Monday, August 3, 2015

a rare day

It’s a beautiful Sunday: a rare day this time of year. The air feels freshly scrubbed. It’s sunny, but not like summer, with its bleaching, hammering blaze; rather, there's a soft, crystalline light that beautifies everything it touches, as though god’s finger slipped on the saturation dial. 

I have nothing to do, nowhere to be, so I just lie on the couch, looking out at the mountain, the garden, my toes... Letting my thoughts drift and meander, occasionally turning my attention back to my book. But mostly just staring. 

Then it happens, unbidden — a silent, soaring burst of inner joy; an eruption of euphoric freedom that begins in my chest and expands, carrying me skyward on a current of wild, vertiginous rapture. 

I stay still, choosing not to hang on to it, but just be in it… It passes.

This is how I know I’ve changed. 

These moments, these gifts (‘joy bombs’, as I like to think of them) are completely unpredictable, and as elusive as quicksilver. 

Before, I would feel compelled to act. I thought the feeling was a resource to be plundered, something I was meant to harness and put to work. I’d ruffle through all the projects banging around in my head — should I write? Cook? Blog? Make a dress? Paint the mirror in the bathroom? Sketch?

While I’m in it, anything seems possible.

But then anything would begin to feel like too much, feel overwhelming. No sooner had the feeling registered than I’d feel cement walls rise up and surround me, as though set off by some invisible hair trigger. The message was clear: There is no point. It's too hard. Too much. You can't. You're not one of those people.

Joy would turn to frustrated impotence in the space of minutes.

But not today.

Today, I simply lie there and marvel that such a feeling exists, that millions of years of evolution can culminate in this arrangement of molecules, experiencing this exquisite moment… Why look further than that? 

The bomb mushrooms and then evaporates, but instead of despair, this time I’m left with a little afterglow. Then I carry on reading my book.

This is how I know I’ve changed. 

There are other signs, too.

Life feels quieter, less frenetic.

Most of the time, I am able to identify the beginning stages of neurosis, when my thoughts begin to spiral, dancing to the tune of unidentified, unconscious fears, and I can corral them in a different direction before I turn into a gibbering wreck.

I am writing with a greater sense of purpose, too. Drinking less compulsively. Exercising more. Spending less money. Staying home. Trying new things. 

One of those new things, which I think has contributed immeasurably to the profound, tectonic shift that’s occurred in my life recently, is answering an invitation from a former colleague on Facebook to form a group to work through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

I’d previously been skeptical about the book, which seemed, to my cynical mind, to have about it an air of touchy-feely woo and feeble-mindedness. But, in the spirit of trying new things, at the last minute I decided to join.

The experience has been life-changing — on all levels, not just creatively. Being able to discuss our lives and our creative challenges (which bear a remarkable resemblense to garden variety life challenges) in an intimate group of like-minded individuals helped keep me motivated to stay the course, which was invaluable. But two practices have been completely revelatory*: morning pages, and the ‘artist’s date’. (*Yes, I know I hardly have the monopoly on this front.)

You can read about the morning pages here if you like, but briefly, it’s the practice of handwriting three foolscap pages first thing in the morning. Every morning. You can write about anything under the sun, stream of consciousness, fiction or your shopping list, just fill three pages. (Turns out, as Oliver Burkman puts it, it’s really hard to write about nothing for three pages — eventually you start writing about something.)

The practice isn’t always easy, in fact it can be bloody difficult, but once I committed (and one really does have to commit), I started to wake up: to my inner world, to destructive behaviours, to the excuses I make for not doing better, being kinder to myself, doing things that nourish me... The morning pages allow me to nail down all those half-thoughts that flit around my head, evading proper examination, because I’m too lazy, or distracted, or afraid to look closer. When you’ve got to fill those pages, catching a thread of half-thought, and yanking on it, tends to fray a lot of the illusions we’re so comfortable with, but which may be stunting us.

Then there are the artist’s dates. The title is cheesy, but I think there isn’t a single person alive who wouldn’t benefit from incorporating the basic principal into their lives: once a week, set aside time to do something (on your own) for no reason other than that it will delight you. Preferably something you don’t do regularly, or, even better, have never done at all; preferably something whimsical; preferably something that has no point beyond an experience; preferably something that has nothing to do with 'work'.

We deny ourselves so much pleasure in the name of practicality: 'Where’s it going to get me? What's it for?' But step outside this idea, and there’s a whole other world out there: a world of child-like wonder and playful learning and creativity. For its own sake and nothing more. 

Some of my artist’s dates — and they may not sound novel to you, but they were to me — have included making time to go online and find new and interesting music; buying a cheap jigsaw puzzle at a Chinese store, and spending an afternoon completing it (okay, I got halfway); getting a Hollywood wax (that’s a blog post for another time); surfing; knitting; learning to appreciate whisky; making outlandish collages out of old magazines (move over Pinterest, ha!); doodling in a sketchpad, blindfolded, while listening to Jeff Bridges’ sleep tapes; guided meditations... Future ones I’d like to try are singing lessons, pole dancing, ice skating — just for kicks.

Today, for my artist’s date, I made a wreath out of lavender from my garden, which gave me inordinate satisfaction — it was something I’d done as a kid and completely forgotten about.

Last week, I made chocolate chip cookies.

I know, right? How on earth is making cookies supposed to expand your mind? Well, I’d never made any before — of any description. I’m not much of a baker, see. But suddenly I seized upon the idea of making cookies (chocolate chip, no less) because there was just something so wholesome and guileless about it... It was almost certainly something I would have dismissed out of hand a year ago for not being sophisticated or interesting enough.

Chocolate chip cookies? Booooring.

So not.

I did my research, and I finally settled on this recipe from Orangette, and it did not disappoint. I ate about eight in one sitting, with a glass of milk, once they’d cooled, and they were everything I’d hoped they’d be — nutty, crunchy, studded with dark chocolate and as big as my palm. I felt preposterously chuffed with myself.

Here I share the recipe — but if you’re a dab hand at making cookies, I hope you’ll try something else instead (although these are delicious cookies). Something ‘silly’, ‘pointless’, and a touch eccentric.

Wholewheat chocolate chip cookies
Makes about 20 cookies

3 cups whole wheat flour (see note above)
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
About 220g unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes 
1 cup lightly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
About 230g bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped into ¼- and ½-inch pieces, or bittersweet chips

1. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat to 180°C. Line two baking sheets with baking paper. (If you have no baking paper, you can butter the sheets.)
2. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl, and whisk to blend.
3. Put the butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, mix just until the butter and sugars are blended, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Add the flour mixture to the bowl, and blend on low speed until the flour is just incorporated. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the chocolate, and mix on low speed until evenly combined. (If you have no stand mixer, you can do all of this with handheld electric beaters and/or a large, sturdy spoon.) Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, and then use your hands to turn and gently massage the dough, making sure all the flour is absorbed.
4. Scoop mounds of dough about 3 tablespoons in size onto the baking sheets, leaving about 3 inches between each cookie. (I was able to fit about 8 cookies on each sheet, staggering them in three rows.)
5. Bake the cookies for 16 to 20 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through, until the cookies are evenly browned. Transfer the cookies, still on parchment, to a rack to cool. Repeat with remaining dough.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Bedtime story

One tosses.

The other turns.

One huffs.

The other sighs.

Outside, the restless wind harrasses the trees, un-settling the un-sleepers.

One reaches out, nudges the other.

The other grunts.

One nudges again.

Dooon’t,’ says the other.

One scoots closer, weaseling one’s way under the other’s arm, resting one’s head on the other’s shoulder.

The other groans.

‘Tell me a story,’ says one.

The other groans again, louder this time. ‘Go to sleep.’

‘Can’t,’ says one. ‘Neither can you. Tell me a story.’

‘Don’t want to,’ protests the other.

Do iiiit...’ whines one.

‘Okay,’ says the other, now devious. ‘Once upon a time, there was a princess...’

‘No, I don’t like that. It’s boring. Do another one.’

‘... a princess who was also a gynaecologist.’

‘That’s better.’

‘She worked as a gynaecologist and master vajazzler before she met the prince.’

‘Uh-huh. What happened next?’

‘The prince was an architect.’


‘And together they built a magical city for the poor.’


‘In the city was a vajazzling clinic.’

‘For the poor.’


‘Because poor people can’t afford diamanté patterns on their private parts, poor sods.’

‘That’s right.’

‘What else?’

‘A big parking lot.’


‘Filled with Bentleys and Lamborghinis.’

‘For the poor?’

‘For the poor.’

‘And for kids who can’t drive Lamborghinis good.’


‘What else?’

‘There was also ... wait for it ...’

‘What? What else was there in the magical city for the poor?’

‘... a craft beer garden.’

‘Of course.’

‘Imagine never being able to afford craft beer.’

We can’t afford craft beer.’


‘Are you sleepy yet?’ says one.

‘Mmm,’ says the other.

‘That was a good story. I liked it.’

‘Oh good.’

One kisses the other’s cheek, nuzzles his neck and breathes in the delicious sleepy scent of him.

One rolls over and, miraculously, manages to fall asleep.

So does the other.

The end.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

In memoriam: Babylon Don

It was a pretty typical night for me at that age: 19, I think.

I didn’t have a car, but I found my way to Melville, without a clue how I’d get home. I did this often — sometimes I'd manage to get a lift, sometimes I'd walk the two hours it took to get to Greymont. It takes my breath away when I think of how reckless I was with my safety back then.

I can’t remember if I was with anyone that night, but I remember trundling down 7th Steet and almost tripping over what looked like a pile of rags. Then I saw two soft brown eyes peering out from a pair of spindly wire glasses. It was a man. A very odd-looking man.

He had a thick beard and a mop of dark dreadlocks, piled high and fastened with an elastic to create a kind of teepee. The tarot cards laid out in front of him on the sidewalk piqued my curiosity, but I was more fascinated by the ice hockey stick strapped to his back like a samurai sword.

‘Read your cards?’ he said, ‘no charge. Only what you feel it’s worth.’

His name, he said, was Babylon Don.

I had nowhere else to be, I was thirsty for novelty, for fresh distraction. Also, mainly, for attention. So I sat down opposite him.

He was younger, I noticed, than I initially supposed — late 20s, early 30s, and although his fingernails were blackened, he smelled fresh, like tea and soap, with something earthy beneath; tilled soil, perhaps, as though he’d slept in the ground, like a vampire.

It soon became apparent that Babylon Don inhabited a very different reality to mine. As he read the cards, his eyes were distant, looking inward, and his interpretations veered into a sermon on the coming of the Dark Guards; that a Great Battle was imminent.

I was amused. Entertained. Intrigued.

I listened to him ramble for a while. Asked questions. I felt at ease in his company, and something passed between us, a fine thread of understanding, and we hugged before I went on my way.  I felt that for all his oddness, Babylon Don was one of the world’s lambs, a gentle soul.

I saw him again over the months, and greeted him as a friend, though he didn’t always recognise me, and often seemed confused. He was never without his ice hockey stick, strapped to his back, or his tarot cards.

One night — it was late, around 12pm — I was in Melville, casting about for somewhere to go, something to do. I’d spent the evening at Stones, where they knew me, flirting and playing pool, and the barman had called last rounds.

I spied Babylon Don on the balcony, drinking a beer. I went and sat with him, bought him and myself another beer. He offered to draw up my star chart.

‘Great,’ said I, delighted that I would be able to delay going home for a while.

‘Not here though. I need my books. We could go back to my place,’ he said, ‘it’s just up the road.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But nothing’s going to happen. I’m not sleeping with you.’

He nodded, shrugged.

On the walk, I quizzed him about his life. He spoke gently and distractedly, and kept looping back to the Great Battle. His answers were vague and surreal, and I got the impression his synapses had been trained along a path less travelled; perhaps hallucinogenics were to blame, or some kind of schizophrenia. I'll never know.

I was amused and gormless and not really listening, to be honest — it felt like freedom to me, ambling through the dark, deserted streets of Melville with this unlikely soothsayer.

After a few blocks, he stopped in front of a little face-brick house. His aunt’s, he said, as he unlocked the front door. This explained the floral scatter cushions, the pink velour lounge suite a la Morkels, the side table covered in little ceramic animals.

I got comfortable while he made us tea, then set to asking me questions about my birth, scribbling furiously on a notepad. I’ve since forgotten his predictions, except for the denouement: ‘You will rise to fame before or around your 30th birthday.' Right.

I didn’t want to go home just yet though.

‘We could have sex,’ he said, not particularly hopefully.

‘We’re not having sex.’

He nodded.

‘Hey, what’s in there?’ I pointed to a small school case next to the door, the kind I had as a kid: brown cardboard trunk, clunky clasps and a plastic handle.

He opened the case and set it flat on front of me.

‘This is the army of the White Priestess. These are the Dark Guards,’ he said.

The case was empty, apart from the white paper that lined the inside, with circles and lines traced onto it to resemble an ice hockey rink. Little paper figures had been cut out and glued down on each side, then folded at right angles to form neat rows. They'd been meticulously decorated with helmets and little ice hockey sticks; the figures on the right were coloured in with black cokie, the ones on the right had been left pale. Two ice hockey teams.

‘The White Priestess will triumph,' he said, launching into a description of the Great Battle, peppered with hockey terminology and Lord of the Rings-style combat scenarios. I didn't understand most of it.

I let myself out a short while later. Babylon Don never even looked up, so absorbed was he in his bizarre diorama. I walked home.

Time passed. I graduated. I mooched off my parents and messed around (and up) and eventually got a job. I met my future husband and moved to Cape Town.

I forgot all about Babylon Don until a few years ago, when I was driving down Main Road in Woodstock, and saw a man with dreadlocks and a beard, wearing what appeared to be an ice hockey stick strapped to his back. I could have sworn it was him, but I don't know for sure. Traffic was moving swiftly and I only caught a glimpse.

It jolted me though, in the way that sudden, long-forgotten memories do. They open a kind of wormhole in your identity, a tunnel that takes you back to a person you used to be, to a parallel universe; an entity from the past that exists inside you, just not in this time or place... The emotional terrain that separated my 19-year-old self from my 31-year-old self was thrown into stark relief.

Are any of us in touch with the person we were in our teens? If, rather than finding fame before 30, Babylon Don had told me I'd be living in Cape Town, in a lovely home, married to a man who is kind and clever and gorgeous and nuts about me, earning a living as a writer... I would have been just as skeptical.

When I was 19, I didn’t believe my future held anything good. But it did.

All this culminated in a kind of explosive gratitude: for the peace I've found, for the love in my life, for hard-won self-belief (though there's still work to be done on that front!).

I still think about Babylon Don. I wonder if it really was him I saw that day on Main Road. I wonder if the Great Battle ever came to pass, if only in his mind, and whether the White Priestess prevailed.

I hope so. Because we're all fighting our own Great Battle, aren't we?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


So, I ended 2014 and began 2015 sicker than I've ever been in my life.

I have two working theories as to why:
1) God has seen fit to afflict me with The Plague in order to purify me spiritually, because I am Chosen and Blessed and destined to be a Great Prophet.
2) My immune system is shot to pieces, like a tin can at an NRA rally.

I'm making light of it, but it's been terrifying.

Precis version: It started with a small pink welt on my forehead, which I dismissed as a kind of unusual mosquito bite. Or perhaps I’d scratched myself without realising.

A few days later I came down with a sinus infection. This was about a week before Christmas. At the same time, the welt turned into an open wound, began to grow, and then another appeared on my temple. A blister. All kinds of dreadful possibilities (leprosy, flesh-eating bacteria) hacked my equilibrium to pieces before I went to see a doctor, who promptly misdiagnosed me with shingles, told me to buy some hideously expensive anti-viral medication and give it about a week or two to clear up. So there went my summer holiday.

Except it didn’t clear up. It got much, much worse, until I looked like an extra on The Walking Dead. All this underpinned by the kind of fatigue that makes it difficult to walk from room to room, that makes you feel desperate and weepy and scarily helpless.

Two days ago I went back to the surgery, and was seen by another doctor who diagnosed impetigo. A bacterial infection.


I'm on antibiotics now, but have yet to see an improvement.


Naturally, when this kind of thing happens, you look for reasons. What did I do wrong?

I didn't have to look far. I'd been doing too much, of course — too many commitments, too little self-care, no R&R to speak of — and my health had paid the price.

I’ve had a lot of time to think. I’ve been forced to slow down, to do nothing but sit in a chair with a cup of tea and stare at Table Mountain, wreathed in wispy clouds and slanting shadows.

One day, the 30th, I think, I was seized by an intense desire to escape to the woods, to lay down on a bed of pine needles and stare at the gently swaying tree-tops. So that’s what I did, walking slowly, deliberately, cautiously.

I found a secluded spot, slumped onto my back, arms and legs splayed. Gazed up, exhaled.

Behind the black silhouette of reaching pines, curling white whorls of cloud passed by, both fast and slow; a bird of prey glided, silent and stealthy, between the two. The wind whispered through the high branches, offering their secrets to the sky.

It’s time for a radical shift, they told me. And just like that, I had my New Year’s resolution: Radical selfishness; radical self-interest; radical self-love.

Maybe I’ve lost the plot. Maybe I’ve found it. Only time will tell.

My usual reaction to health snafus is to drastically constrain the paramenters of my diet to only the ‘healthiest’ foods (a grey area at best). I’m sure it probably doesn’t do any good, considering I eat pretty healthily in general, but it does at least offer the illusion of control. A mild form of orthorexia, if you will.

Anyway, I made this salad just after Christmas, when I wasn’t yet a sleep-deprived, facially disfigured zombie. It ticks all the right boxes: virtuously healthy, tons of flavour, just plain yummy. We had it on its own, but it would be great as a side to lamb or roast chicken.

If I may, let my woes serve as a cautionary tale: look after yourself please. You just never know what utterly detestable nasties are waiting in the wings, poised to slip through a crack in your immune system when it lags. Get lots of sleep, don’t drink too much, exercise, eat well, make room in your life for pockets of idleness.

It’s pretty simple really. I don’t know why I was such a dolt.

Roast aubergine & rice salad with fior di latte

[Serves 6]

2 large aubergines, sliced
3 large tomatoes, sliced, or 1 punnet baby tomatoes, halved
1½ tsp salt
1 large handful each basil and flatleaf parsley
½ handful mint
1 cup good quality black olives, stones removed and roughly chopped
1 small red onion, chopped
1 cup red, brown or wild rice, cooked
½ cup orzo pasta, cooked

Juice and zest of 1 lemon
½ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 ball fiore di latte, torn

1. Brush the aubergine slices with a little olive oil and place on a baking sheet. Roast at 180C until golden and tender, about 20 minutes, turning halfway.
2. Place the tomatoes in a large salad bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Mix well and set aside for at least 10 minutes. (This really intensifies the flavour of tomatoes, imo.)
3. Add the remaining salad ingredients to the bowl, along with the aubergine and salad dressing, and mix well to combine. Top with the fior di latte and serve.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Some kind of magic trick

My loathing of mince pies is surpassed only by my aversion to Christmas cake. There's something cloying about the taste of candied or dried fruit — raisins in particular — that yanks on my epiglottis and makes my stomach lurch. Perhaps its the concentration of sickly sweet sugar with a faint undertone of rotten fruit, delivered in a mouthful of dense, leathery stodge...

Anyway, the result is that I struggle to swallow anything that contains raisins, and balk at the profusion of mince pies and Christmas cake this time of year. Bah humbug.

I am wincing as I type this, because it feels a cold-blooded betrayal of my maternal grandmother's beloved festive tradition: Christmas cake.

She'd make one every year, somewhere between September and October, and douse it, regularly and liberally, in brandy. By the time 25 December rolled around, the thing would have absorbed so much alcohol that it developed a boozy halo: the air around it would shimmer and wobble, like a heat haze.

After stuffing ourselves silly on the main course, the lights would be dimmed, the pudding would be given a final brandy shower in the kitchen, and then Dan would take a match to it* and carry it through to the table, enveloped in rippling, ghostly blue flame. We'd all clap.

(*I'd often imagine far-off Christmas carolers staring, slack-jawed, at the nuclear mushroom cloud that resulted from the pudding's first encounter with a naked flame.)

It was a beautiful tradition, marred only by the minor inconvenience of me absolutely detesting Christmas pudding. But to reject the pudding would have been to reject Dan, so there was no question that we would eat it as a show of appreciation for her care and effort. Usually, I'd get it down by smothering it in enough brandy butter and whipped cream to kill a reindeer.

Now, take my feelings for dessicated fruit and traditional Christmas confectionery, and invert them, and that's exactly how I feel about this carrot salad.

Crazy, I know!

Because no matter how you say it...

'Carrot salad.'

'Carrot salad.'

'Carrot salad.'


... it sounds as dull as ditchwater, and about as tasty.

And I'm right with you. I mean, carrots. They are just deeply unsexy. (Unless you're Uncle Monty.) No one's idea of a dream meal stars carrots as the main act. A dish dominated by 'carotyness' is a dish that is unlikely to pique my interest.

But there's magic in this salad — that's the only way to account for it. And by 'it' I mean 'deliciousness'; 'moreishness'; 'I'll have a third helping of that please-ness'.
I first had it at a housewarming. Friends Cristal and Andrew recently bought a lush, charming property in Noordhoek, complete with resident pig (her name is Rosie). They served this salad as a side to beautifully braaied yellowtail.

Well, the salad completely stole the show. Everyone had second and third helpings. It just disappeared. No one could quite believe that a carrot salad could taste so good. It was like some kind of magic trick. I've replicated it at home with complete success, so the recipe works (there wasn't some additive — like smack — Cristal and Andrew forgot to tell me about). Nope, it's just ginger, mint, cumin, lemon, garlic and craploads of carrot. I think if there's any magic trick involved at all, it's to give the salad enough downtime to let the flavours praat mekaar.

Try it.

Mint & ginger carrot salad
[Serves 6]
(Adapted from Organic Farm & Garden Magazine, Volume 1, 2nd Edition)

5 large carrots, grated or julienned
1 Tbsp fresh grated ginger

3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 small garlic clove, minced
Pinch cayenne pepper
Pinch ground cumin
1 heaped Tbsp fresh chopped mint

1. In a large bowl, combine carrots and grated ginger. Cover and refrigerate for about half an hour so the flavours can combine.
2. In a jar with a lid, mix lemon juice, olive oil, salt, garlic, cayenne, cumin and mint. Shake to combine.
3. Add dressing to carrots and mix well. If time permits, allow the salad to sit on the counter for about half an hour before serving so the flavours can combine. The salad should be served at room temperature.


Things I'm...

DRINKING: Neethlingshof Six Flowers white blend; Lammershoek LAM Pinotage.

READING: Rachel Eats (my latest food blog obsession).

WATCHING: Utopia Season 2 (an original, delightfully demented and off-beat conspiracy thriller).

LISTENING TO: After the Disco, Broken Bells (makes me feel happy and sad at the same time).

Monday, December 15, 2014

Forget everything you think you know about puff pastry

Okay, well, not everything, exactly. The bit about making it out of flour and butter is pretty important. And water. I'm talking about the bit where you have to get the little globs of butter just the right size — not too big, not too small — in order not to end up with pastry the consistency of damp cardboard.

So perhaps it would be more accurate to say 'forget 10% of what you know about puff pastry'. (It's a pretty crucial 10 percent. But then, I'm being mighty presumptuous about your familiarity with puff pastry, so let's all agree that the intro to this blog post is a bit of a disaster and move on, shall we?)

If, like me, you have a fraught relationship with puff pastry (the making thereof, not the eating), you'll want to read this post on Serious Eats.

I don't do butter-cutting. The practice reminds me of those depressingly interminable afternoons (double lessons) spent in Mrs Foulks' Home Economics classes, learning to make scones, or some such. She was humourless, ill-tempered and squint. (It was only after a few minutes of plodding castigation — directed squarely at the person to my left — that I'd realise she was talking to me.)

There was a lot of butter-cutting in Home Ec.

A lot.

So, these days, on the odd occasion that a powerful craving for quiche hits — and a memory lapse means said craving is unobstructed by recollections of many, many failed attempts at making puff pastry — to the food processor I go.

And cock it up completely.

Usually, I forget that the desired consistency — before adding the water — is crumbly, not mashed potato.

So there I stand, at 8pm on a Wednesday night, staring in horror at a bowl of floury paste. The fact that I'm hungry and tired tips this event from the 'minor inconvenience' category into the 'this is more tragic than The English Patient' category.

What to do?

Start crying, for starters.

Perplexingly, this has no effect on the pastry.

I should have just made an omelette with the egg ingredients and called it a night, but some part of me (which I refer to as 'Scarlet' because it reminds me of that scene in Gone with the Wind when she clenches her fist and says, 'As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!' all tenacious-like) was determined to make quiche, even if it meant eating at 3am. So thank fuck I found the Serious Eats post titled 'The Science of Pie Dough'. It uses science (and words) to tell us why not only is the homogenous gloop outcome not the end of the world, it might actually be preferable.

All you do is add some more flour and mash it in with a spatula.

For me, this was a revelation on par with learning how to colour my own hair, or go on Facebook at work without my colleagues noticing (i.e. profound).

Of course, this could all be about as interesting to you as the annual Anglo-American fiscal report.

Use it, don't use it.

Life's too short to be cutting butter, is all I'm saying.

Things I'm...

DRINKING: Mulderbosch Steen Op Hout Chenin Blanc

READING: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

WATCHING: Hannibal season 2. (Mads Mikkelsen can eat me any day.)

LISTENING TO: Heartbeat by Blackbird Blackbird... Dreamy and haunting and joyful.

Oh, and someone told me I need to put the word Christmas in my post a lot if I want to get loads of hits, so... Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas.

All about the hits, me.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Just what the world needs: another kale & blueberry salad

Though it pains me to say it, I am not immune to the charms of the cultural phenomenon that is kale: curer of cancer, rescuer of kittens from trees, solver of the crisis in the Middle East... At least, you'd think that was the least of its magical powers, the way people go on about it.

Now, I have been favourably disposed towards kale for quite some time. I read about cavalo nero ('black cabbage', not kale, but close enough) in the first River Cafe cookbook the Guinea Pig bought me about 10 years ago, and was completely seduced by the dark, velvety leaves: they seemed mysterious, potent, and infused with the sense of rustic romance westerners wilfully impose on all things Italian. Of course, back then, no one in SA had even heard of it, except members of the most esoteric food circles. Today, Woolies stocks kale, and it's a best-seller at farmers' markets. Yesterday, I bought several bunches of cav. nero and kale at OZCF.

Now, if you have a food blog addiction, as I do — particularly of the health-obsessed, manic-pixie-dream-girl variety, God help me — you will almost certainly have encountered more than a few kale salads. Kale and blueberry salads, more specifically.


Because super foods.

Most people (and I include myself in this) who describe themselves as 'health-conscious' — actually, let's say ... most people, in general — are sitting ducks for marketers. Man, whoever invented the term 'super food' must surely have their own hallowed shrine in the Museum of Marketing. (I suspect it was Dr Oz.)

Blueberries were the first to be ordained a 'super food' (correct me if I'm wrong?), and all us 'healthies' (cringe) ran out to buy them. And still do. Thanks to that success, a slew of other foods, mostly exotic, began to vie for the super food title, like a messy, produce version of WWE SmackDown.

Gogi berries. Cacao nibs. Black soy beans. Edamame. Chia seeds. Hemp seeds... Eventually this trend culminated in the deification of kale: a humble, tough, bitter-tasting member of the cabbage family.

The problem is, we're after that magic bullet that's going to give us perfect health and make us live forever. Our obsession with health foods is a denial of our mortality. Of course there's nothing wrong with being health conscious, but this obsession with singling out foods and venerating them above all others makes many of us blind to the bigger picture: which is that all fruit and veg are 'super foods' and you should eat a lot of all of them if you want to live a bit longer.

But this post is sidling closer to a lecture on health, so let's step back from the brink and look at the kale & blueberry salad I made.

Look, it's not bad. But it's not great, either. I can only assume I thought it would be a good idea because I'd been brainwashed by the countless hysterical blog posts I'd read on the subject.

Raw kale, even after being lovingly massaged with olive oil (a weirdly intimate practice that is supposed to mellow its slightly leathery fibrousness), still requires some committed mastication. It's chewy. The blueberries, roasted almonds, avo, croutons and goats cheese go some way towards palatability, but frankly, I would rather have made this salad with some shredded red cabbage and lettuce. And bacon. It's chief allure is that it bestows a solid sense of righteousness, the culinary equivalent of saying 200 Hail Marys.

Fuck that.

DON'T make this salad. (Kale is much better cooked, imo, especially in this soup.) Rather, DO buy Willow Creek's Blood Orange Flavoured Extra Virgin Olive Oil*. I got a bottle from work a while back, and it had been sitting in my cupboard for ages before I decided to try it, because I don't usually go in for flavoured oils. But it was a revelation. It's delicate, fresh and slightly floral, with that unmistakable citrus tang underneath. It helped me work my way through this kale salad, and almost enjoy it.

*I haven't been paid or asked to promote this product — I just genuinely like it.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

In defence of short-term obsessions

Have you ever read about the Buddhist practice of creating mandalas out of sand?

A mandala is a spiritual ritual symbol representing the microcosm of the universe — basically a stupendously complicated circular pattern. ‘In various spiritual traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing attention, as a spiritual guidance tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and trance induction.’ (So says Wikipedia.)

Now sand mandalas... Well, that's a whole new level. This is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice where monks spend up to several weeks creating an enormous, elaborate mandala using coloured sand. And get this — once it's done, once they've created this magnificent, exquisitely detailed artwork that represents all life and meaning…

… they destroy it.

Ever since I first read about it, I found this practice baffling. I mean, to spend weeks or months of your life painstakingly creating something of extraordinary beauty, only to eradicate it, as if it never existed… It just didn’t compute.

Then I had my existential crisis, started having Deep Thoughts, and began to see this odd practice through new eyes.

I broached the subject with the Guinea Pig one Sunday as we ambled through Newlands Forest.

Me: '...'
GP: 'Yes?'
Me: 'Nothing.'
GP: 'No, say it.'
Me: 'No.'
GP: 'Come on, what were you going to say?'
Me: 'It's silly.'
GP: *whinyvoice* 'Say iiiiiit.'
Me: 'Okay, well, I was just thinking I finally understand why Buddhist monks create those sand mandalas, and then destroy them afterwards. It's about trying to understand the transience of life. Of trying to accept that all things are ultimately destroyed, sooner or later. Struggle is pointless. It all ends.'
GP: ‘…’
Me: ‘…’
GP: 'Golly.'
Me: 'Yeah.'
GP: 'Maybe it's because they don't have DSTV?'

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present my husband: The Philosopher.

He is, in fact, very wise though. He has weathered many of what he calls my STO's — short-term obsessions — with the patience of, well, a wise Buddhist monk.

There was the time I became a bit of an environmental extremist, putting up posters on my car windows urging people to use more electricity-efficient light bulbs, and getting very annoyed that the Guinea Pig wasn't taking these Extremely Important Issues as seriously as I was.

Then there was the time I became a viciously judgemental vegan for two months. (The poor Guinea Pig, not terribly partial to vegan fare, would buy Woolworths meatballs and add them to whatever I made.)

More recently I became a bit LCHF mad, after interviewing Tim Noakes for an article, and the Guinea Pig patiently listened while I haughtily explained why animal fat is good and carbs are evil. (Thankfully I've recovered, and the GP graciously refrained from saying 'I told you so'.)

Whenever I get that familiar tingle that tells me 'I Have Found The Answer to EVERYTHING’, I try to take a step back and think: 'Okay, let's see where this goes, but you'll probably be over it in a month. Don't make any sudden movements, and above all don't start preaching to anyone who'll listen about your Amazing Discovery.' I try not to get too attached — which I think is very Buddhist of me.

So it is with my recent personal mission statement to Eat Less Bread (it's got all the hallmarks of a classic STO). Not because I believe gluten is evil (I don't actually know what gluten is), but because bread is so delicious and so goddam convenient that I can easily have it three meals a day, which leaves me feeling crap. (Sensitive readers, skip to the next paragraph.) We're talking bloating, cramps, indigestion, etc.

So this bread, the one you see in the picture, really is an Amazing Discovery if you're trying to eat less of the flour-based stuff, because it is so fucking delicious, and at the same time isn't really bread at all. It's mostly just seeds, oats, and those psyllium husks Banters are so fond of. Mainly though, it tastes incredible: rich, roasted, creamy, satisfying. I make a loaf each week, slice it and freeze it. A decent sourdough is never going to be off the menu for me, but this convenient substitute prevents me from ODing.

(It's not my recipe, though. It belongs to Sarah Britton of My New Roots. She dubs it ‘The Life-Changing Loaf of Bread’, which is a bit melodramatic. Life-enhancing, maybe. But she’s a hippy Earth Mother, and I love her for it. Plus her pictures are pretty.)

Sarah Britton's flourless seed bread
Makes 1 loaf

You can use any combination of nuts and seeds you like, but I think the chia seeds are pretty NB. Anyway, if you want more detail, check out Sarah's extended post.

1 cup / 135g sunflower seeds
½ cup / 90g flax seeds
½ cup / 65g hazelnuts or almonds
1 ½ cups / 145g rolled oats
2 Tbsp. chia seeds
4 Tbsp. psyllium seed husks
1 tsp. fine grain sea salt
1 Tbsp. maple syrup [I just used a Tbsp. sugar]
3 Tbsp. melted coconut oil or ghee [I used olive oil]
1 ½ cups / 350ml water

1. In a loaf pan (preferably silicon, but if using a metal one my tip would be to line it with baking paper) combine all dry ingredients, stirring well. Whisk maple syrup (or sugar), oil and water together in a measuring cup. Add this to the dry ingredients and mix very well until everything is completely soaked and dough becomes very thick (if the dough is too thick to stir, add one or two teaspoons of water until the dough is manageable). Smooth out the top with the back of a spoon. Let sit out on the counter for at least 2 hours, or all day or overnight. To ensure the dough is ready, it should retain its shape even when you pull the sides of the loaf pan away from it.
2. Preheat oven to 175°C.
3. Place loaf pan in the oven on the middle rack, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove bread from loaf pan, place it upside down directly on the rack and bake for another 30-40 minutes. Bread is done when it sounds hollow when tapped. Let cool completely before slicing (difficult, but important).
4. Store bread in a tightly sealed container for up to five days. Freezes well too — slice before freezing for quick and easy toast!