Braised Beef with Cassia and Star Anise and…Formally Drained

Next week Arabella will start her final year of school.  And while she’s whingeing and moaning about what a tough year it will be, I’m buoyed by the fact that with Arabella being in her final year that must mean we only need to survive one more formal.

Formals give me a feeling of dread.

Braised Beef with Cassia and Star Anise

It’s because they are so different to the ones back in my day.  Back then my mother would put her trusty Bernina sewing machine on the kitchen table at night and I would wake up to a water-mark taffeta dress covered in tulle by morning.  And I bought a pair of shoes on sale and they weren’t designer.  And on the day we did our own hair and make-up.  We didn’t pay for a spray-tan, we sunbathed for free in our own backyards.  We didn’t get our legs waxed at the beauticians, we borrowed dad’s razor and while we were in the shower we shaved our legs for free.  We didn’t hire stretch hummers to pick us up and drop us home, we borrowed mum’s car and drove ourselves.  It wasn’t a 24 hour marathon involving pre-pres, pres, the formal and then afters, we had the event and then we went home.  And yes, I was invited to another formal at a different school but I wore the same dress, the same shoes and again, I did my own hair and make-up.  And we didn’t have formals for every year we were in school, there was just the one and that was on our graduation.

When I tell Arabella these things she wonders how we could possibly have had any fun leading such tragic and boring lives.

Arabella’s formal will cost around a thousand.  The uninitiated stagger and audibly gasp when I tell them this.  ‘How could you possibly chew up a thousand dollars?’

It’s quite simple, really.  This is where it goes.

I’ll hand Arabella a thousand and hope she brings home some change.  She’ll have to buy the tickets, one for herself and the other for her partner.  That’s the unwritten law.  If it’s your formal, you pay for the tickets.

Then there’s the dress.  Nothing handmade will do.  Instead we will have many trips to all the shops and come home with nothing and then we’ll go back to all the shops and buy nothing and then we’ll go back to the shops a third time and visit the very first shop we went into and will buy the first dress she tried on – this has happened before.  Once the dress has been brought home it needs to be photographed and then the image uploaded to facebook because this then lets all the other girls know that that dress is ‘off the market’ so don’t even think about buying it.

And the dress needs shoes, and accessories, and a little clutch purse.

In the week leading up to the formal there’s the waxing that must be done and you would think a half leg would be sufficient but no, the waxing is a lot more extensive, if you get what I mean!

And there’s the trip to the Asian nail bar for manis and pedis.

And some go to the hairdresser for highlights and foils.

And no matter what colour your skin, you must get a spray tan.

On the day of the formal the girls like to sneak out of school early and head to the shopping centre where they have booked in to Napoleon to have their make-up done.

Then it’s off to the hairdresser to have the hair teased, twirled, curled, plaited and then ultimately straightened.

Once Arabella is home she then needs to get dressed and that’s where we leave her alone because at this point she’ll be very stressed and why put yourself in the firing line.

And then something minor will happen like a pin will loosen in her hair or the sole of her shoe gets a scratch or she thinks now the spray tan makes her look a bit orange and so there will be a major meltdown and tears will spill.  Then we’ll have to clean up the make-up and I’ll be reaching for my wine but then the partner will turn up looking well scrubbed and will give her a beautiful corsage so things will be happy again so now we can take a few photos.  Then the hummer will arrive and as Arabella and her partner head off towards the car I will tell how how beautiful she looks and how it’s all been so worth it, but, ah, do you have any change?

Then Carl and I will collapse in front of a dinner that hopefully will restore some spent energy.

Beef Braised with Cassia and Star Anise

Herb Salad

Serves:  4

Degree of Difficulty:  3/5

Cost:  This recipe uses a cut of beef that is quite inexpensive and most of the other ingredients I either had in my fridge so I didn’t need to purchase much else besides the beef.

  • 1 ltr (34 fl oz/4 cups) water
  • 500g (1 lb) diced beef shin or other stewing cut of beef
  • 4 cloves unpeeled garlic
  • 1 small knob ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 3 coriander (cilantro) roots, washed and scraped
  • 4 star anise
  • 1 piece of cassia bar, about 10cm (4 in)
  • 2 tbspns sweet soy sauce
  • 1 tbspn soy sauce
  • 2 tbspns fish sauce
  • 1-2 tspns light palm sugar
  • 2 spring onions (scallions), including some of the green part, thinly sliced

Herb Salad

  • generous quantity of herbs, such as mint, coriander (cilantro) and basil
  • a big handful of bean sprouts, raw, chopped snake beans, cucumber
  • wedges of Chinese cabbage

Hot and Sour Sauce

  • 2-8 red and green small chilies, any variety
  • 4 tbspns lime juice
  • 1-2 tbspns fish sauce

Hot and Sour Sauce

Combine everything except the spring onions in a pot, bring to the boil, skimming well.  Simmer, uncovered, until the beef is tender, about 1 1/2 – 2 hours if using beef shin.

Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with the spring onions and serve with the Herb Salad and Hot and Sour Sauce.

To make salad:  Arrange salad ingredients on a plate.

To make sauce:  Combine ingredients in a bowl and serve as a dipping sauce on the side.

This recipe is from Spirit House, Essentially Thai


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  1. LOL – I just sat here reading this and nodding and nodding and nodding !! We did the same thing in 2009 when K had her formal except she went in a vintage VW Komi – big was I glad when it was over ! And, thank goodness, no others to go through similar.
    Enjoy !!!! And come back here when it al gets to insane – we know what you are going throug and will send virtual hugs and kisses !

  2. Yep!

    4 more to go :0

  3. I agree…even though my formal was around…10 years ago, I didn’t used to do all that Arabella did…however, I know my parents didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about…I can’t imagine what I’d be like when I have a daughter of my own…:P

  4. Oh dear – I guess I’ll have all that sort of thing to look forward to one day. I suppose packing them off in the back of an old battered Volvo, wearing a 20 year old suit I got married in just isn’t the done thing, right? 😀

    Beautiful dish – the herb salad reminds me of the plate of herbs I get when I order Pho at this great vietnamese place I know, and that hot and spicy sauce – ho boy, that sure looks hot and spicy 😀

  5. Oh my, I usually made my own dress, but I did splurge on shoes. I missed my final high school format (my future mother-in-law was appalled) – I just wasn’t interested – my boyfriend (that’s what we called them at the time) was already going to collage, being seven years older. I wonder what on earth will these young things expect of their wedding day?
    Lovely, comforting beef recipe Charlie. I am really enjoying the spice combos you come up with.

  6. Is that my daughter?? It is so true, these “events” have turned into huge projects, planning months in advance and certainly costing more than I can afford!! Unfortunately my daughter was raised by a single mom so she had to be a bit more frugal and, gasp! do her own hair!! We would switch what services she would have done and do herself with each formal, so some formals were hair, others mani/pedi….regardless, I smiled all thru your post!! p.s. love the names of your children!!

  7. I smiled and sympathized as I read this post. I think I lucked out by raising my only child, a boy, in Mexico. We just didn’t have anything remotely like this to deal with. My how times have changed! Nice recipe–looks comforting. And those dishes are beautiful!

  8. I think today.. formals are more like mini weddings. I remember mine, and the only thing I paid for was my hair and my dress because my mother wanted to give me that. I did my own makeup, hair removal, and everything else. While my mom cooked for my whole family and I got a proper send off. I will never forget that day… and I didn’t need a lot for it to be memorable. LOVE the braised beef recipe.. and the herb salad.. amazing

  9. Oh boy my formal wasn’t that long ago (ok sadly 10 years now) but it wasn’t quite as bad back then. There was still the issue of finding a dress and I was lucky enough to have a family friend do my hair and makeup.

    What will it be like when it comes time for all of these girls to get married?!

    You’re going to need a lot more than braised beef! Although this one looks like it could get you through a bit. Yum!

  10. I’ve always argued that a Labrador was a better option.

    The beef looks far too good.

  11. I have 1 boy and he has never been to a formal. Hes in year twelve this year , but thank God he is a boy and wont require waxing cause that could cost me a thousand alone! I really like the recipe above. It looks completely restorative

    • hotlyspiced says:

      Oh, that’s very funny. Yes, thank goodness there’s no requirement for boys to be waxed – very costly.

  12. Yep, been there done that! Thank goodness my daughter is not the “girly girl” that most are – and she was quite sensible in her choices – but yes, there was the stretch hummer. Can’t possibly seem to do it any other way!.

    The scary part is that when “The Darlings” had their year 6 farewell just last December the girls were glamming it up then – hair, nails, tans, and dresses – and only year 6!!! Most of them had to take a half day off from school to get ready (they are 11 and 12 years old!!!) Hate to think what their mothers will be enduring in another 5 or so years time! Thank goodness it’s boys only for me from here on in!

    • hotlyspiced says:

      I remember the fuss over Arabella’s Year 6 formal. I couldn’t believe it. I think when I finished Yr 6 we had a class party during the lunch hour and everyone brought in something to share like a bag of chips. That was it. Nothing more required. Who is driving this frenzy?

  13. Wow! Thank goodness I have boys! Things aren’t quite so expensive here, nor are there as many Formals. Only one in the last year of school. GG

  14. Lorraine Not Quite Nigella says:

    I do remember my formal being a bit if a production (I still love my dresses and I grew up in the 80s!). But I hear that it is quite a different spectacle today to what it was like! Good luck!

  15. I give today’s parents so much credit. I don’t now how you all do it. We aren’t talking about a normal rate of change, as was experienced from my parents’ generation to my own. Somehow, the rate went exponential. If this keeps up, years from now, what will Arabella face when her daughter starts school?

  16. Preparing for formals sounds like one hell of a mission.
    The color of the beef looks so rich

  17. I must admit chuckling when I read this, reminiscing on my own formal days, which weren’t too long ago (10 years or so). I can tell you that even since then, things have changed! I went to a high school of uppity kids and parents for which spending was not an issue. But even still, I can’t recall the spray tans or the stretch hummer.

    When I walk down our street, I often pass gaggles of high school girls heading home to mom + dad’s after class. Every time I pass I wonder what it’ll be like when I have my own children, since I already feel so far removed!

    A really witty take on the situation. So happy to have found your blog.

  18. Gee, I don’t have kids yet and I’m already feeling old. I know it seems to be the norm these days but, seriously, I’ve been a bridesmaid several times where I’ve not had to spend as much!

    “Back in my day”, school formals happened at the end of Years 10 and 12. Friends and I pitched in to hire a stretch limo for our Year 12 formal as it was seen as our last hurrah together. Otherwise, it was dresses bought from Myer or a formalwear shop – preferably on sale – with either hair and make-up done by our mums, an aunt, a family friend or ourselves.

  19. You’re a very good mom! That beef dish looks delicious.

  20. Parenting is never easy. Kudos to those who do it!! I love my parents 😀

    That looks like a plate of deliciousness. Save some, please?!

  21. I think the way formals are treated these days pretty much sums up how inflated and consumer-driven everything has become in society. It’s like people are always coming up with more ways to make parents spend more money – along with everyone else 🙂

  22. It’s been entirely too long since my formal but I can imagine the pain!
    I do hope the beef works though as it looks sumptuous.

  23. Oh dear, my turn is just around the corner *drains wineglass* …

  24. When I was in school, our dances were held in the high school gym — even the prom. We did the decorating ourselves, which was loads of fun. Kids today can’t imagine that. Proms now are held in ballrooms or other elegant surroundings, and, as you say, involve limos, etc. Luckily for me, our daughter was not into that scene. I hope she maintains this low-key attitude when it comes time for a wedding!

  25. I never went to my year12 formal as I graduated early, but for year10 I made my dress in school, we had a class of 21 kids and were only allowed to ask our parents as guests 🙁 For my daughters year 12 formal we bought her an absolutely gorgeous dress from an op shop, and made a stunning band of mini roses to tuck into her hair to match the wrist corsage. She did have her hair professionally done as she has nightmare hair on a good day, but that was it. She looked just as beautiful if not better than any other girl in the room, and her date thought so too!
    I might just make this for dinner tonight, but with beef ribs slow cooked…. I can just smell those spices already!

  26. Hard to argue against anything with star anise in it. Sounds great.

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