While Mark Jensen travelled Australia promoting his cookbook The Urban Cook: Cooking and Eating for a Sustainable Future some of us were at home putting it to the test.
I was originally drawn to the book by the recipe for leatherjacket oven-roasted with lemongrass and garlic, which subsequently featured in The Food Sage’s Sustainable Seafood Challenge.
Now I’ve cooked from all sections: vegetables; seafood; poultry; pork & lamb; beef & veal – except desserts, and give Urban Cook a sustained thumbs up.
Jensen is the head chef at renowned inner city Sydney restaurant Red Lantern and Urban Cook looks at sustainable food choices from a time-pressured – but conscientious – urbanite point of view.
Timely, right? Sustainable choices increasingly inform consumption patterns. And cookbooks can be big sellers. Combining the two could be a recipe for commercial success.
However, Urban Cook appears to be far more than a commercial exercise. Jensen’s passion for the topic is palpable. He’s done his homework and helps readers make informed decisions about issues such as wild fish versus aquaculture; intensely raised animals versus free range and organic farms, and polyculture versus monoculture farming methods. Each chapter begins with a well-researched discussion of sustainable issues.
I always assess a cookbook by its photographs (those in Urban Cook are courtesy of the talented Cath Muscat), and in doing so this time I was drawn to cook a number of Jensen’s vegetable dishes first. I have also cooked more from this section more than any other. Later, I read what Jensen had to say in the introduction:
“The vegetable chapter contains the greatest number of recipes and I’ve done this deliberately. Traditionally, when we conceive an idea for a meal we first decide on the meat protein component and then we choose the accompanying vegetables. I want to challenge this notion by encouraging you to choose the vegetable first.”
Well, that worked with me! I already have several other vegetable dishes in mind for which I am scouting out possible protein partners.
Sautéed mushrooms (shitake, shimeji, and oyster) with French shallots and oregano worked a treat with a simple steak one evening.
Kipfler potatoes with garlic, lemon thyme and chilli proved to be a winning formula. The capsaicin from finely sliced birdseye chilli penetrated the generous amount of olive oil that the par-boiled spuds were pan-fried in, delivering a powerful kick that worked well with the herbaceous thyme.
Char-grilled lamb backstrap marinated in lemon, yoghurt and mint was superbly tender thanks too the live cultures and lactic acid in the yoghurt that helped tenderise the meat. It was subtly infused with lemon and garlic, and slightly tangy with yoghurt.
The Free Range Butcher at Orange Grove farmer’s market supplied the beef fillet that was slow-roasted and served with Bordelaise sauce. The butcher questioned the necessity of slow roasting this prime cut, and one could well question the sustainability of having the oven on for three hours (albeit at 90°C) – but I put myself in Jensen’s hands and was not disappointed. This was quite possibly the best piece of beef i’ve eaten in my own home. I bought a fillet half the size that Jensen recommended, as it was to serve just two people. I could have easily cooked it for half an hour less, but it was till excessively juicy and soft. We loved the bone marrow in the Bordelaise sauce. I served it with super-smooth mashed potato and baby carrots.
Possibly my favourite dish in Urban Cook so far is chicken braised with white wine, cream and thyme. We like things saucy in our house. If there is a sauce with a dish there needs to be plenty of it and I realised early on that this wasn’t going to be the case. I ended up doubling the sauce ingredients, and I’m glad I did as much of it eventually simmered away. I certainly didn’t need to thicken the sauce with the recommended flour and butter paste. However, the chicken fell off the bone, and the sauce was rich and aromatic with wine and thyme.
The recipes are simple, though Jensen could do with adding an explanatory line or two at times to help out the home cook.
He wisely doesn’t deign to be the oracle on all things sustainable, admitting that he “struggled through the quagmire of opinion” in writing this book. And much of what he tells us, we should already know: buy local and seasonal, ask questions of suppliers, listen to our conscience, and consider more than just the cost of food. But the more role models like Jensen reinforce this way of thinking, the more it will sink in – hopefully.
Has Jensen jumped on the sustainability bandwagon? Probably not. Should we thank him for his work? Definitely.
Chicken Braised with white wine, cream & thyme, Serves 4
4 large chicken marylands, cage bone attached, trimmed of excess fat and skin
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, cut into 4 cm (1 ½ inch) lengths, then quartered
8 French shallots or very small onions
½ small bunch of thyme or lemon thyme
2 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed
250 ml (9 fl oz/1 cup) white wine (riesling)
125 ml (4 fl oz/ ½ cup) pouring cream
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
pinch of cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons plain (all-purpose) flour
10 g (¼ oz) butter
Wash the chicken, then dry with paper towel. Place a large deep frying pan (about 30 cm/12 inches wide) over medium heat. Add the olive oil and fry the chicken, skin side down, for 3–4 minutes until the skin is golden brown. Turn and continue to fry for 2 minutes, then remove the chicken from the pan and drain on paper towel.
Carefully pour off any excess fat and wipe the frying pan clean with paper towel, then return the chicken to the pan with the carrots, shallots, thyme, garlic and wine. Place over high heat and bring the wine to the boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover with a lid and braise for 30 minutes. If you do not have a large frying pan, you can put the chicken in a roasting tin, cover it with foil and braise on the stovetop or in a 180°C (350°F/Gas 4) oven.
After 30 minutes, remove the lid and add the cream, then season with the sea salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper. Continue to cook for 15–20 minutes, or until the chicken is succulent and almost falling from the bone. Remove the chicken and vegetables with a slotted spoon to a dish and keep warm. Bring the sauce up to a simmer.
Combine the flour and butter in a small bowl to form a paste, then whisk into the simmering sauce. Simmer for a couple of minutes to cook out the flour and thicken the sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary, then serve the sauce over the chicken.
Urban Cook: Cooking and Eating for a Sustainable Future
By Mark Jensen