Sunday, 5 September 2010

Boeuf Bourguinonne and me

If this gosh-darned crazy old world meant anything, my middle name would be Beef Stewed With Red Wine. But it’s not. Dang!

I love big, beefy, wine-flavoured stews and braises. Our cold winter this year has meant ideal times for warming meals, gluhwein, nestling, candles, and general Gemütlichkeit. Recently, Delly and Bells wrote about boeuf Bourguinonne, inspiring me to revisit this classic dish. Winey beef stews have been my default setting for as long as I have cooked, and Burgundian beef stew is one of the best. BB is not the first beef – wine stew I ever cooked. That was its Greek country cousin, stifado — from Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food. But I love all of them.

So I pulled out my bible — Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, and re-read her recipe. As usual, she adds lots of cultural and personal context. And, as usual, I followed the spirit, rather than the strict letter of the formula.

I always use chuck, shin, or other cheaper, tougher cut for these dishes. I think they have great flavour, and I’ve never been able to bring myself to use expensive rump in such a dish. Chuck, and especially shin, have a lot of fine connective tissue in the meat, which breaks down over slow, gentle cooking to give richness and body to the sauce I almost always flame the casserole after deglazing, with a splash of brandy. And, beside, flaming the brandy pleases the little boy in all of us! But I more or less followed her method.

With my basic cooking set up, fine temperature control is hard, so I tended to hover and peek more than normal. You don’t want this pot to boil, but just simmer very gently. It takes hours, so do this on a wet Saturday arvo while you read the paper or watch Elvis movies. You can also cook it in a slow oven. After a while, the flat had a wonderful beef stew smell. When the meat was tender the sauce was a bit thin, so I drained it off and reduce it hard for a while to a thicker consistency.

As usual, it was rich and very satisfying. The speck and mushrooms add great depth of flavour. For a bit of fun I garnished it with heart-shaped croutons, which is a classic French bistro touch. And lots of mash to soak up the sauce.

And I’ll be back again, as I am a few times each winter, to revisit this great recipe.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Papardelle fresca fatta in casa — a tale of two books

I have tried making homemade pasta from time to time over the years, and have commonly been dissatisfied with the results. Texture, rather than flavour was usually the problem. The noodles were thick, heavy, and floury. I was inspired to try again recently, and turned to the book Lygon St. by Michael Harden.

This fascinating book is part cookbook, part reminiscence, part social history, written about the Melbourne suburb of Carlton, and its main drag. Carlton, and Lygon Street in particular, has a colourful history, ranging from mid-Victorian beginnings as a focus for small businesses and arriviste residents, through post WWII immigrant settlement, repeated association with the Melbourne criminal underworld (think Underbelly and the Carlton Crew), to late 20th Century inner urban grunge and subsequent gradual gentrification. In many ways it parallels the history and social milieu of Leichhardt in Sydney. Claims that Lygon St had the first grocer, first espresso machine (though this is disputed), first pizza, uphold its reputation as a social laboratory of Australian culture.

Harden’s book could barely avoid a recipe for handmade pasta, given the enormous influence of post-war Italian migrants in the history of Carlton. His recipe is simplicity itself, as fresh pasta recipes should be: 1 kg of flour and 8 eggs. So off I set. As a single bloke, and given that this was an experiment, I opted for a smaller volume of flour and eggs to start with, so I scaled it back to 250 g of flour and 2 eggs.

Flour. Eggs

Mix 'em up ...

In the end I added egg #3 — it is always difficult to scale recipes up and down exactly. But I kneaded diligently, and, for the 1st time in all my pasta-making efforts, felt happy about the way the dough started to come together, as a non-sticky, slightly springy and resilient ball.

...and knead.

And I rolled the pasta sheets with equal diligence, achieving something approaching the thin, transparent quality I have read about but never before achieved.

Rolling out. The bottle (a quite decent Marlborough sauvingnon blanc, actually) is my rolling pin.

Still rolling ...

One sheet down!

The book says the pasta will become transparent. This is. A bit. Well, more than politics in NSW, anyway

3 sheets, drying.

Cutting papardelle. Roughly.

Drying the papardelle.


The papardelle were delicious. Fine, with that prized silky texture that pasta fresca can achieve. Rolling thin made a lot of difference — I remember previous attempt where the pasta remained in thick, stodgy lumps. I made a simple autumnal sauce with mushrooms, prosciutto, and pine nuts to go with the best papardelle I have ever made. Then I enjoyed every mouthful.

So, the FAQ of homemade pasta: “Is it worth the effort?” After all, dried pasta (pasta ascuitta) is cheap and easy. It comes down to whether you want to spend time developing a craft skill, or prefer the convenience of making something quick and easy. I think there is a place for both. Certainly, pasta fresca is labour intensive. To get good results, you can’t stint on either the kneading or rolling. It is something to devote a bit of time to, when you fell like putting in the extra effort. Don’t try to knock this off as a quick meal after a hard day’s work ... But, as a project on a wet, cold Saturday afternoon, it is deeply satisfying. As a cook, I am used to seeing the fruits of my labour devoured in a matter of minutes. Don’t do cooking if you want real objects hanging around for years as testament to your craft skills. Become a bricklayer, or carpenter. Take up knitting. Or tie dry flies. Cooking projects disappear in front of starving family and friends as though they have been inhaled. But, when we get it right, they leave happy memories of a good meal, that compensate for the transitory nature of the exercise.

I made pasta fresca about the same time as I discovered A Tavola, an exciting restaurant around the corner in Victoria St, Darlinghurst.

I have been back a bunch of times since. House-made pasta is the real feature here — a screen between kitchen and dining room is formed by a curtain of drying papardelle. The daily specials will include three or four dishes featuring pasta fresca made in house. Expect such seasonal delights as a wintry papardelle al ragu d’agnello e fagioli. Add to this friendly, knowledgeable service, good Italian wine list, and the conviviality of the long communal table.

Thinking about pasta fresca sent me back to re-read parts of Bill Buford’s Heat. This remarkable book is essential reading if you are interested in pasta fresca. Buford was a New York journalist who indulged has passions for food and cooking, by working in Mario Batali’s famed Manhattan restaurant Babbo, travelled in Italy learning kitchen skills, and researched the history of making pasta. His book is part kitchen gonzo, in the style of Kitchen Confidential (albeit less testosterone-drenched), part travel memoir, part scholarly dissertation on la cucina Italiana, and part meditation on the links between food and its culture. On the way he gives fascinating biographical insights into Batali and one of his mentors - the equally demanding and prickly Marco Pierre White; a line cook’s description of a working kitchen life; and an insight into why home-cooked pasta dishes will never be quite the same as those from a restaurant — it’s all about the cooking water. Read this book!

One of Buford’s research obsessions became discovering who first used eggs in pasta, and when this quantum leap occurred. I won’t give the game away by revealing his conclusions — as I say, read the book. Just as important is his discussion about the proportions of eggs to flour. He decides on 1 egg per etto of flour. (An etto is a really useful Italian measure — basically 100 g. But it is just the right quantity to order when you are at the deli counter, making up a mixed antipasto — an etto of prosciutto, one of salami, one of olives, and one of provolone). So Buford’s recipe, at 10 eggs per kilo of flour, is eggier than the 8 egg Lygon St. book makes it. He maintains that all the moisture needed should come from the eggs, with no need to add water.

Next time I will try making my pasta fresca with this 10:1 ratio. And make more, for a bunch of friends.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

My sauce good*

The Australian Constitution gives Parliament, inter alia, “ power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth”. One of its better efforts is the Standard for the uniform scheduling of drugs and poisons, which lists, in Schedules 8 and 9, items like heroin, LSD, methamphetamine, and cannabis. Fortunately, the mandarins have yet to discover ayvar.

Ayvar is my latest fave rave foodstuff. It is a capsicum paste, used as a sauce or relish in Balkan cooking. And it is seriously addictive.

I have seen this in the supermarket for years, but not taken any notice of it. I first tasted it at a Balkan eatery in Lilyfield, imaginatively called The Balkan Eatery. It’s run by a friendly Bosnian couple from Mostar (the bridge) and Sarajevo (Franz Ferdinand). All the Balkan classics — grilled lamb and chicken, stuffed capsicums, cabbage rolls, sensational plum jam biscuits — are here. But the great discovery, the must-try menu item, is a bread roll, stuffed full of grilled chevapi sausages, and dressed with ayvar. It is wondrous, a revelation of how good a sausage sandwich can be. Forget the netball girls outside Bunnings on Saturday — this is the snag sanger to die for. And at least part of its charm comes from the ayvar sauce.

Ayvar is brick red, spicy, and comes in mild or hot versions. You can use it as a relish on grilled lamb or other meat. I love it scooped on an egg with toast. The soft, bland, eggy egg and the spicy, umami-like relish — unforgettable! The perfect Sunday breakfast, along with the papers and good coffee. I also use it on pasta — make a Napoletana-type sauce, substituting ayvar for tomatoes. I have studded mine with a few black olives and capers.

This is a great foodstuff — A Good Sauce. There is lots of scope to experiment with ayvar. Just do it soon, before this much fun is outlawed

* My Sauce Good is a bright new Sydney band playing “addictive French Swing, original tunes, soulful Latin-American folksong, a haunting Hebrew lullaby, Bohemian Jazz from the 1920’s onwards and contemporary songs given a new lease of life”. Think gypsies, Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grapelli, continental cafes ... Some of their material has a real Balkans feel. Listen! And thank you to La Fanciulla for the heads up about this great band, and the wonderful CD!

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Goan fish curry — broth from heaven

I am a big fan of Goan fish curry. For years, my regular lunch partner, Greg, and I traversed the curry houses of Sydney enjoying this dish. We remember really good ones at the Malabar restaurants, in Crows Nest and, more recently, in Darlinghurst. We love its fishy broth, spicy taste, sour finish. For us, it is an essential part of a great long curry lunch. So I knew what I would be cooking and eating next weekend when Helen from Grab Your Fork recently included a Goan Fish Curry recipe, as part of an extended interview with Kumar Mahadevan of Aki's Indian restaurant in Woolloomooloo.

Goa is a small state on the west coast of India, which was a Portuguese territory for about 450 years, until 1961. It has strong Portuguese influences in its food, including the use of onions and garlic, and vinegar in the famous vindaloo dishes.

A couple of comments on the recipe:

The grated fresh coconut — Hold your coconut over the sink and give a few sharp taps with a hammer. This will crack it neatly around the equator, into two halves. Now the fun begins. If, like me, you only have implements ill-adapted to the purpose, scraping the coconut meat out of the shell will be a tedious process. You need a proper coconut scraper, an apprentice, or, preferably, both. Do not start to make this dish until you have been to an Indian grocer and bought a cheap coconut scraper!

The fish — I used ling fillets, which were available when I shopped, and produce a fine result. But next time I will go for an oilier fish, such as Spanish mackerel cutlets. Whatever you get, you want a fairly robust fish, that will not fall apart during poaching. I think this would be great using soaked bacalhau, which would echo the Portuguese influences on Goan cuisine.

My marsala paste was not as smooth as I like it, due to a last-minute mortar & pestle imbroglio. Not a huge problem, as the crunchy bits will settle in the broth before serving. The recipe is vague about how much water to add to make your curry. Suit yourself — I think one of the joys of this dish is the fairly thin, soupy broth, so I added enough water to achieve this. Experiment! The recipe also calls for tamarind powder. I only had block tamarind, so followed the usual process of steeping, straining, sieving. Add to taste — I think the tamarind sourness is an essential part of the flavour, so don’t hold back — add enough tamarind to bring this out.

And the final product? It is a great curry. Thick fish steaks swimming in a thin but rich, tasty broth, with distinct fishy character, a moderate spice kick, and lovely, tangy sour flavour from the tamarind. I teamed it with lots of rice to soak up the broth, and a dry curry of spinach and lentils, to give textural variation. And Bolst’s lime pickle, to carry on the sour spicy feel. Delicious!

This is a delicious, relatively simple dish to make, once you have your grated fresh coconut sorted. Try it soon, enjoy, then head off to Aki’s to compare with the original!

And thanks, Helen, for the great recipe!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Snow complications

Do you remember Barry Humphries monologue from the sixties — about going to the snow, with the line “we all shacked up there with stacks of the old gluhwein, a few crates of tinnies, a couple of little snow bunnies and no complications”? That was the first time I had heard about gluhwein. And it was a few years before I actually tried it. I remember that moment well — a freezing winter night in Gundagai, a bunch of geologists in a caravan, and someone brewed up this potent, heady mix. I loved it! I came across it again in the old town square in Prague during a glacial (well, I am from Sydney!) late November, where market stalls were doing a roaring trade in mulled wine and warm rum – sugar concoctions.

And I was delighted to re-acquaint myself with it at the Sydney Winter Festival. A bunch of people hanging out at a temporary skating rink in Cook + Phillip Park outside St Mary’s Cathedral. With winter food and drink, German music, a “ski lodge”, snow makers, etc. And gluhwein. Just right for a cold night, teamed with bratwurst and sauerkraut on a roll, mit Zenf.

The skating was fun to watch. There was a real mix of skills, from great skaters to people hanging, grimly, to the rink edge, their friend, or the witches hats. Note to self: “Don’t ever suggest ice skating or other activities needing physical coordination as a first date”. OK. Some had made a real effort dressing up, with fur muffs, Cossack hats, sparkly stockings, flippy skirts. Others were not quite so classy. But the mix of people, all having fun, reminded me of a lovely day at the beach. But with beanies and scarves. At night. In the snow.

Anyway, enough of the social context. This blog is supposed to be, at least, a bit about cooking. Wikipedia gives a bunch of info on gluhwein across various European countries. The common ingredients appear to be wine, sugar, citrus, and spices. There are also interesting mentions of mulled ale from England and Poland. And so, I turned to a recipe for gluhwein. The one on the Food Safari website looked interesting. Here’s how it turned out.

The orange studded with cloves reminded me of the pomander balls my mother used to make. This is drop-dead easy cooking — bung everything in a saucepan, heat, let it think for a while, strain, drink. But high impact — the flavours are so clean, fresh, rich. You can keep any excess (?) in the fridge to reheat later. On the internet you can find a gazillion different recipes for gluhwein. They range from simple concoctions with simple spicing, to recipes that contain “all the spices of Araby” (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 1).

This recipe was delicious — a warming, spicy, welcoming draught of mid-winter joy. I liked the additional sense of dryness and sourness from the cranberry juice. Make it soon, before the weather starts to warm up! Great for a Saturday night in, with a video, a casserole, and, perhaps, a couple of snow bunnies. Already I am starting to think about January, and gluhwein gelato — a kind of sangria slushy ...

You could overcomplicate this recipe by adding to many spices and extra flavours. But as Barry Humphries recognised, some things are better with “no complications”.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Taking stock — and making chicken soup

There’s a cooking gene. Some of us have it. I’ve known since I was a teenager that I want to cook things, and want to find out more about food, where it comes from, and how it relates to its culture. This is different to just liking to eat. I like that too — the pleasure of a good meal, the shared table, of food and drinks matching. But deep down, it’s the preparation, the act of taking stuff, and making it into something else, that fascinates me. The alchemy that turns flour and eggs into so many different noodles, tortellini, spaetzle, dumplings. The remarkable ability of tomatoes and basil, or lemon grass, chilli, and coriander, or butter, apples, and cinnamon to come together and become something more than the parts. So, yeah, I’ve got the cooking gene.

However, that gene can become suppressed at times. For the last couple of years my life has been a roller coaster of domestic, work, emotional, and family concerns. A parent’s death; the slow end of a twenty-year relationship; a changing work environment culminating in a new job; challenging family interactions; moving out of the family home into a little flat; the beginning, and spectacular, explosive, unexpected end of a new relationship. Somewhere through all of this, the cooking was lost. There were practical reasons — my job has me away from home regularly; the flat has only simple cooking equipment (no oven, for instance); there’s a huge range of good, mainly cheap restaurants open all hours, just a short walk from my front door ...

But there are only so many schnitzels from Una’s or Bill and Tony’s that one person can eat. At some stage, recently, I began feeling restless on the cooking front. Time to re-assert control; to bring some stability and healing back into my life; to get beyond the sadness that had enveloped me. So, what better way of taking stock than to start cooking a bit more. Making the effort — planning to cook; shopping; and, finally, actually doing It. Inspired by the recent gift of Maeve O’Mara’s Food Safari, and the example of friends Adele and Helen, who are cooking and blogging, Julie Powell-style, their way through that book, I turned to it for inspiration. And one cold weekend, on a whim, I tried my hand at that most basic, fundamental, pure technique dish — chicken soup.

What could be simpler, or more challenging, than chicken soup? Basically, chicken stock. With matzo balls. Not having a Jewish or Mitteleuropa bone in my body, I know nothing, zip, nada, zero, about the matzo ball part of the recipe. But I do know a bit about stock. I’ve been making that for years. How hard can it be?

Well, stock is one of those things — lots of comment from the authorities. Meat only. Meat plus vegetables. Vegies make it go off. Should never come to boil. Should boil hard. Should boil a bit. Will last in fridge for weeks. Will go off in minutes if not refrigerated immediately. Will go sour if put in fridge too soon ... Help!

I resisted my usual approach — full steam ahead, damn the torpedoes — and actually read the recipe in Food Safari. Simple; not too prescriptive. Chicken, onions, carrots, parsnips, leeks. Simmer. Skim. And so I did.

Chicken frames from my local butcher;
into a stock pot, water. It always astounds me just how much scum surfaces in making stock. Proteins, dissolved as the water warms, then polymerise and are thrown out of solution as the temperature continues to rise. Skimming all of it seems impossible — a Sisyphean task. The usual guidance is something simple like “Skim the scum that rises”, or similar. So I try. At some point I give up.
Veggies chopped coarsely. No need to peel. After the leeks go in, my flat smells wonderful.To boil, or to simmer gently? I have a very simple cooking set up. Precise control for gentle simmering seems unlikely. And so it proves. After a while the stock is boiling. And, sometimes, at that point, the amount of rising scum reduces substantially.

And, really, that’s it. After the prescribed two hours, I strain the solids out, let it cool, and refrigerate. The next day, chicken fat has solidified into a solid disk on top, which can be gingerly removed. This is the original schmaltz — the Yiddish word for chicken fat . If you want to be like Elvis, you can use the chicken fat to fry up your peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
You can clarify a bit more by straining through a cloth. This can be slow, so don’t do it when you are in a hurry — say, when you need to get an early start on a DSC trip to Mudgee... Or Stephanie Alexander gives detailed instructions for clarifying with egg whites. This is truly a magical process — real kitchen alchemy. Whoever first thought “I know! I’ll chop those vegetables, beat those egg whites, mix all into the soup, and cook it until the stock is clear.” Not intuitive.

The matzo balls are simple, but again require good technique. Matzo meal, eggs, oil, and flavouring. Maeve uses just salt and cinnamon, but the recipe on the packet adds an onion sweated in some oil. They swell a lot, and are quite delicate at first — keep the simmer gentle, as a rolling boil breaks them up. Give a good squeeze when forming them, to help here.
So, the final bit. How did it taste? The chicken soup was fantastic. A real depth and clarity of flavour, unmatched by commercial tinned or packet stock, and a world away from stock powder. Chicken essence in a bowl. Reasonably clear. Deep golden yellow colour. As for the matzo balls — ho hum. They are bland stodge. Intended for people standing all day in a snowy field, hoeing turnips. I guess you have to have the matzo ball gene to look forward to this. Or maybe I just didn’t make them all that well. I’m genetically programmed to go for pasta or spuds for my stodge. Next time I’ll just throw in a handful of small soup pasta, and call it brodo (broth), the Italian name.

Since it is simple to make, and you can do gallons at a time then freeze some, it’s not an onerous task. And the result is so good, you’ll never look back on packaged stock again. The aroma in the kitchen, the sense of transforming ingredients into a lovely golden liquor — lovely by-products, that all appeal to my cooking gene.