Tuesday, July 27, 2010

This porridge is just right. Food that your grandmamma would recognise

Porridge is immensely satisfying. Warming, sweet, sticky and filling: it is busting with the goodness of whole grains and fibre and yet it tastes like gooey breakfast pudding.

With dried and fresh fruit and nuts and natural yoghurt and honey and nutmeg and cinnamon - it is decadent and over the top and basically just really, really good for you. Unlike eggs and bacon or waffles or pancakes or coffee and a croissant, eating porridge for breakfast entitles me to walk around with a smug, self-satisfied look on my face. It’s ridiculously healthy and pretty basic yet in no way hints at any kind of deprivation.

Food doesn’t need to be complicated or sugary or buttery to taste good.

And food shouldn’t be boring or uninteresting or restrictively-limited in order to be good for us.

So, in the words of Michael Pollan, lets “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”.

Like most things that are truly healthy, porridge is not overly processed (for rolled oats the oat-groats are hulled and rolled flat. ‘Quick oats’ are then also pre-steamed to hasten the cooking process). My deluxe version incorporates lots of fresh fruits. It has a variety of ingredients, all of which are pretty basic (that is, in or very close to their natural form). It is low in fat. Low in sugar, and most of the sugars are in their most natural, unprocessed form. It’s good and it’s good for you.

So when Pollan offers the nutritionally and environmentally sound advice that we “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise” this porridge rises to the challenge. It’s food that looks like food. But more than that – it’s food that conveys a certain sense of nourishment beyond the sustenance it offer. It’s nurturing, wholesome, culturally centring food.

It’s food that looks like home. Even if you’ve never seen a farmhouse, you know that this is what you’d have for breakfast there. It’s the food of childhood stories and winter mornings and the countryside. Even if, like me, you don’t have a grandmother to make it for you and share it with you, it’s food that the archetypal grandmamma would make.

This porridge is just right.

Porridge that is just right

For each serving:

½ cup rolled oats
1 cup water
½ tsp brown sugar
1 tbsp sultanas or chopped dried fruit
¼ tsp each of nutmeg and cinnamon. Ground ginger is also lovely.
1 cup chopped fresh fruit (or mix in with frozen berries) – ie, pear, apple, passionfruit (banana and mango is delicious in summer)
1 tbsp low fat natural yoghurt
1 tbsp nuts (ie, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pecans)
1 tsp honey
¼ cup low fat milk

Bring oats and water to a simmer in a small saucepan and cook until the porridge is thick and the oats are cooked (usually about 10 - 15 minutes).

Pour into a bowl. Sprinkle with sugar and dried fruit. Top with fresh fruit, then yoghurt and nuts. Drizzle the honey over, and pour milk around the edge of the bowl.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Oxtail ravioli: short cuts versus cheap cuts

Idiosyncratic is probably a good word to describe someone who lovingly and painstakingly slowly braises, strains, cools, shreds and portions two kilos of oxtails over seven hours, and then uses frozen wonton skins as ravioli wrapping.*

Idiosyncratic is also a pretty good description of someone who sees this same lengthy and messy exercise as a somehow saving time.

Idiosyncratic, too, to spend all this time and effort to create what is essentially oxtail soup despite having overwhelming memories of avoiding at all costs an offering of oxtail soup as a child.

Consistency is the sign of small mind.

On any animal, the harder working the muscle, the tougher it’s going to be. On a cow, the hardest working muscle is always going to be a tossup between the cheeks (constant chewing) and the tail (constant flicking).

The lazy muscles result in incredibly tender cuts of meat, the most well known being filet (aka tenderloin, fillet, eye fillet etc - which is taken from along the spine). Even in organically reared, grass-fed, happy cows, fillet is a little bland in flavour. Quick-cooking, oh-so-soft, brilliant raw for steak tartare and Carpaccio. It’s a trade-off: texture versus taste. It’s a premium cut. Very expensive.

Because people and supermarkets have rocks in their heads tender cuts are almost universally preferred (consistency, as I said, is the sign of a small mind). And yet the idea of their being ‘premium cuts’ strikes me as a bit silly. It’s all from a cow, right? If we’re going to kill the beast, we may as well eat more than the softest quarter of it.

Particularly when the real flavour is found in the hard working ‘economical cuts’. Bring on the skirt steak and the shin. Pork and lamb necks. Beef cheeks. Hocks and brisket. And oxtail.

It’s cheap. And packs a punch of flavour. But it is often sinuous. It’s attached to tendons and bones and often has marrow in its near vicinity. All good for flavour, if a little tough.

Time to work the magic of braising.

Any idiot can burn a fillet steak. But it takes an even bigger idiot to screw up braising. The genius of braising is that there is no genius required. At its most very basic, a braise is a cross between a poaching and a steaming process, with meat (or vegetables) first seared / browned and then partially covered in liquid, covered and cooked over a very low heat for a long time. And the beauty of it is that whilst you can undercook it, it’s almost impossible to overcook it. It takes a long time, but it’s not really time consuming. Mostly it’s just a matter of being vaguely around to make sure it doesn’t bubble over or run dry or that the gas doesn’t go out.**

Slow cooking oxtails results in a sticky, gelatinous mess of soft-as-butter dark fibrous meat. Rather than serving with equally rich creamy mashed potato or risotto, shredded, wrapped up in ravioli sheets and poached in consommé made from the left over strained braising liquid, wine, water and bottled tomatoes, sprinkled with a little gremolata, zesty and garlicly and fresh, the resultant soup is light and lavish, meaty and yet not too indulgent.

So the trade off for cheap and flavourful is that is takes forever. But the short cut is that you can make it all in advance, in bulk, and freeze it. Straight from the freezer? Cooks up in about ten minutes.

* The frozen wonton wrappers have as the listed ingredients: flour, eggs, salt. That’s it. This, I think, is pretty good. Plus they’re the right size, thinness and so terribly convenient. And I don’t have a pasta machine. Pasta dough is easy enough to make (it has flour, eggs and salt in it). But you try rolling it with a rolling pin.

** I’ve heard it’s even more foolproof with a kitchen gadget known as a crock-pot.

Oxtail ravioli* in tomato consommé

Serves 8

2 kg oxtail pieces (or other beef on the bone, like osso buco or short rib)

Plain flour (seasoned, for dusting the oxtail)
¼ cup oil olive (roughly)
2 brown onions, diced
2 large carrots, diced
375 ml dry red wine
500 ml veal or beef stock without salt (or water)
Herbs – 2 bay leaves, sprigs of rosemary, thyme, oregano and parley
2 pack frozen wonton wrappers or ½ kg fresh lasagne sheets (bought or homemade)
1 egg, lightly beaten

Dust oxtail pieces with flour (shake). Heat a couple of tablespoons of the oil in a very large saucepan, and cook the pieces in batches until brown all over.

Heat another few tablespoons of the oil and add the onions and carrots, cook until starting to brown.

Deglaze the pot with the wine, stirring to remove any pieces stuck to the sides of the pot. Bring to the boil and cook until the alcohol is cooked off (a couple of minutes).

Add the oxtail pieces back into the pot, add the herbs and stock (it should cover about ¾ of the meat and vegetables. Cover with a parchment lid, and then place the pots lid securely on top. Place over the very lowest heat and gently cook for about 4 hour (it should be just barely a simmer, remove the lid if it is cooking too rapidly). By this stage the meat should be falling off the bones (if not, cook a little longer).

Remove the oxtail pieces, and when cool enough to touch, shred the meat and discard the fat and bones.

Strain the braising liquid and reserve. Add the strained vegetables back in with the shredded meat (discard the herb stalks and bay leaves).

Taste the meat and vegetable ravioli filling, and add salt and pepper to taste.

Place 30 wonton wrappers on the bench, brush the edges lightly with egg wash. Place a small spoonful of filling in the centre of each, and then place another wrapper on top, pressing to seal. You can freeze, refrigerate or cook at this point.

To cook, add to consommé and cook until the wrappers are cooked and the filling is hot. When frozen I just throw then into boiling water frozen and cook.

Serve in a bowl of tomato consommé, sprinkled with gremolata and parmesan cheese.

Tomato consommé

Reserved strained braising liquid.

For each 250 ml braising liquid:

1 tin chopped tomatoes (no added salt or added anything is preferable)

500 mls water (or half water, half red wine)

Boil all ingredients together until reduced by half. Strain. Season. Pour over ravioli to serve.


Traditionally, this is made with equal parts finely chopped parsley, finely grated lemon zest and minced garlic.

I have been known to use grapefruit zest, minced olives, and capers as substitutes and enhancements ...

* Based on a recipe by Elizabeth Egan and Domenic Pipercelli of Becco restaurant in Melbourne published by Australian Gourmet Traveller.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Eating the Winter garden

My mum’s garden is the source of all things tomato during summer. But during the winter months (and the cold that I am only just starting to come to terms with) she grows the softest, sweetest spinaches and chards, harvesting only a few leaves at a time, hence allowing each plant to continue to produce and grow. Bok choi too, and little green cabbages the size of a fist.

Cruciferous vegetables (chards and spinaches and cabbages) have a reputation for bitterness, but these leaves, straight from earth to plate in a matter of hours, are sweet and full of flavour. Not at all bitter or dull or watery. Thinly sliced and then very briefly sautéed in just a hint of olive oil, the leaves resembled a pile of seaweed or wet grass, deeply green with hints of purple and red. Just brimming with iron and vitamins and an overwhelming sense of freshness and vitality so lacking during the winter months.

Yesterday was icy cold, and I desperately needed the whimsy imparted to my day by two tiny brassicae: a minature Romanesco broccoli and a little purple cauliflower. These were a spur of the moment purchase at the market – it’s hard to resist the impulse buy when the merchandise is so utterly charming. And healthy. Nestled into a tangle of sautéed home-grown greens, accompanied by Brussels sprouts, these little steamed flower heads were delightful to look at and delicious to boot.

These was nothing particularly fancy about the meal. Finished off with a light grating of parmesan cheese and finely chopped curly parsley (the very essence of green - also from my mum’s garden), the whole thing was wholesome and fresh. There was a healthful goodness that the rich braises and roasts of winter sometimes hide. And yet there was a rightness, an earthy crispness that settled this very simple meal firmly in Winter’s heart.

All in all, a perfect Sunday supper.

An Edible Winter garden: sautéing and steaming

Sautéing is a method of cooking in which food is cooked super-fast, super-hot and all-at-once (in a little oil or butter). It’s a brilliant way of sealing in nutrients, as the food is cooked quickly, and nothing leaches out into water. It’s important not to overload the pan with too much stuff, as this reduces the heat, and therefore extends the cooking time. Because it is so quick, it can make more sense to split the amount you have to cook into two or three batches.

Sautéed winters greens

For one person: 2 cups shredded raw winter greens. As fresh as you can get. 1 tbsp olive oil.

Heat olive oil to very high in a large pan or wok. Add greens. Shake the pan or toss with tongs until cooked. This will take about two minutes. Season with a little salt and pepper.

Steamed tiny brassica

1 whole miniature cauliflower or ¼ cauliflower

Fill a large saucepan with about 2 inches of water. Place a microwave-proof breakfast bowl in the saucepan, so that the water comes two thirds up the sides. Place the cauliflower in the bowl. Cover the saucepan with a lid and bring to the boil. Cook for about five minutes, until the cauliflower is tender (will yield to a skewer). Carefully remove the cauliflower from the bowl, sprinkle with sea-salt and pepper to taste.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Layering for warmth: chicken curry with black spices and cashews

Curries are like ogres. Which is to say they are like onions. Which is to say: curries have layers.

To begin with, the word ‘curry’ seems, in the West, to stand as a description for nearly all food of ‘the other’. For the western world, curry has become an almost universal appellation for any vaguely spicy ‘Asian’ stew, where ‘Asian’ encompasses everything from North African to Middle Eastern to Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Mongolian, and, of course, Indian. The word is stretched in a way that seems to flatten the cuisine of these diverse countries into single homogenous layer, an effort reinforced by the ubiquitous presence of row upon row of ‘curry sauce’ in supermarket aisles.

But curry is like a Mandelbrot image: not matter how ordinary and singular the ready-to-serve army of jars might render it, it is infinitely repeated and replicated, multiplying and becoming more specific to each country, then region, town, then household. And unlike the Mandelbrot, each fractal repetition is subtly and uniquely different. Curry is like an army of ogres.

The most likely point of origin for the term ‘curry’ is in India, but between the Tamil words kaikaari (spiced vegetables) and karee kolambu (meat with spiced sauce) and the Punjabi word khadi, there no clear ground zero from which the word sprung**. And in India, where curry has now been readopted as a general description, no two curries are ever the same.

And so, from the general to the particular. In ironic contrast to the linguistic obscuring of the layered complexity of the social and cultural uniqueness of each and every example of cuisine termed ‘curry’, the only commonality (from what I can tell!) is that Indian curry is made by a process of layering. Indian curry is a complex and quite esoteric process of cooking, adding, frying off and recombining different whole, ground, dried and fresh spices in endlessly different quantities and arrangements in an almost mythological balancing act. Each layer releases flavours, heat, sweetness into oil and then develops over time, settling in and combining with the next layer. Not all curry is spicy-hot, but all curry is spiced, even if delicately, and the result of layering the spices in the cooking process is that when you eat a really good curry, each layer of spice sneaks up on a different part of your palate, rolling over and around your taste buds. It enters your nose while you cook it, and makes you lips tingle and your tongue dance.

And that’s before you even think about meat or vegetables or legumes. That’s just the sauce. Of one curry.

* Shrek, 2001, Pixar Animation
** Camellia Panjabi 50 Great Curries of India 1995 London Kyle Cathie Ltd

Chicken curry with black spices and cashews*

Makes enough for 8 servings

100 gm desiccated coconut, mixed with 2 tbsp coconut cream + 2 tbsp water
1 bulb of garlic, cloves peeled
1 inch ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 ½ tbsp coriander seeds
1 ½ tsp cumin seeds
6 whole dried red chillies or 2 tsp dried chilli flakes (optional - without chilli, this is a very sweet rich curry, but I think it lacks bite).
10 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
250 gm cashew nuts
1 large onion, roughly chopped
¾ cup water
5 tbsp oil
750 gm chicken thigh pieces
500 gm chicken drummets (separated wing pieces, bone in) or other chicken on the bone

In a large fry pan or wok, toast the garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, chilli, cloves and cinnamon over a low heat for about 5 minutes. Then add the coconut mixture, onions and 25 gm of cashew nuts and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until the garlic and onion is soft.

Remove mixture to a blender, allow to cool. Add ¾ cup water and blend until smooth.

In a mortar and pestle, crush 50 gms cashew nuts with a little water until a smooth paste forms.

Heat oil in the wok and add the blended spice and coconut mixture. Cook over a low heat for about ten minutes. Add half the cashew nut paste and salt to taste, cook for a further couples of minutes.

Increase the heat and add the chicken pieces, fry for about five minutes. then add 1 litre water, lower heat and cover and cook for half an hour.

Add the remaining cashew paste and remaining whole cashews, cook on high heat until the curry sauce is thick and dark. Serve immediately with rice, or refridgerate overnight and reheat the next day, which always tastes amazing.

* from Camellia Panjabi 50 Great Curries of India 1995 London Kyle Cathie Ltd. Ms Panjabi in turn credits Mrs Shirodkar of Bombay with the recipe.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Red wine braised cabbage

I detest winter.

What I want is mangoes, pineapples, coconuts, a mojito and a banana lounge. With an ocean view. And the scent of frangipani on the breeze. Every year, without fail, at this time of year, I start yearning for sunshine. Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia. Phuket. Bali. Hoi An. I am desperate for warmth.

What I’ve got is the coldest day on record, and root vegetables. And cabbage. And onions. Red cabbage, oh so slowly braised in red wine, cooked until meltingly soft and sweetened slightly with honey, is all that is keeping me from rapid escape to a tropical island.

A pot of stock, simmering all day on the stove, fills the house with steam. All day braising in the oven heats the room. It’s not tropical humidity, but it is warm and savoury and comforting.

Winter, seasonally and metaphorically, has a place and a point. Winter is about slowing down and resting and waiting, and being patient. Winter, with its biting wind and bitter cold, demands we stay put and relax. There is a more than one way to hibernate. It took a little bit of sulking, but I reminded that for me, hibination is rich with casserole and soup and steamed pudding and curry and roasted joints and stock. Putting things on the stove and forgetting about them and having a nap.

Vegetables don’t, strictly speaking, require the long cooking times and gentle low heats that really benefit sinuous cuts of meat. But the slow, slow cooking breaks down the cabbage, rendering it silky-smooth, and the grated potato releases sticky starches, contributing to a result that is soft and rich, without being cloying or heavy. Opening the oven while it is half way through cooking releases a cloud of wine flavoured steam, heady and inspiring.

So while the cabbage does it magic in the oven, I pour a glass of wine, curl up with a book and a hot water bottle, and wait. I may be dreaming of summer: but this too is part of winter. Daydreaming and waiting.

Braised cabbage

I came across this recipe in the French Laundry Cookbook and was surprised that it was simple, healthy and just perfect for winter. I’ve changed the quantities around to allow for more sensible, family portions (Thomas Keller is a bit keen on the ‘tasting menu tiny portions’, which is a great for a restaurant but less cool for eating at home).

1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium sized red onion, finely diced
½ red cabbage, very finely sliced (technical term: chiffonnade)
240 ml red wine
2 green apples, peeled, cored and grated
2 tsp honey
2 medium sized waxy potatoes, peeled and grated
Salt to taste

Pre heat oven to 170ºc.

Sauté the red onion over a low heat on the stove top in an oven proof casserole dish (or in a saucepan and then transfer to a casserole dish. Stir in cabbage, apples and red wine. The red wine will come about half way up the vegetables.

Press baking paper to cover the cabbage, cover with a lid (if you have one, or foil instead).

Cook in the oven for about 2 hours (longer is fine).

After two hours, remove from oven, stir through the honey and grated potato. Cover again with baking paper and lid. Cook in the oven for another hour.

Remove from oven, season with salt to taste. Add a little vinegar if preferred.

This a great side dish with chicken, pork, ham or fish. It’s probably a bit sweet for lamb and beef, but don’t let me stop you. Mustard or a mustard sauce complements this wonderfully.

Cabbage will keep in the fridge for up to a week.