Category Archives: Sunday supper

Braised Beef with Garlic and Tomatoes!

Last month, I read Michael Pollan’s recent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Michael Pollan is a journalist and professor associated with UC Berkeley and The New York Times. As a food activist, Pollan writes engaging books aimed and general audiences about food production and consumption in the United States, modern agribusiness, and the cultural ethics related to the broad subject of food.

I don’t always choose non-fiction and investigative writing when I’m picking out leisure reading, but I’ve always appreciated Pollan’s writing style and I like that he can write about some very complex topics without getting too bogged down in their intricacies. His writing offers a clear and well-considered introduction to a variety of subject matter, and often his books will include a directed reading list should any of his topics interest readers enough to want to find more information on their own after they’ve finished his book.

Cooked is arranged into four sections that align with the classical elements of fire, water, air, and earth. These sections correspond with different methods of food production: cooking with heat and an open flame, braising and stewing, baking and bread making, and fermentation. Pollan’s writing made me think about my own cooking habits and relationship with food, and inspired me to attempt some of the cooking methods he discusses in Cooked. But since it’s still the depths of winter here in the city (despite recently flipping the calendar to match the month of March), attempting barbecue (fire) was a little out of the question, and both baking bread and pickling were rather complex processes that require an amount of time that I simply haven’t got to spare these days between competing deadlines for college assignments and projects.

So I settled on trying out braising—a cooking technique that I was somewhat familiar with, and which looked, on the page, like an easy enough undertaking. Braising is essentially a two-step process. Meat is first seared at a high temperature and then finishes the cooking process in a covered pot or roasting dish at a lower temperature surrounded by an amount of liquid (which usually adds flavour to the cooking meat, too).

See? Sounds simple enough. Regardless of the simplicity of the action of braising though, Michael Pollan suggests (by way of internationally recognized anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss) that braising meat is a method of rendering the animalistic (literally animal flesh) into something that is (figuratively) human. And that is quite the complicated statement.

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Beef braised in a flavourful garlic and tomato sauce that comes together with minimal fussing. I don’t think we even needed the egg noodles, the meat and sauteed greens were pretty much supper enough.

According to Pollan, cooking meat thoroughly in a braise “achieves a more complete transcendence of the animal, and perhaps the animal in us, than does grilling over a fire, which leaves its object partly or entirely intact, and often leaves a trace of blood—a visible reminder … that this is a formerly living creature we’re feasting on” (54). Pollan supports this idea by further suggesting that “the braise or stew—and particularly the braise or stew of meat that’s been cut into geometric cubes and rendered tender by long hours in the pot—represents a deeper sublimation, or forgetting, of the brutal reality of this particular transaction among species” (54). The “transaction” that Pollan is talking about here is the consumption of one animal by another, and furthermore, the consumption of the animal after (parts of) its physical form is altered by a cooking process.

And you’ve got to agree, that’s some pretty deep thinking caused by contemplating a hunk of meat slowly cooking in a shallow pool of liquid. Because of that, I set out to get the simplest braise recipe that I could find online. Thankfully the folks running epicurious.com had a three-ingredient braised beef recipe that (at the time of this blog post) boasts a 3.5/4 star rating by recipe reviewers, and 82% of cooks saying they would make it again. Now granted this braised beef recipe doesn’t require cooks to chop up a roast into “geometric cubes” (or to even brown it in the roasting pan prior to adding the liquid ingredients), but after the braising is finished doing its work on the collagen and connective tissue of the meat, the roast will be so fork-tender it is almost completely and unrecognizably transformed from the bodily tissue of an animal into a comforting, and delicious main course.

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Three ingredients makes for a cut of meat that’s fork-tender and delicious. And as with all stews and braises, the flavour’s even better on the second day! (So try to make sure there’s some leftovers for you tomorrow!)

Pollan continues the line of thinking introduced by Lévi-Strauss that boiled and braised foods represent “a further remove from uncivilized nature than does roasted food” (156) as boiled or braised food requires the cultural artifact of the cooking pot—something that is carefully crafted and then cared for after its use, two things that require specialization of labour (pottery-making) and culture to support. Pollan directly addresses this line of thinking by posing the idea that “if all cooking is a process of transforming the stuff of nature into culture, boiling [and braising] achieves a more complete transformation of the animal being eaten” (156). He addresses the cultural inclusion of food prepared in a cooking pot more directly when Pollan states, “To eat from the same pot is to share more than a meal … In the same way that the stew pot [or the braising dish] blends a great many different ingredients together, … it brings the family together as well” (158).

Another important fact about this particular recipe, is that it calls for an entire head of garlic. In Cooked, Michael Pollan looked into the role that onions and garlic play in global cooking trends. He found that the addition of garlic and onions to meat dishes greatly increases the general safety of eating these foods. According to Pollan (and other food researchers), “like many of the most commonly used spices, onions (garlic, too) contain powerful microbial compounds that survive cooking” (144) and that “microbiologists believe that onions, garlic, and spices protect us from the growth of dangerous bacteria on meat” (144-45). It then stands to reason that through years of trial and error, people discovered that cooking meat with particular aromatic vegetables (onions and garlic) resulted in meals that were less likely to make people sick afterwards. This was all discovered prior to the invention of refrigeration of course, but it might explain why garlic and onions (which are “one of the most potent of all antimicrobial food plants” [145]) are so commonly used in cooking.

I am unsure of the specific history of this dish, but braising is a cooking method with history, and braised dishes are made all over the world in many different cultures. Braising meat involves both dry and moist heat, as part of the meat that is braised cooks outside of the braising liquid. But it is this liquid (likely laden with antimicrobial ingredients like onions and garlic) that also helps to ensure the safety of the dish. The temperature of the liquid reaches the boiling point and holds steady at this temperature while the meat cooks, killing potentially illness-causing microbial elements in the ingredients.

It is also this cooking liquid that helps to form a harmony of flavours within the braising dish as well as helping detoxify ingredients, blending flavours, and breaking down tough plant and animal fibres and rendering them into digestible food. According to Pollan, “given enough heat and time, [a braising liquid] softens, blends, balances, harmonizes, and marries” (163) different aspects, ingredients, and elements of the braised dish. I think what Michael Pollan was trying to get at was that the cooked meal can be viewed as a metaphor for the coming together of a family unit (or community) in sharing a meal. And through this, cultural beliefs are built and reinforced when nature is brought into the home and transformed into a something nutritionally and socially sustaining.

Hopefully you will try this three-ingredient braised beef supper (it’s super easy!) and will enjoy it with a plateful of sautéed greens and noodles among your family or close, loved ones. After all, according to Pollan, a braised beef supper is downright designed for bringing a family together to harmonize over.

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Yorkshire Puddings!

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A Sunday supper of bright vegetables, tender roast beef, and savoury homemade gravy deserves a fresh Yorkshire pudding. And let’s get real: the Yorkshire pudding is going to be the part of the meal that you look forward to all week!

Yorkshire puddings are a Sunday night supper specialty in my house. We don’t make them too often, only now and then, but they are always a favourite at the dinner table (and to be sure, usually a couple are sneakily eaten even before dinner is plated and served at the table).

According to authors Glenn Rinsky and Laura Halpin Rinsky of The Pastry Chef’s Companion (2009), Yorkshire puddings are a sort of savoury popover named for the Yorkshire region of England, from which the dish originates. Author Alan Davidson tells readers that typically Yorkshire pudding is made of a thin batter in a single pan and often accompanies a roast beef supper (The Oxford Companion to Food, 1999). Davidson says that traditionally, as part of the Sunday supper, “the pudding, cut in squares, should be served with gravy before the meat, to take the edge off the appetite”. He does acknowledge however that as cooking practices shifted over time to reflect the advent of more modern kitchen ranges, appliances, and ovens, that Yorkshire puddings are often made in smaller, round tins instead of in one large pan as is traditional. He also notes that due to these technological shifts, enclosed oven ranges don’t allow for Yorkshire pudding to be cooked exactly as they traditionally were—baking in the steady heat of a roasting oven several inches below an exposed haunch of meat.

It is traditional to cook Yorkshire puddings using the juices and drippings from roast meat (and in particular those from roast beef), but nowadays people often use other cooking oils to start their puddings such as canola and vegetable oils. Important to achieving the lightness and crispness of a proper Yorkshire pudding is “introducing the [Yorkshire pudding] batter into a pan containing fat which is smoking hot, thus starting to form a crust underneath straight away; as the pudding continues to cook, the air incorporated into the batter during mixing expands, making it rise, and the fierce heat dies out the top of the pudding leaving it crunchy” (Davidson, 1999).

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There’s that crispy exterior that’s all-important to a proper Yorkshire pudding! When the batter is poured into the heated pan and its sizzling hot oil, it immediately begins to cook. The oil helps to cook the thin batter thoroughly and provide the perfect crispy crust to the pudding.

My mother’s recipe is a bit of a hodge-podge, yet it remains simple and straight-forward enough to qualify as a decent Yorkshire pudding recipe. It was somewhat cobbled together from several (ever changing, and disappointingly unreliable) re-tellings of a ‘secret family recipe’ from my dad’s side of the family, and from a recipe that was published a number of years ago in the city newspaper following an interview with a chef from a popular local English/Irish pub. The recipe we use does not call for the drippings and juices from roast beef (as we usually use those to make the gravy), but nevertheless yields a delicious Yorkshire pudding that has a perfect balance of airiness and crispiness. In fact, due to this airy crispiness, these puddings tower in the pan, as proper Yorkshire puddings should. Should there be any left over after supper (not as frequent a situation as you might think), they serve well the next day paired with reheated leftovers, savoury spreads like spicy mustards, or sweet homemade jams.

The one bit of caution that I would advise anyone of when making Yorkshire puddings (besides the ever present warning of: careful, the oil will be very hot!) is to designate a separate baking tin as the tin that will forevermore be specifically used for Yorkshire puddings. The hot oil needed for cooking the puddings can discolour a baking tin to the point of being nearly unrecognizable after the first few times of making Yorkshire puddings.

But it’s a small price to pay—an ugly, discoloured tin—for the deliciousness of fresh Yorkshire puddings during a Sunday supper.

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Trust me, there’s some kind of unwritten rule that the best Yorkshire puddings come from the gnarliest looking pans! (Seriously though, you may want to designate and set aside a pan specifically for making Yorkshire puddings and Yorkshire puddings alone–discolouration that will happen to that thing.)

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