(Photo by Tara Fisher)
Here at Cardiologist Kitchen we love science. We studied scientific subjects in our school years and were required to demonstrate a passion and aptitude for science to enter medical school. The foundation subjects of Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Mathematics later translated to disciplines such as physiology, pharmacology and biochemistry. Then came clinical medicine and a progressive appreciation of the fundamental importance of research and ‘evidence-based practice’ to guide the best treatment of our patients. This required building further skills on top of previous foundations — searching, appraising and the statistical analysis of medical research. So emerges a lifelong vocation of progressive layering of knowledge and you never stop learning or refining these skills. After a further minimum 10 years post qualification training (and examination!) you become a specialist but that is only the beginning of the journey. Like all disciplines of expertise — the more you understand the more complex things become . . .
However the old cliche is completely true — medicine is a science but the application of this knowledge is an art and the same is true of cooking. We see close parallels with the classically trained Chef Patrons and the Itamae Sushi masters of Japan — structured training which requires commitment, hierarchal status according to expertise and an obsessive respect of basic skills and foundation knowledge. Many of things we do intuitively through experience in cooking have a scientific basis and we like to understand the underlying contribution of these chemical reactions to flavour (as well as health). This brings us to the whole point of this rambling intro — braising and the ‘Maillard Reaction’.
Chefs will often talk about caramelising foods to intensify flavour but sometimes they are actually referring to the Maillard Reaction (often both occurring together). We have previously talked about the process of ‘browning’ to create depth and intensity of flavours through caramelisation. However there is another nonenzymatic ‘browning’ process which parallels the caramelisation of simple sugars contained in food — the Maillard Reaction.
The Maillard Reaction occurs at lower temperatures (140 — 165 degrees Centigrade) as compared to sugar pyrolysis (caramelisation) and consists of a chemical reaction between amino acids (protein) and sugars — illustrates perfectly why cooking temperature and speed effect the flavour of food. This creates a complex mixture of molecules responsible for a range of odours and hundreds of different flavour compounds. These reaction are exploited in the flavouring industry and controlled based on the underlying amino acids. The reaction is accelerated in alkaline environments e.g. if you add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda to braised onions they will brown quicker. Both the Maillard Reaction and Caramlisation overlap and are responsible for the flavours (and appearance) of multiple roasted-seared-braised foods including browned meats (steak), fried onions, crusty toast or baked goods like breads, coffee and caramel and toffee deserts.
Braising cooking techniques exploit this process — first the ingredients are seared over a high heat (hence browning and the Maillard Reaction) and then covered with some liquid to slow cook at a lower temperature and create a flavoured sauce or gravy all in one pot. The other point about braising is that it will slowly break down the collagen connective tissue in less tender cuts of meat to produce a melting tender end result which is full of flavour. The same is true of pressure cookers which speed up the whole process and this is a topic we plan on exploring further in the future.
So why is this dish so good? (1) It tastes delicious — slow cooking and braising (the Maillard Reaction) creates a depth of rich savoury flavours with melting ‘pulled’ shredded chicken in an oozing Umami sauce. (2) It’s been designed with cardiovascular health at heart — quinoa instead of refined and high GI carbohydrates and packed full of garlic and vegetables including nitrate containing Chinese leaf cabbage. Its also high in fibre and exploits the illusion of meatiness without actually eating too much meat. (3) Its really quick and easy to prepare and pretty self sufficient once in the oven. These are the typical ‘holy trinity’ for every Cardiologist’s Kitchen meal (with some added science nerdiness) — enjoy!