Prawns with capers, garlic and butter. Photo: William Meppem
One of the biggest mistakes we can make in the kitchen is to look down on simple food. The reason for low-fuss cooking is not because we're cutting corners, nor that we lack the skill to cook something more complicated. It's this: the more simply we cook, the more ingredients taste like themselves. And it's when ingredients taste like themselves that they taste their best.
An excellent chef once told me that a good cook can be defined by how they approach new dishes. When we're first learning to cook, we keep adding ingredients - an extra spice, seasoning or flavour - in an attempt to make our meal taste better. But when we actually become a good cook, we start taking ingredients away, removing anything unnecessary or distracting, until a dish finally tastes simple, clean and elegant. I think that's a great definition.
Prawns with capers, garlic and butter
Five-mushroom fettuccini. Photo: William Meppem
Serves 4 as an entrée
Slowly poaching the garlic and prawns in butter over a low heat brings out their sweet flavours.
• 100g unsalted butter
• 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
• 2 tbsp capers, chopped
• 12-16 extra-large prawns, peeled and deveined with tails intact
• salt and pepper, to season
• 1 tbsp brandy
• 2 tbsp finely shredded parsley
• hunks of lightly toasted crusty bread, to serve
Heat the butter in a medium saucepan over a low heat (preferably on a gas flame) and add the garlic. Cook the butter, garlic and capers together for about 10 minutes until the garlic is lightly browned and the butter is starting to colour. (If you have peeled the prawns yourself, add the prawn heads to the butter for extra flavour, but remove them before adding the prawns.)
Add the prawns, season well with salt and pepper and cook for 5-6 minutes. Add the brandy and warm it a little, then tilt the pan to ignite it with your cooktop's gas flame (or use a match). Wait for the brandy to stop burning, then scatter with parsley and serve with lightly grilled bread.
Finely grated dried shiitake adds a big boost of mushroom-y umami to this simple pasta dish.
• 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
• 4 eschallots, finely minced
• 4 cloves garlic, minced
• 100g enoki mushrooms, trimmed and broken into clumps
• 100g Swiss brown mushrooms, very finely sliced
• 2 king oyster (eringii) mushrooms, cut into 1cm chunks
• 2 large portobello mushrooms, thinly sliced
• salt and pepper, to season
• 150ml thickened cream
• 500g dried fettuccine
• 2 dried shiitake mushrooms
• 2 tbsp finely chopped chives
• ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat and fry the eschallots and garlic until fragrant. Add the enoki, Swiss brown, king oyster and portobello mushrooms. Season well with salt and pepper and fry, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes until very well browned. Add the cream and simmer for 5 minutes.
While the mushrooms are cooking, cook the pasta according to the packet instructions until just al dente. Drain well and add to the simmering mushrooms, tossing to coat in the sauce for just a minute or two.
Divide the pasta among warm serving plates and, using a rasp grater, scatter the dried shiitake mushrooms on top. Finish with the chives and parmesan cheese and serve.
Drying mushrooms enhances their savoury, umami taste. Try dusting a roast chicken with porcini powder, or adding dried chantarelles to a stew. If European varieties are too expensive, I use dried shiitake mushrooms.