Braise be! Slow cook your way to glory
Braising not only makes meat beautifully moist and tender, it's also a low-maintenance method that's a godsend for busy cooks
Text Susan Jung / Photography Jonathan Wong / Styling Nellie Ming Lee
I love to make braised dishes because once all the ingredients are in the pan, you can just leave them to cook. Most people associate braising with tough cuts that need hours of cooking to tenderise the meat (as in the lamb shanks recipe below), but you can use the method to cook chicken (which takes only about an hour, depending on size); the moist heat prevents the breast meat from drying out.
Braised chicken with chestnuts and root vegetables (pictured)
I got the idea for this warming winter dish from a luxurious braised chicken I ate at On Lot 10, on Gough Street, Central. Chef David Lai had put thin slices of black truffle under the skin before cooking the bird with chestnuts and root vegetables. He sealed the enamelled cast-iron pot with a flour-and-water crust, and when the waiter broke the crust and lifted the lid, released was a smell of chicken and truffles so enticing, people at nearby tables turned to see what we were eating. This dish is more humble, but still very good.
The chicken can be cooked on the day you buy it, but, if you have time, salt it a day in advance so the seasoning has time to penetrate. Chestnuts can be hard to peel; to make life easier, buy shelled fresh chestnuts from a vegetable vendor. You'll still need to remove the skins, but that's fairly easy to do, as long as the chestnuts are hot.
1 fresh chicken, about 1.5kg
12 or more fresh chestnuts
2-3 medium-sized carrots
12 pearl onions
8 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 bunch of thyme
15ml olive oil
Cooking oil, as needed
100ml home-made chicken stock
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the crust:
250 grams plain (all-purpose) flour
50 grams fine sea salt
100ml egg whites (commercial brands are fine)
Chop off the neck of the chicken, cutting as close as possible to the body. Remove the wing tips and the feet. (Simmer all these parts with water and a little salt for several hours, then use the liquid as the home-made chicken stock.) Sprinkle salt over the entire bird and in the cavity, then wrap it in a plastic bag and refrigerate overnight. Take the bird from the fridge about an hour before cooking it.
Put the chestnuts in boiling water, lower the heat and simmer for five to 10 minutes, depending on their size, then remove from the heat. Work with a few chestnuts at a time, while they're still hot, leaving the rest in the water: remove the shell (if it's intact), then strip off the papery skin. Peel the carrots, parsnips and turnips then cut them into chunks. Boil the pearl onions for a few minutes then drain them and remove and discard the skins. Put the chestnuts, onions, garlic cloves and root vegetables in a bowl, then drizzle with the olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and mix to combine.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Heat about 60ml of oil in a skillet until very hot, then brown the chicken on all sides. Stuff the thyme in the cavity of the chicken, then place it, breast-side down, in a heavy pot (preferably enamelled cast iron), which should fit the chicken fairly snugly. Surround the bird with the vegetables then pour in the chicken stock. Put the lid on the pot then very lightly oil the edges (this makes it easier to remove the crust after the dish is cooked, but if you use too much oil the dough won't adhere).
Make the crust by mixing the flour with the salt and adding the egg whites. The dough should be malleable: if it's dry, add more egg white (or some water); if it's too moist, add flour. Roll the dough into a long, thick rope about 1.5cm in diameter. If the dough breaks, don't worry - just patch it back together. Firmly press the dough around the entire perimeter of the pot where it meets the lid, to create a tight seal. Place in the oven and bake for an hour (adjust the time to suit the weight of the chicken). Break off the crust just before serving the bird.
Braised lamb shanks
4 lamb shanks, about 350-400 grams each
30ml cooking oil
120ml red wine
500 grams diced canned tomatoes
35 grams tomato paste
1 litre beef stock
2 tsp juniper berries, lightly crushed
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Sprinkle salt evenly over the lamb shanks. Over a medium-high flame, place a heavy pot (preferably enamelled cast iron) that's large enough to fit the shanks in one layer and add the cooking oil. When the oil is very hot, brown the shanks on all sides, then put them on a plate. Pour the wine into the pot and use a whisk to scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom. Simmer the wine until it's reduced by half, then add the tomatoes, tomato paste and beef stock. Bring to the boil then put the juniper berries and lamb shanks into the pan. Bring to the boil then turn the heat to very low, place the lid on the pan and simmer for about 1½ hours, then turn the shanks over. Cook for about three hours in total, or until the meat is tender but not falling apart. Remove the shanks from the pan. Boil the liquid over a medium-high flame until it reduces to a nice sauce consistency. Spoon off any fat from the surface of the sauce, then adjust the seasonings, if necessary. Put the shanks back into the pan then serve with couscous or rice pilaf.