Cooking low and slow concentrates flavor: Braised pork at Winston’s in Louisville, Ky., is complemented by spicy slaw
Slow, low-temperature cooking methods like braising, roasting, smoking, confit and sous vide are all about creating value: value from deep, complex flavor; value from making underutilized proteins more tender; value from techniques most consumers don’t have time to do at home.
Think of the foods that result from low-and-slow methods. Carnitas. Pot roast. Brisket. Lamb shanks. Chili. Although these dishes are often prepared and served in classic comfort-food profiles, the opportunity today is about taking these low-and-slow proteins into modern directions, capitalizing on the attributes inherent with this cooking method while packaging them in formats that are exciting and on-trend.
At Barcocina in Baltimore, duck confit turns an enchilada into an eclectic offering. At Calafia in Palo Alto, Calif., chef Charlie Ayers serves Lamb Shank Tamales. And at Red Robin, the Pot Roast Burger calls out tender, slow-cooked pot roast. The beauty is that not only do these dishes evoke sense memories and burst with flavor and texture, they also convey cues of crafted, authentic fare.
Breaking it Down
Low-and-slow protein cookery is a fundamental culinary pillar. Tim Griffin, director of culinary innovation for Brick House Tavern & Tap, praises its results. “The most flavorful meats tend to come from functioning muscle, which need to be broken down through low, slow, moist-heat cooking methods,” he says. “Braising, poaching, roasting—these are all great ways to capitalize on tougher, value cuts, and create authenticity and value for our guests.”
Griffin notes that a method like braising or roasting with moist heat creates layered flavor during multiple cooking steps. Not only are proteins seared off and then cooked in a flavorful liquid—which breaks down the collagen in the meat fibers and allows it to seep out into the cooking liquid to enrich and thicken it—but when they’re carefully cooled in that liquid, they take up additional flavor. Then the cooking liquid is turned into a sauce, and further flavor is added when finishing and serving the actual menu item.
The seasonal chili is a big customer favorite at Brick House, a 23-unit, chef-inspired American tavern based in Houston. The prep starts with a scratch-made chile powder that coats the ground beef as it’s seared, then reconstitutes to deepen the flavor when beer is added, and the whole thing is gently simmered to create tender, flavorful meat that’s not at all chewy. Cooling acts to set the flavor into the meat; plating drives home the dish’s rustic, authentic charm. On the pickup, it’s served in a 12-oz. bowl on a quarter sheet pan, surrounded by seared cornbread and such addable condiments as jalapeño, onion, sour cream, corn chips and cheddar.
Familiar and Adventurous
“These kinds of cooking methods emphasize what we’re all about: scratch cooking, made in-house,” says Gabriel Caliende, vice president of R&D and corporate executive chef for Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar, based in Huntington Beach, Calif. “It’s what separates us from our competitors.” With its evocative recollections of the time founder Chris Simms spent in Jackson Hole, Wyo., with his restaurant-owning family, the 17-location Lazy Dog concept centers on “memorable cuisine, small-town hospitality and a spirit-lifting environment.”
This translates to what Caliende describes as upscale-casual food that’s widely appealing, but still offers enough of a flavor adventure to make Lazy Dog memorable. That means scratch cooking and a lot of flavor-building cooking techniques, including braising, that balance food on a comfortable edge between comforting and new.
For instance, the signature 26-oz. lamb hind shank is cooked for three to five hours in familiar pot-roast style with red wine and aromatics like onions, garlic, carrots and thyme. This technique mellows the flavor of lamb and maximizes its rich tenderness. Menu descriptions and servers emphasize that the item is “slow-cooked for several hours in house.”
“That pretty much sums it up for people,” says Caliende. “Even though it’s lamb, it’s cooked in a way they recognize.” And that translates to a minimum of 15 to 20 orders per night in any given location, when the item is served in season.
Another item that speaks to the Lazy Dog ethos is carnitas—pork butt cooked low and slow in citrus juices (orange and lemon, to mimic the traditional tangerine) and cumin, which has the added advantage of being usable in multiple applications. Shredded, defatted and rehydrated in its own cooking liquid, the meat is deployed with barbecue sauce in a Carolina Pulled Pork Sandwich, as well as on a pizza. A new utilization will be appearing on the brunch menu: hash with carnitas that’s made up of a crispy mixture of cubed sweet potatoes and breakfast potatoes, with poblanos and poached eggs. “The hash is beautiful, looser and more natural—clearly not a manufactured product,” notes Caliende.
Likewise, Lazy Dog’s signature Campfire Pot Roast, in which a medallion-cut presentation garnished with rescued braising-liquid gravy and a brunoise of the same vegetables used in the braise, elevates this American classic beyond Mom’s Crock-Pot dinner. “It reads like a steak, but it’s fork tender and really, really tasty,” he says. The falling-apart pieces of the cooked chuck roll that can’t be utilized as medallions, as well as all that delicious gravy, are repurposed in a Pot Roast Beef Dip sandwich.
Comfort foods like chili and chicken pot pie combine simplicity with complex layers of flavor at Brick House Tavern & Tap.
The Magic of Value
Whether he’s teaching culinary students at Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky., or developing menu items for the school’s restaurant, Winston’s, Executive Chef John Castro is a huge proponent of low-and-slow techniques. “No one wants high-end pricing anymore, and that means no more high-end cuts,” he says. “That means every chef is looking for the elusive lesser cut for lesser money, which translates to a lot more slow cooking going on.”
Castro favors, and teaches, the use of Controlled Vapor Technology, or CVap for short, to produce stocks and meats utilizing such proteins as feather bone riblets, coulotte (sirloin cap), and baseball-cut beef, pork butt and oxtail. “Using CVap, the flavor of the meat is still powerful after a slow 24-hour cook,” he explains. “The humidity- and heat-controlled technology produces the most delicious products, using no added moisture in the process.”
Oxtail, a vastly underutilized beef cut that Castro grew up with courtesy of his Filipino background, “blows the students away” by how versatile and flavorful it is. Tough proteins can be cooked with any number of different seasonings—savory herbs, cilantro, chiles, preserved lemon—to produce different flavor profiles. They can be cooked unattended, then held at a food-safe temperature for a variety of uses. Among them, he cites Cuban sandwiches, taco fillings, stuffing for arancini (rice balls), lumpia (Filipino-style eggrolls) and more. “There’s power in the flavor because of the slow extraction. There’s just no substitute for it.”
On the current menu, there are four items that utilize pork shoulder, cooked with a relatively neutral flavor base to make it more versatile: a braised pork small-plate with spicy napa cabbage slaw; pancit (Filipino rice noodles with shredded pork, chicken, shrimp, vegetables, citrus, soy and chicken broth with ginger, sesame oil and garlic); a Cuban “Smash” Panini; and a BBQ Pork Stack on cornmeal hoe cakes with dill pickles and spicy fermented onion slaw. “The pork itself is meaty-flavored and juicy, but relatively bland,” he says. “Manipulating it with additional preparation and lots of flavorful accompaniments like sauces and garnishes makes for high-level enjoyment.”
Nick Saba, a Southern California-based consultant specializing in menu development and kitchen operations with Terra Culinary Service, boasts a lot of experience with low-and-slow cooking techniques while working with such comfort-food specialists as Marie Callender’s, Coco’s and Carrows. Widely popular meats such as slow-roasted prime rib and pot roast were stock-in-trade; Saba’s job was to make them profitable through multiple utilizations. “That’s the only way to control costs and still offer proteins at an appealing price point,” he says.
Prime rib was repurposed in sandwiches like a melt, French dip and Philly sandwich—always with the premium “prime rib” designation, as well as stroganoff and even a topping for a burger, slathered with barbecue sauce and topped with melted cheddar and crispy onion straws.
Slow-cooked meats are easily cross-utilized in on-trend applications like this pork bao, with pickled mustard greens, cilantro and peanuts.
Taking the Next Step
Saba sees braised meats as a logical platform for global experimentation in the casual-restaurant environment moving forward. Because the proteins themselves are familiar, customers will be increasingly open to trying new preparations and presentations, particularly in the context of low-risk items like sandwiches, appetizers and small plates.
Raised on Middle Eastern cooking, Saba is a fan of using yogurt for both flavor and its tenderizing capabilities, along with seasonings like chiles, cinnamon and other spices. He also hopes that with more familiar flavor treatment, such as red wine, demi and braising vegetables, lamb shanks could become more popular. “You could bring some global culinary references to it with fresh garnishes or condiments. Think what the textures of thinly shaved radishes and cabbage do to a braised item like carnitas and expand from there.”
That’s pretty much what Thomas Horner, executive chef at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Desert, Calif., is doing with foodservice at the showcase 885-room property.
Starting with the hotel’s high-volume catering and events business, Horner has been transitioning into lighter California-style fare emphasizing seasonal local ingredients, and will be turning the flagship restaurant Rockwood Grill from a hidebound Continental kitchen into an au courant farm-to-fork concept.
Horner’s strategy for using those proteins in warm-climate ways? Cold smoking, and asado-style low-and-slow grill-roasting.
Having built a cold smoker that utilizes a Smokai smoke generator from New Zealand, Horner and crew started with catering items like salmon, cold-smoked meats (such as pork belly, whole chickens, prime rib, short ribs and whole fish), sausages and charcuterie. Not only were these proteins bell-ringers for sales, but they also gave the chef a chance to get a feel for high-volume live-fire cooking, and for what kinds of menu items his customers wanted.
Next came traditional Argentinean asado grills, over which whole animals and other large proteins are hung to slowly roast over indirect heat. “We’ve done parties for up to 1,500 people outdoors on the golf course,” says Horner.
Of course there were challenges—wind and weather among them—and learning opportunities. “Marinating, and keeping moisture on the meat in general, is key, even if it’s just dousing the meat with beer so that the exterior doesn’t cook before the inside,” he says.
What results from this slow, patient, and even painstaking process is meat of incomparable flavor and texture, to say nothing of the primal allure of being cooked outdoors over an open fire for all the world to see. Properly rested and then carved to order, meats such as prime rib, carne asada, chicken and whole salmon have formed the signature centerpiece that has revitalized the hotel’s event business.
Now, having perfected technique and menus, Horner is rolling these items onto the menus at the à la carte outlets. This fall, he will create a poolside venue called The Firepit which will specialize in these meats, serving the likes of herb-marinated prime rib and brined pork butt in small plates, tacos and the Latino sandwiches known as tortas, accompanied by citrus sauces and components such as onions, peppers and garlic. “This is slow cooking that lends itself to lighter preps,” he explains.
Likewise, he’ll be using these techniques, plus low-and-slow techniques like sous vide, to create products like pork belly pastrami and leg of lamb served gyros-style with almond yogurt tzatziki for the lunch menu at Rockwood Grill. “This isn’t the instant gratification of something like grilling,” says Horner. “It’s the anticipation and drama of seeing the process of change over a long period of time. And it’s worth the wait.”