Braising is both a wet and dry cooking method. It means to brown food in fat, then cook in a covered dish with a small amount of liquid. It takes up to an hour and a half or more to draw out the flavours. My first attempt at this was not something I could publish. The lettuce was brown, overdone, and very limp. But if done properly, the lettuces cook slowly and take on the flavour of the bacon.
Braising breaks down the cellulose in the vegetable and expands its starches. The fibres soften, giving the vegetable a delicious texture and flavour.
As for the lettuce, the recipe calls for Boston or Bibb lettuce, chicory, or escarole. Any soft-leaved lettuce works. My husband thought I was off my rockers to cook lettuce! It seems ridiculous to cook something that is perfectly good raw. But once I tasted the sauce with the braised lettuce, I convinced him another try would be worthwhile.
Braised lettuce is a delicious garnish for poultry, white meats such as veal or pork, or steamed white fish.
The only bacon rind I could find was a twice-smoked chunk of bacon, so I used the blanching method to remove the smokiness from the bacon.
Many braises taste even better the next day.
Recipe adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking
2 heads lettuce (Boston or Bibb lettuce, chicory, or escarole), 6-8 inches in diameter
2 thick slices of bacon
1-inch square of bacon rind
⅛ cup onions, diced
⅛ cup carrots, diced
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup beef stock
⅛ cup white wine or dry white vermouth
bouquet garni: 1 parsley sprig, pinch of thyme, ½ bay leaf tied to a cheesecloth
A round of buttered paper
½ tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon parsley
Trim stems of lettuce and remove wilted leaves. Clean the lettuce by dipping it in cold water to remove all the sand.
Boil 8 cups of water. Add about 3 teaspoons salt to water when it comes to the boil. Put one of the heads in the boiling salted water. When it reaches the boil, boil slowly, uncovered, for 3-5 minutes until the lettuce has wilted. Remove and dip in cold water for 2-3 minutes. Repeat with the remaining lettuce. Squeeze each lettuce head gently but firmly to eliminate as much water as possible. Slice each head in half lengthwise. Season with salt and pepper. Fold in half crosswise and shape into triangles.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Simmer the bacon and rind in a 4 cups of water for 10 minutes. Drain, rinse in cold water, and dry.
In a casserole, slowly cook the onions and carrots in the butter until tender but not browned. Add the lettuce triangles in the bottom, so that they're touching each other. Spread part of the vegetables over the lettuce, then add the bacon and bacon rind.
Pour in enough beef stock and wine to barely to cover the lettuce. Add the bouquet garni. Bring to the simmer on the stove. Place the buttered paper over the lettuce, cover the casserole, and set in lower third of preheated oven. Simmer slowly for 1½ hours.
Remove the lettuce and keep it warm. Quickly boil down the braising liquid until it has reduced to a ½ cup and looks syrupy.
Off the heat, swirl in the butter, and strain it over the lettuce. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.
If you're serving the lettuce later, do not put the sauce on it until the last moment. Strain the sauce into a saucepan. Reheat the lettuce by covering with buttered foil and setting it for about 15 minutes in a 350°F oven. Just before serving, add the butter to the sauce and pour it over the lettuce.
For more information about braising, check out this book All About Braising by Molly Stevens. It won two awards: Winner of 2005 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Single Subject Cookbook and Winner of 2005 International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Award for Best Single Subject Cookbook.
The salty, smokiness from the bacon gives the sauce a robust flavour. The tenderness of the lettuce almost melts in your mouth. Although not one of my favourite garnishes, it's tasty.
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Running total: $35.57 + $9.23 = $44.80
Butter used so far: 3½ tablespoons