Aromatic Braised Chicken, Veg and Quinoa Hot Pot: a CardioKit recipe

Braising, browning, caramelisation and the 'Maillard Reaction'

(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!

Serves 4–6 people (good to make a big batch):

 

  • 8 skinless and boneless chicken thighs
  • 2 large onions
  • 1 large leek (or add a third onion)
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • thumb sized piece of ginger
  • 4 red or green medium chillies
  • double handful of chestnut mushrooms
  • 1/2 whole Chinese Leaf cabbage
  • spring onions
  • honey — 1 tablespoon
  • soy sauce — 6 tablespoons
  • tomato paste or concentrate — 2 large tablespoons
  • 1 star anise
  • quinoa — 50g or small cup per person
  • olive oil
  1. This dish requires minimal preparation and rough chopping only so is quick and easy — the ingredients will melt together and break down in the cooking process. The time investment is in the slow cook which is best done in a heavy cast iron casserole dish in the oven (but can be simmered on the hob). Preheat the oven to 160 degree centigrade.
  2. Roughly chop the chicken into large strips and brown over a high heat with a splash of olive oil to get things going. Don’t overcrowd the pan and if necessary brown the chicken in 2 batches. Stir occasionally but you are aiming to get some crispy caramelised bit on the edges and bottom of the pan to add Umami intensity to the dish.
  3. Peel, half and roughly chop the onion into large strips. Do the same with the leek and wash thoroughly to get rid of any muddy bits in the layers. Add to the pan with the browned chicken and start to soften.
  4. Peel and roughly chop the garlic and ginger together with the chillies. Leave the seeds in if you like spice or remove if you prefer perfumed warmth. Add to the pan with the tomato paste or concentrate. Cook together for another couple of minutes.
  5. Now add the honey, soy sauce, star anise and enough cold water to barely cover (around 2 glasses usually). Bring to a simmer and scrape around the bottom of the pan to dislodge any crispy bit. Place in your pre-heated oven to slow cook and braise for the next 2 hours.
  6. After 2 hours remove, stir and check the hot pot. You should have a reduced intensely Umami flavoured sauce. You want this to be strong because it will become diluted and balanced by the water in the additional veg. Now add your washed and sliced mushrooms and Chinese cabbage. Return to the oven for a further hour.
  7. Towards the end boil the quinoa separately until the seeds open. Drain and then add straight into the hot pot and stir together. Remove the star anise and taste for final seasoning — add a final splash of soy sauce if required. Garnish with finely chopped spring onion for a fresh finish.

We have intentionally incorporated the veg into the dish for those who might be afraid of fresh greens. An alternative option which provides better green veg freshness is to steam or stir-fry Pak Choi, Choi Sum or Chinese Leaf cabbage separately and serve on the side to complement and balance the savoury hot pot.

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