Wednesday, December 24, 2008

La tavola Calabrese

It's that time of year.. and there's always something interesting on the Calabrese Christmas table.

From the numerous biscotti and amaretti that typically accompany most special occasions to the simplest of fresh and dried delights, the table, surrounded by friends and family, is never bare. For this and all our blessings, we are eternally thankful.

Hope you are spending this festive season in a similar fashion with your loved ones.

Buon Natale!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mince by any other name

Would it taste the same?

Mince as I know it (that I get from my butcher) is ground 'chuck'. Chuck steak is as tough as old boots if left in its roast form and, if you ask me, is good for precious little else other than mince. I take that back.. that is, unless you've got 5 years to cook it into a spicy stew or curry. Then, it's gloriously flavourful. Still, with it's natural fat level and inherent texture, it is undeniably the best cut for burgers.

I'm not sure whether it is a health conscious trend or clever marketing (or both) that have led to the use of other cuts that don't have as much flavour as the chuck roast. Round is another common cut that can is used or mince but lacks flavour and the structure can lead to very dry burgers. Fat is often added to round from other cuts/parts to provide that essential fat component. Same with sirloin, it is also commonly used for mince but I don't think that the flavour is improved so much as to warrant the celestial cost per kilo. Choose your beef wisely.

Besides topping toast, at a loss for what to do with versatile mince? How about adding a little spice?

A few months ago, I received some wonderful dried chiles from México. Of these, I use the earthy ancho chiles (ground into a powder) and rehydrated the chipotles in a sauce using vinegar and spices (adobo) for a bit of flavourful kick. You don't need to start this recipe the night before thanks to tinned beans and tinned chipotles now readily available. Don't worry about opening a small tin and only using a few. Once opened, tinned chipotles (with their high acid level), when moved to a plastic container, will last for a long time in the fridge. They are great to add to refried beans, as a marinade for steak filled tortilla or as a condiment for huevos rancheros.

Chilli is a great one pot meal to start on a weekend afternoon either for friends at home or to take along whenever you need a plate for a wintery work do (aka potluck). This recipe can use any mince, but preferably the aforementioned 'lesser' cut of beef with more flavour.

And what would chilli be without beans?? Our Italianised version uses the homegrown equivalent of borlotti beans but kidney beans or a mixture of red and black beans are also good.

The chiles and spices used here are quite fresh and very pungent. The mexican oregano is recently dried from this years harvest. The comino (cumin) and dried chile preparations likely have a bit more bite than their supermarket counterparts. If, using the amounts in the recipe, your chilli seems lacking, you could up the ante a bit with a little more of everything plus the optional cayenne or try mail order for some of these really unique flavours.

For veg, the basic onion, garlic and capsicum mixture make for a great flavour base. Roasted for that rustic smoky flavour is optimal. I've used some of the last of the years sweet sheperds but roasted capsicums (aka sweet bell peppers) are a perfect substitute.

Now, I suppose you could use beef or veg stock but, beer is my choice of liquid to deglaze the pan of any bits the adhere to the pot while browning the beef. Select a beer with some substance because, unlike beer can chicken, this will benefit from using a beer made with darker (but not chocolate) malts. Choose something in the amber colour department that isn't overly hopped. Save the well-hopped goodness to drink, you'll need something to complement the spice (as well as put out the fire).

Chilli for several people:

1 kg minced beef
1 large yellow onion
3-4 green and/or red capsicum (depending on size)
2 cloves of garlic (or more to preference)
1.5L stewed tomatoes
1L prepared beans (and liquid)
3 chipotle peppers and 1-2 Tbsp adobo sauce
2 1/2 tsp dried ancho chile powder
2 1/2 tsp cumin
2 tsp dried oregano
1 1/2 -2 tsp hot smoked paprika (or cayenne pepper) optional
salt and pepper
pinch cinnamon

To a few tablespoons of olive or grapeseed oil, add the chopped onion and garlic and saute until soft (1-2 minutes) and add the mince. Season with salt and pepper and brown the mince lightly then add chopped capsicums, chopped chipotles and spices except 1/2 tsp of oregano and cinnamon.

Add 150-175 mL (or a little more..) of beer to mince, scraping bottom of pot and add the beans and their cooking liquid. Mix and add tomatoes (do not drain).

Allow to simmer on low for a little over an hour. Add remaining spices with adobo and check for seasoning. Adjust salt, pepper and heat, if required.

Serve alongside some crusty bread rubbed with garlic, buttered and/or sprinkled with a favourite cheese. And to drink?

Beer, of course.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Cheeky beef

Meat pies are so often taken for granted. Always available in one form or another, the humble meat pie has many (plain to gourmet) variations. If somewhere in the south of the South Island is where you call home, you are very fortunate in the meat pie department as there are local Otago interpretations considered to be some of the best that New Zealand has on offer.

It is my personal opinion that 'Who are all the pies?' in Dunedin and 'the fridge' in Alexandra produce some prime specimens.

If you are lucky enough to live there, no doubt you've heard of these fine establishments, if not, I'd be keen to know where you find your favourite pie. When wandering at home or abroad, where to get a good pie is valuable information.

These days, however, unless I were partial to Marks & Sparks or Swansons' frozen specialities, I'm having to make my own. And for me, forget wagyu, THE best cut of beef for pie would have to be cheekmeat.

Cooked slowly and with a moist heat, beef cheekmeat yields some of the most succulent stew or meat pie filling you will ever taste. To locate this fine cut, you'll likely have to locate a butcher.

For a braising liquid, I am partial to a good stock and beer mixture along with all the aromatics: vegetables and herbs. Trim the cheeks of their external connective membranes. Place your knife at the edge of this silvery covering, guide the knife upward and it will separate fairly easily.

Dust the cheeks with seasoned flour and brown them on both sides in a little grapeseed oil. Place then in casserole or dutch oven with some herbs (thyme or a little oregano) and if you'd like to get some veg in, you can also add chunks of carrot, celery, onion wedges and some halved button mushrooms. Cover with braising liquid. Your choice of any favourie beer or wine added to a good stock is all you need.

Cheeks need a few hours to cook. You want the met to shred easily (not completely dissolve into nothing) so as soon as it is possible to pull it apart without too much effort, take it out of the oven to cool. Set the meat (and veg, if using) aside and strain the braising liquid, reducing it a little if necessary. You want it to be thick enough to hold the pie together, a nice amount of gravy but not reduced to glue.

Any favourite savoury pastry will do here. I like something flaky, with enough flavour to stand up to the filling but not too rich. Something in the shortcrust family (here are a few suggestions courtesy of BBC Food) works beautifully. Brushed with an eggwash, it will turn glossy and crisp. Some recipes use ready made pastry and suggest using a pre-baked shortcrust base with a puff pastry top.

And to drink: Many beers work well to accompany a meat pie. I usually prefer more of the beer that was put into the braising liquid, something on the darker end of things. I like Bookbinder because I find the hops really balance the richness of the pie and compliments the herbal notes in the gravy. And it's my favourite session ale. In the cooler months, one of the many Belgian inspired styles would be delicious. However, if you are the lucky one to be in the heat of the kitchen, you could justify a few pints of your favourite as well.


Friday, December 05, 2008


'Mangi, beva e lavi la tua faccia'.. is an old Sangiorgese saying and it's also what you do with watermelon.

You eat, drink and wash your face.

Anguria (or zipangulu in dialect) is a summery treat that is as good a reason as any to be envious of anyone travelling in Italy in the late summer. Having finished many a meal with watermelon, it's something that I now associate with our time there. For me, smells and flavours, in particular, conjure up distinct memories.

We'd gone to the market. Usually, I'm the one wandering off.. lured on by the call of a vendor or the glimpse of piles of fresh something or other. But on this day, someone else is missing. While I had certainly noticed the massive watermelons piled at one of the first stalls we passed, I didn't notice one being carried off by my (now absentee) shopping companion.

At an easy 12kg, this wasn't one to be missed. And it was melon perfection, seeds and all. Astonishingly sweet, it tasted of childhood summers at the beach. Forget all the tasteless, seedless specimens you've had in the past. Eat, drink and wash your face - go for the traditional.

I found this photo while perusing the pictures of our 04 trip to Italy and it reminded me of this issue Barbara was having with her local fruit and veg vendor. This was not a problem in the Cittanova weekday market where the lack of a posted price would be a cause of great grief to the vendor. The prices are clearly marked but they are, however, open to negotiation.

This zipangulu's for you Barbara.. We're both hoping that your wishes come true.