By Peter Watson
The first question is ... what is it? Does it exist?
Many would say no, our food, eating and style all come from other places, that we have cannibalised foods from all manner of countries and brought them into our kitchens. It's true, we have done just that, but in the taking and the using, we have managed to make them uniquely our own.
Politically and perhaps emotionally we have to respect the original inhabitants of this land and to acknowledge the amazing foods that hunter-gatherers used for millions of years and to say that we have scant interest to Aboriginal foods with much of the information either lost or in danger of being lost.
The amazing and delicious 'Bush' foods of Australia deserve a greater prominence than they are afforded.
The early white settlers in this land were faced with foods that were completely different to what was used to in the Northern hemisphere and some amusing recipes still exist for cooking wombat, possum and goanna mostly designed to emulate some dishes from home.
In time as the settlers planted the seeds that had accompanied them, wheat, barley and vegetables began to come into usage and so the foods of England, with some local additions, were eaten.
History is something that we need to understand in order to see where we sit in the place we are now. For those who are interested, the history of food in Australia as it applies to white settlement is fascinating, stupid and moving, all at the one time.
The debt that we owe is to the women of this country, the women who went out into the country and into the newly established towns and who cooked and looked after their families with foods that today, we can't cook.
Made a sponge cake lately? These women (and to be correct, the occasional man) had the jobs of preparing three large meals each day with morning and afternoon tea, no refrigeration, no electricity or gas and very little by way of mechanical devices to help. They were nothing short of amazing.
Out of this arose and organisation which I, as a white Australian male, cannot belong to, want to acknowledge and pay homage to... The Country Women's Association.
A stunning and still continuing group of women who have banded together to assist and support each other in all manner of areas with a special interest in food. The CWA has for many many years published an invaluable recipe book that is a must have in every home.
So much has changed in the last twenty-plus years, we have altered so much of the way we approach foods and eating and have now come to a place where because of pressures of work, food and cooking is now overly sanitised, badly, now hideously produced with an excess of chemicals, given low prominence in our day to day lives with expectations and dependence on others to do 90% of the work for us because we are 'time deprived'.
What rubbish. We are simply lazy and have lost the rhythm of life that has guided generation after generation and kept a balance. We want food on the table in 20 minutes and we don't care anywhere near enough about how good it is.
But like all things, this will change and the over litigious, ready-to-sue over anything brigade will diminish and we will be sensible again about food and the way it is done.
The government will even become sensible about non pasteurised milk in cheese and maybe the food meisters in government may even think that the humble pig is not just 'mouth food' (it means has no taste till you add something to it) but a great meat that has sustained the humble of the planet for hundreds of years.
We may even decide that working like mad things to obtain what... a house that may be too large for us, with a mortgage that is way too large and on and on, is madness and that life is about living and that food is a major part of that pleasure.
We can only hope the losses in the past twenty years in what we do, how we cook and what we eat have not been some major changes and we have jeopardised such things as the roast dinner, home made cakes, biscuits, pies and tarts, preserves and such fabulous Sunday evening delights as scones.
How many of you dear readers can say that you still cook any of the above? When was the last time we had enough time to prepare a dish that required four or five hours of slow cooking? Did you ever buy cheap cuts of meat like skirt steak or blade that are full of flavour and braise or slow cook them to the point where they were meltingly tender and full of taste?
And why in the name of all that's holy do we now have such an aversion to fats? How sad to miss on the delights of afternoon tea with cream cakes, even if only once a week. How sad that we try and make meat that has no fat, taste like it is should when with the addition of a cover of self basting fat, meat cooks that much better and no one ever said you had to eat the fat.
How tragic that the great tradition of dessert and sweets has taken a dive, that is until with a glass or two of wine or some mass hysteria, we indulge in such delights as packaged frozen cakes and deserts because we can't make them anymore, forgotten how!
So, dear foodies, where do we start to look at what we had and what we can do to make sure that we get back to what we should have? I think we need to start humble and take a look at the great Australian roast dinner.
The Great Australian Roast Dinner
You can roast almost any meat ... Beef, Lamb, Pork, Chicken, Rabbit and if you are game, wild species but, be careful some are protected.
We have this tendency to want to cook the meat fast, something that I have been guilty of more than once. But the truth is, it is better cooked slowly and for longer. Various cuts of meat will take longer than others and a good rule of thumb is, if the cut comes from a hard working part of the animal, the legs or back muscles, then it will be more fibrous and stringy and require long cooking to break down the fibres. The parts of the beast that are not used much will be less tough and can be cooked in a hotter and quicker oven.
Moisture is important for the cheaper cuts and this can come in a number of ways, as a stock that is used in the pan along with the meat and basted often, the pieces can be marinaded for a few hours in a good red wine, oil, vinegar (red wine) and say thyme, from a layer of fat or skin or from an artificial cover such as foil. In general it is better to have all meats cooked in a moist atmosphere since it will make the meat more tender.
The 1940 - 1990 roasts were almost always cooked in dripping. Freak out!! This dripping was mostly a beef dripping bought from the local butcher who rendered the fat and, when liquefied, canned it.
The method for the meat was simple, place a good quantity of dripping in the pan and melt it to a boil point, take the joint of meat, chicken or rabbit (possibly the latter two being wrapped in bacon) and toss in a little seasoned flour and then into the hot fat, on the top of the stove, rotating the joint till all sides were slightly browned and then placing into a pre-heated oven about 180° Celsius or hotter for pork, round the 260° Celsius mark to start the crackling and lowered after twenty minutes.
A Chart of Cooking times for Meats:
- Beef - expensive cuts
rare 240°C for 15 minutes then 180°C for 15 minutes per 500g
medium 220°C for 15 minutes then 180°C for 20 minutes per 500g
well done 220°C for 10 minutes then 180°C for 25 minutes per 500g
- Beef - economical cuts
rare 200°C for 10 minutes then 180°C for 20 minutes per 500g
medium 200°C for 10 minutes then 160°C for 25 minutes per 500g
well done 180°C for 10 minutes then 160°C for 30 minutes per 500g
- Pork - skin on and scored
Medium 250°C for 30 minutes then 180°C for 25 minutes per 500g
well done 260°C for 30 minutes then 180°C for 30 minutes per 500g
- Pork - skin off
medium 240°C for 10 minutes then 180°C for 30 minutes per 500g
well done 240°C for 10 minutes then 180°C for 35 minutes per 500g
rare 220°C for 10 minutes then 180°C for 20 minutes per 500g
medium 220°C for 15 minutes then 180°C for 25 minutes per 500g
well done 220°C for 15 minutes then 180°C for 30 minutes per 500g
(Chicken should always be cooked through)
well done 220°C for 15 minutes then 180°C for 30 minutes per 500g
- Rabbit... consult with your supplier but remember that it is a tough meat which requires wrapping in a good bacon and then cooking in a moist environment most likely with a good stuffing.
My mother, whose roasts I just loved had a tendency to cook religiously and cook the meat, no matter what it was for as long as possible to the extent that on some occasions, the gravy was more tasty than the roast meat, albeit the meat was tender.
Roasting vegetables was a much loved way of cooking them and they were usually placed into the pan with the meat and cooked in the boiling fat.
Choose potatoes that are good for roasting, that is they are not too waxy and will not fall apart when roasted. Peel and leave them in fairly largish chucks which some say are better boiled (with a dash of vegemite is great) until the potatoes are just cooked a little on the outside, rough them up a little in the sauce pan and place into the hot fat. This will allow the potatoes to crisp up as well as absorbing all the delicious juices from the roast.
No matter what complaints, it is better left with the skin on, which in fact cooks and you can easily eat. This way the vegetable will stay together. Remember that pumpkin is a quick cooker and takes about half the time of potatoes, so allow about 25 minutes for most. Queensland Blue, my own favourite takes just a little longer.
Carrots and Parsnips
These both cook at about the same time as pumpkin and should be peeled, cut into not too small a piece and put into the hot fat at the same time as the pumpkin.
Onions can be roasted whole or cut. Cut they can be put into the roasting dish as the beginning of the cooking and allowed to melt down to brown nothingness and give the gravy fabulous flavour. Cooked whole they are best cut in half and placed into the fat at the same time as potatoes.
There are a great number of vegetables that can be roasted although not that many are recommended to be cooked with the meat. Prepare a separate roasting tray and place in it some red capsicum cut in half and with seeds removed, some red onions, some tomatoes, some asparagus or some discs of eggplant, pumpkin too can be cooked like this.
Simply drizzle some good olive oil over the vegetables and some salt and pepper. If you want to be daring, try some of the marinades available... ChimiChuri for example in place of the oil. Roast in a hot oven till browned and cooked.
Pees, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes are all popular choices to accompany a roast. The legumes are usually boiled in a good stock, the cabbage is best fried with butter and a dash of sugar and splash of red wine vinegar added at the end, cauliflower is best steamed and is great in a Cauliflower gratin with cheese. Tomato and Onion 'Savoury' was a strong favourite in our house with Mother slicing tomatoes with onions in about the same ratio, topping with salt and pepper in layers and finishing with breadcrumbs that were dotted with butter and the dish cooked in the bottom of the oven for as long as the meat took to cook.
Meat is Cooked
Remove the cooked meat to a dish and cover with foil, not too tightly, you do not want to steam the meat, just to allow the juices to run all through and this will be done after about 20 minutes.
Vegetables are Cooked
Remove the vegetables and place into a large flat dish that will hold them all without doubling up. This can be placed into a warm oven to hold for the time the meat rests and the gravy is made.
For the legumes, drain and add a good knob of butter with some black pepper. For the cabbage, just cover for the cauliflower, keep warm and the tomato and onion, allow to stay in the warm oven.
The roast will throw a lot of juices that will brown and caramelise in the roasting pan as the cooking progresses. Some meats, specially the white ones will not give as many juices. Drain the dripping from the pan being careful to keep the meat juice and leave just a little of the fat. To this add a couple of tablespoons of plain white flour and mix well, place over a gentle heat and cook the roux for a couple of minutes. If you have steamed or boiled any vegetables, you will have kept the water from them and 500 mil of this is now added slowly to the roux, whisking all the while to make a rich brown gravy. A couple of useful stand by's are vegemite and soy sauce. The vegemite will add brownness and flavour, the soy brown and salt. Neither is essential, but both are very handy.
Try and be sure that the plates are at least warmed.
Carve the meat with a sharp knife being sure to carve in the right direction... ask your butcher to show you if you are uncertain. With pork that you have cooked with the skin on, remove the skin in one piece and put aside to divide up later.
Serve onto the hot plates and if liked, serve the vegetables in the kitchen or, if you wish, take the vegetables to the table in their own serving dish and pass around. Pass the gravy.
For lamb, mint sauce and red currant jelly. Even some chutneys are good.
For beef, mustards, horseradish cream fill the bill.
For pork, apple sauce or some of the herb jellies are delicious.
For chicken try chilli jam.
All in all this sounds like it will take hours and hours, but in fact takes little time. Once you have tried this and become the roast master (mistress etc) then you will never have an empty table.
Next time, we'll take a look at some of the long slow wet cook dishes, braises, stews and casseroles.
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