How to Braise Vegetables—and Why You Want To
Vegetables are having a moment. Even setting aside the ever-growing ranks of vegetarians and vegans, people are bringing more and more plant eating into their lives. Much of this resurgence has focused on seasonal cooking, taking vegetables at the peak of their freshness and frankly, not doing much to them. Vegetables are often served raw, or barely cooked to just al-dente, retaining bright color and a bit of crunch, which is a wonderful way to prepare them. But that is not what I am here to tell you about. I am here to tell you that as terrific as a vegetable is when it is barely kissed with heat? You can get a totally different vegetable experience by braising.
Yep. Braising. That low and slow and moist cooking technique you usually reserve for tough cuts of meat like pork shoulder or pot roast is actually a really special way of cooking vegetables. What they lose in color intensity and snappy texture, they gain in flavor and soulfulness. The best example is a pot of greens: cooked all day in a rich broth until they are supple, you might need a spoon instead of a fork, but they will satisfy you in a way that no salad will. Especially as the days shorten, and access to vegetable variety gets limited for many areas of the country, fall and winter vegetables and vegetables that are generically available year-round all lend themselves to braising.
The technique is totally old-school. The foundations of French cooking include dishes like braised endives and braised leeks. Greeks know that a snappy veridian green bean is good, but one slowly cooked in a tomato-based sauce redolent with onion and garlic and a hint of cinnamon might look muddy but tastes fantastic. Wedges of cabbage, fennel bulbs, shallots or onions, slowly cooked in broth or wine or even juice or beer become deliciously slumpy, and completely crave-worthy. For all the joy of a crispy potato, one braised in stock has charms all its own.
The technique is simple. Depending on the size and shape of your vegetable, you can do it whole (leeks, carrots, shallots, green beens, snap peas, shishito peppers), halved or quartered (fennel, onion, squashes, endives, white potatoes, artichokes, celery hearts) or cut into slices or wedges (cabbages, sweet potatoes, eggplant). Prep your vegetables, season well with salt and pepper, and if your vegetable is either an allium or a head vegetable (anything related to an onion, or things like endive, fennel, brussels sprouts or cabbage) you can give a quick sear in a hot pan with some oil or butter to get some caramelization on the cut sides.
Arrange your vegetables in either a Dutch oven or a deep baking dish, preferably in a single layer. Add liquid to about a quarter inch from the top of the vegetables, the tops should all be poking out of the liquid or you will be poaching and not braising. Your liquid can be stock, wine, tomato sauce, whatever you like and will complement the vegetable. The liquid should taste good, season it with salt and pepper and any spices you like. Add a healthy slosh of oil or knob of butter. A sprig of a relevant herb would not go amiss. Pop on the lid or cover with foil, and put into a low oven, around 250, and let hang out for a good two to six hours depending on the hardiness of your chosen vegetable. Firm things like potatoes, carrots or large things like cabbage wedges will take longer, smaller and softer things like snap peas or endives will take less time. Remove the cover and turn your broiler on for five minutes if you want to brown the tops.
Vegetables are done when they are cooked to softness all the way through with no resistance. You should be able to cut them with a spoon. Serve hot, warm or at room temp, with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil if you like, a scattering of fresh chopped herbs like parsley, dill, cilantro or mint, and maybe something crunchy if you are so inclined, like fried shallots, toasted chopped nuts, or toasted buttered breadcrumbs. You can make a braised vegetable up to three days in advance and reheat in a 350-degree oven until bubbling.