I don’t go out of my way to cut carbs. My background is Indonesian, and like most people of Asian heritage…the idea of a carb free diet seems absurd to me. I can’t think of a dish from my home town that you would serve without rice or noodles. When I go out to eat Asian food with my non-Asian girl friends and they skimp out on rice I die a little inside. And by a little I mean a lot. They sit there trying to eat pork belly or some kind of stir fry by itself and then drink 2 rice bowls worth of calories in wine, or eat some ridiculous cake or ice cream for dessert. #logic
That’s another thing I’ve noticed. Growing up in Indonesia, I didn’t live in a household where dessert was a common occurrence – perhaps only during big, gatherings and celebrations or religious holidays – and even when sweets did make a rare appearance, they would come in the form of jellies or steamed, semi sweet rice flour sponge cakes (told you there was rice in every dish), sticky rice pudding (I’m not even joking), or boiled fruits in syrup. Carbohydrates weren’t associated with evil because they never came in the form of dense, buttery brioche breads, or dairy rich and eggy cakes with lashings of sugary icing. I never feared carbs because carbs were associated with nourishment and a balanced meal – not gluttony and over indulgence (or diabetes for that matter).
Still, to avoid eating highly processed grains that are damaging to the environment and our health, I cook mainly brown rice and wholegrain pastas. Brown rice requires less energy to produce than white rice, which needs to be heavily processed to remove the germ and the husk, then polished using talc or glucose. White rice also gets stripped of nutrients and vitamins and then requires synthetic vitamins to be added back in. These are produced in laboratories and factories from a variety of chemicals, further making a negative impact on the environment.
When I try to cook Italian food, I must say it is inevitable that I end up giving it an unorthodox Indonesian twist. I can’t help it, I have a palette for rich, spicy and umami things. I think this habit works well with traditional Italian ingredients, as the base sauces are quite stable, and the proteins and grains used are quite similar. It won’t get a nod of approval from anyone’s nonna or nonno, but plates are sure left clean when I serve this spicy beef and mushroom ragu to friends and family. The ragu is thick and has a kick from the dried chillies, fresh chillies and tabasco. I like to serve it with spaghetti, gnocchi or polenta.
If you feel like you cannot handle your spices very well, you can omit the chilli and tabasco all together and this will still be delicious. For me and my family, this dish isn’t too spicy at all. I would rate it 4-5 chillies out of 10.
Happy feasting, and do mind your table manners.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 2 hours
Total Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Serves: 6 people
Difficulty: Medium (capable cooks only)
- 500g dried spaghetti pasta (or pasta of choice)
- 1.2kg beef brisket cut into large chunks
- 600g wild mushrooms (such as porcini, hen of the woods, chanterelle, or stemmed shiitake)
- 1 tablespoon fleur de sel
- 1/2 tablespoon sugar
- Black pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 6 dried bay leaves
- 1 diced tuscan pepper
- 1 tablespoon dried chilli flakes
- 1 teaspoon tabasco
- 800g crushed canned tomatoes
- 4 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 beef bouillon cubes
- 3 cups water
- 1 diced onion
- 1 cup diced carrots
- 1 cup diced celery
- 4 minced garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Handful of parsley or chopped basil
- Parmigianno Reggiano to taste
- Slice your large mushrooms thinly and halve or quarter your smaller mushrooms. Set aside.
- Whilst waiting for a heavy bottom pot to heat on the stove (I used a mini dutch oven), season your brisket chunks with salt and pepper.
- With a tablespoon of olive oil in the pot, fry the beef over high heat to brown all the sides, for about a minute each side. Set each chunk aside onto a clean plate.
- The Italians do something similar to a mirepoix called a soffritto, which is basically the caramelisation of vegetables fried in fat to create a flavour base for sauces or soups. For the soffritto, turn down the heat to medium heat and saute the garlic and onion in 2 tablespoons of olive oil. 2 minutes, or until onions become transparent.
- Add the carrots, tuscan pepper and celery and continue to cook the soffritto for 10 minutes.
- Add the water, stock cubes, crushed tomatoes, tabasco, tomato paste, chilli flakes, bay leaves, sugar, salt and pepper, and browned beef over the soffritto and cook over high heat to bring to a simmer. About 5 minutes.
- Turn the stove to low heat and cover the pot to cook for roughly 1 hour and 30 minutes. For some reason when I make this ( I think it might have something to do with the brand of crushed tomatoes I buy as I haven’t yet mastered creating my own), sometimes it takes a bit longer. You want to see the ingredients in the liquid emulsify when you lift the lid.
- Continue cooking with the lid removed to reduce the liquid for another 30 minutes (sometimes more, again, depending on your crushed tomatoes) until it becomes thick and dark – almost like a reddish gravy.
- At this stage, taste the sauce to adjust and add more salt, pepper or sugar to your taste.
- Using tongs or a fork, tear at the beef chunks to shred them and stir to coat with the thick braising liquid. If the meat is still tough at this point, leave to simmer for longer with the lid back on, until the beef falls apart when you pinch it with the tongs.
- Whilst the pasta is cooking, heat a separate (large) pan and fry 6 cups of the ragu over high heat. Add the mushrooms and let it simmer in the ragu for about 5 minutes.
- When the pasta is cooked, transfer into the frying pan and toss through the ragu, whilst spooning 4 – 6 tablespoons of the pasta water into the pan. Roughly 2 minutes.
- When pasta water is evaporated and pasta is thoroughly coated in ragu sauce, serve on warm plates with a generous sprinkling of parmigianno reggiano and parsley.
CANNING TOMATOES. This is something I’m yet to have the time to do and it’s on my list of home projects. If you have a nonna who makes her own crushed tomatoes, or if you have the time to do so using fresh, local ingredients – do so.
Various species of chilli can be grown along with your herbs even if you have a small garden or a balcony. They need moderate care but grow out of their pots fast, so best to move them to a bigger pot when you take the chilli plant home.
Basil is super easy to grow in the herb garden, and is an excellent herb to grow on your own as it is so versatile. Herbs tend to go bad quite quickly even when kept in the fridge, so to avoid wastage by buying bundles from the market or small packets from the super market that is sold in plastic packaging (think Coles, Woolworths etc), grow your own herbs!
I urge everyone to find their meat from local farms, to reduce emmisions produced from transportation of the goods. For my Victorian readers, this site gives you a good idea of where to find some good, locally sourced, ethical meat products: http://sustainabletable.org.au/Hungryforinfo/EthicalMeatSuppliers/Melbourne/tabid/136/Default.aspx