A quick glance at my recipe list easily gives the impression that I am a vegetarian, but then people sometimes take a quick glance at me and assume I’m vegetarian (am I that pale?). I do cook a lot of vegetarian food, but I also eat meat on a regular basis. It wasn’t always this way though. My history with meat is somewhat checkered; still is, a little, otherwise I wouldn’t feel compelled to give a back story to the first meaty recipe to appear on this blog.
I was raised carnivorous, and really there are few other ways to be growing up on a farm in rural New Zealand. Our pet lambs always landed up on the table eventually, with our parents informing us partway through the meal that we were eating Tommy or Rambo or Jack. I can’t ever recall feeling upset about this, possibly because by the time they were large enough to be butchered, our cute little lambs had long grown up, reintegrated with the flock and been forgotten by us children. We were protected from the slaughter itself, although one exception was the time that Mum told my sister and I to stay in the backyard because Poppa was killing chickens. Well of course we couldn’t resist the temptation to climb to the very top of our jungle gym so we could see what was happening over the fence.
My favourite childhood meal was fat homemade potato chips, fried eggs, crumbed weiner schnitzel and Mum’s amazing homemade tomato sauce. I can still taste this meal. I would eat it right this very second if I could. It sounds indulgent – and it was – but we only ate it occasionally as a weekend treat. As a woman who came of age during the hippie era, Mum was an old hand at sprouting mung beans. We always had brown rice and brown bread, and breakfast was porridge or Weetbix, with Cocoa Pops only an occasional treat during school holidays. We lived more than two hours drive from the nearest McDonald’s and half an hour from the nearest supermarket. Almost everything we ate was homemade.
I never thought twice about meat growing up. Until I was 14, it was just food that we ate almost every night. My first boyfriend changed all that. He was from the UK and his family had some distinctly different ideas about food and food practices. At his place, a jug of water and glasses were an essential addition to the dinner table. In most other homes I knew, if you wanted a drink of water during dinner you excused yourself from the table to get it from the tap. Anyway, this boyfriend had an acne-problem and he was quite phobic about fat. One day he joined my family for a BBQ dinner and piled a mountain of salad on his plate, adding only a small piece of meat. I must have asked him about it, because he went on to talk about the fat content of meat and the virtues of salad, subtly disapproving of the proportions on my plate. At the time I was too intimidated to ask him why he had covered his entire salad with a thick layer of grated cheese.
Although that boyfriend didn’t last long, from that day onwards I began to reduce the amount of meat I consumed. Despite these dubious origins, I did begin to perceive that a heavy meat meal felt less comfortable in my stomach than a meal dominated by vegetables. Two or three years later I read my mother’s old copy of Fit for Life, and subsequently developed an interest in nutrition, naturopathy and organics. I began to eat vegetarian at times, and was interested to see how this created some ripples at home, particularly with my grandmother who strongly believed that eating meat was sanctioned in the Bible and thus a kind of holy obligation. Food, health, politics and religion became inextricably intertwined. Eating became more exciting, what I would later come to think of as an ideological act.
At 18, I moved to the city to attend university. The quality of my diet plummeted as I joined my new friends in the novelty of pizza deliveries, fast food and midnight meals at Denny’s. At 20, I reconnected with my earlier focus and decided to radically overhaul my diet. Sandra Cabot’s Liver Cleansing Diet was all the rage, and I embarked on a strict vegan diet. I felt good physically, but the deprivation got to me after a while. For the next few years I oscillated between periods of being ultra-healthy and longer periods of completely letting go. My ‘healthy’ periods were dominated by zealous vegetarianism and new foods like tempeh and seaweed. I wasn’t a very good cook back then, and much of what I ate was bland and unsatisfying. It’s no wonder that I always broke and swung completely the other way. Although I still identified as vegetarian, the highly processed hamburgers at Burger King were my frequent and guilty addiction. It was during these times that I lost my ability to enjoy the taste of fruit and would forget about the vegetables rotting out of sight in the fridge. This would continue until a feeling of revulsion would engender a new wave of reform.
By my mid- to late 20’s I was beginning to relax a little. Colin and I started to eat out at better quality restaurants and I grew to love simple Mediterranean meals like pasta with roasted vegetables, feta and olives in salad, and caramelised onion tart. I realised that I had been sacrificing flavour for ‘health’ and that it was possible for food to taste wonderful and be good for you. With newly inspired tastebuds, I grew more adventurous and sought to try all sorts of new foods. It was probably inevitable that one night at a restaurant I asked Colin if I could try a bite of his steak. That first mouthful was strangely tasteless and disconcertingly rubbery, but there came a time when Colin ordered a medium-rare eye fillet steak…and well, it was deliciously soft and juicy. Before long I began to actively identify as “meat-curious”; a tongue-in-(beef)cheek construction that referenced an increasing delight in food.
While there have been further experiments, these days I’m open to almost any food. There has been much discussion in the blogosphere lately on intuitive eating, and while I now have an aversion to following any specific approach to food, I do feel some affinity with this philosophy. I eat meat when I feel like it; generally about twice a week, maybe more in winter, but I can easily go for two or three weeks without it. I’m very aware these days of how food makes me feel physically. Lots of vegetables and fruit make my stomach feel content, while too much meat, fried food and sugar makes me heavy and irritated. Like everyone, I have periods when I don’t eat so well because life gets busy. Episodes of indigestion tell me when I need to stop eating crackers and cheese for dinner. I’ve found that the quickest way to restore a sense of balance is to spend a week or two eating according to my Ayurvedic body type (Vatta), emphasising warm and soft foods like brown rice, quinoa porridge and lentil soup.
One of my favourite ways to eat meat is in slow-cooked winter casseroles. I love how this process turns tough cuts into meltingly tender morsels – even now, meat hinges on texture for me and any hint of toughness or gristle switches me right off. The recipe below is loosely based on a recipe for Beef Bourguignon although I have changed the flavours and quantities considerably. I cooked it all day in a slow cooker, but it is also possible to bake it for 2-3 hours in a moderate oven later in the day.
Asian-spiced Beef Casserole
1-2kg stewing beef, such as blade, chuck or gravy beef
Whole spices, including 1-2 cinnamon sticks, 2-3 star anise, a thumb sized piece of fresh ginger (peeled and sliced), 1-2 chillies
2 cups red wine
3 slices of bacon, diced
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
Selection of fresh vegetables, such as carrots, red onion, red capsicum, baby turnips
Beef or chicken stock
Soy sauce, to taste
Begin this recipe the night before. Trim any fat off the meat and cut into 3cm chunks. Place in a large bowl along with the spices and just cover with red wine. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.
The next morning, remove the meat from the wine (reserve the liquid and spices), pat dry the meat then fry it in batches until lightly browned. Place the browned meat in the slow-cooker bowl. Quickly fry off the diced bacon and garlic in the pan you used to fry the meat, then give the carrots and onions a few minutes in the pan to take on a little extra flavour. Place the bacon and vegetables in the bowl with the meat, and add other vegetables, such as whole baby turnips and strips of red capsicum. Pour over the reserved wine and spices. De-glaze the frying pan with stock, and add to the bowl, topping up with extra stock until the liquid just reaches the top of the meat. Add a good dash of soy sauce, pop the lid on and cook on slow until dinnertime.