Thursday 29 November 2012

Easy Rum and Raisin Popsicles

I have a particular fondness for rum-and-raisin-flavoured ice cream because it reminds me of my childhood. These fruity, boozy ice creams are so easy to make and make a great finish to a Southern Hemisphere festive meal.  They contain that most unfashionable ingredient, condensed milk, and are whipped together ready for freezing in under ten minutes (although you will need to soak the raisins for six hours in advance).

Rum and Raisin Creamsicles
Easy Rum and Raisin Popsicles. I took this picture on a hot day, and my oval
ice tray shattered as I placed it on the board. 

I'm impatient with foodsters who consider condensed milk (like its cousin evaporated milk) a trashy ingredient.  It's really versatile for quick desserts, its chief advantage over sugar being that you don't have to wait for it to dissolve. This recipe is loosely based on my Frozen Lemon Cream Dessert (from my book Scrumptious Food for Family and Friends).

I use shot/tequila glasses as moulds because I love their shape - you can buy these in bulk in big hypermarkets. If you don't have any ice-cream sticks, use silvery teaspoons (bowl side down), which work just as well.

Easy Rum and Raisin Popsicles

½ cup (125 ml) raisins
½  cup (125 ml) dark rum, plus more to taste
1 x 385 g tin condensed milk
1 Tbsp (15 ml) lemon juice
1 Tbsp (15 ml) good instant coffee (this produces a pleasing colour)
1 tub (250 ml) whipping cream

Soak the raisins in half a cup of rum for about six hours, or until they have absorbed most of the alcohol. Strain them (reserving the liquid), place them on a board and chop them roughly, leaving a few whole. Put them into a mixing bowl along with the rum they soaked in and add the condensed milk, lemon juice and coffee. Whisk well to combine. In a separate bowl, beat the cream to a soft peak, then  fold the cream very gently into the condensed milk mixture.

At this point, you may want to add more rum to give the ice creams a proper kick.  I add about a quarter of a cup (80 ml) more, but you can gently mix in up to 100 ml extra.  Don't overdo the rum, however, as alcohol can inhibit the freezing of ice cream, and your lollies will not hold their shape when you unmould them.

Spoon (or pipe) the mixture into the glasses or your moulds, filling them right to the top, and push in a stick or teaspoon. If the sticks won't stand upright, wait for 20 minutes, or until the mixture has firmed a little.  Freeze for 6-8  hours, or until solid.  It's tricky getting these to stand up in a freezer with drawers, so I suggest you empty out a drawer and put a small tray in it. Push the drawer half closed so it's standing level, then put the glasses on the tray one by one before pushing the drawer all the way closed.

To remove them from their moulds, heat a damp dishcloth in the microwave and briefly wrap it around each glass while gently twisting the stick and pulling upwards.

Serve on a bed of crushed ice, or on an ice sheet made by pouring water into a tray and freezing it overnight.

Makes about 12 lollies, depending on the size of your mould.  

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Friday 23 November 2012

Christmas Gammon with a Pomegranate and Pink Peppercorn Glaze

Over the years I've received more happy feedback - via Twitter, Facebook and email - about my glazed gammons than any other recipe, something that pleases me enormously, because a ham glistening in an extravagant glaze is so often the highlight of hot-weather Christmas feasts in South Africa. Here is my new gammon recipe, and I have to say it's by far and away my favourite to date. This elixir of pomegranate syrup, cherry juice and crunchy rosy-pink peppercorns is dead easy to make, and tastes sensational drizzled, warm and syrupy, over a gammon that has been simmered in spicy stock.

Christmas Gammon with a Pomegranate and Pink Peppercorn Glaze
This is the gammon I prepared for our Christmas Eve feast this year, served with fresh cherries on
my mum's beautiful blue and white platter. I added fresh pomegranate seeds to the coating.

You won't find either of the starring ingredients at your corner shop, and you'll need to plunder Woolies and a good spice merchant or deli to lay your hands on them. But I promise this will be worth the effort.

Because pink peppercorns are so pretty, they are sometimes dismissed as a gimmicky ingredient, but they have a lovely, warm mild aroma and taste, and are so good combined with the salty richness of gammon and the tart, sweet punch of pomegranate concentrate

My original plan for this recipe was to stud the glazed gammon with a cheek-by-jowl layer of sweet, fresh pomegranate seeds. But pomegranates are going out of season, and I couldn't find any, so that is something I'll try next year.  (Postscript:  My 2013 gammon was lovely with fresh pomegranate seeds. Here it is >

As pomegranate concentrate is expensive, and at least 200 ml of liquid is needed to glaze this gammon, I have opted to use as a base for the glaze the wine-dark syrup from a tin of pitted cherries.

Christmas Gammon with a Pomegranate and Pink Peppercorn GlazeThis recipe uses a smallish (1.3 kg) gammon, which will feed six to eight as part of a festive spread.  I recommend, if you are expecting a crowd, that you buy two boneless gammons of about this size (and then double the recipe) rather than one gigantic, bone-in gammon.  Really big bone-in gammons are tricky to cook correctly - there's always a danger that the outside of the joint will be rubbery and overcooked while the flesh next to the bone is still raw. (Two years ago, my mum ordered a 5-kg cooked gammon from a famous supplier only to find that it was still bloody within.) And certain big hams have a tendency *cough* to collapse in the pan.

This is not difficult to make, but I have given detailed instructions (plus several tips in the Cook's Notes at the end of this post) so that your gammon turns out perfectly.

Christmas Gammon with a Pomegranate and Pink Peppercorn Glaze

1 x 1.3 kg smoked, boneless gammon
one can (330 ml) ginger ale
one bottle (330 ml) of your favourite beer
1 large onion, peel on, quartered
1 thumb-length quill of cinnamon
3 carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
2 bay leaves
2 whole star anise
12 black peppercorns
a small bunch of parsley
water, to cover

For the glaze:
1 x 425 g tin (nett weight) pitted black cherries
4 Tbsp (60 ml) pomegranate concentrate/syrup, preferably Verlaque brand
1 Tbsp (15 ml) white granulated sugar
a tiny pinch of ground cloves
the juice of a large lemon
2 Tbsp (45 ml) pink peppercorns, lightly crushed, plus extra for garnishing

Weigh your piece of gammon, or make a note of the weight printed on the label. Put the gammon, fat side up, in a large, deep pot and add the ginger ale, beer, onion, cinnamon, carrots, bay leaves, star anise, peppercorns and parsley. Pour in enough water to cover the gammon to a depth of 2 cm. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat so that the gammon cooks at a slow burble.  Partially cover the pot with a tilted lid.

Christmas Gammon Glazed with Brandy and Coke
If you’re using a smallish boneless gammon, cook the meat for 40-45 minutes per kilogram, or according to the directions on the packaging. Check the pot now and then, and top up with more water: the meat must be completely submerged. Turn the gammon over half way through the cooking process.

Turn off the heat, If you're serving the gammon cold, leave it in its liquid to cool completely. If you're serving it hot, proceed immediately as follows (see my Cook's Notes at the end of this page).

Lift the gammon out of its stock and pat it dry with kitchen paper. Cut off the netting and gently peel off the rind (it will come away easily) and discard. Now, using a very sharp knife, neatly trim some of  the fat off the top of the ham (how much is up to you; see Notes).  Score the fat into a diamond pattern with the tip of the knife.  Put the gammon in a roasting pan, fat-side up. If it leans over - as a small gammon will do - tuck a wedge of lemon or onion underneath it so presents a fairly level surface to the grill.

Put on the oven grill at its highest setting (usually 220 ºC) and, if your oven has a fan, turn it on.

To make the glaze, tip the tin of cherries into a sieve set over a bowl. You'll only be using the syrup; put the cherries in the fridge for smoothies or future desserts.  Into a saucepan, put the syrup from the cherries, two  tablespoons (30 ml) of the pomegranate syrup, the sugar, a tiny pinch of ground cloves, the juice of half a lemon, and two tablespoonsful (30 ml) of crushed pink peppercorns.  Bring to the boil over a medium-high flame, stirring now and then to dissolve the sugar, and let the mixture bubble briskly for about 8 minutes, or until it has reduced by half and is looking slightly syrupy. When it measures half a cup (125 ml) - and, yes, go ahead and measure it! - it's ready. Immediately strain the syrup through a tea strainer or sieve to remove the peppercorns,  and set these to one side.

Stir in the remaining two tablespoons of pomegranate syrup and just enough extra lemon juice to give the glaze a pleasing sharpness - a teaspoon or two should be enough.

Let the glaze cool for 5-6 minutes, or until it has thickened slightly. Using a pastry brush or the back of a teaspoon, paint it all over the top and sides of the gammon.  Don't worry if it slides off into the roasting tin.  Put the gammon in the lower third of the oven underneath the blazing-hot grill and leave for 4-6 minutes (depending on the heat of your grill) or until the glaze is bubbling furiously, and the fat is beginning to spit, but is not yet burning. Take the tray out of the oven, tilt the pan, and use a spoon to scoop up the puddle of run-off glaze and slather it all over the top of the gammon.  Put it back in the oven - turning it the other way round this time - for another 4-5 minutes. Remove it from the oven once or twice during this time and repeat the re-glazing process described above.

It's crucial to watch this process like a hawk - you can leave the oven door ajar if you like - so that you can whip the gammon out the minute the glaze looks like it's on the point of burning. Don't take your eyes off the joint for a second.

When the gammon looks richly burnished and is merrily sizzling, take it out of the oven, place the tray on the counter and tuck a rolled-up kitchen cloth under one side so the pan is steeply tilted. Tip the reserved pink peppercorns into the glaze that accumulates at the deep end of the pan. As the joint cools over the next 20 minutes or so, trickle the run-off glaze - which will thicken and become very syrupy in no time - all over the top.

At this point, you can serve the gammon warm with some boiled baby potatoes, or refrigerate it until needed. However, I find that it's best to glaze it close to the time you serve it, so I suggest that if you're planning a cold spread you boil the gammon a day in advance, and glaze it an hour or two before your guests arrive.

To serve, scatter a generous handful of extra whole pink peppercorns over the top of the ham.  Put it on a platter lined with fresh leaves and take it to the table with a pot of mustard.

Serves 6-8 as part of a Christmas feast. 

Cook's Notes
  • For a 1.3 kg piece of gammon, an hour and 10 minutes is about right. (If you’re using a large, bone-in gammon, cook it for 50-55 minutes per kilogram, or according to the instructions on the wrapping.)
  • How much fat you cut away is up to you  - I like to leave a generous blanket on top, on the grounds that it's Christmas. But you can trim away as much as you like, provided that you're left with a layer at least three millimetres thick.
  • It’s a good idea to boil the gammon the day before, and to leave it overnight in its liquid to cool. If you're in a hurry, you can glaze a gammon not long after you've boiled it, but do let it cool for at least 30 minutes on a cake rack set over the roasting pan.  If you try to glaze it immediately after it comes out of the pot, the juices that flow from the hot joint will dilute the syrupy glaze in the pan.
  • Don't throw away the liquid in which you cooked the gammon: it makes a wonderful, rich, salty stock that (if you've used a bone-in gammon) jellies as it cools. Decant it into small pots (or ice-cube trays) and freeze it for use in future stews, curries and soups.
  • If you've made two gammons, or one huge one, and there is lots left over, have a look at this post about how to turn the left-overs into a hearty tomato and lentil soup (scroll to the end of the page).

My other Christmas gammon recipes:

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Thursday 15 November 2012

Low-Carb Recipes: 35 Scrumptious Dishes from South Africa

I've had a flurry of emails from readers since I featured three low-carbohydrate recipes on this blog in recent months, all from people who've been inspired by South African sports scientist Professor Tim Noakes' recent conversion to a low-carb eating plan.

My version of Indonesian Gado-Gado (recipe below)
People on this regime seem to struggle most with finding interesting, satisfying vegetable dishes. 'It's so difficult to enjoy a dinner without potatoes, rice or pasta,' one person told me. 'I need something more exciting than a pile of steamed vegetables.'

I reckon that if you embark on a restrictive eating plan like this, possibly as a long-term lifestyle choice, you definitely need some excitement on your plate. And what better way to pleasure your brain's food-centre than to introduce thrilling flavours that punch you in the tastebuds and deaden any residual cravings for sugar and starch?

So: I've put together this list of 35 of my original low-carb recipes, and I hope you find them useful and inspiring.

Note: I'm not affiliated in any way with Professor Noakes, nor am I endorsing his eating plan, which remains contentious.

However, I find myself drifting closer and closer to its general principles because I love eating this way.  I've never been a great fan of starchy, sugary things anyway, and every time I've embarked on a low-carb diet I've shed kilos quickly. However, I freely admit that I've put some of the lard on again: it's difficult to sustain this diet for more than a month at a time, when thunderous cravings for mashed potatoes, wine gums (oh, okay, wine) and chocolate set in.

If you'd like to know more about how to follow this low-carb lifestyle, I can recommend this article by Professor Noakes.

Postscript, 8 February 2014: I have lost 22 kg in four months, mostly by following a Noakes-style low-carb regime. But more about that in a future blogpost.

Postscript, 23 March 2014: Here is the future blogpost I mentioned  above: Hello diabetes, and how I have had to adjust my cooking style

Cottage Cheese, Herb and Olive Oil Smothering Dip  A useful, all-purpose, very garlicky cold sauce that packs a powerful flavour punch. Pour it all over whatever you're eating hot, and the warmth of the chicken, fish, steak or veggies will release the aromatic flavours of garlic, herbs and olive oil.  I always keep a lidded plastic container of this in my fridge and use it in place of mayonnaise.

Cottage Cheese, Herb and Olive Oil Smothering Dip

Low-Carb Green Bean, Tomato & Prosciutto Salad with Basil Oil A really easy and delicious throw-together salad featuring beautiful young green beans. Click through to my recipe to find a sneaky way of top-and-tailing a lot of beans in seconds!

Low-Carb Green Bean, Tomato & Prosciutto Salad with Basil Oil
Bean, tomato & proscuitto salad
Oven-Roasted Ratatouille I make a huge tray of this at least once a week in summer, because everyone in my family loves it hot and topped with grated Parmesan. It also makes brilliant leftovers: enjoy it cold, with shavings of Parmesan or cubes of feta cheese or shredded fresh basil.  Or whizz it up with some vegetable stock to make a soup or a sauce for pasta.

 My Lemony Green Beans with Aïoli.  Image by Michael Le Grange
 © Random House Struik 2012. Bowl by David Walters.

Lemony Green Beans with Frizzled Prosciutto, Fried Breadcrumbs & Aïoli 
Strictly speaking, you should leave out the fried breadcrumbs if you're on a low-carb diet. In the picture above, I've used toasted flaked almonds instead of breadcrumbs. This is a dreamy combination and one of my family's favourites.

Marinated Mushrooms with Green Beans and Feta I first learned how to make marinated mushrooms when I was twelve years old, and here I've adapted the recipe to bulk it out with squeaky-fresh green beans and feta cheese.

Warm Marinated Olives with Lime, Thyme and Chilli You won't be able to serve this with warm crusty rolls, as I've suggested in the recipe, but you can add cubed feta and halved cherry tomatoes just before you serve it to create a flavour-crammed starter or snack for a summer meal.

Braised Baby Leeks with Halloumi 'Popcorn'  An adventurous dish with knock-out flavours and textures. Leave the out the bread crumbs if you're on a strict low-carb regime.

Salad of Warm Baby Leeks with Blue Cheese and Chilli Croutons Again, you'll have to forego the chilli croutons. For this salad, baby leeks are simmered whole in water, with a little olive oil and some herbs and garlic. By the time the water has evaporated, the leeks are as tender as a mother's love. They are then left to colour slightly in the remaining oil, and served warm with crumbled blue cheese.

Cauliflower Salad with Crisp-Fried Chorizo Sausage and a Warm Lemon Dressing  An easy tapas-style dish with sensational flavours and textures: shaved raw cauliflower with crumbled fried chorizo, crisp breadcrumbs, a whisper of garlic and a warm lemony olive-oil dressing. Leave out the breadcrumbs if you're evangelical about this diet.

Make an open sandwich using a grilled chicken breast as a base, or pack the filling
between two breasts and secure with a skewer. 

Low-Carb Mediterranean Chicken 'Sandwich' 
I used grilled chicken breasts instead of bread slices to create this nutrient-packed lunch dish, which is packed with lovely sunny ingredients including feta, scorched tomatoes, olives, artichokes and rocket.

Spiced Baked Aubergines with Yoghurt  A plain dish with simple flavours, but you'll love it if you're a big fan of aubergines.

Pea & Pea-Shoot Salad with Bacon & Eggs
Pea and Pea-Shoot Salad with Bacon and Eggs  Peas do contain some carbohydrates, but this lovely warm-and-cold dish contains just half a cup of them per serving, so I figure that's permissible  If you can't find pea shoots, use fresh rocket, mustard greens, spinach or bok choy.

Halloumi and Beef Carpaccio Salad with Fried Capers The ultimate in indulgence when it comes to a low-carb salad, in my opinion: crisp-fried halloumi cheese, thin slices of seared beef fillet and crunchy fried capers on a bed of peppery rocket.  Here's another, similar salad: Halloumi Salad with Lemon-Caper Dressing.

Egg and Fennel Salad with Nasturtium-Leaf Mayonnaise This salad of boiled eggs and shaved fennel, dressed with a caper & anchovy vinaigrette and a nasturtium-leaf mayonnaise, is surprisingly light and delicate, considering how much oil and egg it contains. If you can't find nasturtium leaves, mix a handful of chopped fresh herbs of your choice into the mayonnaise.

Double-Egged Crustless Spinach & Bacon Tart It's difficult to believe that such a substantial tart contains very few carbs, but there is not a speck of flour, cornflour or added sugar in this easy recipe.

Warm Duck Salad (see below)

Warm Duck Salad with Crackly-Topped Beetroot  
Duck is very expensive, but you can stretch two breasts between four mouths in this gorgeous salad. You'll need to leave out the dried cranberries if you're on a strict regime.  See my comments about the glycemic load of beetroot below.
Roast Baby Aubergines with Rocket and Peppered Cream Cheese,and a Tahini Dressing  A scattering of toasted pumpkin seeds gives this salad a satisfying crunch and a good nutritional kick in the pants: they, along with the sesame seeds in the tahini dressing, are among the most wholesome plant foods on earth, in my view. Here's a similar recipe: Warm Grilled Aubergine Slices with Chilli and Pesto

Slow-Cooked Courgettes & Cherry Tomatoes with Melty Feta  A lovely, bright dish that's good both hot or cold.  The half-teaspoon of sugar is there to counteract the acidity of the tomatoes, but you can leave it out and add a tiny pinch of bicarbonate of soda instead.

Pretty Little Individual Tuna Salads I designed this recipe for kids, but this makes a lovely starter for a low-carb feast, and looks so tempting in its perky collar of cucumber. 

Salad of Shaved Baby Fennel, Apple and Smoked Mackerel
Salad of Fennel, Apple & Smoked Mackerel
'Carpaccio' of Kohlrabi with Radishes and Blue Cheese Adapted from a dish in Anton Mosimann's 1991 book Naturally, this is a most unusual starter with its combination of creamy blue cheese, crisp, paper-thin kohlrabi and peppery radish.

Salad of Shaved Baby Fennel, Apple and Smoked Mackerel  If you've never been a fan of fennel, do try it raw in this salad, which is wonderfully nutritious, containing as it does oily fish. You'll need to leave the chilli-dusted croutons out of the recipe, though. 

Wine-Braised Baby Fennel in Crisped Prosciutto Delicate little fennel bulbs with a wrapping of salty ham. Okay, this recipe does contain wine, but all the alcohol boils away during cooking.

Roast Beef Fillet with Creamy Celeriac-and-Horseradish-Cream Salad Celeriac isn't very starchy, which makes it a great substitute for potatoes. Here, I've combined it with a creamy remoulade-style dressing to make a cool topping for roast fillet.

Roast Ratatouille Soup with Basil Mayonnaise This glorious brick-red soup, one of my favourite recipes, contains neither starchy veggies nor any flour or similar thickening agent. It's easy to make, and tastes even better the day after.

Salmon, Beetroot & Rocket Salad
Low-Carb Salmon, Beetroot and Rocket Salad This is a simple salad, but so satisfying: the combination of roasted beetroot, peppery rocket, meltingly tender flakes of salmon and little bursts of tart sweetness from the pomegranate seeds makes me want to eat it every day. Beetroot has a moderately high glycemic index value of 64, but its glycemic load is only five.

My Aunt's Avocado Mousse  I see that Professor Noakes includes avocados on his list of low-carb foods, so I bring you this retrolicious dish: a wobbly, creamy mousse of the palest green, pepped up with a subtle crunch of fresh chives.

Michael Le Grange's photograph of my Peri Peri Calamari with
 Chouriço Sausage.  Image © Random House Struik 2012. 

Peri Peri Calamari with Chouriço Sausage 
Peri-peri is one of South Africa’s favourite flavours.  Feel free to add more fresh chillies if you appreciate a blisteringly hot sauce. (This recipe is taken from my cookbook Scrumptious Food For Family and Friends.)

Calamari Salad with Thyme, Lemon, Chilli and Olives  This light, summery seafood salad, sparked with lemon juice, red chilli and fresh herbs, takes just ten minutes to make and keeps very well in the fridge for three to four days.

Gado-Gado: a hot & cold salad with a spicy peanut sauce
My version of Gado-Gado. You'll have to forego the potatoes.

This delicious and unusual dish of cooked vegetables, crisp salad ingredients and boiled eggs smothered with a piping-hot, spicy peanut sauce is my take on Gado-Gado, a dish popular all over Indonesia. Peanuts have a very low glycemic index value, but please leave the boiled new potatoes out of this recipe!

Tomatoes Baked with Garlic Butter and Cream A sinfully rich dish because it's loaded with fat, but it's low in carbs, and brilliant as a special treat with bacon and eggs.

Asparagus with Egg Mimosa, Butter and Breadcrumbs  Based on a classic ‘Polonaise’ dressing, this topping may be old fashioned, but it’s a time-tested classic for good reason.  Cooked, sieved egg yolks are called ‘mimosa’ because they resemble the fluffy yellow flowers of the plant of the same name. The bad news: you'll have to leave out the breadcrumbs. (Another recipe from my cookbook.)

Rainbow Trout en Papillote with Lemon and Herbs Light, bright and singing with clean flavours, this is a dish that I make often, using a variety of fresh, sustainable seafood: farmed trout, angelfish, yellowtail, snoek and black mussels.

Easy Chicken, Feta and Bacon Roll-Ups in a Tomato and Rosemary Sauce  Chicken breast fillets stuffed with feta, garlic and sage, rolled in bacon, crisped in a hot pan and then simmered in a rich tomato sauce. A bit fiddly, but well worth the effort if you're cooking for a special occasion.

My Aunt Gilly's Egg 'Bavarois' Okay, you'll have to leave out the sweet-chilli sauce topping. But this delicate, old-fashioned buffet dish, lightly jellied and subtly flavoured with bay leaves, onion, cloves and nutmeg, is delicious with small, snappy gherkins and other pickles.

Seared Tuna with a Burnt Tomato & Caper Dressing
Seared Tuna with a Tomato & Caper Dressing

Seared Tuna with a Burnt Tomato & Caper Dressing This is an easy and interesting dish starring just a few beautiful ingredients - spanking-fresh tuna, olive oil, capers, baby herb leaves and Rosa tomatoes at the peak of their ripeness.

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Sunday 11 November 2012

Low-Carb Salmon, Beetroot and Rocket Salad - and my food cravings

The cost of imported fresh salmon in South Africa is so ludicrous that I hardly ever buy it, but every now and then I get a craving so powerful I can't help but give in. No amount of outstanding Franschhoek smoked trout will dampen my longing for Northern-Hemisphere salmon, so when the mood strikes I sneak out and buy a big coral-pink slab of the best Norwegian or Scottish fish I can find. No one in my family much likes fish, so I cook it just for myself, and gobble it fresh from the pan on its own, or with some steamed veggies or fresh leaves or a cold herby sauce.

I used to think these indulgences were driven by greediness, but ever since I was pregnant with my first child 21 years ago, and tormented for months by cravings for sweet sultanas and biltong, I've firmly believed that gnawing thoughts about a particular ingredient are my body's way of telling me that it has a  dire nutritional deficiency.

Sure, this may sound like a handy excuse for pigging out on pork sausages, butter, wine, mashed potatoes, icy Coca-Cola and the other basic food groups, but I have to say that I seldom experience genuine, aching cravings for these treasured comforts. I want them, all right, but it's easy enough to put these thoughts out of my mind by smacking myself firmly across the bridge of the nose. 

When an irresistible food-lust strikes, it is usually for iron- and calcium-rich foods (even though I've never been anaemic or brittle-boned), such as very salty, dry biltong, spinach, watercress, rocket, beetroot, steamed broccoli, rare steak, fresh tuna, tinned anchovies, smoked mackerel, strong blue cheese and warm hard-boiled eggs smooshed up with Hellmann's mayonnaise and white pepper. I also occasionally develop overwhelming longings for certain fruits such as oranges, pomegranates, litchis and ripe, blood-red cherries.

Do you also experience sudden food longings? And which ingredients do you most often crave?

I've put myself back on a low-carb regime for a few weeks in the run-up to the piggery that is bound to go on over the festive season, so I thought I'd combine some of these ingredients in an extremely healthy salad. Looking at the list of ingredients above, I'm sorry I didn't add some warm boiled eggs and steamed broccoli to this plate, because surely these would've made for a salad of such nutritional awesomeness that I'd wake up two inches taller than my unimpressive five foot two.

This is a simple salad, but so satisfying: the combination of sweet roasted beetroot, peppery rocket, meltingly tender flakes of salmon and little bursts of tart sweetness from the pomegranate seeds makes me want to eat it every day.

I usually roast beetroot in a foil parcel, but this time I tried using a sturdy plastic roasting bag, which worked beautifully. This salad needs nothing more than a drizzle of olive oil and a spritz of lemon to bring the flavours together, although you could add a little mashed anchovy and fresh garlic to the dressing to give it a mighty punch.

Low-Carb Salmon, Beetroot and Rocket Salad 

12 small beetroot
3 cloves garlic
a large sprig of thyme
2 bay leaves
salt and milled black pepper
500 g fresh salmon steaks or fillets, pin-boned and trimmed of bloodlines
a large packet of wild rocket, enough for 4 people
8 spring onions, finely sliced
the seeds from a fresh pomegranate
olive oil and lemon juice, for dressing

Heat the oven to 180 ºC.  Put the beetroot, whole and unpeeled, in a roasting bag (if you don't have one, put everything in a tin foil parcel).  Smack the unpeeled garlic cloves with a knife blade to split them, and put them into the bag with the thyme, bay leaves and a little salt and pepper. Knot the bag, pierce it in three or four places with a toothpick and place it on a baking sheet.  Bake the beetroot for about an hour and a half (depending on their size), or until they are very soft. Remove them from the bag (save any accumulated juices, but discard the herbs and garlic cloves), slip off their skins, trim the tops and bottoms and cut them into wedges.

Put the salmon pieces, skin side up, in a large shallow pan big enough to hold them in a single layer. Add enough water just to cover them, plus a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon juice, turn on the heat and bring the water up to a very gentle simmer - it should barely burble. Poach the salmon until just cooked through - this will take about 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the pieces.  To check for doneness, take a salmon piece out of the water and press the flakes apart with the fork. If there is any raw pink flesh near the skin, poach them for another minute or two longer.  Remove the fish from the water with a slotted spoon and pat it dry with kitchen paper. Peel off and discard the skin, then cut away any brown or fatty flesh.  Pull the fish into a large flakes.

Arrange the rocket, beetroot wedges and warm salmon pieces on a large platter and scatter over the sliced spring onions and pomegranate seeds.  Drizzle any reserved cooking juices from the bag over the  salad, plus a generous spritz of lemon juice and some olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Serves 4. 

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Friday 2 November 2012

My Secret Dinner

Far and away the most bizarre and challenging event I've hosted in my career as a cook was the "secret" dinner party I catered in Stellenbosch last Saturday. It began as a logistical frightfest, and ended up a rollicking party that I'll remember for years to come.  I met some wonderful people, learned a few new kitchen skills, and came away with a heart gladdened by the generosity of strangers.

The organisers of the Spier Secret Festival invited me and a variety of local cooks, caterers and food personalities each to host a dinner party at an undisclosed venue, for unidentified guests.  We were provided with a budget of R100 per head, in the form of Woolworths vouchers, and no restrictions were placed on our choices of menu.

Preparing my starter of Gin-Cured Gravadlax, to be
served  tartare-style with capers, dill and chives.
Until three days before the dinner, I didn't know where I'd be cooking, whether the venue would have a decent kitchen, or who would be pitching up at the event.

I always plan my menus with the following criteria in mind: the food must delight the guests, it must tickle their tastebuds and it must leave them feeling satisfied and comforted. But how on earth do you select appropriate dishes if you don't know who's going to be eating them? One thing I did appreciate was that anyone who had forked out for a ticket to the festival would expect something  more sophisticated than the food I'd normally serve at a feast for family and friends.

Lovely little rainbow carrots
After some deliberation, I chose as a main course an accessible classic dish - my version of Beef Wellington, served in individual potions, with a wild mushroom sauce - and, for the opening salvo, a selection of four small, attention-grabbing starters. For dessert, I stuck to something simple and foolproof, but with sensational flavours (the way to go with a sweet course, I reckon). I designed the menu so almost everything could be prepared well in advance, and estimated that I'd need just over three hours for last-minute tasks: prepping the vegetables, finishing off the sauces, primping & plating the starters, and of course laying and dollying up the table.  I also packed two suitcases of kitchen utensils, linen, serving dishes and small sparkly things.

I think it's best to draw a veil across the state in which I found the venue, suffice to say that due to organisational misunderstandings, I was not expected there, and  it took a full ninety minutes of persuasive talk for me to gain access to the building, figure out how to work the kitchen equipment and find an appropriate table to lay. Once all these ducks had been placed in a haphazard row, with the help of the festival's organisers and my heroic kitchen elf Tania Roux (see end of this blog post), it was time to cook.

But before I tell you about the food, let me describe the venue, because it was peculiar. I found myself in labyrinthine boarding house (or perhaps an old school, circa 1925, judging from the leaded windows and soaring ceilings).  The entrance hall was welcoming, clean and cheerful, with its wooden floors and community notice boards, and behind it were three cavernous kitchens well equipped with gas ranges, fearsome industrial ovens and pots the size of swimming pools. But leading off this entrance hall was a long, murky, somewhat mildewy passage, opening on to fifteen or so locked bedrooms, and numerous other rooms and bathrooms and warrens that were so deeply shadowed that I felt a genuine frisson when I scurried down the corridor to have a wee.  I could almost hear the distant laughter of children, and I've never pulled up my knickers in such a hurry.

Where we dined, as viewed from
 a spooky corridor. 
Anyway, the team who arrived to help hauled some tables from the dining canteen into the entrance hall, and helped my kitchen elf set up a cheerful small table for eight while I had quietly had hysterics in the kitchens. Candles were lit, tablecloths were ironed, plates and glasses were ferried over from the Spier estate, wine was chilled, and when our six mystery guests arrived just before 7 pm all that was left was for me to stumble, red-faced and gibbering, from the kitchen to explain that things weren't going exactly to plan.

They were very gracious, my guests, climbing obligingly into the wines provided by Spier, ignoring the cacophony coming from the kitchens (chiefly, my howling as I burned a hole in my thumb, and the timers on the monster ovens shrieking every ten minutes).  If they were astonished and creeped-out by this spectacle, these well-mannered people did their best to hide it, and within half an hour the conversation was a-sparkle and any house ghosts had given up their lurking and sloped sullenly to the far corners of the boarding house.

The dinner was a thundering success in the end, and my guests greeted the food with great appreciation and warmth (click here to read a guest's account of the food and party, by the charming Pat Elk of Yumsy). We finished up with a fizzle and crack as dessert was served and small fireworks were lit, and there was merriment for many hours.

I didn't take a camera, so relied on my cellphone for these snaps of some of the starters.

Judy's Toffee Tomatoes with Basil

'Lollipops' of Springbok Carpaccio filled with horseradish- and
white-pepper-flavoured cream cheese
with Verlaque pomegranate syrup 

My Nasturtium  & Macadamia Pesto on toast. 

Passion Fruit, Crème Fraîche and White Chocolate Cream Tart (an old photograph, from this recipe post)

This is my self-appointed kitchen elf, the lovely Tania Roux of I have followed Tania for several years on Twitter (and met her briefly at a book event a month or two back) but we don't know one another.

Imagine my astonishment when Tania tweeted me, out of the blue, on the Saturday of my secret dinner, offering to drive all the way to Stellenbosch to help me. I'd sent out a wailing tweet earlier that morning when I discovered that other secret dinner hosts had roped in helpers (including some professional chefs, which rather defeats the purpose, in my view). I didn't expect anyone to have any sympathy, because it was unrealistic to think I could manage this alone, but Tania rose most elfishly to the occasion.  Given the delays and the odd choice of venue, I am so grateful that she volunteered to help, because I couldn't possibly have dressed the table so simply and stylishly, and put food on it, in so short a time. Tania toiled cheerfully for hours, without my once having to slap her around her pointy ears or lock her in the onion drawer,  as one must do with troublesome kitchen elves. Thank you so much, Tania - your generosity is heartwarming.  Here's her short account of the evening. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly