The texture and flavour of food are important, but colour makes a meal great.
Creating a balance of colour is worth considering when deciding what to cook. Bright, interesting food is an enticement to eat. Before small shared plates became the fashionable norm, it was not enough, when planning a three-course dinner, to vary textures and flavours; the colours were important too.
Pumpkin soup followed by chicken with carrots, and a dessert of oranges and caramel means every course was in hues of burnt orange. This hardly makes for an exciting palette and won’t provide stimulation for the eyes and the palate.
In the same way, my advice has always been not to follow a soup with a sloppy casserole and finish with a fluid-like custard dessert. Where is the variation in texture? It is important to avoid repetition of ingredients. Who wants every course to have variations on citrus or apple flavours, or buttery sauces on everything?
Presentation makes a difference. In top restaurants, the trend is away from stark white plates. (At a recent food-design conference, I was intrigued to learn that the white plate is becoming something used by a caterer.) Chefs are choosing hand-thrown pottery, chunky tableware and an exciting array of subtly coloured plates, though I wonder why some chefs are plating their food not in the centre, but down one side. You could be excused for wondering why you got only half the meal.
Explosions of colour can come from garnishes, but vegetables are the obvious way to add colour to a plate or platter. And colour is good for you too: we are often reminded to include foods of different hues because they signal the presence of different nutrients, antioxidants and vitamins.
In this cold season, one of my favourite vegetables is red cabbage, which adds brilliant colour to any plate and is the perfect match for dark gamey meats, spicy pork or duck. This method of cooking cabbage was inspired by a dish I had a few years ago at the Engine Room on Auckland’s North Shore where the hearty and tasty food is the sort you wish you could cook at home.
Braised red cabbage with spicy pork chops
½ red cabbage
1 red-skinned apple
1 red onion
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp red wine vinegar
½ cup red wine
salt and pepper
FOR THE PORK CHOPS:
4 meaty pork chops
1 tbsp five-spice mixture
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
salt to taste
Slice the cabbage finely. Core the apple and cut into thin slices. Finely slice the onion.
Melt the butter and oil together in a deep pan, and add the onion and apple. Cook over gentle heat until they soften and start to turn golden (about 10 minutes).
Add the cabbage and toss everything together over the heat until it is well mixed. Add the vinegar and red wine, stirring them in well, and allow the liquid to come to a gentle simmer.
Cook for about 25 minutes, stirring often, until the cabbage is soft and glossy and the liquid has been absorbed.
Meanwhile, prepare the pork chops. Pat them dry and rub the five-spice mixture into the meat. Heat a heavy frying pan and add the oil and butter. Place the chops in the pan and cook over gentle heat, turning occasionally until crisp and cooked through.
To serve, pile the cabbage on heated plates and top with the pork chops. There will be cabbage left over and this can be reheated for another meal. It is especially good fried up in a little extra butter or added to a stir-fry at the last minute.
Wine match: cabernet blend
Red vegetables are abundant in winter. This platter of roasted red-hued vegetables makes a magnificent accompaniment to roasts or grilled meals.
Roast red vegetable platter
2 small red onions
200g chunk of pumpkin
2 medium beetroot
2 red kumara
8 red radishes
2 red peppers (preferably Sweeties)
6 red baby yams
small bunch of thyme sprigs
3 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
12 cherry tomatoes
2 tbsp balsamic or pomegranate syrup
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Prepare the vegetables, aiming to make most pieces a similar size.
Peel the onions, pumpkin, carrots and beetroot and cut into pieces the size of a golf ball or slightly larger. Scrub the kumara and cut this into even chunks too. Cut the radishes in half or leave whole if very small. Cut the peppers into pieces, removing the seeds and stalks. Wash the yams.
Place all these vegetables in a roasting pan and coat well with the thyme, olive oil, and salt and pepper.
Roast for about 30 minutes, then remove from the oven and carefully turn the vegetables over so they cook evenly. Add the tomatoes at this point. Return the pan to the oven and roast for a further 15-20 minutes until all vegetables are cooked. Test them by piercing with a small knife.
To serve, turn the vegetables into a heated serving bowl or platter and drizzle over the balsamic or pomegranate syrup.
The versatile red cabbage
A large red cabbage is a thing of beauty but it can be daunting. Here are some extra ideas for how to use them:
Layer sliced red cabbage with about 200g peeled chestnuts, add water to almost cover and simmer until cabbage and chestnuts are tender.
Add a ham hock or some smoked bacon to sliced red cabbage with some onion, a touch of brown sugar and a few spices. Simmer for at least half an hour.
Pickle red cabbage by layering 1kg sliced inner leaves with a heaped tablespoon of salt. Leave for 24 hours, then pack into jars and cover with cold spiced vinegar. Seal with cling wrap and eat after 10 days. Lasts 4-6 weeks.
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