Photo by thedabble/FlickrCC
Even at an early age I was an observer of food. I was about nine years old, and I remember sitting in my grandmother's kitchen in Opelousas, Louisiana. I have a vivid memory of her browning meat in a cast-iron skillet before putting it in a roasting pan. I remember the sizzling sound as the meat hit the skillet, I remember the rich smell of the caramelized beef, and I remember thinking even then that she had a secret that not everyone had.
I also remember identifying people as good cooks and bad cooks (sorry, Mom), and this assessment was usually based on a well-prepared or ill-prepared piece of meat or poultry, whether it was beef, venison, pork, or a roasted chicken. The other benchmark was the gravy, and even then I knew with one taste whether the cook knew what she was doing in the kitchen. The success of gravy also came from the proper preparation of the meat. Many years later I learned it was (in culinary terms) the art of braising that my South Louisiana grandmother, Mimi, had mastered.
Escoffier wrote, "I should be loath to dismiss this subject before pointing out two practices in the cooking of braisings which are as common as they are absolutely wrong."
My cast-iron skillet has been the best of my culinary inheritance from my father. After attending several Southern universities, in 1977 I headed north to Alaska, which led from one adventure to another. It was an interesting road to culinary school in Paris, including a stint cooking in the Alaskan bush to earn money for La Varenne. On a visit home to my Natchez from Alaska, I sat in my father's kitchen observing a high flame under a large cast-iron skillet, and I heard that familiar sizzling sound. I knew that the skillet, as well as the flame, was essential to the first step of braising, which is evenly and deeply browning the meat. It was during that trip home that my father parted with one of his treasured cast-iron skillets, and thirty years later it continues to have the prime spot on my stovetop.
The idea of braising is to tenderize lesser cuts of meat by searing with high heat and then simmering in liquid to continue to cook until tender. Julia Child and Simone Beck recommend using lardons to help get that deep color when browning beef. Escoffier wrote, "I should be loath to dismiss this subject before pointing out two practices in the cooking of braisings which are as common as they are absolutely wrong." The first of these is the "pincage" of the braising base. Instead of laying the fried meat on a bed of aromatics (vegetables and herbs), likewise fried beforehand, many cooks place the meat, which they often fail to brown, on raw aromatics at the bottom of the braising pan. Escoffier goes on to say that something cooked on just one side will exude less flavor than something that is browned on all sides. He also cautions about not burning the aromatics.
Just as Julia and Simone always knew that technique paid off, and Escoffier scolded those who did not take the time to brown all sides of their meat, my grandmother knew that her cast-iron skillet and patience produced a superior product. I think we all know that feeling when we are cooking and get it just right.