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Spaghetti Bolognese

Introduction:

Hovering over a cauldron of hot meat, somewhere in a poky flat in London, two students of chemistry fervently debate what they honestly believe to be the finer points of an Italian classic. No, no, one must dissolve the stock cube in 40 degree water before-hand…ah but my learned friend, one can just simply sprinkle it straight in to the meat, and considering the energy coefficient of solubility it will be fine. We beg to differ, but surely anyone worth their salt would cook the meat first and then add onions. Oh my fellow collegiate, it is all but obvious that one cooks the onions first and then adds the meat. But why Balsamic? I mean why are you throwing a carboxylic acid in to a meat sauce, you’re mad…..Ahh yes but this acid will be offset by the coefficient of not really knowing what we are doing.

Through all of this intense, and what we thought was intellectual, debate not once was the true understanding of what we were doing discussed. In particular thinking about flavour, texture and the science of what really happens.

I remember a two day residential course during my A-level years (16-18 year old) at a university in the North of England and being bedazzled by the professor of organic chemistry who could synthesise the most incredible molecules from basic reagents. But this is not the reason why the experience has stuck with my all these years later. It was the sheer brilliance of the man when it came to making coffee. And it was brilliance because it was so bad. A lumpy (undissolved powdered milk), weak and tepid mess that was more Damien Hirst than Delia Smith.

Luckily for me, I managed to overcome the handicap of being a chemist to be able to cook with a degree of flair and efficiency, I hope. Years on from that meat cauldron I  have been able to understand more about what happens when cooking – and do now consider flavour- and feel confident enough now to share with you my latest, and proudest, version of the Italian classic, spaghetti Bolognese.

Fortunately I discovered two things: the first is the wonderful mirepoix, and the second is that I can cook the meat and onions at the same time, in different pans. Now try telling that to a professor of chemistry. Enjoy.

 

Serves: 8   |   Preparation:  30 minutes  |   Cooking: 2 ½ hours

 

Ingredients:

1 kg Pork and veal mince | Of course lean beef can be used, but I love this combination.
2 Pork sausages | If you can, purvey good English style pork sausage from a good butcher – or the equivalent weight in sausage meat.
5 tbsp. Olive oil |  
100ml Red wine | Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz – not too expensive though unless you are going to drink the rest.
1 tbsp. Balsamic vinegar | A good aged one works well. There is something about the balsamic that seems to ‘lift’ the flavour of the sauce.
2 Carrots | Finely diced.
1 Brown onion | Finely diced.
2 Celery sticks | Finely diced.
1 Baby fennel | Finely chopped – this is optional but does add a super subtle aniseed note.
1 Leek | Finely chopped – white part only.
2 pinches Sea salt |
250ml Vegetable stock | Chicken or beef can be used. See here for chicken or beef stock.
2 tsp. Tomato purée |
2 x 440g cans Diced tomatoes | This can be made with fresh tomatoes, but quality tinned tomatoes are just as good.
To season Salt and black Pepper |
Your call Spaghetti | Dried or fresh. If I have time I will make fresh, otherwise dried is perfect.
A glug Olive oil | Used to loosen the spaghetti when cooked.

 

 

How To:

Pre-heat your oven to 150 deg. C (300 deg. F).

In a large heavy based frying pan over medium to high heat add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. When hot add the mince and work with a wooden spoon to break it down as it cooks. Cook until brown.

In the meantime add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to a large casserole dish or heavy based pan that can be put in the oven, and put over a low heat on the hob. When the oil is hot add the carrots, onion, celery, leek, fennel and 2 pinches of sea salt. Mix well so the vegetables are coated with oil and sweat the vegetables for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Do not allow the vegetables to brown (caramelise).

Back to the mince: once browned add the sausage meat. If using sausages squeeze tiny balls of meat from the skin and add to the mince. Once it’s all added, stir and cook on a medium heat for about 10 minutes. The mince will start sticking which is good, as this will add lots of flavour to the Bolognese.

Once the vegetables are soft and translucent add the tomato purée and stir. Once the meat has cooked add it to the vegetables and put the frying pan on high heat. Add the red wine and balsamic, and scrape the stuck on bits from the pan’s surface. Once the wine and balsamic have been reduced by half, add to the vegetables and meat, ensuring that the loosened sticky bits go in as well.

To the meat and vegetables add the stock and tinned tomatoes, stir and bring to the boil. Cover with a tight fitting lid and put in the oven for about 1hr 45 minutes. After an hour check the sauce. If it is looking a bit dry add a little hot stock or water to moisten.

Meanwhile for the spaghetti, cook according to the instructions on the packet. Once cooked, drain and reserve about a tablespoon of the cooking water. Put the spaghetti back in the pan, add the reserved cooking water and a glug of olive oil, stir and the cover the pan. This should keep your spaghetti fresh for 10 minutes or so.

Remove the Bolognese from the oven, season according to taste with sea salt and black pepper, and serve on the spaghetti. Buon appetito.

Portarlington Mussels in Garlicky Tomato Sauce

Introduction:

This recipe post was going to be based on an amazing and stupendous array of fish from Port Philip Bay in Melbourne. You see, everything was set…two dads with a couple of days off from their respective family, glorious late Autumn weather, a ‘hot’ fishing spot on Portarlington pier, an esky (that’s a mammoth Australian beer cooler) full of ice, Tiger beer and a cracking golden ale called ‘Minimum Chips’, fishing licenses up to date, 2 rods each with up to the minute line, tackle, squidgees and jigs, and the will and confidence of two fine fisherman. Everything went according to plan apart from, well…the fish. They were there, but just not interested in whatever a Dutchman and Englishman could throw their way.

An elderly couple next to us, whose level of conversation extended to a smile and a nod, decided to show us how to fish (and show us up at the same time). They were pulling out salmon, trevally, barracuda, marlin, Bluefin tuna, blue whale, ready-made meals for two…you name it they were catching it. I do think that they were a little more focussed than us because we were more interested in consuming ale and yapping with the passers-by: a Yorkshireman who claimed to be Aussie after being in Australia for 40 years but still called me ‘arkid’; a Vietnam veteran and his wife from Brisbane who were about to embark on world travels, some local geezer with 4 missing front teeth that created a kind of vortex when he spoke (kept talking about artificial reefs, balloons and Christmas trees for some reason), families, old codgers, dogs, cats and whoever would converse with us – any language accepted.

It was a great weekend, and although we were given one salmon by another fisherman who had ‘caught too much’ (rub it in why don’t you), caught two Banjo sharks (not as courageous a feat as it sounds) and a squid we thought that we better take something a bit more substantial back to Melbourne with us. And being in Portarlington there was only one thing; mussels. Portarlington is genuinely famous for its mussels, supplying many restaurants in Melbourne and far and wide. They have a wonderful taste, are a good size, and have a magical juicy plumpness to them.

This recipe is based on a simple garlicky tomato sauce which really works terrifically well with the mussels. Although simple I have worked on this version for a while. For example, it’s the subtlety of seasoning the sauce with the salty mussel liquor that really lifts this dish to another level.

 

Serves: 4   |   Preparation: 2 hours   |   Cooking: 50 minutes

 

Ingredients:

2 kg with shells Mussels | Any mussels will do, but as the title suggests I use Portarlington mussels here in Australia. Just make sure they are fresh.
4 cloves Garlic | Finely chopped – 3 for the tomato sauce and 1 for steaming the mussels.
1 medium Red onion | Finely chopped.
3 tbsp.  Olive oil |
250 ml White wine | I use a Chardonnay. Not too expensive as it really is a waste to cook with great wine!
2 tsp. Tomato puree | Look for 100% tomato with no added salt.
400g tin Diced/ chopped tomatoes | Tinned tomatoes are great for sauces like this.
Enough for 4 Spaghetti or Fettuccini | Dried is perfect.
1 tbsp.  Olive oil |
To taste  Black pepper |
25g Butter |
Couple of sprigs Coriander | For garnish – the flavour also complements the dish.

 

 

How To:

Firstly, prepare the mussels by soaking them in about 5 litres of cold water for an hour. Once the hour is up remove the beards (straggling bits that protrude from the shell) and check for any mussels that are open. Some mussels will close with a sharp tap, so only discard the ones that will not close. Soak again for about another half an hour. This soaking reduces the saltiness and enhances the culinary experience.

To prepare the tomato sauce, heat the olive oil in a heavy based pan (if you have one) on a low heat and then add the garlic, onion and sea salt. Stir and then let them ‘sweeten’ for about 6 or 7 minutes until soft and translucent. There should be no browning of the onion because this is not the taste we are aiming for. Now turn up the heat to medium-high and add 150ml of the white wine. Let this gurgle and bubble and reduce until it is syrupy. Add the tomato puree, stir and cook for about 30 seconds. Now add the tinned tomatoes, stir and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat immediately to low, cover the pan with a lid and gently simmer the sauce for 25 minutes. Once the time is up you can take it off the heat and leave until ready to use.

Put 3 litres of water in a pan, add a pinch of salt and put on a high heat. When boiling add the pasta, ensuring that you agitate it for the first 30 seconds so as to prevent the strands ‘sticking’ together. Cook as per the packet instructions, drain (reserve a tbsp. of cooking water), put back in the pan, and add 1tbsp of olive oil, the reserved cooking water and the back pepper. Stir and replace the lid. Leave aside until ready.

Now for the mussels: to a large pan/ stock pot add 10g of the butter and put the pan on a medium heat. Add the remaining garlic when the butter has melted and is bubbling and then add 100 ml of white wine. Add a tbsp. of water and then add the mussels. Cover the pan and cook the mussels on medium heat for about 5 to 7 minutes until the mussels have opened. When cooked, drain the mussels through a colander and reserve the liquid. Now filter the reserved liquid (liquor) through a fine sieve. Pick the mussels from their shells and add to the tomato sauce. Reserve 12 (or whatever you heart desires) of the mussels in their shells for decorative purposes. Now gently heat the tomato sauce which now has those plump mussels in it. When simmering, add the rest of the butter (15g) and a tablespoon at a time add the reserved mussel liquor and stir. The liquor is the seasoning, so taste after every addition. When elated, serve the pasta, tomato sauce and mussels in their shells. Garnish with fresh coriander.

Notes:

  • Assuming you have bought fresh mussels and have been diligent enough at the start to throw away any open mussels, then there is no need to discard any mussels after cooking. There is widespread advice to discard closed ones, which doesn’t make sense as if they were ‘off’ or ‘dead’ they would be open before cooking and you would have therefore already discarded them. As long as you have cooked them long enough there should be no problem. I just prise the closed mussels open and have had no issues.

Brilliant Basil Pesto

Introduction:

It’s a beautiful late autumn day here in Melbourne, and whilst basking in the afternoon sun the waft of basil perfumed air drifts by, and I am taken to the rolling hills of Tuscany. This, however, is only my imagination as firstly I am in Melbourne and secondly I have never been to Tuscany. But the basil aroma is so evocative that momentarily the dreamland became my reality.

As I return to the reality of my front garden, the gentle warm sun is illuminating the aforementioned basil, and I ponder on just how wonderful an experience it is to be able to grow, pick and then cook with things that I have grown; just like the natives of Tuscany.  For example, the tomato season is coming to an end but for the last three months there has been a steady stream of sweet and ripened Roma tomatoes from my two tomato plants. I also have sorrel (and citrusy salad leaf), jalapeno chillies, Jerusalem artichokes, strawberries, bay leaves, sage, Vietnamese mint, rosemary, mint and of course basil.

I am looking forward to the winter months as this means the growing of ‘green’ vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, green beans and maybe peas. I will also try potatoes once the artichokes are all finished. Whatever is grown though, there is something immensely pleasurable in nurturing seeds or seedlings and seeing them grow in to produce. It is not only a mark of our human ability to grow our own food but it is food that is also packed with the fresh flavours that seem to be lacking in produce that has been transported and been sitting on store shelves for a few days or more.

So, back to the basil; the thought of Tuscany has created a desire for pasta and pesto. A truly match made in heaven combination which is delectable not only for its flavour and texture but its simplicity. Here is my recipe for pesto; I use an imported Pecorino instead of Parmesan as I feel it is less overpowering and imparts a smooth bite to the pesto. Of course the basil is just about to be picked from the Tuscan hills…garden.

 

Serves: Makes about 250g  |   Preparation:  20 minutes   |   Cooking: No cooking required

Ingredients:

1 clove Garlic | Peeled.
Pinch Sea salt |
30g Basil leaves | Pick, wash and dry the leaves.
60g Pine nuts | You can toast them to add intensity, but I use them untoasted.
55g Italian Pecorino | Finely grated. I state Italian as Pecorino is made locally here in Australia and it is just NOT the same.
95ml Olive oil | Extra virgin olive oil is great.

 

 

How To:

This can be made in a food processor, but I like to use the more traditional method of a mortar and pestle. The crushing and grinding seems to draw out more of the basil and pine nut oils than by cutting (as it would in a food processor).

In to a mortar and pestle add the garlic and sea salt. Crush and grind until a garlic paste is formed. The addition of salt to the garlic causes the garlic to break down aiding in making it a paste like consistency.

Now add the basil leaves and bash until a green paste has formed. The basil does break down wonderfully, and the desire to go and dive in to the Tuscan hills takes hold as the aroma dissipates through the kitchen.

Now add the pine nuts, and continue to bash until paste like. Add the Pecorino and again some bashing and grinding until a thick dry paste has formed.

Now for the transformation in to pesto; a tablespoon at a time add the olive oil whilst stirring and grinding with the pestle. Adjust the oil to get your desired consistency. I like a nice ‘wet’ pesto if it is to be used in pasta. You may want something a little less oily if to be used as a spread on water crackers, for example. And hey p(r)esto, it’s finished.

Notes:

  • A fantastic way to use this pesto is to cook Spaghetti (#4) and then add the pesto, some chopped semi-dried tomatoes and some wok fried diced chicken thigh fillets.

Squid Ink Fettuccine

Introduction:

I remember seeing black pasta for the first time and being enchanted with the look of it. I was particularly taken with the contrast of the black against the pink hue of king prawns, the deep red of red pepper (capsicum) and the green of freshly hand-picked green beans. As I learnt how to make my own pasta, I also learnt about squid ink, the colouring used to blacken pasta, and how it also provided a very subtle ocean saltiness to the pasta.

If I’m feeling fruity I will buy a whole squid, clean it and extract the ink from the ink sac. Otherwise I buy pre-packaged squid or cuttlefish ink, which is equally as good.

 

Serves: 4   |   Preparation:  40 minutes   |   Cooking: 90 minutes standing time

 

Ingredients:

3 large  Eggs | Organic free range eggs are by far the best.
300g  00 plain flour | oo is a much finer flour than standard plain  flour and is a ideal for pasta.
8g  Squid ink | Alternatively, I use 2x4g sachets of nero di sepia, cuttlefish ink.
A pinch  Sea salt  |
About 1 tbsp.   Olive oil  |
For dusting  Flour | Plain flour can be used.

 

 

How To:

There are two methods that I use. The first is by using a mechanical device such as a food processor or food mixer with a dough hook (like a KitchenAid) where you can add all the ingredients and let the machine do the work. Here I will describe the more traditional method. The advantage with this method is twofold. Firstly I find that manually making the pasta works the dough a little less which leads to a more delicate pasta. Secondly, I find making pasta by hand very therapeutic and it just feels like real cooking.

On a clean bench make a mound with the 00 flour and within the mound make a well. In the well add the eggs and squid ink and a pinch of sea salt. Now with a fork carefully whisk the eggs and squid ink until well mixed, without incorporating any flour. Once mixed start flicking the flour into the egg mix and ‘cut’ the mix with a palette knife. Keep introducing the flour and ‘cutting’ it in to the egg mix until you have a large breadcrumb type consistency.

Now get your hands in there and bring it all together. Pour over the olive oil and then start working the dough gently until you have a smooth and shiny dough ball. Wrap the dough in cling film and put in a fridge to rest for about 30 minutes.

For the next part I use a pasta roller, which is where I break away from the tradition of manually rolling the pasta with a rolling pin. Cut the dough ball into quarters. Take the first quarter and on a floured surface flatten it with the palm of your hands until you have a rectangle. Roll the pasta through your pasta roller on the widest setting. Once rolled, fold the rectangle 1/3 third in from the left and 1/3 in from the right. Turn 90 degrees and roll it again on the widest setting. Repeat this process. Now, ensuring the pasta is well dusted with flour start rolling it through the pasta roller.

Start with the widest setting and then work towards the narrowest setting. I like a thick fettuccine, so out of the 6 settings that my pasta roller has, with 6 being the narrowest, I roll the pasta to setting 5. Once rolled, dust the pasta with flour again and then cut using the fettuccine cutter on your pasta maker. Of course you can cut it and roll it to whatever shape and thickness you want.

Leave the pasta to rest at room temperature for an hour or so, and then it’s ready to cook.


Notes:

  • If your pasta dough ball is still a little dry after kneading you can add a little more olive oil (but not too much) to moisten
  • You can leave out the ink for regular pasta.