Consider the slow-cooked leg.
Not just any old leg, but the slow-cooked one.
Too often, the limb is overlooked -- dismissed as little more than a tough chunk of the beast or bird that makes for cheap gnawing, maybe a quick dip in the deep fry, but not fit for prime time or company.
Such thoughts would be missing the point; the slow-cooked leg is a whole different story, and a succulent one at that.
The surest way to detect the holy transformation that comes when low, slow oven meets not-yet-tender leg is to go outside on a cold day and come in through the front door. Every hour or so, go outside and slip back in again.
Your nose will be the thing that lets you in on the miracle taking place in the pan. With every passing interlude, the vapors rise and swirl and twirl you in their trance.
"It's almost magical. You take something cheap, and everyday, and unremarkable, and you turn it into something succulent," said Suzanne Goin, owner of four Los Angeles restaurants, including the rustic Mediterranean kitchen, Lucques. Braising, she added, is nothing less than "a reliable home run."
It's one that unfolds in the braising pan, where a seared leg, one that has been dry-rubbed overnight, perhaps, with herbs and spices and garlic and citrus zest, is just peeking out from a bath of stock and wine (or tomato, or some other acidic liquid), at a simmer that barely trembles, the heat's so low.
But through the hours, and thanks to the alchemy of heat and time and penetrating acid, the tough sinew or muscle of the much-exercised leg is broken down, converting to gelatin, "and that's what makes it so tender," said Jean Anderson, author of "Falling Off the Bone" (Wiley, $29.95), a cookbook that explores the many ways tough can turn to tender after leaving the meat counter.
"In addition to the sinew, you've got the marrow," added Anderson, her voice nearly melting at the mention of that marvel tucked inside the bone. "That's what gives you luscious flavor."
Tips for tender legs
A few tips, if tough-to-tender is your intent, courtesy of Anderson:
Have the bone cut crosswise to expose the marrow.
A flame diffuser is essential, if cooking on a stove, so you can keep the temperature low enough not to scorch food on the bottom of the pan.
Keep the liquid just below a simmer: "You want it to barely tremble."
To jump-start the tenderizing of any tough meat, add a little acid to the cooking liquid -- wine, perhaps, or beer or tomato juice.
Dutch ovens are your best bet for braising; the heavier the better, especially nonreactive enameled cast iron.
Goin created this braised duck recipe using Banyuls, a fortified wine from the south of France. As the duck and Banyuls cook together, the wine permeates the meat and produces a rich ruby broth. You can braise the duck a day ahead, just remember it has to marinate at least 4 hours first.
> Duck Braised in Banyuls
6 large duck legs, 8-10 ounces each, trimmed of fat
1 tablespoon thyme leaves plus 6 whole sprigs
1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
grated zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups diced onion
1/2 cup diced each: fennel, carrot
1 bay leaf
2 cups Banyuls or port
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 to 4 cups chicken stock or broth
Season duck with the thyme leaves, pepper and orange zest. Cover; refrigerate 4 hours or overnight.
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Take the duck out of the refrigerator 45 minutes before cooking. After 15 minutes, season the legs on all sides with salt. Heat a large skillet over high heat 2 minutes. Add the olive oil; heat 1 minute. Place the duck legs in the skillet skin-side down in batches if necessary; cook until the skin is deep golden brown and crispy, 8-10 minutes. Turn the legs; reduce the heat to medium. Cook 2 minutes. Transfer to a Dutch oven or other braising pan, skin side up. (The duck legs should just fit in the pan.)
Discard half of the fat in the skillet; heat skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, fennel, carrot, thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Cook, stirring often to scrape up all the crusty bits, until browned, about 10 minutes. Add the Banyuls and vinegar. Turn the heat to high; heat the liquid to a boil. Cook until it has reduced by half, 6-8 minutes. Add 3 cups of the stock; heat to a boil. Turn the heat to low; simmer 5 minutes.
Add the broth and vegetables to the Dutch oven (the liquid should not quite cover the duck; add more stock if necessary). Cover the pan with foil and a lid. Cook in the oven until the duck is very tender, about 2 1/2 hours.
Carefully transfer the duck to a baking sheet. Turn the oven up to 400 degrees. Return duck to the oven to brown, 10-15 minutes. Strain the broth into a saucepan, pressing down on the vegetables to extract all the juices; discard vegetables. Skim the top layer of fat from the sauce. If necessary, reduce the broth over medium-high heat to thicken slightly, about 5 minutes. Season to taste. Transfer the duck to a serving platter. Spoon the juices over the duck. Makes 6 servings.
Per serving: 239 calories, 48% of calories from fat, 13 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 98 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 26 g protein, 614 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
> Osso Buco
6 slices (each 2-inch-thick center-cut) veal shanks
1/3 cup flour mixed with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon each crumbled dried leaf thyme and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons each: extra-virgin olive oil, unsalted butter
2 large each, coarsely chopped: yellow onions, red onions
4 large cloves garlic, smashed, skins removed
2 small each coarsely chopped: carrots, ribs celery
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried leaf basil
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh marjoram or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried leaf marjoram
1 teaspoon coarsely chopped fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon crumbled dried leaf thyme
2 strips (2-by- 1/2 -inch) lemon zest
1 can (14 1/2 ounces) diced tomatoes, with liquid
1 3/4 cups chicken or beef broth
1 1/2 cups dry white Italian wine
1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1 tablespoon each: finely minced garlic, finely grated lemon zest
Rub veal shanks well all over with seasoned flour; shake off excess. Heat 2 tablespoons each oil and butter over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven (large enough to accommodate all shanks in a single layer) until ripples appear on pan bottom, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Add all shanks; brown well, 5-7 minutes per side. Remove each to a large bowl.
Add remaining oil and butter to pot; as soon as butter melts, add next 10 ingredients (yellow onions through lemon zest); cook, stirring often, until onions are limp and golden, about 10 minutes.
Return shanks to pot along with accumulated juices; add tomatoes, broth and wine. Heat to a boil over moderate heat. Adjust heat so mixture barely bubbles; cover. Simmer slowly until veal nearly falls from bones, stirring occasionally and adding water if needed, 3 1/2 -4 hours. Cool to room temperature. Cover; refrigerate overnight.
When ready to proceed, let Dutch oven stand 30 minutes at room temperature. Heat over medium heat until serving temperature, stirring occasionally and carefully so shanks remain intact, about 20 minutes. Discard bay leaves and lemon zest. Taste for salt and pepper, and adjust. Mix in parsley. Arrange Osso Buco on a heated large deep platter. Cover with juices; top each shank with a sprinkling of gremolata. Makes 6 servings.
Per serving: 336 calories, 43% of calories from fat, 16 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 99 mg cholesterol, 22 g carbohydrates, 25 g protein, 915 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.