Annabel Langbein: Springboard to creativity (+ recipes)
When I was learning to cook, I would follow every recipe to the letter. If the formula for, say, a casserole, called for two stalks of celery and I did not have them at hand, then I would not make that dish. Ditto a teaspoon of cumin or a handful of parsley. Back then I didn't know that behind most recipes (except baking, where it's essential to be precise) is a process or technique that can be applied to a variety of ingredients to create a range of different dishes. I think of it as a road map that helps you get to your destination and lets you know the important things to look for along the way, but doesn't determine the kind of car you're driving.
If you're making a casserole, for example, once you know the general direction you're heading you can ad lib the ingredients to suit the season, your preferences and what you have available in the pantry. The things you're looking for are tenderness and flavour, so choose a tough, muscular meat cut as this has lots more flavour than a tender one and, as a bonus, it's also likely to be less expensive.
Brown it in a pan with oil or butter, or roast it in a hot oven to brown before slow-cooking - the caramelisation on the surface is known the Maillard reaction and produces a lot of flavour. Add aromatic vegetables such as onions, leeks, celery and carrots for flavour (remembering carrot is very sweet). Next, add liquid - wine, stock, a can of tomatoes, or even water - and any other flavours or ingredients you want and let it cook over a low heat until tender. The time it takes to cook will depend on the cut and its size. At 150C, most tough cuts will become tender in around three hours - you can lower the temperature and increase the time, but don't try to cook it at a high temperature as the meat will just dry out.
Spices, herbs and flavourings are the means to move your casserole around the globe. Use curry pastes and coconut cream, perhaps some chilli or aromatics such as kaffir lime, lemongrass or coriander and you take the dish into Southeast Asia. Use Moroccan spices and dried fruits and you're in tagine country, or add olives, lemon, garlic, oregano, rosemary and a little vinegar and you have all the makings of a classic Greek oven bake.
I like to call these versatile techniques "spring-boards" as they provide a grounding that you can bounce off and explore your own creativity. In my new book Essential I've provided a bunch of them, covering everything from how to make tender stews, to no-stir risottos, one-pot pasta meals, stir-fries, noodle bowls, flash-roasted fish, the perfect steak, vegetable soups, and so on. My aim is to inspire confidence and help you build the skills that will enable you to use the ingredients you have at hand and develop your own cooking style, rather than being a slave to a recipe.
The following are three springboard recipes that you can take in different directions.
Once you've mastered this beef pho you can use much the same technique to make the chicken tom yum and miso salmon and noodle bowl that are also in my book Essential. You can use whatever type of noodle you like, but remember to cook the noodles separately and not in the soup broth. Get the recipe
This bowl meal has Middle Eastern flavours, but you can follow the same technique using ingredients and flavourings from other parts of the world. The essence of a good bowl meal is to start with the dressing in the base and then mix through your cooked grains so they soak up the flavours.
Layer in other ingredients with the most fragile on top, along with anything crisp and crunchy. These kind of meals can also be layered into a jar as a portable lunch. Get the recipe
Flash-roasted fish is my go-to meal on a busy weeknight - it's just so fast. As I walk in the door the rice goes on to cook, the oven goes on to preheat and the veges are prepped.
The flash-roasting principle stays the same whether you're using salmon and miso, gamefish steaks and pesto, or white fish fillets with a crunchy crumb - roast in a superhot oven just until the fish has a little give when pressed in the thickest part (8-10 minutes), rest for a minute or two and presto, dinner is served! Get the recipe
Essential Annabel Langbein (Annabel Langbein Media, $65) is a beautiful compendium of Annabel’s best-ever savoury recipes and cooking tips — on sale at Paper Plus, Whitcoulls, The Warehouse and all good bookstores or visit annabel-langbein.com