Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Flowers, Christmas and Pinterest

Can you believe it's already December? I feel as though the end of the year has crept up and pounced on me like a hungry bear. I've had a furiously busy few months, and haven't had any time to think about my Christmas feast, or to do any proper Christmassy planning and plotting, or to send out my regular newsletter (apologies for that). Please watch this space, though, because I'm busy developing and testing some interesting new festive recipes that I think you'll really enjoy (for links to my Christmas recipes from last year, scroll to the end of the page).
Christmas and Christmas Flowers
One thing I have been thinking about is festive table settings, partly because I'm working on an assignment that involves styling tables, but also because I've recently developed a night-time addiction to Pinterest.  I don't sleep very well when I'm feeling tired or pressurised, and over the last few weeks I've whiled away many hours scouring this interesting site and creating my own visual 'stories'. (Here are my boards on Pinterest). This site (which is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and exciting start-ups of the last  year or so, with massive potential) allows you to create virtual notice-boards, or 'mood boards' of pictures that inspire and excite you.

Christmas and Christmas Flowers

I lurked, with some interest, on Pinterest for several months after the clever Paige Nick showed me the site (and this only minutes after we'd met in real life at the Franschhoek Literary Festival,  following a Twitter acquaintance) but it was only when I created my own 'boards' that I began to appreciate how clever this site's concept is, and how useful it is for finding inspiration, focusing your creativity and - most important of all - distilling your ideas into a coherent 'story'.

Pinterest is a really, really useful tool for anyone who has a strong visual sense, and who is feeling a bit flattened, creatively speaking. By diligently collecting images that strongly appeal to you - whether you harvest them yourself from the Net, or 're-pin' them from other boards collated by Pinterest users - you can gain very (and I mean very) interesting insights into what your subconscious creative self really likes, and what fires up the cobbywebby pathways in the old grey matter. For example, I didn't appreciate (until I set up some Pinterest boards) that I have a real fascination with  - among other things - antiques, antiquities, African design and fresh flowers.

Flowers, in particular. Before I moved to Cape Town two years ago, tomorrow, I was a passionate gardener, with a particular interest in old-fangled flowers and herbs. I shed a few tears leaving behind in Johannesburg a herb garden I'd slaved over, and a treasured collection of blowsy old English roses, but I didn't fret for long, because it was such a pleasure to move into a house with a garden filled with indigenous Cape flora.  A pleasure, until I needed something to pluck in order to fill a few vases. Slim pickings indeed - a few proteas and pincushions left, and some wind-whipped lavender flowers and bruised arum lilies - and so I had to raid my friends' gardens, and my local supermarket, for gorgeous blooms. My mum, when she came to visit, lent me this beautiful fat-bellied silver jug (see picture above), which I filled with proteas, white gerberas and a few branches of exquisite indigenous silver leaves.

She also bought me several armfuls of old English roses from Ludwig's Roses, but because it was a very hot day, most of them had blown by the time I had a chance to take a photograph.  Here's a surviving bloom, in a very pretty slim single-bloom vase, also lent to me by my mum.
Christmas and Christmas Flowers

I recently borrowed some very beautiful napery from Cape Town designer Emma Wyngaard. I'm very taken by Emma's beautifully printed and carefully stitched linen runners, napkins and aprons, some featuring prints of old silver cutlery, and this one (below) with recipes. I've given Emma my phone number and address, so she can track me down to get her samples back, but little does she know that I have gave her fake details, because I intend to sneak away in the dead of the night, with every single item in my knapsack. Aren't her linens gorgeous?

Christmas and Christmas Flowers

Christmas and Christmas Flowers

Christmas and Christmas Flowers

Christmas recipes from this blog:

Tweeting Christmas recipes: the fun, the festivities, and the failure

Christmas Gammon Glazed with Brandy and Coke

Layered Christmas Ice-Cream Cake with White Chocolate and Berries

Festive Phyllo Crackers with a Spicy Plum and Almond Filling

Christmassy Plum and Tamarind Sauce

Festive Turkey Stuffing with Green Peppercorns, Pork Sausage, Apple and Thyme

Mango and Macadamia Turkey Stuffing with Sage and Sausage Meat

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Saturday, 26 November 2011

A Salad of Scotch Quails' Eggs in Straw-Potato Nests

I had never tasted a proper home-made Scotch egg until I married an Englishman*, and his mother Audrey Rayner made a clutch of them for a picnic. They were the shape of small rugby balls, crisp and golden, and inside the shells of spicy pork-sausage meat were whole eggs cooked to perfection, their yolks as yellow and fluffy as the centre of a daisy. This is a dish that takes a bit of effort and split-second timing. (And if you leave out the potato nests, these make excellent low-carb snacks.)

  Salad of Scotch Quail's Eggs in Straw Potato Nests
Scotch Quails' Eggs in Straw-Potato Nests
I was instantly smitten by this classic English picnic food and I ate three of them, with dabs of Mrs Balls Chutney, as I sat on on a tartan blanket on the slopes of Table Mountain, swigging warm tea from a (tartan-patterned) thermos flask. Audrey was probably a bit dismayed at how many of the Scotch eggs I wolfed that day, but I couldn't help myself.  They were very, very good, like all the proper English food that flowed from Audrey's kitchen, and I'm really sorry I didn't plague her for her secret formula before she passed away a few years ago. She would willingly have given me the recipe - really good and accomplished home cooks never mind sharing - but somehow I never got around to asking her.

I've done my best to recreate that delicious porky casing in this recipe. It's a daintier version of Audrey's one, using quails' eggs, newfangled salad greens and a nest of straw potatoes, and while it may not have the retrolicious appeal of cold Scotch eggs swaddled in tin foil and eaten while ants crawl over your legs, I promise there will be a few squeals of delight - from children, at least - when you bring the dish to the table.

I am interested to learn that the English department store Fortnum and Mason takes credit for inventing the Scotch egg in 1738.  I can't find any evidence online to back up this claim, nor any reference explaining why they are called 'Scotch'  eggs.  Wikipedia claims that the first printed recipe for Scotch eggs appeared in Maria Rundell's 1807 book A New System of Domestic Cookery, and here it is. Mrs Rundell's recipe is just five lines long, and uses anchovies or 'scraped ham' to flavour the forcemeat casing for the eggs, although it makes no mention of a breadcrumb coating.  'Fry of a beautiful yellow brown,' she says, 'and serve with good gravy in the dish.'

Quail's eggs, being so small, need to be cooked with some care so you don't end up with yolks like yellow bullets. For eggs with perfect centres, and no nasty green rings, exactly follow the cooking time I've given below. I have specified more eggs than you need to allow for breakages and other mishaps.

Salad of Scotch Quail's Eggs in Straw Potato Nests
20 quails’ eggs
12 good-quality pork sausages
6 fresh sage leaves, very finely minced
the finely grated zest of a lemon
a pinch of cayenne pepper (or more, to taste)
a pinch of allspice (optional)
a quarter of a whole nutmeg, very finely grated
salt and milled black pepper
2 eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup (125 ml) flour
1 cup fine dry breadcrumbs (Panko crumbs are ideal)
6 potatoes
sunflower oil for deep frying
2 bags of mixed green salad leaves, or enough for 8 people
a vinaigrette or salad dressing of your choice

Bring a large, deep pot of water to a gentle rolling boil.  Put all the eggs in a large metal sieve, immerse it very slowly in the boiling water, then very gently tilt the sieve so all the eggs roll out into the boiling water. (If you do this too quickly, the water will come off the boil and your timing will be ruined.) Boil the eggs for exactly two minutes and 20 seconds (set a timer!). Pour off the boiling water and fill the pot to the brim with cold water from the tap. Leave the pot under a trickling cold tap for 7 minutes, allowing the water to spill over the edges.

Drain the eggs, gently crack the shells and peel them. The shells should come away easily, but if they do not, peel them under cold running water. Pat the eggs dry and set aside.

Squeeze the meat out of the sausage skins and place in a mixing bowl. Add the sage, lemon zest, cayenne pepper, allspice and nutmeg, mix well, and season with salt and black pepper. Before you enclose the eggs, check the seasoning of the sausage meat by pinching off a marble-sized piece, flattening it into a patty and frying it in hot oil. Add more salt, pepper and spice, if necessary, and to taste.

Divide the sausage meat into 16 equal portions. Roll a portion into a ball, flatten it in the palm of your hand to make a patty and put a cooked quail’s egg on top.  Gently wrap the the meat around the egg to enclose it completely, pinching the mixture to close any gaps. Now roll the ball delicately between your palms to create a pleasing egg shape. Repeat with the remaining eggs.  Put the eggs on a plate, cover with clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes to firm up.

Place the flour on one large plate, the beaten eggs on another, and the breadcrumbs on the third plate. Roll the Scotch eggs in the flour and shake to remove the excess. Dip the eggs in the beaten egg yolk, then roll them gently in the breadcrumbs, patting down gently so that the crumbs stick.  Half fill a narrow-sided pot with sunflower oil and heat it to 165ºC. (If you don’t have a cooking thermometer, click here for deep-frying tips). Fry the eggs, four or five at a time, for four and a half minutes, or until crisp and golden brown. Remove and drain on kitchen paper.

Next make the straw potatoes. Using a mandolin or a very sharp knife, cut the potatoes – no need to peel them – into slices 3 mm thick. Place the slices in stacks and cut them vertically into very slim 'matchsticks'. Dry the matchsticks by squeezing them gently in a clean tea towel.  Heat the oil again and fry the matchstick potatoes, in three or four batches, for 2-3 minutes, or until they are golden and crisp. Drain well on several layers of kitchen paper and season generously with salt and pepper (or any highly seasoned salt you have in your cupboard).

To assemble the salad, arrange the leaves on a large salad platter. Pile the matchstick potatoes in a ring in the centre of the platter, and heap the warm Scotch eggs in the middle. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the leaves and serve immediately.

Serves 8. 

* My husband may have been born an Englishman, but actually he only lived in England for 8 years, and has been a South African for 43 years. The only trace of English about him these days is his ridiculous passion for Manchester United, and his fondness for steamed puddings and blackcurrants. Oh, and he also says 'yoggit' and 'tea towel' not 'yo-gert' and 'dish cloth'.

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Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Pork-Shoulder Casserole, and the patient cook

I was smitten by the slow-cooked goulash-style pork casserole my friend Tracey Hawthorne made for me when I visited her for an evening of wine-quaffery last Friday. I was filled with appreciation not only because she'd made it with her usual love and gusto, but also because this dish - and the two other courses Tracey made - had all the hallmarks of an accomplished cook who has spent many, many years in the kitchen making good food for family and friends.
 Pork-Shoulder Cassero

Producing a heartwarming dish of excellent simplicity and deep, lip-smacking flavour isn't something you can learn to do overnight. Making food like this - and, even more important, serving it piping hot, perfectly cooked and on time, with minimal kitchen-faffing - requires planning, technique and a lot of experience, not to mention a knowledge of food and flavour and a deft touch with spicing and seasoning. (It certainly can't be learned from watching TV chefs perform their 30-minute, 6-ingredient 'miracles'. This is a cherished hobbyhorse that I will climb on to another time; suffice to say that I think it's a crying, sobbing shame that so many young people are learning to cook by watching reality television. These skills have to be learned at the elbow of an expert - preferably your grandmother or mother, although an esteemed cookery school, a mountain of good cookbooks or many years of slogging in the kitchen will suffice.)

Anyhow, back to Tracey. My talented friend (who now is the sole writer on Salmagundi, my first blog, which we co-wrote for several years before I decided to focus on food) has lived in a lovely old house in the Swartland village of Riebeek Kasteel for many years. This year, in between working flat-out as a freelance writer and editor and keeping readers of her blog in stitches, Tracey revamped both her house and her garden (read about the renovations here and here).

I was very taken by the magnificent mosaics on the new fish pond and fire pit in her Zen-Karoo garden, the work of Cape artist Jill Gordon-Turner (click on the link to have a look at more of  her beautiful work). The pond mosaic includes indigenous plants (a protea, disa and gasteria), a Swartland scene, a favourite motto contibuted by Tracey's daughter Isabella, and a binding rune selected by her son Daniel.  The circular firepit, with its licking blue flames, carries Tracey's word-contribution to the garden project: 'geselligheid' (meaning, loosely, conviviality).

Mosaic by Jill Gordon-Turner

Mosaic by Jill Gordon-Turner

Tracey is famous for her brilliant (okay, legendary) parties - at least, among those who can remember a thing the next morning - and these always start off with excellent food. When you arrive at her house, there is no inkling, apart from some lovely drifting aromas, that a feast is on its way. The massive old-wood kitchen counter is wiped clean, the dishwasher is humming and Tracey is sitting calmly on the veranda surrounded by numerous cats and dogs and getting started on a bottle of wine. Then, as if by magic, the food arrives at the table, delicious mountains of it, and every dish perfect. Again, this is a sure sign of an experienced cook and entertainer: clever planning and hours of hard work in advance. Apart from the pork-shoulder casserole (recipe below) Tracey made an entire tray of nutmeggy spinach cannelloni cloaked in mozzarella and Parmesan (her idea of a starter for four people) and a most luscious, boozy chocolate mousse in a bowl the size of a swimming pool.

I don't want to go on and on blowing Tracey's trumpet (we don't want her getting a big head, now) but there really are very few home cooks I know who can turn out a feast of this sort without spending half the meal fiddling around in the kitchen and entirely neglecting their guests in the process. Among these kitchen champions are my mother Jenny Hobbs, my aunt Gilly Walters, and my talented friends Judy Levy and Mike and Michele Karamanof.

Knowing how to cook food slowly and patiently, and taking great care over it, is in danger of becoming a dying art, in my opinion. But more about that - and the curse of reality TV cooking - in another post.

 Pork-Shoulder Cassero

Here's Tracey's dish, which she has adapted from a recipe by Jamie Oliver.  Normally I can't resist formatting and tweaking a recipe, but I give it to you as she gave it to me, because it can't be improved.

Goulash-style Pork Shoulder

'You need about a 2 kg pork shoulder, deboned, rind removed but fat left on. Score the fat in a diamond pattern, rub it generously with olive oil, salt and pepper, and place it fat side down in a big deep preheated ovenproof casserole, over a medium-high flame, for about 15 mins, to render the fat.

'Remove the pork. In the same ovenproof casserole, fry up (you can add some more olive oil if necessary): a couple of red onions, sliced; 2 red chillies, seeds removed and chopped; smoked paprika (be careful – it’s easy to overdo it and you don’t want the smoked paprika taste to completely overwhelm the dish; I use about 2 heaped teaspoons); some caraway seeds; a nice handful of fresh oregano or marjoram; a mix of peppers (2 red, 2 yellow, 1 green); either a jar of grilled peppers or a jar of marinated peppers (depending on what you can get), chopped; and a tin of plum tomatoes. Once this has become nice and sticky, replace the pork, fat side down. Add a very generous splash of red wine vinegar (about 1/3 cup) and enough water just to  cover the pork. Stir everything around so the pork is immersed in the veggies.

'Cook at 180ºC for at least 2½ hours. Test the pork with a fork – it should fall apart. Cook it for a bit longer if it doesn’t.

'I serve this with creamy mashed potatoes and a chickpea/cucumber/yoghurt/garlic salad.'

Serves 6.

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Friday, 4 November 2011

Chakalaka Soup with Little Boerewors Balls

My upside down, inside-out version of a much-loved traditional dish. Chakalaka is a highly spiced Southern African vegetable relish usually eaten cold as an accompaniment to braaied (barbecued) meat. Here I've reinvented it as a soup bursting with punchy flavours. Topped with juicy mini-meatballs made from the squeezed-out insides of boerewors, this is a dish that will bring tears to the eyes of chakalaka devotees (and more so if you increase the quantity of fresh chillies specified in my recipe).

Chakalaka Soup with Little Boerewors Balls
Chakalaka, said to have been invented by Johannesburg's migrant mine workers, usually includes chillies, peppers and curry spices, plus - depending on who's making it - carrots, beans, cabbage, and so on.

You may be wondering why I've turned a relish into a soup. Well, because I love soup, I really do. Also, I like turning recipes around to see what happens.

This soup is good on its own, but the little spicy meatballs make it special. (I'm  grateful to my friend Nina Timm of My Easy Cooking for showing me how to make instant boerie balls.)

You can leave the baked beans out of the soup, if you like (as I did in the photographs, because I wasn't in the mood for beans) but I recommend including them because they help thicken the soup. If you can't find authentic South African boerewors, use a raw, loose-textured sausage and, before you roll it into balls,  mix in a teaspoon or so of toasted ground coriander, plus some of the spices listed in this recipe.

This is also very good with chopped green beans and cauliflower florets. If you don't have tomato juice, use a tin or two of chopped Italian tomatoes and a little tomato paste instead.

The chickpea flour and spices are used to give the meatballs a nice toasty crust. Chickpea flour, also known as channa flour, is available from spice shops.

Chakalaka Soup with Little Boerewors Balls

3 Tbsp (45 ml) sunflower oil
4 carrots, peeled
3 small green peppers, finely sliced lengthways
4 onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 stick celery, finely chopped
1 green or red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped (or more, to taste)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 Tbsp (30 ml) grated fresh ginger
6 large, ripe tomatoes
4 cups (1 litre) tomato juice (the sort you’d use for a tomato cocktail)
3 cups (750 ml) water or vegetable stock
2 tins baked beans in tomato sauce
2 tsp (10 ml) medium-strength curry powder
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) cumin
salt and milled black pepper
½ cup (125 ml) finely chopped fresh parsley or coriander

For the boerewors balls: 
500 g slim boerewors, or similar sausage
½ cup (125 ml) channa [chickpea] flour
1 tsp (5 ml) paprika
½ tsp (2.5 ml) turmeric

Heat the oil in a large pot. Dice two of the carrots and set the others aside. Fry the diced carrots, pepper slices, onions, celery, chilli, ginger and garlic over a medium-high heat for 8-10 minutes, or until softened but not brown. Roughly chop the tomatoes, place in a blender and pulse to form a rough purée. Pour the purée, the tomato juice and the stock into the pot and cook at a brisk bubble for 30 minutes, skimming off any foam as it rises. Stir in the baked beans, curry powder and cumin, season to taste with salt and pepper and simmer for 20-30 minutes.

For the meatballs, squeeze the boerewors filling from its casing and roll into balls the size of a marble. Combine the channa flour, paprika and turmeric on a plate and lightly roll the balls in the mixture. Fry in hot oil over a medium heat for 4 minutes, or until cooked through. Drain on kitchen paper. Coarsely grate the remaining two carrots. Serve the soup piping hot, topped with hot frikkadels, grated carrot and a shower of parsley.

Serves 8. 

Chakalaka Soup with Little Boerewors Balls

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