Cooking 101: Back to Basics – Braising, Stewing, Blanquettes and Fricasses

Friday night’s cooking class was a lot of fun. Just before class I parked down the street and walked around a cooking supply store that’s located a few blocks away. It took all the personal restraint I had to not buy everything in sight. They had everything and at reasonable prices as well. I walked out with a simple refrigerator thermometer pumped to get to class. The class focus was on moist heat cooking used in braising, stewing, blanquettes and fricassees.

I walked into the building to find our class was nowhere to be seen, one minute for six. Another classmate arrived with me and was equally as confused. Here was our fourth class and it looked like we were being moved again. After walking from kitchen to kitchen, a chef instructor found a schedule and stated that we were in the downstairs kitchen, “the dungeon” as a passer-by commented. Even more parties and couples classes were planned for the evening at the school requiring our move.

My classmate and I walked down the stairs to find everyone else waiting for us. They must have received the memo or have some sort of ESP. As usual, the class started with a review of the cooking techniques. The tougher cuts are best suited for braising we learned. The process loosens the meat fibers making them tender.

Chef Angie read over the recipes, Fricassee de Lapin (Fricassee with Rabbit), Pork and Butternut Squash Stew, Braise Short Ribs with Dried Cherries, Poulet au Vinaigre a L’Eestargon (Braised Chicken with Vinegar and Tarragon, Sea Bass over Fennel, Braised Red Cabbage, Blaquette de Veau (Veal Blanquette), Stovetop Braised Artichokes,  and Ossobuco alla Milanese (Veal Shanks in the style of Milan). Before I had a chance to consider my options the Ossobuco and Short Ribs were taken. I had come to class hungry, and could see that I was about to be tortured by a slow and fragrant cooking process.

I paired up with one of my classmates to make the braised chicken. When he asked me what my name was, it dawned on me that no one had been introduced during our last three classes. It’s funny how that works, as class four was definitely the deciding point; asking for a name during class five or six would just pass the awkwardness line. Our stations were setup and we prepared our ingredients.

The pearl onions were scored and then blanched in boiling water for one minute and then placed on ice. In a braising pot we melted butter and our vegetable oil where we would brown the chicken.The chicken came whole, and we had to learn how to carve it into pieces for our dish. It was surprisingly easier than expected, although I’ll admit precision is something that could be improved upon.

The chicken took forever to brown. We were advised to use cayenne pepper next time we browned chicken as it would be natural with respect to taste but it would help the browning process and make the chicken a brown into a richer color.

Braising: Tarragon Chicken Browning
Braising: Tarragon Chicken Browning

Once the chicken was browned, we poured off the fat and sauteed the onions which were now peeled until they became a golden brown. The wine and vinegar were added and we deglazed the pan, added the tomatoes and reduced by half. Next some tarragon was added along with the chicken which we had taken out during the fat removal while we brought everything to a boil. The heat was then reduced to a simmer for 20 minutes using parchment paper and an inverted lid of foil and the pot lid. The recipe stated that the chicken would be ready when we could poke it with a skewer without resistance. This was tough because the lid made it hard to see what was going on in the pot and blocked access to the chicken. We checked after 20 minutes and decided to leave everything cooking for another five minutes. The second time around, the chicken was ready, but our saunce had cooked down too much.

Braising: Tarragon Chicken Cooked
Braising: Tarragon Chicken Cooked

To fix this, we placed the chicken on a plate with foil to keep it warm while we worked with Chef Angie to fix our sauce. We added chicken stock and corn starch to the pot along with some white wine and whisked vigorously. the sauce started to thicken and we put in tarragon and salt to enhance the flavor. After a few minutes it was ready to go. We got out a serving platter and plated the chicken, ladled on the sauce and sprinkled tarragon on top. We also garnished our plate with tarragon sprigs.

Braising: Tarragon Chicken Plated
Braising: Tarragon Chicken Plated

The plate tasted great. I was not really familiar with tarragon as an ingredient, so I didn’t know what to expect. The sauced was salted perfectly and was no overpowering. The chicken was moist and tender. Another success, although it took forever to make. This clearly is a weekend meal.

I was also looking forward to Chef Angie bringing in a marinated flank steak that would be used for carne asada I had requested to make. As promised she brought in a marinated meat which turned out to be a brisket instead. Since this week called for braising, she seared the meat on both sides and finished in a covered pan in the oven, cooking the meat to a perfect medium rare.

Carne Asada
Carne Asada

This class was incredibly fun. The class is definitely more comfortable in the kitchen which allows everyone to be more social. Our instructor is also really encouraging and flexible, always making sure we are learning what we want to and getting the most out of class. Even though I started off incredibly hungry, and was forced to endure the sounds of delicious food cooking and smell it as it transformed from raw ingredients to wonderful dishes, I left full, stomach hurting. Especially good were the rabbit and short ribs. I can’t wait to try them out on my own.

This Friday at work, we are having an international buffet lunch where everyone that wants to gets to cook and bring in a dish from anywhere in the world. I will try out my own attempt at carne asada with the hope that I win the prize for best dish, while representing not only my amatuer cooking skills, but my latin heritage.  Stay tuned to see what I can come up with and learn how I fair during the competition.

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