At the Table
I don't own a microwave, a pressure cooker, a crock pot or a slow cooker as they are currently called, or a bread maker either. I do have a food processor, a juicer, a hand mixer and an E61 Rocket espresso machine (my single most expensive kitchen item). Everything else in my kitchen is manually operated and that is the way I like it.
I do have some great pots, a big blue Le Creuset version, an Emile Henry tagine and some great copper pots and other cast iron pans of one shape or another - all of these bought by my partner who likes to keep me in the kitchen.
I have always shunned microwaves and will forever, and I just can't see the point in a slow cooker when you can achieve the same and better outcomes by using a high-quality pot in the oven or on the stove top.
I do acknowledge, for those of you who go to the office daily, that there might be something good about coming home to a stew bubbling away in the pot. Having said that, when I was office-bound I saved those slow-cooked moments for the weekends when I could supervise the process and savour the smells.
This is all a preamble to a discussion about slow-cooked food and the vessels in which to create them. For me it is the Le Creuset pot, the tagine or two other cast iron pans that I regularly use. These pans come into their own at this time of the year when I crave hot, tender, juicy dishes with yummy sauces served with mashed spud, couscous, rice or polenta.
In the last couple of weeks, I have made three long-cooked dishes that are all quite different in taste but all involve braising the meat.
The art of braising is simple really, to braise means to sear the meat first and then simmer in liquid over low heat for a long time.
It is not about chucking a bunch of ingredients into a pot with some water, it requires thinking about the flavours and extracting the most flavour from the right ingredients with the right techniques. The searing of the meat helps to develop the flavours and improves the colour.
It is a great method for cheaper cuts of meat that need to cook for longer to become tender. The reason it works well for tougher pieces of meat is that the slow cooking at a moderately low temperature breaks down the connective tissue in the meat and turns it to gelatin, in the process making it softer and not so tough.
Good cuts for braising are beef-blade steak, chuck steak and brisket; lamb shoulder and shanks, duck legs and chicken legs and thighs with the bone in. These are all cuts that have connective tissues that need breaking down; distinct from lean tender cuts such as steaks and breasts that are much better grilled or sauteed quickly.
Braising can be done on top of the stove or in the oven although I think that in the oven is best as you have surround heat and it cooks more evenly rather than all the heat coming from the bottom of the pot on the stove top.
Try these dishes to warm up the remaining days of winter. Not many left now!
CHICKEN WITH CORN AND GINGER
8 chicken thighs, bone in, skin off
1 red onion, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, cut into slices
2 Tbsp of finely chopped ginger root
6 baby fennel bulbs or ½ a regular fennel bulb finely chopped
1 green chilli chopped
½ tsp of red chilli flakes
1 can of cream-style sweet corn
300ml of chicken stock
1 Tbsp of chopped fresh coriander 1 Tbsp of chopped fresh mint
3 Tbsp of olive oil
Salt to taste Heat the oil in a large cast iron pan and add the chicken thighs. Saute until lightly browned on both sides. Add the onion, ginger, fennel and green chilli and saute until the vegetables brown slightly. Add the chilli flakes and salt, the corn, herbs and stock and stir well. Cover and bake in a moderate oven for about 1 hour.
BRAISED ITALIAN BEEF
Serves 4 - serve with pasta or polenta
800g chuck steak cut into large cubes
1 onion, chopped
1 leek, sliced
75g of pancetta
5 anchovy fillets
½ cup of black olives
1 Tbsp of chopped rosemary
175ml of red wine
2 Tbsp of tomato paste
400ml of beef stock
2 Tbsp of balsamic glaze
2 bay leaves
Lots of freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp of extra virgin olive oil I use my tagine for this dish - if you haven't got one use a deep heavy-bottomed pot. If you are not using a tagine you may want to use more stock to make sure that the liquid is always about 50 per cent covering the meat while cooking.
Add the oil to the pan and heat. Add the cubed meat and saute until browned on all sides. Remove from the pan and set aside while you saute the leek, onion,carrots, rosemary, pancetta, anchovies and olives. Cook until browned slightly. Add the red wine and cook for about 5 minutes before adding the tomato paste and stock. Simmer for a few minutes and add back the meat. Stir well, add the balsamic and pepper. Cover and cook for about 2 hours at 160C or on the stove top turned down very low.
100g of polenta
800ml of water
1 tsp salt
25g grated parmigiano-reggiano. Bring the water to the boil with the salt and stir in the polenta. Whisk constantly for a few minutes to make sure no lumps form. Turn down the heat to very low and cook the polenta until it is smooth. This will be only a few minutes if it is the fast cooking kind or up to 20 minutes for the slow cooking kind. Add the butter and parmigiano.
800g of lamb shoulder chops or boned shoulder steaks
2 Tbsp of olive oil
4 cloves of garlic
1 onion chopped
2 Tbsp of freshly grated ginger
2 Tbsp of Ras el Hanout spice mix (see below)
¼ cup of fresh coriander
2 Tbsp honey
1 tsp of saffron dissolved in ½ cup of hot water
1 cup of beef stock
½ cup of pitted prunes
Salt and pepper
2 Tbsp of toasted sesame seeds
Cut the meat into 4cm squares if boned. Heat a large tagine or casserole and add the oil, when hot add the lamb and brown on both sides. Remove from the pan and keep warm. Pour off any excess fat and then add the onion, garlic, ginger and cook for five minutes. Add the Ras el Hanout spice mix and cook for a minute. Return the meat to the pan, add the coriander, honey, saffron, stock. Simmer for about an hour either on the stove top or in the oven at 160C. Add the prunes and cook for a further half an hour. Adjust seasoning and add sesame seeds before serving.
RAS EL HANOUT
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp fennel seeds
Toast in a dry pan until they become aromatic. Be careful not to burn them. Grind the spices in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Add the following:
1 tsp each of ground turmeric, cinnamon, paprika and cayenne
tsp each of ground ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and salt
Mix the spices together well and store the left over in sealed jar.