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.
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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