Monday 1 December 2008

Spiced Plums with Tamarind

The first plums of the season are rolling into Johannesburg's fruit-and-veg shops now and, by Jupiter, I love a ripe plum. I grew up on a smallholding which had a little orchard, and spent many happy hours in the branches of the plum trees, squishing the fruit into my mouth and and inhaling the heavenly scent of hot, dark plums as they plopped into the long grass.

I love plums gently stewed in spicy sugar syrup, too, but only if they are tart enough to wrinkle your eyelids at first bite.

 The early plums I bought today were very sweet, and I didn't have any lemons, so instead I used tamarind to add tartness... and, oh, boy. I can't wait until winter comes and I can crack open these jars.

You can eat these plums as is, or bottle them and stash them; see instructions in my Cook's Notes, below.

Tamarind paste is available at spice shops and in good delis.  If you can't find it, use the same amount of lemon juice to make the plums pleasantly tart.

Spiced Plums with Tamarind

1.5 kg firm, ripe red plums, washed
3 T (45 ml) bottled tamarind paste
a little brandy; optional (if you're bottling the plums)

For the sugar syrup:
3 cups (750 ml) water
2 cups (500 ml) sugar
2 star anise
1 large stick cinnamon
3 peppercorns
5 cloves
1 twist of lemon peel, all white pith removed
a 2-cm-long, thumb-thick knob of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced into slim disks

To make the sugar syrup: put all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring slowly to the boil, stirring now and then to dissolve the sugar crystals. Boil for five minutes, then turn down the heat and allow to bubble very gently for ten more minutes until the mixture is clear and starting to get a little syrupy. You can also make this syrup in a microwave; remember to give it a stir every few minutes.

Add the whole, unpeeled plums to the sugar syrup, bring to a gentle boil, then immediately turn down the heat and simmer very gently for about seven minutes, or until the skin on the plums splits and the fruit is just softened. Remove the plums from the syrup with a slotted spoon and place in a serving dish. Stir the tamarind paste or lemon juice into the syrup and allow to bubble gently for a further five minutes. Strain the syrup over the plums.

Serve hot, cold, or - best of all - warm, over vanilla ice cream, or with a blob of whipped cream.

If you're bottling the plums:

Wash and sterilise some big glass jars, and their lids (see Cook's Notes, below). Using a slotted spoon, pack the plums into the jars (discard the spices). Add a disc of ginger to each jar. Stir the brandy into the hot syrup and strain over the plums, filling each jar right to the brim. Screw on the hot lids tightly, and then tighten them again after ten minutes to form a good vacuum.

You might have some syrup left over, and you can make this into a cordial (it's lovely in cocktails). Boil the syrup for another five minutes, or until syrupy, and then turn off the heat. Stir in a few tablespoons of brandy, to taste. Strain the syrup through a fine sieve into a  sterilised bottle, and seal tightly with a cork or lid.  Keep the syrup in the fridge.

Cook's Notes
Jars are easily sterilised in a microwave. Place the jars, mouth upwards, on the turntable of your microwave oven. Using a jug, pour about 1 cm water into each jar. Microwave on High for six minutes. Remove the jars from the microwave using an oven glove. Place open-side down on several layers of newspaper and allow to cool for a few minutes, before adding the plums.

Metal lids should not be microwaved: boil them, in a saucepan, on the stove, for ten minutes.

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Dorado Steaks with a Zingy Sauce of Capers, Herbs, Olives & Anchovies

Woolies branches here in Johannesburg are selling gorgeous fresh dorado steaks: if you love a dense, muscular, oily fish, you'll go mad for these. It's difficult to get good fresh fish here in Johannesburg, land-locked as we are, because all the best fish tends to jet directly into restaurant kitchens, and the pitiful specimens left over end up in fish shops, looking and tasting elderly by the time they hit my frying pan.

This zingy sauce is version of salsa verde. It's lovely whizzed up to a silken green cream in a liquidiser, and equally good served chunky. The choice is yours.

Woolies Dorado Steaks with a Zingy Sauce of Capers, Herbs, Olives and Anchovies

4 x 150 g fresh dorado steaks
salt and freshly milled black pepper
4 tsp (20 ml) butter
2 Tbsp (30 ml) olive oil

For the sauce:
1 Tbsp (15 ml) capers
2-3 anchovy fillets, to taste
3 Tbsp (45 ml) chopped fresh parsley
3 Tbsp (45 ml) chopped fresh mint (or coriander, or rocket, or a combination)
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and sliced
3 Tbsp (45 ml) green olives, pitted
3 Tbsp (45 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 Tbsp (45 ml) olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper

First make the sauce. If you'd like a silken sauce, put all the ingredients into a liquidizer, or the jug attachment of a stick blender, and whizz to a paste. Add a little olive oil or water if the blades are reluctant to turn. If you'd like a chunkier sauce, finely chop all the ingredients and mix together. Put the sauce in the fridge while you cook the fish.

Pat the steaks quite dry with a paper towel and season on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat the oil and butter in a frying pan until very hot. Place the fish in the hot fat, skin-side down, and fry for 3-4 minutes, or until the skin starts to crisp. Now turn the steaks and fry and until golden brown on all sides, basting frequently with hot fat to prevent the fish from drying out.

 Poke the tip of a sharp knife into the fish to check for doneness: it should be a lovely, white, moist and flaky. If the centre of the steaks is still pink and transparent, cook over a gentle heat for a few more minutes. Peel off the strip of leathery skin before serving.

Arrange the fish on a plate and top with blobs - or lashings, if you've chopped everything - of cool green sauce.

Serve with boiled baby potatoes and dark salad leaves.

Serves 4. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Friday 21 November 2008

Family cooking: you need this amazing onion gadget

I don't like chopping onions - who does? - and my Life At the Stove has changed since I got my hands on this fantastic gadget. The Alligator turns big, stinky onions into a perfect - and I mean PERFECT - small dice in a matter of seconds.

I challenge the cheffiest chef in the world to produce a pile of diced onion as perfect and evenly sized as the tiny squares that pop out of the Alligator, every time.

No, it's not one of those silly cylinders with an up-and-down chopper blade: it's far cleverer.

The device consists of a plastic casing holding a 2mm x 2mm stainless steel grid, which is sharpened on the underside. You peel and halve your onion, put it under the razor grid, give it a bloody good smack with your fist, and Bob's your onion.

Some tips for using the Alligator:

For a perfect dice:

* top and tail and peel the onions. Cut them in half vertically (ie, from top to root).

* place the onion halves cut-side down on a chopping board and, with a sharp knife, make a horizontal cut through the onion (your knife should be parallel with the chopping board). If it's a very large onion, you may need to make two cuts.

* Put the sliced onion half into the Alligator. Cover the top of the gadget with your hand to prevent bits flying everywhere, and with the other fist deliver a sharp downward blow. Newer models of the Alligator come with a plastic hood that prevents onion pieces flying around.

* Step back and admire your fine dice.

The Alligator is also good for young celery, spring onions, carrots (but they should be cut horizontally into 2 mm-thick 'planks' first), garlic, apple slices, potato slices, courgettes, bell peppers, and so on.


Sharpness: If you use the Alligator daily, as I do, you will find it gets blunt after a year or two of use. It can't be sharpened, so you will have to buy a new one. But well, well worth it.

Cleaning: Use a nail brush or dishwashing brush to clean bits and pieces from the stainless steel grid. The 'receiving' end of the gadget - ie the cubed plastic bit that the blades bite into - has at its base an ingenous little plastic device, a sort of grid within a grid, that can be lifted out with a fingernail, scrubbed free of onion pieces, and then slotted back into place.

Available from Thrupps in Johannesburg, and online. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Saturday 15 November 2008

Low-Carb Oven-Roasted Ratatouille

My Oven-Roasted Ratatouille 
Ratatouille (or Rat-a-Toolie, as my sister calls it) has fallen out of favour a little since its heydey in the Eighties, which is a pity, because this traditional Provençal dish of stewed vegetables is arguably the best combination of non-meaty ingredients ever invented.

The troublesome word, in my opinion, is 'stewed'. I just don't much like stewed veggies, any way you slice them.

A ratatoolie made by sautéeing the ingredients in olive oil and then chucking them into a baking dish - in layers or mixed up, depending on whose gospel you are following - for a long stewing in the oven will taste okay, but doesn't do justice, in my opinion, to the key ingredients of this dish, namely tomatoes, aubergine, courgettes, red peppers, garlic, onions and herbs. I'm all for the mingling of flavours, but I don't want them to mingle to the extent that all you can taste is, well, ratatouille, with a lightly mushy texture, and a top note of seeped veggie water.

Try this method of oven-roasting the ingredients, in batches, before you combine them with a purée of tomatoes. The roasting intensifies the flavour of each vegetable, and prevents a watery result.

This recipe takes little effort, but a lot of time. It also contains quite a lot of olive oil, but it's very low in carbohydrates, making it a brilliant choice of veggie accompaniment for a low-carb diet.

Oven-Roasted Ratatouille

First stage:
  • three large onions, peeled and quartered
  • two large, shining brinjals [eggplants], cut into cubes
  • three red peppers [capsicums], sliced
  • ½ cup (125 ml) olive oil
  • salt and freshly milled pepper
  • a few sprigs of thyme
  • a few needles of fresh or dried rosemary

Set the oven temperature to its highest setting (mine goes up to 260 °C). Arrange the vegetables in three separate stripes [see left] in a deep metal roasting dish. Trickle the olive oil over the vegetables, rubbing with your fingers to ensure that every piece is glossed with oil, and season well with salt and pepper. Top with a few sprigs of thyme and the rosemary needles. Put the dish into the blazing hot oven and roast for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they are just beginning to blacken on the edges. Now turn the oven down to 180 °C and bake the vegetables for another 15 minutes, or until they are soft.

Second stage:
  • three cups (750 ml) plump, ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 12 courgettes, thickly sliced
  • 6 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • a handful of fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
  • 2 Tbsp (30 ml) olive oil

Put all the ingredients into a bowl and toss well to combine. Remove the roasted vegetables from the oven, and tip in the new raw ingredients. Stir well to combine. 

Put the dish back in the oven and baked for about 25 minutes, or until the cherry tomatoes have just started to collapse and the courgettes are tender. In the meantime, make the tomato sauce.

Third stage:

  • 2 Tbsp (30 ml)
  • 2 fat cloves fresh garlic, peeled and crushed
  • two tins canned Italian tomatoes, and their juice, roughly chopped
  • 4 big, ripe tomatoes, cut into small chunks
  • 1 tsp (5 ml) white sugar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • a sprig of thyme
  • salt and freshly milled black pepper
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan and add the garlic. Fry gently, but don't allow the garlic to brown. Now tip in all the remaining ingredients. Simmer over a very low heat for about 30 minutes. If the sauce seems lumpy, give it a light blitz with a stick blender (but remember to remove the bay leaf and thyme sprig)

Fourth stage:

  • A handful of fresh basil, torn
Remove the vegetables from the oven. Tip the hot tomato sauce over the veggies, add the torn basil leaves, and toss to combine. Adjust seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary, and return to the oven for ten minutes.

Serve hot or, even better, just warm.

Excellent with a crumble of feta cheese, over a tangle of pasta, or warm on bruschetta. Or on its own, with a few rocket leaves.

Serves 4 as main dish, 6-8 as a snack on bruschetta.

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Earl Grey Granita with a shot of gin: good after curry

Atul Kochhar's unctuous and fragrant Almond Lamb Curry (Vadama kari kozhambu) was on the menu on Wednesday night, when my friend Bertrand, a wonderful cook, was up from Cape Town for the night. This Southern Indian recipe comes from Kochhar's brilliant book Simple Indian, which is my all-time favourite Indian cookbook, eclipsing even those of my food heroine Maddhur Jaffrey. I love the contemporary feel of Atul's food, his light and simple approach, and his extraordinary talent with spices.

Atul, the owner of London's Benares restaurant, was the first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star, and, Egad, Sire, I can see why.

Anyway, I was so caught up in spicing and dicing and all the whirling-dervishing that goes into making a curry that I did not give a thought to dessert, and there was nothing vaguely pudding-like in the cupboard.

Apart from sugar, tea, lemons and gin. And here was the result: a perfect zingy end to the meal.

Earl Grey Granita with a shot of gin

160 ml [3/4 cup] granulated white sugar
750 ml [three cups] boiling water
three Earl Grey tea bags
juice of one lemon
very finely grated lemon rind
a little gin, very well chilled. Bombay Sapphire is nice but Gordon's will do.

Six or so hours in advance, put a large, flat metal dish [a clean roasting pan is ideal; a ceramic one will do] in your freezer and turn the freezer to its lowest setting. Pour one cup of boiling water over the tea bags and allow to steep for ten minutes. Remove the teabags. Pour the remaining two cups of boiling water into a glass bowl, add the sugar, and stir until completely dissolved. Add the lemon juice and the tea. Allow to cool completely, then refrigerate. Two hours before serving, strain the mixture into the frozen dish, which should be smoking cold by now, and place back in the freezer. After about half an hour, or when the mixture starts to get slushy, scrape and scratch the mixture with a fork to form crystals. Continue scraping and scratching every twenty minutes or so, so you end up with a pile of icy, fluffy, crystalline flakes. Set a timer so ensure that you don't forget to scrape: if you do, the mixture will harden and you will have to start all over again.

Half an hour before serving, put some martini glasses or small dessert bowls in the freezer.

To serve, add a scoop of granita to each glass, top with a pinch of lemon rind, and trickle a tablespoon of ice-cold gin down the side of the glass, so that it pools at the bottom.

Serves 6.

Note: if you'd like a snowy, sorbet-like consistency, whip the slushy mixture with an egg beater two or three times during the freezing process. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Friday 14 November 2008

Quick Crustless Tuna Tart: instant family supper

My kids groaned when they saw me making this, but as I pointed out to them, they cannot expect meat and two veg, and salad, every night of the week.

'We just want the meat. Forget about the veg and salad, ma,' they protested. But they ate up all their tuna pie, and even volunteered to eat it again.

A very useful, quick recipe that tastes surprisingly good.

Quick, Crustless Tuna Tart
5 eggs
2 cups [500 ml] milk
10 ml [2 tsp] Worcestershire sauce
75 ml [5 tablespoons] white flour
7.5 ml [1 1/2 tsp] baking power
5 ml [1 tsp] dry mustard powder
2 tins tuna, drained of oil or brine
1 medium onion, very finely chopped
1 1/2 cups [375 ml] grated Cheddar
125 ml [1/2 cup] chopped fresh parsley
250 ml [1 cup] frozen peas [optional]
salt and milled black pepper

Preheat the oven to 180° C. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, Worcestershire sauce, flour, baking powder and mustard powder. Now flake the tuna into the bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Stir well to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Tip the mixture into a well-greased ovenproof flan or pie dish, and dust with paprika.

Bake at 180°C for about 25 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Serve hot, or warm, with a green salad.

Serves five to six. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Garlicky Lamb Kebabs with Fennel Seeds, on Rosemary Skewers

Do you ever stare glumly into the freezer, wondering what gnarled old thing you can defrost for supper for a grumpy and hungry family? I did the frantic freezer hunt yesterday, and for the first fifteen minutes of ploughing through fields of snow and chipping away glaciers turned up nothing but a few fossilised fishfingers, a powdery packet of celery soup and a puppy who went missing in 2005. And then - aha! - right at the back in the permafrost, a big box of cubed Karoo lamb, cut from the leg. It looked okay after defrosting, and after two hours in a simple marinade, and a quick grilling on my gas braai [barbeque], tasted sensational. Even though it had been frozen for - at a guess - four or five months, the lamb was still juicy, flavoursome and meltingly tender, so there's a smart smack in the broeks for kitchen purists who denounce freezing. If you don't have a rosemary bush in the garden, use ordinary kebab sticks and add fresh or dried rosemary needles to the marinade.

Image above by botanical artist Louise M Smith. See more of her work at

Garlicky Lamb Kebabs with Fennel Seeds, on Rosemary Skewers

For the marinade:

1 T [10 ml] fennel seeds
1 T [10 ml] coriander seeds
3 cloves fresh garlic, crushed or finely chopped
juice of two fat lemons [save the squeezed-out lemon halves]
1/2 cup [125 ml] olive oil
salt and freshly milled black pepper

For the kebabs:

2 kg lamb, from the leg or shoulder, cut into 2cm x 2cm cubes
6-8 fresh woody rosemary stalks, about 30 cm long

To make the marinade: first dry-roast the seeds. Put the fennel and coriander seeds into a hot, dry frying pan and toss for 30 to 60 seconds, or until they are just beginning to toast and release their scent. Now, using a mortar and pestle [or a flat, heavy knife blade against a chopping board] lightly crush and bash to produce a slightly coarse grind. Put the seeds into a flat shallow dish and add all the remaining marinade ingredients. If you're not using fresh rosemary skewers [see above] , add a tablespoon of fresh or dried rosemary needles. Now tip in the lamb cubes and the squeezed-out lemon halves, toss well to coat, cover with cling film and set aside in a cool place to marinate for two hours, or overnight.

To make the kebabs: strip the leaves off three-quarters of each rosemary stalk, leaving a tuft of leaves at one end. With a good knife, or penknife, strip off the bark of the bare end of each stalk, and sharpen it to a point. Thread the lamb chunks onto the stalks, taking care not to pack them too tightly. Braai, barbecue or grill over a good heat, turning frequently and basting occasionally with the remaining marinade, for about 2o-30 minutes, or until the lamb is browned and sizzling on the outside but ever so faintly pink on the inside. You might be forced to pull off a piece of lamb and taste for yourself.

Excellent with lemon wedges and tzatziki.

Serves 8. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Saturday 25 October 2008

Umami Tomato Soup: passion in a bowl

The deepest, cleanest fix I can get is from a bowl of hot tomato soup. Look, everyone has a crazy food-monkey, and my particular monkey has a wild craving for tomato soup. It started year or so ago, when I developed an insatiable taste for hot, spicy soup.

For a while, this instant curried soup, made in jiffy, with canned chickpeas, tomatoes, coconut milk, and so on, satisfied me. Then, when the tomato bug hit hard, I experimented with various tomato soups, including my grandmother's famous tomato soup, which was very good, but not quite intense enough. Several soups later, I came up with Roast Red Pepper and Tomato Soup, which seemed to hit the spot for a few months.

But, the nature of an addiction is that it is insatiable, and I needed a more intense taste, so I experimented once again, and came up with this soup, which has a deep, lip-smacking, cheek-slapping flavour.

I was inspired to hotfoot it into the kitchen for soup experimentation after I watched an episode of Heston Blumenthal's cookery programme In Search of Perfection. Blumenthal, a culinary genius and ground-breaker in the field of taste and flavour, recently discovered - and scientifically proved - that the pulp and seeds of tomatoes are a rich source of the elusive umami flavour, also known as the 'fifth flavour'. More about umami here.

So that's why I've called this soup Umami Soup. This is quite a rough, textured soup: if you are looking for posh haute soup, you will need to peel the tomatoes before you add them to the pot, and sieve the soup after liquidising it. I can't be bothered and, besides, I like tomato skin. This soup feeds eight to ten, but is easily halved.

Umami Tomato Soup

4 T [60 ml] olive oil
2 large, ripe red peppers [bell peppers or capsicums], seeded and roughly chopped
2 kg very ripe, sweet red tomatoes, roughly chopped, skins, pips and all
2 tins canned Italian tomatoes
2 T [30 ml] concentrated tomato paste
4 fat cloves of fresh garlic, skinned and chopped
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda*
a pinch of good-quality mixed dried herbs [for example, Herbs de Provence. Don't use fresh herbs, which will distract from the tomato taste]
1 t [5 ml] Tabasco sauce
1 t [5 ml] sugar
enough fresh chicken or vegetable stock to cover the tomatoes [if you don't have stock, use a good stock cube]
salt and freshly ground black pepper
300 ml thin cream

Turn your hot plate or gas ring on to its hottest setting and place a large, deep soup pot over the heat. When the pan is very hot, add the olive oil, wait for a minute until it is spitting, and then throw in the chopped red pepper. Toss the chunks in the hot oil until they just begin to blacken in spots. Now turn down the heat to medium and tip in all the chopped tomatoes, the tinned tomatoes, the tomato paste, half the garlic and the bicarbonate of soda. Cook for 30 minutes over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, and breaking up any tomato chunks with the back of a spoon. Add the herbs, the Tabasco sauce, the sugar and the remaining garlic. Pour over just enough stock or water to cover the tomatoes. Allow to bubble fairly briskly for another ten to fifteen minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Tip the mixture into a liquidizer or or food processor fitted with a sharp blade, and whizz until smooth. [You can also use a stick blender]. If want a perfectly silken soup, sieve the mixture into a deep bowl by pressing it through a sieve or strainer with the back of a soup ladle. Return the soup to the pot. Gently reheat the soup, and gradually dribble in the cream. Don't be tempted to add the cream in a gush, as it may curdle, and don't allow the soup to boil. Check the seasoning - this soup needs lots salt - and serve hot, with a swirl of olive oil and perhaps a dot or two of Tabasco sauce.

Serves eight to ten.

* Don't ask me why this recipe needs bicarb, but it does, and this was an important component of my Granny's tomato soup. Oh duh, I get it: the bicarb reduces the tomatoes' acidity. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Iced tea with Rooibos, Apple and a bit of spice

Here's my recipe for a refreshing iced tea made from South African Rooibos tea and clear apple juice, with spices adding a delicious fragrance. I make up this brew in four-litre batches two or three times a week, and, to my astonishment, my kids have stopped begging for Coke and Sprite and Oros and are eagerly glugging this healthy elixir. And I, too, have given up my unhealthy habit of craving Coca-Cola, Tab, Coke Lite, Coke Zero and all the other synthetic, dark-reddish-black fizzy drinks to which I have been hopelessly addicted since I was ten.

I am grateful to my aunt Gilly Walters for this lovely idea.

This may seem like a complicated recipe, but it's not, if you make up one big batch of spiced sugar syrup, and keep it in the fridge. The beauty of this method is that you can adjust the sweetness of the tea according to your taste. Since I switched to the sugar-free version of Coca-Cola and its devilish ilk a few years back, I have found most juices and cool drinks too be far too sweet for my liking. This recipe allows you to adjust the sweetness at will.

Spiced Iced Tea with Rooibos and Apple

For the spicy sugar syrup - enough to make up several batches:

2 cups (500 ml) white sugar or caster sugar
2 cups (500 ml) water
2 sticks cinnamon
2 whole star anise
6 whole cloves
the thinly pared skin of one lemon

Put all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring slowly to the boil, stirring now and then to dissolve the sugar crystals. Boil rapidly for five minutes, then turn down the heat and allow to bubble very gently for fifteen more minutes until the mixture is clear and starting to get a little syrupy. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Decant the mixture into a glass or plastic jug or jar, spices and all, cover, and refrigerate. The longer the mixture steeps, the spicier it will become.

For the tea:

You will need a bucket or very big jug or basin to mix this up.

8 rooibos teabags, or the equivalent in loose tea
2 litres boiling water
1.5 litres clear apple juice, chilled
about 2 cups (500 ml) cold water, to taste
the juice of one lemon
spicy sugar syrup (see above) to taste

Put the teabags or loose tea into a bowl or sturdy glass jug, and pour over the boiling water. Allow to steep for a few hours, or until completely cooled. Pour the tea into a large jug or basin and add the apple juice, the water and the lemon juice [optional]. Now add a glug of the spicy sugar syrup. How much you add depends on how sweet you like your tea - taste it, and decide. Stir well and refrigerate.

Serve with plenty of ice. A slice of lemon, or a sprig of mint or lemon balm will add a bit of zing.

Makes four litres.

This is lovely with peach or apricot juice.

I threw a whole vanilla pod into a recent batch, which added a special fragrance. Today our iced tea was made from rooibos teabags with an Earl Grey flavour. 
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Sunday 19 October 2008

Luscious confit of baby tomatoes, basil and garlic

I know confit is a poncy, cheffy word to use for this wonderful dish of baby tomatoes, basil and garlic gently stewed in lashings of olive oil and butter, but I can't think of a better one: it's not really sauce, and it's not a preserve.

The shops here in South Africa are filled with luscious baby tomatoes, the most delicious and tasty of which are tiny red jewels the size and shape of calamata olives. The label calls them 'Spanish Sante' tomatoes and I've also seen them labelled 'Santine'. If you can't find them, use Rosa baby tomatoes.

The secret to a deep basil taste is to allow the tomatoes to steep for a while after the initial cooking. Excellent on bruschetta, over pasta, or with bacon and eggs. Not for dieters.

Luscious confit of baby tomatoes, basil and garlic

1/2 cup [125 ml] olive oil
2 fat cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped
2 punnets [about three cups] tiny ripe cherry tomatoes, halved if they are bigger than grapes
4 T [60 ml] butter
a large handful of fresh basil, shredded
salt and freshly milled black pepper
a pinch of dried red chilli flakes [optional]

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan or frying pan and add half the garlic. Cook for a minute or two over a gentle heat, but do not allow the garlic to brown. Now add the tomatoes and stew gently for about eight minutes, or until the tomatoes begin to soften and split. Gently crush any unbroken tomatoes with the back of a spoon. Add the butter and half the fresh basil and stir until the butter has just melted. Season with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat and allow the mixture to infuse for half an hour. Now stir in the remaining garlic, and gently reheat the mixture for two or three minutes. When a rich, buttery sauce coats the half-solid tomatoes, add the remaining fresh basil, and the chili flakes, if you're using them. Stir well. If the mixture seems too dry, add a little water [or more butter, if you're throwing caution to the winds].

Serve hot or just warm. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Saturday 13 September 2008

All-time top ten brilliant kitchen hints and tips

Cheeky of me, I admit, to claim that these are the top ten, but as a life-long collector the useful hint-'n-tip, I offer these kwik-'n-easy, bright-'n-breezy, hot-'n-tasty suggestions, in the spirit of good house-whiffery.

Mrs Wicks, are you proud of me?

The source of the tip, where I can remember it, is in brackets.

In no particular order:

1. To open a packet of plastic-packaged spaghetti: With one hand, grip the packet vertically, midway down. Slam the bottom of the packet hard against the countertop, and the spaghetti will spring upwards and burst through the top of the packet. [Rick Stein]

2. To make a clean tear in clingfilm [clingwrap or saran wrap]: Take the roll out of the box, and hold it vertically in one hand with the bottom of the roll resting on the counter. With the other hand, take the top edge of the clingwrap and make a swift downward tear. [Nigella Lawson]. Or buy clingwrap with perforations.

3. To get the pulp out of a tomato, without having to peel it and go through the whole boiling-water palaver: Cut the tomato in half, across its waist, and press the cut side against the coarse side of a cheese grater. Vigorously grate it up and down, continuing until the half-tomato has flattened against the grater, leaving only the thin membrane of peel in your hand. Only the pulp will be grated, and you can chuck the peel on the compost heap. [Madhur Jaffrey, I seem to remember.]

4. To get the last bit out of a bottle of tomato sauce [ketchup]: Screw the lid of the bottle on tightly. Hold the bottle firmly in one hand, and wildly swing your arm around, from the shoulder , like a propeller. The centrifugal force will drive the sauce to the mouth of the bottle. [This tip appeared on a cooking programme on telly in South Africa in the Eighties and caused a sensation. I wish I could remember whose tip it was.]

5. To open the metal lid on a glass jar of jam, chutney, pickle or preserve: Hold the jar upside down, and give it a bloody sharp tap against a hard surface, such as a tiled floor or stone/ marble/tiled countertop. I don't know why this works, but it does. Usually. If it doesn't, and the vacuum is too persistent, pierce the lid by stabbing it with the point of a sharp knife.

6. To peel a garlic clove quickly: Place the clove in the microwave oven and cook on high for exactly seven seconds. Now smack it with your fist. The clove will shoot out of its skin like a rat out of an aqueduct. [Also, garlic freezes beautifully, when it's crisp and fresh.]

6a. I forgot this one, so am putting it next to the garlic. The best way to peel fresh ginger is with the edge of a dessert spoon. Hold the ginger in one hand, and the spoon in the other, with the hollow side of its bowl facing you. Now scrape at the skin with the edge of a spoon. Oh, and did I mention that you can freeze ginger?

7. To make perfect, fat-free popcorn with no burned bits or oily residue: place a small handful of popcorn [about 100 ml]in a clean brown or white paper bag. Add no oil or butter. Make two small, neat folds in the top of the bag and microwave on high for one minute, or until you can no longer hear any popping sounds. [More details here]

8. To lift charred, baked-on grease and grime off a roasting dish or pan: Fill the pan with cold water. Add an all-in-one dishwashing tablet and allow it to dissolve completely. [If it's a smallish pot or pan, you won't need the whole tablet: remove it when it's half dissolved, and save the other half for the next gunky pan]. All the burned-on bits will float away. Old-fashioned washing soda also does the trick.

9. To clean kitchen appliances - such as a food processor or cooker hood - covered with gunky grease: Spray oven-cleaning foam on the appliance, leave for a minute or two, then quickly wipe clean with a damp cloth. [My discovery, but don't blame me if the plastic gets eaten up].

10. Reheat a bought fresh or frozen pizza in a pan on your stove top, and get an ultra-crispy base.

That's my top ten eleven.

Oh, I forgot one, from the sainted aunties of 'How Clean is Your House'. If your corners have cobwebs, tie a slightly damp duster or kitchen towel around a tennis ball, and lob it into the corners. A good activity for whiny children. The aunties also suggest - and this works - cleaning disgusting mould out of white fridge seals with an old toothbrush and lots of toothpaste.

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Friday 22 August 2008

Cream horns, Hitler, Mrs Wicks, and the joy of the vintage cookbook

I bet you've never heard of Mrs Wicks. Well, neither had I, until yesterday, when I bought her cookbook, issued in 1939 by the Shell Company of South Africa. I was thrilled to add it to my small but growing collection of South African cookbooks and food manufacturers' pamphlets from the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, and even more delighted when I found several handwritten recipes and old war-time cuttings** pasted on the inside covers of the book.

Finding any hand-penned recipe tucked between the pages of a vintage cookbook, or written on its end-papers, tickles me pink.

Old, dog-eared, cake-batter-flecked books like this appeal to me for many reasons. The first is purely visual: their covers and illustrations are so enchanting and innocent, in a mid-century kind of way. Even the photographs, which are generally frightfully ugly - especially when they involve jellied savoury rings and stuffed eggs, with their piped-on, turdy toppings - have a peculiar appeal. But, most important of all, I appreciate these books for the fascinating historical documents they are.

They reflect so much of the last century's attitude to women as domestic goddesses and aproned, lipsticked home-makers. Read in this light, they are sometimes heart-breaking. Cookbooks of this era often contain little poems and homilies about how to show docility and consideration towards one's husband. A few of them - and particularly South African vintage cookbooks - lament the 'servant problem', making comments about their servants that make my cheeks burn with indignation and shame.

But the overriding value of these little books is the brilliant recipes they contain. Not all the recipes, mind you. The war-time recipes, which reflect the hardships of rationing, make dismal reading, with their scrag ends and powdered eggs and outer cabbage leaves. Kitschy recipes of the sixties and seventies, involving a lot of jelly powder, Ideal evaporated milk, tinned fruit and stuffed eggs, are not inspiring. But scattered all over these books, and especially in the cakes, bakes and preserves sections - which generally make up half of every cook book published before 1960; goodness, but our grandmothers loved cake - are many wonderful old recipes that quite obviously have been passed down from mother to daughter over countless generations.

Gingerbread, ginger beer, Boston Loaf, Sussex Pond Pudding, Queen's pudding, fruit cakes and puddings and pies, syllabub, and a host of old South African recipes such as bredies, koeksisters, Hertzoggies, samoosas, biltong, mampoer, boerewors, pickled fish, melktert... the list goes on and on.

These recipes, some of which are many centuries old, are becoming an endangered species as the culinary landscape is flooded with squid ink and fish sauce and Balsamic vinegar and horrid towers of cheffy saffron-this and cardamom-that.

I started collecting mid-twentieth-century cookbooks about two years ago, when I grabbed an old sixties cookbook my mother was turfing out. I flipped through it with the scornful attitude of one who reads glossy food magazines, and was about to turf it into the don't-want pile, when I came across a photograph of a rabbit-shaped white cake coated in coconut flakes, and, a few pages on, a ghastly - and frankly rather pornographic - picture of a pastry horn overflowing with whipped cream. Both pictures evoked the most extraordinary response: I was transported in an instant back to 1967, and could feel myself standing on a chair on chubby toddler legs in our family kitchen, poring over the very same cookbook, and wishing my mom would make rabbit cake and cream horns for pud. I could hear the low hiss of our gas stove, smell the comforting whiffs of potato-topped fish pie baking in the oven, hear the buzzing of fat flies trapped in the sticky, curling yellow fly-strip hanging from the kitchen ceiling. A petrified knot of neurons in my forty-something old brain unbundled themselves, and along came a flood of memories of my childhood. Reading these old books and pamphlets is like tasting memories; like burying my nose in my mom's floury apron.

** One of the war-time cuttings reads:

SEND HIM A CAKE. Here is the way to make it yourself.

The way to a man's heart.... that applies more than ever before nowadays. Here's a recipe we know will please him. [I am going to try this recipe out, along with the Cinnamon Loaf, written by Mrs Evans of Germiston, South Africa, in 1940, picture left, in the next few days, so please check back soon]

And, on the flip-side of the cutting, the
news that Hitler received at his headquarters the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, who later returned to Budapest. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Thursday 14 August 2008

The supersonic, ultra-crispy wedgie

Making oven-baked potato wedges is hardly rocket science, right? You wedge 'em, dredge 'em, and bake 'em, right? Right, if you fancy eating a plateful of slightly oily wedges, which are delicious for precisely five minutes before they lose their puff and collapse into leathery old brown leaves.

I'm not casting aspersions on potato wedges - these are a brilliant, low-fat alternative to chips, perfect for ravenous teenagers or picky eaters. They take minutes to make, and, because they retain their skins, pack a good nutritional punch.

After much experimentation, I have settled on the following method, which produces gorgeous golden-brown wedges that are crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and have plenty of rustle and snap. (Note: since I wrote this post, I have refined the recipe and added a sprinkling of chickpea flour, which results in a superior crunchiness. Click here for the new recipe.)

First, and most important, the wedges need to be cooked for at least ten to fifteen minutes in rapidly boiling, salted water before they are baked. Yes, I know it's a bit of a hassle, but it makes all the difference: a wedged potato that is tossed in oil and salt and placed in a hot oven without being boiled first will certainly go golden brown and puff up, but its cut surfaces will turn tough and leathery within minutes of your taking it out of the oven.

Second, the water in which the potatoes are boiled should contain a generous amount of salt. I picked this tip up from watching an episode of Heston Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection, in which he conclusively showed that potatoes parboiled in salted water turn a perfect golden brown, whereas those boiled in unsalted water are pallid in comparison.

So here's my method. Preheat your oven to 200°C. Put a large saucepan of water on the stove, add one tablespoon of salt, and bring to a rapid boil boil. Cut each potato, lengthways, into six equal wedges. I have a brilliant device that is specifically designed for wedging potatoes - but you can do it as easily with a knife. As you cut the potatoes, toss them into the boiling water. The water should just cover the wedges.

Boil them rapidly for ten minutes, or until you can easily push the tip of a knife right through them, with no resistance. They should be on the point of breaking up - but not quite. Tip the wedges into a colander and drain off the boiling water. Set aside to ten minutes to drain and dry out. Then give the wedges a light tossing and scruffing so that they roughen around the edges . In the meantime, tip a few tablespoons of olive or sunflower oil into a roasting pan and place over a medium flame. When the oil is sizzling hot, add a good pinch of salt and a grinding of milled black pepper, and what ever flavourings you fancy - some needles of rosemary, flavoured salt, spices, dried herbs, a pinch of cumin, a squeeze of lemon juice, a dusting of cayenne pepper, whatever takes your fancy - and immediately tip in the potato wedges. Give the wedges a good toss so that they are well coated in the hot olive oil, and then place them in the hot oven. Alternatively, you can heat the roasting pan of flavoured oil in the oven for ten minutes before you add the wedges.

Bake for thirty to forty minutes, depending on your oven, tossing and shaking once or twice, until they are golden brown and crispy. Serve immediately. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Quick, Easy Marinated Mushrooms

These are quite delicious and one of the best ways, I think, to eat rather flavourless white button mushrooms. Serve with plenty of crusty bread. If there's any liquid left over, use it in a salad dressing, or to marinate a new batch of mushrooms - you can use the liquid up to three times over. Keeps well in the fridge. This is one of my family's favourite recipes and I have been making it since I was twelve - although the formula has changed over the years to include new-fangled ingredients.

Marinated Mushrooms

2 punnets white button mushrooms
1/2 cup (125 ml) white wine
1/2 cup (125 ml) olive oil
2 T (30 ml) Balsamic vinegar
1 T (15 ml) Kikkoman soy sauce
1 slice of lemon
juice of 1 lemon
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and sliced
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
a pinch of sugar
salt and milled black pepper

Wipe the mushrooms and place into a saucepan with all the remaining ingredients. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Now turn off the heat and allow to cool on the stove. Allow to marinate for an hour or so - or overnight. Serve at room temperature.

Serves 4 as a side dish. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Our Gwen Gill gets a slap on the wrist over Delia Smith comment

I see that John Tovey had a go at Sunday Times columnist and veteran consumer journalist Gwen Gill in a letter published in Sunday's edition of the paper. I'm presuming this is the same John Tovey, the hotelier and chef famous for inventing Sticky Toffee Pudding. Here's what he said:

'Gwen Gill reached another profound low with her “Feeling Cheated” (Travel & Food, July 6) about Delia Smith’s latest book.

The opening sentence ending in “her name has suddenly become culinary compost” really sums Gill up and does her no favours.

I have been a close friend of Delia’s for 30-odd years. She has more integrity and talent in her little finger than Gill has in her whole body. The book sold 1.5 million copies: put that in your pipe and smoke it.'

A bit rough, I thought - I am a great fan of Gwen's, and she has integrity and talent by the bucketload - so I went in search of the original article. All I could find was a single sarcastic jab at St. Delia.

I can't imagine why Tovey has his knickers in a knot. All Gwen did, by commenting that Delia's name had become 'culinary compost', was to reflect the angry backlash against her latest bestselling cookbook, How to Cheat at Cooking. Foodies and loyal fans alike were flabbergasted by some of the trashy recipes in the new book, accusing her of, according to an article in The Guardian - ' hypocrisy, betrayal and cynicism'.

And anyway, Ms Smith doesn't mince her own words when it comes to dissing other celebrity chefs. A feature on celebrity chef spats, in The Telegraph, quotes her as saying, about Gary Rhodes and Antony Worrall Thompson, "I hate Gary Rhodes's programmes and I think that Antony Worrall Thompson is worse. He is dreadful, just repulsive. I think that Food And Drink, the show that he is on, is the most disgusting programme on television. I will never, ever know, as long as I live, how the BBC or the general public can tolerate it."

Although I'm also a fan of Delia's meticulous recipes, I haven't read the book, and judging from these recipes, and the comments by tasters, I don't think I want to.

As for Gwen- well, she's just been honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Vodacom Women in the Media Awards, and deservedly so. And I wonder what Tovey means by 'another profound low' and 'really sums Gill up'? Has Tovey ever actually met Gwen Gill?

So Oy, hands off our Gwen, Tovey - she's a national institution here in South Africa. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Organic, shmorganic? A carrot is a carrot is a carrot

Here's a bit of a smack in the broeks for the organic food movement.

According to a report in The Telegraph, a recent study has shown that there is no clear evidence of any difference in the vitamin and mineral content between the organically and the chemically grown crop. Susanne Bugel and a team at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Human Nutrition found that many people are willing to fork out more than a third more cash for organic fruit and veggies in the belief that they deliver more vitamins and nutrition food reared with pesticides and chemicals.

The Telegraph reports Dr Alan Baylis, from the society, saying: "Modern crop protection chemicals to control weeds, pests and diseases are extensively tested and stringently regulated, and once in the soil, mineral nutrients from natural or artificial fertilisers are chemically identical.

"Organic crops are often lower yielding and eating them is a lifestyle choice for those who can afford it."

The study was published in the Society of Chemical Industry's Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.

What the study didn't look at is the health risks associated with pesticides and fertilisers, so maybe there's still a good reason to buy organic... or is there? I'm personally so distrustful of the entire health-food industry - don't get me started on homeopathy and other purveyors of snake oil - that I am not in the least bit surprised by this finding. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Saturday 5 July 2008

Sunday Times Food Show: the good, the bad, and the boring

My tongue was blistered and my cheeks were a-flamin' when I staggered out of the Sandton Convention Centre on Friday, after spending a happy morning tasting and sipping. No, I didn't do any wine-tasting - ten in the morning is a little early, even for moi, the World's Most Enthusiastic Wine Drinker - but I did taste a lot of chilli sauces, olives, tapenades, chutneys, relishes, pestos and olive oils. All were good and tasty, but if I have one criticism, it's that there is far, far too much bottled and pickled stuff on this show.

Look, I can understand that if you're a farmer or a food entrepreneur or running a little home industry, the obvious avenue is to bottle, pickle or preserve your produce. But there are just so many relishes and sauces that the market can take. Frankly, you've tasted one one tapenade or pesto or coulis, you've tasted 'em all (although I can recommend Willow Creek's Green Olive Tapenade with Thai spices).

If I have one suggestion for the organisers of next year's show, it's to try to attract a more diverse range of artisan food producers, especially growers of fresh leaves and herbs, berries and unusual veggies. I was also dismayed at how few local cheesemakers were represented (ie, not one): there are many people producing outstanding cheeses in this country. Could it be that it's just too expensive for them to take a stand, and that they spend all their money punting their wares at the South African Cheese Festival?

I was also disappointed to find not a single stall selling good South African charcuterie: no salami, no ham, no smoked game, no sausages. There were no makers of good breads, no smokers of fish, no growers of ducks or wild fowl, no small independent breweries showcasing interesting beers. There was very little, in fact, to indicate that this was a South African food show: no snoek, no mampoer, no mopani worms, no pap, no wors, no chakalaka, no waterblommetjies, no breyani and - for Pete's sake - no bunny chow.

And it's not as if people aren't producing this good food in South Africa - they are.

So what was good about the show? Well, there were four food stalls that really stood out. Curiously, all four stalls were placed one next to the other, in a row. This mystery was solved when I found out two days later that all four of these producers were the winners of the Sunday Times It’s My Business Competition 2008 (surprise - no link available). Hats off to the judges: an excellent choice of winners.

My number-one sensation of the day was the apple and pear juices produced by Oaklands Fruit Juices of Tradouw. I'm not a huge fruit-juice drinker, but I nearly fainted with pleasure when I tasted their icy cold natural apple juice, which is sold, for a paltry R14 a pop, in real glass bottles (it's bottled immediately after squeezing, and pasteurised in the bottle). Their pear juice is also just ambrosial. This is a product that puts Appletiser and all other competitors in the shade. (If you live on the Highveld, you might like to know that the juice is available from Fruit & Veg City branches).

My socks were knocked off by the preserves and pickles of Fresh Ideas, another winner in the competition. This family team, from Plettenberg Bay in the Cape, produces a range of unusual and truly lip-smacking food products. So much flavour is packed into each jar: I can recommend their chilli mayonnaise, their range of dreamy, bottle-cooked chicken parfaits (the black-pepper-flavoured one was a killer), the beetroot and mint relish and the red onion marmalade. I came away with five jars of their produce, all of which were flattened within two days. I envy you if you live in Plett: the Fresh Ideas shop (in the Lookout Centre, Main Street) offers a home-cooked, take-home dish of the day: braised beef in beer, chicken and mushroom pie, lamb , almond and yoghurt curry, and so on.

A third winner in the competion was the online retailer Yuppie Chef (read my earlier blogpost) and the final winner Aphrodisiac Shack, a smokehouse which produces a most unusual range of smoked products, including smoked extra-virgin olive oil and smoked farm butter.

Other taste sensations: the shittake mushroom relishes and condiments from Bella Vita Gourmet Mushrooms (a winner in last year's competition), and the gorgeous pear and plum preserves and coulis (what's the plural of coulis? Couli?) from a stall whose name I can't remember.

I had a look on the official Sunday Times Food Show website to try and find the name of the stall, but the site - hello? - doesn't list exhibitors. And the brochure isn't much better: it lists only the names and phone numbers of the stall-holders, but not their website addresses or descriptions of their wares.

A final moan? When I asked the makers where I could buy their scrumptious goodies on the Highveld, they sighed and gave me despondent shrugging looks. 'We're trying to get into Woolworths and Spar and Thrupps, but it's an ongoing battle,' said one of them. 'A few small delis stock our products, but we just can't get them in anywhere else.' Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Killer kitchen gadgetry for the yuppie chef

I was blown away by some of funky, clever designs at the Sunday Times. Yuppiechef (which sells only via the Net, and offers free - no jokes - delivery to anywhere in South Africa) definitely stole the show. This slick and good-looking site ('your one-stop killer kitchen gadget shoppe') is the work of Cape Town entrepreneurs Andrew Smith and Shane Dryden of Live Alchemy. Nice work, you guys.

There wasn't single item on their stall that I didn't want to own, immediately, and browsing their site now, I can add another two dozen gadgets to my wish list.

Top of the list? These beautiful glass water carafes, from Danish design company Eva Solo, which come with their own insulating zip-up neoprene wetsuits. At R740 each, they ain't cheap, but a girl can dream, right?

Another brilliant gadget: a set of flexible silicone 'poach pods' from FusionBrands (R90 for two). You float them in a pan of boiling water, break an egg into each one, and then turn them inside out to pop out the eggs. I also loved this witty rabbit pepper-grinder (see pic below) which has a pop-off tail for refilling purposes. Comes with a matching white salt grinder. I'm tempted to show you more of their gorgeous wares, but I don't want to spoil your fun - hop over to Yuppiechef and have your own little drool. And if you're into cool kitchen-tool spotting around the world, check out the Yuppiechef blog.

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Thursday 3 July 2008

Let's Puke Well: how Adelle Davis helped a rose bush grow

I mentioned in an earlier post that my parents, some time in the late Sixties, got their hands on a copy of Adelle Davis's Let's Get Well. This book was nothing short of revolutionary in those days, when healthy eating meant having a bit of grated carrot or bottled beetroot once a week, and health food, whole food and organic food hadn't yet been invented. The parents read the book from cover to cover, and were converted. The creamy, mashed-potato-topped fish pies vanished off the menu, and so did the bangers and mash, the bacon and eggs, the crumpets with whipped cream and syrup, and all the other heavenly home-cooked delights. Cornflakes were replaced by All Bran Flakes (Old Brown Flakes, I used to call them), and packets of linseeds and sunflower seeds appeared on the shelves of the pantry.

My mom started to bake her own wholewheat bread, using stone-ground flour. (It was delicious and cakey when hot out of the the oven, with lashings of farm butter, but by the next morning it had solidified to a solid brick. Undaunted, my mom hacked off slices, buttered and marmited them, and put them into our lunch boxes. Mom, sorry to tell you this, but we couldn't eat those sandwiches. We tried swopping them for the fluffy government-loaf peanut butter sandwiches that other girls brought to school, but there were no takers. We put them in the Poor Box - it was a convent school - and the Poor Box threw them back at us).

Very soon after that, my parents got their hands on another of Adelle Davis's books, Let's Have Healthy Children. My sisters and I were presented, at breakfast, with a glass of what my father christened 'Bull Juice'. This elixir, he promised, would make us strong, healthy, fit, hale, hearty and pink-cheeked. Downing a glass of it every morning was compulsory from now on.

I have no idea what this foul concoction (the forerunner of the smoothie) contained but, believe me, it was vile. Wheatgerm, I think, a banana or two, Brewer's Yeast, and possibly cod liver oil or the skin secretions of a sewer-dwelling rat. It was pale brown, thick, slightly foamy and - most yetchy of all - it was warm. It left a frothy moustache on your upper lip.

So we each took a few polite sips (while holding our noses and making ostentatious gagging noises), waited until the parents were out of the room, and tipped the Bull Juice out of the dining-room window, which overlooked three handsome rose bushes.

When spring came, the rose was the size of a sequoia tree. I gave a secret laugh when my mom said, with a wink, 'I just can't understand why this red rose bush is so much bigger than all the others, and why there are brown streaks all over the wall outside the dining room.'

I am interested to read that Adelle Davis was discredited and criticised in certain scientific and medical communities during her life, but that recent studies have vindicated her, and she is now considered a pioneer of the health food movement. (More here, from Wikipedia).

Whatever the case, I have had the most excellent health all my life (which I haven't deserved, considering my hedonistic ways), and I think it has something to do with the Bull Juice.

Does anyone remember this concoction? Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Woolies frozen ginger - now there's a good idea

Woolworths have recently launched a lekker new product: a pack containing little frozen cubes of puréed fresh ginger, each one a little smaller than a dice (and I mean the sort of dice you play games with). When you're making a stir-fry or curry, you just pop out a few cubes, leave them to defrost (or chuck them in the microwave) and Bob's your uncle.

Purists may scoff at this (but, then again, purists scoff at everything, don't they? And, besides, most purists are restaurant reviewers who have no children to feed, and all day to stooge around the shops) but I love the convenience of not having to lacerate my knuckles trying to grate the wizened-and-sprouting piece of fresh ginger in the vegetable rack, and then plucking the hairy bits from my teeth.

It's strange how freezing things has gone out of fashion. In the early heydeys of the freezer, home cooks were encouraged to freeze everything bar the cat. In fact, the adjective 'frozen' is almost a dirty word when applied to food nowadays.

Look, I am the first to agree that most things lose a bit of flavour and texture when frozen, but - provided that you don't leave them in the freezer for too long - it's really only a little loss, and it's cancelled out by the convenience factor. (Take peas, for example. A pea frozen in its pinnacle of sweetness is so superior to a podded pea that's been sitting and getting starchy under a film of clingwrap).

Here are some things that I've found freeze extremely well (wrapped tightly in plastic)

freshly grated or puréed ginger
whole, peeled garlic cloves (but they must be very young and snappy when you freeze them)
pomegranate seeds
curry leaves, lime leaves and bay leaves
fresh lemon juice (freeze it, in ice-cube trays, within fifteen minutes of squeezing it)
home-made pesto
berries (except for strawberries)
lemon grass
blanched chopped spinach
herb and/or garlic butter
garlic bread
bacon bits
pork sausages
fresh vanilla beans

Here are a few things, that, in my experience, don't freeze well:

home-made chicken stock (it just never tastes the same as fresh stock)
soups (ditto)
chicken breasts
fresh parsley, basil and coriander
fresh green chillies
coffee beans
spices (except whole nutmeg) Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Saturday 28 June 2008

Savoury Cheese and Onion Tart - useful for seducing vegetarians

I love the way this recipe has the word 'savoury' in front of it. What a lovely old-fashioned word it is. No one writes recipes these days that include 'savoury' in the title. But this tart (called a quiche these days) is indeed deeply savoury, with its topping of poppy seeds and halved stuffed green olives.

Savoury Cheese and Onion Tart. Photograph by Michael Le Grange;
 image © Random House Struik 2012
Anyway, this is a great recipe - another classic from my mom's Seventies cookbook. It's got far more Cheddar in it than any health-conscious cook would reasonably add to a quiche nowadays, but that's what makes it so delicious - and the grated raw onion in it adds a lovely punch and crunch. It's the ideal dish to serve to a vegetarian guest who's feeling hard done by.

This recipe was given to my mum by her friend the late great Val Horak. I've doubled it and tweaked it.

Savoury Cheese and Onion Tart

For the pastry shell:
250 g cake flour
a pinch of salt
150 g cold butter, cubed
2 egg yolks

For the filling:
400 g grated Cheddar
4 eggs, lightly whisked
2 small onions, peeled and grated
½ cup (125 ml) milk
½ cup (125 ml) cream
3 Tbsp (45 ml) finely chopped fresh parsley (fresh thyme is good too; use 1 T or 15 ml)
salt and milled black pepper

For the topping:
2 tsp (10 ml) black poppy seeds
10 pimento-stuffed green olives

Heat the oven to 180°C. To make the pastry shell, sift the flour into a bowl and add the butter. Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. (Or blitz together in a food processor fitted with a metal blade). 

Now stir in the egg yolks, and combine to form a dough. (Add a few drops of iced water if the mixture seems too stiff). Put the dough in the fridge for 10 minutes to rest, then roll out and use it to line a greased quiche or flan dish. (If you're not confident making pastry, click here to read some of my top tips and tricks.)

Prick the bottom of the pastry shell and bake blind.

(Alternatively, if you're feeling lazy and don't mind a slightly soggy crust, simply press the pastry across the bottom and up the sides of the dish, using your fingertips, and then add the filling).

For the filling, mix together all ingredients and tip into the pastry shell. Cut the stuffed olives in half lengthways and press, cut side up, into the surface of the quiche. Sprinkle the poppy seeds all over the tart.

Bake at 180°C for 20-30 minutes, or until puffed and lightly browned, but still ever so slightly wobbly in the middle.

Serve warm, with a green salad.

A few anchovy fillets draped over the top of the baked quiche (or pressed into the uncooked surface) lift it to another level.

Serves 4 hungry people; six to eight as a snack.

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Thursday 26 June 2008

My mom's legendary Asparagus Tart - wholewheat heaven, Seventies-style

I have friends who still swoon, 30 years down the line, at the memory of this dish, which my mom made at least once a week when I was a teenager. There is nothing dainty about this recipe. It's a rib-sticking dish of tinned asparagus mixed with cheesy white sauce and eggs, in a rather stodgy wholewheat-flour-and-oil crust, topped inelegantly with fresh breadcrumbs.

Some of the best lunch parties I can ever remember featured this legendary pie.

I love this recipe not only for the happy memories it evokes, but also because it reflects the beginnings of the wholefood/health food/vegetarian trend: ie, wholewheat flour, not white; oil, not butter; veggies, not meat. Besides, it's incredibly yummy.

My parents were heavily into Health Food (it all started when they read Let's Get Well by Adelle Davis; more about that in this post), and this dish was the thin end of the wedge.

Asparagus Tart

For the pastry shell:

1 cup (250 ml) white flour
1 cup (250 ml) wholewheat flour
1 1/2 t (7.5 ml) salt
2/3 cup (160 ml) sunflower or light vegetable oil
4 T (60 ml) milk

For the filling:

60 g butter
5 T (75 ml) white flour
2 cups (500 ml) milk
2 cups (500 ml) grated Cheddar
4 tsp (20 ml) Dijon mustard
3 T (45 ml) lemon juice
3 T (45 ml) finely chopped fresh parsley
2 tins of asparagus salad cuts, drained (each tin about 450g nett weight)
2 large eggs, lightly whisked
salt and a little white pepper
1/2 cup (125 ml) fresh breadcrumbs, brown or white

Preheat the oven to 180°C. First make the shell. Generously grease a large ceramic or earthenware pie dish. Tip the flour into the dish, add the salt, oil and milk and mash it all together with a fork until it forms a lump. Using your thumbs, press the mixture thinly across the base, and up the sides of, the dish. Don't bother about a neat edge, or about baking this shell blind - it's supposed to be rough and ready.

Now make the filling. First: a white sauce. Melt the butter in a saucepan over a high heat. When the butter stops foaming, tip in the flour and stir vigorously to make a paste. Allow to bubble for a minute or two, but do not allow to brown. Now tip in all the milk and, using a ballon whisk, stir wildly to disperse any lumps. Continue stirring constantly until the mixture becomes smooth and thick. When the sauce comes to the boil, turn down the heat and allow to bubble gently for three minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and tip in the grated Cheddar, stirring well until the cheese has melted. Set aside to cool for five minutes. Now stir in the mustard, lemon juice, parsley, asparagus and beaten egg, and season well with salt and a little white pepper.

Tip the mixture into the prepared pie shell, and sprinkle with fresh bread crumbs. Place in the oven, and bake at 160C for 25-35 minutes, or until the pie is slightly puffed, and no longer wobbly in the middle.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a while. Best served lukewarm, with lashings of home-made mayonnaise and a heap of tuna salad (trust me on this).
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Tuesday 24 June 2008

My aunt's Avocado Mousse

Here's another recipe from my mom's cookbook, this time for an avocado mousse that is a quintessential dish of the Seventies. (Do you remember those frightful avocado-green bathroom suites?)

What I love about the recipes I've been re-discovering in this battered old cookbook is their simplicity: there is not a leaf of coriander, a fleck of vanilla or a single drop of Balsamic in the entire book.

This dish may be old-fashioned (when last did you see a savoury mousse on a restaurant menu?) but it is delicious: a wobbly, creamy mousse of the palest green, pepped up with a subtle crunch of fresh chives. Excellent with melba toast.

Gilly Walters
This recipe was given to my mom by my aunt Gilly Walters of Wedgewood Nougat, who is the best home cook I have ever met.

Avocado Mousse

4 Tbsp (60 ml) lemon juice
4 small ripe avocados
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) salt
freshly milled black pepper
2 Tbsp (30 ml) very finely chopped chives
1 cup (250 ml) hot water
2 Tbsp (30 ml) powdered gelatine
1 cup (250 ml) cream, whipped to a soft peak
1 cup (250 ml) thick mayonnaise (Hellmann's or home-made)
paprika or cayenne pepper
finely chopped fresh parsley
fine lemon slices

Put the lemon juice into a large bowl. Halve the avocados, remove the pips and scoop out the flesh. Tip into the bowl containing the lemon juice and mash well, using a potato masher or fork.

Now stir in the salt, pepper and chives. Put the hot water in a bowl, sprinkle the gelatine over the surface and set aside for a few minutes to sponge. Heat the gelatine in the microwave (or over a gentle flame) until the gelatine has just melted. Stir into the avocado mixture, along with the mayonnaise. Finally, fold in the whipped cream.

Rinse a jelly mould (or a glass bowl) with cold water, give it a shake, and tip in the mixture. Smooth the top with a spatula and put into the fridge for 3-4 hours, or until set. Unmould onto a chilled plate and dust with paprika or cayenne pepper. Garnish with lemon slices and chopped parsley (actually, a few tufts of curly parsley will add a nice retro feel. )

Serves 8 as a starter.

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Hot Lemon Pudding

I've been going through my mother's hand-written cookbook (which she started in the early 1970s), giving little cries of joy each time I've come across a recipe for a dish I ate often as a child.

Try this wonderfully easy hot lemon pud. It contains a lot of egg and very little flour, so it puffs up into a light, wobbly, lemon-scented cloud, with a deeply browned top. Excellent with cold whipped cream or hot custard.

My mum always writes down who gave her a recipe , and this one came from her friend and my dear godmother Mari.

Hot Lemon Pudding

3 large free-range eggs
2 Tbsp (30 ml) soft butter
¾ cup (180 ml) white sugar
juice and zest of 1 lemon
2 Tbsp (30 ml) flour
1 cup (250 ml) milk

Heat the oven to 190 °C. Butter a deep pudding bowl. Separate the eggs and lightly whisk the yolks. In a bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy.

Add the lemon juice and zest, and the flour, and stir well. Now add the egg yolks and the milk in the lemon juice and mix until well combined.

Beat the eggs whites to a firm peak (they should not be dry) and fold them carefully into the egg-yolk mixture. Pour the mixture into the pudding bowl and place the bowl in a roasting pan into which you have poured some hot water (the water should come three-quarters of the way up the sides of the pudding dish).

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until puffed and brown on top. (Watch the pudding like a hawk for the last 10 minutes - you don't want the top to blacken.)

Serves 4

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