Sunday 19 August 2007

How I got my kids to eat fresh fish

It is an abiding mystery to me that small children adore fish fingers, yet loathe the taste and very idea of fresh ocean fish. To me, a fish finger tastes like pencil shavings ground up with chalk, yet even the pickiest toddlers I've known have not been able to resist the finger of a fish, especially if it's fried to a lovely crisp in a panful of oil, and served up with a puddle of scarlet tomato sauce. I've spent years - actually, more than a decade - fruitlessly trying to convince my kids that a thick, toothsome steak of flapping-fresh fish is just the most delicious thing imaginable. Finally, tonight, I prevailed, and here's how.

First, the reason why kids hate fish:

1. It's frozen, and its texture has become slightly mushy. Even the best frozen fish you can buy, whether crumbed, battered or coated in crushed Smarties, still has a pappy* texture. Kids under the age of 12 appreciate a bit of springy bounce in the foods they eat: why do you think they love chicken nuggets so much?

2. If it's not frozen, it's bony. Not nice chewy rib or chicken bones, but spiky, gelatinous, throat-lodging bones.

3. If it's not frozen or bony, it's smelly. And smelly fish does not tread lightly on the nostrils of the under-10s. I personally love the rich fishy flavour of anchovies, Thai fish sauce and Peck's Anchovette, but to juvenile noses the aroma of fish is on a par with cooked cabbage, stale farts and sun-baked doggie-doo.

Yesterday I went into a local fish shop and was pleased to see that the selection of fish was actually rather fresh (although it's one of Jo'burg's most popular fish delis, the stench that sometimes billows out from this shop needs to be smelled to be believed. My daughter actually holds her nose when she comes into the shop with me).

An assistant was frying up some sample nuggets of fresh fish in a garlicky, lemony dark sauce, which my daughter, astonishingly, agreed to taste. 'Lovely!' she cooed. 'Just like chicken!' She had another piece, and then another, and I dragged her away before she polished off the lot.

I was so impressed that I bought a couple of thick steaks (they called it 'red snapper', but it looked like Red Roman to me; whatever it was, it was a meaty, snow-white and robust fish, with no bones and good thick white flakes ) and tried to replicate the sauce. All three kids devoured the fish - and asked for more. Hall-e-luh-ja.

Fish Chunks for Kids

1 kg thick, fresh, meaty fish steaks
1 teaspoon (5 ml) white flour
1 tablespoon (15 ml) olive or sunflower oil
1 tablespoon (15 ml) butter

For the sauce:
1-2 fat cloves garlic
a good pinch of salt
2 teaspoons (10 ml) balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons (10 ml) good soy sauce (eg, Kikkoman)
juice of 1 fat lemon
1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) honey

Trim the fish steaks of any dark-red, thin or bony bits, and give these to the cat. Cut the remaining flesh into chunks of about 2cm x 2 cm. Put the flour into a plastic bag, add the fish chunks and shake well so that the fish pieces are lightly dusted with flour. Heat the oil and the butter in a frying pan until very hot, but not quite smoking. Add the floured fish chunks and fry, tossing frequently, for 7-10 minutes, or until golden brown and just cooked through.

While the fish is frying, make the sauce. Using a mortar and pestle, crush the garlic cloves with the salt to a fine paste. (Or squash the garlic cloves into a bowl, using a garlic crusher). Now stir in the remaining sauce ingredients and stir well. When the fish is cooked through, turn down the heat and pour over the sauce. Stir or toss well, turn down the heat and allow to bubble for another minute, or until the fish chunks are coated with a lovely sticky glaze.

Serve with lots of lemon wedges and no tomato sauce.

Recipe rating
My rating: 6/10
My Significant Other's rating: Not at home tonight.
Teenagers' rating: 7/10 'Not bad. Not bad at all. Can you make it again?'
Small-daughter rating: 8/10 ('This tastes like chicken. It's a sea-dwelling chicken with fins and a beak like a dolphin')

* 'Pappy' A term used by my family to describe fish with a mushy texture. The opposite of 'pappy' is 'tacky'. When a fish is 'tacky', it's springy, and makes your teeth stick together for a fleeting instant during the chewing process.

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Wednesday 15 August 2007

Bless Jamie Oliver for this lekker baked butternut

Jamie Oliver seems to irritate a lot of people in the celebrity-cook and cheffy* world, but for a hard-working home cook like me, he's a hero. I love his simple, hearty, lip-smacking recipes. Oliver understands that I don't have the time or energy to to faff around preparing platesful of pretentious, vertically stacked food nestling in jus, or topped off with clouds of almond air. I also take my hat off to him for his effort to shake up the quality of crappy school dinners, and to encourage disadvantaged (and often incredibly loutish) kids to consider a career in cooking.

Anyway, here is my version of Oliver's lekker baked butternut recipe, which I took from his book Cook With Jamie . I've adjusted the recipe for family tastes (I left out the red chilli flakes, cut down a bit on the spicing, and instead of a cup of cream used half thick Greek yoghurt and half cream) but it was still astonishingly good.

Jamie Oliver's Baked Butternut

1 large butternut squash, unpeeled
3 tablespoons (45 ml) olive oil
1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) coriander seeds, crushed
1 tablespoon (15 ml) fresh thyme leaves (I used fresh oreganum)
salt and milled black pepper
1/2 cup (125 ml) cream
1/2 cup (125 ml) plain white yoghurt
1/2 cup (125 ml) white wine
1/3 of a nutmeg, grated
1 cup grated Parmesan (Grana Padano or Pecorino will do)

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Cut the butternut into 1-centimetre-thick slices, using a heavy cleaver or knife. Cut each slice in two, and scrape out and discard any seeds or pulp. Don't bother peeling the butternut. Put the butternut into a suitably sized oven-proof ceramic dish (the chunks should fit into the dish in a single layer. Jamie emphasises that they should be tucked up closely against one another). Pour the olive oil over the pieces, add the coriander, the thyme and the salt and pepper, and, using your hands, toss well to coat. Cover the dish with a piece of tin foil and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the butternut is tender. In the meantime, whisk the cream, yoghurt and white wine together in a bowl. Stir in the nutmeg and half the Parmesan. Taste the mixture, and add more salt and pepper if necessary.

When the butternut is tender, remove it from the oven, drain off any liquid by tipping the dish over the sink, and pour over the cream mixture. Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan on top. Put the dish back in the oven and cook for 10-15 minutes longer, or until the dish is bubbling hot and browned on top.

Serves 6 as a side dish.

* An example: Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux has said, snottily, of Jamie: "He's served the purpose of being able to bring young people to understand that food is something to enjoy and even cook for themselves. But when someone tells me he's a chef I just say 'You're joking'."

Recipe rating
My rating: 7/10
My Significant Other's rating: Not at home tonight.
Teenagers' rating: 'We're not hungry, honest, mom. We had 20 peanut butter sandwiches at 5 pm'
Small-daughter rating: 5/10 ('I think I might like pumpkin') Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Tuesday 14 August 2007

How to cook (or braai) a fillet of beef to perfection

Over the years I must have tried ten different ways to cook a lovely fillet of beef, with results ranging from an incinerated log to a bloody shame. After much experimentation, I reckon this is the way to go. This method gives you a lovely crusty brown skin on the outside, and meat that is melting, rosy-pink and tender on the inside.

How to cook (or braai) a fillet of beef to perfection
Left-over fillet steak thinly sliced and served with home-made mustard
mayonnaise and fresh dill. I like fillet quite pink in the middle, but if you
prefer it medium, leave it in the oven for a little longer.
The challenge with roasting or braaing (barbecuing) a fillet is achieving a caramelised mahogany-coloured crust on the outside without over-cooking the inside. It's tricky to know when a fillet is done to perfection, as this depends on so many factors: the size and maturity of the meat, its internal temperature when you start to cook it, the heat of your frying pan or fire, the ferocity of your oven, and so on.

Even with the aid of a digital cooking thermometer/probe, I've found it difficult to get the same results every time, so now I judge the 'done-ness' of a fillet by touch and  instinct, and sometimes by going against all the cheffy rules of cooking and slicing deep into it to check whether it's ready (see below).

So try this:

Three hours before you're going to cook your fillet, take it out of its packaging (strictly speaking, it shouldn't be wrapped in plastic at all, but let's not be precious about this), drain off all bloody liquid, pat it quite dry with a paper towel and put it into a ceramic dish so it can slowly come up to room temperature.

One or two hours before cooking, trim and flavour the fillet. Using a sharp knife, cut through then peel away the 'silverskin' (membrane) on the outside of the meat (good instructions here).

Double the thin end over and tie it to the main fillet with kitchen string. Don't worry if one end is much thicker than the other (the thick end will cater for those who like their fillet rare, and the thin, doubled-over end will do for those who like brown beef).

Whether you're braaing or frying, preheat the oven to 190°C, and place a metal roasting pan in the oven to heat through.

Immediately before you cook the fillet, put a dollop of good prepared mustard (such as Dijon mustard) in the palm of your hand and smooth it all over the fillet. Sprinkle liberally with olive oil and a little salt, and grind over plenty of fresh black pepper. Add any other flavourings that you think might be good (a dash of good soy sauce or a very light dusting of mild curry powder are to be recommended, but don't use fresh garlic, which turns bitter when it browns in hot fat).

If you're frying: Heat one to two tablespoons of olive or sunflower oil in a frying pan over a high flame.  Wait until the oil is very hot, and is just beginning to shimmer in the pan (but it should not be so hot that it is smoking). Put the fillet into the pan and cook on one side for about two minutes -  without moving or disturbing it - or until it's a rich brown colour. Turn the fillet and brown it on all sides in the same way; this shouldn't take longer than six to eight minutes. This is a smoky business - if there is no smoke in your kitchen, your pan is not hot enough.

Now add a tablespoon or two of butter to the pan and turn the fillet over a few times so it's coated.

(If you're braaing: Make sure your coals are very hot.  Put the well-oiled fillet directly onto the grid and brown it all over in the same way; again, this should take about seven to eight minutes.)

Now put the fillet onto the heated roasting pan and bake in the pre-heated oven for 10-25 minutes, depending on the degree of pinkness you want. A slim fillet takes about 10 minutes; a full-size one 15-25.

If you're not sure, cut a deep slit in the underside of the thickest part of the fillet to check for doneness.  This will result in the loss of a little juice, but as you're only going to be cooking the meat for a little while longer, the damage will be minimal. If the meat looks unpleasantly raw and bloody on the inside, give it a few minutes longer.

Alternatively, and a somewhat less accurate method: plunge a fork deep into the meat, leave it there while you count to ten,  then hold the tines to your upper lip. If they feel very hot - but not so hot that they burn your lip -  the beef should be medium rare inside.

Remove from the oven, cover loosely with a piece of clingfilm, foil or kitchen paper, and set aside to rest on a plate 8 minutes.

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Monday 6 August 2007

Roast Chicken with Lime Leaves and Curried Celeriac

It's rich of me to post a recipe with hard-to-find ingredients, considering that not even 4 days ago I was bitching about recipes with exotic ingredients. Well, it just so happened that I had the ingredients on hand.

Why would I even have celeriac in my fridge? Last week I dragged My Significant Other (MSO) off to Impala Fruiterers in Northcliff (out of my way, but arguably the best fruit and veg shop in South Africa) and he fell upon a pack of celeriac with cries of joy. I've only cooked it once in my life, and have avoided it ever since, on the grounds that, with its gnarled whiskery legs, it looks like the creepy Mandrake babies in the first Harry Potter film. But MSO grew up in England, and is the son of a brilliant cook, and rates celeriac up there with blackcurrants, green gooseberries, rhubarb, clotted cream and a juicy Sunday roast with all the trimmings.

So we bought them, and they writhed at the bottom of the veggie bin until I hauled them out and cooked them - and, my, how fantastic they tasted. A cross between a parsnip, a potato and celery, with a deep, flavoury earthiness. Use potatoes or parsnips if you can't find celeriac.

And the lime leaves? I ran out of lemons to stuff up the chicken's backside, so I used the remains of pack of lime leaves I'd bought to make a Thai curry, along with a handful of fresh lemon leaves from my new little lemon tree. The pungent lemon oils infused every morsel of chicken - and from now on, to hell with lemons.

Roast Chicken with Lime Leaves and Curried Celeriac
1 free-range chicken
a large handful of lime leaves, or fresh lemon leaves off a tree, or both (bruised lemon grass might work too)
2 unpeeled cloves garlic, crushed
a thick slice of onion, unpeeled
3 Tbsp (45 ml) lemon juice
1 bay leaf
a glug of olive oil
salt and milled pepper

For the celeriac:
4 large celeriac bulbs
1 Tbsp (15 ml) olive oil
2 tsp (10 ml) black mustard seeds
1 Tbsp (15 ml) butter
4 tsp (20 ml) mild curry powder
1 tsp (5 ml) ground cumin
2 Tbsp (30 ml) lemon juice
salt and milled black pepper

For the gravy:
4 tsp (20 ml) flour
1 glass white wine
1 cup (250 ml) water
1-2 Tbsp (15-20 ml) dark soy sauce, or a few drops of gravy browning (for colour)

Preheat the oven to 200 °C.

Trim any excess fat off the chicken and place in a roasting pan. Crush the fresh lime and lemon leaves to release the fragrant oils, then place in the cavity of the chicken, along with the garlic cloves, onion and bay leaf. Rub the olive oil over the chicken, sprinkle over the lemon juice and and season with salt and pepper. Put the chicken into the hot oven. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 180 °C. Roast for an hour to an hour and a half (depending on the size of the chicken), or until the juices run clear when you cut into the thigh joint.

In the meantime, prepare the celeriac. Trim off all the brown and knobbly bits and cut into quarters. Heat the olive oil in a pan, add the mustard seeds and fry over a medium-high until they begin to sizzle and pop. Turn down the heat and add the butter, curry powder and cumin. Now add the celeriac cubes, toss well to coat, fry for another minute or so. Stir in the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Tip the cubes into an ovenproof dish and place in the oven with the chicken. Roast until golden brown and tender right through, tossing a few times to coat every piece.

When the chicken's done, remove from the oven, put it on a plate, cover with tin foil or an upturned bowl and allow to rest for 10 minutes while you make the gravy.

Tip the juices in the roasting pan into a soup bowl and allow to settle for a few minutes. Now put about 2 tablespoons of the fat that has floated to the top of the bowl back into the roasting pan, set on a high heat and wait for the oil to get really hot. Add the flour and stir briskly with a fork or flat sauce whisk.

 When the mixture is just beginning to brown, pour in the wine, water and soy sauce (or gravy browning), all the while stirring furiously to loosen any brown bits. If the gravy seems too thick, add a little more water. Turn down the heat so that the gravy bubbles gently. Spoon and discard all the fat off the top of the chicken juices in the bowl and pour the brown juice that's settled at the bottom of the bowl into the gravy, along along with any liquid that's seeped out of the resting chicken. Stir well, season with salt and pepper and keep warm.

Carve the chicken and serve hot with minty peas or a plain green salad.

Serves 4-6

Recipe rating
My rating: 8/10
My Significant Other's rating: 9/10
Teenagers' rating: 7/10
Small-daughter rating: 2/10 ('I'm not hungry and the potato tastes horrible') Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Wednesday 1 August 2007

How hard is it to write a clear recipe?

I'm pernickety about the way recipes are written (everyone has a monkey, right?).  Is it too much to ask that cookery writers measure things accurately, give clear instructions and, occasionally, test the recipe before they send it to print?

I can't tell you the number of times I've eagerly rushed out to buy expensive ingredients, and then had to throw everything away because a recipe writer has omitted an ingredient, given a wrong measurement, or failed to mention some some vital step in the cooking process.

Look, I'm not saying my recipes are perfect, but at least I've actually made them, and accurately measured the ingredients, in a rounded-off and sensible form. I recently came across a recipe that called for 47 ml of crushed garlic, and another that wanted 58 g of sugar. Fine if you have a microscopic measuring spoons or a digital scale, but useless for home cooks.

I was freshly annoyed reading a soup recipe in The Times yesterday ('An easy soup for TV night'). Like so many of the recipes in The Times, it's lousy. It's badly edited, ungrammatical, vague, and contains no seasoning at all. (In fact, most of the recipes published in The Times specify neither salt or pepper in the ingredients list.) The recipe calls for a total of one litre of liquid for a soup to serve six people. Even making allowance for the 600 g of leeks and potatoes, each slurper of this soup would end up with a serving of around 180 ml each - that's a teacup!

And what's this 'allow to cook off' nonsense? What's wrong with just saying 'simmer until tender'? Why are the ingredients not listed in order of use? Why's 'sauté' got an accent on the e, but not 'puree'?

It seems to me that the cleverer and more creative the cook or chef, the sloppier their recipes are. I wouldn't dream of mentioning names here, but Braam Kruger, who writes in The Weekender, springs to mind. I can forgive Braam's disorganised recipes because he writes so knowledgeably about food, but I would like The Times to pull up its stocks. (How about smaller photographs and headlines, and interesting, new recipes that are tested, precise and unambigious?) I suggest that the people who choose the recipes for The Times take a good look at the fastidious, well-tested and original recipes of brilliant non-cheffy home cooks like Lynn Bedford-Hall, Hilary Biller (Angela Day), Ina Paarman, Carmen Niehaus and Phillippa Cheifitz.

Here's what I expect of a perfect recipe:

1. Make sure it works. You've actually made it, preferably more than once, and during that time you've improved and then - even better - perfected it.

2. Give us your own recipe. If it's not yours, acknowledge who you've nicked it off, or who inspired it. Believe it or not, there are many cookery writers who, under pressure from deadlines set by magazines or publishers, don't actually test their recipes. More than a decade ago, I worked for a leading Cape Town publisher with a thriving cook-book department. I will never forget being given the task of reading a cookery book sent in by a famous local cook. The 'manuscript' included several photocopied Martha Stewart recipes that were liberally plastered with Tippex. The 'author' had metricated these American recipes using her trusty white-out kit, changed the recipe titles, and was passing them off as her own.

3. List the ingredients in order of use. This is an established recipe-writing convention for a good reason.

4. Convert the quantities with care and good sense. It's just annoying to be told to measure out 28 grams of flour. Yes, I know that's the metric equivalent of 1 ounce, but are two extra grams of flour really going to break the back of your sponge cake? Say 30 grams, and be done with it. And please don't ask me to add '55 ml' egg yolks to a sauce. One, two, or three yolks?

5. Give clear instructions. Please don't specify that should I 'braise or fry or sauté' the lamb pieces in oil, or butter, or the eyelash greasings of Andean sacrificial virgins, for about 5 to 60 minutes, over a hot or cool heat, until they are 'done'. Don't ask me to put a tembling wobble of beaten-by-hand-for-45-minutes mixture of egg, flour and sugar into a hot oven, without asking me to preheat the oven first. I want precise, unambigious instructions. I felt very grumpy yesterday making the sainted Simon Hopkinson's Lemon Chicken Soup when he forgot to say what I should do with the chicken bits he'd told me to set aside in a bowl. Blend them with the rest of the soup? Tip them in at the last moment? Knit them into a jersey?

6. Be realistic about serving sizes. A chicken cut into eight joints, fine - if you're serving four people. But if you have six over for dinner, does that mean that two unfortunate guests get only a chicken wing each?

7. Don't specify ridiculously exotic ingredients. Or, if you must, remember to tell me where to buy them. Recently I read a long, pretentious feature in a local South African foodie magazine that called for pomegranate seeds in virtually every dish. When last did you find a glistening packet of pomegranate seeds in your local Pick 'n Pay? Look, I appreciate a new and exotic ingredient as much as the next chap, but please spare me the shaved white truffles.

I could go on forever, but I'm off to drink my 180 ml of soup. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly