Cornish game Hens with Kiwifruit Marinade and Roasted Vanilla Sauce.
When chefs develop menu items, they tend to look at the ingredients on hand or in season for recipe inspiration. For a change of pace, consider looking to the cooking method as an alternative way to create new entrees.
Braising, defined as slow moist-heat cooking in a covered pot, meets many of the needs of today's onsite operators: it requires minimal prep time and skill, utilizes relatively low-cost ingredients, and results in highly flavorful yet healthful dishes.
Chef Michael Gueiss at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) sums up the benefits of braising this way: "the slow cooking transforms inexpensive, tough cuts of meat into tender morsels. And, chefs can customize the flavor nuances of the dish with their choice of braising liquid (beer, wine, stock), which in turn becomes a delicous sauce."
Consider Ropa Veija, Guiess' Cubaninspired take on pot roast. Skirt steak is braised in a spice, herb and beer mixture which, after a few hours of slow cooking, yields succulent beef shreds. The chef pairs the meat with a piquant sauce medley of tomatoes, olives and capers, and serves it over delicate white rice (see recipe "A plus is that any leftover meat is great for fajitas," adds Gueiss.
Braising is a building process with the chef implementing a few simple steps: browning the meat, adding aromatics (herbs, spices, vegetables) adding a liquid and, after cooking, finishing with a sauce that helps create a distinctive dish. (In general, meat is browned before braising, adding another layer of flavor. Some recipes, however, do not require this searing, particularly if the protein is delicate, like fish or tofu.)
Alison Negrin, executive chef for John Muir Health Systems in California, notes another key advantage of braising. "We strive to make our recipes as fresh and as close to service time as possible. Braised dishes not only look great, but continue to taste great on steamtables. They are a perfect menu solution for times when the food will be sitting and not immediately served to the customer."
In her Red Cooked Beef Short Ribs (see recipe), for instance, she marries comforting short ribs with a soy, garlic, and green onion-infused broth, finishes by stirring in spicy chili paste and serves it over cellophane noodles—an Asian-inspired dish that's homey enough to serve to meat-and-potato fans.
A Slow Roast
The same technique of layering flavor is used in roasting, too. Chefs FM spoke with overwhelmingly favor slow roasting. "A gentle roast gently caramelizes the meat and aromatics, resulting in overall increased depth of flavor," says Gueiss.
The art of roasting at JHU spans a wide culinary swath—from classic roast beef to rotisserie chicken (stuffed under the skin with an herb and lemon butter) to upscale interpretations such as whole sides of salmon, roasted crimini mushrooms and roasted pears with thyme honey (see recipe).
Weary travelers who stop by Axel's Bonfire Restaurant at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport take sustenance with an unusual rendition of homespun roast chicken —Beer Can Chicken. The chicken is marinated in mesquite and beer then rotisserie-roasted and served with a choice of a loaded baked potato, buttermilk bacon smashed potatoes, Southwestern rice, cheesy hash browns or fries. The roaster was made specifically for this operation and the chicken is one of the top sellers, according to Sheila McGee, HMS Host senior manager of communications and marketing.
"You definitely need to think outside the box in recipe development," says Chef John Marks at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics (UWH). The immense renovation of the hospital's cafeteria in 2006 expanded a customer's choices from five daily entrees to nine separate culinary destination kiosks, giving the chefs here an international template upon which to create home-spun classics or ethnic specialties.
And, according to Chef Marks, braising and roasting play an integral part in menu development. For example, at the Comfort Station customers can choose brasied items like the signature pot roast (marinated overnight in a "secret" house-made rub), succulent ribs, tender beef tips, even braised apples and pears.
A smoked and dry-roasted brisket is a specialty offered at the Smokehouse station (see recipe), while other roasted items offered may include fish, split house-spiced chicken, herb roasted root vegetables and even savory roasted pineapple. "They are both low fat methods of cooking that retain nutrients, result in less shrinkage and great taste," says Marks.
These naturally low-fat methods of cooking yield another benefit. "When you're grilling or sauteing, you have to add fat," says Chef Ira Portizky of Feather River Hospital in Paradise, CA. "But in braising and roasting you use the natural fat already present—or add a negligible amount—just enough to sear the meat before cooking," he says.
For example, in his recipe for Braised Tofu with Mushrooms, (see recipe) there is only one teaspoon of oil in the ingredient list.
Poritzky, too, prefers to slow roast, "because it imparts flavors that you wouldn't get with a fast cook. Besides, with both methods you can put it in the oven and forget about it for awhile!" he adds.
What's cooking at many onsite operations may not reflect your mother's pot roast—but does demonstrate how braising and roasting techniques can help you upgrade your menu without creating extra work in the kitchen.
| The sweet side of roasting |
This simple method of cooking is not strictly for proteins or vegetable sides. Consider roasting fruits whole and including them on dessert menus in parfaits, on top of ice cream or by themselves with a dollop of whipped cream (or yogurt) and biscotti. *Roasting fruit is more labor-intensive but, according to chefs FMspoke with, well worth the unusual and delicious result!
Apricots, glaze with butter and sugar, season with nutmeg, maple, or vanilla. Garnish with toasted almond slivers.
Banana, glaze with rum and butter, season with cardamom, cinnamon or ginger. Combine with apricots or pineapple. Garnish with toasted coconut.
Pears, glaze with butter and honey, season with cinnamon, clove, ginger, mace, nutmeg, or star anise. Combine with fresh blackberries and garnish with toasted pecans.
Pineapple, glaze with rum and sugar, season with black pepper. Combine with pears, tropical fruit salsa or roasted papaya and garnish with toasted unsweetened coconut.
Plums, glaze with simple sugar glaze, season with nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon. Combine with banana, cherries, or peaches and garnish with toasted walnut pieces.
Peaches/nectarines, glaze with sugar and butter, season with cinnamon, ginger, maple, vanilla. Combine with apricots, plums or fresh berries and garnish with toasted hazelnuts.
The Braised and the Roasted
For some great "cooking under cover" recipe ideas take a peek at these cookbooks.
Braise, A journey Through international Cuisine, by Daniel Boulud and Melissa Clark, HarperCollins Publishers , 2006, $32.50.
According to Chef Boulud, virtually every culinary tradition has its own special repertoire of braised dishes. in this cookbook he offers dishes based closely on traditional recipes (e.g., braised beef shoulder with red wine and bacon) and those with his own unique twist (Asian-style duck legs a L'orange).
Roasting, A Simple Art, by Barbara Kafka, William Morrow and Co., Inc. 1995, $29.95
Kafka defines every aspect of roasting and offers tips and techniques for preparing birds, meat, fish and shellfish, vegetables and even some fruit. Included in each section are side dish, sauce and left-over ideas.
All About Braising, by Molly Stevens, W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, $35.00
in her cookbook, stevens explores the chemistry of braising and explains the elements of each stage of braising (the main ingredient, the correct vessel, browning tips, the role of fat, the aromatics, the braising liquid, deglazing and reducing, stove top or oven braising, enrichments and finishing touches.) for more than 400 recipes.