Leaving Auckland never seems to get any easier. The packing, the goodbyes, the solo flight back to Melbourne. It always takes a few days to adjust to the university routine – a few days of feeling slightly out-of-sorts, a little misplaced and harried and disorganised, like the sudden uprooting and transplant from home leaves my mind hanging somewhere in the middle. This time was particularly challenging – jetlag and a stomach bug followed me home from Vietnam for five blurred days of catch-ups, appointments and baking, and the trip back to the airport came all too quickly. Walking away into the departures hall after the final drawn out hug, tugging on an overfilled suitcase and sporadically turning around for a final glimpse and wave, is the toughest part.
It isn’t always like that – I’m not awfully homesick, or wishing I wasn’t in Melbourne – I love it, and feel like I am in the exactly the right place at the moment. But those goodbyes are always so unapologetically difficult, especially when you’re the one walking away. It gets drummed into us that from age eighteen, we should be ready, ecstatic to “leave the nest” – make a break, ditch the parents and siblings and start our “adult” lives. A quick, clean separation, a smooth transition from childhood homes to reality. And maybe some people pull this off.
I manage for the most part – and on Sunday night it was the absolute best to walk in the door to the smell of dinner cooking and a house dinner with the girls I live with. But there are still times where I don’t feel quite grown up enough, or a little lost, and just wish we could rewind a couple of years, though those occasions occur less and less often. I can’t imagine I will ever stop missing home a little. That’s the other thing – I’ve started slipping out “home” when I talk about Melbourne, but usually refer to Auckland as “home” as well. Maybe I just need the two to coexist – one where I study and live most of the time, and the other which is always always just home to me.
This slow braised beef cheek ragu with parpadelle is a home meal. If there is anything good about winter, it is getting out that well-used cast iron pot to simmer away for hours on the stove, filling the house with a rich, comforting fragrance while rain pelts down outside. I made it last week for a family dinner, with my brother also home for university break and all six of us for once at the same table (and not just on a phone loudspeaker!).
Something about the chemistry of transforming a cheap, tough, working cut of meat into tender, falling apart chunks is incredibly satisfying. The simple pasta sauce of tomatoes, red wine and beef stock is rich and complex, thanks to the hours of slow cooking and the quick soffrito base. Soffrito underpins most Italian sauces – it’s that sauteed mixture of onion and carrot, cooked in a bit of oil until translucent and tender, sticking golden bits of flavour to the bottom of your pan that become the deep flavour foundations of your sauce later on. It’s worth the extra 10 minutes cooking time and final deglaze with a splash of red wine before you add the rest of your ingredients.
That rich sauce and melting chunks of beef cheek coats thick, al dente parpadelle – a wide pasta which gives a large surface area for the sauce to cover, dipping into the hollows between the strands. Bowls are sprinkled with a sharp grated parmesan and bright italian parsley, and I served it with a fresh loaf of crusty ciabatta, smeared with fresh melting butter, and oven roasted winter broccolini and brussel sprouts. Winter + home comfort in a steaming bowl, seriously.
The best part is that it isn’t that difficult – it takes half an hour to put the sauce together, and from then on there is very little work involved. Just leave it on a low heat for 2 and a half to 3 hours, then take the lid off and reduce the sauce for a bit, shred the beef and put it all together it again. It is so low maintenance that I had no qualms leaving for a haircut and getting my brother to set a timer and turn the pot off at the beep.
Also going on at the moment are nominations for the 2016 Saveur Blog awards, and I would love it if you could take a minute to nominate The Brick Kitchen for the awards in any categories you think best fit (click here). You can nominate as many blogs as often as you like, and in as many categories you like too. They are open until July 18th. Thank you so much for your support!
- I used beef cheeks here – a cheap, lean cut laced with tough connective tissue which becomes meltingly tender with a few hours braising. They are available in supermarkets in Auckland, but if you can’t find them there your butcher should be able to supply them for you. Beef shin would be a good alternative.
- Sear the beef first to keep in all those juices during the slow braise. Depending on the size of your beef cheeks, it will take 2.5 – 3.5 hours to get them tender, including 30 minutes with the lid off to reduce the sauce. Once you remove the beef, you can bring the sauce to a boil to reduce it further before you return the beef to the pot.
- The recipe makes about 8 cups of sauce, which is enough to serve about 12 people, depending on hunger levels and how much sauce you like. You can always freeze half to use at a later date!
- 1.3-5kg beef cheeks (this was 3 large cheeks for me)
- salt and pepper
- 1 large onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup diced carrot
- 1 cup red wine
- 2 cups beef stock
- 800g crushed tomatoes
- 100-130g tomato paste
- 3 bay leaves
- 1-2 teaspoons sugar, to taste
- parpadelle (depending on how many people you are serving)
- parmesan, finely grated to serve
- ½ cup parsley, chopped
- Cut any large bits of fat off the beef cheeks. Pat dry with a paper towel and season generously with salt and pepper.
- Heat a large, heavy based pot over high heat with a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the beef cheeks (one by one if they don’t all fit on the bottom) and sear on each side to brown all the edges (a few minutes per side). Remove and set aside.
- In the same pot, turn down the heat to low and add the onion and garlic. Sautee for 5 minutes, stirring to avoid it catching on the bottom.
- Add the diced carrot and cook gently for 10 minutes until just softened.
- Add a splash of the red wine and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the rest of the red wine, the beef stock, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and bay leaves and stir to combine.
- Add the seared beef back into the sauce. Bring back to a simmer, then cover and turn to a VERY LOW heat and keep at a low simmer for 3 hours. Remove the lid and simmer for a further 30 minutes or until the beef cheeks are almost falling apart.
- Remove the beef from the pot and set aside. Bring the sauce to a rapid simmer for a further 20 minutes to thicken the sauce. Taste and adjust sugar for seasoning (this may depend on what brand of canned tomatoes you use as some have more sugar than others)
- Meanwhile, use two forks to shred the beef into bite-size pieces. Return to the sauce and stir to combine. At this point, you can either serve the sauce, refrigerate until the next day for even better flavour, or freeze half for future use. See cook’s notes above for quantities.
- Boil the pasta according to packet instructions.
- Meanwhile, heat the sauce in a large fry pan with a splash of the pasta water to loosen if it has been refrigerated or frozen. Add the cooked pasta to the sauce and toss with tongs and a serving spoon to thoroughly coat the pasta in the ragu sauce.
- Serve with grated parmesan and finely chopped parsley. I also served it with fresh ciabatta and oven roasted broccollini.