I was smitten by the slow-cooked goulash-style pork casserole my friend Tracey Hawthorne made for me when I visited her for an evening of wine-quaffery last Friday. I was filled with appreciation not only because she'd made it with her usual love and gusto, but also because this dish - and the two other courses Tracey made - had all the hallmarks of an accomplished cook who has spent many, many years in the kitchen making good food for family and friends.
Producing a heartwarming dish of excellent simplicity and deep, lip-smacking flavour isn't something you can learn to do overnight. Making food like this - and, even more important, serving it piping hot, perfectly cooked and on time, with minimal kitchen-faffing - requires planning, technique and a lot of experience, not to mention a knowledge of food and flavour and a deft touch with spicing and seasoning. (It certainly can't be learned from watching TV chefs perform their 30-minute, 6-ingredient 'miracles'. This is a cherished hobbyhorse that I will climb on to another time; suffice to say that I think it's a crying, sobbing shame that so many young people are learning to cook by watching reality television. These skills have to be learned at the elbow of an expert - preferably your grandmother or mother, although an esteemed cookery school, a mountain of good cookbooks or many years of slogging in the kitchen will suffice.)
Anyhow, back to Tracey. My talented friend (who now is the sole writer on Salmagundi, my first blog, which we co-wrote for several years before I decided to focus on food) has lived in a lovely old house in the Swartland village of Riebeek Kasteel for many years. This year, in between working flat-out as a freelance writer and editor and keeping readers of her blog in stitches, Tracey revamped both her house and her garden (read about the renovations here and here).
I was very taken by the magnificent mosaics on the new fish pond and fire pit in her Zen-Karoo garden, the work of Cape artist Jill Gordon-Turner (click on the link to have a look at more of her beautiful work). The pond mosaic includes indigenous plants (a protea, disa and gasteria), a Swartland scene, a favourite motto contibuted by Tracey's daughter Isabella, and a binding rune selected by her son Daniel. The circular firepit, with its licking blue flames, carries Tracey's word-contribution to the garden project: 'geselligheid' (meaning, loosely, conviviality).
Tracey is famous for her brilliant (okay, legendary) parties - at least, among those who can remember a thing the next morning - and these always start off with excellent food. When you arrive at her house, there is no inkling, apart from some lovely drifting aromas, that a feast is on its way. The massive old-wood kitchen counter is wiped clean, the dishwasher is humming and Tracey is sitting calmly on the veranda surrounded by numerous cats and dogs and getting started on a bottle of wine. Then, as if by magic, the food arrives at the table, delicious mountains of it, and every dish perfect. Again, this is a sure sign of an experienced cook and entertainer: clever planning and hours of hard work in advance. Apart from the pork-shoulder casserole (recipe below) Tracey made an entire tray of nutmeggy spinach cannelloni cloaked in mozzarella and Parmesan (her idea of a starter for four people) and a most luscious, boozy chocolate mousse in a bowl the size of a swimming pool.
I don't want to go on and on blowing Tracey's trumpet (we don't want her getting a big head, now) but there really are very few home cooks I know who can turn out a feast of this sort without spending half the meal fiddling around in the kitchen and entirely neglecting their guests in the process. Among these kitchen champions are my mother Jenny Hobbs, my aunt Gilly Walters, and my talented friends Judy Levy and Mike and Michele Karamanof.
Knowing how to cook food slowly and patiently, and taking great care over it, is in danger of becoming a dying art, in my opinion. But more about that - and the curse of reality TV cooking - in another post.
Here's Tracey's dish, which she has adapted from a recipe by Jamie Oliver. Normally I can't resist formatting and tweaking a recipe, but I give it to you as she gave it to me, because it can't be improved.
Goulash-style Pork Shoulder
'You need about a 2 kg pork shoulder, deboned, rind removed but fat left on. Score the fat in a diamond pattern, rub it generously with olive oil, salt and pepper, and place it fat side down in a big deep preheated ovenproof casserole, over a medium-high flame, for about 15 mins, to render the fat.
'Remove the pork. In the same ovenproof casserole, fry up (you can add some more olive oil if necessary): a couple of red onions, sliced; 2 red chillies, seeds removed and chopped; smoked paprika (be careful – it’s easy to overdo it and you don’t want the smoked paprika taste to completely overwhelm the dish; I use about 2 heaped teaspoons); some caraway seeds; a nice handful of fresh oregano or marjoram; a mix of peppers (2 red, 2 yellow, 1 green); either a jar of grilled peppers or a jar of marinated peppers (depending on what you can get), chopped; and a tin of plum tomatoes. Once this has become nice and sticky, replace the pork, fat side down. Add a very generous splash of red wine vinegar (about 1/3 cup) and enough water just to cover the pork. Stir everything around so the pork is immersed in the veggies.
'Cook at 180ºC for at least 2½ hours. Test the pork with a fork – it should fall apart. Cook it for a bit longer if it doesn’t.
'I serve this with creamy mashed potatoes and a chickpea/cucumber/yoghurt/garlic salad.'