Tuesday 30 March 2010

Extra-Lemony Cape-Malay-Style Pickled Fish

Cape Pickled Fish
If you're not a lover of seafood, your nose may well wrinkle at the thought of eating pickled fish. I concede that, when put together, the words 'pickled' and 'fish' are unpleasantly redolent of pale things floating in jars of vinegar.

But this dish, properly made with good, fresh ingredients, is quite delicious, and I urge you to give the recipe a bash.

Consisting of  firm-fleshed white line fish soaked in a turmeric-yellow, oniony, lightly curried pickle, this dish has a long and noteworthy history as one of the classic staples of 'Cape Malay' cooking. The basic recipe has remained largely unchanged over at least two centuries; its pedigree is doubtless older than that, because the dish was bought to the Cape from the East during the earliest days of the slave trade.

There isn't space on this blog to do justice to the long and painful saga of slavery at the Cape, or to the culinary heritage of the descendants of slaves.  If you're interested, do please visit the Cape Slavery Heritage blog, an encyclopaedic site packed with fascinating stories and many compelling images.

Cape Slave Fisherman.
Image courtesy of Patric Tariq Mellét
The earliest written reference I know of to Cape pickled fish comes from Lady Anne Barnard (picture below) who, after visiting Meerlust farm in 1798, wrote that she was served 'fish of the nature of cod, pickled with Turmarick'.

Hildagonda J. Duckitt, one of South Africa's most esteemed historical cookbook authors, provided a recipe for sole pickled with mango relish, onions, 12 small chillies and a full quart of vinegar in her famous Hilda's 'Where Is It?' Of Recipes (1891).

Although the key ingredients of this well-loved staple have remained unchanged over time, there are hundreds of different recipes: each family has its own particular favourite, often a closely guarded formula.  In their brilliantly instructive book Cookery in Southern Africa: Traditional and Today (1970), Lesley Faull and Vida Heard give no fewer than four different recipes, of varying complexity, for 'ingelegde' [pickled] fish.  Faldela Williams, author of the definitive reference The Cape Malay Cookbook (1988), remembers this recipe from her childhood in District Six as a festive dish, reserved for high days and holidays.  Her recipe is a rather pared-down one, containing only nine pickling ingredients, while esteemed local foodie and wine writer Michael Olivier provides a more complex recipe for kerrievis [curried fish], containing 15 picking ingredients.

What all these recipes have in common is fish, onions, turmeric, salt, curry powder and the all-important vinegar.  Important, of course, because this is the acidifying agent that prevents bacterial growth and preserves the fish. In older recipes for pickled fish, the fried fillets are packed into jars, liberally doused with a very vinegary pickling solution and set aside in a cool place to keep for many weeks, or even months.

I find most ready-bought pickled fish (which is available in many supermarkets and delis in Cape Town) too aggressively vinegary and oily, so here is my version, which uses just a little vinegar and oil, and several pungent lemony ingredients. This pickle will not, of course, last for months in a jar, but you can keep it in the fridge for four to five days. This is lovely with fresh brown bread and butter, and crisp finely sliced iceberg lettuce.

Extra-Lemony Cape-Malay-Style Pickled Fish

For the fish:

1 kg firm-fleshed white fish, skinned and thoroughly boned (I used sustainable yellowtail)
½ cup (125 ml) flour, for dusting
salt and white pepper
3 Tbsp (45 ml) vegetable oil

For the pickle: 

4 Tbsp (60 ml) flavourless oil (sunflower or canola)
2 onions, peeled and sliced in rings (not too finely)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
a thumb-size piece of ginger, peeled and grated
4 bay leaves
6 fresh lemon leaves
3 whole white cardamom pods
1 tsp (5 ml) cumin seeds
1 large red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
2 tsp (10 ml)  turmeric
1 tsp (5 ml) mild curry powder
1 Tbsp (15 ml) brown sugar
4 Tbsp (60 ml) white wine vinegar
1 tsp (5 ml) finely grated lemon zest
8 black peppercorns
1 tsp (5 ml) salt
the juice of 3 lemons
½ cup (125 ml) water

To top:
extra fresh lemon leaves

Cut the fish into portions each about the size of a deck of cards. Put the flour onto a plate and season with salt and white pepper. Heat the oil over a brisk flame in a frying pan. Dust each slice of fish in the seasoned flour, shake to remove the excess, place in the hot oil and fry, in batches, for 2-3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown on both sides and just cooked through.  Remove from the heat and set aside.

Now make the pickling mixture. Wipe the pan clean of oil and residue using a piece of kitchen paper. Heat the vegetable oil in the pan, over a medium-high flame. When the oil's good and hot, add the onion rings and fry for three minutes, or until they beginning to colour, but still retain a good crunch.  Add the garlic, ginger, bay leaves, lemon leaves, cardamom and cumin seeds and cook, stirring gently, for another minute or two, taking care not to let the garlic brown.

Now add the chilli, turmeric, curry powder, sugar, vinegar, lemon zest, peppercorns and salt. Turn down the heat and bubble gently for two minutes, or until the mixture has reduced slightly, and the strong vinegary flavour has cooked away.

Stir in the lemon juice and water. Simmer for another minute, then remove from the heat.

Tip half of this mixture into the bottom of a ceramic or plastic dish just big enough to hold all the fish in a single layer. Pour the remaining mixture on top, making sure every piece of fish is well coated with the pickling liquid.  Top with a few extra lemon leaves, cover the dish tightly with clingfilm or a lid, and refrigerate for at least 12 hours - preferably 24 - turning the fish now and then in its pickle.  Serve cold, with buttered brown bread.

Makes 1 kg pickled fish
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Saturday 27 March 2010

Butterscotch and Apple Upside-Down Cake

This pud is a cross between a tarte tatin and an old-fashioned upside-down cake: it came about because I wanted to make an appley pudding, but didn't have time to make pastry.

Apple Butterscotch Upside-Down Cake
Cakey, comforting Butterscotch & Apple Cake
I don't much like hot puddings (or puddings in general) but occasionally, in a fit of guilt, I make the effort to mollify my husand and kids, who crave cakey puddings soaked in syrup and cloaked in custard.

Pineapple Upside-Down cakes made with tinned fruit were all the rage in the 60s and 70s: frankly I can't think of anything I'd less like to eat than soggy pineapple rings drenched in syrupy gloop (with maraschino cherries as an added horror).

Apples and butterscotch, on the other hand, are a sublime combination. This cake is really very simple to make: a butterscotch mixture is heated in a pan, and the apples stewed in it for 5 minutes, or until partially cooked. They're tipped into a cake tin and covered with an easy chiffon-cake mixture, and they finish cooking as the cake bakes.

This is best served warm, and immediately, although you can reheat it gently the next day. The butterscotch and apple mixture can be made in advance. If you use a spring-form cake tin for this, make sure to place the tin on a baking tray, as some butterscotch may leak out.

Butterscotch Apple Upside-Down Cake

For the topping:
4 medium apples (I used Golden Delicious)
100 g butter
1 cup (250 ml) brown sugar
2 Tbsp (30 ml) golden syrup
1 tsp (5 ml) cinnamon
the juice of half a lemon

For the cake:
3 eggs
1 cup (250 ml) white granulated sugar
1 cup (250 ml) cake flour
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) baking powder
a pinch of salt
½ cup (125 ml) milk
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Peel the apples and cut them into quarters. Using a sharp knife, carve away the pips and hard core from each quarter. Cut each quarter in half crossways. Set aside.

Heat a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the butter, sugar and syrup. Cook, over a medium-high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, for five minutes, or until the mixture is bubbling briskly and pulling away from the sides of the pan. Don't allow it to darken or burn. Tip in all the apple chunks and cook for a further five minutes, stirring frequently. As the sugar dissolves completely and moisture leaks from the apples, the sauce will thin slightly and begin to change to a rich caramel colour. Remove from the heat and stir in the cinnamon and lemon juice.

Line the bottom of a non-stick cake tin with a circle of greaseproof or baking paper. Generously butter the top of the paper, and the sides of the tin. Tip the butterscotch mixture into the tin and stir gently so that the apple pieces are evenly distributed. At this point, you can set the mixture aside for a few hours, or even overnight.

To make the cake, whisk the eggs and sugar together in a large bowl until pale and fluffy, or until they reach the ribbon stage. Sift the flour, salt and baking powder into the eggs. Pour the milk and vanilla over the mixture and stir gently until well combined. Pour the mixture into the cake tin, taking care not to disturb the butterscotch. Give the tin a sharp tap on the counter to break any trapped bubbles. Place in the hot oven and bake for an hour at 180°C, or until well risen and golden brown on top.

Remove from the oven and set aside for five minutes. Run a sharp knife around the sides of the tin to loosen the cake. Place a large platter on top of the cake and quickly invert. Carefully lift off the tin and peel away the baking paper.

Serve warm, with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Makes one cake. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Monday 22 March 2010

Smoked Salmon & Horseradish Sandwich Fingers: reviving the art of making a dainty sandwich

'Dainty' isn't a word I use often, because it's just so old-fashioned, and so reminiscent of doilies, girls tiptoeing in petticoats, and ladies holding teacups with arched pinky fingers.
But it is a word that I think can be applied with no qualms to a sandwich. Not a doorstop wholewheat sandwich, mind you, or a limp lunchbox sandwich glued with peanut butter, or a supermarket sandwich stuffed into a plastic triangle and refrigerated to cadaver-stiff.

What I mean by a dainty sandwich is one that is made at the very last minute with soft, fresh, highly refined bread, crusts removed, spread with nice salty butter, and cut into bite-sized triangles. (With an optional garnish of shredded iceberg lettuce.)

When last did you see a good and dainty sandwich of this sort? I came across a plateful of them a few weeks ago, when my sister Sophie served - oh, joy! - properly triangled cucumber sandwiches, made with the fluffiest Government Loaf, and zinged with a little chopped fresh mint. Even though I'm not a big fan of bread, I fell upon these sarmies with greedy pleasure.

I don't mean to be a snob, but I reckon that there are only a handful of appropriate fillings for dainty sandwiches, among them cucumbers; eggs mashed with home-made mayonnaise; good ham with lettuce; mustard & cress, and finely sliced cheddar with salted tomato. Only white pepper will do: freshly ground black pepper is just not on. Newfangled ingredients such as pesto, sundried tomatoes and grilled aubergines have no place between the slices of a sandwich of this sort.

Looking through my collection of Fifties and Sixties cookbooks, I've been very amused by all the different variations on the theme of Dainty Sandwiches. I've found checkerboard sandwiches, rolled sandwiches (here's my recipe for salmon pinwheels), stacked sandwiches, diced sandwiches and even flattened sandwiches, which involve thinning the bread slices with a rolling pin.

Here is a way to make a little smoked salmon go a long way. Look, it's a bit fiddly, but really worth the effort, especially if you have an old auntie or granny over for tea. You will get the neatest results if you use an electric carving knife to slice up the bread stacks (sounds like overkill, but it's the best tool for this job). If you don't have such a gadget, use a very sharp serrated bread knife, and cut the stacks in a light, quick-sawing motion. Whatever you do, don't apply any downward pressure with the knife, or you'll take all the bounce out of the dainties. I stirred prepared horseradish into my butter, but you could use a little lemon juice or zest, a few minced capers, a sprinkling of finely chopped fresh dill, or all of the above.

Smoked Salmon Sandwich Fingers

125 g soft salted butter
1 T (15 ml) creamed horseradish sauce
salt and white pepper
8 slices fresh white bread
8 slices fresh brown bread
12 slices smoked salmon

Put the butter into a little bowl and beat in the horseradish sauce and a little white pepper and salt, to taste. Make four bread stacks, as follows: place a slice of white bread on a chopping board. Spread the horseradish butter over the slice, and top with a piece of smoked salmon. Put a piece of brown bread on top, and repeat the steps above - alternating white and brown slices - above until you have a stack of four slices of bread. Using a very sharp serrated knife, or, preferably, an electric carving knife, cut off the crusts on all four sides of the bread stack. Now cut the stack, from top to bottom, into four slices. Place each slice downwards on the chopping board and slice into three to four fingers. Repeat the process with the remaining 12 slices of bread.

Arranged the salmon fingers, with great nicety, on a plate, preferably with a doily, and serve immediately.

Serves 8, as a snack or starter. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Triple-Lemony Linefish Baked in a Paper Parcel

If you're nervous about baking a whole fish to perfection, try oven-steaming it in a paper parcel. If you judge the cooking time correctly, you will end up with tender, succulent flesh, delicately scented with your selected stuffing ingredients. In this dish, I've used my five best-beloved ingredients, the heavenly quintet of garlic, lemon, olive oil, salt and butter.

I've stopped buying kabeljou, my favourite fish, since an anonymous commenter on
this blog snippily informed me that although it's rated 'orange' on the SASSI (Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative) database - which means that consumers should use it with caution -  it's not actually a sustainable species. Fair enough. But what was I supposed to do with the three lovely fresh kabeljou presented to me by the builder, let's call him Bob, who's doing alterations on my house?  (Bob, who is reaching retirement age, has a holiday cottage in Struis Bay, and loves nothing more than to head out of town on a Thursday afternoon to spend the whole weekend fishing off the beach.)  Eat them, of course!

Two have gone into the deep freeze, and I intend to bake them this weekend, when Bob has finished building my new braai [barbeque] and pizza oven. I asked him to do this on impulse, seeing as there were left-over piles of bricks and sand lying around, and a bricklayer on hand.
Sure, said the ever-obliging Bob, and when we'd agreed on a price, I showed him what I wanted: a little brick braai with a small adjacent oven.  What is rising out of my lawn looks more like the Taj Mahal than the modest structure I envisaged, but I don't have the heart to tell him to scale it down. My husband, who is bewildered by my longing for a pizza oven, has suggested we paint it in a camouflage pattern and turn it into a dog kennel.

Anyway, back to the fish: you can stuff whole fish with anything you like, but what I wanted was a powerful lemony flavour, so I used lemon leaves, kafir lime leaves, fresh lemon slices and Vietnamese coriander, which has its own particular lemoniness. During baking, the volatile oils from these lemony things infuse and perfume the flesh of the fish.  Some people believe in slashing the flesh of fresh fish, but  I don't think this is ever necessary, unless you're cooking a large, oily-fleshed fish directly over hot coals, in which case the slashes help the smoky flavour penetrate the fish, and allow it to cook evenly.

The cooking time will depend on the size of your fish.  To test whether the fish is done, stick a sharp knife right through the paper into the thickest part of the fish. If the flesh flakes easily, the fish is done. Remember, though, that the fish will continue to cook for two or three minutes after you take it out of the oven, so it's best to underdo it - you can always pop it back in the oven for another few minutes.

Triple-Lemony Linefish Baked in a Paper Parcel
1 medium whole fish (about 2 kg), cleaned
flaky sea salt
milled black pepper
5 fresh lemon leaves or kafir lime leaves
3 slices of lemon
3 sprigs Vietnamese coriander (or lemon thyme) 
2 cloves garlic, sliced length ways
3 T (45 ml) olive oil
1 tsp (5 ml) finely grated lemon zest
2 T butter

Preheat the oven to 180°C.  Place the fish on a large piece of parchment paper or greaseproof paper. Season the inside of the fish with a little salt and pepper. Crumple the lemon leaves to release their oil and stuff them into the cavity along with the lemon slices, Vietnamese coriander and garlic. Pour the olive oil over the top of the fish, scatter over the lemon zest and season with more salt and pepper. Cut up the butter and place on top of the fish. Pick up the long sides of the paper, bring them together, and fold over and over to make a neat pleat.  Fold in the shorter edges of the paper and tie securely with a piece of kitchen string.  Put the parcel on a baking sheet and bake at 180°C for about 25-30 minutes, or until done (see notes above). Using two spatulas, lift the fish onto a warmed platter. Pick up the paper and pour the juices over the fish. Serve with mayonnaise and boiled baby potatoes.

Serves 4
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Monday 1 March 2010

Tuna Steaks with a Fresh Cucumber, Radish & Vietnamese-Coriander Pickle

This cooling fresh pickle is just the thing for a hot day, and, blimey, it is hot in Hout Bay at the moment. I spent most of yesterday lying under a damp kikoi whimpering like a kicked dog and glugging bucketsful of iced ginger ale.
Plate by David Walters

Nothing makes me grouchier than being over-hot (except, perhaps, having to stagger into a hot kitchen and slave over a hot stove for hot, bothered children). Not that I did anything of the sort: all I can say is that I am very glad my local Spar bakes wonderful, crispy German rolls, because if they didn't, my family would starve over weekends.

One plant in my herb garden (which is mostly in pots, with a narrow, newly planted bed against a wall; pic below) that cannot tolerate hot dry weather is Vietnamese coriander. It's always the first herb to collapse in the heat, although it perks up quickly if you give it a cool soaking in time.

Have you tasted this lovely herb? Also known as Rau Răm, Vietnamese mint, Cambodian mint and false mint, it has a somewhat papery leaf with a distinctive brown U-shaped marking.  It has a clean, zingy, spicy taste with a definite tingle of citrus. It's very good in salsas, pestos, hot broths and green curries, and particularly tasty with fresh linefish - try placing a few leaves in the cavity of a whole fish, along with a few lemon slices and cloves of garlic, wrapping the fish in foil and baking until done.

I bought my plant a few months back at my local nursery in Johannesburg and, unwilling to leave it behind, shoved it into a pot and sent it to Cape Town in the removal van. It's thrived in its pot, and I've taken off several side shoots to plant in the beds.The cut herb is also available, every now and then, at food markets and specialist greengrocers.

Eat this pickle straight away, or refrigerate: it keeps well for three or four days. If you can't find Vietnamese coriander, use mint.

Tuna Steaks with a Fresh Cucumber, Radish &  Vietnamese Coriander Pickle
4 tuna steaks
1 T (15 ml) sunflower or canola oil
salt and milled black pepper

For the pickle: 
half an English cucumber, washed
6 radishes
1 T (15 ml) salt
4 tsp (20 ml) white granulated sugar
½ cup (125 ml) rice vinegar
4 sprigs Vietnamese coriander

First make the pickle. Using a mandolin, or a very sharp knife, cut the unpeeled cucumber into paper-thin slices. Place in a sieve, sprinkle with a teaspoon of salt, and leave to drain for 10 minutes. Press down lightly to squeeze out excess liquid, and place in a bowl. Finely slice the radishes and add them to the cucumbers along with the remaining salt, the sugar and the vinegar. Finely shred the coriander leaves and stir into the pickle. Place in the fridge while you cook the tuna.

Heat a non-stick frying pan until it is blazing hot. Coat the tuna steaks, top and bottom, with olive oil, and season with salt and plenty of black pepper. Place the tuna in the hot pan and cook for about a minute and a half on one side, or until about 2 mm of flesh on the cooking side turns opaque. Flip over, then cook the remaining side for the same amount of time. (If you prefer your tuna cooked right through, give it longer, but take great care not to overcook it, as it will dry out). Remove from the heat and serve hot with the cucumber pickle.

Serves 4.

My new herb patch, with granadilla (passion fruit) vines against the walls. I am keeping most of the herbs in pots, as the bed against the wall is very narrow and shallow. My husband bought the prayer flags in Kathmandu and at last has found a place to hang them!
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