'No room for clumsy chilli heat': Cooking with Matt Preston
Few people speak the language of food as fluently, and intimately, as Matt Preston. The flamboyant food critic, a winner of the World’s Best Food Journalist award (in 2008), and good-humoured judge on the reality show MasterChef Australia, certainly knows his way around all things related to gastronomy. Though, admittedly, he’s still looking to polish up his skills with Indian cooking.
In an email interaction, Matt wasn’t about to give us his favourite takes on Indian recipes — he was more than willing, however, to list out the dishes he has enjoyed so far. “I love a fine korma, a great biryani, puffy naan, aloo gobi, pani puri, palak paneer and a great goat (mutton) curry,” he rallies. “But no modern versions I have tried so far have been able to improve on the original dishes.”
On the panel of MasterChef Australia, alongside George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan, Preston plays genial host to some of the best chefs from around the world. And while he does, at times, shed his colourful suits and cravats for an apron every now and then, Matt’s speciality in the kitchen is to do with simpler dishes — ones that regular folks can whip up at home.
Inspired for innovation
Still, his culinary interests are firmly planted in innovative creations. And celebrity Chef Gaggan Anand, who recently conducted a multi-city India tour, happens to be one of his idols when it comes to food from the subcontinent. “Gaggan’s smokey cutlets or his liquid-centred, specified lassi, are among the most innovative and successful Indian dishes that I’ve eaten,” avers Matt. “He’s a master whom I am in awe of. He’s also thoroughly nice.”
For his legions of fans in India, who have already lapped up the intricate culinary masterworks of George and Gary at various promotional events held across the calendar this year, Matt presents his own simplified takes on comfort food — with recipes for a refreshing soup of baked beans, a serving of Cola-baked chicken wings, burgers, instant ice cream, peanut cookies and a flourless Nutella cake (see facing page).
Simple, easy experiments
The idea, for Matt, is to broaden food choices, and make global food accessible across borders, even as the show makes viewers familiar with elaborate and exquisite preparations such as the Apple-stuffed Chicken Roulade with Carrot Puree and Crisp Salad (by Sarah Todd), the Squid Ink Gnocchi with Deep Fried Artichokes and Bitter Lemon Emulsion (by Alice in Frames), and the dessert of a Passionfruit Sphere and Coconut Granita with Pineapple (by Reynold Poernomo).
In any case, Matt’s recipes aren’t about to have you break into a sweat, as you might over the complex 105-step recipe for the Lamington Cake, which was introduced by Ashley Palmer-Watts, of London’s Dinner by Heston restaurant, in a recent, epic five-hour elimination cookout on the show. But you’re welcome to try and experiment for yourself!
“We have some fine Indian cooks who have moved to Australia in recent times,” notes Matt. “But rather than innovation, we are seeing them champion a growing range of regional cuisines,” he says.
The spice of a new lifestyle
The relatively new idea of “lifestyle spicing”, which is essentially to do with the judicious use of spices, is bound to gradually, and eventually, bring about a change in long-established methods in Indian cooking, agrees Matt.
“I always believe that you should respect tradition, but not be bound by it,” he offers. “So long as any change is about enhancing, and not about confusing or drowning a dish’s flavours, I’m in favour," affirms Matt. “The most important thing is to not drown out subtle traditional spicing with clumsy chilli heat.”
In his own trials, meanwhile, Matt is rather keen on bringing in common Indian ingredients. “I use lots of Indian flavourings in the recipes for my books,” he admits. “Currently, I’m obsessed with date chutney, potato mash with mustard oil (a staple in northern and eastern states of India), and cashew flour.”
In his most recent, and arguably most appetising creation, Matt makes a korma with slow-roasted carrots. “The carrots looks amazingly like orange tandoori chicken, with their char-tanned edges,” enthuses Matt. “Carrot korma, it’s the future! And totally delicious.”
Cooking now, and in future
Having sifted through innumerable life tales of contestants on the show, Matt insists, “Everyone has a compelling story, it’s just a matter of finding it.” It is true that it takes a personal element to make a dish truly special, which can actually move people — and not just the judges — to make them emotional, and perhaps even deeply impact them about food.
The basics, until then, are for everyone to follow. “Cook lots,” urges Matt. “Practice your core skills endlessly. And cook food that is tasty — if it’s pretty looking too, that’s a bonus.” His advice for youngsters today, aimed at weaning them away from junk fast food, is elementary too. “Eat well,” he says, “and always be proud of your heritage.”
The idea of cooking as a preoccupation predominantly for women, however, remains a bit of a head-scratcher, even for Matt. Cooking must, in its rudiments, “Appeal to what drives most men — vanity and a quest for love,” he professes. “I have always found that people who I am interested in are also very fond of a bloke who cooks,” adds Matt. “I also remind blokes that it is far easier for blokes to ‘eat right’ when they know what has gone into each meal.” That last piece of advice, while encouraging men to take up cooking, holds good not just for barbeque sessions.
Wagering a peek into the future, Matt also proffers his vision of how food habits are likely to change. “Mainly plant driving, using spices and heat to enhance and intensify flavours,” says Matt. “Minus the copious amounts of ghee, of course!”
A grand Indian food party
As for himself in an apron, Matt declares, “I love to cook for anyone who likes to eat!” When asked about his favourite dining partners, he mentions Australian cricketer Adam Gilchrist, “a prince amongst men, and great fun”. He goes on to include a few Indians for his select table. “I was very jealous that the little master, Sachin Tendulkar, was at one of George’s recent dinners. Along with the inspirational Sunitha Krishnan (of the NGO Prajwala) and Chennai’s Indra Nooyi (Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo), both of whom I have only read about, but who seem to be incredible women.”
Matt has his eyes set on a few celebrities too. “It has also been way too long since I’ve broken bread with the incomparable Vidya Balan. She is a smart, intelligent and thoroughly entertaining woman. Let’s also add Gaggan and Priyanka Chopra to the party — she’s on quite an inspirational ride. And that should be one heck of a good party!” Especially with some of his own dishes on the cards.
Matt Preston’s Soup
Ingredients: 440g can baked beans, 50ml pure cream, 150ml milk, finely grated zest of 1 orange, roasted whole coriander seeds (to serve), extra virgin olive oil (to drizzle).
Method: Heat baked beans in a saucepan until hot, and then purée with a stick blender until smooth. Add cream and milk and puree until soup has reached your desired consistency. Serve topped with orange rind, coriander seeds and a drizzle of oil to garnish.Matt believes that a great soup is fairly simple, which makes it harder to hide substantial ingredients. Some of the best soups are made with cheaper cuts of meat or seasonal gluts of vegetables.
Pairing: Pairs well with a Zinfandel Rose (by Sula for instance), as the light fruit and acidity work well with the beans.
Cola-Baked Chicken Wings
Ingredients: 750ml cola, 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar, 3 cloves garlic (grated), 1 large brown onion (grated), 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1kg chicken wings cut at the joints, juice of one lemon.
Method: Pre-heat oven to 140°C (fan forced). Combine the cola, sugar, garlic, onion and soy in a bowl. Arrange chicken wings in a single layer in a deep oven tray and pour over cola mixture. Bake for 3-3.5 hours or until the sauce is thick and very sticky. This classic recipe celebrates our massive love affair with chicken, pairing them with cola.
Pairing: These wings can be paired with a Mud House Pinot Noir, a vibrant wine
from New Zealand, which possesses dark berry notes and a hint of floral herbs.
Ingredients: 1 cup peanut butter, 1 cup sugar (plus more for sprinkling), 1 egg, salt (for sprinkling).
Method: Pre-heat oven to 190°C. Place ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until combined. Form balls of mixture and place on a greased baking tray. Press down, sprinkle with sugar and salt. Place in oven and bake until golden brown on edges, about nine minutes.
Note: Makes about 20 cookies. While Matt uses room-temperature eggs for frothing mixtures and meringues, he thinks cold eggs work perfectly well in other uses and there is a chewiness and softness that comes to chocolate chip cookies made from a cold batter. They will also spread less.
Pairing: These crunchy nutty cookies can be paired with a fragrant Ruffino Prosecco brimming with clean notes of citrus, pears and hints of hawthorn, wisteria and elder.
Matt’s American Beef & Bacon Burger
Ingredients: 500g brisket and 150g smoked bacon or kaiserfleisch coarsely minced to ¼ inch, ¼ cup soy sauce, 4 American-style cheddar cheese slices, 4 white bread rolls (soft in the middle), 2 tbsp Dijon mustard, 6 cornichons sliced thinly lengthways, 2 cos (Romaine) lettuce leaves cut in half, salt (to season).
Method: For the beef patties, place soy sauce in a small bowl. Dip your hands into the soy sauce to prevent them from sticking to the mince, and then use your hands to shape the minced meat into patties, to match the size of the rolls. Place them on a tray, and into a fridge for at least 30 minutes. Heat a non-stick frypan over medium heat. Remove the patties from the fridge and season both sides with salt. Add to the frying pan and fry for about 4-5 minutes, then flip and fry on the other side for about 1-2 minutes. Add a slice of cheese on top while still on the heat. Remove from the heat and set the patties aside in the frying pan. To assemble, slice bread rolls in half and grill a hot griddle pan. Spoon some Dijon mustard onto the bottom half of each roll. Follow with a beef patty. Add the beef patty and top with some sliced cornichon
. Finish with a piece of cos lettuce and top with the other half of the roll.Matt’s idea of the ideal burger is one that manages to include all the major food groups in one handy bite, but can also range from virtuously good to the sinfully decadent, depending on how you want to spruce up your burger.
Pairing: Pair with a Trapiche Oak Cask, made with grapes sourced from the foothills of The Andes Mountains. This Malbec is a deep purple colour, displays blackberry, chocolate and plum aromas, combined with toasty notes.
Instant Apricot Ice Cream
Ingredients: 425g can of apricot halves (drained), 395 g can of sweetened condensed milk. Optional (for Icy Magique): 1-1/4 cups chocolate chips, 1/2 cup coconut oil (measured solid).
Method: Place the ingredients in a food processor and process them to combine. Transfer to a container and place in the freezer overnight. Icy Magique: Place ingredients in a bowl on top of a saucepan of simmering water. Allow to melt and stir until combined. Serve or place in a bottle and re-warm (without the lid on) and shake before using, if storing in a cool place like a fridge. Nothing simple, really fancy. It’s a lovely way of making a fresh, simple ice-cream without an ice-cream machine or a freezer.
Pairing: This scrumptious ice cream can be paired with a Kumala Chardonnay, a zesty wine with citrus aromas combined with dried peach and apricot.
Flourless Nutella Cake
Ingredients: 4 large eggs, 240 g Nutella.
Method: Pre-heat oven to 175C. Grease a 17cm springform pan and line it with baking paper. Place eggs in the bowl of an electric mixer and whisk on highest speed until tripled in volume, about six minutes. Place the Nutella in a large glass bowl and place in the microwave to soften for 20 seconds. Add 1/3 whisked eggs and gently fold in until well combined. Add another 1/3 eggs and fold in. Repeat with remaining 1/3 eggs. Pour batter into prepared pan and place in the oven to bake until cooked through, about 20-25 minutes. Remove from oven and cool completely before removing from pan. A Nutella Chocolate Cake has to be one of the classic uses for chocolate. There are few things as satisfying as the sight of a chocolate cake standing proud among tea cups and it’ll turn any get-together into a decadent celebration.
Pairing: Sula Rasa Shiraz is a complex wine, with power and finesse. It is
opulent and lush, with supple tannins and a peppery finish, which pairs beautifully with chocolate.