Buffalo (Bison) Carbonnade

Carbonnade is the Belgian version of French boeuf bourguignonne, only the meat is braised in dark ale instead of red wine. Chimay — a Belgian ale made by Trappist monks — is traditional in this dish. But you can experiment with other types of ale or even stout (a commenter below asks about using Guinness, which is ideal, and I’ve even used chocolate stout with nice results). Our interpretation uses bison (buffalo) stew meat, which you can find online and in many health-food stores. Ounce, for ounce, it has about 20% fewer calories and half the fat of beef. Grass-fed beef stew meat also works well here. Serve over egg noodles or our Celery Root, Potato and Apple Mash.

buffalo-bison-carbonnade2-3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1-1/2 pounds bison (buffalo) stew meat, cut into 1-1/2 cubes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 medium onion, thinly vertically sliced
2 cups dark ale (such as Chimay Bleu)*
1 cup beef stock
1-1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat and swirl in 1 tablespoon oil. Pat meat dry with a paper towel, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place flour in a shallow bowl and dredge meat in flour, shaking off excess. Add meat to pan and cook 4-5 minutes, turning to brown on all sides. (Brown the meat in batches, using extra oil as needed, so you don’t overcrowd the pan.) Remove meat from pan.

Swirl another tablespoon of oil into the pan. Add onion and saute 5 minutes or until tender. Add ale to pan and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits. Cook 2 minutes or until until ale is reduced by half. Return beef to pan. Add stock. Stir in sugar. Add thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Bring to a boil. Cover and place in the oven for 2 hours and 15 minutes or until meat is fork-tender. Discard thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Adjust seasoning. Garnish with chopped parsley.

Serves 6

*Belgian ales like Chimay typically come in large, 750-ml bottles. If you substitute a dark ale sold in standard 12-ounce bottles, just use 1 bottle in this recipe and increase the stock to 1-1/2 cups.

Dry Braising for Simple Suppers

There are times when a long-simmered braise is food for the soul. When the whole browning and deglazing and waiting and reducing brings a comforting rhythm to the day.

And then there are times when you’re craving that fall-apart tender meat that’s shot through with flavor, but you don’t have time for all the steps. That’s when I turn to what I call “dry braising*.” Here’s how to braise this simple way.

dry-braising-basicsIf you’ve ever made Carnitas de Lia (and I know quite a few of you have) you’ve already experienced dry braising. You’re essentially rubbing a cut of meat with a spice and salt mix, enclosing it in a Dutch oven, and cooking it at a low heat for a long time. That’s it. Mix and rub and walk away until it’s done.

Technically, this is not braise, since it doesn’t involved browning and uses no additional liquid. Nor is it roasting, since that involves dry heat and uncovered meat (Sally Schneider, author of the fabulous Improvisational Cook, highlights a similar technique that she’s dubbed “close roasting”). It’s really somewhere between the two.

Dry braising, like traditional braising, uses the convective action of steam to cook meat and break down connective tissues. “Tougher” (and usually cheaper) cuts like shanks, ribs, legs, shoulder, and chuck or round roasts will yield luscious, tender results; leaner, less fibrous cuts will simply dry out.

Dry braises are even more versatile than their traditional cousins. Carnitas de Lia, for instance, could star in quesadillas, a Mexican scramble or tortilla soup. The five-spice pork below is incredible crisped up in a stir fry with bok choy or added to udon soup, or wrapped in scallion pancakes with a dab of plum sauce. And our Revelationary Duck Confit … don’t even get me started.

This technique almost defies actual steps, but for those of you who would like the ease of a 1-2-3, here they are:

1.     Make your spice mix. Let your imagination run wild here. Ancho and chipotle chile powder work well with South-of-the-border inspiration. Chinese five spice, star anise and coriander are nice Eastern-leaning choices. This doesn’t have to be complex or precise (think of it as playing with watercolors and seeing what comes of it). Just stick with these general proportions: ½ to ¾ of a teaspoon of kosher salt and 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon of spice mix (depending on the assertiveness and heat of its components) per pound of meat.

2.     Rub. Rub the spice mixture into all the little nooks and crannies of the meat. If you’re using a boneless roast in a net — like a pork butt (pork shoulder) or leg of lamb — take it out, rub spice mix onto every exposed crevice you can reach, and then stuff it back in the net (or tie it back up … or just shape it into a free-form roast).

3.     Cook.  Preheat the oven to 275 F, place the meat in a tight-sealing Dutch oven and cook for roughly an hour per pound of meat (meat should be fork tender).

Oh, and did I mention that dry braises freeze super well? If you’ve got a window of time when you’ll be at home, cook and freeze and get a jump on the holidays!

* Yes, there is a Chinese technique called dry-braising, but it’s a different one than the technique I laid out here.

The Basics of Braising

As the days grow grayer the light inside glows a tad warmer and anything cooked over a slow, mellow heat seems to suffuse our very souls with comfort. These, my friends, are braising days.

How to Braise

Braising is a cooking method that breaks down tough, fibrous meat through the convective action of steam. After an initial browning on the stove top, meat is sealed in a pan with a small amount of liquid and cooked at a low, steady heat—often for several hours. The reward is meltingly tender meat and a savory, complex sauce with surprisingly little hands-on cooking time.

Ironically, tougher cuts of meat yield the most tender and flavorful braises. Shanks, ribs, legs, shoulder, and chuck or round roasts have ample connective tissue which breaks down and tenderizes meat during a long cooking time, while lean cuts like chicken breast or beef tenderloin simply dry out.

When braising, choose a heavy-duty shallow pot or deep, straight sided pan with a secure lid, like a Dutch oven, a doufeu or even a deep-sided oven-proof saute pan. It should be wide enough to accommodate the meat snugly in a single layer and deep enough so the lid fits tightly. You may need to brown in two batches in order to allow air to circulate freely around the food, but during the slow simmer, meat should be nestled as closely together as possible.

There are four basic steps to braising: browning the meat, deglazing the pan, slow cooking and finishing.

1. Brown the meat on the stove top. Heat the Dutch oven over medium-high heat and swirl in a minimum of fat. Then thoroughly brown the meat on all sides. Allow at least 1/2-inch space between the pieces so that air can circulate or the meat will steam rather than sear (brown in batches if necessary). Don’t rush this process; the more developed the crust, the deeper and more concentrated the flavor of the braise will be. Transfer to a plate when done.

2. Add aromatics like garlic, shallots and hardy herbs to the pan and cook until fragrant and golden. Deglaze the pan with wine, scraping up any bits stuck to the bottom. Then add the braising liquid and bring to a vigorous simmer.

3. Add the meat back to the pan, nestling it into a single layer, then cover tightly and move to the oven. Cook at a low to medium heat until meat is fork tender.

4. Remove meat from the pan and cover loosely with foil. Reduce the sauce on the stovetop over medium-high. Lower heat, add meat back to the pan and simmer to heat through.

There are dozens of variations on the basics, leaving the technique open to interpretation and imagination (like the Five Spice Braised and Glazed Beef Short Ribs below). The ultimate hallmark of a braise is the comfort it brings, both while in the oven and at the table.

Braised and Glazed Five Spice Short Ribs

Braising renders these Asian-inspired short ribs meltingly tender with relatively little hands-on cooking time (and the glaze makes the flavors even more intense).  The ribs freeze beautifully, so cook up this extra large batch and stash half away for a later date.


2 teaspoons Canola oil
3 tablespoons five spice powder, divided
1/4 cup whole wheat white flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
6 pounds bone-in beef short ribs (roughly 12 ribs)
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped carrot
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped ginger
1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce, divided
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar, divided
1 cup beef broth
1/4 cup honey

Preheat oven to 300. On the stovetop, heat Canola oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat.

In a wide bowl, mix together 2 tablespoons five spice powder, flour and salt. Dredge each rib in the flour mixture, tapping off excess, and brown on all sides in the Dutch oven, 10-12 minutes total (in batches if need be to allow enough space between the ribs for air to circulate). Remove to a plate as done.

Add onion, carrot, garlic and ginger to Dutch oven and brown for 8-10 minutes. Deglaze pan with 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar and beef broth. Bring back to a boil, nestle ribs in the pot, cover and transfer to the oven. Braise for 3 hours and remove from oven.

While ribs are cooking, mix together honey and remaining 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar and 1 tablespoon five spice powder in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium and reduce glaze until a syrupy consistency, about 10 minutes.

When ribs are done, transfer them to a cookie sheet and turn the oven to broil. Brush ribs with half the glaze and broil for 3 minutes, until bubbly. Turn over, brush with remaining glaze and broil another 3 minutes.

Serves 10-12