Braising brings out best

features- Orange and Green Olive Braised Chicken Credit: Provided/National Chicken Council Orange and Green Olive Braised Chicken food stylist: Lisa Cherkasky

Jacques Pepin says it produces the ultimate comfort food.

It's perfect for cooler seasons, warming your kitchen during its slow simmer atop the stove or in the oven.

And it's perfect for the economic times, turning cheap, tough cuts of meat into meltingly tender, richly flavored dishes that, as an added bonus, make their own sauce.

It's braising.

If you've made a pot roast, you've practiced braising. It's the process of cooking something in a small amount of simmering liquid in a closed pot, with low heat, for an extended period. Its mantra is "low and slow."

What to braise

The technique is most commonly used for large pieces of meat and for meat from the more well-muscled cuts: chuck roast or brisket instead of, say, sirloin of beef; or lamb shank instead of lamb chops; or chicken thighs instead of boneless, skinless breasts.

This is one case in which you want to stay away from the leanness and tenderness we typically pay a premium for.

Here are the cuts and vegetables to buy:

--Beef: Short ribs, chuck or shoulder roast or steaks, top blade roast or steaks, flank steaks, brisket, shank, oxtail

--Veal: Shoulder, breast, shank

--Lamb: Shoulder, breast, neck, shank

--Pork: Shoulder (boneless pork butt or Boston butt, the upper part of the shoulder, is easier to work with than picnic, the lower part of the shoulder), country-style ribs and spareribs, pork belly, sausage. Pork chops, especially the cheaper boneless sirloin chops, and pork loin can benefit from braising, too, since so much of today's pork is bred for extreme leanness, with a consequent loss of flavor.

--Poultry: Whole mature birds; bone-in, skin-on parts, especially thighs and drumsticks.

--Vegetables: Hearty vegetables, such as cabbage, fennel and celery, all root vegetables and sturdy greens.

What to cook it in

For braising, you want a vessel that is heavy and conducts heat evenly, with a tightly fitting lid (although you can improvise with foil).

And you want the pot to fit the food being braised rather snugly, without a lot of extra space around the food or between the food and the lid, so the steam will be concentrated.

Cast iron, plain or enameled, is a top choice.

For a larger cut of meat, use a Dutch oven or oval-lidded casserole; for shallower items, a heavy-lidded skillet or saute pan.

Clay and earthenware also make good braising pots, though the food will need to be browned in another pan, as they aren't flame-proof.

Cooking steps

--Browning: Browning is essential to add a layer of flavor that can't be achieved by the low-heat simmering that will follow. The food will look more attractive when browned, too.

You can dredge the food in a light coating of flour first to promote browning and to thicken the eventual sauce somewhat, or use a dry spice rub.

It's best to brown the food in the same pot you'll be braising it in to capture all the caramelized drippings on the bottom of the pan. Be sure you pat the food dry before browning.

Use just enough fat to film the bottom of the pan, and give the food time to form a brown crust before moving or turning it. Keep the heat high enough to promote browning but low enough to avoid charring.

The flavor additions: These round out and accent the flavor of the meat or poultry and are sauteed in the pot after the meat has been browned, before the cooking liquid is added.

Many cuisines have a traditional mixture of finely chopped aromatics that form a flavor base — in France, mirepoix; in Italy, soffritto or battuto; in Spain and other Hispanic cuisines, sofrito.

These can be onions, garlic, shallots, celery, carrots, peppers, spices and herbs, among other flavorings. You also can add bacon or pancetta, but be sure to pour off any excess fat they generate.

The aromatic vegetables are used for their flavor and not for their texture; if you want identifiable vegetables in the braise, such as onions, carrots, parsnips or potatoes for a pot roast, add them later in larger chunks.

--The braising liquid: You can use just water, but your braise will have much more depth and complexity if you use stock or broth. A rounder, more balanced flavor can be achieved by adding an acidic liquid, such as red or white wine, beer, cider, orange juice, a little vinegar or a small amount of tomato paste. Culinary School of Fort Worth founder Judie Byrd's secret pot roast ingredient is coffee, which adds a mysterious depth of flavor.

Resist the temptation to add too much liquid to the braise: It should come no more than halfway up the sides of the main ingredients. You want a braise with a deeply flavored sauce, not a stew, and the foods being braised will add their own juices to the liquid as they cook.

Bring the liquid to a gentle simmer on the stovetop. You can leave the pot over a low burner, where it's easier to monitor, or place it in a preheated 300-degree oven, which provides even heat for long braises.

--Finishing the sauce: At the end of cooking, the liquid in the pot may already be thick enough and intensely flavored enough for a luxurious sauce without further steps, but most sauces will benefit from reducing.

Transfer the braised food to a warm platter and tent it with foil. If you used particularly fatty meat, you may want to skim any excess oil off the top.

Taste the sauce; if it seems thinner or paler in flavor than you want, set the pot on a burner and bring the liquid to a brisk simmer.

Stir to scrape up any bits sticking to the bottom of the pan, and simmer the liquid, tasting periodically, until it reaches the desired consistency.

The liquid will thicken as water evaporates from it — it's called reducing.

Don't season the sauce before it's reduced; taste it at the end and then add salt or pepper.

You could also add a little cream, sour cream or creme fraiche if you want a richer sauce.

Orange and Green Olive Braised Chicken

Serves 4

Ingredients

8 chicken thighs (about 2 1/2 pounds)

1/2 cup flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 orange

6 cloves garlic, peeled

1 cup orange juice

3 cups chicken stock

3 dried bay leaves

1/4 cup pitted green olives

1/2 teaspoon saffron

1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a gallon-size plastic bag with zipper top, combine flour, salt and pepper. Add chicken thighs, seal bag and toss to coat completely with flour mixture.

In a large, ovenproof saute pan or skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Remove chicken from bag, shake off excess flour and place in pan, skin side down. Cook chicken over medium-high heat until golden brown, turning once, about 5 minutes per side.

While chicken is cooking, peel long strips of zest from the orange with vegetable peeler and set aside. When chicken is browned, place whole peeled garlic cloves around chicken in pan. Reduce heat to medium and cook 1 minute. Add orange juice and bring to a boil; cook for 3 minutes. Add chicken stock; again bring to a boil and cook another 3 minutes. Add bay leaves, olives, saffron and orange zest peel to the pan. Cover and place pan in oven.

Cook chicken until fork can be easily inserted into it, about 50 minutes. Remove chicken from pan and place on serving platter. Place pan back on stove and bring liquid to a boil; boil for 5 minutes. Remove bay leaves and remaining garlic pieces; spoon sauce over chicken, top with parsley and serve.

Per serving: 380 calories, 24g fat, 20g carbohydrates, 29g protein, 66mg cholesterol, 702mg sodium, 2g dietary fiber, 53 percent of calories from fat.

National Chicken Council/U.S. Poultry & Egg Association