Consider the slow-cooked leg.
Not just any old leg, but the slow-cooked one.
Too often, the limb is overlooked -- dismissed as little more than a tough chunk of the beast or bird that makes for cheap gnawing, maybe a quick dip in the deep fry, but not fit for prime time or company.
Such thoughts would be missing the point; the slow-cooked leg is a whole different story, and a succulent one at that.
The surest way to detect the holy transformation that comes when low, slow oven meets not-yet-tender leg is to go outside on a cold day and come in through the front door. Every hour or so, go outside and slip back in again.
Your nose will be the thing that lets you in on the miracle taking place in the pan.
With every passing interlude, the vapors rise and swirl and twirl you in their trance.
“It’s almost magical. You take something cheap, and everyday, and unremarkable, and you turn it into something succulent,” said chef Suzanne Goin, owner of four Los Angeles restaurants, including the rustic Mediterranean kitchen, Lucques.
Braising, she added, is nothing less than “a reliable home run.”
It’s one that unfolds in the braising pan, where a seared leg, one that has been dry-rubbed overnight, perhaps, with herbs and spices and garlic and citrus zest, is just peeking out from a bath of stock and wine (or tomato, or some other acidic liquid), at a simmer that barely trembles, the heat’s so low.
But through the hours, and thanks to the alchemy of heat and time and penetrating acid, the tough sinew or muscle of the much-exercised leg is breaking down, converting to gelatin, “and that’s what makes it so tender,” said Jean Anderson, author of “Falling Off the Bone” (Wiley, $29.95), a cookbook that explores the many ways tough can turn to tender after leaving the meat counter.
“In addition to the sinew, you’ve got the marrow,” added Anderson, her voice nearly melting at the mention of that marvel tucked inside the bone. “That’s what gives you luscious flavor.”
TIPS FOR TENDER LEGS
A few tips, if tough-to-tender is your intent, courtesy of cookbook author Jean Anderson:
Have the bone cut crosswise to expose the marrow
A flame diffuser is essential, if cooking on a stove, so you can keep the temperature low enough not to scorch food on the bottom of the pan
Keep the liquid just below a simmer: "You want it to barely tremble."
To jump-start the tenderizing of an tough meat, add a little acid to the cooking liquid — wine, perhaps, or beer or tomato juice
Dutch ovens are your best bet for braising; the heavier the better, especially nonreactive enamel cast iron
DUCK BRAISED IN BANYULS
6 large duck legs, 8-10 ounces each, trimmed of fat
1 tablespoon thyme leaves plus 6 whole sprigs
1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
Grated zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups diced onion
1/2 cup diced fennel
1/2 cup diced carrot
1 bay leaf
2 cups Banyuls or port (see note)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 to 4 cups chicken stock or broth
Makes six servings.
Season duck with the thyme leaves, pepper and orange zest. Cover and refrigerate four hours or overnight.
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Take the duck out of the refrigerator 45 minutes before cooking. After 15 minutes, season the legs on all sides with salt. Heat a large skillet over high heat for two minutes. Add the olive oil and heat one minute.
Place the duck legs in the skillet skin-side down in batches if necessary, and cook until the skin is deep golden brown and crispy, eight to 10 minutes. Turn legs and reduce heat to medium. Cook two minutes. Transfer to a Dutch oven or other braising pan, skin-side up. (The duck legs should just fit in the pan.)
Discard half of the fat in the skillet and heat skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, fennel, carrot, thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Cook, stirring often to scrape up all the crusty bits, until browned, about 10 minutes. Add the Banyuls and vinegar. (NOTE: Banyuls is a fortified wine from the south of France.) Turn the heat to high and heat the liquid to a boil. Cook until it has reduced by half, six to eight minutes. Add 3 cups of the stock and heat to a boil. Turn the heat to low and simmer five minutes.
Add the broth and vegetables to the Dutch oven (the liquid should not quite cover the duck; add more stock if necessary). Cover the pan with foil and a lid. Cook in the oven until the duck is very tender, about two-and-a-half hours.
Carefully transfer duck to a baking sheet. Turn oven up to 400 degrees. Return duck to the oven to brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Strain the broth into a saucepan, pressing down on the vegetables to extract all the juices, then discard vegetables. Skim the top layer of fat from the sauce. If necessary, reduce the broth over medium-high heat to thicken slightly, about five minutes. Season to taste. Transfer the duck to a serving platter. Spoon the juices over the duck.
6 slices (each 2-inch-thick, center-cut) veal shanks
1/3 cup flour mixed with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon each crumbled dried leaf thyme and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large, coarsely chopped yellow onions
2 large, coarsely chopped red onions
4 large cloves garlic, smashed, skins removed
2 small, coarsely chopped carrots
2 small, coarsely chopped ribs celery
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried leaf basil
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh marjoram or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried leaf marjoram
1 teaspoon coarsely chopped fresh thyme or1/4 teaspoon crumbled dried leaf thyme
2 strips (2-by-1/2-inch) lemon zest
1 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes, with liquid
1 3/4 cups chicken or beef broth
1 1/2 cups dry white Italian wine
1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
Makes six servings.
Rub veal shanks well all over with seasoned flour, then shake off excess. Heat 2 tablespoons each oil and butter over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven (large enough to accommodate all shanks in a single layer) until ripples appear on pan bottom, one-and-a-half to two minutes. Add all shanks and brown well, five to seven minutes per side. Remove each to a large bowl.
Add remaining oil and butter to pot, and as soon as butter melts, add next 10 ingredients (yellow onions through lemon zest). Cook, stirring often, until onions are limp and golden, about 10 minutes.
Return shanks to pot along with accumulated juices, then add tomatoes, broth and wine.
Heat to a boil over moderate heat. Adjust heat so mixture barely bubbles, then cover. Simmer slowly until veal nearly falls from bones, stirring occasionally and adding water if needed, three-and-a-half to four hours. Cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
When ready to proceed, let Dutch oven stand 30 minutes at room temperature.
Heat over medium heat until serving temperature, stirring occasionally and carefully so shanks remain intact, about 20 minutes. Discard bay leaves and lemon zest.
Taste for salt and pepper, and adjust. Mix in parsley. Arrange Osso Buco on a heated, large, deep platter.
Cover with juices and top each shank with a sprinkling of gremolata.