Saturday, October 25, 2008


Vinegrowers' Braised Oxtail

Spring weather is notoriously unpredictable. The sun might have now inched its way closer to the southern hemisphere, but polar blasts are still bone-chillingly felt. It is in the first four weeks of spring that one continues to serve the soul-warming food of winter with touches of brightness. I love the bounty of produce that is available in between seasons. With great appreciation for challening identities and blurring borders, cooking at the threshold of a new season is exciting - it makes for interesting choices and shows the promise of the forth-coming season. Before crossing the threshold into the new season, one is also given the opportunity to cook the dishes one wanted to before it's too late...

And this is what brings me to today's post. Typically prepared at the beginning of autumn, when vinegrowers pick the most fragrant grape varietals, braised oxtail with grapes is a salt-of-the-earth dish that can be offered at any time there are decent seedless grapes available. The grapes make this a luxurious offering on the tongue, lapping up the fat rendered from braising the oxtail (the fat that could not be trimmed away for whatever reason).

An oxtail generally provides 7 joints - some larger than others. Oxtail joints are cheap and largely available from good butchers, who generally sell oxtails already jointed. Oxtail joints require slow, gentle cooking (as do many secondary grade cuts of meat) to release their best qualities. This makes for stress-free cooking, highlighted by the fact that this particular dish is best if made one day in advance.

The following dish serves 2-3.

Vinegrowers' Braised Oxtail

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 leek, chopped into 1cm/0.5" half-moon slices and thoroughly washed
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 carrots, chopped into 1cm/0.5" rounds
6 joints of oxtail
2-3 cloves
1 clove garlic, peeled and left whole
1/2 cup brandy
2 cups beef stock
bouquet garni (aromatic herbs: parsley, thyme, bay leaf tied together)
450g/1lb seedless grapes (you can remove all from the woody stems, leave them in clusters, or prepare a combination of the two, as I have)

1) Preheat oven to 140 C/285 F.
2) In a dutch oven, heat olive oil over low heat and add the leek, shallot and carrots. Fry gently until softened but not coloured, approximately 5 minutes.
3) Raise heat and brown joints of oxtail until they are bronze all over.
4) Add cloves and garlic. Heat through for one minute.
5) Add brandy and cook out the alcohol.
6) Add beef stock and salt and pepper. Stir.
7) Add bouquet garni and grapes, then cover tightly with greaseproof/baking paper.
8) Put on the lid of the dutch oven and place dish in the oven.
9) Cook for two hours, stirring at the one hour mark.
10) Allow to cool, then place in the fridge over night.
11) Next day: Remove the fat that has solidified on top and heat the braised oxtail dish through over a medium-low heat. Check for seasoning before serving.

Even though the colour is largely drained from the red grapes, creating a blushed effect, the flavours are big, uncomplicated and deeply-satisfying. Restrain from loading the plate up with too many grapes or each mouthful will be too sweet. As you can see, I have spiked the oxtail joints with gremolata, a herb condiment of parlsey, garlic and lemon zest, to lift the autumnal and wintry depths of the dish into springtime. Traditionally, potatoes boiled in their skins or a potato purée accompany this dish. I would heighten a purée with a touch of horseradish, further attaching Vinegrowers' Braised Oxtail to the new season.

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Friday, October 10, 2008


That Cookbook Thing II - Poulet au Porto

When I first read through the recipe sequence for That Cookbook Thing II, I had not thought of making the highlighted chicken dish, Poulet au Porto (chicken in port), the centrepiece of a casual dinner with great friends. I had imagined it as an easy Sunday dinner for one, not only because I have no great affection for fungi but also because I derive a lot of satisfaction from making roast chicken. Yet I am also a man of occasional drama. Knowing of the delight that the intellectually-ferocious and generous Anita and quick-witted and cool Craig would get from a bit of flambée action, it was clear that the otherwise simple recipe of roast chicken and mushrooms would lend a touch of the unexpected to a dynamic evening.

Of course, it also helps that it is expressly stated in Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking that Poulet au Porto is the perfect dish to make in the company of close friends. After all, the chicken can roast whilst host and guests imbibe the first of the evening's glasses of wine along with home-made pâté and charklis pkhali. After the first drinks have warmed the back of the throat and lightened the load in one's head, it is easier to rope friends into participating in the kitchen. Speaking of drinks, booze features rather prominently in this menu, for the home-made pâté (an on-going receipe development, becoming more nuanced with each attempt) is rich with brandy, the mushrooms for the poulet au porto are reduced with both brandy and port, the poulet itself is set alight after a splash of brandy, and the evening's dessert, Prune Tart, is made with brandy-sozzled prunes d'Agen.

Perhaps the aid of wine-happy friends is not what Ms. Child had in mind when suggesting that Poulet au Porto be made for the company of friends, but one cannot be too sure given how many cocktails housewives and cookie-cutter husbands knocked back in their square homes in the `60s (all in the name of sophistication, of course). And maybe it was the drink speaking, but the chapter on Poultry is quite hilarious, easily one of the most evocative of the period at the time the cookery book was originally released (1961). I don't know anyone with a trussing needle nor do I know anyone who "averts" his or her face when engaging in flambée - in fact, it would be a dangerous decision not to keep an eye on the development of the flames. The notion of stitching up a chicken or avoiding a flame in so prissy a manner comes to a head in these rushed, contemporary times when kitchen string does the trick (faster) and purposefully-created flames over food whoosh and wheeze before one has had time to think about looking the other way.

The French, in any period, are particularly revered for their poultry dishes. Whether the chicken be stewed in red wine, poached in an aromatic liquor, or bronzed to Biarritz perfection, the common chicken gets a real make-over when prepared á la française. Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's Poulet au Porto also got a make-over by democratic decision-making.

Poulet au Porto
(Adapted from Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking)

The essential components of Poulet au Porto are: 1) roast chicken; 2) mushroom sauce.

By now you probably know me as someone who greatly respects tried and true methods by cooks and chefs, but even I have a preferred method for roasting chicken. I have no patience nor derive any enjoyment from spreading butter over the skin or between the skin and flesh of a chicken. I personally think it best if you roast a chicken in the way that pleases you most; otherwise, see Mike's version of Julia Child's method at Mel's Diner.

For the roast chicken:

1 whole chicken, to serve four people (or three greedy ones, like us)
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
fleur de sel
black pepper, freshly-ground
to fill the cavity: a citrus fruit of your choice (usually one orange or lemon, halved; if the fruit is small, use more and slice in half), and a bunch of fresh herbs. (I generally throw in a few whole cloves of garlic, but the quick-witted and cool Craig is allergic to members of the allium family.)

1) Pre-heat oven to 200C/400F.
2) Coat the chicken in the olive oil.
3) Sprinkle the chicken all over and inside the cavity with fleur de sel (or kosher salt) and pepper.
4) Fill the cavity with the citrus, herbs and garlic, if using.
5) Close the legs of the chicken with kitchen string and tuck the wings tips under the "neck" of the chicken to prevent early burning during the roasting period.
6) Put chicken in the oven, breast side up.
7) Baste every twenty minutes, turning the roasting tray every time until the chicken is done, approximately 80 minutes.
8) There are a couple of tests to do to ensure that the chicken is done. To my mind, the fastest method is to cut the inner thigh close to the bone. If the liquid runs clear yellow, the chicken is done. If it is rosy, then you need to roast the chicken longer. Check every 5 minutes.
9) Remove chicken from the oven and cover with aluminium foil for 10-15 minutes.

While the chicken is resting, prepare the mushrooms and sauce. The ferociously-intelligent and generous Anita, quick-witted and cool Craig and I dispensed with the notion of "boiling" the mushrooms by using but a couple of tablespoons of water to create steam.

For the mushrooms and sauce:

300g/10.5oz mushrooms (we used innocuous button mushrooms), trimmed and sliced thinly
1/4 tablespoon butter
spritz of lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (heavy) cream
1/4 tablespoon cornstarch
salt, pepper, if necessary
1/5 cup port

1) Toss mushrooms, butter, lemon juice (a quick squeeze) and salt in a saucepan. Cover. Shake saucepan every now and then until mushrooms have softened, about 5 mintues.
2) Slicken with heavy cream.
3) Add cornstarch to one tablespoon of water and stir until combined.
4) Stir cornstarch into mushrooms. Check for seasoning - add salt and pepper, if required.
5) Stir in port. Leave uncovered until liquid has reduced somewhat and strongest notes of alcohol have evaporated.

To assemble the Poulet au Porto:

Roasted chicken, as above, jointed or carved into slices
Mushrooms in port, as above
1/2 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup brandy

1) Smear a casserole dish with butter.
2) Arrange chicken pieces in casserole dish and dust lightly with salt.
3) Put casserole dish over a moderate heat.
4) When the butter begins to bubble and the chicken begins to sizzle, pour cognac over the chicken and set cognac alight.
5) Gently shake casserole dish until flames have abated.
6) Pour in the mushrooms in port, coating the chicken.

Perfect with an earthy red wine or an aromatic white wine alike, this silken dish is the essence of comfort cooking. The dish's lack of pretense is relaxing; therefore, it is conducive to good discussion around the table, underscoring Julia Child's recommendation of preparing it in the company of very good friends. We simply paired the poulet au porto with wilted down spinach, sautéed in olive oil and lightly seasoned. It is a perfect side dish to a modest main. Julia Child suggests potatoes sautéed in butter or a simple risotto as vegetable suggestions that do not interfere with the deep flavours of the Poulet au Porto.

After a cheese platter of gouda, English stilton, camembert, membrillo and cherry tomatoes, we yearned for a sweet note on which to end our fabulous evening. Sticking with the "cooking with booze" theme of the evening, I turned to a tart that I had not had since I lived in France more than ten years ago: Prune and Armagnac Tart. I reached for brandy instead, but it is practically the same as armagnac if one bears in mind that armagnac has vintages - good for remembering the best years - whereas more common brandy can be of varying quality. Use your preferred booze. (Stephanie Alexander recommends against telling the French of the south-west that cognac and armagnac are the same thing.)

The following recipe suits a 26cm/10.5" fluted tart pan, and the tart pastry is slightly boozy, too!

Prune and Brandy Tart
(from Prune and Armagnac Tart in Stephanie Alexander's Cooking and Travelling in South-West France)

For the pastry:

1 1/4 cups flour, sifted
tiny pinch of kosher salt
113g/4oz unsalted butter, diced
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon orange blossom water
1/2 teaspoon brandy

1) In a medium-sized bowl, mix flour and salt together.
2) With the tips of your fingers, rub the butter into the flour until sand-like granules are formed. This is your dry mixture.
3) In a separate bowl, gently whisk together egg, orange blossom water and brandy. This is your liquid mixture.
4) Stir the liquid mixture into the dry mixture until a ball is formed. You might not need all of the liquid for this.
5) Knead lightly and quickly with the goal of encouraging cohesion. Lightly flatten out to a disc, wrap dough in cling-film and refrigerate for thirty minutes.

For the tart:

1 tart recipe, as above
1 egg white, lightly beaten
20-24 prunes d'Agen, steeped in brandy (reserve the brandy)
4 eggs
100g/3oz ground almonds
125ml/4.5oz (whipping) cream
1 tablespoon brandy
60g/2oz unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1) Pre-heat oven to 200C/400F.
2) Lightly dust your pastry surface (marble stone, cool benchtop, cold wooden board), rolling pin and hands with flour, then gently roll out the pastry, always from the centre. Turn the pastry clockwise after every couple of passes of the rolling pin to ensure that it does not stick to your surface (throw some flour underneath every now and then for extra security).
3) Loosely roll pastry around rolling pin, and roll dough out over a prepared (with butter and flour) tart pan. Gently ease the pastry into the pan, then use the rolling pin to cut across the edges of the pan to remove the excess pastry.
4) Prick holes in the base of the tart with the tines of a fork and blind bake for 15 minutes. To "blind bake": line pastry with foil, cover with beans and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the foil and beans, brush pastry base with egg whites, then bake for a further 5 minutes).
5) Reset oven to 180C/375F.
6) Position the boozy prunes in the tart pan.
7) Mix the eggs, ground almonds, cream and melted butter in a small bowl, then gently pour over the prunes, trying not to disturb their layout.
8) Bake until the custard is firm, about 25 minutes.
9) Before the tart is completely cool, brush it with some of the reserved brandy.

Prune and Brandy Tart is simple as far as ingredients and method go, but the depth of the sweet yet spicy prunes combined with nutty, buttery almonds is a beguiling experience. So enchanting was the first slice (or so boozed were we) that we had seconds. This is the perfect tart for almost any occasion, as it is elegant, flavourful, and can be served at room temperature. A perfect ending to a perfect meal.

Please review the other bloggers' posts on Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's Poulet au Porto - Mike at Mel's Diner, Ruth at Once Upon A Feast, and Sara at i like to cook.

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