We react to hot weather in an extreme way in this country. The sun is shining in March and out are strappy tops and tiny cotton skirts, bare white legs proudly displayed. Driving around London my friend and I try to spot the bolder examples – a guy in a thong vest, tiny shorts and rhinestone flip flops, a girl with mirrored sunglasses and a flamingo pink boob tube . ‘Oh my God!’ I exclaim, but I admire this optimism, this apprehension of summer, this lack of inhibition. I am much more cautious, wearing a shawl at all times in case it gets cold, slowly coming out of winter.
What we want to eat reveals a more measured response. Most do not light the barbecue. Your body wants food “between” winter and summer. I don’t like the stewed beef shank I cooked a month ago, but I’m not diving headlong into summer either. I want light braises – a Scandinavian lamb stew with dill and cream – and stir-fries. What is the difference between these? Stir-fries – especially chicken stir-fries – are a perfect spring dish because the cooking time is short. The amount of liquid used is very important. After browning the chicken pieces, the liquid – broth, wine or vermouth – is added (although the chicken pieces can also be cooked in their own juices over low heat). The meat is never covered with liquid. The aromatics – shallots, onions or leeks – must be added early so that their flavor permeates the chicken and the cooking juices. The other ingredients – asparagus, beans or carrots – are added towards the end of cooking, after they have been cooked separately, or towards the end, allowing enough time for the vegetables to cook with the chicken.
You have to keep an eye on a stir-fry, being careful not to let the pan dry out, adding splashes of water as needed. The goal is to obtain an intense sauce that coats the chicken. You can remove the chicken once it is cooked and reduce the liquid by boiling it. You can also thicken the juices with cream, or cream and an egg yolk (as in the chicken recipe here), or butter mania. Beurre mania – mashed butter with flour – is whipped into the liquid in small pieces. It’s considered old-fashioned these days, cooks usually prefer to reduce the cooking liquid by boiling it, but it’s a useful option.
Braises take longer than stir-fries. A complex interplay of flavors is at their core – meat, vegetables and liquid flavor each other – and it takes time to develop.
They are usually prepared with tougher cuts of meat, as slow cooking breaks down connective tissue to produce tenderness. The meat is usually browned in the fat – important for flavor – and in batches. If you fill the pan, the meat will steam rather than fry. It should also be patted dry with paper towel before cooking – wet meat does not brown well. These seem like small dots, but being careful will pay off.
As with stir-fries, the braised meat can be removed when cooked and the cooking juices reduced by boiling. Flour can also be used to thicken the embers, with the meat being tossed in flour before being browned or tossed in at the end of browning. It’s important not to add too much flour or you’ll end up with a gooey sauce when you want a dish that looks like spring itself. The base surface of the pot you use is also important. The different components must remain close to each other during cooking.
I also gave a recipe for “braised in olive oil” vegetables. I discovered this approach in Greece. We were served potatoes, garlic and a multitude of vegetables slowly cooked together in olive oil. It was beautiful, the flavor of the oil – use one you like – permeating each element and bringing them together simultaneously.
Set aside the piri piri chicken and grilled steak projects. Let’s eat spring before we eat summer.
Braised artichokes and shallots with broad beans and serrano ham
Use one of your favorite olive oils for this kind of dish – it’s a dominating ingredient. Braising in olive oil should be gentle, and you can use it for any vegetable – peppers and tomatoes, fennel, potatoes and green beans, even sturdy lettuce leaves.