There are few things sadder than a ‘chilli con carne’ done badly. Soggy mince; a sour, acidic tomato sauce; bullet-hard kidney beans straight from a can; the overpowering musk of cumin powder…this is a dish that is surprisingly easy to massacre. Perhaps it has something to do with being a student staple, much like its mince-sharing partner, spaghetti bolognese. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it is often served, entirely unimaginatively, with a bland canvas of white rice. Or perhaps it’s because bad chilli con carne can be smothered in cheese and crammed into a burrito and thereby turned into something vaguely acceptable, so why bother perfecting the thing?Read more
I was prepared to like the Biltmore Bar & Grill before I tasted the food. Their upstairs dining area is a wonderful indoor garden, a lovely sprawling array of potted plants, small trees and dark foliage. While I love dining al fresco at home, the pleasure of sipping wine and eating a meal surrounded by blooming flora is always slightly undermined by the fact that all I can think about is how much needs weeding, or pruning, or repotting, or how much the lawn needs mowing, or how much that hedge really needs to come down, or how the apple tree is any minute now going to start hurling its fruit at the garden with a vengeance and that no amount of apple crumbles will even begin to deal with its prolific bounty…you see how it goes. At the Biltmore’s aptly-named ‘Garden Grill’, no such worries could intrude upon my eating experience. Instead, I got to enjoy the somewhat eclectic décor (there are two big white sculptures of deer wearing sunglasses in front of a huge, wall-length drinks cabinet, a curtain of rushing water behind the bar and chairs and sofas upholstered in plush velour) without worry, preferably while taking it in over a cocktail from the extensive menu – the Bellinis are lovely, as is the bourbon-based ‘Old Fashioned’.Read more
Pomelo are back in season at the moment. I spied them at the market the other day, presented as they often are unnecessarily swaddled in both cling film and orange net - I've never quite understood this. If you've ever prepared a pomelo, you'll know that it has a very thick, spongy rind, which is surely enough to protect it from almost anything without the need for cling film and a net. It also makes the fruit a little daunting to prepare. You need a sharp knife to quarter the fruit lengthways, and then strong hands to prise the thick white membrane away from the firm flesh within. The reward, though, is in the eating of this deliciously refreshing fruit, firmer and milder than a grapefruit, with a grassy citrus zing and a subtle perfume about it. I like to experiment, but I always fall back on this winner of a recipe.Read more
Left to his own devices in my house while I spent some time back at my parents', my boyfriend lovingly cultivated, over a period of four weeks, what he matter-of-factly calls a 'man fridge'. For the uninitiated: this basically means that, when I returned and opened the chilled receptacle that is at the heart of my kitchen, I found four items: a steak, some bacon, a tub of marmite and a packet of blue cheese. Furthermore, the majority of those items were past their sell-by date.Read more
I'm a bit of a girl when it comes to my eating habits. I cook and eat mostly vegetarian food, I love nothing more than a good salad, I get excited about few things more than seafood and fish, I have absolutely no willpower when it comes to baked goods, and I very rarely tuck into a good hearty slab of red meat. I think I've only ordered steak in a restaurant once, at a tiny little bistro in the tiny little town of Chablis, having walked around in the pouring rain after a rather arduous trek from London involving the Eurostar and several country trains. In that sort of situation, steak pretty much sounds like the best thing in the world. It was France. It would be bloody, and come with ample carbs. There would be tarte tatin and cheese afterwards. I couldn't say no.
There is a lot to be said for a good steak. On the rare occasions I tuck into one, I ask myself why I don't do it more often. Few things have more savoury satisfaction than a slab of beef, crispy and charred around the edges, still melting and mooing in the middle. I used to work at a restaurant in Cambridge that produced some of the best steaks I've ever encountered - gigantic slabs of cow smothered in truffle butter and served with perfect chips. The smell as waitresses wafted them around the restaurant was intoxicating, a heady mix of bloody animal, butter, and rich, earthy truffle.
I've had a huge picanha steak in my freezer ever since receiving a gigantic hamper of meat in February. Picanha is a cut of beef popular in Brazil, and also known as the rump cap. The muscle over the top sirloin and rump, it is covered in a layer of thick fat which is often left on for cooking. Given that it must be a year since I ate my last steak, I figured it was high time to indulge (and clear a bit of freezer space at the same time).
While I believe one of the best and simplest ways to eat steak is with perfect chips and a divinely rich peppercorn sauce, I have neither the resources nor the energy to whip up chips and sauce in my kitchen. I knew it would probably only be disappointing, so I went for the next best way to serve steak: in a salad.
This might sound like an odd hybrid of girly food and MAN FOOD, but a steak salad is a great thing. The crispy, crunchy and tangy salad ingredients cut through the richness of the meat, and provide a meal that is never monotonous. Much as I love steak and chips, each mouthful is pretty much the same. I sometimes make a Thai-style salad with steak, with a tangy lime and fish sauce dressing, plenty of chilli and some crunchy green vegetables like cucumber and green beans. However, I didn't want to overpower this beautiful piece of meat with such strong flavours, so instead I basically put a load of delicious things in a bowl and slapped the bloody meat on top.
You may have remembered that in a recent post, I mentioned that I would be receiving fortnightly baskets of avocados to experiment with in the kitchen. This is part of a campaign to support and promote Peruvian avocados: nutritious and, as I hope to show, extremely versatile fruits. I'll be posting my recipes and thoughts both on here and on the Avocado Brotherhood blog.
Steak and avocado is a winning combination - the buttery blandness of the avocado works perfectly against the meat. Avocado works well in salads with pineapple, as I discovered recently - the combination of its creamy texture and slight sweet bitterness with the assertive tang of pineapple is fantastic. Blue cheese works very well with steak, and also with avocado (add bacon and you start entering sublime territory). I decided to combine all these flavours in one colourful bowlful, combined with peppery watercress, rocket and spinach, and a delicious dressing made from flavoursome olive oil and a little tangy cider vinegar and lime juice.
This is one of those meals that is very simple to put together, but when you sit down to eat it you're a little bit amazed at your sheer genius. For one thing, it's a completely beautiful plate of food - the jade avocado, bright pineapple with its caramelised char marks, snowy blue cheese...and that perfectly cooked, juicy meat sitting on top. Secondly, it's a ridiculously good combination of flavours, fresh and sweet and tangy without being cloying. The steak was perfect - I didn't time it, somehow using my cook's intuition to get it perfectly medium-rare, with the layer of fat on top rendered into perfect crispiness. I mean, look at the pictures - gorgeous, right?
Genuinely, if you asked me to choose between steak and chips, or this salad...I think you now know which I'd choose. Another 'why don't I eat steak more often?' moment...except now I know how easy this is to put together, I can guarantee I won't leave it a year this time before I eat steak again.
Steak, avocado, griddled pineapple and blue cheese salad (serves 2):
- Half a medium pineapple
- 3 tsp caster sugar
- 2 steaks (I used piranha, but sirloin would be good here)
- 100g spinach, watercress and rocket salad
- 1 ripe avocado
- 60g crumbly blue cheese
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil (or a small crushed garlic clove and add 1 tbsp extra olive oil)
- 1 tbsp cider vinegar
- A squeeze of lime juice
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
First, prepare the pineapple. Remove the skin and woody core, then slice into 0.5cm-thin slices. Toss in a bowl with the caster sugar. Get a griddle pan very hot, and griddle the pineapple slices on each side until caramelised and charred. Remove and set aside.
Griddle the steaks to your liking - I would suggest medium rare - then leave to rest for ten minutes while you make the salad.
Divide the spinach mixture between two plates or bowls. Halve the avocado, remove the stone, then slice into chunks and spoon out. Divide between the plates. Crumble over the blue cheese and scatter over the pineapple. Whisk together the olive oils, cider vinegar, lime juice, salt and pepper to make a dressing - taste for the right amount of tanginess, adding more lime or vinegar if necessary. Drizzle half the dressing over the salad and gently toss together.
When the steak is cooked and rested, slice thickly and arrange over the salad. Drizzle over the rest of the dressing, mixed with any of the steak juices, and serve immediately.
I'd like to introduce you to a new contender for my 'favourite cookbook of all time' award. It's a keeper. It's going to be adorned with sauce splatters, anointed with oil smears, christened with overkeen garlicky fingers and placed in pride of place on my shelf before the summer is out.
When I first picked up my copy of Reza's Indian Spice, kindly sent to me to review by Quadrille Books, I flicked through the pages briefly. I'm pretty good at surmising from the quickest of flicks whether I'm going to be interested in a new cookbook or not. There are several factors that contribute to this:
- The amount and quality of photography (sad to say, but I'm generally not interested if there are no photos - how are you supposed to be drawn in by a dish if you can't see it presented to its full potential?)
- The general style and layout of the pages (although I enjoy the sparseness of - for example - Nigel Slater's books, sometimes simple can mean boring)
- The way the book falls open (yes, this may sound silly, but if the pages aren't going to fall open for you to cook from without holding the book open manually, then that's a pretty useless cookbook - Dan Lepard wins points for Short and Sweet, whereas Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day is severely lacking in this area, requiring the machinations of several pieces of kitchen equipment to keep the pages apart long enough to glance at the ingredients)
- The desserts section (always the one I flick to first, reading the book from back to front, rather like the way a keen sports fan reads a newspaper)
- And, of course, the titles of the dishes and whether they appeal.
Reza Mahammad is a TV chef, and also owns the 'Star of India' restaurant in London. The philosophy behind this book, as it proclaims on the title page, is 'Eastern Recipes for Western Cooks', and I couldn't think of a better summary. Reza was brought up in London, educated in India, and has a house in France. He is passionate about all kinds of cuisine, but even more so about combining them to result in new and fabulous recipes.
This is evident from many of the dishes in the book; 'Frindian' (French/Indian) ideas such as 'Paupiettes of lemon sole with saffron sauce', or a dessert combining a very English ingredient, rhubarb, with the Indian flavours of almonds and oranges. Reza adds cinnamon to a classic celeriac gratin to serve with duck and orange, takes Italian polenta and adds a hefty dose of Indian spice, stuffs a haunch of venison with dried fruit and chilli after rubbing it with anise, cardamom and allspice, puts a spin on meatballs with mint, coriander, ginger, chilli and cumin, uses the very European beetroot in a lemongrass- and lime-infused salad, and even provides recipes for an Indian High Tea, featuring crab samosas, masala tea, sweet potato cakes and saffron halva with pistachios.
The book is simply divided into sections. 'Quick and chic' dishes are exactly what they proclaim themselves to be: chilli-seared mackerel, spicy beef salad, lemon and coriander chicken, and several lassi recipes (mint and cumin, roasted fig, rhubarb, minted mango, strawberry and cardamom) which I thought was a nice touch - you can complete your Eastern feast by stretching the theme as far as the drinks. 'Slow burners' are those that require a bit more cooking time, like sweet and sour stuffed chicken, or 'Royal leg of lamb'; 'Showing Off' are those perfect dinner party dishes designed to impress, like stuffed chillies, stuffed quail, and spice-crusted monkfish; 'Classic Curries' are fairly self-explanatory - think tandoori prawns, red fish curry, chicken in a cashew nut sauce, lamb and potato korma; 'Perfect Partners' are where you'll find all the side dishes and chutneys to accompany your chosen recipe, like mooli and pomegranate salad, roast potatoes with chilli and chaat masala, saffron-roast cauliflower; and, finally, 'Sweet Like Candy' contains the dessert offerings.
So, let's go through my checklist, in case you need any more convincing as to the merits of this book.
The photography is absolutely gorgeous. Truly stunning, with a rather dark and moody aspect that really highlights the exotic qualities of the food, allowing its amazing colours to stand out. The photos of myriad spices scattered over bold backdrops and beautiful crockery are some of my favourite, as is an image of pomegranates on the contents page. Whereas some recipe books post photos of the dish simply to provide a reference point, these images are works of art in themselves, vibrant still lifes that really bring the book alive and infuse you with a zest and passion for the heady spices that are boldly used in each recipe.
The pages are beautifully laid out, with a little description of each dish (I always think this is essential - my favourite part of reading a recipe book is learning about the provenance of each dish; how it relates to others in the country's cuisine, where it originated, how the author feels about it). The font is simple and undistracting, and the ingredients clearly listed. What I particularly like is the little note at the bottom of each recipe recommending a side dish or accompaniment, ranging from simple coconut rice to something more elaborate, like 'sambal with lemon grass', or 'kidney beans with dried lime', all of which can be found later in the book. It's sometimes so hard to know what to pair complex spiced food with, especially if you are a 'Western cook', but this takes all of that stress away, while inspiring you to cook not just one but maybe two or even three dishes from the book at the same time.
Also, the book easily stays open on each page. Towards the beginning and end you might need to gently weigh it down with something (my iPhone normally serves this purpose), but generally it's very easy to cook from. Points for that.
The dessert section is relatively quite small, and I have to say I'm not hugely drawn in by any of them, but that's mainly because quite a lot of milk and cream is involved - think white chocolate, cardamom and rose pannacotta, Vermicelli milk pudding with pistachios, mango creme brulée, and rice pudding with rose petal jam. They all sound lovely, exotic and sweet, but I'm not a big fan of dairy in desserts (apart from cheesecake). This is totally personal, though - I'm sure they taste fabulous if you're a fan of that sort of thing, and once again the photography is gorgeous.
Finally, the titles of the dishes and whether they appeal. You only have to read 'Five jewels dal', 'Persian chicken with saffron and cardamom', 'scallops with coconut and ginger', 'spice-crusted monkfish in tomato sauce', 'duck breasts with orange, ginger and cinnamon', 'lamb pasanda with green mangoes', 'beansprout salad with chargrilled asparagus and coconut', and 'gingered carrots with maple syrup' to understand why I couldn't wait to get cooking. The dishes are at once exotic and familiar, putting an Eastern spin on well-loved European classics, or giving us an authentic version of things we love already - tandoori prawns, chicken masala, beef tikka.
I dived in the day after I received my book, and made the 'sweet potato and goat's cheese samosas'. These use filo pastry and are baked not fried, which Reza seems proud of - it "both makes them healthier and somehow intensifies the flavour of the filling". The filling consists of chunks of cooked sweet potato, mixed with ground toasted cumin seeds (toasting them first gives a wonderful aromatic flavour, which you just don't get with ready-ground cumin), goat's cheese, spring onions, coriander, chilli, cinnamon and garlic. This is wrapped in little filo parcels, which are brushed with butter and scattered with cumin seeds before being baked.
They were a real surprise, one of those dishes where the end result is so much more than the sum of its parts. All the filling ingredients melded together to provide a beautiful soft, rich, deeply aromatic taste sensation, given freshness by the cheese and herbs. Reza recommends serving them with an 'Indo-Italian pesto', using watercress, rocket and coriander with chilli, parmesan, lemon and pine nuts. I didn't have time to make this, so served mine with a simple watercress and pomegranate salad, which was a lovely fresh match for the rich filling. These would be a great dinner party starter; the crunch of the flaky filo against the soft, flavoursome filling is so delicious, and they're great sharing food. I couldn't stop picking them up off the baking sheet and eating them. Allow them to cool a bit, though, and don't eat straight from the oven as I did, or you'll burn your mouth. That's how inviting they are.
I was particularly intrigued by the 'Braised and Fried Beef' recipe. Reza calls it "rich, dark and reminiscent of a Malaysian rendang". It involved an unusual method, in that the beef is braised in rich spiced liquor first before being drained and fried. I couldn't resist the gorgeous combination of spices: cloves, coriander seeds, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic, curry leaves, plus plenty of chilli - the recipe suggested three dried chillies for the spice mix, three fresh green chillies for the braising, then another two green ones for the frying.
I'm so glad I followed my gut feeling and used only one dried chilli and one fresh. If I had followed the original, I think I might be in A&E right now with third degree burns to my mouth. Instead, I was rewarded with a really gorgeous dish. The meat was meltingly tender, with a very deep, rich flavour from all the aromatics, particularly the curry leaves which give off a curious earthy fragrance. It combined wonderfully with the onion and red pepper during the second frying stage, though I wasn't quite sure about the method - Reza suggests frying it along with the remaining cooking liquid, which means that the meat doesn't fry properly as it's soaked in liquid. Instead, I added the liquid bit by bit and ended up with more of a saucy curry (oo-er) than a dry dish, but it was delicious nonetheless. I served it with the coconut rice from the book, which was subtle and a perfect partner to the rich dish, tempering its heat (it wasn't too spicy at all; it had a pleasant kick which enhanced all of the other flavours and I rather enjoyed).
I can think of only one improvement that could be made to this book, and that would be to have a nice glossary at the front or back explaining some of the more unusual ingredients, and giving advice on where to source them. Certain types of chilli, for example, or elusive beasts like asafoetida and fenugreek. They're not the easiest things to get hold of, but if you know what you're looking for and are given the name of a decent online stockist or a recommendation to seek out your local Asian grocer, you'll be on the right track. It's also quite nice to know about the provenance of each of these exotic ingredients, and how they are generally used in Eastern cuisine.
But that is honestly my only slight criticism. I absolutely adore this book. It's beautiful, inspiring, tantalising and truly one to be savoured and cooked from at every possible opportunity.
This month's Daring Cooks challenge was fairly close to my heart, as a couple of weeks ago I spent my weekend in the picturesque town of Chablis, immersing myself in the Burgundy wine and food culture. Although not all the typical dishes of this region are enduring classics that I am going to enjoy trying to make for years to come - the pig colon sausage, andouillette, being something that I hope I never get within a fifty mile radius of ever again - there is a reason why boeuf bourguignon is one of the classic recipes of the region: it's bloody good.
I did, in fact, sample an authentic boeuf bourguignon while in Chablis. The receptionist at our hotel had been cruel enough to cook the dish for himself that evening, meaning that the entire building was permeated with the mouthwatering aroma of braising beef and wine. How he could have been so selfish as to not share it with us, I really don't know. Unable to even consider eating anything else, we hurried off and found a restaurant offering the dish. We tucked into tender chunks of beef, falling apart under the pressure of a fork and bathed in a dark, flavoursome jus, rich with the aroma of salty bacon and the depth of red wine.
This month's challenge used a Julia Child recipe, and involved some interesting steps that I hadn't considered before. First, the rind was cut off the streaky bacon and the whole lot simmered together in water before being dried thoroughly and then fried. I'm not sure what this step was meant to achieve, but it was an interesting idea; perhaps to remove some of the salt from the bacon. Secondly, the meat was also dried thoroughly with kitchen towel before being browned over a high heat; I'd never thought of doing this, but of course it helps the meat to brown more and sizzle when it comes into contact with the hot pan. Thirdly, once the beef and veg had been mixed together and coated in flour, it went into the oven for a few minutes to develop a crust before the liquid was added. I'll certainly be using these techniques next time I make a stew, because the result was fantastic. Also, the garlic wasn't cooked along with the vegetables, as I normally do it; it was just added, raw and crushed, to the liquid before the stew went into the oven.
Browned cubes of beef, onion, carrot, bacon, flour. To this, you add a lot of red wine, some beef stock, crushed garlic, a bay leaf, thyme, and tomato puree. I did deviate from the recipe slightly, in that it tells you to add whole shallots and mushrooms sauteed in butter at the end of the cooking. I wanted the mushrooms (I used whole button mushrooms, as I love the texture) to add their rich flavour to the stew throughout the cooking process, so I added them at the beginning along with the carrot and onion. The shallots I added with about an hour to go in the oven, to give them time to soften and release their lovely juices but still keep their shape.
There's something so addictive about the surprising burst of a meltingly soft baby onion in the middle of a pool of deep, dark gravy. They add a welcome tang to the richness of the meat and bacon, and look like little pearly globes of deliciousness as they sit there, awaiting your fork. Similarly, the button mushrooms, which add an irresistible pop of texture.
I don't think I've ever made boeuf bourguignon before, and this has made me realise what I'm missing. I think it's my favourite ever stew recipe. The wine and stock thicken with the flour to make the most incredible thick, glossy sauce. It has such an amazing depth of flavour from the bacon and vegetables. The meat, after four hours in the oven, falls apart as you eat it. The shallots soften, becoming tender and delicious, a surprising change in texture as you bite into one alongside a piece of beef. The button mushrooms are meaty and delicious.
It really is the ultimate beef stew; the ideal winter comfort food, or spring comfort food on a rainy evening. I served mine with green beans and a large pillow of mashed potato into which I'd stirred a very generous amount of wholegrain mustard - it sets the richness of the beef off perfectly. Thank you, Fabi, for hosting this challenge and putting boeuf bourguignon into my permanent kitchen repertoire.
For the recipe used in this month's challenge, click here.
Sometimes you forget just how good certain things are.
After a few days of snow and ice, you forget how wonderful it is to be able to walk freely along the pavement without risking life and limb, until you get to a non-icy patch and feel that delicious sense of liberation. After months of habitually using showers as your primary method of self-cleansing, you forget quite how wonderful long, hot baths can be until you have one. Bubbles and all. After cooking your own and your family's dinner every day for weeks, months even, you forget quite how amazing it is to just be called down from your room and find dinner on the table. You forget how anything tastes good if it's been made by someone else. After always cycling everywhere in the bitter cold, you forget how good it can feel to just get into a taxi, relish the warmth, and worry about the expense another time.
That sensation of remembering long-forgotten luxuries in life is something to be cherished, I think.
Most of my moments like these relate to food. Every now and again I have a "Why don't I eat this more often?" moment. A moment of sheer, unadulterated gastronomic bliss, of total and complete satisfaction. Unfortunately, I can usually remind myself of the answer pretty quickly. It goes something along the lines of "Because if I ate this often, I would be the size of Asia".
I've had several of these moments recently. Tucking into a gorgeous, juicy, pink burger and chips from Honest Burgers in Brixton a couple of weeks ago (if you live near there - go. If you don't - go), I asked myself why I don't eat more burgers. Every time I devour a bowl of chips at a restaurant (the only time I ever eat them), I tell myself that I'd definitely be happier if I ate more chips. The same goes for things like cheese, biscuits (chocolate Hobnobs in particular), bread, and pastries. It's precisely because I don't usually allow myself such indulgent delights that they remain, for me, indulgent. Generally they lurk out of sight, off my culinary radar, safely out of the way of temptation. I carry on cooking relatively healthy things (though still delicious, mind you - I said relatively), blissfully ignorant of everything I'm missing.
But sometimes I am reminded just how wonderful certain foods and recipes can be. Of course, these are usually things on the slightly less healthy end of the spectrum. After a few mouthfuls, though, all my notions of moderation and restraint are lost to the winds and I am content to sit and revel in every bite, savouring something that is wonderful precisely because it is rare, that is familiar yet at the same time not; trying it again feels like an adventure and a new discovery.
Recently, one such experience involved a beef stew. I made the most incredible, sublime, utterly mouthwatering and amazing beef and ale stew for myself and my boyfriend the other week. It happened on a whim, perhaps the product of the rapidly declining temperatures outside, perhaps because for some reason we both kept talking about steak and ale pie (I imagine these two reasons are closely related). I braised juicy hunks of Aberdeen Angus beef with button mushrooms, baby carrots, red onions, shallots and celery in a mixture of beef stock and ale, throwing in a few thyme sprigs and serving the whole thing with leek and potato mash.
I didn't intend to blog about it, but I keep thinking about it weeks later. It would be morally wrong, I think, to deprive the world of what is without doubt the definitive beef stew recipe. So watch this space.
Anyway, I bring that up (perhaps unfairly - I can't really go on and on about such a stew and leave you hanging, awaiting the recipe...but I have, so sorry) because it reminded me of how great beef can be. Red meat in general is something I eat very little of, mainly because it's not cheap and because I find it quite heavy, but after eating that stew I wondered why there is not more beef in my life.
In this spirit of cow-homage, and because I was still in awe of that stew, I decided to try something I've been intrigued by for a while: oxtail.
Oxtail is, quite literally, the tail of the cow. It is sold sliced into chunky, meaty rounds, bone in the middle and thick veins of fat and gelatine spidering out towards its edges. Because of the nature of this cut, it demands very long and slow cooking, to tenderise all those fibres and render the fat out. However, if you have the patience (very little actual hands-on work is required), you'll be rewarded with one of the most flavoursome and tender cuts of beef, a perfect melting stew for winter evenings.
I braised my oxtail, according to a recipe from Diana Henry's 'Food From Plenty', a cookbook I love. It involves cooking the meat in a mixture of red wine, beef stock and orange juice infused with bay, cinnamon and juniper. Towards the end, peeled baby onions and prunes are added to the liquid to soften and contribute their luscious sweetness. I added ground ginger and star anise, because I wanted flavourings that would lift the intense meaty richness of the oxtail. This pot of bubbling gorgeousness sat in the oven for nearly four hours, and when I removed it the meat was falling apart and tender, and the sauce was rich, silky and unctuous, due to the gelatine from the meat.
The combination of flavours in this stew are fantastic - you get all that depth of flavour from the meat, red wine and stock, but the orange, anise and ginger give it a really intriguing aroma that sits well with the meaty strands of tail. It's not your average beef stew, but something far more exotic, reminiscent of a Moroccan tagine. I wasn't sure how the prunes would work, but I think they were the perfect partner to the beef - it's so rich that it really needs something sweet to take the edge off. The baby onions, which soften into little pearls of earthy flavour, also help with this. A scattering of parsley at the end to add a bit of oomph, a giant mound of creamy mashed potato (adding a little wholegrain mustard would be divine), and some steamed veg (I used carrots and Swiss chard) turn this into a hearty, wholesome dinner, perfect for the current cold snap.
You could also serve this with couscous, bulgar wheat, pearl barley or polenta - anything to soak up that delicious sauce. I reckon pearl barley or bulgar wheat would be fantastic, because their nutty crunchiness would counteract the sweetness of the meat.
Incidentally, if you're bothered about the fat content of oxtail (there is quite a lot, compared to normal braising steak), make the stew a day ahead and refrigerate it overnight. The fat will all congeal on the surface and you can just flake it off with a spoon. Also, leaving stews like this overnight is generally a great idea, as it intensifies their finished flavour and texture. A win all round, really.
If you haven't tried oxtail yet, I'd urge you to give it a go - it's incredibly easy to cook and immensely rewarding (don't be put off by the long-ish ingredients list below - you mostly just chuck stuff in a pan and let the oven get on with the rest). OK, so it is a bit more work to eat - you have to shred the meat away from the bone with your fork - but it's worth every bite. Most butchers should be able to order oxtail for you; they have even started selling it in Tesco. It's not as cheap as it perhaps should be, but I imagine this is because you only get one tail per cow, so they're not as plentiful as other cuts.
Saying that, it beats a fillet steak both on the price front and the flavour front.
Embrace the meaty tail, snuggle up with a gorgeous bowl of winter stew, and remember just how good beef can be.
Oxtail with prunes, orange and star anise (serves 4 generously):
(Adapted from 'Food From Plenty' by Diana Henry)
- 1.2kg oxtail, cut into lengths
- Plain flour
- Salt and pepper
- 1 onion, roughly chopped
- 2 celery sticks, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 300ml red wine
- 500ml beef (or chicken) stock
- 1 orange
- 3 bay leaves
- Half a cinnamon stick
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 10 juniper berries, crushed
- 1 large star anise
- 16 shallots or baby onions, peeled
- 20 prunes
- 2 tsp soft brown sugar (optional)
- 3 tbsp flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- Mashed potato or another chosen accompaniment, to serve
Preheat the oven to 150C/135C fan oven. Place around 4 tbsp flour in a large bowl and season generously. Toss the oxtail pieces in the flour to coat. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large ovenproof casserole and brown the oxtail over a high heat until coloured all over. Remove and set aside.
Lower the heat and fry the onion and celery until soft and golden. Add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes, then pour in the wine. Scrape up all the bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan (the best bits!)
Return the oxtail to the pan. Juice the orange and add all the juice to the pan along with half of the orange itself, cut into two pieces. Add the stock, bay, cinnamon, ginger, juniper and star anise. Season well. Cover with a lid and bring to the boil, then put in the oven and cook for around 3 hours until the meat is falling off the bone (leaving it in a little longer won't do it any harm - I cooked mine for 4 hours). Check every now and again to make sure the meat is still mostly submerged in the liquid - if not, top up with a little water.
After 1.5-2 hours, add the prunes and shallots to the pan, stir, and return to the oven for the remainder of the cooking time (if you add them sooner, they fall apart).
When ready to serve, check the sauce is the desired consistency - if it's too runny, remove the oxtail from the pan and reduce the sauce by boiling it. Try to fish out the bay leaves, anise, cinnamon stick and orange peel before serving. Check the seasoning and add the sugar if it needs it. Scatter over the parsley and serve the meat accompanied by the sauce.
However, having caught the beef 'bug' from the delicious goulash and a little bit of my boyfriend's roast at the pub the other day, I decided to give beef another go. Luckily, fate seemed to be on my side, as the butcher had an enormous piece of topside on offer. It was gigantic, over two feet long, weighing over three kilos, and a bit of a bargain. I struggled home with it and then had a think about recipes. Initially I had the idea of serving it very rare, thinly sliced, with truffle oil, parmesan and rocket, rather like the classic Italian beef tagliata. I was going to bake bread to accompany it, but eventually I couldn't be bothered and therefore the need arose for more carbohydrate. I was intent on using truffle oil somewhere in the dish, ever since I had an incredible starter of wild boar ham drizzled with the stuff in Italy in April. It goes very well with beef, I think - beef and mushrooms are a great combination, and truffle oil is just taking it one step (well, several steps) closer to gastronomic luxury; the earthiness of the truffles have a great affinity with the earthy, iron-rich flavour of good beef. Firmly set on an Italian interpretation, I decided to make some wet polenta infused with truffle oil, imagining that its richness and slightly grainy texture would match the tender meat perfectly.
I suppose the obvious thing to do with the topside would have been roast beef with all the usual trimmings, but we're nearing June now and the weather is (or was, at least) just too summery to start whipping up Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and thick, dark gravy. For that reason, I decided that some simple summer vegetables would be the perfect accompaniment; their flavour would bring freshness to the dish and their flavour wouldn't overpower the truffley aromas emanating from the polenta, or the richness of the beef. Tagliata and carpaccio usually pair very rare or even raw slices of beef (usually fillet) with a rocket salad; I decided to serve the meat with a peppery combination of rocket, watercress and spinach, to complement its deep flavours.
The only slight issue I had was with the cooking of the meat. I don't know what happened - I timed it perfectly to result in rare meat, and it came out closer to medium. I guess my oven just runs hotter than it should, because I left the beef in for really the shortest time possible. I love rare meat and wanted it still bloody in the middle, but instead it was just pink. I was assured it was delicious, but to this day I am still very grumpy about this mishap and intend to order a meat thermometer as soon as possible to avoid future incidents. I suppose generally people don't share my love of meat that is practically still breathing, so cooking it to this stage is probably more socially acceptable.
Roast beef, truffled polenta and summer vegetables (serves 10):
3 kg beef topside joint, ready for roasting
5 onions, peeled and sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with a knife blade
A few sprigs of thyme
Coarse sea salt and black pepper
3 tbsp flour
500g quick-cook polenta
Salt and black pepper
50g grated parmesan
Vegetables, to serve (I used asparagus, green beans, peas and carrots)
Rocket and watercress, to serve
Pre-heat the oven as hot as it will go.
First, prepare the beef. Sprinkle the onions into a large roasting tin, add the garlic and thyme, and season. Rub the olive oil, sea salt and pepper into the beef and place it on top of the onions. Pat the skin with the flour. Put the beef in the oven and roast for 15 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 170C and roast for half an hour per kilo - this should give you rare/medium-rare meat, but if you like it very rare try 20 minutes per kilo - you can always put it back in, and remember it continues to cook while resting.
When the time is up, remove the beef to a board and cover with foil and a tea towel. Leave to rest for 20-30 minutes before carving.
To make the polenta (do this just before serving), bring 2 litres of water to the boil. Add a little chicken stock cube for extra flavour, if you like. Gradually pour in the polenta, whisking constantly, until it thickens. Stir in a generous amount of seasoning, and the parmesan. Spoon big mounds of it onto the plates and drizzle generously with truffle oil. Top with several slices of beef, drizzle with more truffle oil, and spoon over some roasting juices and caramelised onions.
Serve with your choice of vegetables, dressed with a little garlic-infused olive oil, or butter and salt, and a pile of rocket and watercress salad.