One of the worst meals I have ever had the misfortune to endure occurred quite recently, in the city of Cognac, in the southwest of France. While browsing in a fabulous little second-hand shop, I'd struck up a conversation with the woman behind the front desk, about the wonderful restaurant where Ted and I had dined the previous evening.
"Yes," she said, "isn't that just the best restaurant! If you loved that, then I know a restaurant you MUST go to. They have a very fancy, expensive restaurant but just next door they have a bistro, and the food there is excellent, simply excellent, and not so pricey." I wrote down the name and, after some wrangling on the phone, managed to secure a reservation for that evening.
Once we were seated, I perused the menu, opting for the two specials of the day - a starter of poisson cru with yoghurt bark sounded intriguing, followed by the fish of the day. Red mullet, my favourite. The first course arrived, a greyish slop of what looked like watery mashed potato. A small taste was more than enough to confirm my fears. Watery, ice-cold mashed potato mixed with unseasoned yoghurt and slabs of raw fish. Uggh. Ahh well, I had the fish to look forward to … The fish arrived - two meagre fillets slathered with what looked like marmalade, sitting on a bed of beans, zucchini and broccoli, which had been cooked to the taupe end of green. The fish was overcooked to a plank - and yes, it was topped with marmalade.
Things can taste off-beam when they aren't fresh, when they're burnt or stale, or the balance of flavours is out-of-kilter with too much salt or not enough acid. This was a whole new level of wrong, it was so bizarre, incongruous and awful. Ted and I decided that the rose-tinted recall of the nice shop girl could not have had anything to do with the food, maybe it was the company, we mused.
This dreadful eating experience got me thinking about how easy it really is to make food that tastes good. A simple blend of diced aromatic vegetables, coaxed into melting sweetness with oil or butter and a slow, gentle heat continues to be the mainstay behind many a good dish. In Spain, this mixture goes by the name sofrito, and is made with olive oil, onions, garlic, peppers and tomatoes. The Portuguese make their version with olive oil, garlic onions, tomatoes and bay leaves and call it sufrito. In Italy there is sofritto, made with olive oil, onions, celery and carrots, sometimes garlic, while the French call their version mirepoix and make it with butter, quite precisely at a ratio of two parts onion to one each of carrots, celery and, sometimes, leeks.
In all its guises, this fragrant springboard has prevailed over centuries of good cooking. Here it comes to play in a satisfying soup, a classic Italian braise and a tasty vegetable pie.
Green goodness soup
You can make this vegan by using olive oil in place of butter and using vegetable stock in place of chicken stock.
Ready in 45 minutes
3 Tbsp butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 leeks, white part and a little of the green, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
1 tsp thyme leaves
4 small potatoes, peeled and halved
8 cups vegetable or chicken stock
12 silverbeet leaves, stalks and leaves separated and chopped
12 kale leaves, stripped from stems and chopped
½ cup parsley leaves, finely chopped
1 Tbsp butter
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Heat the butter in a large pot, add onions garlic, leeks, bay leaf and thyme. Season with salt and pepper and cook until lightly softened (15-20 minutes).
Add potatoes, stock and silverbeet stalks, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Add silverbeet leaves, kale and parsley and simmer for 5 minutes.
Stir in butter, salt and pepper. Blend coarsely with a hand stick blender – it's better slightly chunky, rather than pureed smooth.
This classic Italian stew is even better made a day or two ahead so the flavours can develop. You can also make it with beef shin or lamb shanks, which are less expensive than veal. The gremolata adds a vibrant finishing note and is a useful garnish for any kind of slow cook or braise.
Ready in 3-3½ hours
6-8 pieces veal shank, cut 6cm thick
¼ cup flour
Salt and ground black pepper
3-4 Tbsp olive oil, for browning
4 rashers streaky bacon, diced
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 onions, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely diced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
2 tsp chopped rosemary leaves
1 tsp fennel seeds
1-2 tsp chopped red chilli
Juice and zest of 2 large lemons, finely grated
½ cup vermouth or dry white wine
400g can chopped tomatoes
4 cups chicken or veal stock
GREMOLATA, to serve
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
½ cup chopped parsley
Preheat oven to 180C. Place veal in a bowl and sprinkle with flour, salt and pepper, turning to coat all over. Shake off and discard excess flour.
Heat 2 Tbsp of the oil in a large, deep, ovenproof pan and brown veal well on all sides, working in batches and adding a little more oil to pan between batches so they brown evenly. Transfer to a plate.
Add bacon to pan and fry for a few seconds. Add the garlic, onions, carrots, celery, rosemary, fennel seeds, chilli and lemon zest. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until nicely browned (about 10-15 minutes).
Add vermouth or wine and allow to sizzle, then add lemon juice, tomatoes (including juice) and stock. Stir well to loosen any brownings from the base of the pan and bring to a simmer. Add the browned meat, standing it upright so the marrow doesn't fall out. Cover and bake for 2-2½ hours or until meltingly tender.
If making ahead, cook for 1½ hours, cool and chill overnight or up to 72 hours. When ready to cook, skim off the fat, bring the dish back to a boil and simmer or bake for a further hour.
Mix together gremolata ingredients just before serving. To serve, adjust seasonings to taste and sprinkle with gremolata.
Spinach and feta open pie
Ready in 1 hour
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 leek, white part and a little of the green, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
1 tsp thyme leaves
300g silverbeet or spinach leaves, chopped
200g feta, crumbled
Zest of ½ a lemon, finely grated
½ cup chopped soft herbs, such as parsley, dill, mint or basil
½ cup milk
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
6 sheets filo pastry
2 Tbsp butter, melted
Preheat oven to 180C fan bake and lightly grease a 27-28cm diameter heavy-based frying pan with a heatproof handle.
Heat oil in a medium pot, add onion, garlic, leek, bay leaf and thyme. Season with salt and pepper and cook until lightly softened (15-20 minutes).
Add silverbeet or spinach, cover and cook until wilted (2-3 minutes). Remove from heat and stir in feta, zest and herbs. Whisk together eggs, milk, salt and pepper and stir into the feta mixture.
Brush a filo sheet with butter, fold it in half then place it across the middle of the prepared frying pan. Brush more butter on the top. Repeat with remaining 5 filo sheets, placing each on a 10-degree angle to the one before, with the pastry overlapping a little at the edges of the pan.
Spoon in the filling, spread out and bake until set and golden (40 minutes). Serve warm or at room temperature.
Match these with
by Yvonne Lorkin
(Green goodness soup)
Te Mānia Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($22)
Nelson sauvignon blanc has its own frisky, floral style and "come sit next to me at the bonfire" flirtatiousness. Organically crafted and intensely fresh, your glass of Te Mānia will erupt with lemon, lime juice, bruised basil and gentle capsicum characters. It's juicy, palate-friendly and not at all squinty (like some high-acid southern sauvignons can be); plus, it's blessed with a lick of lemonade for extra loveliness and it's exactly the kind of sauvignon that'll enhance all the green goodness in this soup.
Atzei Saragat Cannonau di Sardegna DOC 2020 ($27)
The dolls on the Saragat labels celebrate the traditional dress of the women who've been the main winemakers in Sardinian families since aeons ago. Crafted from cannonau grapes grown in the Mogoro sub-region of the province of Oristano, this wine has been fermented warm in stainless steel to preserve its bright berries, its fabulous florals and its incredibly smooth, velvety textures. It oozes excellence with rich osso bucco. touchofitaly.co.nz or accentonwine.co.nz
(Spinach and feta open pie)
Tinpot Hut McKee Vineyard Marlborough Gruner Veltliner 2018 ($25)
Crafted from grapes grown in Marlborough's Awatere Valley (which, if separated out from the rest of the province, would be New Zealand's second-largest wine region), this gruner from winemaker Fiona Turner is drier and has more depth of spice and minerality than much of the lighter, fruitier styles from around the country. I like its gorgeously grainy texture, its lemon and white peach mid-palate and warming textures on the finish. Gum-tingling, ticklish tannins make this pretty darn sensational with this spinach and feta feast. tinpothut.co.nz