Matt Preston has always been fascinated by the whys and whens behind a dish. Sure, the pursuit of flavour - the how - has taken him around the world, from the world's fanciest restaurants to back alleys in villages, but it's the stories behind a dish that captivate him.
In his latest book World of Flavour, Preston takes more than 100 of his favourite dishes and turns mythbuster.
Like rather than being an invention of 1950s dinner parties, the prawn cocktail's origin story begins in the oyster cellars of New York as far back as 1820.
Think real men don't each quiche? Wrong, its origins go back to the knights of Lotharingia, in the French region of Lorraine.
While the classic apricot chicken could well have started with a soup packet in the 1970s, there's a long history of meat served with fruit.
It's a fabulous book that captures the very essence of Preston. He's always a great interview, heading off on tangents with stories about his days with food, from what he's cooking at home, to great dishes he's tasted in his travels.
"The process of writing this book was like following threads back through time," he says, "whether in the yellowing pages of old newspapers or by delving into my collection of antiquarian cookbooks; through unravelling digitised ancient texts written in forgotten dialects, or luxuriating in the research of other, high qualified, food historians, be they enthusiastic amateurs or measured academics."
Was there a myth he loved busting?
"Yes, there was, and you Canberrans will love this one," he says.
"The arrogant people of Melbourne think the smashed avocado belongs to them, most people would think it pops up in the brunch places of Melbourne in the early '90s.
"The Washington Post however, crowned a mention of it at Bill Granger's Darlinghurst in 1993 as the world first.
"But I found a mention of it in The Canberra Times in 1986."
In the book, Preston takes the original idea, say avocado on toast, and mixes it up. Here he serves it on corn fritters with a chilli granola - "Three breakfast greats combined into one!".
He turns spanakopita into a jaffle, taking the spinach and ricotta filling, using filo instead of bread.
One myth he busts is that cookbooks are full of new recipes.
"Originality is a rare thing," he says.
"Show me a cookbook and I can usually point to someone who has written that recipe or something similar earlier.
"It's the nature of the beast that small differences are, however, enough to make something new and exciting."
In many ways, that's how he approaches cooking - and he does cook at home, a lot - he takes a recipe, flavours that he loves, and makes them his own.
"Part of this book is about giving credit where credit is due, acknowledging the precursors to dishes, but then giving people, giving homecooks, ideas and tips on how to make those dishes their own."
My cookbook collection is full of Matt Preston cookbooks. I can't recommend them highly enough. One of my family favourites is his mac n cheese from More. I twist that recipe every time now, from extra vegetables, to a chorizo crumb on the side.
He loves it when he hears that people actually cook from his books.
"There's an awful lot of books out there that never get used, but I want mine on the kitchen bench," he says.
"I want people out there coming up with their own whys and whens with my recipes."
- Matt Preston's World of Flavour, by Matt Preston. Lantern. $39.99.
Slow-roasted pomegranate lamb shoulder with jewelled couscous
As the lamb is a biblical symbol of truth and innocence, I struggle to dismiss any myth that might be associated with it ...
Humans have understood the value of sheep for over 10,000 years - only dogs can lay claim to a longer history by our side. We first domesticated them in either Mesopotamia or Central Asia. These early wild sheep were hairy rather than woolly, so their main value was for milk and cheese, and of course for sacrifices and feasting. We know that lamb and mutton were part of the diet of Neolithic tribes around Marseilles in 6000 BC.
The fact that sheep were easy to keep together in flocks helped the nomadic tribes of the Central Asian steppes as much as it did those earliest settlers of the Middle and Near East, who could lay down roots with a flock on hand to support them. It is fair to say that sheep were as important to the birth of civilisation as salt. Both allowed us to settle down and spend less time searching for food. (For the story of salt, I recommend reading Salt: A world history by Mark Kurlansky.)
While we know sheep formed a major food source in the ancient world, there was resistance to eating them in some places given their value for milk and wool. This may explain why we tend to eat either old sheep (mutton) or young sheep (lamb) rather those in their prime. When we look at the very earliest recipes recorded on Babylonian and Assyrian tablets from Mesopotamia, dated as early as 1730 BC, these include a recipe for a lamb soup with barley rusks, me-e puhadi, and one for tuh'u, which was mutton stewed with beetroots.
The importance and portability of sheep meant that they spread far and wide across the globe during the eras of exploration. Hernn Cortés brought Merino and Navajo-Churro sheep to his hacienda outside Mexico City in 1538, after the Spanish conquest. Captain Cook had sheep on board for his second and third voyages to Australia and New Zealand, and the First Fleet picked up 28 fat-bellied sheep in Cape Town on the way to Botany Bay in 1788. These, and later animals acquired in India, proved less suited to Australian conditions than the twenty-six Merinos from the Cape of Good Hope (which were descended from the closely guarded royal flock of Spain) that landed at Port Jackson in 1797.
Of course, for all their usefulness to European colonists, the introduction of sheep also brought negative effects. Historian, author and agriculturalist Bruce Pascoe once told me that Victoria was covered in the yellow flowers of a native yam called murnong before invasion. However, the introduced sheep developed a taste for the daisies and their sweet tubers, to the point where the murnong was eaten almost to extinction, removing a vital food source for First Nations people.
In Australia, the concept of a Sunday lamb roast is an imported legacy from England, and the idea of treating yourself with roast meat comes from a time when meat was a luxury. It was served after church on Sundays and, in the early Middle Ages, after your obligatory archery practice at the English village butts. This training was enforced by parliamentary statutes and royal ordinances first made in 1363.
Obviously, the roasting of lamb also has biblical connotations, tracing back to God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son in the Old Testament; in the end, God relented and decided he'd rather have roast lamb instead. There is also the traditional Passover sacrifice of lamb, eaten with bitter herbs and matzo, as stipulated in the Torah.
Over the past 25 years, Australia's lamb roast has subtly changed. Gently pink slices of perfectly cooked leg of lamb took over from cheaper legs of mutton in the 1950s and 1960s, and you can see this in the decreasing prominence of mutton in butchers' advertisements over that period. Then an increased love of our barbecues meant that The River Café's 1995 quicker-cooking recipe for butterflied lamb leg found a willing and immediate audience here. The popularity of lamb shoulder took off in Australia from about 2007 onwards, driven by the boom in slow-roasting and pulling meats like pork. Prior to this, shoulder was previously most often seen deboned, stuffed and rolled.
Call me a slave to fashion, but I far prefer these more recent methods of cooking lamb to the traditional roast leg or rolled shoulder, not least because they recall some of the texture and flavour of lamb cooked slowly on a spit, and when cooked this way it seems to lend itself to so many different culinary interpretations - whether Greek, Spanish, French, Uzbekistani, Uighur, Indian, Mexican, or Middle Eastern, as here.
1.6 kg boneless lamb shoulder
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 large carrots, peeled and cut into 3-4 cm pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
375ml chicken stock
1 small red onion, finely chopped
60ml lemon juice
80g flaked almonds, toasted
140g pistachio kernels, coarsely chopped and tossed in a little olive oil
115g fresh (medjool) dates, pitted and chopped into 1cm pieces
1 pomegranate, seeds removed
3/4 cup coarsely chopped coriander
1/4 cup coarsely chopped mint
Tahini yoghurt sauce:
280g Greek-style yoghurt
1 tablespoon tahini
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1. Preheat the oven to 160C (140C fan-forced). Use the tip of a small, sharp knife to score across the top of the lamb fat. Place the lamb into a roasting pan. Combine the water and half the pomegranate molasses, and pour around the lamb. Rub the remaining pomegranate molasses over the top of the lamb. Season well with salt and pepper. Cover with foil to completely seal.
2. Place the pan onto the middle shelf of the oven and roast for one hour.
3. While the lamb cooks, line a large baking tray with baking paper. Place the carrots onto the tray and drizzle with the oil. Season with salt and pepper. When the lamb has cooked for one hour, add the tray of carrots to the oven on the rack underneath the lamb. Roast together for 3 hours or until the carrots are tender and starting to caramelise.
4. Remove the carrots from the oven and set aside to cool. Remove the foil from the lamb. Increase the oven temperature to 180C (160C fan-forced). Roast the lamb for a further 30 minutes, or until it has a golden crust.
5. Meanwhile, to make the jewelled couscous, place the couscous in a heatproof bowl. Place the stock in a small saucepan and bring to the boil over a high heat. Pour over the couscous, cover and set aside for 5 minutes or until the liquid has absorbed. Uncover, add the butter and use a fork to fluff the grains. Set aside for 20 minutes to cool.
6. Place the onion and currants in a heatproof bowl. Place the lemon juice in a small jug and microwave on high for one to two minutes or until warm. Pour over the onion mixture and set aside for 15 minutes or until the currants are plump and the onion is lightly pickled.
7. Remove the lamb from the oven. Cover loosely with foil and set aside for 15 minutes to rest.
8. Once the couscous has cooled, add the onion mixture, almonds, pistachios, dates, pomegranate seeds, coriander and mint. Mix gently until evenly combined - don't overhandle the couscous, or it will become gluggy.
9. To make the tahini yoghurt sauce, mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and season with salt and pepper.
10. Toss the carrots through the couscous. Serve with the lamb and tahini yoghurt sauce.
Ceviche? Sabiche? Kokoda? Tiradito? Kinilaw?
The Spanish in Peru invented ceviche after taking power in the 16th century.
On the surface, the story of sebiche - which is what the Peruvian government would prefer you call their national dish, rather than ceviche - is a simple one. The Spanish arrived in Peru with onions, oranges and lemons in the sixteenth century, and promptly started curing raw fish. The idea came from Andalusian cooks and settlers who followed the conquistadors and colonists to new Spain. It is argued that the word sebiche or ceviche even comes from the Andalusian Arabic word for "pickled food".
By 1820, Peruvian soldiers were singing about 'sebiche' in their marching songs, and Juana M. Gorriti's 1890 Peruvian cookbook Cocina Eclectica (Eclectic cookbook' mentions leaving fish to pickle in orange juice for sebiche. At the same time, Peruvian writer Carlos Prince wrote of enjoying sebiche made with orange juice, chilli and salt. He was also particular about that spelling - as are the experts at the Peruvian Academy of Language. You see, siwichi is the indigenous Quechua word for "fresh fish", and the idea of curing fresh raw fish in an acidic or salty liquid was hardly new in Peru, whatever the Spanish colonisers might have claimed.
Pre-Incan archaeological sites in Peru's north-west show that people were eating raw fish cured with passionfruit more than 700 years before the Spanish arrived, and there is further proof that the Inca ate fish cured in their corn beer, chicha. (Remember that soldiers' marching song that mentions sebiche? Its title is "La Chicha".)
In fact, if you cast your eye around the Pacific you'll see raw fish dishes popping up everywhere. The Fijians have kokoda, there's ika mata in the Cook Islands, and Polynesian islands like Samoa and Tonga have 'ota 'ika. And, while much has been made of ceviche spreading through the Spanish colonies, we know that in the Philippines, they were already making kinilaw - their version of a sebiche - style dish - long before the Spanish arrived there. Its status as a pre-existing dish is mentioned in a 1613 Spanish-Tagalog dictionary.
While vinegar is the most commonly used souring agent for kinilaw these days, star fruit (or carambola), the sour fruit of the jocote trees and the juice of tabon-tabon were all traditionally employed in kinilaw before the Spanish brought vinegars.
The use of star fruit, or balimbing, as it is known in Tagalog, also raises an interesting question. Star fruit was brought to the Philippines by Austronesian traders and travellers. It was also Austronesians (people from the islands of the central and south Pacific) who were the first to push to settle Fiji three thousand years ago. Did they take kinilaw with them; or did kokoda arise from some deep cultural memory? Or did Fijians, like so many others around the Pacific, simply think this was a great idea for preparing fish?
But here's my real challenge. I'm not sure what this dish is. Is it a kokoda? Or does the late addition of coconut cream make it more of a Peruvian tiradito - a product of the Nikkei kitchen, from when Japanese migrants arrived in Lima from 1899 onwards and reinterpreted sebiche with a sashimi cut of fish, dressed with the curing liquid only just before serving? But the fish here is cubed and cured, which is not the way with tiradito. So, is it more a ceviche, employing as it does the citrus that the Spanish took to Peru?
I'm stumped. So, let's just call this dish "Pacifically Fish", because those are the two things that bind all these many versions of cured raw fish together - the vast Pacific Ocean and the freshest seafood that lives therein.
600g snapper or blue eye trevalla, cut into 1.5 cm cubes
3 long green chillies, seeded and finely chopped
125ml lime juice (see tips)
250g cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 small green capsicum, seeded and finely chopped
1 Lebanese cucumber, seeded and finely chopped
270ml can coconut cream, chilled and well shaken
coriander sprigs, to sprinkle
1. Place the fish and chilli in a glass or ceramic bowl and add the lime juice. Stir until well combined. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge, stirring every hour, for four hours or until the fish is opaque in colour - this shows it has been "cooked" by the acid in the juice. (Feel free to cure for less time if you like your fish that way.) The resulting liquid that the fish is paddling in is the magical liquor known as leche de tigre, or tiger's milk. It's great on its own as a shot, so if there is too much to plate up, don't throw it away whatever you do!
2. Add the tomato, onion, capsicum and cucumber to the fish mixture. Stir until well combined. Drizzle with coconut cream and sprinkle with coriander sprigs to serve.
Tip: You'll need about 8-10 limes, so make this when they aren't $2 each.
Barbecuing originally came from Jamaica.
The local legend is that Jamaica's Blue Mountains earnt their name from the barbecue smoke that constantly hung over the range, and it is from here that the famous Jamaican tradition of grilling spicy jerked meats comes.
Jerk itself is a traditional cooking method that originated with the Maroon people of the area. These communities date back to runaway slaves who joined with the indigenous Taino people in Jamaica's inaccessible interior to evade Spanish or English slaveholders.
The Maroons predate the English capture of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, but their numbers rocketed immediately following the invasion as slaves took the opportunity to escape once the Spanish left and before they could be put to work by the new colonial government.
The Taino peoples' traditional way of cooking or drying meat to preserve it was on a raised lattice of green wood - normally local pimento wood, from the tree that gives us allspice berries. We know this because when Christopher Columbus first landed in the Caribbean in 1492, he saw Taino people cooking meat on a rack of intertwined green wood sticks raised over a fire. It immediately earned the name barbacoa in Spanish, taken from the Taino word for such a grill.
Of course, back when the Maroons were hiding out in the country's mountainous interior, smoke would have been an obvious signal to the colonial militias that sought to eradicate or re-enslave them. Thus the slow-cooking and drying of meat became something that was done in ground ovens, where the smoke would be contained, rather than on green wood grills. It was a similar approach to a Maori hangi or Fijian lovo. The meat was usually wrapped in agave-like maguey leaves before being covered in earth to keep in both the heat and the smoke. The pimento wood used for the fires in these pit ovens, and indigenous Scotch bonnet chillies, gave jerk its signature flavour, while the roasted maguey leaves would impart a caramelly sweetness.
When the Maroons no longer needed to fear capture, they returned to slow-cooking meat over the fire with grills made from green pimento wood. When the technique was exported, the absence of the signature pimento wood meant homesick Jamaicans improvised by using the tree's dried allspice berries in a spice rub to bring in some of that flavour.
The history of jerk is so intertwined with the history of barbecuing that it is practically an ancestor of everything we cook over coals or gas in our backyards today. Thus, the Taino peoples of Caribbean islands like Jamaica can claim to be the creators of the barbecue.
However, if we trace the history of jerk, we can see that this technique is much older, and the first barbecues may have been born further south.
Most scholars believe that the Taino arrived in the Caribbean from South America. The Arawakan language group, of which Taino is considered to have been a part, stretched from the Colombian Andes to the northern Brazilian coast and included some of the Amazon basin. The circum-Caribbean theory espoused by American anthropologist Julian Haynes Steward posits that the Taino came to the Caribbean from the Andes.
Here in Latin America, Europeans also saw indigenous peoples cooking on a grill made of green sticks, and called it boucan, after the Tupi term for the technique (buccan). The Tupi are another major language group from northern South America. This shows us that the technique of drying, smoking and cooking meat on a grill was a common practice in the region from where the Taino are thought to have originally come.
The most plausible explanation for the origin of the words "jerk" and "jerky" is that they come from the Andes and the local Quechuan word for the smoky, slow drying process, charqi.
All of this seems to point to the fact that the Taino brought the grilling techniques of South America with them when they migrated to the Caribbean.
Interestingly, the process of underground cooking of ingredients wrapped in leaves like maguey is still common in Mexico under the name barbacoa. It is not certain whether that technique originated locally, or spread up from Central America or across from the Caribbean.
So, with all this evidence, linguistic and otherwise, it seems the origins of barbecue and jerk were in South America and not the Caribbean, so I don't feel at all guilty putting a local spin on it by amping up the spices!
1kg chicken wingettes (or wing nibbles)
2 tablespoons olive oil
coriander sprigs, to serve
lime wedges, to serve
1 small brown onion, coarsely chopped
3 spring onions, coarsely chopped
2 long fresh red chillies, seeded but the veins left in for heat, coarsely chopped (see tips)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped coriander
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3cm knob ginger, peeled, finely grated
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon lime juice
1. Blitz all the jerk marinade ingredients in a food processor until a smooth paste forms (the mixture is a wet paste).
2. Place the chicken in a glass or ceramic bowl. Add the marinade and toss to coat. Cover and place into the fridge for at least 30 minutes, or overnight, to marinate.
3. Preheat a barbecue grill on medium heat. Drizzle the chicken with oil. Add to the barbecue grill. Cook, turning regularly, for three to four minutes each side over direct heat, then move and cook over indirect heat for 15 minutes until cooked through. Alternatively, once you have given the wings some colour on the grill, transfer to a roasting pan and cook in the oven at 180C (160C fan-forced) for 10 minutes until cooked through. (Keep an eye on the little wingette pieces, as they will take less time than the larger pieces. When these are cooked, move them to the side of the grill to keep warm while the larger pieces cook through.)
4. Pile up your chicken on a serving platter and sprinkle with coriander. Serve with lime wedges
If you have a bit of time and don't like tendons around the exposed top of the bones in your wingettes, they are easy to remove - just cut the cartilage and bone. Then ease back the flesh down the bone, cutting any cartilage still attached. Now pull out the bones while easing down the meat. When the bones have been removed, roll back the flesh so the skin side faces out.
For a more authentic and far hotter burn, use Scotch bonnet or habanero chillies instead of long red chillies.
You can also serve these with buttered soft bread rolls and some sour cream, which will tame any savage heat and allow the spices to shine.
Roasted white chocolate family tart
The success of "Dazzler's Caramatt Tart" in my 2014 Cook Book prompted the current roasted white chocolate revolution in Australia.
I started my roasted white chocolate journey nearly a decade ago, when I worked with the inspirational Melbourne pâtissier Darren Purchese to develop a roasted white chocolate tart that reminded us of the Caramac chocolate bars of our youth.
The Caramac was first made in 1959 at the Mackintosh's chocolate factory in Norwich in the UK. It was basically a combination of milk, condensed milk, butter and sugar, but I reckon the condensed milk had been caramelised slowly to give the bar its golden colour and slightly toasty, nutty flavour. Making a roasted white chocolate ganache like this one was our take on the flavour, and it's been a hit at dinners and events we've put on from Abu Dhabi to Pretoria, and from the Melbourne Cup to the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Cooking down milk so it browns is not a new technique. In sixteenth-century India, the court of Akbar the Great would order vast amounts of saltpetre and Himalayan ice to make kulfi ice cream from cooked-down milk, while forgetful nineteenth century maids leaving pots of milk on the stove are credited with the invention of Latin American dulce de leche and Mexican cajeta.
Cooking condensed milk is a more recent invention. Norwegian housewives boiled cans of 'Viking Melk' to turn it brown and nutty during World War II, as did cooks in postwar Communist Bloc countries like Poland and the Ukraine. It was the popularity of banoffee pie in the 1970s that taught most Australian cooks the technique.
It wasn't until 2006, however, that "roasted white chocolate" became a thing, when Frédéric Bau, who worked for the Valrhona chocolate company, accidentally left some white chocolate buttons in a heated bain-marie overnight. The chocolate he found the next morning was a delicate, pale brown and tasted incredibly good, which gave him the idea of browning white chocolate intentionally. Bau was a lecturer at Valrhona's culinary school and included the technique in his lecture at the World Pastry Forum in 2009. This was seen by exchef and blogger David Lebovitz, who wrote about it online. Suddenly roasted white chocolate became an instant sensation in the US, even making an appearance in a roasted white chocolate panna cotta in Éric Ripert's 2010 cookery book, Avec Eric.
Here in Australia, our version of a caramelised chocolate bar was Caramilk, which was launched long before Darren and I made our roasted white chocolate tart. It was discontinued in 1994, but returned to the market to much fanfare in 2018 as we all fell in love with roasted white chocolate as the logical successor to the early 2000s craze for salted caramel. Try this tart and you'll know why
200g packet white chocolate, coarsely chopped
300ml thickened cream
150g unsalted butter, chopped
pinch sea salt flakes, plus extra to serve
sea salt flakes, shaved white chocolate and crème frache, to serve
Sweet shortcrust pastry:
225g plain flour
150g salted butter, chilled, chopped
2 tablespoons icing sugar mixture
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon chilled water
1. To make the pastry, process the flour, butter and icing sugar in a food processor until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add egg yolk and water. Process until the dough just comes together. Turn onto a lightly floured surface, gather and shape into a disc. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for 20 minutes to rest.
2. Roll out the dough on a sheet of baking paper until 3mm thick. Ease into a 2.5cm deep, 22cm (base measurement) fluted tart tin with removable base. Press pastry into the flutes of the tin. Trim excess pastry. Place in the fridge for 20 minutes to chill.
3. Preheat oven to 200C (180C fan-forced). Line the pastry with a large sheet of baking paper. Place tin on a baking tray and fill with pastry weights or rice. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove paper and weights or rice. Bake for a further 10 minutes or until slightly golden and crisp. Set aside to cool.
4. Reduce the oven temperature to 140C (120C fan-forced). Place the chocolate in a shallow roasting tray. Bake, stirring the chocolate every 10 minutes with a spatula to spread and melt on the tray, for 20-30 minutes or until the chocolate turns a rich caramel colour (the chocolate may look grainy but continue to mix and it will melt and eventually become smooth). Stir in the cream until well combined (the mixture may start to look lumpy). Bake, stirring every five minutes, for a further 10-15 minutes or until smooth. Stir in the butter and salt.
5. Pour chocolate mixture into the pastry case. Place in the fridge for three to four hours until set.
6. Decorate with a big pinch of sea salt flakes and shaved white chocolate curls - use a sharp knife or potato peeler to make these. Serve with crème frache.
Tip: For fancier chocolate curls, fill a large bowl with plenty of iced water. Pipe small amounts of melted white chocolate into the water in squiggles and watch them set. Carefully lift them out to dry on a paper towel. When dry, arrange on top of the tart.