Stracci with braised lamb ragu.
Stracci with braised lamb ragu.

Weeknight navy bean and ham soup

Serves 8

The butter helps caramelise the ham and sage here, giving off a mouthwatering aroma and making the soup a pleasure to cook from the start. Because the pressure cooker will soften the beans in less than half the usual time and there's no need to presoak the beans, you can enjoy this soup any night of the week.

Weeknight navy bean and ham soup.
Weeknight navy bean and ham soup. Photo: Supplied

30g unsalted butter
250g 1½ cm-thick sliced cooked smoked ham (such as Black Forest), torn into 1½ cm pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
2 large carrots, diced
2 large celery stalks, diced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1½ tbsp chopped fresh sage
500g dried navy beans or other small white beans, picked over, rinsed, and drained
5 cups water
4 cups salt-reduced chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

In an eight-litre pressure cooker, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the ham and saute for about three minutes, or until golden brown. Add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic, bay leaf and sage and saute for about  one minute, or until fragrant. Add the beans, water and stock.

Lock the pressure cooker lid in place and bring to high pressure over high heat, about 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low to stabilise the pressure and cook for 40 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow the pressure to subside on its own, about 20 minutes.

Good Food, Good Life by Curtis Stone.
Good Food, Good Life by Curtis Stone.

Unlock the pressure cooker and remove the lid, tilting it away from you to allow the steam to escape. The beans will be very tender. For a thicker consistency, coarsely mash the bean mixture. Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper.

Ladle the soup into bowls, drizzle with olive oil, and serve.

Variation: If you don't have a pressure cooker, this can be cooked in a heavy pot in the traditional manner. Soak the beans in water for at least 12 hours. Drain the beans. In a large heavy pot, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the ham and saute for about three minutes, or until golden brown. Add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic, bay leaf and sage and saute for about one minute, or until fragrant. Add the soaked beans, water and stock. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer the beans for about 1½ hours, or until the beans are very tender. Continue as directed.

Popcorn with bacon and parmesan.
Popcorn with bacon and parmesan. Photo: Supplied

Make-ahead:  The soup can be made up to three days ahead, cooled, covered, and refrigerated. Reheat, covered, over medium heat, adding more stock if necessary.

Stracci with braised lamb ragu

Serves 4

Stracci with braised lamb ragu.
Stracci with braised lamb ragu. Photo: Supplied

There are three things that elevate this family-style pasta dish from good to incredible: the silky, falling-off-the-bone tomato-braised lamb cooked in a pressure cooker; the rustic stracci pasta (stracci means "rags" in Italian, and it refers to the shape of the pasta - here I just use lasagne sheets that have been broken into pieces); and the zesty gremolata. Gremolata is an Italian chopped herb condiment and this version is sparked with a chilli bite. A very satisfying dish served as is or paired with a side of seasonal vegies, a green salad and a plummy dry red wine. I always make extra ragu to enjoy during the week.

For the ragu:

2 large lamb shanks (about 1kg total)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
½ onion, sliced
3 garlic cloves, smashed
1 long red chilli, finely chopped
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
1 cup water
15 Sicilian or other brined green olives, pitted and quartered

For the chilli gremolata:

1½ tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 long red chilli, finely chopped
300g lasagne sheets, broken into 5cm pieces
3 tsp unsalted butter
1½ tbsp freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper. Heat a large pressure cooker over high heat. Add two teaspoons of the oil and then the lamb and cook, turning occasionally for about eight minutes, or until browned on all sides. Remove the lamb from the pot and discard the fat.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add the remaining oil, the sliced onion, garlic and chilli to the pot and cook, stirring often, for about eight minutes, or until the onion is tender and beginning to caramelise. Add 1½ cups of the crushed tomatoes and the water and return the lamb to the pot.

Lock the pressure cooker lid in place and bring to high pressure over high heat, about 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to low to stabilise the pressure and cook the lamb for 50 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow the pressure to subside on its own, about 20 minutes.

Unlock the pressure cooker and remove the lid, tilting it away from you to allow the steam to escape. Spoon any scum and oil from the top of the braising liquid. Set aside until the lamb is cool enough to handle, then pull the meat from the bones; discard the bones and cartilage and set the meat aside.

Add the remaining ½ cup crushed tomatoes to the pressure cooker, bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and boil for about  five minutes, or until the sauce is reduced by one-third. Add the lamb meat to the sauce and stir in the olives. Remove the pot from the heat and season the ragu  to taste with salt and pepper. Cover to keep hot while the pasta cooks.

 To make the gremolata, in a small bowl, mix the parsley, lemon zest, and chopped chilli. Set aside.

To cook the pasta, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, for about eight minutes, or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain the pasta, reserving about ½ cup of the cooking water.

Return the ragu to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat. Gently stir the pasta into the ragu and cook for about a minute, adding the reserved pasta water to moisten the mixture as needed. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the butter and parmesan cheese.

Divide the pasta among four bowls. Sprinkle the gremolata and a little more parmesan cheese over the top and serve immediately.

Variation:  If you don't have a pressure cooker, use a heavy medium casserole pot instead for steps 1 and 2. For step 3, cover the casserole pot and place it in a 150C oven. Cook for about 2 ½ hours, turning the lamb over halfway through cooking and spooning off any scum and oil from the top of the braising liquid. Set aside until the lamb is cool enough to handle, then pull the meat from the bone, and discard the bones and cartilage. Continue as directed in steps 5 through 9.

Make-ahead:  The ragu can be made up to three days ahead, cooled, covered, and refrigerated. Reheat the ragu in a pot, covered, over medium-low heat, adding some water, as needed, to reach the desired consistency.

Popcorn with bacon and parmesan

Serves 6

I made this for the first time when my mate, the big man Carlos, came over to watch a game. I'd fried up some bacon that morning and when I looked over at the leftover fat, I thought, "Hmm,  I wonder if that could work with popcorn." It more than worked: Carlos went mad for it. He was scooping it out of the bowl, talking with his mouth full, saying, "Man, this is freaking amazing! We've got to package this." But, of course, the beauty of this snack is its freshness and the warm melted cheese. He's right ... this popcorn is off the charts.

6 slices bacon (about 180g),  finely chopped
1½ tbsp canola oil
½ cup organic popcorn kernels
1¼ tsp sea salt
45g piece parmesan cheese

Heat a large heavy frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook, stirring as the fat renders, for about five minutes, or until the bacon is crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a plate lined with paper towels. Pour the bacon fat into a small bowl, leaving the brown solids behind. Reserve the bacon fat.

Heat a large heavy pot over medium-high heat until hot. Add the oil and popcorn kernels and cover the pot. Once the kernels begin to pop, using pot holders, shake the pan constantly over the heat as the kernels pop for about five minutes, or until all the kernels have popped.

In a large bowl, toss the popcorn with the bacon, reserved bacon fat, and the salt. Using a Microplane grater, finely grate most of the parmesan over the popcorn and toss to coat. Grate more cheese on top and serve immediately.

Good Food, Good Life: 130 simple recipes you'll love to make and eat, by Curtis Stone, Ebury, $39.99.