Braised dishes are perfect for these windy, rainy days we've had recently around here. It's perhaps a nod to my Asian heritage that my favorite way to braise is not with wine or rich stock, but simply with water and Five Spice powder. Western cooks turn their proverbial nose at braising with water, as my friend Daniel Patterson pointed out in his recent article in the New York Times, but Asian cooks have been braising with water for generations.
The key, besides long braising time, is to make sure that the protein you use has enough fat and gelatin in the connective tissues to lend an unctuous quality to the resulting braising liquid. My protein of choice is pork belly, especially if I can find one with skin and rib bones still attached. When I use leaner protein such as chicken, I always throw in the neck and feet into the braising liquid as well. They are entirely edible, but even if you don't plan on gnawing at them, they provide the extra oomph you can taste in the sauce.
Browning the meat is less important, despite what Daniel told you in that article, and might even produce a less than perfect outcome. Pork skin, for example, can discolor and might even break when subjected directly to dry heat on the pan. There's nothing much wrong with that, but I love the unbroken skin which, when bitten into, resists ever so slightly before letting you into that meltingly delicious fatty layer just underneath.
One thing I highly suggest you do is make your own Five Spice
powder. It's so easy to do, and the result will be vastly superior to
most commercial brands available in the west, which I find too
overwhelmed with anise. Should I want a purely anise-flavor braise I
wouldn't bother with Five Spice in the first place. I also find that
most spice blends use the cheaper and more easily available black
peppercorns instead of the proper Sichuan peppercorns. And if you know
anything about anything at all you'd know that those two "peppercorns"
share very little besides the misleading name. Sichuan "peppercorns"
are not even peppercorns, but dried outer pods of prickly ash fruits.
They have an acidic note and gives a tingling sensation on the palate -
both entirely absent in the ubiquitous black peppers.