What is real cooking? When you roast chicken and serve it with pan juices, say, or when you saute a steak Diane, bake Mom's meatloaf or stir-fry Asian-style?
Not really. Those are all just heating.
True cooking--real cooking--happens when you take a raw ingredient and transform it into something far better than its former self. And there is no more soul-satisfying, body-nourishing form of true cooking than the braise. Braising transforms a cheap, tough piece of meat into a meltingly tender, rich, succulent dish.
Technically, to braise means to cook something slowly in a little liquid, usually having seared the item in hot fat first and using the cooking liquid as the final sauce. Pot roast and beef stew, lamb shank, osso buco and oxtail are all braises.
Whatever meat and liquid you choose, the method is the same. Season the meat well with plenty of salt and pepper, sear it to a perfect golden brown (be careful not to over-sear, which will make the outer layer leathery and dry), add just enough liquid to cover the meat and then set it to cook in a 300-degree oven for hours and hours, until the meat is fork-tender.
It hardly matters which ingredients you use. The pleasure is in the method. If you flour the meat lightly, take a moment to appreciate the smell when it hits hot oil--one of the supreme aromas in all of cooking. Take time to enjoy browning the meat, a great visual pleasure. Once the liquid is added and brought to a simmer and your pot is covered and in the oven, your home will fill with smells of great cooking. It's a little-known fact that bills are easier to pay on a winter Sunday evening when short ribs are braising in the oven.
You can vary the meat and liquid any way you wish. We like to marinate the meat in red wine first and then use the marinade as part of the braising liquid.
You can use also veal stock--perhaps the best braising medium--but chicken stock works fine. So does water, for that matter. Add tomato juice or aromatic vegetables and herbs (onions, carrots, thyme, garlic), or unconventional seasonings such as lemon grass and coriander seed.
One handy trick is to cover the braising meat with a parchment paper, pressed right down onto the surface of the liquid. The paper absorbs some of the fat, which helps keep the surface of the meat moist. At the same time, it allows some reduction in the liquid that will become the meat's sauce.
But those elements are all a matter of your mood on any particular day. What is constant is the braise itself--the slow transformation of scraps into treasure: true alchemy in the kitchen.
Braised Beef Short Ribs
Active Work Time: 1 hour * Total Preparation Time: 4 hours plus 8 hours marinating
There is good frozen veal stock available from several manufacturers at fancy grocery stores. If you can't find it, use homemade beef stock or homemade or canned chicken stock. Serve this with mashed potatoes, fresh egg noodles or polenta.
1 (750-milliliter) bottle red wine
1/2 cup chopped carrot
2/3 cup chopped leek, white and pale green parts only
1/2 cup chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, smashed
10 sprigs Italian parsley
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
8 pieces bone-in short ribs (about 1/2 pound each)
Freshly ground pepper
Flour, for dusting
2 to 3 cups veal stock
2 to 3 cups chicken stock
* Bring wine, carrot, leek, onion, garlic, parsley, thyme and bay leaf to boil in wide pot. Tilt pan away from burner and carefully ignite with match. Allow alcohol to burn off, then light again. If there are no flames, alcohol is completely cooked away. Cool marinade, then pour over short ribs, seal in plastic bag and marinate in refrigerator 8 to 24 hours.
* Remove meat from marinade and strain marinade into saucepan, reserving vegetables. Bring marinade to simmer and skim any impurities that rise to top. Remove from heat.
* Heat 1/8 inch oil in large skillet over high heat. Season both sides of each piece of meat with salt and pepper and dust with flour, patting off excess. Place meat in hot oil and cook until well-browned on all sides (adjusting heat as necessary to keep from burning), 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Remove meat to heavy oven-proof pot or casserole big enough to hold all meat snugly in one layer.
* Pour off excess oil from skillet, return to heat and cook reserved vegetables until they begin to caramelize, 3 to 4 minutes. Spread vegetables over meat in even layer and add marinade and 2 cups each of veal and chicken stock. Meat should be covered with liquid; if not, add more veal or chicken stock as necessary.
* Bring liquid to simmer on stove. Press a parchment paper lid snugly over meat. Bake in 275-degree oven until meat is very tender, 3 to 4 hours.
* Remove meat from pot and strain liquid into tall narrow container. Discard vegetables. Once meat has cooled slightly, it can be covered and refrigerated for up to two days.
* Skim fat that rises to top of braising liquid and strain liquid several times through chinois or other fine mesh strainer, until chinois remains clean. Reserve 1/3 of braising liquid for reheating short ribs before serving, if making in advance. Transfer remaining braising liquid to saucepan and reduce to sauce consistency, about 2 cups.
* If reheating short ribs, place in oven-proof casserole with reserved liquid to cover. Reheat at 300 degrees until hot through.
4 servings. Each serving: 704 calories; 971 mg sodium; 142 mg cholesterol; 56 grams fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; 44 grams protein; 0.57 gram fiber.
Keller is chef at the French Laundry in the Napa Valley. Ruhlman is author of "Soul of a Chef" (Viking, $26.95). They are co-authors of "The French Laundry Cookbook" (Artisan, $50). Previous columns by them can be found on The Times' Web site, at: http://www.latimes.com/keller.
Roasting pan from Bristol Farms stores