating actually improves most stews because there is more time for the flavors to blend.

BEEF STEW

2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes

Salt, pepper

Flour, optional

Oil

Water, stock or wine

8 small red potatoes

4 carrots, sliced

3 stalks celery, cut diagonally about 1 1/2 inch in length

12 pearl onions

Chopped parsley

Pat beef cubes dry with paper towels. Sprinkle cubes with salt and pepper to taste. Dredge cubes in flour.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy Dutch oven. Add few beef cubes at time, turning to brown on all sides. Remove to bowl. Continue procedure until all meat is browned, adding oil as needed.

Pour off any excess fat. Return meat to pan and add enough water, stock, wine or combination of liquids to just cover meat. Bring liquid to boil over high heat.

Reduce heat or transfer pan to 325-degree oven. Continue to simmer until meat is tender, about 3 hours, adding more liquid if necessary to keep meat covered.

Remove band of peel around center of potatoes. About 1 hour before end of cooking time add potatoes, carrots, celery and pearl onions to Dutch oven. Continue to cook until meat and vegetables are tender.

If desired, make a slurry by combining 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup water in jar with tight fitting lid. Shake until smooth. Return pan to cooktop. Increase heat to medium.

Stir flour slurry into simmering liquid. Cook, stirring, until liquid thickens. Sprinkle with chopped parsley to taste. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Each of 4 servings contains about:

416 calories; 236 mg sodium; 100 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 38 grams protein; 1.36 grams fiber.

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