I didn't realize quite how much of my recent time at the Culinary Institute of America had made its way into my brain until I returned to my kitchen for this week's recipe.
I spent five days at the beginning of the month at the CIA's upstate New York campus for a culinary boot camp, a chance to brush up on some basic cooking skills and also learn many news ones. And I did learn a ton — the importance of stocks in a professional kitchen, the frustrations and joys of cooking everything on a gas stove, how to properly small dice an onion.
But it really hit me this past week. Without even realizing it, I was holding my chef's knife differently, firmly gripping the handle up close to the blade, my finger on the blade to better guide my chopping. I peeled onion and shallots with a small paring knife, the way our instructor showed us. I transferred my diced veggies into small bowls after I cut them, instead of crowding my cutting board and quickly running out of space like I normally do.
I prepped all of my ingredients before I turned on one burner, another cooking class rule. And I read through the recipe a couple of times before getting to work. I even threw some leftover onion into a zip-top baggie and dated it for the next time I need chopped onion, if you can believe that.
It was a neat glimpse into how my five days under the instruction of a pro chef transformed my cooking, even in small ways. And I could taste the difference.
This is an easy recipe that gets its flavor from a couple of choice ingredients and a cooking technique called braising. Braising refers to cooking something, usually meat, using two techniques: dry heat, like frying or sauteing, and wet heat, which happens when you add liquid to the pan or pot and let the ingredients cook down even more.
In this case, I sauteed some bacon, onion and garlic in a skillet, using the bacon grease to fry the aromatics, then added greens. I used Swiss chard, because a bunch of rainbow chard with colorful stems called to me from the produce aisle while I was shopping. You could use kale, collards, even spinach, though spinach requires a lot less time to cook down.
Before the greens go in the pan, maple syrup helps to slightly candy the bacon and onion. Then I hit it with some apple cider vinegar — tang to balance out the sweetness — and a little bit of water, to provide the liquid the greens need to braise.
These cook quickly, for just about 10 minutes or so. And they shrink down a ton. That large bunch I bought yielded about 1 ½ cups of finished product.
This is an ideal recipe for the holidays. It makes greens more appealing for those who have a hard time eating their vegetables, the maple lends a festive flavor, and the dish will hold up to reheatings. It can be made a couple of days in advance; it's not bad eaten at room temperature, but if you want to serve it hot, simply heat it in the skillet or an ovenproof dish.
To finish this dish off, I diced those colorful chard stems and pickled them in a mixture of white wine and red wine vinegars, a spoonful of sugar, a pinch of salt and some dried herbs. Scatter the pickled stems atop the braised greens after they come out of the skillet for a bright and snappy crunch.