My mother Anne was a natural cook and a home science university graduate. Her well-honed cooking skills and astute relationship with Cryil the butcher, coupled with my father’s prodigious garden efforts, provided us with an interesting and nutritious diet.
I still have her box of recipe cards in my office and some of those meals we grew up on have become my own family’s favourites. I love the provenance in that. I can still remember coming home from school and chorusing to find out what was for dinner. Stews and casseroles were never popular and would inevitably produce a joint wail of despair. Now I love these recipes. How tastes change.
Each week mum would hop in the car and head to downtown Wellington to cash her housekeeping check at Cyril’s butchery in upper Cuba Street (it’s now a groovy café). She would be armed with the list of meals she had planned out for the coming week and her comments about the meat from the previous week. If the steak was tough or the silverside dry, Cyril would get to know about it, and if it was tender she would ardently voice her appreciation. At the time it seemed endlessly boring. I was required to tag along and endure one of Cyril’s cherrios from out of the cabinet. Cold and slabby with fat, it wasn’t something I looked forward to, but somehow it felt awfully rude to refuse. I would shuffle around in the sawdust floor feeling embarrassed and overwhelmed by the smell of raw meat. But mother’s cultivation of Cyril, sharing her recipes and talking about the meals she had made and little snippets from her life, was, when I look back on it, really smart. It meant we ate great meat. And it’s not until you eat bad meat that you realise what a gift it is to have a good butcher in your life. Good meat starts with good farming practises –animals that roam free and healthy with free grass to graze always make for good eating. Feeding beef on grains such as corn is entirely contrary to their digestive system.
In the hands of a good butcher, meat undergoes the careful process of hanging and ageing which will render it tender and succulent. Without proper ageing, meat is rubbery and tough and lacks flavour. Properly butchered meat is never washed, it needs to be kept dry and in this way it will keep better. If you buy meat wrapped in plastic, the best thing you can do as soon as you get it home, is to unwrap it, put it on a plate and cover it with waxed paper. That way it won’t sweat. If you aren’t planning to serve steak on the day you buy it, then you are best to buy the meat in a piece and cut it just prior to cooking. It ages better in the piece.
Even if we were eating the simplest meals, mother would always set a beautiful table and light the candles. Her philosophy was driven by a deep respect for nature. Everything we eat (or would want to eat) starts out as a seed or a spore, often taking months, sometimes years, to reach maturity. And so it seems only right that when nature goes to such efforts to provide us with such wonderful resources, we take a little time to prepare them and celebrate and enjoy the eating.
Here’s a really useful recipe for Harissa – a delicious, fragrant rub for grilled and barbecued meats.