Friday 28 October 2011

Perfect Padkos: Spicy Frikkadels with a Surprise

Everyone loves a frikkie, or a kofta, or whatever name you give to this delicious, much-loved South African snack. A melting nugget of feta cheese wrapped in fresh mint is the surprise inside these lightly spiced meatballs.

Spicy Frikkadels with a Surprise
Perfect Padkos: Spicy Frikkadels with a Surprise
Frikkies are a very important component of padkos. This is an Afrikaans word that is impossible to translate, although its literal meaning is 'road food'. But padkos is so much more than just food for the road.  Most often, you'll take padkos in the car with you on a long trip, but you can also use the word to describe any food you'd take to eat on the hoof. Or on a plane, or a train.

I have fond memories of the long train trips I used to take when I was a student at Rhodes University in the early 1980s. The final leg of the journey involved changing trains at Alicedale, a small railway town in the Eastern Cape. The train that used to run between Alicedale and Grahamstown was pulled by an ancient Puffing Billy that toiled so slowly up the hills that you could hop off and jog alongside the train without any fear of being left behind. On one occasion, half starved, having spent all my pocket money the previous day, I was delighted to see the auntie sitting in the seat opposite me hauling out a big, battered polystyrene cooler box. She and her daughter, who both looked like overstuffed sofas in their floral crimplene dresses, carefully unpacked a wonderful assortment of padkos, including chilled grapes, sandwiches, vetkoek, lemonade and big plastic blikkie [box] lined with foil and filled to the brim with juicy-looking frikkadels. Then, without so much as offering me a taste, they methodically demolished the lot, dolefully chewing on their meatballs all the way to Grahamstown, their bovine eyes fixed on a point six inches above my head.

I asked my friends on Twitter to help me define #padkos. The best suggestion, from @NixDodd, was, 'The refreshing victuals packed to sustain travellers on the long South African roads."   Spot on: 'victuals' is an excellent word for describing this sort of food.

And what, I asked Twitter, constitutes proper padkos? There are too many victuals to list here, but the most popular items included hard-boiled eggs (with salt in a twist of foil), egg- or chicken-mayonnaise sandwiches, frikkadels, biltong, cold boerewors, pork sausages, crisps, rusks, samoosas, naartjies, moerkoffie in a flask (preferably sweetened with condensed milk), toffees, sweets and cold chicken drumsticks. All these suggestions were tweeted with great fondness and nostalgia, revealing just how important a part padkos plays in South Africa's culinary heritage.

If you're still not convinced by the idea of cold meatballs, try my special formula (although you may want to leave out the cheese if they're going to be eaten on the road). You can make these with minced lamb, beef, or pork or – best of all – a combination of beef and pork.

Prepare the raw frikkadels up to 12 hours ahead and keep them covered in the fridge. These need to be fried and then finished off in the oven, or they will darken in the pan before they’re cooked right through. The chickpea and spice dusting helps to create a rich golden crust. Chickpea flour is available from health shops and spice shops. But you can, of course, use ordinary flour.

Spicy Frikkadels with a Surprise
The middles of these frikkies contain a nugget of feta and a mint leaf

Spicy Frikkadels with a Surprise

1 large egg
5 Tbsp (75 ml) natural yoghurt
1 cup (250 ml) fresh white breadcrumbs
750 g minced beef, lamb or pork
1 small onion, peeled and finely grated
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
½ cup (125 ml) finely chopped fresh coriander
1 tsp (5 ml) finely grated lemon zest
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) cumin
1 tsp (5 ml) ground coriander
½ tsp (2.5 ml) chilli powder, or more, to taste
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) salt
milled black pepper
100 g feta cheese, cut into 1-cm cubes
a small bunch of fresh mint
sunflower oil, for frying

For the 'crust':
½ cup (125 ml) chickpea (channa) flour
1 tsp (5 ml) turmeric
1 tsp (5 ml) paprika

Whisk the egg and yoghurt in a large mixing bowl, stir in the breadcrumbs and allow to stand for 5 minutes. Now add the mince, onion, garlic, coriander, lemon zest, spices, salt and black pepper to taste. Using your hands, squish everything together to make a fairly firm paste.

To form the meatballs, pinch off a ball the size of a large litchi. Slightly flatten it in the palm of your hand, place a mint leaf on top, and on top of that a cube of feta. Gently squeeze and pinch the mixture to fully enclose the filling then roll it, very gently, between your palms to form a ball. Put them in the fridge for 30 minutes to firm up.

Heat the oven to 180º C. Mix the chickpea flour, turmeric and paprika together a plate and season to taste with salt and pepper. Roll the meatballs, eight at a time, in the seasoned flour and dust off the excess. Fry in hot oil, in batches, for 3-4 minutes, or until crusty and golden brown all over, draining on kitchen paper. Place the meatballs on a baking sheet and roast in the hot oven for 5-7 minutes, or until cooked right through.

Stick a toothpick into each one and serve hot or cold, with Lemon-Yoghurt Dipping Sauce

Serves 8 as a snack.

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Friday 14 October 2011

Thief-proof Nachos Towers with Avocado and Mint

There’s a crucial design fault to one of the best snack dishes invented: the person who pulls off the first tortilla chip usually snaffles half the melted cheese.  I'm always reminded of Linus dolefully dragging his blanket behind him when I see a great sheet of Cheddar vanishing from the top of the nachos pile into one lucky person's mouth.

Arguments break out in our house for this reason whenever I make stacked nachos for my sons and their friends (which I do quite often, because this dish could have been designed with famished teens in mind).

I've solved the problem by making vertically stacked nachos towers which guarantee that each person gets all the molten cheese she or he deserves. This is a somewhat fiddly recipe because you need to line the muffin tins with paper strips to make them easy to lift out, and so they won't stick, but it's well worth the effort.  These also make a good snack to go with drinks because you can assemble them an hour or two ahead and sling them in the oven when your guests arrive.  Make the avocado topping no less than an hour before you're going to serve it, and feel free to brighten it up with interesting ingredients of your choice - bottled chillies, fresh coriander, crumbled bacon, and so on.

Thief-proof Nachos Towers with Avocado

500 g packet plain tortilla chips
480 g Cheddar

For the topping:
2 Tbsp (30 ml) lemon juice
2 large, ripe avocados
2 ripe tomatoes
1 green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
2 Tbsp (30 ml) finely chopped fresh coriander
salt and milled black pepper
100 ml sour cream
24 small mint leaves

Heat the oven to 180ºC. Lightly oil a large sheet of greaseproof baking paper on one side and cut it into 24 strips each 25 cm long and 3 cm wide. Now lightly oil two 12-serving muffin pans. Line each pan with a strip of paper, oiled side up, by pressing the centre of strip across the base and sides, allowing the two ends to poke up out of the pan. These strips will let you lift out the nachos, and prevent them from sticking.

Coarsely grate the cheese on big board and divide it into 24 equal little piles. Press down lightly on each pile. Each stack will use 3 servings of cheese. To make a stack, put a chip on the board and top it with a pile of cheese. Add another chip, and another pile of cheese. Add a third chip, and top off the stack with a third serving of cheese. Press down very lightly. Drop the stack into a lined muffin pan and repeated with the remaining chips. Bake at 180ºC for 7-10 minutes, or until the cheese has melted. Put the lemon juice in a bowl.

Remove the flesh from the avocados, cut into neat 5 mm cubes and toss them in the lemon juice. Cut a cross in the tops of the tomatoes and put them in a bowl of boiling water for 3 minutes. Slip off the skins and dice neatly. Add to the bowl along with the chopped chilli and coriander, mix gently together and season with salt and pepper. Remove the stacks from the muffin pans and gently peel away the paper. Arrange the stacks on a platter and top each one with a tablespoon of the avocado mix, a blob of sour cream, and a small mint leaf. Serve immediately.

Serves 8 as a snack.

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Wednesday 5 October 2011

Cream of Watercress Soup with Wobbly Eggs

Liquid-centred 'poached' eggs add a touch of drama to this clean-flavoured watercress soup. This isn't a complicated recipe, but it does require some attention to detail.  The trick is to get the eggs just right, because most of the fun in eating it comes from puncturing the egg with your spoon and swirling the golden yolk around the bowl.

Cream of Watercress Soup with Wobbly Eggs
Cream of Watercress Soup with Wobbly Eggs

I am a great fan of watercress, and think it's a most under-appreciated ingredient.

Rocket is partially to blame for this, because this ubiquitous leaf, with its delicious, peppery twanginess, has a habit of hogging all the limelight, especially in salads.

Watercress -  now abundant on local supermarket shelves - is often considered a second choice to rocket, and I can't understand why. Watercress has a fresh bite and a lovely clean metallic taste, and is as good raw as it is lightly cooked.

This is a good light soup to serve, sequinned with olive oil and generously doused in cream, to friends on a cool spring evening (and there seem too many of those in Cape Town these days). However, since neither the most experienced cook nor the most foolhardy one should consider dangling over a hot stove poaching eggs the old-fashioned way when there are guests to greet and wine to quaff, I recommend that you use a clever restaurant trick:  partially cook the eggs in clingfilm ‘purses’ well ahead of time and then quickly reheat them minutes before serving.

Cream of Watercress Soup with Wobbly Eggs

2 packets of watercress, about 80 g each
1¾ litres (7 cups) chicken or vegetable stock
3 medium potatoes, peeled and finely sliced
6 Tbsp (90 g / 90 ml) butter
6 medium leeks, white and pale green parts only, sliced
5 Tbsp (75 ml) cake flour
the juice of half a lemon
200 ml cream
salt and milled black pepper
8 large, very fresh free-range eggs
a little olive oil
a few extra watercress or parsley leaves

Rinse the watercress, pick off the leaves and set them and the stalks to one side.

Heat the chicken stock in a large pot, add the watercress stalks and potato slices and cook at a brisk simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the potato is very tender.

Melt the butter in a separate large pot, add the leeks, cover the vegetables with a circle of baking paper (or the wrapper from a block of butter) and cook over a low heat for 7-9 minutes, or until very soft. Remove the paper, stir in the flour and cook for another minute. Turn up the heat slightly, add the reserved watercress leaves and cook, stirring, for 3-4 minutes, or until the leaves have wilted but are still a fresh green colour. Now add the hot stock and potatoes, stir well, bring to a gentle boil and simmer for 3 minutes. Squeeze in the lemon juice, then blend to a smooth purée (but not too fine; the soup should be flecked with green). Reheat the soup, mix in the cream and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Make the eggs in advance. Line a teacup with a large square of clingfilm and generously brush the inner surface with sunflower oil. Break an egg into the cup, bring up the edges of the plastic, twist them together to make a ‘purse’ and then tie into a knot, as if you are knotting a balloon. Make sure there is not too much air between the egg and the knot. Repeat with the remaining 7 eggs. Fill a big bowl with iced water and 10 ice cubes.

Bring a pan of water to a very gentle rolling boil, add 4 of the egg purses and poach for exactly 3  minutes. Plunge the purses into the iced water and chill for 5 minutes. Cut through the knots with scissors, gently peel away the plastic and place the eggs on a plate. Repeat with the remaining eggs. Cover the plate with clingfilm.

When you’re ready to serve the soup, slip the eggs back into a pan of gently boiling water and reheat for exactly 1 minute (set your oven timer to remind you!). Fish the eggs from the water with a slotted spoon and drain quickly on kitchen paper. Ladle the hot soup into bowls and top each one with a puddle of cream, a poached egg, dots of of olive oil and a few leaves of watercress or flat-leaf parsley.

Serves 8.

Cook’s Notes
  • This soup can be made up to 4 hours in advance, but no longer, or it may lose its colour.
  • Poach the eggs up to 4 hours ahead, and keep them in the fridge. It’s a good idea to poach a few extra eggs, just in case the yolks break or the whites refuse to come away from the plastic. Practise poaching an egg the day before if you’re not feeling confident.
  • Try this soup with other tender fresh leaves, such as sorrel, rocket or baby spinach.
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Monday 3 October 2011

Individual Beef Wellingtons with Crisp Bottoms

No one (apart from babies, I suppose, who never seem to mind) appreciates a soggy bottom, and that's the problem with most of the Beef Wellingtons I've ever eaten. I'm not a fan of greasy puff pastry to begin with - whoever invented the sausage roll has a lot to answer for -  and an undercarriage of pastry sodden with meaty juices really ruins a Wellie for me.

Individual Beef Wellies with Crisp Bottoms I do love Beef Wellington, though, so I've spent some time figuring out a method that results in a nice crisp pastry base. This recipe takes time and some attention to detail (not to mention requiring two and a half rolls of pastry), but I reckon that if you're going to spend a fortune on a fine fillet of beef, it's worth putting in the extra effort to produce a faultless end result.

This is a good choice for an extravagant dinner party or a very special occasion, not only because the individual Wellingtons are tall and majestic-looking in their rustling cloaks of golden pastry, but also because they can be prepared a full  24 hours ahead, and then popped into a hot oven just before you serve them. (Or longer. The second time I tested this recipe, I left one portion in the fridge, unbaked, for two days, and it was perfect when it came out of the oven.)

Because oven temperatures vary, the cooking times I have given in the recipe are a guide only. I suggest that you cook the Wellingtons for the recommended time, and then test one (the one you're going to eat, of course, or an extra one you've made for testing purposes) by cutting a deep slit into its side to check whether it's perfectly done. If it's too rare, return all the parcels to the oven for a few more minutes.

I've left the classic filling of chicken-liver pâté out of this recipe because many people don't fancy it with beef and mushrooms, but if you'd like to include it, stir 6 tablespoons (90 ml) of good pâté into the mushrooms when they've finished cooking.

I think Beef Wellington does need some kind of sauce, so serve this with a home-made gravy, or a creamy mushroom sauce or - best of all - a lovely Béarnaise.

Individual Beef Wellingtons with Crisp Bottoms
1 large (about 1.8 kg) fillet of beef (see Cook's Notes, below)
3 rolls ready-rolled puff pastry, thawed (again, see Cook's Notes)
1 egg, lightly beaten with a teaspoon of water
4 tsp (20 ml) Dijon mustard
milled black pepper
1 Tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
2 Tbsp (30 ml) butter
2 packs (about 500 g) portabellini mushrooms, finely chopped
a fat clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
3 Tbsp (45 ml) dry white wine
a large sprig of fresh rosemary

At least eight hours before you start the recipe, prepare the fillet. Trim off any sinew or silvery membrane (see Cook's Notes). Using a ruler, measure out 30 cm of the thicker end of the fillet, and cut off the remaining thin end (save this for a stir-fry or steak sandwich.)

Put a 60-cm-long sheet of clingfilm lengthways on your counter, place the fillet on top and wrap the plastic tightly around the meat, twisting the ends as if you are making a Christmas cracker. Continue twisting until you have a tight, neat, evenly thick roll that looks like a giant salami. Tuck the twisted ends under the roll, place on a plate and refrigerate for eight hours.

When you're ready to start preparing the Wellingtons, heat the oven to 220ºC (for the pastry bases).

While the oven is heating, cut the fillet, straight through the clingfilm, into six medallions each 5 cm thick (again, measure them with a ruler, or weigh them using a digital scale - they should weigh 150 grams each, or as close as you can get to this). Peel off the plastic and tie a piece of kitchen string firmly around the 'waist' of each one. This will help the meat hold its shape during the initial browning. Set aside.

Put a new sheet of clingfilm on your counter, dust it with a little flour and unroll the puff pastry onto it. Gently roll out the pastry using a lightly floured rolling pin so it's one centimetre bigger on all four sides. Now mark out 6 circles that are half a centimetre (5 mm) bigger in diameter than the medallions of fillet steak you've just cut. You can do this by placing a medallion on the pastry and cutting round it with a sharp knife, or using a suitably sized bowl to mark a circle before cutting it out. Prick the circles all over with a fork and place them on a baking sheet lined with a piece of greaseproof baking paper. Put them in the hot oven and bake for 8-10 minutes, or until they are risen and a light golden colour.  Remove from the oven, brush the tops with beaten egg, then return them to the oven for 4-5 minutes, or until golden brown and completely dry to the touch.  Lift the circles from the paper and place them on a wire rack to cool.

In the meantime, prepare the steaks. Rub a little Dijon mustard on the top and bottom of each medallion and grind over plenty of black pepper. Put a large non-stick frying pan on the hob and heat it for 4 minutes, or until blazing hot. Add the oil, wait for a few seconds until it starts to shimmer, then then put the steaks in. Fry them for exactly one minute (set a timer!) on each side. They should be brown and nicely caramelised top and bottom but still completely raw in the middle.  Remove the steaks from the pan and place them on a plate. Cover and allow to cool.

Melt the butter over a medium-high heat in the same pan in which you fried the steak. Add the mushrooms and rosemary sprig and fry for 4-5 minutes, or until the mushrooms are soft. Add the wine and garlic and cook for a further 4 minutes, or until the liquid in the pan has completely evaporated. If you're using chicken-liver pâté, stir it in now. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove the rosemary sprig and set the mixture aside to cool. (A few drops of truffle oil added to the mushrooms at this stage will elevate this dish; if you have some of this elixir in your cupboard, now is the time to use it.)

To assemble the Wellingtons, divide the mushroom mixture into six portions and pat a generous layer onto the top of each pastry circle. Remove the string from the steak medallions, pat them quite dry on kitchen paper and place them on top of the mushroom layers. Season the stacks with salt, to taste.

Unroll the second rectangle of pastry on a sheet of lightly floured clingfilm. Cut it into four equal circles, each one about a centimetre bigger than the pastry bases you cut from the first circle. Put one circle onto a board and very gently roll it out with a floured rolling pin to form it into piece big enough to cover a fillet stack completely. Put a fillet stack on a plate and drape the pastry over it, as if you're throwing a cloth over a table so its edges drape onto the floor. Neatly tuck the edges under the pastry base. (If you like, you can flip the whole bundle over to do this). If there are any tears, patch them with bits of left-over pastry. Repeat the process for the remaining two stacks, using the remaining pastry. Shape and nudge the parcels between your palms to form nice neat towers. Brush the pastry all over with beaten egg, and use the left-over trimmings to add some leaves, roses and similar extravagant flourishes to the top. Brush the trimmings with beaten egg. Now use the tip of a sharp knife to cut a four-millimetre slit in the top of each Wellington, so steam can escape. Put the parcels in the fridge for 30 minutes to firm up, then brush with another coating of egg.

At this point, you can refrigerate the parcels, lightly covered with clingfilm,  for up to 24 hours, but make sure that the pastry bases, the mushrooms and the steaks have cooled to room temperature before you assemble the parcels, and take them out of the fridge 30 minutes before you bake them.

Bake the Wellingtons on a sheet lined with greaseproof baking paper at 200º C (or 210º C if you don't have a fan-assisted oven). For a pastry parcel containing a steak weighing 150 grams, 20 minutes will give you a perfect rose-pink.  If you want a bloody steak, cook them for about 15 minutes, and if it's well done you're after, 25-30 minutes.  As mentioned in my introduction above, it's not a bad idea to make an extra Wellington, using a left-over fillet medallion of the same weight, to use as a 'guinea-pig'.

Serve piping hot with a sauce of your choice.

Serves 6. 

Cook's Notes

  • There will be some wastage if you buy a whole beef fillet, as you will use only the thicker part of the fillet.  It might be more economical to ask you butcher to cut you six 150-gram medallions.
  • When you're peeling the 'silver skin' from the fillet, tear it away from the thin end of the fillet towards the thicker end. If you try doing this the other way round, it won't come away neatly. 
  • Use a good-quality all-butter puff pastry; I always use the Woolworths brand. Avoid the brand called 'Today' which tastes synthetic and always, but always, cracks when you unroll it.
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