Sunday 31 July 2011

Braised Baby Leeks with Halloumi 'Popcorn' and Frizzled Prosciutto

Dreaming up new recipes, then testing and refining them, is one of the most rewarding and interesting things I've done in my life, and describing these dishes to readers of this blog comes a very close second. I am excited to share this recipe with you: it's the culmination of my recent kitchen experiments involving slow-cooking of leeks (a passionate outburst of leek braisery, in other words).

Braised Baby Leeks with Halloumi 'Popcorn' and Frizzled Prosciutto.
Leave out the breadcrumbs if you're on a low-carb regime.

The leek may be a humble vegetable, but it is capable of great nobility, if it's cooked just right. The French refer to leeks as l'asperges du pauvre, or 'the asparagus of the poor', and it's not difficult to see why. Young, tender leeks very slowly and gently softened in butter, or braised with white wine and herbs, are delicate and delicious. The challenge, though, is to find really good young leeks: most of the elderly specimens sold in South African supermarkets are tough, stringy and suitable only for tossing into a chicken stock, or making humdrum vichyssoise.

If you see baby leeks in your local greengrocer, make a dive for them, and energetically slap anyone who gets in your way.

Braised baby leeks have a lovely melting texture, so they need to be paired with something with crunch, crumble and snap.

In this recipe, I've gone for all three: crisp breadcrumbs, puffy deep-fried bits of halloumi cheese, and frizzled prosciutto. If you're on a low-carb regime, leave out the breadcrumbs.

Halloumi is a tricky cheese to fry: if you haven't cooked it before, have a look at my tips for perfect results with halloumi.

Two more recipes with braised leeks: Wine-Braised Baby Leeks in Crisp Prosciutto and Salad of Warm Baby Leeks with Blue Cheese and Chilli Croutons.

Braised Baby Leeks with Halloumi 'Popcorn' and Frizzled Prosciutto

24 baby leeks (or enough for 6 people)
5 Tbsp (75 ml / 75 g) butter
a large (15 cm) sprig of fresh rosemary
two cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half
5 Tbsp (75 ml) white wine
2 Tbsp (30 ml) water
the juice of a lemon
5 Tbsp (75 ml) good olive oil
salt and milled black pepper

For the toppings
150 g halloumi cheese
vegetable oil for frying (I use sunflower oil)
2 slices day-old white bread
6 slices prosciutto
rosemary sprigs, to garnish

Rinse the leeks and trim off the roots and the dark green leaves. Heat the butter over a medium-low heat in a large frying pan and add the leeks, rosemary sprig and garlic halves. Cook gently, tossing frequently, for 6-7 minutes, or until the leeks are beginning to take on a little golden colour. Don't allow the garlic to brown. Add the wine and water, and season with a little salt and milled black pepper.

Cover the leeks with a cartouche (a cut-to-size circle of baking paper, or the wrapper from a block of butter). If you don't have baking paper, place a lid, at a slight tilt, over the frying pan.  Now turn the heat down to its lowest setting and braise gently for 15-20 minutes, or until they are very tender and the liquid has reduced to just a few teaspoons. If the pan looks as if it's drying out, add a little more wine.

Turn up the heat again and add the lemon juice and olive oil. Bubble for just 30 seconds, then remove the pan from the heat. Check the seasoning.

While the leeks are braising, prepare the toppings. Pour enough oil into a small frying pan to cover its base to a depth of 1 mm, and set over a medium-high flame. Whizz the bread slices in a food processor until you have rough crumbs. Fry in hot oil until golden brown, then drain then on kitchen paper. Now fry the prosciutto slices until they are crisp and golden, with frizzled edges. Drain.

Immediately before you serve the leeks, make the halloumi 'popcorn'. Pat the halloumi quite dry with kitchen paper, slice it thinly, then cut each slice into a very fine dice: each piece should be about the size of a lentil. Add more oil to the pan in which you cooked the breadcrumbs (the oil should cover the bottom of the pan to at least a depth of 2 mm). Turn up the heat, tilt the pan, and add the halloumi bits to the 'deep end', in small batches. As the pieces of cheese puff up and turn a light golden brown, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain them on the kitchen paper. Watch them like a hawk as they darken quickly, and will continue to cook after you've removed them from the heat.

Fish the braised leeks from the pan and arrange them on a large platter, or on individual plates. Pour the braising liquid over the leeks. Scatter over the breadcrumbs and halloumi bits, and arrange the fried prosciutto rashers on top.  Garish with a sprig of rosemary and serve immediately with bread.

Serves 6.

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Wednesday 27 July 2011

Spicy Pizzas made with Naan Bread

I'm always on the lookout for quick, ribsticking dishes for my growing lads, and these vibrant spiced-up pizzas tick all the boxes in the teen-fodder department. My local Spar sells nice little naan breads, and I've teamed these up with a lightly spiced tomato sauce, some zingy toppings and a handful of fresh leaves.

Spicy Pizzas made with Naan Bread
Spicy Pizzas made with Naan Bread

Look, I know mozzarella isn't an ingredient you're likely to find in an Indian dish, but what's a pizza without cheese? I use the stringy supermarket stuff that passes for mozzarella on these pizzas, and everyone's happy. You can add any topping you like to these, as long as - and this is my personal rule of thumb - it's something you're likely to find in a curry. So olives, salami, strips of ham, anchovies and tinned pineapple chunks are out. In the first picture I've used roasted aubergines and yellow peppers, plus orange chillies, and in the second strips of spiced chicken breast and sliced green chillies.

Spicy Pizzas made with Naan Bread
Put anything you like on top of these instant 'pizzas'.

My sons aren't mad about fresh coriander - which is the obvious choice of leafy topping - so I use little mint leaves instead.

If you don't have time to make a spicy tomato base for these pizzas, use ordinary tomato pizza sauce and add a little garlic and cumin to it.

Spicy Pizzas made with Naan Bread

For the Spicy Tomato Sauce
1 Tbsp (15 ml) vegetable oil
1 tsp (5 ml) mustard seeds
a thumb-length quill of cinnamon
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp (10 ml) fresh ginger, finely grated
1 tin tomato-and-onion mix, or tinned tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp (5 ml) medium-strength curry powder
½ tsp (2.5 ml) cumin
½ tsp (2.5 ml) coriander powder
3 Tbsp (45 ml) water
2 Tbsp  (30 ml) natural yoghurt
salt and pepper

For the pizzas:
8 small naan breads
mozzarella cheese
3 cloves garlic, finely crushed
cumin and red chilli powder for dusting
toppings of your choice (see my notes above)
a little olive oil
salt and milled black pepper
fresh coriander or mint

First make the tomato sauce. Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the mustard seeds and cinnamon stick. When the mustard seeds start to pop and sputter, turn down the heat and add the garlic and ginger. Allow to sizzle for a minute or two (don't let the garlic brown) and then add the tomatoes, curry powder, cumin and coriander. Let the sauce bubble over a medium heat for five minutes, or until slightly thickened. Stir in the water, and then stir in the yoghurt, a teaspoon at a time. Turn off the heat and season with salt and pepper.

Turn on your grill and place a baking sheet or a pizza stone in the oven to heat through.

Lightly toast one side of the naan breads in a dry frying pan, or under the hot grill. Turn them over and spread a little tomato sauce on them, leaving a little gap around the edges. Cover with a few slices of cheese. Dust the cheese with a little cumin and chilli powder, and dab with crushed garlic. Add the toppings. Cook under a hot grill until the cheese is bubbling.

Drizzle with a little olive oil and top with fresh green leaves.

Serves 8.

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Monday 25 July 2011

Home-made Double-Creamy Garlic, Lemon and Herb Yoghurt Cheese

Strained yoghurt cheeses (such as labneh) are usually flavoured after the yoghurt's been thoroughly drained in cheesecloth hung over a bowl, but I thought I'd try adding garlic, lemon zest and fresh herbs right at the beginning.  I find that fresh garlic tends to trample all over the delicate, milky flavour of soft white cheeses, so I figured that by adding it - and the woodier herbs and lemon - to the yoghurt before I drained it, the tastes would mingle and mellow over a few days. They did.

Home-made Double-Creamy Garlic, Lemon and Herb Yoghurt Cheese
Home-made Double-Creamy Garlic, Lemon and Herb Yoghurt Cheese

This is a beautifully silky cheese that's good topped with a generous slosh of grassy olive oil and some fresh thyme and marjoram leaves (I also added a few fresh rosemary flowers). Serve it with hot toast, melba toast, bruschetta or salty crackers, or add large dollops to the top of a quiche or vegetable tart. Alternatively, you can roll it into little balls and coat these with cracked black pepper, herbs, toasted sesame seeds, spices or spice blends (such as za'atar), or whatever takes your fancy.

I added some fresh cream (hence the 'double-creamy' in the title) but this isn't essential. Do use a full-fat, thick, natural Greek yoghurt.

I thought this cheese would be ready in two days, but it was three days before it was firm enough for my liking.  If you're going to hang it for longer than two days, or the weather is very hot, put it in the fridge. If your fridge has wire racks, clip the knot of the cloth to the rack with a few clothes pegs and place a bowl underneath. If your fridge has glass shelves, put the cloth in a sieve set over a bowl.

Home-made Double-Creamy Garlic, Lemon and Herb Yoghurt Cheese 
1 litre full-cream natural Greek yoghurt
½ cup (125 ml) cream
the finely grated zest and juice of one lemon
3 small cloves of garlic, peeled and finely grated
a small (thumb-length) sprig of rosemary, very finely chopped
few sprigs of thyme, leaves stripped and lightly bruised
1 tsp (5 ml) salt

To serve:
olive oil
salt and milled black pepper
fresh thyme and marjoram leaves, or herbs of your choice

In a large bowl, lightly whisk together the yoghurt, cream, lemon zest, lemon juice, garlic, fresh herbs and salt. Place a piece of cheesecloth or muslin (or a fine clean tea towel or napkin) in a sieve and place it over a bowl. Tip the yoghurt into the cloth, gather up the corners and tie them into a knot, or secure them tightly with an elastic band.

Home-made Double-Creamy Garlic, Lemon and Herb Yoghurt Cheese
Hang the cloth over a bowl or a sink (see my notes above) for two to three days, or longer, if you'd like a very firm cheese. The longer you leave it, the stiffer it will be. Gently squeeze and massage the cloth every now and then to encourage the liquid from the inside of the 'ball' to run out.

Tip the cheese onto a board and, using a large spoon or palette knife, mix it well. Season to taste with salt and pepper and tip into a serving bowl. Pour some olive oil over the cheese and scatter with fresh herbs.

Serves 8-10 as a starter or snack  Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Friday 22 July 2011

Stripy Jelly Orange Wedges with Raspberry Juice

No children's party in the Sixties, when I was a child, was complete without a tray of wobbling jelly-filled orange wedges. There had to be blazing red ones (cherry), and lurid green ones (greengage), made from packet jelly.

Stripy Jelly Oranges with Raspberry Juice. 
My mother made these for every single party I can remember, and I always marvelled at them.

How did my clever mummy manage to get the jelly to stay in perfect wedge formation? (It only occurred to me later that she filled up the orange halves, and then cut them into wedges.)

Other delicious party treats considered essential for a decent party table were iced or buttered Marie biscuits sprinkled with hundreds and thousands; marshmallow-filled ice-cream cones sealed with an iced biscuit, turned upside down and dressed up as clowns; and racing cars made with Boudoir biscuits and decorated with wheels made of Smarties and drivers made of sawn-off jelly babies.
Dried Naartjie Peel
Me, aged five, with my beloved dolly Gloria.

No one in my family will ever forget the day my little sister Sophie, on her fourth birthday, spent a happy half hour picking every single Smartie and jelly-baby amputee off the vast tray of racing cars my mother had set out on the party table.

By the time the guests arrived, all that remained was a sad pile of biscuits pocked with cake icing.

I've tried to recreate the memory of those happy birthday parties with these stripy jelly wedges.

Several months ago, while flipping through a Victorian cookbook, I came across an engraving of a pile of jelly oranges made with contrasting strata of jellied fruit juice.

Frustratingly, I can't remember which book it was, let alone whether it was a real book or one that I found online. Whatever the case, I was interested to see that jelly oranges were a feature of Victorian party buffets.

In the original recipe, the orange was set on its base, then hollowed out via a coin-sized hole cut through the pith at the stalk end. The whole orange was then filled with contrasting jelly layers. Once the jelly had set, the orange was cut into eighths vertically, resulting in perfect wedges with neat and identical strips.

I abandoned this idea immediately - hollowing out an entire orange through a tiny hole isn't my idea of pleasurable cooking - and instead I cut the oranges in half. The result, if you take this approach, is a variety of differently patterned wedges: the ones cut from the middle of the half-orange have perfect stripes, and the ones towards the edge of the shell are prettily graduated in sunset colours.

This is a fiddly recipe, I admit. It's not easy getting the stripes even, and it's quite difficult to cut the wedges perfectly. Use the sharpest knife you have, and keep dipping it into boiling water so that it glides easily through the jelly layers. Measure the gelatine exactly for a perfect firm set.

Stripy Jelly Orange Wedges with Raspberry Juice

three perfectly round fresh oranges
about 1½ cups (375 ml) freshly squeezed orange juice (see recipe)
2 cups (500 ml) frozen or fresh raspberries
1½ cups (375 ml) water
½ cup (125 ml) caster sugar
8 tsp (40 ml) powdered gelatine

Cut the oranges in half along their 'waists'. Run the tip of a very sharp knife a third of the way round the edge of the flesh, and then use a big spoon to scoop out all the flesh, making sure you remove all the membrane. Do this over a bowl, so that the juice doesn't escape.

Trim away any fluffy bits of pith or core and set the orange shells on a plate. If they're not perfectly level, shave a little peel away from the the bottom of each shell, making sure not to pierce any holes. Refrigerate.

Place the orange pulp in a sieve set over a bowl and press out as much juice as you can. Add more fresh orange juice to bring the total amount in the bowl up to two cups (500 ml). Put four tablespoons (60 ml) of this juice into a little bowl and over it sprinkle exactly four teaspoons (20 ml) of the gelatine. Set aside to 'sponge' for a few minutes. Now place the bowl in a saucepan of boiling water (the water should come halfway up the sides) and leave it for a few minutes to melt, without stirring. When the gelatine is clear, remove the bowl from the heat. Stir it into the fresh orange juice, and then strain the mixture into a clean jug. Set aside at room temperature.

Now make the raspberry jelly. Put the raspberries, sugar and water into a saucepan and bring gently to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer very gently for eight minutes, stirring now and then. Tip the mixture into a large sieve set over a big clean jug and allow the juice to drain out, pressing down gently with the back of a soup ladle. Discard the pulp. Sprinkle the remaining four teaspoons (20 ml) of gelatine over the hot juice and stir until it's completely dissolved. Set aside at room temperature.

Pour a layer of the orange jelly about 2 mm deep into the cold orange shells. Refrigerate until set. (You can put the shells in the freezer to speed up the layering process, but don't leave them too long). Now pour a thin layer of raspberry jelly over the top, and allow to set. Carry on layering the jelly until the shells are full. If the jugs of jelly begin to set, place them in a bowl of boiling water to liquefy them.

When the top layers of jelly are properly set, use a very sharp, hot knife to slice each orange-half into four wedges. Refrigerate until needed.

Makes 24 jelly wedges.

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Thursday 21 July 2011

Easy Caramelised Onion and Feta Tart - using pickled onions

Do you have the patience to stand around peeling pearl onions? I certainly don't, so I've come up with an easy, knock-out tart that uses small pickled onions, which are (oh joy!) already peeled. All they need is a thorough rinsing and a 10-minute sizzle in a pan of hot butter, garlic and thyme, and they turn a gorgeous golden brown, with a perfect balance of sweetness and gentle acidic bite.
Easy Caramelised Onion and Feta Tart - using pickled onions
The first time I made this, I used bog-standard pickled onions, and they were just too aggressively vinegary. The second, I used a better quality German pickled onion (Kühne brand) and they were perfect.
Easy Caramelised Onion and Feta Tart - using pickled onions
This is a dead-easy recipe that takes about 20 minutes to prepare and the same amount of time to bake. Do use a good quality puff pastry containing butter, and make sure not to overwork the pastry.  You could add any cheese of your choice to this tart - it would be good with a creamy Gorgonzola - but I like feta the best, because it has such a mild flavour and agreeable texture.

This tart is at its best warm, but can be made up to five hours in advance.

Easy Caramelised Onion and Feta Tart

one 500 g jar (300 g drained weight) small pickled onions
3 T (45 ml/45 g) salted butter
a few large sprigs of fresh thyme
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and finely grated
1 roll of good quality puff pastry, thawed
a beaten egg, for brushing
1 wheel (about 150 g) feta cheese
milled black pepper
a little olive oil for drizzling

Heat the oven to 180ºC and place a non-stick baking sheet in it to heat.  Pour the pickled onions into a colander and rinse them well under running water. Drain well, and discard any pickling spices. Heat the butter in a saucepan and add the onions, thyme sprigs and garlic. Cook, over a medium flame, tossing often, for 10 minutes, or until the onions are golden brown and nicely caramelised. Don't allow the garlic or onions to scorch. Remove and set aside to cool slightly.

Easy Caramelised Onion and Feta Tart - using pickled onions
Unroll the puff pastry onto a board covered with a piece of baking paper. Using a rolling pin, lightly roll it out so it's two or so centimetres larger on all sides. Cut the pastry into an exact square (measure and mark it using a ruler, or lift one corner and fold it diagonally upwards to meet the top edge, as you would do if you were doing origami).  Prick the pastry all over with a fork. Cut the leftover piece of pastry into four strips a centimetre or so wide (you may need to roll the piece out a little further). Brush the pastry base with beaten egg, then place the strips around the edges to make a border. Mark the border with a decorative chevron pattern.

Arrange the cooled onions in even rows on top of the pastry. Break the feta into pieces and tuck it between the  onions. Scatter with a little more fresh thyme and season with milled black pepper.  Paint another layer of beaten egg onto the edges of the tart.

Carefully lift the edges of the baking paper (you may need another pair of hands for this) and place it on the preheated baking sheet. Bake at 180ºC for 20 minutes, or until the pastry is crisp and golden brown. Drizzle with a little olive oil, cut into slices and serve warm.

Serves 6 as a starter or side dish. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Dried Naartjie Peel, and a South African Milk Tart to go under it

During naartjie season, you might be forgiven for thinking my house has been invaded by swarms of starving monkeys, so many blazing-orange peels are draped over cushions and tossed in spirals on the carpets. I exaggerate, of course, but my kids do love naartjies [a South African word for tangerines or clementines] and they eat them by the bucketload in winter.

South African Milk Tart with Dried Naartjie Peel
Dried naartjie peel adds a lovely old-fashioned fragrance to milk tart.
I've no doubt that a similar surfeit of naartjie peels led early cooks at the Cape to dry these fragrant skins and pound them to a powder to use in both savoury and sweet dishes. References to dried, ground naartjie peel abound in old South African recipes:  'No well-stocked 18th or 19th century kitchen was without a jar of dried naartjie peel,' write Magdaleen Van Wyk and Pat Barton in their book Traditional South African Cooking (2008).

In her esteemed cookbook Traditional Cookery of the Cape Malays (1959) Hilda Gerber gives a recipe for koesisters that contain 'a little stamped dried naartjie peel'.  A similar recipe for koesisters appears in the Cape Malay Cookbook by Faldela Williams.

A recipe for 'Krapkoekies' [literally, 'scratch biscuits'] in The Imperial African Cookery Book: Recipes from English-Speaking Africa by Will Sellick contains both dried naartjie peel and cardamom.

Dried naartjie peel was also used in oublietjies (light, crisp wafer-like biscuits bought to South Africa by the French Huguenots; these were cooked in a special waffle iron and rolled to form a cylinder) and in sweets.

In his book Tavern of the Seas, famous raconteur Lawrence Green wrote, 'For the children there would always be tameletjies, the sweets made of sugar, water, eggs, naartjie peel and dennebol pits.' What Green calls 'dennebol pits' are denne pitte, or pine nuts. Tameletjies are a type of nutty, sticky toffee, also known as stick-jaw or sticky jaw. According to Van Wyk and Barton, tameletjies have been eaten at the Cape since the early days of the French Huguenots: 'Years ago, these sweets were sold by Malay street vendors but these days they seem to be made only for special private feasts.' Here's their recipe for tameletjies.

Dried naartjie peel - along with fresh - was probably used in early versions of Van Der Hum (a famous South African liqueur made of brandy, spices and naartjie peel) and it's also occasionally used as a flavouring in savoury dishes, including bobotie, spicy dish of custard-topped mince that is regarded by some as South Africa's national dish. Here's a contemporary recipe for a lamb potjiekos (pot-stew) containing dried naartjie peel.

I oven-dried a whole lot of naartjie peel recently and have had great fun experimenting with this unusual  ingredient. It has a lovely pungent aroma and is delicious combined with other spices such as nutmeg, mace, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. The ground peel does have a fleeting bitterness (no doubt due to the fact that I dried it without removing its white pithy underside) but it is not at all unpleasant. I suppose you could use a potato peeler to shave off pithless flakes of the peel, but this is a laborious business because naartjie peel is so oily and flexible.

To dry naartjie peel, place the peels - torn into big strips -  on a rack in a sunny place and allow to air-dry naturally. Or, if you're in a hurry, put them on a rack set over a baking tray and place them in the oven. Turn the oven to its lowest setting and allow them to dry out overnight, or until they are quite crisp. The peels will dry out faster in a fan-assisted oven.  Store the peels in an airtight jar and use a coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle to blitz a few pieces to a powder whenever you need them for a recipe.

By far and away the most famous dish using dried naartjie peel is milk tart, or melktert. Most modern recipes call for a piece of fresh naartjie peel to be placed in the milk to infuse, but older recipes incorporate the dried, ground peel into the mixture.

I like a delicate, wobbly, custardy milk tart, but my kids do not; their tastebuds have been ruined by flabby white supermarket milk tarts containing not a trace of egg and far too much cheap cinnamon.  This recipe is a compromise (and I've added some cream and a vanilla pod for extra decadence).

Milk tarts are traditionally made with flaky or puff pastry, but I prefer a shortcrust pastry. You can make your own - recipe here - or use a good frozen pastry of your choice.

South African Milk Tart with Dried Naartjie Peel 

a deep 23-cm pie dish lined with shortcrust pastry, and baked blind

For the filling:
1 litre full-cream milk
125 ml (½ cup) pouring cream
a strip of fresh naartjie (tangerine) peel
a vanilla pod, halved lengthways
a 5-cm quill of cinnamon
2 extra-large free-range eggs
6 Tbsp (90 ml) cake flour
2 Tbsp (30 ml) cornflour [cornstarch]
200 ml caster sugar
1 Tbsp (15 ml) dried, ground naartjie peel

To top:
caster sugar
dried, ground naartjie peel

Put the milk, cream, naartjie peel, vanilla pod and cinnamon quill in a large saucepan, place over low flame and bring very slowly to the boil. As soon as the milk begins to seethe and rise in the pan, remove it from the heat, cover and set aside for 15 minutes to infuse. Strain the milk into a jug or bowl and discard the peel, vanilla pod and cinnamon.

Break the eggs into a mixing bowl and whisk them lightly. Add the flour, cornflour, caster sugar and one-third of the warm, strained milk. Beat together, using a wire whisk, until quite smooth. Pour this mixture back into the saucepan and add the remaining two-thirds of milk.  Cook, over a low flame, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick and smooth; it should have the consistency of a thick white sauce. Don't allow the mixture to boil. Pour the mixture into the prepared pie dish and bake at 160ºC for 25-35 minutes, or until the filling has set, but is still rather wobbly in the middle. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Put the ground naartjie peel and caster sugar into a tea strainer and sift this mixture all over the top of the tart.

Makes one 23-cm tart Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Sunday 17 July 2011

Panko-Crumbed Calamari with Black Salt & White Pepper, and Lime Mayonnaise

Panko-Crumbed Calamari with Black Salt & White Pepper, and Lime Mayonnaise
Indented sauce bowl by master potter David Walters of Franschhoek
I've been scratching my head for a few months now wondering what to do with the bottle of Hawaiian black lava salt I bought at a food emporium (Giovanni's Deliworld) in Cape Town, and after some deliberation have come to the conclusion that this is an ingredient that must be used tongue in cheek. As a feeble culinary joke, I mean. I can think of no other use for this salt.

Sure, it's an interesting product, with its large, crunchy, jet-black, rather greasy-looking granules, but when push comes to shove, it's just salt, and it tastes, well, salty.  It's no use for dishes containing liquid, because the colour runs from the crystals, making sooty streaks in sauces and dressings.

So I reckon the best way to use black salt is as a cheeky novelty.

In this, my take on that popular dish salt-and-pepper squid, I've reversed the colours of the two starring seasonings, combining the black salt with one of my favourite spices, white pepper.  If you can't find black salt, use a good brand of flaky sea salt, such as Maldon.

Japanese panko breadcrumbs aren't essential for this dish - you can use ordinary fresh or dried breadcrumbs - but they are well worth hunting for because they have a feather-light texture that creates a beautifully light, crisp whisper of a crust.  They're available at specialist Oriental food shops and some delicatessens; I bought mine at the Spar in the Cape Quarter.

These are good with a salty-sweet Asian dipping sauce of lime juice, soy sauce and chilli but, because I don't often make deep-fried anything, I went the whole hog and served them with a zesty mayonnaise with fresh lime juice and rind. In for a penny, in for a pound, I reckon.

The only tricky aspect of this recipe is getting the oil temperature just right. If it's too cool, the crust will soak up oil and become soggy. If it's too hot, the calamari will overcook. If you have a candy thermometer or digital thermometer, use it to keep the oil at between 160º and 165º C.  If you have no such thing, follow these instructions for deep-frying.

Finally, do use small, tender, good-quality calamari tubes for this dish. Fresh calamari is sometimes available at good fishmongers and at Woolworths. If you can't find fresh calamari, look out for packs of frozen Patagonian squid, which is now being sold in South Africa.  Avoid, at all costs, the rubbery pre-cut frozen rings you see in the supermarket.

If the calamari you buy comes with tentacles, dust them with a little seasoned cornflour and deep-fry them in the same oil to use as a crisp garnish.

Panko-Crumbed Calamari with Black Salt & White Pepper, and Lime Mayonnaise

Panko-Crumbed Calamari with Black Salt and White Pepper, and Lime Mayonnaise
700 g clean, small calamari tubes
1 cup (250 ml) flour
1 tsp (5 ml) finely ground white pepper
1 tsp (5 ml) Hawaiian black lava salt (or flaky sea salt)
2 eggs
2 cups (500 ml) panko breadcrumbs, or ordinary breadcrumbs
2 cups (500 ml) sunflower or similar light vegetable oil, for frying

For the lime mayonnaise:
1 cup (250 ml)  home-made mayonnaise, or genuine Hellmann's mayonnaise
3 T (45 ml)  thick natural Greek yoghurt
the finely grated zest of a lime
the juice of two small limes
a pinch of salt

To serve:
Hawaiian black lava salt (or flaky sea salt)
a little extra white pepper
lime wedges

First make the mayonnaise. Mix the mayonnaise, yoghurt and lime zest together in a small bowl. Add just enough fresh lime juice to give the sauce a good 'bite'.  Season with salt and refrigerate.

Turn the oven on to 140º C and place a big platter in it to warm.  Rinse the calamari tubes, pat dry with kitchen paper and slice into rings about 7 mm thick. Put three medium-sized bowls on the counter. Put the flour, white pepper and black salt into the first bowl, and mix well. Put the eggs into the second bowl and whisk until combined. Put the panko crumbs in the third bowl.

Pour the oil into a small saucepan or a wok. Heat the oil to 165º C, or until a crumb dropped into it sizzles furiously (see my notes above).  Place several layers of newspaper or kitchen paper on your counter.

Prepare the calamari in four batches. Take the first quarter of rings and toss them in the seasoned flour. Shake well to remove any excess. Dip them into the beaten egg, and then place them in the bowl full of crumbs. Using a fork, toss them lightly so that they are just coated with crumbs.  Drop the rings into the hot oil and fry for a minute, or until they are a light golden brown. Remove from the hot oil with a slotted spoon and drain on the kitchen paper. (And, once they're well drained, put them in the oven to warm.)  Remember that the calamari will carry on browning after you've taken it out of the hot oil, so fish the rings out of the pan long before they begin to darken.

Repeat with the remaining calamari rings.

Pile the hot calamari on a platter and dust with a pinch of white pepper (exercise caution here: it's a very pungent spice) and a scattering of black salt. Serve piping hot with the lime mayonnaise, and a few lime wedges.

Serves 6 as a starter Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Sunday 3 July 2011

Double-Craggy Garlic Bread with Herbs, Lemon and Peppered Cream Cheese

Garlic bread was one of the first eating sensations of my childhood, and I hold it personally responsible for my life-long addiction to both garlic and melted butter. It's not something I make often (I make weak stabs at keeping my family's diet wholesome), but I do think this great classic of the Sixties and Seventies needs to be given the respect it richly deserves. I've called my new version 'double-craggy' because the bread is sliced in a grid formation, and I've done this - licking my lips as I slice this way and that - in order to maximise the surface area to be basted with garlicky, herby butter.
Double-Craggy Garlic Bread with Herbs, Lemon and Peppered Cream Cheese
Double-Craggy Garlic Bread with Herbs, Lemon and Peppered Cream Cheese
The first time I tasted garlic bread was when I was six or seven, at a birthday party, and I have never forgotten that first heavenly bite. Our friends, the Spences, lived not far from our house, near Swartkop in Muldersdrift, some 30 km north of Johannesburg. Situated close to the famous Sterkfontein Caves and the Cradle of Humankind, Swartkop is a twin-peaked hill that was a distinctive feature in a landscape of rolling golden grassland, or veld. It probably has townhouse developments gnawing at its lower slopes nowadays - I haven't been there for years - but when I was a child, it was the closest thing to a mountain I'd ever seen. In our family, it was always called 'Bosom Mountain'.

Anyway, the Spences lived just under Bosom Mountain, in a big house thatched with shiny grass the colour of a lion's pelt. Malcolm Spence (who died this year, at 73) was an interesting and clever man who - according to his obituary - had the distinction of winning the 400m bronze medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics,  in what has been billed as 'one of the greatest sprint races of all time'. Malcolm apparently didn't like to talk about his triumph, but on this occasion I remember him showing all the kids a jumpy black-and-white movie of his famous sprint (projected onto a white bedsheet nailed to the wall, which was how we watched movies in those days). After that, we watched an old and terrifying film about a sabre-toothed tiger that lived in a cave. Petrified, I crawled under a blanket and stuck my thumb in my mouth, vowing never to go to a birthday party at the Spences again.

But all was made right when Naomi Spence called us to the table. She'd made three or four loaves of garlic bread, tightly wrapped in foil and packed with garlic, chopped fresh curly parsley and lashings of farm butter. There was a cake too, strewn with little silver balls, and iced Marie biscuits with hundreds-and-thousands, and orange-skin wedges filled with red jelly, but all these delights paled when I tasted the garlic bread. I ate a lot of it, and threw up on the back seat of the car on the way home. This may have been the bumpy farm road, but it was probably the butter.

I can't eat garlic bread without remembering that party, and here's my attempt to recreate a special food memory. I've used a flat-topped, poppyseeded potbrood here, but any big loaf of good, fine-textured white bread will do. Don't worry if stalagmites of bread fall off when you've cut it in a grid pattern: tie everything loosely together with a piece of string or raffia, and remove the string just before you serve the bread.

Double-Craggy Garlic Bread with Herbs, Lemon and Peppered Cream Cheese
A fabulous crowd-pleaser for a braai.

Double-Craggy Garlic Bread with Herbs, Lemon and Peppered Cream Cheese

a large, circular loaf of bread, a day or two old
1 cup (250 ml/250 g) salted butter
8 large cloves garlic, peeled and finely grated
the finely grated zest of a lemon
1 cup (250 ml) chopped fresh herbs (parsley, rosemary, oregano, rosemary, thyme, or whatever you have to hand)
freshly milled black pepper
125 g pepper-crusted cream cheese or goat's milk cheese

Heat the oven to 190 ºC. Place the loaf of bread on a board. Using a very sharp serrated knife, cut the bread, to within a centimetre of its base, into thick (2 cm) slices. Now turn the loaf the other way, and cut across the slices to form a grid. Take your time about this, and use quick, light, sawing motions, pressing the slices you've just cut firmly together.

Melt the butter in a pan set over a medium heat (or in your microwave oven) and stir in the garlic, lemon zest, fresh herbs and pepper.

Squeeze the base of the loaf gently to splay out the 'fingers' of bread and, using a pastry brush or a turkey baster, liberally coat each finger of bread with the flavoured butter.

Brush the top and sides of the bread with more melted butter. Tie a piece of string or a strand of raffia firmly around the loaf. Put the bread on a baking sheet and place in the oven. Cover lightly with a sheet of tin foil and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for a further 10 minutes, or until it's beginning to crisp and turn golden. Take the loaf out of the oven, and crumble the peppered cream cheese over and around the 'fingers' of bread. Bake for a further five  minutes, or until the cheese is hot and just beginning to bubble.

Serve immediately.

Serves 6-8 as a side dish.

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Friday 1 July 2011

Chicken 'Saltimbocca' with Emmentaler and Lemon

'Chicken breasts' is one of the most frequent keyword searches that lead to this blog, and I suppose that's because people are always on the lookout for quick, easy recipes using this family staple. Here's a dish I love, similar to saltimbocca (an Italian contraction meaning 'it jumps in one's mouth'), but in place of veal I use deboned chicken breasts, and I deglaze the pan with a little lemon juice instead of the traditional marsala.

The idea for sticking some cheese between the Parma ham and the chicken comes from one of Jamie Oliver's programmes (one of his Food Revolution series, I think), and what a good idea it is, although you can leave out if you're counting calories (not that this will make much difference: this is a dish laden with butter).

The lemon slice, as it caramelises in the pan, imparts a lovely zesty perfume to the dish.  I always tie the lemon slice and sage leaves on with raffia or string, because the thought of a sharp toothpick in a meal a child's going to be eating gives me the creeps.

Chicken 'Saltimbocca' with Emmentaler and Lemon

Don't let the butter get too brown in the pan, or the sauce will have a burned taste. Serve with a pile of fluffy parsleyed mash.

(By the way, chicken breasts on the bone are considerably cheaper than ready-prepared ones. Skinning them and whipping out the bone takes seconds, and saves you a lot of money.)

Chicken 'Saltimbocca' with Emmentaler and Lemon
4 skinned, deboned chicken breasts
eight thin slices of Emmentaler, or similar
4 slices of Parma ham
two thin slices of lemon, halved
16 small fresh sage leaves
1 T (15 ml) olive oil
3 T (45 ml) butter
the juice of small lemon
milled black pepper

Put the chicken breasts between two sheets of clingfilm or baking paper and, using a rolling pin, gently flatten them so that they're of an even thickness. Cover each breast with two slices of cheese, and then a slice of ham. Place the lemon slices and sage leaves, as shown above, on the top, and secure with a piece of kitchen string or a strand of raffia.  Press down firmly on the top of the breast with the palm of your hand.

Heat the olive oil in a large non-stick frying pan. Add the breasts, lemon-slice down, and fry over a brisk heat for two minutes. Flip the breasts over, and fry the other side for another two to three minutes, or until the breast is cooked right through. Add the butter to the pan a minute before the breasts are ready, and use it to baste the tops of the breasts. Season with black pepper (you shouldn't need to add any extra salt). Remove the breasts and place on a warm platter.  Turn up the heat slightly and add the lemon juice, swirling to release any bits of golden sediment. Allow to bubble for a minute, and then pour the sauce over the breasts.

Serve immediately, with mashed potato.

Serves 4 Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly