Christmas is Coming – Red Wine Jelly

I like preparing for Christmas. There’s something about the smells of cooking festive goodies that add to the delicious anticipation of 25 December. This year, I made red wine jelly for gifts. Reducing the red wine created a juicy berry and rather alcoholic fug that lingered about the house for a few hours. It’s a very simple because there’s no faffing around with peeling and chopping fruit. I just bought the cheapest bottle of varietal wine I could find – this meaning no anonymous “red table wine”. The supermarket had a shiraz and a merlot on sale for $16, so that was it. Here’s what the final results look like sitting in the fridge. Don’t they look adorable all dressed up with Christmas ribbon?

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I based my recipe on one from America’s Test Kitchen (log in required to see their recipe). Not having liquid pectin available, I substituted the powdered type. That first batch was far too sweet, although I liked the concentrated berry flavours from reducing about a third of the wine separately.

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The rest of the bottle goes into the actual jelly part, with pectin and sugar added, as is lemon juice for a punch of acidity. I added a drop of flavourless oil (in my case sunflower) to stop excessive foaming. This doesn’t mean that the mixture won’t bubble like mad. It simply means that the foam will go away, very important for a smooth top on your jelly.

If you’re not interested in preserving and want to use the jelly quickly, like in the week or so, then jump straight to the recipe at the bottom. The rest is about how to preserve in sterilised glass bottles.

One thing that people may not realise is that making preserves in Singapore isn’t easy because it’s hard to come by the right jars. The general advice is not to reuse them, or at least use new lids each time. Good luck on finding new lids for old jar. I ended up buying new ones. Proper jars with metal lids I got from Isetan ($2.50 or so per 150ml jar, more for the 300ml ones), with cheaper reinforcements from Ikea (4 for about $4). The problem with the Ikea ones are that the lids are plastic with metal paint on the top. Don’t diss them for being cheap, they’re still very smart all gussied up with Christmas ribbon.

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The second step to making preserves is to start sterilising your jars before you make the jam. There are various methods for doing it and I chose was I felt was most hassle free – using my oven. First I lined the base of a wire rack with some newspaper and put the freshly washed jars right side up, then set the oven to 150ºC. The metal lids I put in a pan of water and set it to boil. The plastic ones I left alone because I wasn’t sure if they would be able to withstand the heat of sterilisation. I just popped them on and hope the jelly still keeps. Once you’ve got your jars and lids going, get started on the jelly.

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Once the jelly is ready, cover a surface with a tea towel on which to set the jars down, and get out your funnel (or just be ultra careful when pouring) some spare tea towels and your oven mitts. Then carefully extract your bottles one by one from the oven with your mitts and place on the tea towel. Be careful, they are incredibly hot and it’s not obvious at all. Carefully transfer the jelly mixture into each bottle just up to the next. If your funnel is plastic, hold it carefully so it doesn’t touch the sides of the bottle. The jelly mixture will bubble, showing that the bottles really are hot! When the bottles are all filled, carefully use a damp cloth to wipe away any stray jelly mixture on the screw threads. Fish out your lids one by one from the hot water, dry with a clean tea towel and screw on gingerly till fairly tight but don’t force it all the way. (If using the Ikea bottles, forget about inverting. Just make sure the bottles are as clean as you can make them and finish the contents quickly. I’d say keep in the fridge and consume within a month.)

Now carefully turn each bottle over – this is to ensure that the lids are screwed on correctly. Then leave to cool. If not screwed right, quickly turn right way up and sort out the mess if this happens (yup – been there, done that). Rinse and reboil the lid, top up with whatever jelly you may have left, screw on the lid tightly. Then put this stray bottle back in the hot oven and leave for about 20 minutes. Remove and screw the cap on tightly, then invert and allow to cool with the rest.

It’s not as hard as it sounds from the above passage. Just read through carefully and take your time for the first attempt. Ready for the recipe?

Ingredients:

1 750ml bottle of red wine (merlot or shiraz both work well)
500g sugar
50g powdered pectin
3 tbsp lemon juice
drop of unflavoured oil

Method:

  1. Sterilise your bottles and caps (see preceding paragraphs).
  2. Reduce about a third of the wine (200ml if you’re measuring) in a small pan over medium heat till reduced to about 50ml or so. It takes about 20 minutes.
  3. In the mean time, heat the remaining wine on high, then mix the sugar and powdered pectin thoroughly in a bowl. Add the sugar-pectin mixture to the hot wine and bring to a rapid bowl. Add the drop of oil.
  4. Reduce the heat so it bubbles but not threaten to boil over. Stir occasionally for about 10 minutes or till you don’t see anymore pectin granules.
  5. Stir in reduced wine and turn off the heat.
  6. Pour into sterilised jars, cap, and allow to cool.

Makes 4 150ml jars.

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Semi-Authentic Bolognese Ragu

I was looking for an old bolognese recipe from Delia Smith that involved chicken livers (love them!) but came across an even more authentic version from the Accademia Italiana della Cucina. Sadly, it involved very expensive ingredients, like pancetta in large proportions, and impossible to find ones, like triple concentrated tomato paste. Everything else, however, was relatively easy to find, and was surprisingly simple. I was surprised to find that there isn’t any garlic in true-blue bolognese, neither is there bay leaf or other herb. I substituted bacon for pancetta and passata (sieved tomato puree) for the tomato paste. The hint of tomato adds to the flavour backdrop and the surprise ingredient was milk, which added richness and unctuousness to the sauce. The only embellishment allowed was porcini mushrooms. I was delighted because I have a giant bulk bottle of dried ones bought at a very reasonable price at the gourmet store. This, together with the bacon, tomato and red wine added melded wonderfully with the beef to give an unbelievably rich and complex sauce, better than anything at even the most “authentic” Italian restaurant in Singapore.

It freezes really well and I now make it in bulk. Check out the quantities I used for 1kg of minced beef! First I minced all the solid ingredients as finely as possible. Onion, carrot and celery went into my mini electric chopper and came out in tiny bits. I unsuccessfully asked for my bacon to be minced at the butchers, but the Culina counter doesn’t do it! My electric chopper didn’t do very well chopping up the bacon, so much of it was done by hand. Will try to partially freeze the bacon next time, or get a better chopper.

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It was then a simple, but rather laborious task of first browning and releasing the fat from the bacon and then sweating the vegetables in the rendered bacon fat (mmm… bacon!). Then add the meat and keep stirring, followed by the rest of the ingredients. It makes so much that my giant wok can barely take all of it, and gets quite watery at the beginning especially when I couldn’t get triple concentrated tomato paste and had to substitute passata instead. But bubbling it for about four hours and stirring every now and then yields a thick brown sauce that clings easily to noodles.

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I like my spaghetti bolognese, as inauthentic as it is, and served it with a hurried grating of parmesan cheese and blanched green vegetables. When I defrost a portion for dinner, I tend to cook the pasta (sometimes using linguine or penne) till bordering al dente, and fry the noodles in the sauce, adding a bit of pre-salted cooking water from the pasta till it’s al dente. It’s a wonderful post-work dinner when you can’t imagine doing any laborious cooking yet want something comforting. Plus, it’s fairly healthy considering that it’s about 50:50 meat to vegetable content.

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Ingredients

3 big handfuls dried porcini or as much as you can spare
5 onions
5 carrots
8 stalks celery
500 g bacon
1 tbsp oil
1 kg minced beef
200ml passata
200ml red wine, white wine or vermouth
200ml milk

Method:

  1. Rinse the porcini briefly and soak in a little water to soften.
  2. Chop finely the onions, carrots, celery and bacon.
  3. In the biggest pan you can find, heat the oil gently and add the bacon, frying till most of the fat is rendered and the bacon bits are golden brown.
  4. Add the chopped vegetables and sweat for about 10 minutes or till vegetables are translucent.
  5. Turn up the heat slightly to about medium-high. Add the minced beef and break up any chunks. Keep doing it till the meat is browned in parts and you’re having trouble keeping the mixture from burning.
  6. Add the passata, wine and milk. Stir till all the stuck on bit at the bottom of the pan are scraped up.
  7. Strain the porcini, keeping the soaking liquid. Cut up any large bits and add both porcini. Filter the liquid to remove grit (I normally use a paper stock bag as a filter) and add the liquid to the pan.
  8. Turn down the heat to the lowest possible and simmer for four hours, stirring occasionally.
  9. Add salt and pepper to taste before serving on hot pasta. Or let cool completely and freeze in single or double serving bags.

Makes a lot, probably about 20 servings.

Time for a Change, Perhaps?

It’s been a while since I last posted. Even my biggest fan, DC, has given up checking back because he knows I’ve been busy with other things.

It’s not easy to keep a blog. First, other things in life complicates the time and space to write the blog posts. Up till September, it was an especially busy work schedule coupled with illness, and then death, in the family. The funny thing is how one keeps chugging on, keeping the pieces together all the way until the difficult period passes. It wasn’t till October, when things lightened up somewhat, that I thought to myself – sod it, this blog is my outlet, why feel guilty about (not) keeping it up? I gave myself the month off, telling myself that I’d start again upon return from a R&R holiday. After my return, I did indeed upload photos to Flickr and block out the outline of the posts, but felt so exhausted at the end of it that it all still lies languishing. At about the same time, a friend asked how I stock my freezer. I happily wrote out a draft when I lost concentration at work, but it swiftly morphed into a long list.

I realise that it really should be less effort to keep up this blog. I’ll write shorter posts and perhaps put the photos into a montage instead of commenting on every photo. I’ll be less crazy about making sure the posts are balanced. Sometimes I eat out more and there are more great places to write about. Other times I cook a lot and there’s lots in that department. Yet other times, there’s nowhere worth eating at and I go back to the same trusty dishes I’ve been making. What do I do in these instances?

This led into some existentialist angst on behalf of the blog – the name itself keeps me to food and travel. Shocking as it is, food and travel aren’t the sum total of my obsessions. I bought some house cleaning gadgets in the past few months and would like to share some of my extensive online research on how to buy them and not to make the same mistakes I made! I also started playing Diablo 3 a lot more, and Starcraft 2 after pre-ordering the expansion pack. I also have a garden that I’m somewhat less interested in, but I hope to start on some herbs and vegetables at some point. How do I fit all this into this blog.

A name change seems to be on the cards. Does anyone read this blog still? If you do, let me know by commenting and let me know whether I should keep the name or change it. If it’s for change, what name do you suggest?