The Slow Cook (Part 4)
We’ve come a long way in our slow cook series, and we have worked slowly and patiently through the steps of making a braise. We’ve prepped the meat, browned it, and combined it with cooked out aromatics and a flavourful liquid in a pot. The hard work is over, and it now comes down to a waiting game. Just cover the lid, turn the flame down low, and wait.
Over the next few hours, all the flavours in the pot intermingle. The Maillard-iness of the fond, the sweetness of the onions, the acidity of the tomato, the umami of the stock; all slowly interact with each other. This is the most magical stage of the entire process and it demands nothing of the cook but patience.
The best vessel in which to cook this is a heavy, thick-bottomed pot, like a Dutch oven. Crock pots or slow-cookers in the West make life a lot simpler since it maintains a constant temperature, meaning you can leave it unattended for hours. If you don’t have a crock-pot, you can simply simmer it on the stove or in the oven, although you will have to keep an eye on it.
A lot of factors work together to create a thick sauce. The liquid reduces, and the collagen breaks down to gelatin which is a thickening agent. The process of thickening can be given a head start with a couple of tablespoons of flour added with the aromatics at the very beginning, or in the form of a slurry after adding the liquid.
With around half an hour to go, it is time to introduce the veggies. Classic examples include potatoes in pathar jhol, mushroom and pearl onions in a beouf bourguignon, and rustic chunks of carrot and onion in a pot roast. The technical term of these veggie additions is garniture, and these are added during the last few minutes, so that the meat and veggies finish cooking at approximately the same time. Garnitures that take longer, like the white beans of a cassoulet or the black beans of a feijoada can be cooked beforehand before assembling everything in the Dutch oven.
When the meat and veggies cooked to perfection, they may be strained out. If there are chunky aromatics from the start of the cook that you want to discard, this would be the time to do it. The sauce is then reduced further till the desired consistency is reached. When done, it is spooned over the meat and veggies, and with the final garnish. These finicky Western practices are not seen in Indian or other global stews.
But I have nothing to say against a garnish, which adds a lot to the dish. While a garniture cooks along with the main protein, the garnish is added at the very end. A good example of a traditional garnishes is the fresh coriander in countless Indian meat dishes or the gremolata in an osso buco. Long cooking times deprive food of that fresh zing, and garnishes like these are an excellent way of bringing it back to the dish.
And the flavours of a braise, stew or curry actually gets better with time. As you let it rest, the components continue to blend with each other, producing a richer, more complex flavour. This is why a curry tastes better the next day. Dishes like these are ideal for advance prep for a dinner party for example, and the multiple nuances of complexity is a sureshot way of impressing guests. And most of this, remember, was passive cooking, away from the stove, allowing time to work its magic.
And, we are done. We have transformed a simple, inexpensive cut of meat into a dish fit for kings. With the same basic template, we have taken a trip around the world. Slow foods might seem impractical in today’s fast paced world, but it is so worth it. The magic of slow cooking is perfectly summarized by W.H. Davies’s immortal lines:
“What is this life, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?”