Chicken. Beef. Eggs. Rice. To a lesser degree, vegetables. I see you staring at them in the grocery store, wondering just how someone turns those raw items into edible food. You know something has to happen, there is chopping and dicing, hot pans, those big metal things with holes in the bottom. People are eating food everyday and acting like cooking is just no big deal. I've been there, believe me. Cooking for yourself, especially the large, protein consuming, heavy lifting self can become quite a burden and doesn't always seem worth the effort. My first forays into cooking were like my first few times driving to the mall. I had experienced it many times, watched my parents drive me, heck I was even IN the car with them! But when it came time to do it on my own I didn't know the way. Like any endeavor, starting simple is the best way. Utilizing recipes that are relatively fool proof help build confidence and instill satisfaction in the task. For those of us spartan folk who just want to hit our macronutrient ratios, spend the least amount of time cooking and doing it on a tight budget this can be challenging. Let's face it, if you don't eat your five to six servings of veggies today you won't sweat it, but miss out on those fifty grams of protein and you'll be licking the inside of your empty protein powder tub.
I have the answer for you that French chefs have been utilizing for centuries. They want us to think it's difficult and reserved for dinner parties and special occasions. Heck, just Google Fernand Point, one of the fathers of French cuisine. Look like any powerlifters you know? All kidding aside, I am referring to the braise. Before you jump ship, let me note that if you've ever heard of a crock pot then you've basically heard of a braise.
The reason this cooking method is so effective for our goals is because it takes very little hands-on time, utilizes large and often cheap cuts of meat, makes a ton of food, creates its own sauce and is open to endless variations. The braise is essentially a cooking method that entails cooking a large piece of meat in a liquid, at low temperature for an extended time. If you are feeling frisky you can throw in vegetables to make it a complete meal, but we'll get to that later. This type of cooking thrives off of large and generally tough pieces of meat. Let's take the pot roast for example, a large cut of beef taken from the shoulder of a cow. This cut usually contains an assortment of different muscles attached to a bone. The muscle fibers are large, tough, bound by collagen and the muscle fibers run in varying directions. But if we brown it, throw it in a pot with some liquid and spices, and let it cook at low heat for a few hours we get a huge piece of relatively lean, moist, tender and affordable meat.
I will give a quick run down of the principles and steps for making a braise.
1. Large piece or pieces of meat (tougher is better)
2. Cooking liquid (water, crushed tomatoes, coconut milk, stock)
3. A citrus flavor ( not needed if cooking liquid is crushed tomatoes)
5. A Spice (cumin, paprika, chili powder, chipotles, adobo)
6. An onion
7. Browning your veggies first
8. Cooking low temp for a long time
Recipe and Principles
Before you run and dump a piece of meat into a pot with water and cook it for 7 hours, let me explain a few things. You can do this with a tough cut of meat but I have also experimented with whole chickens, chicken breast, pork chops and so on. For our first recipe I want you to go out a purchase 6 things. These will serve as your base for all your braising endeavors and give you some wiggle room to play with. I am assuming you at least have salt, please tell me you do! Pick up these following items at the grocery store:
- 1 Package chicken breasts (6 or 7 pack) $9
- 1 Can full-fat coconut milk (like Goya) $1.50
- 2 lemons $1.20
- 1 Large onion, any kind $1
- 4 Tomatillos (those are green tomatoes, covered in a thin papery skin) $1.50
- Paprika $2
Now, if there aren't any fresh tomatillos you can find canned ones in the Spanish food section and if they aren't there then substitute two green peppers. I don't even care if you use the canned green peppers that are normally in the salsa section But we need to start simple and this needs to be a success. However, going slightly out of your comfort zone with ingredients will serve you better in the future, so that is what we're doing.
Once you have the ingredients, there are a few simple steps.
- Largely chop the onion and tomatillos (about the size of half your thumb)
- Cut the lemons into wedges
- Open the coconut milk
- Lay chicken breasts on a large plate or baking sheet
- Season chicken all over with salt and paprika
Next, we are going to heat a large pot over medium heat and add a large drizzle of oil, around 3 tablespoons. To this we will add the onions and cook them over medium heat until they brown a little. If you bought fresh green peppers, you can add them at this same time too. Once these are browned a little, we are going to add our tomatillos (canned or fresh), stir them around a bit and then lay all of our chicken on top, as evenly as possible. Some pieces will be on top of others but that is ok.
To this we add half of the can of coconut milk and then turn the heat off.
Now cover the pot with a lid or tin foil and place it in a cold oven. Turn the oven on to 300 degrees. This part will take around 3 hours but you can chill out, do homework, watch tv or whatever during this time. I like to check the meat and move things around at the halfway point, but it isn't imperative.
After three hours, take out the pot and stick a fork into one of the chicken breasts. It should be so tender that the meat pulls right off the breasts. Almost done! Scoop out the chicken with a large spoon and put on a plate to rest.
Place the pot on the burner and cook on low until the liquid is reduced down to a thick sauce, almost like a creamy soup, should take 10 to 20 minutes. To this, squeeze in all the lemon and taste to see if it needs some more salt. Pour the whole thing right over your chicken evenly and you're done.
Problem: Meat is too tough
Solution: Simple. You either cooked it at too high a heat or not long enough. Reduce the heat to between 250 and 300 and continue cooking, checking for tenderness in 30 minute intervals.
Problem: Meat is too dry
Solution: Next time around, reduce cooking time by 30 minutes. Immediate solution is to let the meat completely cool in the cooking liquid and reheat with plenty of the liquid and some added fat like coconut oil, olive oil or butter. (If you let the meat cool in the liquid, you can reduce the liquid at a later time after meat has re-absorbed some of the moisture)
Problem: No appropriate cooking liquids
Solution: Water works fine as long as it is seasoned with some salt. You can make it even better by squeezing the juice from a lime, lemon or orange into it. Add a little cream or butter to the water. Canned crushed tomatoes work fantastic too.
Problem: I don't know what cut of meat to use
Solution: Find a large piece of beef or pork that is labeled “roast” or for “stewing”. This will work great. Keep in mind that you will have to follow the same principles and possibly cook shorter/longer depending on the size of the cut of meat.
Problem: I don't have an oven
Solution: Spend $40 on a crock pot. Throw everything in the crock pot at the same time and make sure you cook it long enough to be tender. To make the sauce, take out the meat and let the pot run a little longer without the lid on to reduce the liquid.
Problem: I want to braise and have no ingredients in my house
Solution: Remember the basic ingredients and the principles. You will need:
- Large piece or pieces of meat (tougher is better)
- Cooking liquid
- A citrus flavor ( not needed if cooking liquid is crushed tomatoes)
- A Spice
- An onion
- Browning your veggies first
- Cooking low temp for a long time