Friday, 29 October 2010

Lunch party with my friend Judy, and in praise of home cooks

So obsessed have I become with developing, photographing and posting recipes that I sometimes forget to tell you how much I enjoy eating. And, even more important, how much I enjoy eating other people's food.

Eating out at restaurants isn't something I do often, not least because it's eye-wateringly expensive. In Cape Town, taking a family of five out to dinner at a decent restaurant leaves you, after wine and a tip, with very little change from a thousand rands.

I'm not going to bother converting that amount for foreign readers of this blog; please believe me when I say that it's an obscene amount of money.  More than enough money, in fact, for a big basketful of excellent local ingredients that I normally wouldn't dream of buying: beautiful smoked fish, olive oils, sausages and salamis, cheeses, preserves, wild mushrooms, duck breasts, fresh venison, and so on. (More than enough, come to think of it, to give a hundred hungry school children a good square meal. I'll move on quickly from that conscience-pricking topic, and leave it for another time)

Lunch with JudyThen there's the resentment factor. I don't mean to sound like Mrs Picky-Pants, but I have to say that there are many times I've eaten some artistic morsel in a restaurant and thought, 'Hey, this doesn't taste that good, and I'm still hungry. I could make something better at home.'

Okay, the something I make at home may not be sprinkled with bacon dust, or napped with a jus, or draped with - for heaven's sake! - mushroom foam. It might not taste as heavenly as a dish that's been slaved over for days by a professional chef, but it will taste good, and  there'll be be plenty of it.

In short, eating out often seems to me to be a shocking waste of money, and I'd much rather eat a plateful of honest food cooked by someone who cares about food, loves cooking to bits, and knows what they are doing.  And that brings me round to my friend Judy.

I've known Judy Levy (in the middle of the photograph, above left) for over 20 years, and I first met her and her husband, Cape Town photographer Barry White, when we were frisky youngsters with no money, no children, and not a care in the world.

Judy, an entrepreneur with several successful small businesses under her belt, has no formal training and has never worked in a restaurant kitchen. Even so, she's one of the best home cooks I've ever met.

Everything that flows from Judy's kitchen - and believe me, there is a lot of food - tastes wonderful.  Judy has a fine palate and - like the best cooks - is insatiably curious about food and ingredients.  There is no fine-food supplier in Cape Town and its surrounds that Judy doesn't know.  If she can't find the right ingredients, she grows them herself.

At the moment, she's nurturing a crop of heirloom tomatoes, and growing her own pea-shoots in a bed under her kitchen window.

Last week, when Judy turned 39 (or so; thanks, Jude, send the cheque directly to me), she threw a lunch party for 30 of her best women friends. Being Judy, she didn't sit down for a minute, but worked like a whirling dervish to produce a light, bright and beautiful three-course meal, which she prepared and plated herself (with some help from her friends).

On the menu? For starters, a choice of a beautiful Caprese salad, or a beetroot and goats' cheese tart, which was inspired, Judy tells me, by one of the signature starters at Cape Town's La Colombe restaurant.

To follow, a delicate terrine made of smoked salmon, white anchovies, butter and lemon zest ('I got the idea from Masterchef', she told me), dressed with a zingy mustard vinaigrette, avocado purée, toasted hazelnuts and fresh pea shoots.

For guests who didn't fancy fish, Judy had made a lovely green salad with hot halloumi cheese.

And then, dessert: a luscious double-layered chocolate and vanilla ice-cream cake, smothered in dark-chocolate sauce and served with hot chocolate fondant puddings and fresh strawberries.

All this Judy did without breaking a bead of perspiration. She didn't eat a morsel of what she made -  not  many furiously busy cooks ever feel like eating their own food - but looked as happy as a puppy when she'd finished feeding and watering her thirty guests. And, talking of puppies, here is the other star of the show: Tyler, a Sharpei puppy that 'belongs' to Judy's husband Barry. Hah! Guess whose baby Tyler really is?

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Monday, 25 October 2010

Blender Strawberry Ice Cream: made in a jiffy

The shops here in Cape Town are overflowing with beautiful strawberries, each one bigger, juicier and more perfumed than any strawberry I remember from my childhood.

Blender Strawberry Ice Cream
Easy Blender Strawberry Ice Cream
It's not often I can say that a piece of fruit I taste nowadays is anywhere near as delicious as the fruit I ate as a child, but I have to make an exception for strawberries. Perhaps the beauties I see in the shops are genetically engineered, or maybe farmers these days just have access to better, bigger, more fragrant hybrids.

Whatever the case, I've been buying cheap strawberries in bucketloads.  Last week, when I found myself facing a mountain of strawberries that I'd bought in a frenzy and forgotten (neglected, actually) to use, I thought I'd better make a batch of my mum's wonderful strawberry ice cream. But I didn't have any custard, and was too hot and bothered to make a custard from scratch. The next option was an ice based on a sugar syrup, but the thought of making such a syrup, and waiting for it to chill, defeated me.

So that's how I came up with this blender strawberry ice cream. It's dead simple to make if you have a liquidiser and, with its lovely deep-pink colour, looks and tastes heavenly piled into cones and topped with sprigs of fresh mint.

Whenever you're choosing strawberries to buy, give them a good sniff by putting your nose to the top of the box.  If a heady perfume drifts from the fruit, buy them without a second thought. If there's little or no scent at at all, stick your nose back in the air and stalk away, with an infuriated air.

How much icing sugar you use will depend on the sweetness and/or tartness of your strawberries.  I suggest that you start out using half a cup of icing sugar, and then add more if the mixture doesn't seem sweet enough.  This ice cream is best made, luxuriously, with fresh cream, but if you're watching your diet, use thick natural yoghurt instead.

You'll need an ice-cream maker to produce a perfectly smooth ice. If you don't have such a gadget, use the freeze-and-beat method, which will result in a slightly crystalline but still most delicious ice.

(And here's another version of strawberry ice cream, this time made with ready-bought custard: Easy Strawberry Ice Cream: a taste of my childhood.)

Blender Strawberry Ice Cream

300 g ripe strawberries, hulled
½ cup (125 ml) icing sugar, or more, to taste
the juice of half a lemon
1 cup (250 ml) cream (or natural yoghurt)

Put the strawberries, icing sugar and lemon juice in a blender and blitz to a fine purée. Taste the purée, and add more icing sugar or lemon juice, if necessary.  Now pour in the cream, turn on the blender, and blend at a medium speed for a minute or so, or until the mixture has thickened slightly. Don't over-blend the mixture, or you'll end up with pink butter.

Tip the mixture into the bowl of an ice cream machine and churn until frozen (or use the freeze-and-beat method; see above).

Serve immediately, topped with sprigs of fresh mint, in sugar cones or in little pre-frozen wine glasses.

Serves 6-8, in cones.

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Monday, 18 October 2010

Smoked Snoek Chowder, Cape Town style

Any chowder purist who wants to sniff at this recipe may feel free to sniff away. Look here, dear purist, this is an African chowder. I wish you could taste it, because it's very good: thick, creamy, comforting and full of goodness. In short: everything I ask of a soup.

Smoked-Snoek Chowder, Cape Town style
Creamy Snoek Chowder: comfort in a bowl.

Oak-smoked snoek from my local Hout Bay harbour plays the starring role in this quick and easy dish. Properly smoked South African snoek isn't an ingredient you'll find on many supermarket shelves outside of the Western Cape, but you could substitute any similar firm-fleshed smoked white fish.

If you're lucky enough to be living in South Africa, ask your fishmonger to order you a box of smoked snoek from Mariner's Wharf in Hout Bay.  This is a versatile ingredient that keeps well, and you can use any leftover fish in a snoek pâté, or in a quiche. Here's a recipe for Smoked Snoek Quiche, from Carmen Niehaus, and it's part of a very good article about snoek by veteran journalist Hilary Prendini Toffoli.

It's important to choose the right potatoes for this soup: if they're too waxy, they won't thicken the soup, and if they're too floury, they'll break up before the soup is ready.  You can add a little cream to this soup at the end, but it's really not necessary: it's creamy enough as it is.

Please take the greatest care removing the bones from the snoek. Most of the bones are large ones, but there are also small ones that can lurk undetected among the fish flakes. Use your fingertips to shred the fish, and check it for bones three times.

Smoked Snoek Chowder, Cape Town style
300 g oak-smoked snoek
3 large leeks, white and pale green parts only
4 Tbsp (60 ml) butter
a small clove of garlic, crushed
3 Tbsp (45 ml) flour
4 Tbsp (60 ml) white wine
4 cups (1 litre) milk
2 cups (500 ml) water (or fish stock)
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
300 g peeled, raw potato, cut into 1-cm-square cubes
a pinch or two of white pepper

To serve:
the juice of half a lemon
4 Tbsp (60 ml) finely chopped fresh parsley
Tabasco sauce
extra-virgin olive oil

Pull the skin off the snoek and, using your fingertips, carefully remove all bones (look out for the little ones). Flake the fish and set aside. With a sharp knife, make a long length ways cut through each leek, slicing only half way through. Gently fan out the 'leaves' and rinse well under running water to remove any grit. Finely slice the leeks.

Heat the butter in a large pan, add the leeks and cook over a moderate for three or four minutes, until softened (but do not allow to brown). Stir in the garlic and fry for 30 seconds - just long enough to remove the 'sting'.

Tip in the flour, stir well, and cook gently for another minute, stirring all the time. Whisk in the white wine (the mixture will form a thickish paste) and bubble for 60 seconds.  Then tip in all the milk and water, stirring briskly to break up any lumps.

Add the thyme sprigs and a three-quarters of the flaked snoek. Season to taste with salt and bring to a gentle boil, stirring constantly.

Tip all the potato cubes into the soup, turn down the heat and simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until the potato cubes are cooked through, but not falling apart. (Don't worry if the soup looks a little thin to begin with: the potato cubes will thicken it up).

Add the remaining smoked snoek and heat through for a further five minutes. If the soup seems a little too thick, thin it down with more milk or water. Season with a pinch of white pepper, and more salt if necessary. Remove the thyme sprigs.

Just before serving, and after you've removed the soup from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and fresh parsley.

Serve with a few dabs of Tabasco sauce and a swirl of olive oil.

Serves 6 

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Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Gin and Lime Mousse

A thistledown mousse flavoured with fresh limes and a poke of gin. I like lemony mousses, and I love a cold gin & tonic on a hot night, so I thought I'd combine these tinkling flavours in a light summer dessert.

Gin and Lime Mousse
Although I was pleased with the texture of these mousses when they came out of the fridge, they didn't have much  of a gin taste. Adding more gin wasn't an option, because alcohol sometimes inhibits the setting of jelly.

Then I remembered my mum's advice: when mixing a gin and tonic, you should always splash a few drops of neat gin over the top of the drink, so that  your nostrils are assailed by a pure blast of gin flavour as you take the first sip. This is known, in my family, as 'waving the bottle over the glass'.

 I hope I'm not making my mother sound like a lush. She's not. But she does appreciate a G & T - as we all damn well do, Delilah!  - when our large family gathers for Christmas at a beach cottage on the south coast of KwaZulu Natal.

So, heeding the advice of my sainted Mama, I dribbled a few teaspoons of neat cold gin over the top of each mousse. It worked.

I've used leaf gelatine in this mousse because I find that, when it comes to a delicate mixture like this, the leaf variety produces a beautiful soft texture that can't be matched by powdered gelatine. Leaf gelatine is available at speciality food shops and some supermarkets (I bought mine at my local Spar) in South Africa.

If you can't find leaf gelatine, use an equal weight of powdered gelatine - that is, 10 grams. (If you don't have an electronic scale, buy the powdered gelatine in sachets.)

Lime and Gin Mousse

6 gelatine leaves (weighing 10 grams)
5 T (75 ml) cold water
3  large, free-range eggs
one cup (250 ml) caster sugar
the finely grated zest of three small limes
4 T (60 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice
5 T (75 ml) neat gin
1 cup (250 ml) single (whipping) cream

To top:
shreds of lime zest
a little cold gin

Put the gelatine leaves on a deep plate and cover with the cold water. Set aside to soak for 5 minutes.

Separate the eggs into two large bowls. To the egg yolks, add the caster sugar. Using a rotary beater or hand-whisk, beat the mixture for a few minutes, or until it is thick, pale and fluffy. Don't worry if the mixture seems claggy at first: it will soon loosen up.

Set the plate containing the gelatine over a pot of simmering water. While the gelatine's melting, beat the lime juice into the egg yolk/sugar mixture, a little at a time. Now add the gin in the same way, beating well between each additon. Stir in the lime zest. Remove the melted gelatine from the stove, allow to cool a little, and beat it into the egg mixture.

Put the cream in a separate bowl and, using the same beaters, whip to a soft peak. Gently fold the cream into   the egg mixture.

Place the bowl in the fridge for ten minutes to firm up. Wash the rotary beater's whisks in hot soapy water, rinse well, and then dry with a clean cloth. Now whisk the egg whites to a soft peak. Using a metal spoon, briskly stir a dollop of egg white into the egg-yolk/sugar mixture (this serves to 'slacken' the mix). Now, very gently, fold in the remaining egg white. Spoon (or pipe) into martini glasses and chill for two hours, or until set.

Just before serving, sprinkle each glass of mousse with shreds of lime zest and a tablesoon or so of neat gin.

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Thursday, 7 October 2010

Double-Egged Crustless Spinach & Bacon Tart

I have a real hankering for old-fashioned food, the sort that my grannies cooked in the Sixties when I was growing up. In particular, I have a craving for a raised ham pie, with boiled eggs tucked inside. A Scotch egg would do nicely, too. My English mother-in-law made fabulous Scotch eggs that were deliciously springy, the pork-sausage meat encasing a perfectly cooked boiled egg.

Double-Egged Crustless Spinach & Bacon Tart
Double-Egged Crustless Spinach & Bacon Tart

The tricky part of putting whole eggs in pies - a very old English tradition -  is boiling them just hard enough to peel, but not so hard that their yolks cook to sawdust while the pie's baking. In this crustless tart, I've dropped the whole raw eggs into nests made in the mixture, and reduced the oven temperature during cooking so that the yolks are just done by the time the quiche mixture has puffed and browned.

Double-Egged Crustless Spinach & Bacon Tart
Drop the eggs into 'nests' you've made in the spinach mixture
I do appreciate crustless tarts - they're brilliant when you don't have time to faff around with pastry - but one of the challenges is creating a mixture that is firm enough to slice and pull away from the bottom and sides of the pan, but not so firm that it bounces when dropped on a plate.  I think that the way to achieve a lovely trembling texture is to add some grated butter to the mix.

This had never occurred to me until I tried Zaheera's Easy Sweetcorn, Coriander and Chilli Crustless Egg Tart, which has a beautiful texture that I can only attribute to the butter.

This is just as nice without the spinach (see photograph at the end of this post), but omit the nutmeg, and increase the amount of chopped fresh parsley to ¾ cup (180 ml).

Double-Egged Crustless Spinach & Bacon Tart

200 g fresh spinach or Swiss chard
200 g streaky bacon
1 Tbsp (15 ml) sunflower  or vegetable oil
13 large, free-range eggs
¾ cup (180 ml) milk or cream
1 tsp (5 ml) hot English mustard powder
½ tsp (2.5 ml) grated nutmeg
3 Tbsp (45 ml) finely chopped fresh parsley
the juice of half a lemon
1 tsp (5 ml) finely grated lemon zest
60 g cold butter, grated
1 cup (250 ml) grated Cheddar
salt and milled black pepper

To top:
2 tsp (10 ml) poppy seeds
a little paprika or cayenne pepper

Rinse the spinach well (remove the thick stalks, if you're using Swiss chard). Give it a light shake and place in a large pot, with some water still clinging to the leaves. Add a pinch of salt. Cover and cook for a few minutes over a medium heat, turning the spinach over now and then, until it has wilted down, but is still a vibrant green. Place in a colander over a sink and cover with a saucer weighed down with something heavy.

Preheat the oven to 180 ºC. Dice the bacon. Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the bacon and cook until brown and beginning to crisp. Drain off the fat and set aside. In a large mixing bowl, lightly beat eight of the eggs (set the remaining eggs aside). Add the milk, mustard powder, nutmeg, parsley, lemon juice and zest, grated butter and Cheddar and stir well. Season well with salt and pepper.

Squeeze all the moisture out of the cooked spinach (it's easiest to do this with your hands) and chop it up. Add this to the mixing bowl along with the bacon. Pour the mixture into a large greased pie dish. Using a large spoon, make a little well in the tart, near the edge, and break a whole egg into it (don't worry if the egg white runs over the top a little). Repeat with the remaining four eggs (see photograph above). 

Scatter the poppy seeds over the top of the tart and dust with paprika.  Bake at 180ºC for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 160ºC and bake for a further 15-20 minutes, or until the mixture is puffed and golden, with a slight wobble in the middle.

Serve hot or warm with a green salad.

Serves 6-8

Double-Egged Crustless Cheese & Bacon Tart
The same tart, without spinach

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Sunday, 3 October 2010

Moroccan-Spiced Chicken Pie with Phyllo Pastry

I'm smitten by the particular fragrance of Moroccan spicing, and in this phyllo-pastry-topped pie I've used some of the flavours you might find in a chicken tagine. I'm not a great fan of cinnamon in savoury dishes, but there's something about the combination of this spice and preserved lemon that makes my tongue want to tie itself in happy knots. This is a long recipe with many ingredients, but it's really worth the effort for a special occasion.

Moroccan-Spiced Chicken Pie with Phyllo Pastry
The idea for this dish came about when I used the left-overs of a chicken tagine to use up a few sheets of phyllo pastry languishing in the fridge. These I folded up into samoosa shapes, and they were good, but not quite moist enough. So I've come up with a new recipe that I hope you are going to enjoy.

There's a slightly unusual method here: the chicken breasts are first marinated, Indian-style, in tenderising yoghurt, and then tipped into an aromatic tomato gravy, where they poach gently over a very low heat. I've done this to produce soft and succulent chicken pieces: strips of chicken breast turn into rubbery curls if they're cooked too fiercely.  And I've added some of the spices to the chicken and marinade, not to the gravy, so that they endure very little cooking time and thus surge eagerly to the front of the flavour queue.

This is best with ripe, fresh tomatoes, but you could use an equal quantity of whole tinned ones. You can peel the tomatoes if you like, but I don't bother. If you don't have a food processor, cut the tomatoes in half, press the cut side of the tomato against the coarse teeth of a grater and grate vigorously until the skin flattens out under your palm.

If you leave out the chunk of butter added to the sauce at the end (to enrich it and give it a gloss) this is a low-fat dish. If you add the butter, it's not. (Add the butter, I say!)

Preserved lemons are available from good delicatessens. If you can't find them, add an extra two teaspoons of lemon zest to the recipe. Most supermarkets stock frozen phyllo pastry, but the unfrozen variety (available at Woolworths) is the easiest to work with.

Moroccan-Spiced Chicken Pie
12 skinless, deboned chicken breasts
5 sheets of fresh phyllo pastry
melted butter for brushing
a little ground cinnamon for dusting

For the marinade:
1 cup (250 ml) plain white yoghurt
the juice of 2 lemons
2 tsp (10 ml) finely grated lemon zest
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
4 tsp (20 ml) powdered cumin
1 tsp (5 ml) chilli powder
a pinch of saffron threads

For the sauce:
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
2 Tbsp (30 ml) sunflower oil
one 8-cm stick cinnamon
8 large, ripe tomatoes
80 ml ground almonds
2 tsp (10 ml) ground ginger
2 tsp (10 ml) ground coriander
3 tsp (15 ml) mild paprika
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
salt and freshly milled black pepper
75 g cold butter, cubed [optional]
24 green olives, pitted
3 Tbsp (45 ml) preserved lemon peel, finely chopped
½ cup (125 ml) chopped fresh coriander (loosely packed)
½ cup (125 ml) chopped fresh parsley (loosely packed)

Cut the chicken into strips as big as your little finger (or into large cubes, if you prefer). Place all the marinade ingredients into a large plastic or glass bowl and mix well. Stir in the chicken strips. Cover and set aside in the fridge for two hours.

Heat the olive oil in a large, shallow pan and add the chopped onion and cinnamon stick. Cook, over a medium flame, until the onions have softened. In the meantime, quarter the tomatoes and put them in a liquidiser or a food processor fitted with a metal blade.  Process at high speed until you have a pale pink, mushy liquid. Pour this into the pan containing the onions and add the almonds, ginger, coriander, paprika and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Cook at a fairly brisk bubble for 15 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced and thickened slightly.  To check whether it's ready, draw a wooden spoon across the base of the pan. If the channel created by the spoon closes reluctantly, the sauce is thick enough.

Turn the heat to its lowest setting. Tip the chicken and its marinade into the pan and stir. Cook very gently (the mixture should barely bubble) for 10 or so minutes, or until the chicken is just cooked through, and nowhere near dry. Add the butter and toss gently.

Stir in the olives, preserved lemon, coriander and parsley, and set aside to cool. Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper if necessary. (At this point, the mixture can go into the fridge overnight, but add the coriander and parsley only just before you assemble the pie).

Heat the oven to 180 ºC.

Use phyllo pastry to top the pies, and sprinkle with a little cinnamon.
Unroll the phyllo pastry and remove five sheets. Place a sheet of pastry on a piece of greaseproof paper or a clean tea towel (cover the remaining sheets with a damp cloth) and brush all over with melted butter.  Place another sheet on top, and brush with butter again. Continue until you've used up all five sheets.

Grease a rectangular pie dish that's a little smaller than the phyllo pastry. Remove the cinnamon stick from the chicken mixture. Pile the filling into the dish and carefully place the layered phyllo on top. Tuck the excess pastry down along the edges, or crimp it neatly, as shown in the photograph below. Brush melted butter over the top of the pie and dust with a little ground cinnamon.

If you're making individual pies, find a saucer a little bit bigger than your pie dish. Place it face-down on the layered pastry and cut around it with the tip of a very sharp knife. Place the circles on top of the pie dishes and tuck in the edges.

Bake at 180ºC for 20-30 minutes, or until the pastry is crisp and golden. Watch the pie like a hawk: if it looks like it's browning too quickly, loosely cover it with tin foil.

Serve immediately, with a green salad.

Serves 8.

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