Flash in the Pan 

Make me tender

Beneath the broiler, no oil, is the best way to brown meat. It eliminates the splatter of grease and the possibility of fire, and gives you more control over the process than browning in a pan on the stovetop. It's the first step in buck au Franz, my recipe for turning the most stubborn cuts of meat into butter.

Buck au Franz is named in homage to coq au vin, a recipe that arose in response to the problem, "how do you eat a tough old rooster?" The French answer is to cook it slowly in red wine, usually burgundy, a method that's also used in boeuf bourguignon.

I call my recipe "buck au Franz" because I often make it with a tough piece of deer, like from an old buck, and with wine from a box of Franzia cabernet, a vintage that's usually close at hand. But any meat and any red wine—bottled or boxed, burgundy or non—will do. While buck au Franz employs the French-discovered power of the red wine braise, it's a much simpler recipe than its antecedents.

Every animal—cow, pig, elk, or giraffe—has its tough parts, where the meat is inextricably bound up in connective tissue that would require a lifetime to chew. These are the pieces that most butchers put in the burger or sausage piles. But I like those stubborn chunks whole, because they have the best flavor. With enough time in hot wine, all that Kevlar-like cartilage and cables of tendon melt into a greasy goodness that tastes and feels like fat, but isn't.

These tough cuts might be shank meat, analogous to your forearm or calf muscles. Or flank meat, the animal's abdominal muscles. Or neck meat, perhaps the tastiest of all. More tender cuts can be used in buck au Franz, and the results will be just fine, but you will have wasted an opportunity to turn rock into silk.

When using frozen meat, I rarely bother to thaw it. I just drop the frozen packet in hot water until it melts enough to let me unwrap it, and then put the naked meat in a baking pan three inches under the broiler.

As the meat browns, stay on top of it. Make sure that crunchy brown doesn't turn to crispy burn. If it's a hunk of multiple chunks frozen together, like stew meat, then a few minutes under the broiler will cause the pieces to go their separate ways. Separate them and make sure the non-browned sides are always facing the heat.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Large chunks of meat, once they're browned on all surfaces, should be cut as soon as they thaw enough to allow it; careful, though—while raw in the middle, they can be hot on the surface. How small you cut the meat and what you plan to do with your buck au Franz is a matter of preference.

Will you serve it simply, perhaps with toast or potatoes or some other starchy accompaniment to sop up the jus? If so, large chunks can provide a more tactile thrill, a mighty roast caving like yogurt at the touch of your spoon.

If you plan to put your tamed meat chunks in tacos, then inch-or-smaller chunks will do. And don't be afraid to fry the little chunks before putting them in the tacos, to refresh their crisp.

If Coq au vin is your model, leave the meat in large chunks and add vegetables—carrots, onions, garlic—to the braise. In boeuf bourguignon, which is often thickened with flour, chunks an inch or two to a side are typical.

Another thing to keep in mind when cutting the meat to size is that larger pieces will cook more slowly than smaller pieces. Of course, if you're in a rush you shouldn't be braising in the first place. If you start with meat that isn't frozen, you can cut it to your preferred size before putting it in the oven. Either way, once the meat is browned on all sides, turn the heat down to 300 and add equal parts water and wine to the pan, along with five or so bay leaves, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Stock or reconstituted bullion can also be used in place of water. And some chopped fresh garlic won't hurt either. The liquid should cover at least half of the meat, but can fully submerge it as well.

Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and cook for at least three hours (bump the heat to 350 for faster braising). Check periodically, turning the meat and adding wine and water as needed. Keep cooking until the meat is spoon tender.

Whatever the final destination of your buck au Franz, be it crepes, posole, or breakfast hash, you should make more than you think you'll need. As the flavors come together and the meat softens, a braising buck becomes highly susceptible to sampling. Sampling quickly turns to nibbling, which leads to snacking, and then—at least in my case—experimenting, as I explore new uses for buck au Franz. On toast with mayo and pickled pepper? Check. With cheese? Check.

However you serve what's left of your buck au Franz, accompany it with a glass of your finest red. In a perfect world that would be the wine you braise with. And in my perfect world that wine might not be Franzia—but I'm not complaining.

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