By Annabel Langbein
Many years ago I spent a very cold night outside, up in the high Altiplano of Argentina. My ride had dropped me in the tiny hamlet of Humahuaca, where I discovered three fellow hitch-hikers - a Peruvian guy and two Argentinians - heading north on the same road. We decided our best chances were to band up in twos and made a pact to meet up at the next signposted town and stay the night there.
The Peruvian and I scored the first ride and, about an hour up the valley, we came to a new road sign with a name on it. As per the plan, we hopped out. But there was no town, just the beginnings of a building site - foundations and the base of some rock walls, a few 44 gallon drums and a pile of old goat skins. We called out loud hellos and holas into the gathering darkness, but nobody replied.
As the light fell, the cold seeped in. At 3500m, this high plateau is known in Quechua as the Puna, or the cold lands. The days are fiercely hot and the nights beyond bitter. The two Argentine boys arrived and, once they had got over their disbelief, we set to making a fire. The four of us spent the night in the tightest huddle we could make, drinking tea and taking turns to be on the outside.
I thought about home and my mother's cooking a lot that night, remembering all the comforting dishes she would cook us in winter, and the way their lip-smacking aromas created a wonderful sense of welcome. In the lull of such soothing reminiscences, the night slowly inched by and the dawn finally arrived. Nearby, the creek was covered in a 20cm-thick ice crust and all around us the 44 gallon drums that had been filled with water on our arrival were rock-solid ice.
A group of workers arrived to continue their building project. Shaking their heads and laughing in disbelief, all they could say was: "Dieciocho a bajo, y todos ustedes estan vivos!" ("Minus 18 and you are all alive!")
Some things you don't forget. When the cold sets in, I find myself turning to the heart-warming dishes my mother always made. My trusty slow cooker is a lifesaver as a shortcut in the preparation process - everything goes in at once before I head to work. When I get home, cold, tired and often late, the house smells delicious and dinner has, quite simply, cooked itself.
This week I'm sharing three classic slow-cooked dishes to see you through the last few weeks of winter. They are all big recipes so you can freeze the leftovers for another day or enjoy them in a pie, lasagne or moussaka later in the week.
Slow Cooker Bolognaise
Prep 10 mins
Cook 4-8 hours
1kg beef mince
10 rashers streaky bacon, diced (optional)
1 cup grated parmesan
3 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
2 onions, finely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 leek, white and half of green parts finely sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp ground nutmeg
2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
½ cup tomato paste
1 cup white wine or chicken or beef stock
¼ cup cornflour
Combine all ingredients except tomato paste, wine and cornflour in slow cooker. Mix tomato paste, wine and cornflour until smooth then stir into mince mixture. Cover and cook on high power for 4 hours or low power for 7-8 hours. Serve with spaghetti, a sprinkling of grated parmesan and a salad or green veges.
Annabel says: Slow cooking renders out the fat in meat. It rises to the top and can be scooped off with a spoon, or if you are making your dish a day or two in advance (slow-cooked meals reheat well and improve in flavour after a couple of days) the fat will harden on the surface in the fridge, making it easy to lift off and discard.
Prep 15 mins
Cook 6-10 hours
2kg bone-in, shank-off lamb or merino oyster shoulder, trimmed
6 carrots, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, cut into batons
2 large onions, cut into thin wedges
4 cloves garlic, halved
2 cups water or chicken or lamb stock
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
2 bay leaves
2 tsp thyme leaves
1 tsp flaky salt
2 cups frozen peas, thawed
Juice of 1 lemon
Place all ingredients except peas and lemon juice in a slow-cooker. Cover and cook on high power for 6 hours or on low power for 10 hours. Just before serving, skim off and discard any fat that has accumulated on the surface. Discard bay leaves. Stir in peas and lemon juice. Adjust seasonings to taste and serve hot.
Annabel says: Garlic, lemon, thyme and bay leaves deliver clean aromatic flavours in this classic French casserole, which can be made with lamb or mutton. If I'm making it in the spring with new-season lamb I usually add spring vegetables like baby turnips, carrots and peas. In the winter I make it with carrots, onions and celery and add frozen peas right at the end. Cook it up to two days in advance, chill it so you can easily skim off the fat, then reheat before serving.
Tender Beef Bourguignon
Prep 20 mins
Cook 6-10 hours
1.3-1.5kg stewing beef, such as shin or cross-cut, trimmed and cut into 3cm chunks
½ cup rice flour or plain flour
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
6 rashers streaky bacon, diced
500g mushrooms, halved or quartered
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
2 cups red wine or beef stock
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp soft brown sugar
2 tsp chopped rosemary leaves
¼ cup chopped parsley, to serve
Place beef in slow cooker with flour, salt and pepper and toss to coat. Add all other ingredients except parsley and mix to combine. Cover and cook on high power for 6 hours or low power for 9-10 hours. Stir through parsley just before serving with mashed potato and lightly cooked green vegetables.
Annabel says: Tough, muscular cuts of meat like beef shank, cheek and chuck are best cooked long and slow as they contain lots of tough, sinewy collagen that will break down into rich gelatin when cooked gently over a long period.
Cheap Thrills (Annabel Langbein Media, $24.95) is on sale now at Paper Plus, The Warehouse and all good bookstores. See annabel-langbein.com or follow Annabel on Facebook or Instagram.