(It's the end of the long workday (or the start of an extra-long week) and we're hungry. Like, "can't-think-straight" hungry. Luckily, Food52 contributor EmilyC wants to do all the thinking for us. In Dinner's Ready, her monthly column on weeknight wonders, she shares three simple, flavor-packed recipes that are connected by a single idea or ingredient. Stick with Emily, and you'll have a good dinner on the table in no time. Today, three hearty, wintry braises that don't need to simmer all day on the stove.
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Braising may bring to mind tough cuts of meat like short ribs, lamb shanks, and pork shoulder that slowly simmer away for hours until meltingly tender. It's a mostly hands-off cooking technique perfect for a Sunday afternoon of puttering around the house doing chores, or cozying-up with a blanket and a movie.
But braising on a Tuesday night when you need dinner fast? Yes, that's possible, too — even without a pressure cooker! In fact, quick braises that come together in 30 minutes can be every bit as delicious and nourishing as their slow-cooked counterparts.
"Braising refers to tucking a few ingredients into a heavy pot with a bit of liquid, covering the pot tightly, and letting everything simmer peacefully until tender and intensely flavorful," writes Molly Stevens in "All About Braising," one of my all-time-favorite, most dog-eared cookbooks. Stevens points out that the basic technique is the same for long versus short braises; the only difference is time.
Which is to say: All you need for a speedy weeknight braise are quick-cooking ingredients, a flavorful braising liquid, and a pot, Dutch oven, or deep skillet with a lid. (No lid? Use a baking sheet!)
Vegetables, fruits, and naturally tender proteins, such as sausage, seafood, and chicken, are all fair game. Sturdy, winter vegetables — cauliflower, cabbages, root vegetables, winter squash, hardy greens — work particularly well because they won't turn to mush as they're softening. I like to cut them into small chunks or thin slices so they cook quickly and evenly. This style of cooking also provides an opportunity to build flavor in the pot from the bottom-up — for example, by searing the star ingredient until it's deeply caramelized or sautéing aromatics and spices in olive oil until they're fragrant.
These seemingly endless possibilities led me to develop three quick, comforting braises for any night of the week. Make them as written, or feel free to off-road based on what you have on hand. No matter which direction you take, it's difficult to go wrong with these nourishing meals that'll boost your spirits (and warm you from the inside out) on a cold day.
Coconut and Chile Braised Winter Squash
This boldly flavored, vegetable-packed braise (which happens to be vegan) is exactly the type of dinner I want to turn to after the holidays and into the new year. Winter squash is the star ingredient (either butternut or delicata work well), and the braising liquid is coconut milk and chile sauce perfumed with coriander and rosemary. It's a dish that's far more than the sum of its parts: the starches of the squash beautifully meld with and thicken the coconut milk, and the savory-tangy-spicy-sweet flavors come through in every bite. Serve with couscous or grains to sop up all the ultra-creamy sauce.
Puttanesca-Style Cauliflower With Linguine
This play on the classic Italian sauce puttanesca has the brash, briny elements we know and love (anchovies, capers, olives!) but invites fun-loving cauliflower to the party. The florets become meltingly tender, almost silky, from a quick braise in olive oil and some of the starchy pasta water, and the resulting sauce perfectly cloaks linguine (or any type of pasta). I'll never turn down any version of puttanesca, but I'll admit that I'm quite partial to this rich, reimagined rendition.
Braised Red Cabbage With Kielbasa, Apple and Mustard Cream
This hearty, cozy one-skillet dinner is inspired by a braised red cabbage side dish from Molly Steven's "All About Braising" that I've been making for years. Charring thin slices of the red cabbage builds big flavor — and ensures a speedy braise! — and a mix of stock, apple cider vinegar, and maple syrup serves as a tangy sweet-sour braising liquid. Don't sleep on the mustard cream, which you brush over the kielbasa, cabbage, and apples near the end; it adds an extra layer of texture, flavor, and richness (a trick that happily extends to other vegetable braises, as well).