Hands up whose cooking has changed over the past two years?
Did you rush out and buy a sandwich press when cafes went into lockdown, or decide to master your own tortillas to give the kids something to do?
Did you realise you really do need that giant stockpot you've been coveting, or have you had more time on your hands and drilled deep into Colombian flavours or mastered a new skill?
The Good Food team share their lockdown discoveries, learnings and loves.
The steak night relay
Soon after lockdown locked in, I decided to explore the very real joys of dry-aged beef. When meat hangs in a controlled environment for weeks at a time, the loss of moisture concentrates its flavour into something deep, dark and fruity, as opposed to the fresh blandness of young, pink meat. It changed my cooking technique overnight.
I now cook only rib-eye steak, preferably grass-fed, bone-in, around 500 grams, and aged 30 to 45 days. I oil the meat, and not the pan; and basically carpet the meat with sea salt just prior to cooking.
I start the cooking on one side only in a hot cast-iron pan on the stove for two minutes or until the smoke threatens to set off the alarm, at which point I panic and run outside with it, passing the pan to my husband, who is on stand-by at the barbecue, tongs in hand.
He grills it seared-side down for four minutes, turns and grills the other side for two minutes, then rests it on a hot plate for five minutes, resulting in a steak that's between rare and medium-rare.
It's our version of an Olympian relay race, in which gold means an incredibly crusty, perfectly rare steak (one between us), with a bottle of red wine and pots of mustard and horseradish sauce sharing the podium. Thanks to dry-aging, steak night has become a genuine, meaningful – and rare – pleasure. vicsmeats.com.au; capegrim.com.au; coppertreefarms.com.au
Reuben toastie (try this jaffle version) with pickles and potato crisps on the side. Photo: iStock
The repurposed snack
My snacks have invaded my cooking and I never want them to leave. I now serve potato crisps next to a sandwich for lunch, and crush corn chips over my Mexican bean salsa and guacamole. That way I get the salty crunch I crave without having to eat the whole packet.
THE KITCHEN TOOL:
Office tape dispenser
My newest kitchen tool came from Officeworks. Taking a tip from chefs, I bought a big office tape dispenser ($7.50) and a roll of white masking tape ($4) to keep on the kitchen bench, ready to rip off and label anything in sight. No more UFOs (unidentified frozen objects) in the freezer, no more unsealed packets of food, and no more mystery spice jars.
I didn't seek to change my cooking style. Change sought me. Holed up at home with my husband and our 20-something son, a freshly minted vegetarian, we had to rethink many of our family favourites. Out went tuna pasta, a staple since he was a toddler ("Mum, you know tuna isn't on the sustainable seafood list, right?"), and in came penne alla vodka, along with okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancakes), dhal makhani and good ol' zucchini slice – hold the bacon.
Umami it up
It's harder to drive savoury, "meaty" flavour into meat-free dishes, so miso, mushrooms of all kinds, parmesan, soy sauce, tomato paste, kimchi and dried seaweed all appear more regularly on the shopping list.
And hard-roasting vegies such as broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts in a hot oven until they're brown before using them in salads and other dishes also amplifies their savoury sweetness.
When fresh, they have a delicate texture and nutty, earthy flavour. Rehydrated from dried, their smoky, meaty flavour gives everything more oomph. (Find them at supermarkets and Asian grocers.)
This Korean tofu stew is the new family fave. I've cobbled my recipe together from several sources, including this spicy tofu soup (pictured).
Starting with a vegetable broth deeply flavoured with kombu, shiitakes, hard-roasted cabbage and ginger, I add fresh turnips, rehydrated beancurd skins, gochujang and soft tofu for a multi-textured umami bomb.
Lockdowns have seen food morph in our house from being a source of sustenance and joy to a provider of entertainment and sanity.
Saturday nights have become international themed feast nights. We have discovered making sushi (for Japanese night) is not hard, Tony Tan's char siu recipe (for Chinese night) is the GOAT and even our Mexican has moved beyond brekkie burritos.
Tortilla press. Photo: James Brickwood
Making your own tacos sounds kinda loco, I admit. But with Mexican theme night approaching we discovered it's actually easier than going to the shops to buy tacos that taste nothing like the real thing.
Mix 2 cups of masa harina (Mexican corn flour, available at essentialingredient.com.au) with 1.5 cups of water and a pinch of salt to a playdough-like consistency. Make cricket ball-sized lumps from the dough and press between two sheets of baking paper in the tortilla press.
Grill on your barbie and swaddle them in tea towels to steam and stay warm as you make more.
THE NETFLIX SHOW:
Salt Fat Acid Heat
This is sooo last lockdown of me. Hell, I was even behind the rest of the world when I watched it in lockdown 2.0. But Samin Nosrat's Netflix series based on her best-selling book of the same name is so full of joy and passion for food, if I feel down I watch it again.
And then there's the practical advice. Like: much of what you cook needs an element of acid in it, such as lemon or vinegar, to amplify flavours. And salt should be added to meat as soon as you bring it home so it can permeate the flesh and make it tender and tasty.
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Somehow in between lockdowns we did a Thai cooking course and learnt to make sausages. Healthy ones. Delicious ones.
Mix pork mince with cooked white rice (ratio ⅔ pork to ⅓ rice) and add flavourings such as chopped garlic, sliced makrut lime leaves and chilli. Shape sausages by rolling them up in cling film and secure each end like a tight Christmas cracker.
Steam the porky bonbons for 10 minutes, remove the cling film and give them a gentle char (we use a fire pit with a grill on top) for a smoky finish.
If I'm being honest, I don't think COVID has upgraded my cooking know-how, but golly my cocktail-making has improved.
Can confirm the perfect negroni to accompany an afternoon in the kitchen involves Campari and Punt e Mes vermouth stirred down with two parts gin to balance the sweetness. Is this ratio why my culinary skills have flatlined? Who's to say?
THE COCKTAIL SNACK UPGRADE:
You can never have enough ice on hand when making dry martinis and it also comes in handy for serving freshly shucked oysters.
Use a rolling pin to crush ice in a tea towel (the blender is too aggressive) and make a frozen water bed for your bivalves. It's one of those restaurant-y things we rarely do at home, but it makes oysters so much more refreshing and special.
Grow Fruit & Vegetables
For as long as I've been grilling chicken and strewing it with olives and parsley, I've struggled to get the annual herb to grow – not to mention countless failed attempts at chillies, chives and basil. But more time at home means I've been able to check in with my little balcony garden daily, rotate plants through warm spots, and notice small problems before they become big issues.
Grow Fruit & Vegetables in Pots by Aaron Bertelsen has been a cracking resource for gardening tips since its publication last year and includes excellent recipes, too.
This is more a buying habit than a cooking habit, but after flirting with local produce boxes over the past few years, I'm now all about the quiet joy of receiving a weekly changing selection of citrus, greens, root vegetables and the odd romanesco.
It's a beaut way to revisit old cookbooks ("I'm sure there's a recipe for coronet cabbage rolls in this Gretta Anna collection somewhere"), keep in tune with the seasons, and give thanks to the farmers who work their butts off to put beautiful food on our plates.
Sift Produce and Ooooby create awesome organic boxes in Sydney, while Northside Fruit & Veg and Ramarro Farm have been helping growers through lockdown in Melbourne.
I'd love to say lockdowns have given me wisdom, clarity and a super-organised spice cupboard. But in reality I'm living for the weekend (takeaway), spending way too much time with old mate Dan Murphy (online, of course), and doing whatever it takes to get through with some semblance of humour and sanity.
Chotto Motto crispy chilli oil. Photo: Josef Gatti
We could all do with more spice in our locked-down lives, amiright? How good, then, that there's been a sudden explosion of ridiculously addictive chilli oils to choose from.
Some people lose hours shopping online for shoes, for me it's chilli oil and other hot sauces. Chotto Motto Crispy Oil is my favourite. I dribble it on everything – toasties, pizza, fried eggs, noodles, cucumber, ice-cream, myself – and no one (except my #lockdowndog) can judge me for it.
One-dish lasagne from The Shortcut Cook. Photo: Louise Hagger/Hardie Grant
The Shortcut Cook
I'm all about taking shortcuts wherever I can, and living alone means portion control is a real problem. Especially when there's so many feelings to eat. So The Shortcut Cook by Rosie Reynolds (Hardie Grant, $29.99) has been a real saviour.
In it, Rosie takes 60 classic recipes we all love to eat, and adds simple tips and advice to make them quicker, more flavoursome, and easier to divvy up and freeze in sensible portions for one. It's even made me a Tupperware fan. Miracles really do happen.
Guardian UK restaurant critic Grace Dent writes in the sarcastic, warm and funny Northern English way I love. Now she's got a weekly podcast, in which she talks to high-falutin' guests about the lo-fi snacks they love. Some may not be household names in Australia, but there's still much to relate to.
Take Queer as Folk screenwriter Russell T. Davies who eats rice with butter when he suffers late night writer's block. Or actor Rafe Spall as they sip martinis and talk Indian takeaway and body image insecurities.
Grace has that Graham Norton-esque knack of making guests relax and overshare. At 3am on the other side of the world, with lockdown insomnia, and three doonas on the bed, that's pretty fabulous.
I've been taking comfort in baking, batch cooking and adding little finishing flourishes. (Here are my tips for cooking for one during lockdown.)
"The cheesecake you will love the most" fom Beatrix Bakes by Natalie Paull. Photo: Emily Weaving/Hardie Grant Books
Friday nights look a little different nowadays. I'll be late-night baking or undertaking projects that span the better part of a locked-down weekend.
As a long-time devotee of North Melbourne's cute-as-a-button cafe Beatrix, its namesake cookbook has allowed me to DIY my potato doughnut fix and master layered coconutty birthday cakes when I can't visit.
Author Natalie Paull reveals all her secrets with a voice that's as warm and lovely as a pecan scroll straight from the oven.
Everything that goes on an everything bagel. Photo: iStock
Everything bagel mix
My New York-based sister sent me a care package of Trader Joe's cult "Everything but the bagel" seasoning, and after rationing it I had to make my own.
It's my new avocado toast topper: an addictive blend of toasty garlic granules and dehydrated onion flakes, black and white sesame seeds and poppy seeds (aka all the things that go on an everything bagel).
Mix about a tablespoon of each together – except the white sesame seeds, you'll need two tablespoons of these – add ½ tablespoon of sea salt flakes and decant into a glass shaker.
THE COCKTAIL SNACK UPGRADE:
You know the ones. They have a crunchy coating in various flavourings from durian to tom yum and come in tall ring-pull resealable cans. Look for Koh-Kae brand at Asian grocers. It's cocktail hour without the cockpit.
Being cooped up with a couple of home-schoolers has been a challenge, so most of my cooking has revolved around feeding small people, roping them into kitchen activities or tempting them with new flavours. Here are a few wins.
Everyone loves pizza, right? Happily, being stuck at home is no barrier to enjoying the good stuff fresh from the oven. In their cookbook Pizza, British brothers Thom and James Elliot share a method using only a frypan and oven.
Preheat the oven grill to its highest setting. Place a large, ovenproof frypan over a high heat on the stove, and let it get screaming hot.
Stretch your pizza dough to form a thin base and raised crust and place it in the hot, dry frypan, then ladle pizza sauce onto the base. Sprinkle over basil, parmesan and olive oil and let the base brown for 1-2 minutes. Add some mozzarella, and place the frypan under the grill on the highest shelf for 1-2 minutes until your pizza is golden and ready to eat.
A Mexican fiesta from Comida Mexicana. Photo: Alicia Taylor/Smith Street Books
Mexico has never felt further away but the cooking has never been so close to home. Sydney "tamale queen" Rosa Cienfuegos' new cookbook Comida Mexicana was written with Australian home cooks in mind, using ingredients that can be found locally (or easily substituted).
Stock your pantry with masa flour, tinned tomatillos and a few other simple items, and you'll be cooking classic tacos, empanadas and quesadillas in no time.
Selleys Wash Up Wiz
It's hardly new, and it's definitely not glamorous, but my Selleys Wash Up Wiz has really come into its own during the COVID era. This flimsy yellow square of mesh is essentially a scourer, but it never scratches and works with only light scrubbing. When you're constantly washing up after ever-hungry children, that counts as a score.
The big revelation of lockdown was not that I like cooking (that's always been true) but that I need cooking as a way to unfurl at the end of the workday. Leaving the "office" (our spare room) at 7pm to cook dinner without a commute to decompress, I can lose myself in dicing, measuring and watching the pot. This realisation has helped me slow down instead of racing to get the job done.
Determined to nail steak at home, I discovered that the best way to check if your pan is roaring hot is to pop in a half teaspoon of water: if it forms a ball that bounces around from one side of the pan to the other, you're good to go.
A Year of Simple Family Food
This showed up just when the home-cooking doldrums were setting in during Melbourne's long lockdown of 2020.
Julia Busuttil Nishimura's (pictured) recipes manage to feel luxurious without being burdensome. Some are no more than two paragraphs, but every one involves the simple alchemy of great ingredients and layering of flavour.
I've always felt pretty confident in the salad dressing department but Danielle Alvarez's recipe (below) from Always Add Lemon is a game-changer.
Alvarez advises starting your salad dressing at least 20 minutes before you want to eat, which not only helps to macerate the alliums, it forces you to be more considered about the whole exercise.
Chardonnay and honey vinaigrette
- 1 tsp salt
- 70ml chardonnay (or champagne) vinegar
- 1 tbsp sherry vinegar
- 2 tbsp shallot, finely diced
- 2 tsp honey
- 150ml olive oil
- In a bowl combine salt, vinegars and shallot. Mix well and allow to marinate for at least 15 minutes.
- Add the honey and using a whisk slowly drizzle in the olive oil.
- Decant to a jar.
Note from Danielle:
You are not trying to emulsify when you add in the olive oil, because the vinegar and the oil will split, but if you don't take the time to do this part slowly, for some reason I can't explain the dressing ends up feeling disjointed, like there is oil and there is vinegar but they aren't holding hands. This gentle, slow mixing helps them become acquainted so that even after they separate, when you mix them together again to finally dress your salad, their bond feels stronger.
To dress the salad, add your leaves to a large bowl, larger than you think you need. Shake the jar really well to vigorously mix the dressing, then pour in a little at a time. Mix the leaves gently with just-washed hands. Taste as you go and add more salt if needed.
This is an edited extract from Always Add Lemon by Danielle Alvarez, published by Hardie Grant.
THE WEEKEND ROUTINE:
Cafe at home
When you can't go to the cafe, the cafe must come to you. Weekend lunches at my place are now spent recreating the ham-and-cheese toasties, pancake stacks with bacon and maple syrup, brekkie burgers and kaya toasts of my dreams.
- To do cafe toast, brush sourdough with olive oil and toast it in the sandwich press between two sheets of baking paper, not in the toaster.
- To do cafe bacon, bake it in the oven, flat on a roasting tray, instead of frying it in a pan.
- To do egg-and-bacon rolls, get a pack of brioche buns from the closest BreadTop store.
- To do cafe coffee, get takeaway.
- And if you really want to give your "customers" a thrill, take orders on how they want their eggs – because that's what they're really missing from their favourite cafes.
Neil Perry's huevos rancheros (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
THE KITCHEN HABIT:
I was that rare dinosaur who never, ever had takeaway delivered, but now? I'd be missing out if I didn't. Because now, it's coming from restaurants and not just fast food chains. It's also designed either to survive the delivery time, or to be finished at home.
But since I've changed my game to reviewing restaurant home-delivery meals, I've had to change my cooking, to strategically repurpose the leftover lime pickles, raita, chutney and rice, or Mexican frijoles, tortillas and arbol chilli salsa. Cue wok-frying leftover rice with any remaining chicken, fish or pork, adding kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and lime juice, and making huevos rancheros (Mexican eggs) for breakfast. Now it's the leftovers of the leftovers I'm worried about.
THE KITCHEN TOOL:
I don't remember actively using a freezer as much pre-COVID-19. When you have to be smart about your one daily shopping trip, however, the freezer is your friend. Anything that I live in fear of not having is in there, which means peas. Lots of peas. Bacon, same.
Buy double the quantity of great sausages – fresh chorizo, Italian pork and fennel – then skin them and roll into meatballs before freezing, or turn them into sausage rolls and freeze them uncooked, ready to go.