I don’t trust people who don’t particularly care about food. You know the type. They eat because they have to and wouldn’t particularly care whether you gave them Marmite on toast or seared tuna with truffled cauliflower puree for dinner. In fact, they’d prefer the toast, because the whole thing would be over faster. If they could, they’d pop a pill three times a day in lieu of eating a meal if such a thing were possible. I just don’t trust them. It’s not normal, I tell you! I’m quite sure they’re just waiting for a signal from the mother ship and then they’ll all start shedding their borrowed human skin and start converting nitrogen straight into whatever cells make up their weird-ass, food disdaining, alien bodies. Fortunately (and maybe because of this fact) I married a very appreciative eater. I love cooking for bush man. He makes these little noises as he eats when he’s enjoying the food. Little “hmmm”‘s and “sho”‘s and “that’s good, add it to the list”s (there is no list of dishes I must remember to try again, but I really should start one, because he’s often told me to add things to it and I’m buggered if I can remember a single thing on there now other than this chicken). Anyway, when I made this dish, there were no less than five “hmmm”‘s in the first two minutes of eating, so I knew it was a winner. The original recipe is one concocted by my mom – one of my food heroes and the reason that “Must appreciate food.” was at the top of the list of attributes I looked for in my man. I just added bacon because, well, it’s bacon, and it should be added to stuff.
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. Read the rest of this entry
I have been back in beautiful, sunny SA for a few weeks now. It is insanely lovely right now. Really. Like living in an HDR photo. Or maybe it’s just my new polarised sunglasses? Either way it’s crazy green and ridiculously blue and just gorgeous! I’m not sure whether to say I’m visiting, touring or home, because I’m not completely sure where we go next really. No wonder the gypsies were always a little miffed at the world. But I am loving it! My life feels a bit like an episode of the Amazing Race (a show I now realise I could never partake in as I would most certainly go postal when dealing with the airlines, will in all likelihood brain someone with one of those little posts used to contain the queues at an airport and then spend the rest of my life in jail. Also, at 35 years old I have been informed by my father that with my back I may not horse ride or go-cart, so there goes half the challenges too.). We spent a few days in the Kruger Park (more on that later) and are now lazing next to the banks of the the Vaal with G&T’s whilst feeding the fish using rods. There has been little time for blogging. And when there has been, I have preferred to use it to read – Kaalkop by Nataniël to be precise so at least I am getting my foodie fix in. Do yourself the favour. Anyhoo, to make up for the lack of posts, herewith a recipe for chicken that my mom made on my last visit home. The original recipe is from the Lifestyle magazine in the Sunday Times but as I was so busy nattering and gulping down ice cold bubbly, I took no notice of what she did really. So I had to sort of chuck in the flavours I remember. The recipe called for a whole chicken stuffed with couscous and took hours to make. This one is done in a jiffy and with drumsticks. It is therefore probably not remotely the same thing, but is a close enough approximation none the less!
2 medium onions, chopped
3 tablespoons oil
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1/2 cup of raisins or sultanas
1kg chicken pieces
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
125ml chicken broth
2 or 3 tablespoons honey, depending on how sweet you like it
a few saffron threads, steeped in 2 tablespoons of hot water (essential! treat yourself!)
couscous for 4
half a cup of whole almonds, halved
1) Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a pan. Season the onions with salt and pepper and slowly saute until translucent and just, just heading towards a pale golden colour. Add the garlic and cook for another two or three minutes.
2)Transfer to an ovenproof dish big enough to hold the onions and all your chicken. Scatter the raisins over the onions.
3) In the same pan, brown the chicken pieces and place on top of the onions and raisins. Deglaze the pan with a little water and add the juices to the dish.
4) Add the remaining oil to the pan and turn the heat down a little. Add the spices and fry until they start releasing their fragrance. Hum a Bollywood tune. Add the broth, honey and saffron, heat for a minute or two more and pour over the chicken. Bake at 180ºC for 1 hour.
5) Prepare the couscous as per the packet instructions (use a bit of chicken broth instead of just water), stir in the almonds and serve with the chicken. The almonds add a beautiful texture to the dish that I have become totally addicted to!
Necessity is most definitely the mother of invention. And when you live in China, but steadfastly insist on eating like you’re still back home, you have to get inventive pretty damn quick. Shanghai is an amazing city to live in. You can immerse yourself in Chinese culture, customs, life and food or you can go for days here without living in China. If you know where to look, you can get your hands on pretty much every comfort from home. But as Qingpu is the Western most district in Shanghai, getting a sudden craving for one of my favourite Verdicchio’s pastas could easily result in a three hour round trip to track down the ingredients. Take sun-dried tomatoes. They may be soooo 1990, but when no one is watching, we all still love them. But when I wanted to whip up this sun-dried tomato containing pasta a little while ago, I quickly realised that the Chinese are very à la mode, because I couldn’t find them anywhere. What to do? Even if I had a lovely, sunny patio, the searing temperatures and high humidity meant I’d be left with a scene more resembling a week old DB on CSI than anything you’d want to chop up with some chicken. So I settled for the next best thing – tomatoes completely untouched by the sun, but still oh so good. Possibly better, actually. Read the rest of this entry
It’s not easy being posh, especially for someone like me who will literally spend an entire weekend in my PJ’s, hair unbrushed, face undone and drinking juice straight from the carton when my husband is away. Whether I’m trying to get my hair under control or serve up a fancy feast, being posh requires time I don’t have, effort I cannot be bothered with and a plethora of tools probably gathering dust in a cupboard somewhere. Not so if you make these easy little chicken parcels. Minimum effort, relatively high posh factor (we’re not talking Fat Duck here okay? But they’re at least one step up from mac & cheese). Then again, you can wrap a bit of old shoe in some phyllo pastry and people will ooh and aah when you serve it.
- 4 skinless and deboned chicken breasts
- 1 cup cheese (use a mixture of feta, mozzarella and a bit of cream cheese)
- basil pesto
- 1kg tomatoes, cut into wedges
- 125ml cream
- phyllo pastry
- Switch your oven to grill. Cut the chicken into strips. I find that cutting across the grain and holding your knife at a 45 degree angle makes for the most tender pieces. Season, place in a baking dish in a single layer and grill until almost done, but still slightly pink in the middle.
- Turn the oven to 180˚C, chuck the chicken on a plate to cool slightly, and place the tomatoes in the baking dish. Saves on washing up. Drizzle with a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. Roast for 30 minutes.
- Remove your thawed phyllo and keep under a moist kitchen towel until you're done working with it. Cut three sheets of your pastry into 20 x 20cm squares and place on top of each other, brushing each layer with butter as you go (For the love of God, don't use cooking spray or margarine. Life is too short). Now, place a few pieces of chicken in the middle of your pastry. Spoon a quarter of the cheese mixture on top, place 2 wedges of tomato on top of that and finish your little tower with a teaspoon of basil pesto. Gather the phyllo together around the chicken and make a little parcel. The butter will help it all stay in place if you just sort of scrunch it together. Bake at 180˚C until golden brown.
- To serve, blend the remaining tomatoes, strain trough a sieve and heat. In a separate pot, add about 2 tablespoons of the pesto to the cream and reduce until slightly thickened. Serve the parcels with the sauces and a few crispy potato wedges.
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It was the beurre blanc sauce that did it in the end. Sitting in The Cactus Club Cafe in Vancouver, swirling the last morsel of butternut squash ravioli and perfectly grilled prawn through the delicate, buttery emulsion I was suddenly miffed. Why do we not get food like this at home? I mean really, how hard can it be?? Butter? Check. Prawns? Check. Squash? Check. We’re not talking eye of newt or toe of dragon here! You can buy everything at your nearest supermarket for crying in a bucket! Okay, it wasn’t cheap. But then nothing is cheap when you’re buying with a few bruised and battered rands. But on my chicken index (closely related to the Big Mac index and, inexplicably, my scale of choice for comparing prices on this particular trip) this plate of gastronomic grub had only cost 1.2 chickens before tax and a tip. And we found the same thing everywhere. Both the food and service was exceptional. It didn’t really matter whether we were doing fine dining at C Restaurant or just having fish and chips at the first place we found in Qualicum Beach. So why is it so hard to get the same thing here? It’s not because we don’t have the talent in South Africa. You need only venture beyond the borders of Mossel Bay and Sedgefield to get generally good food and service. And a trip to any of our local markets will quickly dismiss any suggestion that it could be a lack of excellent, fresh produce. It’s the mentality of this town when it comes to all things foodie and the mentality of South Africans in general when it comes to demanding to get what you paid for. If The Cactus Club had to open a location in George they’d be gone within a year. And a Wimpy would probably spring up in its place.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Wimpy. A Wimpy coffee and a breakfast is the highlight of any rainbow blooded South African’s every road trip. But there is a time and a place. And Saturday morning – so close to the Wild Oats Farmers’ Market in Sedgefield that you could brain a stall holder with a well aimed Mega coffee – is not the place. And yet, there they sit in their droves: Garden Routers who would rather eat yet another Wimpy breakfast than have anything as outlandish as a crispy potato rösti topped with salmon, a poached egg and real Hollandaise sauce from the market. For the same price. And THAT is why we don’t get food like we did in Canada, in George. Because we don’t ask for it. We are happy to pay for mediocre food and atrocious service, clandestinely murmuring our dissatisfaction to our fellow diners, but never daring to raise our objections with the owners of the establishment.
We need to be more discerning. More demanding. If you’re going to pay a ten percent tip to your waitron anyway, shouldn’t they at least clear your plates in a timely fashion and fill your wine glass before it is empty? If you’re going to fork out money for a plate of calamari, shouldn’t it at least be a good plate of calamari? There is a restaurant in town (that shall remain nameless) that was always a favourite of ours for really, really good seafood. But they’ve been, well, total crap of late. We tried three times and the outcome was the same. And while we will never go back, it is still jam packed when you drive past there, because the clientele just doesn’t seem to care. So how will they ever get better? They’ll just keep turning out the same plates of mediocre food to an undemanding audience, because they CAN.
I understand that you know what a Wimpy breakfast tastes like, and that that is why you will keep going back there. I get it. But there are 5 Wimpy’s in George alone. Five! Yet restaurants like Margot’s, Tarragon’s and Sunsutra didn’t make it. No one wants to try a lamb burger with chermoula when they know exactly what a Spur burger tastes like. I have seen local menu’s change from iced berries with hot white chocolate to ice cream with hot chocolate sauce (oh, the *yawn* excitement) and the concomitant extinction of that little spark in the restaurateurs eyes. And when you look again, they’re gone. So next time you’re in the area, why not stop at the Wild Oats market and have a fresh roll topped with fluffy, creamy scrambled eggs and perfectly crisp bacon instead of your usual? Just once. Support the brilliant food stalls at the Outeniqua Farmers’ Market on a Saturday. Live totally on the edge and have a croquette or Thai chicken curry for lunch. Have dinner at The Old Townhouse for a change and try one of their biltong, feta and peppadew springrolls or one of Dario’s weekly specials using the freshest seasonal ingredients at La Locanda. Surely fresh asparagus with parmesan cream sounds more appealing than yet another salad bar? It’s not that scary! Try it. You’ll probably like it.
Anyhoo. On to the cooking.
We might not be discerning when it comes to restaurants, but if there’s one thing we know here, it’s braaiing. Real braaiing. On wood and everything. We were only gone for four weeks, but we suffered some major smoke withdrawal! So in the spirit of adventure, why not try these chicken satays the next time you light the fire. If you’re a true Georgian, the fish sauce will scare you. But give it a bash anyway! If you don’t like it, you can just have sosaties again tomorrow. And you know Wimpy will always be there with an old faithful standby. Read the rest of this entry