A comforting braise to celebrate the coming of Christ
Advent sneaks up on me every year, embraces me in its quiet stillness and invites me to wait patiently with Mary for the coming of Jesus at Christmas.
In the season’s sudden embrace I am at once a child gently tethered to the apron of our Holy Mother as she kneads, stirs and fans the embers for cooking. Under Mary’s loving gaze, the gluttony of Thanksgiving gives way to remorse and resolve, and constant busyness yields to mindful waiting and joyful preparation.
In the kitchen, sheltered from the rain and chill that have encamped for the winter, my gastronomic senses seek the savory comforting deep flavors and textures that are born of patience and waiting — from braising.
Braising is an ancient technique of slowly cooking tough cuts of meats and vegetables in liquid over modest heat, resulting in tender, succulent and supremely comforting foods. It is an exercise of patience and faith, coaxing things raw, fibrous and difficult to their supple and yielding potential, in hope and anticipation of something glorious. It is worthwhile and beautiful work.
Celebratory and special, a thoughtful braise would make a welcome main course to share with loved ones before Christmas Eve Mass, or for Christmas dinner with sparkling company.
I wish you joyful cooking and happy eating!
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 1/2 pounds beef shoulder roast
- salt and pepper
- 2 onions
- 2 carrots
- 2 celery stalks
- 5 large cloves garlic
- 2 rosemary sprigs
- 5 thyme sprigs
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 cup (or glass) red wine
- 3 cups beef, chicken or vegetable stock<
- 1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, hand-torn to garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Set rack in the lower third position. Heat olive oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high to high heat. Season the beef with salt and pepper and sear in the hot pan, turning once, 9 to 12 minutes or so. Transfer to a plate. Chop the onion, carrot and celery into ½-inch crosswise pieces and add to the pan. Cook over medium-high heat for 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables start to become tender. Gently crush garlic using the palm of your hand on a flat surface and add to the pan, along with the rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, tomato paste and red wine. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, and let wine reduce slightly. Return beef to the pan, add beef stock, and quickly bring to a simmer. Cover pan with lid or tight-fitting foil and transfer to the oven for 2 to 2½ hours, or until beef is tender. Remove lid and return to ov-en for 20 to 30 minutes, or until brown and braising liquid is slightly thickened. Transfer to a deep dish for serving and garnish with parsley.
Choose a handsome roast with nice shape and body, good marbling and a modest layer of fat on the outside. Feel free to render chopped bacon before adding the vegetables, sauté an anchovy filet or two (you won’t taste it, but it will add a wonderful umami element), caramelize the vegetables for longer until deeply brown. You may also supplement beer for wine. A braised roast would be perfectly situated atop mashed potatoes with garlic and cream, slow-ovened polenta with pecorino Ro-mano, steaming pasta tossed in brown butter, or whatever you prefer to soak up the braising sauce. In our house, we enjoy pairing a savory braise with clean honest flavors like crisp bitter greens with bits of fresh citrus and shaved fennel, lightly dressed in olive oil and champagne vinegar. Or we might roast parsnips, carrots and Brussels sprouts with a good pinch of salt and a shower of fresh herbs and garlic, finished with a lacy drizzle of wild honey. A salty smoky cheese and juicy ripe pear are a lovely start to any occasion, and you can never go wrong with a finale of dark chocolate anything.
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