Flash in the Pan 

I'll see you and braise you

Ever wonder what happens to salad mix when it grows up? Those tender baby leaves get big and leathery in a matter of weeks and farmers can no longer sell them for the premium that salad mix commands. The adolescent foliage remains supple and delicious by almost any standard, but in the jungle of salad mix economics, only the smallest and most tender survive.

Enter "braising mix," a marketing category created by farmers who'd grown tired of watching beautiful, nutritious, and valuable food go to the chickens or get plowed back under. With the advent of braising mix, the only people who lost out were the farmhands who used to take it home by the bagful after work. Oh, and some consumers are losing out too, but only the rare few who actually try to braise the stuff.

Indeed, "braising mix" is a misleading choice of name. As any dictionary and most braising recipes indicate, braising involves first browning something, typically meat, and then cooking it in a closed container with liquid for a very long time. It's a technique designed for turning tough things like shank into falling-off-the-bone delicacies like osso bucco. Those leaves of overgrown salad mix may be getting a bit chewy, but braising them is still like using a cruise missile to hunt deer. Not only is it overkill, there'd be nothing left to enjoy.

Luckily for the coiners of the term, few among the general public, including many good cooks, seem to know what braising is. The word sounds brief, glancing, teasing, and suggests a quick spin around the sauté pan rather than the commitment that true braising entails.

I've no reason to believe that anyone has literally braised a batch of braising greens the way one braises meat. Luckily for aspiring leaf braisers, a new generation of braising mix recipes have emerged. Most of these recipes can be found on the websites of farms that grow and market braising mix, and who can blame them? Just a few weeks ago at my local co-op, braising mix was priced $3 a pound more than salad mix or baby spinach.

That price inversion, while not typical, shows how strong the demand is for braising mix. It's become a regular in many high-end kitchens, both commercial and private. Just as salad mix is a labor saver in that you don't have to trim, clean, and cut a head of lettuce, braising mix allows the same convenience of reaching into a bag and pulling out a prepped ingredient. After a quick rinse, it's ready for the frying pan, steamer, soup pot, or even salad bowl.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

If your braising mix is a little too tough for a normal salad, but salad is what you want, one good option is to douse it with a hot salad dressing. At the simple end, a hot dressing can be little more than minced garlic sautéed in oil with salt and pepper; as soon as you smell cooking garlic, add vinegar, being careful not to splatter yourself in the eye. Ideally, have someone toss the salad while you pour the hot dressing in, allowing as much hot dressing as possible to come into contact with raw, chewy leaf.

There are lots of more-complicated hot salad dressings out there, but beware of such recipes online. Many are full of fat and thickeners. While I can appreciate some bacon in my hot salad dressing, I don't need the flour, butter, eggs, and sugar that some people—evidently salad haters—require to make leaves palatable.

While braising mix started out as a way to salvage overgrown salad mix, nowadays it's typically grown from a special mix of seeds. Gone are the days when farmers picked through the overgrown salad mix to harvest the cookable greens like kale, mizuna, chard, bok choy, and radicchio, while leaving the lettuce behind.

The more in need of cooking a particular leaf is, the longer shelf life it tends to have. If you forget about a sack of braising mix in the back of the fridge for a week, it will be no worse for wear. But any lettuce in the braising mix would be reduced to slime after a few days in the bag.

The creation of braising mix produced a beautiful gimmick. Less overgrown salad mix went to waste, more got eaten, farmers made more money, and nobody got hurt. The biggest victim was the poor word "braise." Even though braising mix is just a few days past salad-like tenderness, it's named for a cooking technique that brings you about as far from salad as you can get and still be in the kitchen. Today, the well-deserved popularity of braising mix adds to the misunderstanding of the meaning of its namesake.

You could make the argument that braising greens are actually really good when braised, albeit for a very short time in a very small amount of liquid. In fact, I do this a lot on a stovetop. If you add oil to the pot, when the liquid evaporates the dish phases from steaming to frying. Because it's like frying and steaming at the same time, I've been calling this technique "freaming" for years. But do the marketers call it "freaming mix?" No, they do not. Am I bitter? Well, maybe just a little.

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