I have been learning to cook for many, many years. Although I've never attended a formal cooking school or taken many cooking lessons, I've been fortunate that my career allows me, even now, access to virtually every outstanding chef, cooking teacher, and restaurateur.
Sitting at great sushi bars such as Nobu and Kuruma Zushi, I've learned to make a toro hand roll. In Daniel Boulud's kitchen, I learned how to roast a whole foie gras. In New York's Chinatown, I discovered how to make dim sum. And in Nagano, Japan, I mastered the ancient art of making soba noodles. On my TV show, with its parade of great chefs and cooks, I've learned to prepare a perfect fish, roast an herb-infused chicken, and even make ice cream in two minutes.
Along the way, my team and I have written many cookbooks, some comprehensive and others, such as "Hors d'Oeuvres and Baking Handbook," more focused. All the while, I've thought about sharing those techniques, that useful methodology, the hints and tips I was gathering, in a textbook, a "cooking school" primer or manual of my own.
At Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, we have an incredible group of cooks, and I enlisted the support of several of them: Sarah Carey spearheaded the effort with Heather Meldrom and Lesley Stockton. All of us are excited that "Martha Stewart's Cooking School," excerpted here, is being published this month. We hope that you will like it and use it well.
Sharing a Passion
Cooking remains one of the great pleasures of my life, and I've written my new book to share the knowledge I've acquired over the years. It includes primary techniques such as braising, which is used to prepare flavorful and tender pork shoulder with leeks, parsnips, and celery root.
How to Braise Meat, Fish, and Poultry
Braising is a busy cook's faithful friend. This cooking method doesn't require much hands-on time; nor does it rely on special equipment or skills. Yet the technique produces hearty, consistently delicious dishes that belie its ease. And because it works best with cuts of meat that are generally inexpensive, it is a good building block for beginning cooks, since mistakes are not quite as disheartening as when made with more costly cuts.
Most braises are cooked for a long period of time at a low temperature. The best cuts for braising come from harder-worked muscle groups of the animal -- the leg, shoulder, breast, and neck areas -- which are more flavorful. As the juices from the meat mingle with the aromatic vegetables, seasonings, and cooking liquid, a wonderfully rich sauce develops, coaxing a depth of flavor from tough cuts that no other cooking method can equal.
All you need for most braises is a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid to keep the cooking liquid from evaporating. When braising, the pot should be just big enough to snugly hold the meat and liquid. A vessel with too much surface area will allow the liquid to condense on the sides and won't leave enough simmering around the meat and vegetables. Make sure the pot is oven safe, so that you can use it for oven braising if necessary.
Nearly any liquid can be used -- the most common are stock, broth, wine, beer, and water. If using stock, remember that homemade is always preferable to canned; the store-bought variety can cause your reduced braising liquid to taste excessively salty and won't have the thickening power of gelatin-rich homemade stock.
The key to attaining fork-tender meat is to keep the liquid in your pot at a simmer. Keep the cooking liquid as high as one-third to one-half of the way up the side of the meat, fish, or poultry. As the cooking liquid and meat juices simmer, they naturally reduce, which will thicken the sauce and intensify the flavor. If your liquid reduces too much while cooking, add a little more liquid to the pot.
How It Works
As the meat cooks, the internal temperature rises and the juices eventually seep through the seared outer layer, mixing with the cooking liquid. At this point, if you open the pot, you'll probably find that the meat looks compact and shriveled, and is noticeably smaller than when you first put it in. Some people mistakenly assume that they've overcooked the meat at this point and take it out of the oven. But the meat is still in the process of cooking to a tender finish.
As it continues to braise, the cooking liquid will seep back into the meat, infusing it with moisture. When the meat is done, you can stick a fork into its thickest part with little resistance. If you are not sure, be patient and continue cooking. You will know it has reached the right consistency when it is silky, can be shredded easily, or is falling off the bone (if there is one).
How to Braise Vegetables
When you want tender vegetables with mellow, multilayered flavors, turn to braising. With this method, vegetables are simmered in a flavorful liquid that is served as a sauce -- one of the ways they are distinguished from boiled preparations.
Cabbage, broccoli rabe, onions, and tougher greens, such as collard, are often braised, but even tender tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant turn out delicious when cooked in this manner -- as they are for ratatouille, the classic Provencal dish.
Often these recipes start by browning the vegetables in oil, butter, or other fat to add flavor and color. Many call for mirepoix and other aromatic ingredients to add flavor. After the vegetables have browned, add a liquid (such as stock or broth) and cook the vegetables until just tender. The liquid can serve as a powerful flavor enhancer and will also end up with many of the vitamins and nutrients from the vegetables. Serving the liquid as a sauce helps ensure that those nutrients aren't lost. Homemade stock is preferable to canned because it has sufficient gelatin to thicken the sauce to a syrupy consistency.
Text by Martha Stewart
Reprinted from Martha Stewart's Cooking School, by Martha Stewart with Sarah Carey. Copyright(c) 2008. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.