Friday 20 April 2012

Old-Fashioned Ham and Eggs Au Gratin

Thick-sliced ham and tenderly boiled eggs in a parsley béchamel sauce, with a bubbly golden crust. This is a singularly comforting dish that I like so much I've made it three times in ten days, using the excuse that it's okay to hoover protein and fat when one is following the now-famous Tim Noakes low-carb diet*.  I ate this as a child, but I don't remember who made it for me. My granny Peggy, I think, who knew how to fry an egg and make proper crumpets and coleslaw.

Old-Fashioned Ham and Eggs Au Gratin
Old-Fashioned Ham and Eggs Au Gratin
I prefer these days to make dishes I recall from my childhood from taste-memory, as opposed to Googling a recipe or hunting through my old cookbooks, not only because I have a horror of inadvertently nicking someone else's original recipe, but also because so many of the recipes I find online and in cookbooks aren't quite what I'm looking for.

The particular charm of this dish, as I remember it, is its plainness: it's just ham and eggs in a white sauce, with a nice cheesy topping. The first time I recreated the recipe, it was good, and I ate it with my normal gusto, but it wasn't quite as delicious as I remembered it.  Then I embellished the recipe, adding some newfangled ingredients that weren't available to my granny in the early 1960s -  Dijon mustard, a spot of Tabasco, freshly grated Parmesan, a sifting of feathery panko crumbs, paprika, freshly milled white pepper - and the result sent me into raptures.

Old-Fashioned Ham and Eggs Au Gratin
Comforting, creamy and homely. 
This is makes a fine light lunch or supper, served with bread and a leafy salad plainly dressed with lemon juice, salt and olive oil.  It's important to use thick slices of ham, so ask the person behind the deli counter at your supermarket to adjust the slicing machine to cut the ham into leaves at least 7 mm thick.  If you're worried about the eggs cracking as you put them into the boiling water (and there is always one that does, no matter what precautions you take), wrap each egg tightly in tin foil before it goes into the water. I've tried this trick three times now, and haven't had a failure.

Old-Fashioned Ham and Eggs Au Gratin 

8 extra-large free-range eggs
400 g sliced, good ham (about 6 slices, each cut 7 mm thick)
4 Tbsp (60 ml) butter
4 Tbsp (60 ml)  flour
2½ cups (375 ml) whole milk
1 Tbsp (15 ml)  Dijon mustard
2 tsp (10 ml) fresh lemon juice
5 Tbsp (75  ml) finely chopped curly parsley
2 tsp (10 ml) Tabasco sauce [optional]
flaky sea salt
a pinch of white pepper
6 Tbsp (90 ml) freshly grated Parmesan or Grana Padano
6 Tbsp (90 ml) fine dry breadcrumbs
1 tsp (5 ml) fresh paprika, or cayenne pepper if you'd like extra tingle
4 Tbsp (60 ml) melted butter

First boil the eggs. Bring a pot of water to a gentle, burbling boil, slip in the eggs and boil them for exactly eight minutes (set a timer).  Drain the eggs and place the pot under a cold trickling tap for 7-8 minutes, or until they are cool.

Set the oven to 200 ºC. Generously butter a shallow ovenproof dish; it should be just big enough to hold all the ham slices (it's fine if they overlap). Arrange the ham on the bottom of the dish. To make the béchamel (white) sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan and tip in all the flour. Cook over a medium-high heat, stirring constantly, for a minute, without letting the flour brown. Pour in the milk, all in one go, and beat with a wire whisk to break up any lumps. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring constantly. When the sauce is thick and smooth, turn down the heat and let it burble very gently for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat, let it cool for a few minutes and then whisk in the mustard, lemon juice, chopped parsley and Tabasco. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

Peel the boiled eggs and cut each one, crossways, into four thick slices. Arrange these neatly on top of the ham. Pour the warm béchamel sauce evenly over the top. Sprinkle the surface of the sauce with the Parmesan, bread crumbs and paprika (or cayenne pepper) and drizzle the melted butter on top.

Bake, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes, or until the crumb topping is golden, and the filling is gently bubbling. Serve hot.

With a salad, serves 6. 

* This isn't a strictly carb-free dish, as it contains four tablespoons of flour.  But that's not much, split between six people.

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Thursday 19 April 2012

My Easy Rum-and-Raisin Chocolate Truffles

Photograph by Nina Timm
One of the unexpected pleasures of writing a food blog is that you get to meet all sorts of interesting, like-minded people from all over the world: food bloggers, chefs, cooks, gardeners, farmers, restaurateurs, hoteliers and food producers. Some of them you meet in a virtual way, via Twitter, Facebook and similar social- media platforms, and others you befriend in real life. One such person is Nina Timm, the cook, stylist and photographer behind the award-winning blog My Easy Cooking.

Nina is one of the grande dames of South African food blogging, and she's made her mark over the years by posting accessible, well-tested recipes accompanied by excellent photographs. Nina's weekly cooking slot on the Afrikaans radio channel Radio Sonder Grense (RSG) is bringing her fame in South Africa, and recently I accepted her invitation to join a small group of bloggers for a morning's cook-along.  The theme of the recipes was South African dried fruit, and I prepared two dishes, one using juicy dark raisins, and the other dried apricots. Click here to read Nina's post about my truffles.

Photograph by Nina Timm
I had the pleasure of cooking alongside fellow bloggers Ishay Govender of Food And The Fabulous (here's her post about the event) and Ilse van der Merwe from The Food Fox (her post here). While we cooked, we were interviewed by the effervescent Marthelize Brink, an RSG presenter and professional motivational speaker. We had plenty to taste once we'd finished cooking all our dishes, but the winner for me was Ilse's sublime malva pudding with dates and pecan nuts - a sticky, deeply comforting take on one of South Africa's favourite desserts.

I made two dishes with dried fruit for this cooking challenge: one, my Moroccan-Spiced Chicken Pie, to which I added dried apricots, and the other sweet chocolate truffles filled with rum-soaked raisins.  These are not true chocolate truffles of the sort you will find in a chocolate shop, but a quick, homely version so easy to make that even a child could manage this recipe. If you're not a fan of rum, try another version of this recipe: my Whisky and Orange Dark-Chocolate Truffles.

Rum and Raisin Chocolate Truffles

1/2 cup (125 ml) raisins or currants
4 Tbsp (60 ml) dark rum
350 g dark chocolate (70 per cent cocoa solids)
1/2 cup (125 ml) cream
3/4 cup (180 ml) icing sugar
1/4 cup (60 ml) cocoa powder, sifted, for coating

Put the raisins in a bowl, pour over the rum and set aside to soak for at least an hour, preferably two. Place the chocolate, broken into pieces, in a glass bowl and melt in a microwave oven or over a pan of simmering water. Stir until smooth, then beat in the cream, the soaked raisins and any rum left in the bowl. Sift the icing sugar into the chocolate and mix until smooth. Press a piece of clingfilm onto the surface of the mixture and place it in the fridge for about an hour, or until firm enough to handle.

Tip the cocoa powder onto a plate. Dig out spoonsful (each about the sized of a large marble) of chocolate paste and roll quickly between your palms to form rough balls resembling real truffles. Place the balls on the plate of cocoa powder and roll them about so that they are well coated. When you've made all the balls, place them in a sieve or colander and shake gently to remove any excess cocoa powder. Cover and place in the fridge for two hours, or until firm. These freeze very well.

Makes about 35 truffles. 

Note: The basic truffle recipe is adapted from Phillippa Cheifitz's The Cosmopolitan Cookbook (1986) Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Warm Lamb and Potato Salad with a Mint Dressing

The most important criterion for me when I’m cooking for a small crowd (and I’m talking about 10 people or more) is that every key element of the dish can be prepared many hours in advance, then heated, assembled and dished up with minimum fuss, at the last moment, so it arrives at the table fresh, hot and delicious. This is the fourth in a series of recipes for Woolworths, pantry sponsors of MasterChef South Africa.

An easy way to stretch an expensive leg of lamb between many mouths.
Obviously this is not possible for MasterChef contestants faced with the challenge of catering for a horde (given the tight time-frames of reality TV).  But for home cooks, painstaking planning and preparation are the secrets to success when you’re expecting a flock of hungry guests. A recipe that allows you partly to cook the ingredients well ahead of time, without any significant loss of freshness, flavour or texture, is the best bet, because all you need do is take 20 minutes or so to finish them off in pan or oven, fling the dish together and carry it triumphantly to the table.

This recipe for a warm salad of garlicky, rosemaried lamb, baby potatoes and peas allows you to do just that, and it’s economical in the sense that it stretches a single leg of lamb (which is ruinously expensive these days, for reasons I cannot understand) between many mouths. In the recipe below, I’ve given instructions for preparing the dish well ahead of time and then assembling it at the last minute.

You’ll save a lot of money if you buy a whole leg of lamb and debone it yourself (see Cook’s Notes, below), or ask your butcher to do it for you.

It’s important to serve this warm, as it’s the heat of the potatoes and lamb that releases the minty, mustardy, lemony flavours of the dressing.

My other recipes for Woolworths #wooliespantry: 

Curried Lamb Ribbetjies with Mint Yoghurt
Champ with Chives and Garlic
Gin-Cured Gravadlax with Crisped Capers

Warm Lamb and Potato Salad with a Mint Dressing

1 x 3.5 kg leg of lamb, deboned and butterflied
6 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
3 Tbsp (45 ml) olive oil, plus extra for frying
a large lemon
milled black pepper
3.5 kg new potatoes
olive or sunflower oil, for frying
4 cups frozen baby peas
baby mint leaves, to garnish

For the dressing:
4 tsp (20 ml) good Dijon mustard
1 large clove garlic, peeled and crushed
6 Tbsp (90 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ tsp (2.5 ml) white sugar
flaky sea salt
milled pepper
1 cup (250 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
a big handful of fresh mint leaves (about ¾ cup, loosely packed)

Lay the butterflied lamb, skin side down, in a large non-metallic dish. Scatter over the rosemary sprigs and garlic slices and drizzle with 3 Tbsp olive oil. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice over the lamb, then slice the squeezed-out lemon halves and arrange them on top of the lamb. Season well with milled black pepper (but no salt). Fold the lamb ‘butterfly’ in half to enclose the filling and cover the dish with clingfilm. Marinate in the fridge for 24 hours (a minimum of 12), turning the lamb over once or twice during that time.

Now prepare the potatoes. Cook them in plenty of boiling salted water for 10 minutes, or until just tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, but not squashy or falling apart. Drain in a colander for 10 minutes, return them to the empty pot and cover.

To prepare the dressing, put the mustard, garlic, lemon juice, sugar and a pinch of salt and pepper into a bowl and stir until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Whisk in the oil to form a smooth emulsion. Cover and set aside at room temperature.

Now sear the lamb (you can do this up to eight hours ahead and keep it, loosely covered with clingfilm, in the fridge). Heat 3 Tbsp oil in a large frying pan or a heavy-based roasting pan until blazing hot and shimmering, but not yet smoking. Scrape the garlic, rosemary and lemon slices off the lamb (don’t leave a trace of garlic behind, as it will turn bitter in the pan) and season with a little salt on both sides.

Sear the lamb in the hot oil for 4-5 minutes on each side, or until nicely browned and caramelised. Cover and set aside (at room temperature if you’re planning to assemble the dish within two hours, or in the fridge if you’re preparing this well in advance.)

About 45 minutes before you’re ready to serve the dish, heat the oven to 190 ºC. Put the lamb in a roasting pan and roast for 20-25 minutes, or until it’s cooked through, but still a pale rosy pink on the inside (how long this will take depends on your oven and the thickness of the lamb; see Cook’s Notes.) Cover loosely with foil and set aside to rest for 15 minutes.

In the meantime, finely chop the mint leaves, stir them into the dressing and check the seasoning. Add a few tablespoons of water to the pot containing the potatoes, set it over a low heat and gently reheat for 7-10 minutes. Put the frozen peas into a pot of rapidly boiling salted water and cook for 3-4 minutes.

Cut the hot potatoes in half and arrange them on a large, warmed platter. Drain the peas and scatter them on top. Pour the pan juices that have accumulated under the lamb into the bowl containing the dressing and whisk well.

Cut the lamb into thin slices and arrange the pieces on top of the potatoes. Pour over just enough of the minty dressing to coat the potatoes and lamb, and garnish with small mint leaves. Check the seasoning and add more salt if necessary.

Serve immediately with a leafy green salad scattered with crunchy croutons.

With salad, serves  8-10.

Cook's Notes:
  • It’s not difficult to debone a leg of lamb: use a very sharp knife to release the flesh from the bones, using long sweeping strokes. Don’t worry if the lamb ‘butterfly’ looks a little ragged: no one will notice once it’s sliced. If you’re not confident about doing this, have a look on the Internet for an instructional video.
  • To test whether the lamb is done to perfection, cut a small, deep slit in the thickest part of the meat. If it’s still a bloody pink inside, let it roast for 5-7 more minutes, then check again.
  • You can use large potatoes for this dish: boil them in their skins, taking care not to overcook them. Reheat them whole, then cut into thick slices.

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Monday 16 April 2012

Curried Lamb Ribbetjies with Mint Yoghurt

Slow cooking, and dishes that take a few days to prepare, don’t ever feature on MasterChef because of the obvious time limitations of reality TV. I think this is a pity, because time and patience are often the most delicious aspects of a dish, and this is especially true of meat that is cooked over an open flame.

Curried Lamb Ribs with Mint Yoghurt 

Long marinating and/or many hours of slow cooking can work absolute wonders, especially with tougher cuts of meat. Think, for example, of a whole lamb or pig that is spit-roasted for hours, rotating gently in front of a wood fire until its skin is burnished mahogany and its meat falling from the bone in tender flakes.

A braai is quintessentially South African, so for this week’s Woolies The Pantry recipe I’ve chosen lamb ribbetjies [riblets] because I love them (and their name!), and a Cape-Malay-style marinade based on a traditional curried lamb-sosatie soaking sauce. Drenched in a turmeric-yellow, sharp-sweet marinade, Malay sosaties of this sort have a long and noteworthy history as one of the classics 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. In my version of the marinade, I’ve used yoghurt in addition to a variety of wonderful spices, because this helps to tenderise the lamb ribbetjies so they are beautifully succulent when they come off the braai.

Click here for my recipe for snack-sized Cape Malay Lamb Sosaties.

My other recipes for Woolworths The Pantry: 
Champ with Chives and Garlic
Gin-Cured Gravadlax with Crisped Capers

Curried Lamb Ribbetjies with Mint Yoghurt

1.2 kg lamb ribbetjies [riblets]
lemon wedges, to serve

For the marinade:
4 T (60 ml) sunflower oil
2 onions, peeled and very finely chopped
4 cardamom pods
1 quill of cinnamon
1 red chilli, finely chopped
2 T (30 ml) grated fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1½ t (7.5 ml) ground cumin
1 t (5 ml) ground coriander
1 t (5 ml) red chilli powder
2 t (10 ml) medium-strength curry powder
1½ t (7.5 ml) turmeric
3 T (45 ml) white wine vinegar
80 ml thick fruity chutney
1 T (15 ml) sugar
3/4 cup (180 ml) water
milled black pepper
80 ml lemon juice (about 3 small lemons)
2 cups (500 ml) natural white yoghurt

For the dip:
1 cup (250 ml) thick white Greek yoghurt
80 ml finely chopped fresh mint
80 ml finely chopped fresh coriander
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
the juice of half a lemon
salt and milled black pepper

Heat the oil in a pan and add the onions, cardamom pods and cinnamon stick. Fry over a medium-high flame for 5 minutes, or until the onions are golden. Add the chilli, ginger and garlic and cook for another minute, without allowing the garlic to burn. Stir in the cumin, coriander, chilli powder, curry powder, turmeric, vinegar and chutney, turn down the heat and cook, stirring, for two minutes. Add the sugar and water, season with pepper and simmer briskly for 8 minutes. Remove from the heat, allow to cool, then stir in the lemon juice and yoghurt.  Tip the marinade into a lidded plastic or ceramic bowl, add the ribbetjies, mix well and refrigerate for 48 hours, stirring once or twice.

To make the dip, combine the yoghurt, mint, coriander, garlic and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate.

Season the ribbetjies with salt and braai over medium-hot coals for about 8 minutes on all four sides (half an hour in total), basting frequently with the leftover marinade.  The coals should not be too hot, or the ribs will scorch: by the end of the cooking time, they should be a rich yellow gold, flecked here and there with sticky black bits. Serve hot with the yoghurt dip and lemon wedges.

Serves 4. 

  • For best results, marinate the ribbetjies for two to three days; 24 hours is the absolute minimum.    
  • If you’d like a hotter marinade, add more chilli powder or chopped fresh red chillies to the marinade.
  • Don’t rush the cooking time: lamb ribbetjies can be quite fatty, and long cooking over medium coals will help render the fat.
  • These can be successfully cooked in an oven under a very hot grill, but make sure the ribbetjies are at least 20 cm below the grill, and turn them frequently.
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Tuesday 3 April 2012

Announcing my Scrumptious new cook book!

I'm excited and proud to announce that Cape Town publishers Random House Struik will be publishing my first cook book at the beginning of July 2012.

I styled the photographs myself because I wanted
complete creative control over the look of the book.
Although I can't yet tell you what the title of the book is, it has (of course!) the word 'Scrumptious' in it. What I can reveal is that it's a beautiful, full-colour dustjacketed hardback, filled with superlative photographs, and that it contains 90 of my original, triple-tested recipes, most of them entirely new.

I spent the better part of last year toiling night and day to produce a selection of interesting new recipes, and the photographs for the book were shot here, at my home in Hout Bay, over a period of three weeks in November and December 2011.

Although I was given the option by my publishers to shoot the photographs myself, I decided that my food snaps were not of the standard I would like to see in my own cook book, and so Random House Struik commissioned talented Cape Town photographer Michael Le Grange of Flat Art Studios to photograph my food.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that the images are breathtaking - and I can't wait to share some of them with you closer to the publication date. I'll also be writing a series of blog posts about the process of writing the book, of developing new recipes, and of shooting and styling the photographs (I did all the food styling myself, because I wanted it to look like my food).  What's more, all the plates, bowls and platters in the photographs were hand-made by my uncle David Walters, master potter of Franschhoek, so this is truly a family affair.

Book designer Bev Dodd and photographer Michael Le Grange
 (endlessly) debating a food shot
A commission from South Africa's leading publisher of top-quality cook books is a dream come true for me. Although this isn't my first published book,  it's the one that I've most wanted to write for almost 40 years, ever since I picked up a knife as a little girl and tearily peeled my first onions.

The tears I shed over those onions were nothing compared to the tears of delight I cried when I signed my book deal last year. Although I've loved writing this blog over the past five years, and learned so much, it has also at times been a frustrating, lonely experience, and one that has consumed many hours of my time.

There were days during the early years when I felt like giving up, not only because my blog wasn't earning me a cent, but also because food blogging has become so unnecessarily competitive and controversial.

Over the past while, however, as my blog has opened a new career for me as a food writer, recipe developer and social media consultant, my enthusiasm has returned, and I've poured all my energy and creativity into writing the very best cook book I can, and one that I hope will be truly useful and inspiring to home cooks.  With Michael le Grange's atmospheric photographs and book designer Bev Dodd's fabulous art direction, I hope I've produced a winner.

Click here to find out where to buy my book >

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