Friday, 11 July 2014

A discovery: how to cook beef topside & fillet in a wonderful Wonderbag

It's taken several months of experimentation to write this blogpost, because I wanted to test the method over and again so it works perfectly for you every time. In a nutshell: you can use the Wonderbag, a brilliant energy-saving South African innovation, to produce tender beef topside (and fillet) that's uniformly pink within, dark and caramelised on the outside, and filled with flavoursome juiciness.

 How to cook perfect rare & juicy beef topside in a Wonderbag. The 18th-century
silver mustard pot in this pic was a gift from my husband on our 25th anniversary.

Wine recommendation from Michael OliverHe says: "Zonnebloem Cabernet 2012."
Go to the end of the page for more detail about this wine pairing.

There are several photographs in this blogpost showing my various recipe trials. I hope this post will encourage you to buy or donate a Wonderbag (which you can do here, or at YuppieChef. If you're not in South Africa, click here).  

My hard-working Wonderbag.
If you're a chef in a busy restaurant kitchen, I'd like to suggest that you supplant some of your sous-vide baths with a few of these versatile gadgets.

Let me go back a little. I've owned a Wonderbag since 2009.  It's a bit raggy and saggy and stained after so many years at the coalface, but I still use it several times a week for making slow-cooked family dishes and my foolproof Greek yoghurt

It's also brilliant for holding delicate sauces - such as hollandaise and béarnaise - at a constant gentle temperature for many hours.

I take it along to the supermarket when I'm buying ice cream on hot days, and to the local pizza place when I'm collecting take-outs.

My interest in the Wonderbag was rekindled  a few months ago when I met the ebullient Italian chef Luigi Carola, Global Lead Innovation Chef for Unilever, and best known in South Africa as a star of Knorr's cooking adverts*.

Edge-to-edge pinkness, a lovely caramelised crust, and very tender meat

I don't know how Luigi and I got on to the subject of the Wonderbag, but once we did, over a few glasses of wine, there was much high-fiving.  He told me he'd been experimenting with cooking a variety of dishes in his Wonderbag, and that he was so enthused by this cooking method that he'd written a cookbook on the subject.

What interested me most was his claim that the best fillet steak he'd ever eaten came out of a Wonderbag. Also, said Luigi, many other slow-cooked dishes can be incubated with great success using this method. He told me about Italian relatives who create gorgeous stews, pack them in a Wonderbag, then drive for many hours across Europe to deliver piping-hot meals to homesick children in other countries.

Here's how a Wonderbag works: it has extraordinary insulating properties that prevent heat from escaping from a very hot pot. If you closely follow the steps I've detailed below, the bag will 'hold' your food at a notch below boiling point for several hours.

After that, the temperature inside the bag (and pot) will drop in grudging increments over many long hours. I can't give you exact temperatures using my cheffy temperature probe, because a big no-no of cooking in a Wonderbag is opening it up, but my experience is that when I open my bag after 3 hours, the lid and handles of the pot are still too hot to touch with bare hands.

I've cut off the top of this piece of beef topside to show you what
you can expect when you when you cook it in a Wonderbag.
This slow, even cooking is what makes this technique so effective.

So I set about experimenting with beef roasts.

I adore topside, because my mum has always had a knack of roasting this temperamental cut to rosy-pink perfection.  Perfect fillet steak was my next challenge.

The biggest benefit of cooking beef this way is that you cannot over-cook it.  I can't emphasise enough this huge advantage of using a Wonderbag - you can leave topside or fillet in the bag for two or three hours, or longer, and when you open it up it will be beautifully warm, brown on the outside, and an edge-to-edge blushing pink on the inside.

It will also be well rested, tender and juicy.

There are two more reasons I love this technique.  One, it's so convenient: pop your roast in the Wonderbag and go forth to enjoy your Sunday morning.  Two, it's a huge energy saver. Sure, you'll use up a bit of power as you do the initial browning of the meat, but after that you can tuck the meat in its bag and let its residual heat do the rest of the work.

A whole fillet steak beautifully tender and rosy after two hours in my Wonderbag. 

How to cook topside & fillet in a Wonderbag - two recipes

1. Topside in a Wonderbag

1 x 1.8 kg mature good-quality topside, at room temperature
2 Tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
milled black pepper
a pinch of flaky sea salt
a small sprig of fresh rosemary
1 cup (250 ml) red or white wine
1 cup (250 ml) water or stock
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled and lightly squashed
milled black pepper
a pinch of flaky sea salt

Select a piece of well-matured beef topside. 

Trim any big blobs of fat from your topside. Heat 30 ml oil in a large pot that has a tight-fitting lid, and which will fit neatly into your Wonderbag. Pat the meat dry with kitchen paper and season to taste with salt and pepper. When the oil is very hot - almost on the point of smoking - add the topside and brown it well on all sides, starting with the fattiest side.  This should take about 8 minutes in total.  Turn the topside over with a pair of tongs once each side is beautifully browned and caramelised.


Brown your topside well before you add the liquid. In this experiment
I added finely chopped onions, garlic and crisp bacon bits. Other times,
I've added sliced mushrooms and a pinch of chilli flakes.

Halfway through the browning process, add the rosemary sprig.

Now remove the meat from the pot and set aside on a plate. Drain any excess fat from the pan, then put it back on the heat and deglaze with a cup of wine, scraping and stirring to dislodge any golden residue. Bubble over a furiously high heat for 2 minutes, then add the squashed garlic cloves and water (or stock).

Return the topside to pan, fatty side up, and cover with a tight-fitting lid.  The liquid in the pot should come to about 2 centimetres up the sides of the meat.

Turn down the heat to medium and cook at a fairly brisk bubble for 12 minutes.  If you have a topside smaller than the 1.8kg I've specified in the ingredient list, cook it for 8-10 minutes (you'll have to use your instinct here). Don't take the lid off the pot to check the meat, or the temperature inside will drop.

After 12 minutes, the lid of the pot will be too hot for you to touch with your bare fingers, and you will see little puffs of steam escaping around the rim.

Without opening the pot, place it in the Wonderbag, cover quickly with the cushion, then tightly draw up the strings.  Set aside, undisturbed, for at least 3 hours, or until you're ready to serve it.

If, when you open the bag, you find the beef is too rare - and I've only had this happen once, when I couldn't contain my excitement - you can reheat the pot over a brisk heat until you once again see billows of steam (see above) then place it back in the Wonderbag for another 30 - 60 minutes.

Take the meat out of its pot and set it on a board to cool for a few minutes. Carve into slices and serve immediately.  Or let it cool, then refrigerate and carve it the next day.

If you'd like to make a gravy, strain the pan juices through a fine sieve into a clean saucepan, pressing down with the back of a spoon to extract the the garlic & rosemary flavours.  Boil briskly to reduce to a rich glaze, or thicken with a little flour slaked in water.

2. Fillet Steak in a Wonderbag

1 large whole fillet steak (about 1.5 kg)
a large sprig fresh thyme
2 Tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
3/4 cup (180 ml) red or white wine
3/4 cup (180 ml) water or stock
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled and lightly squashed
milled black pepper
a pinch of flaky sea salt

Two hours before cooking, take the fillet out of the fridge so it can come up to room temperature. Using a sharp knife, trim away any visible fat, then cut away the 'silver skin' (membrane) on the outside of the meat.

Double the thin end over and tie it to the main fillet with kitchen string. Don't worry if one end is much thicker than the other (the thick end will cater for those who like their fillet rare, and the thin, doubled-over end will do for those who like brown beef).

Brown the meat all over as described above - this must take no longer than 5 minutes, in a blistering hot pan. If there is no smoke in your kitchen, your pan is not hot enough!

Halfway through the browning process, add the thyme sprig.  Set the fillet aside on a plate and deglaze the pan with the wine, as detailed above.

Now follow the same steps: cook the wine over a high heat for 2 minutes, then add the squashed garlic cloves and water (or stock). Return the fillet to pan and cover with a tight-fitting lid.  The liquid in the pot should come to about 1½ centimetres up the sides of the fillet.

Turn down the heat to medium and cook for 6 minutes. Don't take the lid off the pot to check the meat, or the temperature inside will drop.

After 6 minutes, the lid of the pot will be too hot for you to touch with your bare fingers, and you will see little puffs of steam escaping around the rim.

Without opening the pot, place it in the Wonderbag, cover quickly with the cushion, then tightly draw up the strings.  Set aside, undisturbed, for at least 2 hours, or longer (see my notes above).

Let the fillet cool on a plate, then slice and serve.

Wine pairing by Michael Olivier

Zonnebloem Cabernet 2012

It looks like: A brilliant gem-like deep ruby with an enchanting purple garnet at the edges.  This will change to a more brick red as the wine matures.

It smells like: Blackcurrants, hedgerow berries, spice and cedar from the oak and a whiff of dark chocolate.

It tastes like: Classical Cabernet red and black berries and cassis.  Soft tannins. Fabulous long aftertaste. A truly underrated wine.


* Note:  I have a professional association with Knorr South Africa.


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Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Spring Onion & Celery Soup with Smoked Trout

With its beautiful pale colour and subtle flavours, this soup is good on its own, but delightful topped with flakes of lightly smoked Franschhoek trout. Added cold, the trout half-poaches in the soup’s residual heat, contributing an intriguing smoky note. Straining this soup is laborious but well worth the effort to achieve a fine, smooth result.

My Spring Onion & Celery Soup with Smoked Trout. I snapped this while my book's photographer
Michael Le Grange was setting up the shot. Recipe courtesy of  Random House Struik.

Wine recommendation from Michael OliverHe says: "I really think you need a medium cream sherry
 with this soup. Douglas Green Medium Cream Traditional Flor No 2 - perfect for chilly weather."
Go to the end of the page for more detail about this pairing.


This is one of my favourite soup recipes, and it comes from my 2012 book Scrumptious Food For Family and Friends

Spring Onion & Celery Soup with Smoked Trout 

30 slim spring onions (about 3 bunches)
6 x 20-cm stalks young celery, taken from the heart of the bunch
4 Tbsp (60 ml/60 g) butter
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1.75 litres vegetable or chicken stock
1 cup (250 ml) milk
3 medium potatoes, peeled and finely sliced
2 tsp (10 ml) cornflour
200 ml fresh cream, plus a little extra
salt
a pinch of white pepper, to taste
10 slices lightly smoked Franschhoek trout, or smoked salmon
olive oil
small sprigs of fresh dill

Trim the roots and dark green tops of the spring onions (you’ll use only the white and pale green parts) and slice. Trim and slice the celery stalks.

Chop the pale green leaves and set them to one side. Melt the butter in a soup pot, add the spring onions, sliced celery stalks and garlic and cover them with a circle of baking paper, or the wrapper from a block of butter. Cook over a low heat for 12–15 minutes, or until very soft. Remove the paper, add the stock, milk, potatoes and reserved celery leaves and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 25 minutes, skimming off any foam as it rises.

Blend the soup to a smooth purée and strain it through a fine sieve into the rinsed-out pot. Mix the cornflour and 2 Tbsp (30 ml) of the cream to a smooth paste and add this to the soup, stirring constantly as it comes to the boil. Simmer for 3 minutes, then stir in the remaining cream. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

Cut the smoked trout into pieces no bigger than the bowl of a soup spoon. Ladle the hot soup into bowls, swirl with a little olive oil and a drizzle of cream, and top each one with tiny sprigs of dill and a few pieces of trout. Serve immediately.

Serves 8.

Cook’s Notes: Make this up to 24 hours ahead, then heat and add the salmon and dill at the last moment. This is a thinnish soup, but it should not be watery. Add a little more cornflour paste if the consistency seems too thin.

Wine pairing by Michael Olivier

Douglas Green Medium Cream Traditional Flor No 2. Flor is the yeast under which the wine lives in the criadera [nursery] before going into the Solera for maturation.

It looks like: Elegant packaging, even rich gold straw colour.

It smells like: Layers of nuts, spice and baked biscuits.

It tastes like: Discreetly medium sweet.  Nutty with brown spices.  Rich raisiny grapes.  Full mouthfeel, long aftertaste.  Do serve it slightly chilled in a normal wine glass;  you will enjoy it so much more that way.


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Thursday, 3 July 2014

Low-Carb Chicken Breasts in a Butter, Basil & Tomato Cream Sauce

This delicate dish, with its tiny sequins of butter, is quick to make, but it does involve some faffery in the tomato-peeling department. It's worth the effort, though - the dabs of fresh tomato and basil shreds add freshness to the sauce, which is scandalously creamy and buttery, containing as it does those two luscious ingredients so allowed on a low-carb #LCHF or #Banting diet.  This is a dish of utmost simplicity, and I hope you enjoy it.

Low-Carb Chicken Breasts in a Butter, Basil & Tomato Cream Sauce

Wine recommendation from Michael Oliver: Môreson Dr Reason Why Unwooded
Chardonnay 2013 - Franschhoek. Go to the end of the page for more detail about this pairing.

The first time I made this, I found the sauce lacked depth, as is the case with any dish made in a hurry. The next time I tried it, I added a little concentrated chicken stock, which made all the difference.  It's frowned upon in foodster circles to use shop stock, but I have no patience with this attitude.  I don't have time, when I'm making my family's evening meal, to fiddle around making stock, or thawing and reducing the many tubs of home-made stock ossifying in my freezer.  Two important points: one, use a good quality concentrated stock; two, these can be quite salty, so don't season the sauce until you've tasted it.

Please follow my instructions to the letter in this recipe so your chicken breasts are beautifully tender, without a hint of rubberiness.

As this sauce is subtle, I suggest you serve it with meek-tasting veggies, such as courgettes or baby green beans.  Don't pair it with the ubiquitous caulirice or cauliflower mash, which will overpower the understated tomato and basil flavours. If you're not on a low-carb regime, I'd recommend serving this with creamy mashed potatoes.

If you'd like to add a little smokiness to this dish, crisp up some finely chopped bacon in a hot pan before you fry the chicken breasts.  Set aside, then stir the bits in when you add the cream.

The pulp and seeds of tomato are packed with umami, so don't throw these away when you prepare the tomatoes - again, see my instructions below.

This sauce contains no starchy agents, relying for thickening on fast reduction.  So it's suitable for diabetics, low-carbers and everyone else reducing carbohydrates in their diets.


Low-Carb Chicken Breasts in a Butter, Basil & Tomato Cream Sauce

8 free-range, deboned, skinless chicken breasts
salt and milled black pepper
5 large red juicy tomatoes
boiling water, for skinning the tomatoes
3 Tbsp (45 ml) salted butter
2 Tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
1 small clove garlic, peeled and finely crushed or grated
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) good quality concentrated chicken stock, such as a Nomu Fond or Knorr Chicken Stock Pot
1 cup (250 ml) cream
10 big fresh basil leaves
a squeeze of fresh lemon juice

Trim any globules of fat from the chicken breasts, place on a board and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Put the tomatoes into a big bowl and cover them with boiling water. Set aside for 3-4 minutes, or until you see their skins begin to wrinkle and split.

Very gently cook the chicken breasts on one side only in their buttery
 bath. I have turned over two breasts in this picture to show you how
 they should look when they're ready to be taken out of the pan.
In the meantime, heat the butter and olive oil over a high heat in a large shallow pan big enough to fit all the chicken breasts in a single layer.

When the butter stops foaming, add the breasts, smooth side down, turn down the heat to medium-low and gently fry them in their buttery bath for 3-4 minutes, or until their undersides are a light golden colour, but the breasts are still completely raw on top.  Don't allow them to brown or burn - if the butter is anywhere near darkening, turn the heat right down.  When they look as if they've cooked halfway through, remove from the pan and pile them onto a plate. Set aside.

Pull the wrinkly skin off the tomatoes and discard. Carve out the dots on the stalk ends and slice each one in half.  Place a bowl on your countertop and, holding each tomato half above the bowl, remove the seeds and pulp, letting these drop into the bowl. It's easiest to do this with your fingers.

Slice the outer parts of the tomatoes into a fine dice, and place these little pieces in a sieve set over the bowl containing the tomato pulp. Drain for a few minutes, then set aside in a bowl (you'll add these bits to the sauce at the end).

Gently reheat the oil/butter mixture in the pan and add the crushed garlic. Cook over a low heat for 30-60 seconds, without letting the garlic brown.  Now hold your sieve over the pot, and into it tip the contents of the bowl containing the tomato pulp and juices.  Press down hard with the back of a soup ladle - or your fist - to extract every bit of juice.  Discard the remaining pulp.

Add the concentrated chicken stock and bring the butter/tomato juice mixture to a brisk simmer. Cook for 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat and let it cool for a minute.  Now stir in the cream, a splash at a time.  It's important to do this slowly - and off the heat - to prevent your sauce from curdling.

Simmer the browned chicken breasts in the creamy
sauce very gently, until just cooked through.
Return the pan to the heat and bubble over a medium heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring often. The sauce will soon thicken slightly, with the bubbles in the centre getting bigger and lazier. Return the chicken pieces to the pan, uncooked side down, along with the golden juices that have collected beneath them.

Simmer, uncovered, for about 4 minutes, or until the chicken pieces are just cooked through, but still very tender and succulent.

While the chicken is cooking, cut the basil leaves into fine shreds.  It's easiest to do this by stacking four or five leaves together, rolling them up into a tight 'cigar', then slicing them very finely crossways.

When the chicken is done, stir in the reserved diced tomato flesh and the shredded basil.

Add a spritz of lemon juice - just enough to give the sauce a slight pleasant acidity - and stir. Serve immediately with steamed veggies.

Serves 8, as a main course along with vegetables. 

Wine pairing by Michael Olivier

Môreson Dr Reason Why Unwooded Chardonnay 2013 - Franschhoek

It looks like: Beautiful gem-like citrine in colour in the glass.

It smells like: Tropical fruit, windfall citrus.

It tastes like: Crisp and fresh like a Granny Smith Apple.  Creamy desiccated pineapple, fresh sliced pear and the texture of ripe winter melon.  A wash of lime on the long aftertaste.


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Saturday, 21 June 2014

I'm teaming up with wine guru Michael Olivier for excellent recipe + wine pairings

I'm excited to tell you that my friend Michael Olivier will be collaborating with me on this blog from now on. Michael has agreed to provide expert wine recommendations for all my future recipes, and I'm ridiculously pleased to team up with him.

Revered Cape food & wine fundi Michael Olivier. Follow him on Twitter: @manmetdiepan
Anyone who knows Michael will agree that his huge kind heart is just one among his many endearing qualities. I first met him some four years ago, when he congratulated me on a speech I gave about seminal food writers at the 2012 South African Food Blogger's Conference. I was an unknown food blogger, and he was one of the Cape's best-loved elders in the food and wine community. I appreciated this because at the time - and not much has changed since then, I'm afraid - food bloggers were regarded by many in the mainstream food media as talentless upstarts.

We formed an instant connection and were soon firm friends. Over the ensuing years, Michael became a treasured mentor. He encouraged and supported me with boundless enthusiasm, as he's done for so many newcomers to the Cape food world - budding chefs, young wine-makers, beginner food bloggers, and so on.  Michael's rare generosity in sharing his expertise, with no expectation of anything in return, reminds me of that quote 'A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle'.   He's also very funny, very clever, practical, implacable and stuffed with knowledge, which sums up what I want in a friend.

Last year Michael won the Lannice Snyman Lifetime Achievement Award from Eat Out, affirming his position as le grand fromage (The Big Cheese) of South African food & wine.

I know very little about wine - apart from being an expert in drinking it - and have not much interest in this area, so I hope Michael's inspired recommendations will teach me (and you) about a whole new world of flavour.

I must mention (with an exasperated sigh) that no money, favours or freebies are exchanging hands in this collaboration - it's only about a love of wine, food, and each other.

The first two recipes updated with Michael's wine pairings:

My Low-Carb Double-Cauliflower Cheese

Beef Shin, Tomato & Olive Stew


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