Monday, 16 December 2013

Watermelon Bites with Lemon-Balm Sugar

Crisp, ice-cold triangles of watermelon skewered with the bamboo 'ribs' from an inexpensive Chinese fan, then sprinkled with mint, or with a citrussy finish of granulated white sugar pounded with lemon balm.

Watermelon Bites with Lemon-Balm Sugar
Watermelon Bites with Lemon Balm. Plate by David Walters.

This is a lovely way to serve watermelon in cheeky little bites if you're expecting guests on a hot day. Watermelon has strong associations with the festive season in South Africa, because midsummer is when this fruit comes into high season. (May I have a little moan about how ruinously expensive watermelons are at the moment? Last week I saw some puny specimens at my local supermarket, each one selling for a whopping R79. Who can afford that these days?)

Watermelon Bites with Lemon-Balm Sugar
The ribs from a fan make pretty skewers. 
The fan-rib skewers? I came up with this idea a few years back, as a way of serving dragon fruit.  I buy these pretty fans by the dozen in summer because they cost next to nothing and are so useful for doling out to hot & bothered friends and family as the festive season comes swinging in. Fans like these can be bought at any Chinese shop or market.

If you don't have a fan to rip to pieces, simply pile the triangles high on a large platter and sprinkle with leaves or pounded sugar immediately before you serve them.

You will need to cut the peel off the watermelon triangles if your fan has delicate, bendy 'ribs', or they may droop under the weight.

Watermelon Bites with Lemon-Balm Sugar
Crunchy sugar pounded with lemon balm 
And on that topic: these are good with mint, but sensational with lemon-balm sugar. When I'd finished taking snaps of a batch, and I'd handed them out to family members lurking in the kitchen, my son complained that the taste of the mint leaves was 'ruining' the delicate watermelon flavour (he has the most sensitive palate in the family).

So I cut up another batch, and this time sprinkled the triangles with lemon balm and sugar. You can't buy lemon balm in supermarkets, but it's available at every nursery and garden centre, and it's worth buying a plant, because it will flourish in your garden: it's a vigorous herb requiring very little attention.

I imagine these would also taste heavenly with lemon verbena.

If you like this idea, try my recipe for ice-cold prickly pears with frozen rosemary sugar.

Watermelon Bites with Lemon-Balm Sugar
  • one half of a large, seedless, chilled watermelon
  • a handful of fresh mint or lemon balm leaves (about a third of a cup/80 ml, loosely packed)
  • one third of a cup (80 ml) granulated white sugar
First get your skewers ready.  Tear away the fabric on the fan and remove any blobs of glue. Snip through the little plastic 'stalk' that holds the fan's ribs together.

Cut the melon into half-moon slices about 5 - 7 mm thick. Now slice these into dainty triangles, as shown in the first picture, above. Cut off the peel if your bamboo ribs are very delicate (see my notes above).

To achieve some uniformity, use the first triangle you cut as a template for the rest.  There will be some wastage, but don't throw the left-over bits away.  Put them into a zip-lock bag or lidded plastic box and sling them into the freezer for use in future smoothies.

Using the tip of a sharp knife, cut a deep slit into the peel side of each triangle and push the thinner end of each bamboo rib deep into the fruit.  Refrigerate.

Just before you serve the watermelon, place the leaves and sugar into a mortar and pound energetically until you have a rough green powder.  Sprinkle this over the triangles and serve immediately.

Makes about 24 bites, depending on the size of your watermelon. 

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Friday, 13 December 2013

New-Potato Salad with Avocado, Wasabi and Seared Tuna

Are you expecting a horde of hungry guests over the festive season?  Here's my light, bright twist on everyone’s favourite salad: tender baby potatoes combined with mayonnaise, creamy avocado and nose-zapping wasabi paste, then topped with a shower of snipped chives and strips of seared tuna.

New-Potato Salad with Avocado, Wasabi and Seared Tuna
New-Potato Salad with Avocado, Wasabi and Seared Tuna. Photograph by
  Michael Le Grange, courtesy of Random House Struik

This crowd-pleasing recipe, from my book Scrumptious, is  a great way of stretching just a little tuna between many mouths, and you can leave it out entirely if you’re not in the mood mood for seafood, or you’re serving vegetarians.

You can make the potato salad well in advance, but add the avocado cubes, and sear the tuna, just before you serve it.

New-Potato Salad with Avocado, Wasabi and Seared Tuna

1.5 kg new potatoes
1 Tbsp (15 ml) salt
4 ripe Hass or Fuerte avocados
3 Tbsp (45 ml) olive or sunflower oil
4 fresh tuna steaks, weighing about 500 g
1⁄3 cup (80 ml) finely snipped fresh chives

For the dressing:

½  onion, peeled and very finely chopped or grated
juice of 2 small lemons
1½  tsp (7.5 ml) white sugar
1 cup (250 ml) home-made mayonnaise or Hellman’s original
1 cup (250 ml) thick natural yoghurt
1 large clove garlic, peeled and crushed
3–4 tsp (15–20 ml) wasabi paste, or more, to taste
1 tsp (5 ml) Tabasco sauce
salt and freshly milled black pepper

Cook the potatoes in plenty of rapidly boiling salted water for 10–15 minutes, or
until quite tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, but not splitting or
falling apart. Drain in a colander, then cut each potato in half (leave the smallest
ones whole).

To make the dressing, combine the grated onion, lemon juice and sugar in a large
mixing bowl and set aside for 5 minutes (the lemon juice will take the sting out
of the onions). Whisk in the mayonnaise, yoghurt, garlic, wasabi and Tabasco and
season to taste with salt and pepper.

Peel the avocados, cut them into large cubes and immediately add them to the
dressing. Tip in the warm cooked potatoes and toss very gently to combine.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan and, when it’s blazing hot but not smoking, fry
the tuna steaks, in batches, for 2–3 minutes on each side, or until nice and toasty
on the outside but still rosy pink inside. Season with salt, pepper and a spritz of
lemon juice.

Tip the potato salad into a large serving bowl and scatter over the chives. Slice
the tuna and arrange the slices around the edge of the salad. Serve at room

Serves 8.

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Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Christmas Gammon with a Beetroot & Wasabi Glaze

A sweet blazing-pink beetroot syrup with a sting of wasabi is the glaze I've chosen for my Christmas gammon this year. To bring together the earthy flavours of beetroot and the nose-blast of wasabi, I've added crunchy pink peppercorns and a handful of fresh pomegranate seeds.

Beetroot-Glazed Gammon with Wasabi
Christmas Gammon with a Beetroot & Wasabi Glaze, studded
with pink peppercorns and fresh pomegranate seeds. Plate by
my uncle David Walters, master potter of Franschhoek.

Both the peppercorns and the pomegranate seeds featured in my Christmas 2012 gammon recipe and I'm so smitten by the combination of brittle-textured warmth and bursting sweetness that I've used them again this year. I don't think I'll ever stud a gammon with cloves again because, really, what's the point? Nobody's going to to chew on them (unless you have an elderly relative with severe toothache), and all you need do to achieve a subtle Christmassy clove aroma is to pop a few into the gammon's simmering stock.

This is the fourth gammon glaze recipe I've developed for this blog over the same number of years, and I always feel a bit anxious when November rolls around because I receive more queries and feedback about glazing a gammon than any other topic. This year I pondered for several weeks over a choice of glaze, and eventually inspiration came from a short magazine piece I was asked to contribute to Food & Entertaining magazine.  It's a food love letter to my grandmother Peggy, and in it I mention the wonderful combination of sliced ham and pickled beetroot, which I ate as a child in the Sixties in Peggy's garden.

Beetroot-Glazed Gammon with Wasabi
When you slice the gammon, the shocking-pink beetroot glaze penetrates
 the scoring marks. Serve with dobbles of wasabi and boiled baby potatoes.

A good jab of horseradish really brings the blood-and-earth flavours of beetroot alive, but instead of using the creamed variety, or fresh root (which I couldn't find in the shops), I whisked some Japanese wasabi paste into the glaze once I'd finished reducing it.

To my disappointment, the wasabi lost much of its fire during the glazing process, and faded like a sullen teenager into the background. So I doubled the quantity of wasabi from one teaspoon to two the next time I tested the recipe, which helped a bit, but still the flavour was elusive.

I therefore recommend that you serve this (in thick slices) with generous blobs of good-quality wasabi paste.

I have given detailed instructions below for simmering a gammon in stock, but please use your common sense here. I find that the cooking times given on the packaging for bone-out raw gammon (usually 55 minutes per kilogram) are excessive. This year, I cut 45 minutes off the recommended cooking time, and even then the gammon seemed a little overcooked.

Beetroot-Glazed Gammon with Wasabi
I've had good results with cooking gammon in a roasting bag.
I've tried all sorts of methods of cooking inexpensive Christmas gammons - slow-seething in stock, baking under foil and paper, slow-cooking in a crockpot, overnight cooking in a roasting bag -  and have come to the conclusion that everything depends on the quality of the ham.

For this recipe, I used inexpensive boneless gammons from Checkers for testing purposes, and they were okay, with a good flavour, albeit a bit too salty for my taste.  But there is a certain stringiness about mass-produced hams that cannot be fixed, not matter how carefully you cook them. I suspect that the gammons I bought this year had been frozen for several months, then thawed and placed on the shelf. I can't be certain of this, but there was a tell-tale coarseness and stringiness about the flesh that was most disappointing.

For my family's Christmas feast this year, I am not going to skimp on the gammon. A good quality gammon should be fine-textured and moist, with a deep rosy pink colour and a good layer of snowy white soft fat.

>> To see my gammon glazes of Christmasses past, plus three other recipes using the leftovers of a gammon, please scroll to the end of this page.

Christmas Gammon with a Beetroot & Wasabi Glaze

For the gammon and its stock:

one x 2.8 to 3 kg bone-out raw gammon
1 can (340 ml) ginger ale
1 can (340 ml) lager of your choice
2 bay leaves, dried or fresh
3 cloves
10 peppercorns
1 star anise
a small wedge of lemon, skin on
a sliver of fresh ginger
½ tsp (2.5 ml) coriander seeds
1 onion, cut in half, skin on
1 large carrot, cut in thirds
a few stalks of parsley
water, to cover

For the glaze:

2 medium-sized beetroot
3 Tbsp (45 ml) water, plus an extra half-cup [see recipe]
5 Tbsp (75 ml) white sugar
2 tsp (10 ml) wasabi paste
a squeeze of lemon juice

To garnish:

2 Tbsp (30 ml) pink peppercorns
the seeds of a pomegranate (or dried pomegranate ariels that you've soaked in water for 30 minutes)

Boiling a gammon in stock
Boiling a gammon in stock with some Christmassy
flavours. Top up the pot with water now and then,
 and skim off any foam as it rises. 
Put the gammon into a big deep pot and add all the remaining stock ingredients. The gammon should be covered in liquid to a depth of 2 cm.

Bring the gammon to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer at a very low burble, covered with a tilted lid, until it is cooked through (follow the timing instructions on the packaging, but please note my  comments above).

 Every now and then top up the pot with more water, and skim off any mocha-coloured scum as it rises.

In the meantime, make the glaze. Grate the beetroot, skin and all, on the coarse side of a cheese grater.  Put the gratings into a large microwave-safe dish, add 3 Tbsp (45 ml) water, and cover with clingfilm. Microwave on high for 8-10 minutes, or until the beetroot is tender. Alternatively, simmer the grated beetroot and water over a gentle heat for 15-20 minutes, or until tender.

Cool the beetroot for a few minutes, tip it into a sieve set over a bowl and drain well, pressing down on the pulp with the back of a spoon to extract all the juices.

Discard the pulp (or save it for stirring into a hummous or creamy dip) and pour the liquid into a saucepan. Add 5 Tbsp (75 ml) sugar, plus an additional ½ cup (125 ml) water. Set the pan over a high heat and cook at a fast boil for about 15 minutes, or until the liquid is syrupy, and has reduced down to half a cup (yes, go ahead and measure it!).  Whisk in the wasabi paste and add a squeeze of lemon juice.

When the gammon is cooked, remove it from the pot, cover with clingfilm and let it sit for two hours on the countertop. Alternatively - and I recommend this method, as it allows the meat to cool and contract, without drying out - let your gammon cool overnight in its stock. (I always freeze the stock in small plastic boxes for use in future soups and stews.)

To glaze the gammon: set your oven grill, at least 20 minutes ahead of time,  to its highest setting.  Place the meat in a large roasting pan.

Carefully pull away the thick skin from the top of the gammon to expose the fat layer. Discard the skin, or give it to the dogs. If it's a very fatty gammon, use a sharp knife held horizontal to the fat to shave away excess blubber. I like to retain a fairly generous layer of fat - it is Christmas, after all - but you can shave it back to a depth of about 3 mm if you'd like a leaner ham.

Score the fat in a diamond pattern, using the tip of a very sharp knife. I use my index finger to gauge the distance between score marks.

Now pour the beetroot glaze over your gammon. Don't worry if most of it runs off - this will be fixed during the glazing process. Place the pan about 10 cm under the blazing-hot grill.

This is the trickiest part of glazing a gammon. You will need to watch it like a hawk, because the tallest areas will brown - or burn - first. I always set a stool in front of the open oven door, put on a pair of padded gloves and sit there patiently tilting and turning the roasting pan to make sure every part of it is bubbling and caramelised.  Every 3 minutes or so, I use a big spoon to scoop up some of the glaze from the corners of the pan and trickle it over the gammon.

When your gammon is merrily sizzling and the fat layer looks caramelised all over, remove the tray from the oven, place it on the countertop and tuck a folded-up cloth underneath one end to set it at a tilt.  Continue for the next 10 minutes scooping and dribbling the run-off glaze gathering in the pan's corners over the gammon, until it is coated with a thick, shiny burnish.

Scatter the pomegranate seeds and pink peppercorns all over the gammon, while it is till sticky.

Serve warm with dabs of wasabi, boiled baby potatoes and fresh green leaves, or cold with bread, butter and pickles.

Serves 6-8 as a main course with veggies and/or salad. 

My other gammon glazes, plus three recipes using the leftovers of a gammon:

Christmas Gammon with a Pomegranate & Pink Peppercorn Glaze
Christmas Gammon with a Pomegranate and Pink Peppercorn Glaze

Christmas Gammon with a Sticky Orange & Ginger Glaze
Christmas Gammon with a Sticky Orange & Ginger Glaze

Christmas Gammon Glazed with Brandy & Coke
Christmas Gammon Glazed with Brandy & Coke

And here's what to do with left-over gammon:
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Sunday, 8 December 2013

Amasi Cheese Pops with Herbs and Spices

This recipe has been loafing in my drafts folder for weeks, waiting for me to find a chance to blog it, but I whipped it out yesterday after receiving a call from the producer of Jenny Crwys-Williams' show on Talk Radio 702.  Could I, the producer asked, suggest an iconic dish that might be adopted by South Africans in memory of Nelson Mandela?  And could I talk about this on the radio in 50 minutes' time?

Amasi Cheese Pops with Herbs and Spices
Amasi Cheese Pops with Herbs and Spices. Plate by David Walters.

After yet another outburst of weeping (I'm still, like many South Africans, swollen-eyed about the passing of this extraordinary soul) I applied my mind, and this idea popped up.  As I sifted through the pictures I took a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that these little bites contain ingredients that could symbolise many aspects of the life and spirit of one of the greatest leaders of modern times.

To be honest, I felt a bit silly telling Jenny about my idea on air, not least because chattering about a snacky little recipe seemed irrelevant, even inappropriate, at such a sombre time. Then again, there are scenes of jubilation, dancing and singing all over the country as South Africans honour the life of their beloved leader, so why not celebrate his legacy with food?

And, besides, I felt most honoured to be asked to contribute.  I never met Nelson Mandela, but I feel  privileged to have stood as a young woman in front of Cape Town's City Hall on 10 February 1990 to hear his historic speech, delivered hours after his release from prison.

So, I mused, the amasi cheese in this recipe (made from drained, soured milk) represents Madiba's humble beginnings and his happy childhood in rural Qunu, where he became a herd boy at an early age, looking after his father's cattle.

The lemon represents his great zest for life, and the smoked paprika the dust of Africa, from which all humankind arose. The black pepper recalls his struggle on behalf of the black majority in South African, and his warmth and spicy sense of humour.

The chillies represent his verve and fiery revolutionary spirit, while the white pepper recalls the limestone dust from Madiba's years of back-breaking work in a quarry on Robben Island.

Amasi Cheese Pops with Herbs and Spices
Sprinkle the spices on a piece of paper and roll
the balls around so they are lightly coated.
Parsley is is a symbol of renewal, rebirth and redemption (especially on the Jewish Passover Seder plate, where it is dipped in salt water, recalling the tears shed during Egyptian enslavement).  This, I thought, was a fitting nod to his close relationships with many Jewish activists of the apartheid era.  The aromatic cumin is a nod to his love of Indian food and his fellow Indian-South African activists.

And the cake glitter? Well, I had to scratch my head about that, but then it came to me: the playful spangles refer to his twinkling sense of humour, his profound love of children, and the global celebrities who attached themselves to him like homesick limpets.

One flavour missing here - oh, so missing - is sweetness, but you could make a dessert version of these pops by sweetening the cheese with honey, then dipping them in crushed pistachios or almonds.

Or perhaps fresh pomegranate seeds, which symbolise prosperity, abundance, fruitfulness and, in ancient Israel, the fertility of the promised land.

Amasi Cheese Pops with Herbs and Spice

For the pops:
  • 250 g amasi cheese (click here for the recipe), or a good, dense cream cheese if you don't have access to amasi
  • the finely grated zest of a small lemon
  • salt and white pepper, to taste

For the coatings: 
  • smoked paprika
  • cake glitter
  • finely chopped fresh parsley
  • crushed pink peppercorns
  • coarsely cracked black pepper
  • finely chopped fresh red chillies
  • cumin

Lightly knead the fresh cheese on a board together with the lemon zest, salt and white pepper. Go easy on the white pepper, as it has a powerful taste.

Cover your chopping board with a sheet of non-stick baking paper or clingfilm.

Pull the cheese into pieces and roll them between your palms to create neat balls.  Lightly roll each ball in the coatings for your choice, push a lolly stick or slim wooden ice-cream stick into each one, then refrigerate until firm.

Serve with a sweet chilli dipping sauce, or a fruity chutney, or pomegranate syrup.

Makes about 12 cheese pops. 

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