19 January 2012

Free food Lamb Ragout

I'm living in employer-provided accommodation, and remembering how flaky and unreliable electric cooktops and ovens are!
The kind person who lived here before me left me a bunch of food on our contract changeover, including vac-packed gnocchi (which I had never cooked with before) and a frozen tray of leg lamb steaks.
Having recently eaten a modest/shared serve of very delicious ragout at a Tapas-style hipster caf on a short holiday, I had a hankering for more and was happy to use up the mysterious free food in the flat on my return as it was all too hard to go to the grocery shop.

Ragout is so yummy and restaurant-y, but I have worked out (see also Roo Ragoo) it is basically a case of:
brown the meat in olive oil in a hot pan (seasoned with flour/salt/pepper or not) & remove from pan;
add new oil and onion/garlic/herbs/spices to the pan, then vegies & re-add the meat;
then smother with a tin of tomatoes, tomato paste, stock (chicken, beef or vegie) & wine; bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for at least 2 but ideally 3 hours.
There is a flurry of activity at the start, but then you can just sit back, enjoy the soothing sounds & smells of simmering whilst watching TV/drinking/socialising etc...

I had the leg lamb steaks (mostly thawed), which I browned. I left them in the pan due to a minimalist accompaniment of half a large jar of kalamata olives (drained and rinsed) which I then added over the lamb. I seasoned with HEAPS of black cracked pepper, dried thyme, dried oregano, some wilted rosemary sprigs found in the back of the fridge, powdered garlic, powdered ginger and a sprinkle of chili flakes and salt. Then in went a tin of diced tomatoes, 2x 50g sachets of tomato paste and a 250mL box of pre-made chicken stock. I added a small dash of balsamic vinegar and a splash of worchestershire sauce (another freebie) to add some oomph. I sadly did not have any wine or onions, which made me nervous as these have always been a mainstay in the past (of my pantry and my ragout). It was all brought to the boil (the high setting on the stove is like HADES! bubbling cauldron of doom!), then down to a happy simmer, lid half on.

I watched telly, unpacked my suitcase, did a load of laundry, watched more telly, played on the internet, watched more telly... I think in total I had simmered it for almost two hours when I realised the whole steaks, maybe from being frozen prior, were not really flaking and falling apart as I had expected. I took the meat out of the pan and cut it into chunks then flaked/shredded with a fork and returned it to the liquid to continue. I think just before the three hour mark I got hungry, so I boiled up the gnocchi, which was quite a fun experience - add to boiling water then skim them off as they float to the top like a triumphant "ta da! I'm done!".

It was actually quite delicious, if not a tad light on vegetable matter. I pre-made serves in takeaway boxes of gnocchi plus ragout and I am pleased to say it lasts well and microwaves well too. My only problem was that that first night when it was fresh made I was hungry, it was yummy and I ate two HUGE serves, so didn't quite have enough left to last my next stretch of shifts. Not really a negative, a positive for taste I suppose. I'm very happy at being introduced to this instant gnocchi concept. I'll definitely try another version again!

11 January 2012

Making friends with ovens with chicken

It was the turn of the century (sounds classier than "entering the noughties"). I was watching TV and channel surfing ("you're worse than a man!" was one of my ex-boyfriend's exasperated cry once) as I do. My puny ADHD brain managed to pause just long enough on the lovely Stefano's Gondola on the Murray TV show (at least I think that's what it was) to see a lovely family picnic dish of moist, tomatoey chicken with crispy parmesan and oregano crust surrounding by a loving nest of potato wedges. That image has burned itself into the "comfort food" lobe of my brain, and I have made this dish (in many Impressionist brushstrokes incarnations) more times than I can count as a go-to for dinner parties, a nice treat for myself or comfort food in times of disquiet.

As I am currently living in employer-provided accommodation in the desert, and was a teensy bit unwell and homesick, here is the latest version to prove yes, you can make friends with ovens, no matter how basic and crochetty they may be, and even if you are cooking with disposable tinfoil trays for want of an actual roasting pan:

For comparison, here is an earlier study of the same work ("Chicken descending staircase with pyrex frame, real oven method #2" I like to call it):

"Enough painterly analogies!" I hear you cry. So here is the (or my version of a sort-of) recipe (idealised, open to intrepation, and I do):



Ideally 8 skinless chicken thighs (or 500g to a kilo of chicken, depending on shop tray sizes)

6 medium potatoes or equivalent

Tub or sachet of tomato paste
Similar amount of water
Similar amount of white wine
A squeeze of lemon juice
- or, a jar of pre-made tomatoey pasta sauce (as in picture #1)

Olive oil spray or neat
Dried oregano (or marjoram; or twice as much fresh, or a mixture of both)
Parmesan cheese (powdered is fine)
Cracked black pepper
A touch of salt

An optional handful of kalamata olives and/or halved cherry or grape tomatoes.


Use a generous sized roasting pan (or tinfoil BBQ tray).

Preheat oven to 180-200 degrees.

Cut potatoes into wedges, peeling optional. Microwave or parboil them before or after wedging until just cooked. Coat with a light sheen of olive oil, salt lightly, pepper heavily, generously apply oregano and parmesan. Arrange around the edge of the roasting pan.

Cut the chicken thighs in halves or if using other chicken parts cut into manageable and/or uniform sizes (I prefer thighs, then drumsticks, then wings, less so breast meat for this dish). Place pieces and drained olives in centre of roasting pan surrounded by potato fortress. Apply tomato paste + water + wine/instapastasauce and lemon juice, and mix until chicken is coated well. Some staining of nearby potatoes is encouraged. Over entire pan apply liberal amounts of cracked pepper, oregano and parmesan which will form crispy crust of deliciousness.

Place entire pan into oven. The dish will take roughly 45 minutes to 90 minutes to cook depending on how much you have put in the pan and how crap your (albeit rent free) oven is. Have tinfoil to cover the dish for the first 15-30 minutes of cooking then uncover to allow to crisp up the crust.

Serve with a salad of cos and avocado with lemon/olive oil/thyme dressing; or a roasted fennel salad depending on the season.

Best enjoyed with a big group of friends at a dinner party (chuck it all in the oven, then drink with your friends while the place fills up with the awesome aroma) or picnic (just carry the whole big dish to the rug or table) - who will ooh, aah then say nothing at all as they stuff their faces. Surprisingly, this dish is also good as a simple "keeps well" dish for sectioning off into take-away boxes for a week's worth of work food that you definitely won't get sick of!