The Braise of Winter 

One-pots from some of the city’s choicest kitchens

Wednesday, Feb 7 2001

Photo by Anne Fishbein

In these cooler months — when the temperature dips down below 55, appetites increase, and the need for coziness manifests — there’s nothing like a piping-hot bowl of something braised or simmered or slow-roasted in a big pot for hours. For over a month now, I’ve made a project of eating the one-pot meals of winter in some of the city’s best restaurants: daubes and ragù; bouillabaisse and cassoulet; short ribs, beef bourguignon, coq au vin, chicken curry — all hot and hearty foods that warm the cockles of the heart and stick to the ribs. Literally. Such, indeed, is not the dieter’s path, and I have the few new pounds to prove it.

When I first set out on this all-in-one-pot sampling mission, the dinner excursions were just like going out to eat, with everybody at the table ordering what they wanted, the only caveat being that it could be construed in some way as a one-pot meal. Our decisions went something like, “You have the short ribs, I’ll have the bouillabaise, and so-and-so’s stuck with the coq au vin.” (Don’t get me wrong, I like coq au vin, but it is a trick to find a good version.) Thus, at any given meal there would be two to four one-pots at the table. In a subtle way, this defied the very spirit of vat-cooked food, and soon enough, even in the finest restaurants, we began asking to be served family-style, with the various dishes set on the table so we could at least all eat out of the common pots, which really is what this hefty, homey, heartwarming food demands. There is something social in the reaching and the passing and the clash of competing spoons — these family-style free-for-alls wound up being a lot of fun.

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Ten years ago, veal osso buco seemed to be the all-in-one dish of choice in many upscale restaurants. Five years ago, lamb shanks, caramelized and big as cavemen’s clubs, were sailing out of good kitchens like hotcakes in a breakfast house. This, however, seems to be the year of the beef short rib. A chunk of meat on an inch or so of rib bone and â layers of fat, the short rib comes from the chuck (or upper shoulder) of the beef, or from the “short plate,” which lies just south of the brisket. Tough and fatty to start with, these smallish squares of inexpensive beef have been transformed by slow, moist cooking at the hands of the city’s best (and most patient) chefs, into an intense, madly flavorful, quintessentially meaty winter treat.

Other one-pot trends include a proliferation of excellent bouillabaise and good cassoulet. I also found a dreamy ragu, an unforgettable chicken curry and a legendary goulash.

At Spago in Beverly Hills, listed under Wolfgang’s Childhood Favorites, the reigning one-pot is rindsgulasch mit spaetzle, or goulash. This is an Alp of a meal: big and solid and no-nonsense, chunks of beef smothered and slow-cooked in Hungarian paprika, served with squiggly, chewy spatzle, that curious cross between pasta and a dumpling. This goulash is nothing fancy; its meatiness and basic starch appeal is single-minded, even borderline austere. No carrots or potatoes or mushrooms deflect the carnivorian focus. There’s enough protein in that bowl to satisfy a family of four. But this goulash is an apex of its genre, and since I first had it two years ago, I’m surprised how often Wolf’s childhood goulash comes to mind: a bowl filled with meat, so basic that it’s mythic.

In these blistery days, Spago’s endlessly imaginative chef de cuisine, Lee Hefter, is apt to add other braised-meat dishes to his ever-changing menu. Hefter has mastered the art of cooking meat long hours at very low temperatures. I recently had his slow-braised short ribs, which were dark and sticky, lacquered (almost candied) in their meaty essence, with the great mineral richness of having been cooked on the bone; these ribs were served with truffled grits — grits with lots of butter and shaved black truffle, a combination delicious and witty. Also, look for Hefter’s slow-cooked brisket — it all but melts in your mouth — and his braised short ribs with tiny round pastina, another textural cold-weather epiphany.

Campanile’s winter dishes have a certain refined quality, even at their heartiest. Chef Mark Peel’s braised veal short ribs could define sophisticated all-American cuisine; the dish is Mom’s meat, potatoes and green vegetable taken to the highest levels of both quality and technique. These rich, tender caramelized ribs are served on horseradish-spiked mashed potatoes with a snarl of dark, vitamin-rich bitter greens — chard or cavalo nero or dandelion, depending on what’s available at the farmers’ markets that week.

Similarly, Peel’s fish stew is a civilized, somewhat tempered version of the more rustic Provençale soupe de poisson and/or bouillabaisse. Campanile’s roux-based soup — the liquid or bouilla component — is the color of butterscotch, delicate and beautifully balanced rather than robust in flavor, with an excellent assortment of “baisse,” those items that are lowered into the “bouilla,” or boiling soup: clams and firm-fleshed fish, shrimp or langoustine, mussels and scallops. The stew is served, as is traditional, with toasts, and only a paltry daub of rouille. (Rouille is a saffron- and sometimes red-pepper-flavored mayonnaise. In France, rouille comes to the table in veritable tubs to be both smeared on toasts and spooned into fish soups and bouillabaisse with a sensuous abandon, but Americans have yet to adopt these naughty, high-cholesterol ways; in all my sightings of rouille, amounts have always been trifling.)

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