I generally think of braised lamb as a spring dish, studded with fava beans or fresh English peas. Of course there are plenty of cold weather recipes for braising as well, it really is my favorite cooking method. Yesterday, being Sunday and feeling very much like Fall, it was a braising kind of day so lamb it was.
Braising is one of those cooking techniques that you can easily master, freeing yourself from recipes altogether. It’s important to choose the right cut of meat. The slow and low cooking screams out for those tougher cuts. You know the ones, usually cheaper at the butcher and marbled with plenty of fat. The reason these cuts work so well is that the long cooking in moist heat allows the muscle fibers to breakdown, rendering the meat so tender it should melt in your mouth. Think shoulder and leg cuts, avoiding tenderloins, lean steaks, and anything you’d normally throw on the grill. The method below is my way of braising meat. Use it as a guide for the meats and flavors you like and be creative.
Lamb has a lovely flavor on its own so matching it with just the right flavors is important. After breaking down my meat into 1-2 inch pieces, I made a paste in the food processor with a handful of Italian parsley, three cloves of garlic, a hefty pinch of salt, and enough olive oil to give it an almost pesto-like consistency. I tossed it with the meat and let it marinate for an hour, although several hours would be fine too. This is definitely an optional step when making a braise but I’ll tell you, it is what took my dish out of the park-the flavors were incredible.
I browned the meat well. Don’t be afraid of this part-I think it’s what separates killer restaurant dishes from the ones people make at home. Let the meat cook in one layer without turning too often. Each side should be dark golden brown and you should see the juices on the bottom of your pan begin to caramelize. If they get too dark, turn down your heat. These juices will become the base of your sauce and you don’t want them to burn.
Once the meat was done I took it out of the pan and added about 1 1/2 cups sliced fennel, a large leek thinly sliced, and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. I cooked it until it was lightly browned then added about two thirds of a bottle of Pinot Gris (Sauvignon Blan or Pinot Grigio would work too). I deglazed the pan, loosening up all those browned bits with a wooden spatula and letting the wine cook down by about half. The meat went back in with just enough water to barely cover the meat, it shouldn’t be totally submerged. I brought the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to low, covered the pot, and let it do its thing. Of course chicken stock would work well here too.
After a couple hours, stirring occasionally, the meat should be very tender. I usually just taste a piece but you can also press it gently against the side of the pot and it should begin to fall apart. At this point the liquid should be reduced by at least half. If it is not, remove the meat from the pan with a slotted spoon and increase the heat to medium high. Cook the liquid down until it begins to thicken, taste it, and season with additional salt and pepper. There should be just enough liquid to coat all the meat and form a bit of sauce, but it shouldn’t be swimming in liquid. This dish would hold up well if you wanted to make it in advance. Just cool it down and refrigerate then, before you reheat it, skim any of the fat off the top.
I served mine with good old fashioned mashed potatoes and some sauteed green beans. It felt like fall and was as good as a braise gets.