Monday 8 August 2011

Chicken Soup with Braaied Mielies, South-African Style

This homely soup, containing kernels of barbecued sweetcorn, was one of the recipes I entered into a recent soup competition. To my chagrin (well, rage, actually: think Rumpelstiltskin-style gnashing of teeth and stamping of feet) it didn't win the grand prize of fifty thousand rands' worth of luxury-supermarket vouchers. The winning recipe was a mutton curry soup by Kelly Chrystal of Durban. Although I want to bludgeon this Kelly person and steal her prize, I am very much looking forward to tasting her interesting soup when it hits the shelves next year.

Braaied-Mielie and Chicken Soup: Creamy, with a Hint of Chilli
Chicken Soup with Braaied Mielies

This soup recipe is inspired by a quintessential South African dish: fresh ears of sweetcorn (what we call 'mielies') cooked to a nutty goldenness over blazing coals. Sweet, slightly charred mielie kernels chewed straight from the cob. Sprinkled with salt. Eaten in a woodsmoky beam of sunshine. With melted butter trickling down your chin.

Forgive me for coming over all rhapsodic, but I can't help it. I hope you get the picture.

In this recipe, I've combined a thick, creamy homestyle chicken soup with freshly braaied sweetcorn. If you don't have hot coals to hand, you can cook the sweetcorn under a very hot grill (see recipe, below).

This is a long recipe because it requires a good home-made chicken stock.  You can cheat by using a stock cube, but I hope you don't.  There really isn't any substitute for proper chicken stock.

Braaied-Mielie and Chicken Soup

For the chicken stock:
a large free-range chicken, trimmed of excess fat
2½ litres water
1 cup (250 ml) white wine
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) sea salt
2 large onions, peeled and quartered
2 carrots, peeled and roughly sliced
a very thin slice of lemon, peel on
2 bay leaves
1 tsp (5 ml) freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves
a large stalk of celery
8 stalks fresh parsley
3 sprigs fresh thyme

For the soup:
3 tablespoons (45 ml) softened butter
8 large ears of fresh sweetcorn, husks and silk removed
4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
1 cup (250 ml) milk
1 tsp (5 ml) dried chilli flakes
2 tsp (10 ml) good dried oregano
a quarter of a whole nutmeg, finely grated
a pinch (1 ml) of ground cloves
the juice of a small lemon
6 Tbsp (90 ml) cream
3 Tbsp (45 ml) chopped fresh parsley
salt and milled black pepper, to taste
a squeeze of fresh lemon juice

To top:
Extra chopped fresh parsley, or snipped chives

First make the stock. Place the chicken, water, wine and salt  in a large pot. The chicken should be just submerged in liquid; if it is not, use a smaller pot. Bring gently to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Skim off any foam as it rises.

Add the onions, carrots, lemon slice, bay leaves, pepper and cloves. Using kitchen string, tie the celery stalks, parsley stalks and thyme sprigs into a bundle and add to the pot. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer gently, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Take the whole chicken out of the stock and cut off the breasts and legs. Cover these with clingfilm and set aside. Return the chicken carcass to the stock and simmer very gently for another hour.

While the chicken is simmering, rub the softened butter over the mielies and sprinkle with a little salt. Braai over medium-hot coals until the mielies are brown and toasted, and just cooked through. (But don't overcook: the kernels should retain a good crunch). If you don't have a braai, cook the mielies under a blazing oven grill, turning frequently, until golden and toasty, and charred in little flecks. Remove from the heat and cool slightly. Using a sharp knife, remove all the kernels, cutting close to the cob. Set the kernels aside.

Take the chicken carcass out of the pot and set aside on a plate to cool. Fish the bay leaves, lemon slice and the bundle of celery, parsley and thyme out of the stock and discard. Leave the cooked onions and carrot in the stock. Add the cubed potatoes, milk and half the braaied mielie kernels. Turn up the heat and cook at a lively simmer for 20 minutes, or until the potato cubes are tender and cooked right through.

In the meantime, pull the cooked chicken away from the carcass and from the set-aside breasts and legs, discarding any skin or fat. Tear the chicken into little shreds and flakes, and set to one side.

Liquidise the soup, in batches, until smooth. Pour the soup back into the pot. Add the remaining braaied mielie kernels, along with the reserved chicken pieces, chilli flakes, oregano, nutmeg, ground cloves and lemon juice. Stir well. Turn on the heat and simmer gently for another ten minutes.

Just before serving, stir in the cream and parsley, and season to taste with salt and black pepper. Add a spritz of lemon juice - just enough to 'lift' the flavour.

Serve piping hot, with a shower of finely snipped chives and crusty bread rolls.

Serves 8

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Saturday 6 August 2011

Salad of Shaved Baby Fennel, Apple and Smoked Mackerel. And my Norwegian Ancestry

Smoked mackerel is one of those love-it-or-hate-it foods, and I fall happily into Camp Love It. My fish-hating children and husband, the philistines they are, make gagging noises and organise protest marches when they see a packet of smoked mackerel fillets in the fridge. I am flummoxed by their attitude.

Salad of Shaved Baby Fennel, Apple and Smoked Mackerel
Salad of Shaved Baby Fennel, Apple and Smoked Mackerel

I love all kinds of fish: smoked, pickled, cured and oily (especially snoek and anchovies) and I reckon this craving has something to do with my Norwegian ancestry.

My Norwegian grandmother Agathe Torstena Olsen
My Norwegian great-grandmother, Agathe Torstena Olsen, known as Bestemor

I'm a quarter Norwegian, as you might gather from the rather Nordic picture of me as a nine-year-old (below). My grandmother Cecilie Kröger Jacobsen was born in 1911 in Durban, South Africa, and her immigrant parents were both born in Norway.

My great grandfather Bernt Jacobsen came from Arendal and his wife Agathe Olsen from Bergen. Both Bernt and Agathe were dead by the time I was born, and I know very little about them.

One lovely piece of family lore has stuck in my mind, though. Agathe ('Bestemor') used to say that when she was a little girl and saw the great Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg on the streets of Bergen, she always dropped him a curtsey. I don't know whether this is true, and - like all wonderful old family legends - it doesn't really matter if it isn't. The very idea that Bestemor was born in the same town as Grieg tickles me pink.

I've had Norway in my thoughts recently, after the devastasting massacre of so many young people on Utøya island.

My family has virtually no connection at all to Norway these days - though my mum, I think, is still in touch with some distant relatives - but my heart felt curiously broken to hear this news. This tenuous ancestral connection has ignited an interest in Norway and I hope to spend some time in the next few weeks exploring Norwegian food.

My Norwegian grandmother Agathe Torstena Olsen
Me, aged nine, dressed up in Norwegian traditional costume.
Anyway, back to the salad. I picked up some beautiful baby fennel at my local Woolies in Hout Bay, and it was just too young, fresh and snappy to cook. I shaved it, using a mandolin, and combined it with sweet thin slices of apple, flakes of smoked mackerel, and - for a bit of crunch and vim - a crisp topping of croutons dusted with chilli powder.

I used apple-cider vinegar to make the dressing, but you can use any good white-wine vinegar.

Salad of Shaved Baby Fennel, Apple and Smoked Mackerel

For the dressing
3 T (45 ml) apple cider vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
½ cup (125 ml) good olive oil
1 tsp (5 ml) Dijon mustard
½ tsp (2.5 ml) white granulated sugar
salt and milled black pepper

For the salad:
6 young, crisp fennel bulbs
a lemon
4 small, crunchy apples (I used Golden Delicious)
2 large fillets of smoked mackerel

For the chilli croutons:
4 slices white bread, crusts removed
4 T (60 ml) vegetable oil
a pinch of chilli powder (or more, to taste)

First make the dressing. Whisk all the ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside.

Trim the fennel bulbs and cut them in very fine slices lengthways, using a mandolin or sharp knife. Set aside.

Fill a large bowl with cold water and add the juice of half a lemon. Peel the apples using a potato peeler (or this excellent device) and drop them immediately into the lemony water. When all the apples are peeled, use a corer to remove the cores and stalks. Cut the apples horizontally into very fine slices, and put them back into the bowl of acidulated water (this will prevent them from going brown).

Remove any fine bones from the mackerel and pull it into large flakes.

Just before you assemble the salad, make the chilli croutons. Heat the vegetable oil in a small pan. Tear the bread into little tatters and fry in the hot oil, tossing once or twice, until they are a rich golden brown. Drain on a piece of kitchen paper and sprinkle with chilli powder and a little salt.

To serve, arrange the fennel, apple and mackerel on a platter, or on individual plates. Drizzle the dressing over  the salad, and top with the croutons. Serve immediately.

Serves 6

Salad of Shaved Baby Fennel, Apple and Smoked Mackerel

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Thursday 4 August 2011

Pears en Papillote with Chocolate and Vanilla

I love food baked in a rustling paper parcel because opening one up is like unwrapping a present. And these paper-wrapped pears certainly smell like Christmas when you unfurl them. This is a dead-easy, quick recipe that can be made well in advance - even the day before. What's more, you can bake them, put them to one side, and then pop them back in the oven - the microwave oven works well too - for a few minutes to heat through just before you serve them.

Pears en Papillote with Chocolate and Vanilla
Pears en Papillote
The idea for this recipe came to me while I was admiring a shining heap of pears at my local supermarket. Even though I love pears, I hardly ever buy them for the family fruit bowl because their ripening process irks me. One minute they're rock hard; a nanosecond later they've turned to gritty brown mush.

I thought I might stew the pears and put them under an almond crumble topping, but then my eye fell on a roll of greaseproof baking paper I'd just put in my trolley. (I've recently been baking baby potatoes in paper parcels, with fresh mint, salt and butter; this method produces the most tender and fragrant spuds).

Pears en Papillote with Chocolate and Vanilla
It's like opening a present. 

Do use unblemished, crisp, firm (but not rock-hard) pears for this dish. I used forelles, but I think this would work just as well with Packhams, golden pears or Bon Chretiens.

I know it's an extravagance to use a whole vanilla pod for each pear, but you can recycle the pods by drying them out on a sunny windowsill. Use them for the next batch of pears you make, or to flavour a jar of caster sugar.

If you can't afford a vanilla pod per pear, scrape the seeds out of a single split pod and mix them with the softened butter before you stuff the pears.

Pears en Papillote with Chocolate and Vanilla
a lemon
6 crisp, firm, just-ripe pears
6 vanilla pods (or three pods, split horizontally in two)
a slab of good quality (75%) dark chocolate
3 tsp (15 ml) butter, softened
6 tsp (30 ml) white sugar
extra sugar for dusting

If you're going to bake these right away, preheat the oven to 170 ºC. Cut out six circles of greaseproof baking paper (or parchment paper) each the size of a large dinner plate. The best way to do this is to put a plate face-down on the paper and swiftly cut around it with a sharp craft knife.

Fill a large bowl with cold water and add the juice of half a lemon. Peel the pears using a potato peeler and drop them immediately into the lemony water. When all the pears are peeled, use an apple corer to remove the cores and stalks (take the entire core out, so the chocolate can run out as it melts).. Trim the base of each pear so it stands up upright. Put the pears back into the water to prevent them from browning.

Pears en Papillote with Chocolate and Vanilla
Getting the pears ready for wrapping.

Put a circle of baking paper on the counter and stand a pear on it. Into the cavity place, in this order, two or three squares of chocolate broken into small pieces, half a teaspoon of butter, and a teaspoon of sugar.

Push a vanilla pod into the cavity, allowing its end to protrude like a pear stalk. Sprinkle two more teaspoons of sugar and a few drops of lemon juice over the outside of the pear. Gather up the edges of the circle to form a parcel and secure with a piece of damp raffia (or string) tied just above the top of the pear. Repeat with the remaining pears.

Leave the pears to stand for 45 minutes. This isn't essential, but it will give the sugar time to dissolve on the surface of the pear. (At this point, you can put the parcels in the fridge and leave them there for up to 8 hours.)

Place the pears on a baking sheet and bake at 170ºC for 40-45 minutes, or until they are very soft but not collapsed.

Place each parcel into a shallow bowl and serve immediately, with whipped cream or custard.

Serves 6. 

More of my recipes using pears:

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