Crispy chicken and chickpea couscous with feta & lemon zest

Crispy chicken and chickpea couscous with feta & lemon zest

Families are funny things, aren’t they? While scratch-your-eyes-out loyal if anyone dares speak an ill word about one of our own, we are the first to voice an opinion about cousin Betty’s latest binge drinking session as soon as we can grab a second alone with a familial accomplice. My family is no different. So it was that I discovered what my family had been whispering amongst themselves over wine glasses in kitchens and murmuring to one another on tee boxes while taking practice swings: I had somehow achieved the dubious honour of being branded the couscous pusher in our family. There I was, happily dishing up fall-off-the-bone lamb shanks over steaming piles of fluffy couscous, when I noticed a distinctly uncomfortable silence fall over the table. The same sort of silence you feel in that moment just after the drug addict has made himself comfortable in the cushy armchair, but before someone clears their throat to tell him that the tea party he’s been invited to is actually an intervention. Uncle T steepled his fingers together (as he always does when he has something uncomfortable to say) and with a sideways glance at my equally unimpressed looking brother said, “What is this shit now again?”. Around the table there was a lot of looking in laps, and readjusting of wine glasses, but when no one backed him up he continued: “Uncle G says you’re always trying to get us to eat couscous”. Now, please note that – whilst true – the last time I had attempted this feat was Christmas 2007, when I had tried to slip some of the little granules past everyone by disguising them amongst cubes of roasted butternut and crumbly feta while they read out loud to each other those terribly lame jokes that come in the crackers. But it mattered not. I had become the couscous pusher. And with good reason I suppose. See, I believe the much maligned couscous has had a bad rap. When it was first introduced to our shores, it was inevitably prepared by uninformed housewives who dumped too much cube derived chicken stock over it in sufficient quantities to turn it into a crumbly heap of mushy sludge more closely resembling wallpaper glue than a fluffy accompaniment to a lamb tagine. This really is a grossly unfair representation of what couscous could be. Really, if you think about it, when it is prepared correctly, what’s not to love? Tiny granules of al dente semolina that slurp up all the flavours you throw at them, couscous is the caviar of pasta. Add to that, it requires no more than a spoon to eat, so it is perfect comfort food. I have therefore made a mini mission out of turning couscous into a dish everyone could love, instead of just an ineffectual projectile weapon in a B-grade movie. This dish might not complete my life’s work, but it is one of my favourites. Crispy chicken and chickpea couscous Read the rest of this entry

Peanut butter and white chocolate mousse

Peanut butter and white chocolate mousse

Pierneef à la Motte in Franschhoek is one of my favourite restaurants. The menu is constantly changing to reflect the seasons, so you always get the freshest, seasonal ingredients packaged in beautifully plated, explosive flavour combinations. Unfortunately this also means that you best not get your heart set on any one dish, as it may not be there the next time you visit. There is an important life lesson in this. Never put off till tomorrow what you can eat today! The bittersweet Valrhona chocolate tart with peanut butter mousse that I wrote about when I reviewed them in September was one such dish. While the rich chocolate tart itself was obviously delicious, the highlight of the entire meal (okay, a joint tie with the quail and orecchiette pasta salad with smoked pork lardo and almond ginger sauce), was the peanut butter mousse that accompanied the tart. Piped onto the plate into little mounds of salty moreishness, they were the unintentional star of the dish. So I was very disappointed when, on a visit there last week, the chocolate tart was no longer on the menu. After a week of hoping for a miserable rainy day, so that I could stare sadly out the window while I longed for that mousse, I realised I was unsuccessfully dealing with this blow, and decided to try recreating the mousse myself. I added white chocolate, so it is not quite the same, but it makes a similarly rich, lovely, dense mousse. Serve in little shot glasses, as an accompaniment to a tart (I served mine with a salted caramel cheesecake, but chocolate and peanut butter are made for each other when the bread and jam aren’t looking) or as a filling between layers of biscuits.

Read the rest of this entry

Chinese snacking: A hazardous exercise.

Chinese snacking: A hazardous exercise.

In a supermarket where hermetically sealed packets of jellyfish can be found on the shelf, nestled between Plain Salted Lays and seaweed flavoured Tuc’s, finding a snack that is to your taste might be a challenge.

You might reach for a tube of chips, and land up with a bag of dried fish snacks (you’d be an idiot though, and a smelly one at that).

Dried fish snack

Avoid these as a pre-dinner snack on a first date.

Or you might innocently peruse the shelves for a dried fruit snack, and come across spicy duck tongues.

Spicy duck tongues. Spotted mere inches from a few plain dates.

Spicy duck tongues. Spotted mere inches from a few plain dates.

Or fancy tucking into some sweet, corn flavoured bologny? No refrigeration required – these babies will last on the shelf forever.

Just want you want in a meat snack. The ability to last, unrefrigerated for ages. Oh, and sugar and corn bits.

The only thing in this picture that makes sense is the suggestion to run.

 Or maybe some nice spicy bean curd string.

Tofu snack

Don’t believe that lip licking liar!

And my personal favourite; those baby-hand-resembling nibbles that everyone in China Read the rest of this entry

On torture (or: What to expect from your bed in China.)

On torture (or: What to expect from your bed in China.)

I don’t think people quite comprehend what I mean when I say that beds in China (or at least all the beds I’ve had the misfortune of sleeping in) are hard. We’ll be making small talk, somehow the conversation will come round to beds (as it does) and I’d casually mention that beds in China are really, really hard. They’ll give me that raised eyebrow, skeptical, “uh huh” look and I can actually see them thinking “Bitch, please. I had to carry my 10mm thick mattress 10km every day when I was in the army and there was nothing but it between me and the ground at night. The ground!”. Okay, yes, but on the ground you probably had a thin layer of scuffed up dust to provide a bit of cushioning. If you haven’t slept on a Chinese bed then you do not know what a hard bed is. I’m not being a princess here people. A pea under a hundred mattresses would not bruise my well padded exterior. I am not a softy. But I’m talking about beds that are essentially a bit of soft filling, sandwiched between two wooden planks and held together with a thin layer of fabric. I don’t even really know what the padding is supposed to achieve, other than to sag a bit when you sit on the edge of the bed to tie your shoelaces. Jade pillows might have been lucky and a sign of wealth in days gone by, and hard beds touted as being good for your spine, but this is the 21st century and we have sports cars and chiropractors here for that.20130515-P1240351

So what can you do about this dilemma if you’re planning a long term trip to China? Here are a few things you can try: Read the rest of this entry

Jew’s ear soup (hold the Jew’s ear)

Jew’s ear soup (hold the Jew’s ear)

Jew's ear fungusJew’s ear is a species of Auriculariales fungus found growing mainly on dead wood worldwide. And really, on a dead stump, far from the dinner table, is where it should’ve been left. It is a popular ingredient in many Chinese dishes and can readily be found on most restaurant menus – usually in the form of a cold salad, dressed with soy and vinegar, or in chunky pieces in soups. The mushroom itself is quite astonishing. The size of a hand and beautifully aubergine hued, they really do resemble ears in an almost disturbing way. But that is where the astonishment ends. To describe this mushroom as gelatinous with a mild flavour is to be unjustifiably kind. Jew's ear fungusYou know that little piece of cartilage you find along the breast bone of a chicken? The one that is so soft and thin, you don’t even realise you’ve cut through it until you unpleasantly bite down on a mouthful? Jew’s ears taste like that. Squeaky, softly rubbery, and with no discernible flavour at all. I am yet to try a dish I like them in. But I am nothing if not an adventurous eater, so I tried to incorporate them into a creamy mushroom soup.

 To make the mushroom soup:

1) Prepare your favourite mushroom soup recipe.

2) DO NOT use any Jew’s ear mushrooms in your soup WHATSOEVER. They are vile. They will bring nothing to the table in terms of flavour and will merrily add a yucky, rubbery texture that will not zip up with a blender. Attempting to use them in a creamy soup will have disastrous consequences. If you absolutely have to try them, here is a recipe for soup that uses them whole.

 

Cheesy pork chops au gratin with creamy asparagus

Cheesy pork chops au gratin with creamy asparagus

And now, regular broadcasting will continue. And just to prove that I am not completely blinded by my animal love, and that I do understand the need for a balanced, humane and sustainable way of feeding this planet’s exploding population: A post on pork chops.

The adage that you should not judge a book by its cover is, in my humble opinion, completely inapplicable when it comes to food. Yes, I might quietly deduct a point from a restaurant’s score when they feel the need to advertise their food by using photos on their menu (thanks for ruining picture menu’s for me Gordon Ramsay – they’re the only way I know what I’m eating in China and now your Kitchen Nightmares rants have left me reeling as I wrestle with the restaurant photo-menu paradox: I should not be eating in a restaurant that puts photos of their food on their menu, but the only restaurant I can eat in without inadvertently ordering turtle soup with a soupçon of sea slug is a restaurant that puts photos of their food on their menu), but I will also seldom be persuaded to cook something unless it is accompanied by a photo to sell it to me. But I am going to ask you not to judge this dish by its cover. While it might look ugly to the point of being off putting, it is really, really good. In fact, Bush Man declared it the best thing he’s eaten in China – and we’ve been to Mr.& Mrs. Bund. And while it’s not exactly fine dining, and I suspect he was just trying to get into my pants, it does make for an exceptionally good and laughably easy family dinner.

If you found this post searching for “cooking with Chinese vegetables” then you probably think that asparagus is a shameful cop out. But I have included this recipe under that section, because not only is asparagus cheap and plentiful here, but they are really delicious. Tender and sweet with loads of asparagus flavour (as opposed to, you know, leek flavour, or Fresca maybe.) And in the supermarket they are as eye catching as hair vegetable or balsam pear, because they are freakishly long here, so you don’t feel like snapping off the tough end and tossing it away is such a waste. The secret to this dish is to use the best quality pork and asparagus you can find, because the flavour comes solely from these two ingredients.

Cheesy pork chops au gratin with creamy asparagus

Read the rest of this entry

On Shanghai’s bird & insect market & the plight of China’s animals

On Shanghai’s bird & insect market & the plight of China’s animals

Please note: This post is not at all in keeping with the usual tone of this blog. It contains upsetting images and information which, although not new to anyone, is a blow to the gut every time you hear it again. Click on the “more” button at your own discretion and please note that some of the links provided contain disturbing graphics. Read the rest of this entry

Potato Caesar Coleslaw Salad

Potato Caesar Coleslaw Salad

It’s not easy trying to cook like home in China. Things we take for granted every day can suddenly only be sourced through an internet search and a three hour long quest into the city. Lettuce is no exception. Don’t get me wrong, we can get lettuce in Qinpu. The varieties available are: Lettuce. That’s it. Chinese lettuce (yes, that’s really a thing). Salads get boring. They all look the same. They all taste the same. But what we can get is a wide variety of other leafy Chinese vegetables which we have started using raw as a lettuce substitute to curb the boredom. Hangzhou bok choi is one such vegetable. It is similar in texture and flavour to a Savoy cabbage, but has the added bonus of providing a fresh crunch to salads, thanks to its large midrib. So what do you make when you essentially have a cabbage, a few potatoes and a teeny tiny fridge (really, you should see it, shove a 5L water bottle in there and you’re pretty much at capacity) that needs a small half jar of mayo cleared out on a first in first out basis? Well, naturally, you make a Potato Caesar Coleslaw salad, of course.

This is a salad with an identity crisis. Like that country gal who runs away from home and moves to the big city to become an actress, only to pack it all in and go back to harvest the apple trees with pappa, it wants to be a fancy Caesar salad, but knows it is ultimately a good ‘ol potato salad at heart. You can substitute the bok choi for white cabbage, or pretty much any raw, leafy veg.

Hangzhou bok choi caesar potato salad

Serves: 4 Read the rest of this entry

Following the madding crowd

Following the madding crowd

Bush Man and I spent the weekend in Shanghai. (Yes, we’re technically in Shanghai, but it’s so far from the center that we can actually say we’re going to the city. The way farm folk do.). It was taxing to say the least. But it was my own fault. I somehow got the insane idea that a trip to the bird and insect market would be a great idea. It wasn’t. There weren’t just birds and insects. There were kittens sleeping in their dirty litter trays and puppies that looked like they have never known happiness. Do you know how sad you have to be to be a PUPPY and look like you’ve never known happiness? Truth be told, even the grasshoppers managed to look sad in their little woven baskets. It was heartbreaking. We got there when most people had already packed up, so I should probably go back and get the story out, but I’m not sure I have the constitution or the emotional stability to handle that. Added to that was the usual dodging of feces and globs of spit. Don’t ever, under any circumstances, wear a dress to the city that touches the ground. That hem has seen things. Horrible, horrible things. Things that cannot be unseen.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot that I love about this city. The sights, most of the smells, some of the people. But every now and then I need to just lock myself in my hotel room for a day or two and pretend like I’m not here. And then I get bored. Today was one of those days. So in an attempt to amuse myself, I created a Facebook page for this blog. Just like everyone else. You can follow it here.

Now here’s photo of a sad kitten on a rubbish heap. When I do Monday blue I do it right!

Maybe he's one of the lucky ones?

Maybe he’s one of the lucky ones?