Oxtail rendang

‘Tis the weekend to deck the halls. In Lichfield they are taking this to extremes, with this extraordinary installation of paper angels in the Cathedral. They hang from the vaulted ceiling as if tumbling from the heavens. Simple but very effective.

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Angel installation in Lichfield Cathedral

In the more simple surroundings of Bearwood, someone’s been getting all hygge… At the advanced age of 2-and-a-half, Gertie is finally appreciating the joy of a naked flame. (Yes I know it’s gas and therefore not a real fire, but it’ll do.)

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Gertie enjoys the fire

These short, dark days demand warming food. I love to have stews, soups and pies squirreled away in the freezer, ready for a quick nourishing supper or lunch. I say ‘quick’, but that’s a misnomer. They’re quick to defrost, but certainly not to cook in the first place. And so I present oxtail rendang, a country-girl take on the traditional Malay classic. This takes hours to cook – even longer if you decide to use fresh coconut, as I did – but it’s simple enough and packs a punch of flavour on a cold Monday evening.

Rendang is usually made with braising steak (the Rick Stein recipe that I adapted recommends blade or chuck) but I had some oxtail in the freezer and an idea that its rich, gelatinous quality would suit this slow-cooked creamy coconut curry well. I was correct! This rendang is aromatic with lemongrass, lime leaves, chillies and cinnamon, but the most important ingredient is the coconut. It’s best to make this a day ahead so that it’s completely cold when you flake the meat from the bones – plus it tastes better this way. Make double, freeze the leftovers, and there’s a good meal waiting patiently for when it’s needed.

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Crack yourself a coconut

So dear reader, first, crack a coconut*. You can do this the hard way as I did, with a pruning saw (yes really), or the easy way, as shown on this video. Once you’re in, remove the flesh and pulse it to a pebbly-powder in the food processor.  *Or you could just buy some ready-prepared fresh coconut from the supermarket, your choice. I have tried this recipe with desiccated coconut and it’s not as good, so go fresh if you can.

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Pulse the coconut to a pebbly-powder in the food processor

The coconut is the basis for our curry paste. Measure out 50g blitzed coconut (freeze any leftovers) and toast in a dry frying pan until golden all over. Tip the now-aromatic coconut back into the food processor along with 4 dried Kashmiri chillies, a knob of fresh peeled ginger, 3 cloves of garlic, 1 small onion and 3 fresh red chillies. Blitz for a minute or two until finely chopped. In a pestle and mortar, bash 1 tbsp coriander seeds with 1/2 tsp cumin seeds until powdery, then add to the food processor with 1/2 tsp turmeric. Blitz the lot with 100ml or so of water until it reaches a smooth paste – you may need to keep the machine running for several minutes.

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Blitz the coconut with chillies, spice, garlic, chilli and onion to make the spice paste

That’s the hard bit done and we can get on with assembly! Brown your beef pieces in frying pan with a little oil. I used four pieces of oxtail that together weighed about 1.5kg, but you could use regular braising steak if preferred. When brown, remove the beef to a pot along with two cinnamon sticks, three bashed stalks of lemongrass and 12 kaffir lime leaves. You can buy frozen lime leaves from specialist Asian grocers and they’re waaaay better than the dried ones.

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Brown the oxtail, then pop in a pot along with lime leaves, cinnamon sticks and lemongrass

To make the sauce, heat a little oil in a frying pan, then add the curry paste and cook over a medium heat for about 10 minutes, until most of the water has evaporated. You’ll know this because the ‘hissing’ noise of the cooking paste will begin to sound different. Once you’re there, add two cans of coconut milk (800ml), 1 dsp of tamarind water (I use the ready-made kind) and 1 tbsp palm sugar or dark brown sugar and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer then add the sauce to the meat.

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Cook the spice paste over a medium heat…

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…add the coconut milk and bring to a simmer

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Add the sauce to the meat, along with a dollop of tamarind and sugar, then cook for three or more hours

The curry now needs cooking for a very long time. You can do this on the hob, but I always prefer to use the oven – 3 hours at 120c should do it, but longer wouldn’t hurt. Remove the lid for the last thirty minutes of cooking to reduce the sauce slightly. Once the meat is flaking from the bones, remove from the heat and leave the whole lot to cool.

At this point we have a photo fail, as it’s dark at 4pm and therefore impossible to take useful images without expensive kit that I don’t possess. So you’ll have to take my word for it: the next step is to remove the meat from the bones, and the only way to do this is with your fingers! So remove every scrap of meat that you can and add it back to the sauce. Check for seasoning, reheat and serve.

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BAD PICTURE APOLOGY. Shred the meat from the bones, add back to the sauce, and serve up with rice and sides.

As well as rice, I think this rendang needs some good sides to go with it. I usually make a little plate of  toasted peanuts, sliced red onions that I’ve tossed with rice vinegar, and a few slices of tomato and cucumber. You have a dinner that’s warm, vaguely familiar (it is a beef stew after all) but deliciously exotic for winter nights.

Oxtail rendang
Adapted from Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey. Serves 4-6.

For the curry paste:
5og fresh coconut
4 dried red Kashmiri chillies
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 small onion
3 large cloves garlic
knob ginger
3 red chillies
100ml or so water

For the curry:
Vegetable oil
1.5kg oxtail (or braising steak, diced)
4 lemongrass stalks, bashed with a knife
12 keffir lime leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
800ml coconut milk
1 dessertspoon tamarind water
1 tablespoon palm sugar or dark brown sugar
Salt, to taste

For the paste, blitz the coconut in a food processor until fine. Toast the coconut in a dry frying pan until golden, then tip into the food processor and blitz with the dried and fresh chillies, onions, garlic and ginger. Bash the coriander and cumin in a pestle and mortar until fine, then add to the food processor. Add the turmeric. Blitz again with the water until it becomes a smooth paste.

Brown the meat in a little oil until browned on all sides, then place in a pot with the lemongrass, lime leaves and cinnamon.

Heat a little more oil in the frying pan and cook the curry paste for about 10 minutes, until the water evaporates. Add the coconut milk, tamarind, sugar and salt, bring to a simmer then pour over the meat.

Cook at 120c for at least three hours, until meat is tender. Leave the lid off the meat for the last half hour to thicken the sauce. When cooked, remove the oxtail from the curry and flake the meat from the bones. Add the meat back to the sauce, reheat and serve.

Pheasant in spiced orange juice

The quiet couldn’t last long. After being abruptly pulled back into the world of work, I’ve spent the past hour happily compiling a playlist of club classics to use as warm-ups in my first ‘proper’ yoga classes. Groove is in the heart? Where love lives? Suddenly old favourites take on a new life.

Speaking of old favourites, today’s recipe is a Vietnamese take on the French classic duck a l’orange. I’m not sure if the French pinched the idea from the Vietnamese, or if the Vietnamese pinched it from the French, but either way, this is a great dish to have up your sleeve, particularly in January when citrus is in season and inexpensive. I got the idea from Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey, where he braised duck with orange, bird’s eye chilli and ginger, and have adapted it to the English winter by using pheasant. I’ve also added in kaffir lime leaves, which is probably not authentic, but I love them. Any dish that begins life with this much colour is always going to end well.

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Sunshine on a cloudy day: you need oranges, chillies, ginger and lemongrass

The recipe calls for about 1 litre of orange juice. I squeezed my own, but you could equally get some ready juiced – try and use fresh juice though, not concentrate.

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Squeeze those fruits

Next thing to do is to prep the aromatics. They will all be strained out afterwards so there’s no need to be too precise. Thinly slice the ginger and bash the garlic and lemon grass; the chillies can stay whole. Star anise adds a background hum, and if you can find them, kaffir lime leaves give an elusive fresh citrus zing.

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Prep all the aromatics…

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…chucking in a kaffir lime leaf if you have any

Once all that is done, prepare the pheasant (or duck, if you’re going down that road). Pheasant skin doesn’t add anything to the party so I remove it, and then I joint the bird into three pieces (two legs and one breast bone. Discard the back bone). Give it a good rinse, pat dry, and we’re good to go.

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Joint, skin and dry the pheasant

This is a classic braise so the usual rules apply: brown the meat and set to one side whilst you soften the aromatics, put the meat back in the pan with liquid and flavourings, and leave to splutter for an hour or two. So first, brown the pheasant on each side in a little sunflower oil.

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Brown the pheasant then set to one side

Next we briefly soften the ginger and garlic, before putting the pheasant back into the pan with the lemongrass, chillies, star anise, kaffir lime leaf and the orange juice. I sieved the OJ to remove the pips, but that’s optional.

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Saute the garlic and ginger…

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…before adding everything back to the pan. Season, pop the lid on and simmer for 90 minutes.

Now we need to season, which means a splash of fish sauce, a little sugar and a grind of black pepper. No salt needed, due to the fish sauce. Pop the lid on and leave it to simmer on the lowest possible heat for about 90 minutes, by which time the pheasant will be tender. Cooking it in this way helps to prevent it drying out – this bird came from the freezer and could easily have been tough as old boots, but braised to beautifully tender shreds.

Once it’s cooked, remove the pheasant and shred the meat from the bones. I like to strain the sauce (no-one wants to chew on a star anise – ugh) before reducing and thickening with a little cornflour, then the meat is returned to the sauce.

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Reduce and thicken for a gently spiced sauce.

And that’s it! Serve garnished with spring onion, accompanied by rice and a plate of stir-fried greens. This is a surprisingly mild but incredibly flavourful dish, and is a classic example of making a little go a really long way: one pheasant is enough for four people with a few side dishes. Despite the exotic ingredients, it feels familiar – it’s just a stew, when all said and done – and is perfect to warm the cockles on a cold January day.

Pheasant braised in spiced orange juice

Adapted from Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey. Use duck or chicken if you prefer. Serves 4 with rice and veggie sides.

1 large pheasant, oven-ready

splash sunflower oil

4 cloves of garlic, peeled

large thumb of ginger, peeled

1 litre freshly squeezed orange juice

5 star anise

4 red bird’s eye chillies (leave them whole)

2 lemongrass stalks

4 tbsp fish sauce

1 tbsp granulated sugar

freshly ground black pepper

4 spring onions, thinly sliced

1 heaped tsp cornflour

First, prep the aromatics. Bash the lemongrass and garlic but leave them whole, and thinly slice the ginger.

Prep the pheasant. Rip the skin off then joint into four pieces (you can keep the breast in one whole piece.Discard the back bone and skin.) Give the pheasant a good wash and pat dry with kitchen towel.

In a casserole dish, heat the oil then brown the pheasant on all sides and remove to a plate. Soften the garlic and ginger for a minute or two, then replace the pheasant with the chillies, star anise and lemongrass. Add the orange juice (you can sieve it if it’s full of pips). Season with fish sauce, sugar and black pepper. You probably won’t need salt. Pop the lid on and cook on the lowest heat for about 90 minutes – give it a stir every now and then.

When the pheasant is tender, remove the meat from the liquid. When it’s cool enough to handle pull the meat from the bones, shredding them into large chunks. Discard the bones.

Strain the liquid through a sieve into a new pan and reduce on a high heat until the sauce is richly flavoured. Mix the cornflour with a little water and add to the sauce to thicken. Return the pheasant and bubble gently for a few minutes to heat the meat through. Give it a taste and add more fish sauce, pepper or salt as you need to. Garnish with sliced spring onions and serve.