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25 Nov 2009 - 12:25 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

There’s something marvellous about winter cooking. The fact that you can use tougher cuts of meat, those bits with more inherent flavour, and braise them down to unimaginable softness. When you add a wood fired cooker into the mix, the action is longer, slower, and more gentle than ever. The flavours cleaner, more interesting. I don’t want to believe in it, but I do.

I’ve started putting beef shin in a pot in the cooker with some vegetables, maybe carrot, parsnip, plenty of onion. In goes the red wine, on goes a lid, and the next morning there’s a fully cooked beef dish with the texture of fillet steak, for an eighth of the price. I make daube, also with beef shin, sometimes on the bone, with orange, star anise, juniper berries and a pork hock.

I put a whole lamb shoulder into my enormous blue Le Creuset cast iron pan, tip over some tomatoes, dot in a few olives, and maybe a lemon slice or three. I might tip in left over wine, or beer, or splash in water, and always, always, throw in some onion, garlic if I have any. It has just about run out, and I won’t get anew crop until late spring. In goes a fresh bay leaf from the tree in the orchard. Sometimes I use thyme, if the chooks haven’t scratched it out of the garden yet, or a sprig of rosemary.

All these dishes get put into a hot cooker, one that cools overnight, so the meat simmers, then tenderises, and is still warm the next morning. I make enough to freeze, ready for days when I come in late, the cooker isn’t lit, and I need great dishes at hand.

The best bit about cooking this way is that you get plenty of meaty juices, sticky gelatinous juices that you can use to drench a baked potato, or to mix into mash, or soak into rice. Small amounts of leftovers, those not enough to make a full meaty meal, get stirred through just-cooked pasta. Peasant food, the kind that gave peasant food a good name. I always wipe the pot with crusty sourdough bread.

The cooker does an amazing rice pud. I put in just a little rice, lots of Maggie’s milk (and I have lots) with the cream still on top, two cardamom pods and enough sugar to sweeten. Onto the bottom shelf of the cooker, and by the morning the rice has swollen, the milk has caramelised as the skin forms and is moistened by the still hot rice pud underneath. My rice pudding is tan in colour, still quite runny by comparison with many, and is the culinary equivalent of slipping into an old pair of slippers. It’s that comforting.

I make ratatouille, too. A meal to remind me of the flavours of summer. The classic dish has eggplant cooked so long that it falls apart, adding a creamy richness to the sauce. I use mushrooms in mine, along with the ubiquitous capsicum, zucchini and tomato. Garlic, of course, and a strip or two of lemon rind to give it character.

I sear bread in a ridged pan, enough to make it char, then dollop on plenty of ratatouille to moisten it. If I’m feeling hungry, I’ll get some Tongola goat’s cheese, or poach an egg, to sit on top.