28/03/2007

A really satisfying meal

A meal I had last year at one of Iceland's fancier (and most expensive) restaurants, where perfectly done beef was served with braised veal that was well on its way to becoming pâté and had an incredible richness of flavour, reminded me of all the times when, as a child and well into my teens, I would stalk the pot when my mother was making lamb pâté and try to nab a little morsel of braised meat that had been cooked for so long that it was beginning to separate into string-like pieces, each bursting with the flavour of meat, onions and salt and saturated with the special flavour braising gives to meat. Unfortunately for the restaurant, the comparison was not in their favour, because while the braised veal – I think they called it veal mousse although I am relatively sure that neither cream, eggs nor gelatin were involved – had a wonderful, rich flavour, it had a mushy, nasty texture that made it impossible to eat it by itself - you needed a piece of beef, vegetable or potato to hide the texture.

A little later I bought a shoulder of lamb and used a couple of pieces to cook vegetable-lamb soup. After the hour it takes to make the soup, the meat was tough and flavourless and I decided I was probably going to end up making pâté from what remained. But yesterday when I was reading Ruth Reichl's book Garlic and Sapphires, the chapter on beef gave me a hankering after meat, and I remembered the braised veal and lamb. I now decided to try to recapture that fascinating, rich flavour, along with the right texture. I had braised meat many times but never taken it to the stage where it begins to fall apart, so this was a first for me.

I started rooting around in the freezer, rejected some cutlets I found, knowing I could get them cooked and tasting good in about 30 minutes, whereas the lamb shoulder, which I dug up next, would be perfect for braising. I took two pieces and put them in the fridge to thaw, then when I came home today I got them out, cut them down to a size that would fit into the smaller of my soup pots, browned them at high heat in a frying pan and flavoured them with salt and pepper, then dumped them into the soup pot with a quartered onion and little bit of water. Once it was boiling merrily I lowered the heat so that it would barely keep simmering, put the lid on and started the timer.

After 20 minutes I opened the pot, saw there was too much liquid and poured off some of it into a jar. Every 20 minutes I checked on the pot and pulled the bottom piece of meat out and put it on top to allow all the meat to wallow in the increasingly flavourful broth, which I replenished from the jar whenever it was in danger of boiling off. After an hour I decided there was some flavour note missing from the broth, so I added a sliced carrot and a bit more salt.

At the 70 minute mark I took the meat and cut it into smaller pieces and returned it to the pot with the bones. I started cooking the potatoes around the 80 minute mark and decided that I needed a second side dish to serve with the meat, so I got out some white cabbage which I sliced into ribbons. When the potatoes were cooked, I got them out and mashed them, adding milk, butter, sugar and a pinch of salt, and then put them aside.

It was now time to start browning the meat. I poured off the broth which by now could well be called stock, so rich and concentrated had it become, turned up the heat to medium and put some butter into the pot, as the meat was rather lean and there was hardly any fat on it to use for the browning. I also put some into a frying pan for the cabbage.

While the butter in the pan melted and got up to the right temperature, I coated the meat in butter and listened to hear the sizzling begin. I dumped the cabbage into the frying pan and stirred it to get it coated with butter, then turned back to the meat. This I stirred to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pot and tore it apart with the edge of the wooden spoon and a fork while it browned. To make sure it wouldn't burn or dry out, I occasionally added a spoonful of the stock. At this stage I was taking turns stirring the meat and the cabbage.

When the smell of cooking cabbage began to rise from the pan, I added couple of dashes of maple syrup to it (you need to be very careful with the maple syrup as too much ruins the dish) and a pinch of salt to counteract the syrup's sweetness. I stirred the cabbage to coat with the syrup and then removed it from the heat. Then I finished browning the meat, which was now beginning to take on a caramel colour and looked like my mother's pâté meat does right before she puts it into the grinder. The onions had been completely mashed up and absorbed by the meat, but carrot pieces were still visible as tiny morsels of bright orange among the browned meat. I added the final spoonful of broth, gave it a stir, picked out the bones (carefully licking each before discarding it) and then dumped the meat onto a plate, added the mashed potatoes and the cabbage.

And how did it taste? The mashed potatoes were creamy and mild with a hint of butter, the meat was rich and soft with just the right amount of saltiness and a hint of pepper, but the cabbage was a bit bold – which was surprising as raw it had little flavour – but it was perfectly al dente and after the first explosion of flavour it had just the right amount of sweetness and a mild taste of maple to counteract the first big taste shock. I think the most exquisite moment of the meal came when the liquid from the cabbage – equal amounts cabbage juice, butter and maple syrup – seeped into the meat and was absorbed into it, adding a hint of sweetness to it to complement its rich and slightly salty braised flavour. In other words: it was a very, very good meal, in the way only food cooked at home with love and care can be.

I am just hoping the mashed potatoes will prevent me from getting heartburn, but even if I do, it will have been worth it.

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