Weekend Gourmet

Braise meat for autumn feast

A slow cooker turns cheaper cuts into hearty dinner

October 9, 2011 

Since we've had our first taste of crisp fall weather, my brain and taste buds start churning away from the light and simple foods of my summer dinner plate toward more complex flavors of early fall, or as many of my friends refer to this time of year as "brown food season."

Come on, haven't you been thinking about a pot roast lately? Maybe a rich lamb stew might fill your mouth as the tree leaves put on their show. A roast chicken, with pan gravy enhanced with roasted giblets, returns as the weather cools and changing of the guard for seasonal foods begins. There is just something different about fall foods that seem to seek our soul and make us think of the holidays in the not-too-distant future.

My summer-to-fall excursions start with a slow cooker, which for most of us is the perfect vessel for creating a great braise. Liquid, protein, seasoning and vegetables form the most basic of recipes. Think short ribs braised in red wine and beef stock, then plunked in a pool of mashed potatoes or grits. I recently had a pork shank braised in moonshine and muscadine grape juice that surprised me. A beef brisket in chili sauce and wine with some dried fruit brings the memories of my childhood Jewish friend's mom's cooking. A pot-au-feu, as the French would say, or braised whole chicken, is a delightful, different and intriguing way with poultry.

Using a slow cooker and basic braise techniques can cut your food bill by letting you use lesser cuts of meat and cook them till all their tenderness has fully arrived and the flavors of the liquid hug the meat and engulf you in deliciousness.

And it's simple.

October brings us the heart of football season, more family and friends, and oh yeah, Oktoberfest. This recipe is a Southern play on some German thinking. Pork and sauerkraut are at the heart of German eating. We all have done the spare ribs, beer and kraut thing or at least had someone prepare it for us. This recipe takes a few things closer to home and sweetens the pot. Fresh apple cider is coming into the markets. Couple that with the wonderful hard ciders being made in North Carolina and Virginia, and let some pork cuddle up to these liquids. Something wonderful transpires. Add some October standbys such as sauerkraut, apples and some Bavarian seasonings, and a feast develops, all while you are doing something else.

I've used a pork loin because it seems to be on sale now, and I think most roasted pork loins can be dry and not much fun. Pork shanks, spare or country-style ribs are other good options. And if you have a large slow cooker, a Boston butt works and helps you feed a crowd. Just double the other ingredients. If I have a Polish sausage around, I'd probably throw it in the pot. And a smoked pork chop adds a whole new layer of flavor to the dish. The point is you can easily customize this recipe.

It's cool enough now, so dust off the slow cooker. It can really be your friend and give you great meals.

Thompson: fdtfx1@earthlink.net

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