Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Penne con Pinoli e Melanzane

The beauty of Italian cooking is its simplicity – the way it can bring a few quality ingredients together and make an unforgettable meal. I do realise I’m not the first (or the most eloquent) person to make this observation, but I think this dish is a perfect example. Aubergine pasta – sounds boring, doesn’t it? Let me tell you, it is poetry.

The dish is a bit like caponata added to pasta. The original recipe is from Antonio Carluccio’s Complete Italian Food (though and it certainly had nothing to do with his bankruptcy). Some people really don’t like aubergine, but it’s one of my favourite veggies – when fried or baked until it’s soft, velvety and gooey, I really have to be alone with it.
It can be bitter, of course, but salting the slices, allowing them to drain for 20 minutes or so and then rinsing will take care of this. Carluccio suggests you soak the aubergine cubes in salted water for an hour, and I thought this a less fussy way to reduce bitterness.
I couldn’t restrain myself from adding anchovies, though the original recipe did not include them, and I thought the addition worked well. Naturally, I quadrupled the amount of garlic dear old Antonio recommended! (As with butter, I find it impossible – and quite unnecessary – not to be heavy handed with garlic.) This simple but sublime recipe is for all the aubergine fans out there. So, without further ado…

Penne with Pine Nuts and Aubergine
Serves 4

400g aubergine, cut into small cubes
90ml extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic
3 tbsp tomato paste
8 anchovy fillets
25g pine nuts
2 heaped tbsp capers
1 small chili, finely chopped
20 black olives, stoned
400g penne
60g Pecorino (or Parmesan), freshly grated

Leave the aubergine cubes in lightly salted water for 1 hour, then drain, squeeze out the water and pat dry on paper towels. Fry them in the oil with the garlic until brown. Add the tomato paste, anchovies, pine nutes, capers, chilli and olives, and fry gently for 10 minutes. Add a little water if the mixture is too dry.
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente, then drain and mix well with the sauce. Serve with the Pecorino.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Smoked trout salad with dill dressing

My colleagues have a pet name for me: the food Nazi. I choose to believe it’s a term of affection born of a deep respect for my superior culinary acumen – and not because I am, perhaps, the fussiest, most derisive eater this side of the equator. (I hear there are soy- and wheat-intolerant vegan monks in Peru who are less pedantic about their food.)
Okay, I’m not that bad. But, well, I like what I like – I’m sure you know what I mean. I really can’t help wrinkling my nose when one of my coworkers opens a white polystyrene package containing something that, to me, can only be likened to roadkill in a bun. Sometimes I just have to leave the room. Is this rude? Is it self-important? (I confess: I really don’t care.)

This is a most agreeable salad – it's not terribly original, but I’d be delighted if one of my colleagues brought it in for lunch. I based it on Jamie Oliver’s Potato Salad with Smoked Salmon and Horseradish Crème Fraiche. I didn’t have any horseradish, though, and I wanted something more appropriate to a balmy summer evening, so I added petit pois (I don’t know why we don’t see them more in salad recipes – they are so sweet and gorgeously green) and loads of salad leaves. I think julienned asparagus would be a nice addition, too. We had a few slices of hot-buttered crusty bread on the side.

Smoked trout salad
Serves two as a main course

350g baby potatoes
120g petit pois
2 tbsp capers, drained
30g dill, chopped
Juice of one lemon
3 tbsp olive oil
3 heaped tbsp mayonnaise (preferably home-made)
200g salad leaves
200g smoked trout ribbons, sliced

Add the baby potatoes to boiling water and cook for 10 minutes, or until almost done. Add the petit pois and cook for an extra 1 to 2 minutes (you want the peas al dente). Drain and run under cold water to cool. Set aside.
In a bowl, combine the capers, dill, lemon juice, olive oil  and mayonnaise, and season to taste. Mix in the potatoes and peas.
In a large salad bowl, toss the salad leaves with the poatato mixture, ensuring everything is well coated. Arrange the salmon ribbons on top and serve.

By the way, if you have a little extra time, read this great piece I found on the Guardian website this morning: 'Delia Smith: Why we still love her'.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Cauliflower and brown rice soup

Last night I wanted something light and tasty. I had some chicken stock in my freezer that I’d made a week or so ago, so I thought I’d make a soup. I trawled the isles at Woolies and ended up with chives, parsley, cauliflower, lemons, and artichokes. A further cupboard raid at home presented me with brown rice. I love brown rice in soups – it balloons up like pearl barley, and keeps its shape (i.e. it doesn’t turn the soup to mush overnight). The resultant recipe was surprisingly delicious, considering how basic it is. Obviously, the quality of the chicken stock is critical.

Cauliflower and brown rice soup
Serves 2

1.5 litres home-made chicken stock
1 handful chives, chopped
1 handful parsley, chopped
100g artichoke hearts, roughly chopped (optional)
Half a medium cauliflower, broken into small florets
200g rice, parboiled
Juice of one lemon

Bring the chicken stock to a simmer and add the rice. Allow to cook until the rice is tender, then add the rest of the ingredients. Season to taste with salt and serve (the cauliflower florets will cook very quickly – they should be tender by the time you’ve ladled the soup into bowls). It's very nice with a glass of Pierre Jourdan Tranquille Blush. But then I think everything is nice with a glass of Pierre Jourdan Tranquille Blush!

Monday, November 2, 2009

The autocrat in the kitchen


I find it strange that even though I adore cooking, I don't enjoy cooking for a crowd. I enjoy planning the menu, but when the day comes I'm usually so worn out by the frenzy of shopping and preparing the food that I want guests to leave before they've even arrived. I'm not one of those people who likes to have friends and relatives huddled chummily around the kitchen as I cook (I get performance anxiety, and am easily distracted – things will burn), and I wouldn't dream of casually tossing a stick of celery at someone and asking them to chop it. I have read that some well-known chefs like to involved guests in the preparation of the meal, but I find the idea quite horrifying. You see, I want things chopped, stirred, sautéed and combined exactly as I want them chopped, stirred, sautéed and combined. I can barely allow Patrick to boil and egg without inquiring why his egg-boiling technique is different to mine, which is clearly flawless. Usually, I have to leave the viscinity for the sake of our relationship. And don't get me wrong – he can boil a mean egg – but I've had to face the ugly truth that I am a tyrant in the kitchen. And I'm really quite comfortable with this – it's better than being a pedant (read Julian Barnes' The Pedant in the Kitchen, it's a hoot).

The occasions I enjoy cooking most are when I'm making dinner for two – perhaps I'm trying something new, perhaps I'm preparing an old favourite. I like that it's relaxed, and I'm working with manageable quantities. Usually, somewhere along the way, something magic and unexpected happens. Patrick and I will sit and munch, and the joy of eating a truly good meal brings us closer. I really believe that food has the power to do this, but you have to make it with love and passion. So clichéd, but so true. Perhaps that's why my food never quite turns out as impressively as I'd hoped when I cater for more than two: I'm in a rush, and forget to really enjoy the experience.

This dish was inspired by a Bill Granger recipe. I don't think I can stress enough how easy these are to make, on a braai or under a grill. They simply shriek 'summer' and are oh-so moreish. (Images by Deryck van Steenderen – also from the Psychologies shoot.)

Crunchy prawn skewers with lemony avocado dip
Serves 4

Flesh of 1 avocado
125ml crème fraiche
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
400g breadcrumbs
36 medium prawns, deveined
30ml olive oil
12 wood or bamboo skewers

Combine the avocado, crème fraiche and lemon juice in a food processor until smooth. Season to taste and set aside.
Combine the breadcrumbs and zest, and season well.
Coat the prawns in olive oil and toss with the breadcrumbs. Thread three prawns onto each skewer.
Grill for 2 minutes on each side, or until crisp and golden, and serve immediately with the dip.
TIP: Soak the skewers in cold water for at least an hour beforehand to prevent them burning.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sexy salmon

Smoked salmon is one of my all-time best foods – definitely in the top ten of my desert-island favourites. I think it would take me a looooong time to get tired of eating it.
There's also something – I don't know – sexy about smoked salmon. Sensual. Maybe it's the colour. Maybe it's the texture... I think you know what I mean.

I did these recently for a Psychologies food shoot – they were easy to make, beautiful to look at and sublime to eat. Gosh-darnit just super. Ideal partytjie snacks. Deryck Verse took the pictures.

Rostis with smoked salmon and dill creme
Serves 6

200g potatoes
2 eggs, beaten
30g butter, melted
125ml crème fraiche
1 small bunch fresh dill, chopped
2tsp lemon juice
100g smoked salmon, sliced

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Grate the potatoes into a colander and squeeze out excess moisture with your hands.
In a bowl, combine the potato and egg and season to taste. Lightly grease 12 mini muffin trays and fill with spoonfuls of the potato mixture.
Pour some butter over each rosti and bake for 20 minutes or until golden.
For the dill cream, combine the crème fraiche, dill and lemon juice.
To serve, arrange the salmon slices on top of the rostis. Top with dill cream, garnish with sprigs of
dill and slivers of lemon.

These erotic hors d'oeuvre are best enjoyed with La Vie en Rose Cocktails:
In each flute, dissolve 1 sugar cube in 3 tablespoons rose water. Top up with rosé sparking wine and serve.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Natty nut sauce

This is an excerpt on Tocco di Noci ('touch of walnuts') from The Painter, the Cook and the Art of Cucina by Anna del Conte (I’ve also encountered other versions where butter is included, or herbs such as parsley – it's so easy to adapt to your own taste):

Fred Plotkin writes in his excellent book Recipes from Paradise that tocco di noci is the traditional dressing for pansoti, the herb-filled pasta of Liguria. ‘But,’ he continiues, ‘the walnut sauce is also very good with gnocchi, tortellini or even with boiled meats such as boiled pork or veal.’ And I couldn’t agree more, adding poached chicken to the list.

Tocco di Noci
Makes about 225ml

200g/7oz shelled walnuts
25g/1oz unflavoured breadcrumbs
1 garlic clove, minced
30g/1oz finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 pinch minced fresh marjoram
175ml/6fl oz prescinseua (Ligurian curd cheese) or 150g/5fl oz fresh ricotta diluted with 2 tbsp tepid water
60ml/2.5fl oz extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to taste
sea salt (optional)

Place the walnuts, breadcrumbs, garlic and salt in a mortar and pound with a pestle to form a paste. Alternatively, place these ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until they form a paste. Transfer to a bowl if you are not using a pestle and mortar. Add the Parmesan and marjoram, then the prescinseua or diluted ricotta. Finally, add the olive oil to the mixture, a little at a time, stirring to combine the ingredients. Serve on hot pasta.

Monday, July 27, 2009

In the soup

The phrase ‘vegetable soup’ doesn’t exactly set the imagination on fire, nor the palate awash with expectant juices. But, happily, this recipe is for ribollita – a sumptuous Tuscan version from The River Café Cookbook (though I actually lifted it from Culinary Pleasures by Nicola Humble) – which is to vegetable soup what Nina Simone is to Jessica Simpson.
The ingredients are not what I would describe as inspiring, but the method… It doesn’t so much bring them together as thrust them into an orgy of sensory joy (especially if consumed on a cold winter’s night). But be warned – I halved the amounts in the recipe when I made it, and still ended up with enough to feed eight...

Cavalo nero is essential for an authentic ribollita. Robust greens such as Swiss chard, the dark green outer leaves of Savoy cabbage, kale, broccoli or rape may be substituted.
Serves 10
250g (9 oz) cannellini or barlotti beans, cooked
1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2 whole heads celery, peeled and chopped
459g (1 lb) carrots, peeled and chopped
4 tbsp olive oil
1 x 800g (1,75 lb) tin peeled plum tomatoes, drained of their juices
2kg (4,5 lb) cavalo nero, stalks removed, leaves coarsely chopped
2 loaves stale ciabatta bread, crusts removed, sliced or torn
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

In a large saucepan fry the parsley leaves, garlic, celery, carrot and onion in the oil for about 30 minutes until the flavours combine. Add the tomatoes, and continue to cook on a gentle heat for a further 30 minutes, then add the cavalo nero and half the cannellini beans with enough of heir liquid to cover. Simmer for 30 minutes.
In a food processor, puree he remaining beans and return to the soup with just enough boiling water to make the soup liquid. Add the bread, a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. As exact amounts are no possible, you must balance the amount of liquid to bread so that the soup is very thick.

Monday, June 22, 2009

All dressed up...

There has got to be something wrong with a world in which people still buy ready-made mayonnaise. Ever since I discovered how stupefyingly easy (and affordable) it is to make your own – far superior to store-bought – my mind has boggled at the idea that anyone actually pays money for the mass-produced variety. All you need to concoct (although that word is misleading as it implies some form of experimentation, of which, I’m sure you’ll find, little is needed) this gorgeously creamy dressing is three everyday ingredients: eggs, vegetable oil, vinegar.
One large egg, two or three tablespoons of white wine vinegar (depending on how tangy you like it), and about 225ml good quality vegetable oil (I prefer sunflower, but canola works as well). Oh, and a hand-held blender. Crack the egg into a container (I have a tall, cup-like one that is almost the same shape as the blender, but that’s not a necessity); add the vinegar and about one third of the oil. Blend together; then, with the blender still, er, blending, add the rest of the oil in a thin stream until the mixture thickens to the consistency of, well, mayonnaise. You may not have to use all the oil, or you may have to use a little extra – that’s all the experimentation required. Add a little more vinegar if you like, and season with sea salt. Store your mayo in a jar in the fridge – it’ll last for about two months (but I guarantee it will be eaten before then).

There's a lot you can do to the basic recipe. Here are some of my favourites:
Add a tablespoon of Dijon mustard (I do this as a rule).
Add finely chopped gherkins, capers and some dill or tarragon (perhaps a few chopped anchovies?), and hey presto: tartar sauce that will have seafood singing hymns (especially calamari).
Stir in a few handfuls chopped dill and parsley, as well as the Dijon mustard and some finely sliced red onion, and use to coat perfectly boiled new potatoes.
Mix with one teaspoon English mustard and apply generously to hamburgers.
I know it’s somewhat obvious, but this ingredient lifts your average chicken- or tuna-mayo sandwich into the realm of haute cuisine.
Combine a few tablespoons mayo with a good squeeze of lemon juice, a drizzle of olive oil and Dijon mustard, and you have the makings of a creamy, foliage-friendly salad dressing.

A note on vinegar
As I said, white wine vinegar is perfectly adequate, but making your own flavoured ones is even easier than making mayonnaise, and will give it a real gourmet flavour.
I use two parts white wine vinegar to one part apple cider vinegar (for a little tangy sweetness), and add a handful of any of the following: tarragon; thyme; rosemary and two cloves garlic; parsley, basil, chives, oregano, rosemary, sage and two cloves garlic (for this one I just went into my garden and picked a little of every herb I could find, and the end product was sublime). Just squash the herbs and garlic (if using) into a glass jar or bottle, add the vinegar and leave to infuse for about four days to a week. You’ll appreciate the results when you remove the lid and take a whiff. What’s more, it’ll keep in a dark cupboard for at least six months.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Courgette classic

This is a light, delicate pasta that is ridiculously simple to make. It’s a perfect summer dish, but I make it whenever I don’t feel like cooking – it’s that easy. There are many variations, but this is my personal favourite. If you want to make it more substantial, you can add shredded chicken, fried prosciutto, bacon bits or Parma ham. You could also substitute the feta with Parmesan.

Simple courgette pasta
Serves 4

500g spaghetti
20 medium courgettes, grated
olive oil
1 tbsp chili flakes
4 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
Juice and zest of ½ lemons
2 handfuls chopped fresh herbs (any combination of basil, parsley or origano)
200g feta, crumbled, plus extra for sprinkling
4 tsp butter

Cook the pasta according to the package instructions. When it’s cooked, add the grated courgettes to the pasta, give it a stir and drain, reserving a little of the cooking water (about 200ml). Add the pasta back to the pot (but do not return it to the stove), add a good glug of olive oil and the cooking water, as well as the chilli flakes, garlic, lemon juice and zest. Give it a good stir, then add the feta and the herbs, season to taste and stir to combine once again.
Divide the pasta between four bowls, place a nob of butter on top of each (trust me), along with an extra sprinking of feta and a squeeze of lemon juice, if desired.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Creamy, salty, crunchy...

... is there a better combination? I came up with this while standing in the centre of the salad isle (blocking trolley traffic), with that vacant, slightly puzzled expression you see so often in grocery stores at 6:30 on weekday evenings. I wanted something tasty, healthy and satisfying. Et violà! I think they'd work best as canapés. (I wasn’t organised enough to take a picture of the mushrooms, so I’ve included a pic of my slippers in sunlight, for no reason in particular, other than I think it’s pretty.)

Roasted mushrooms with anchovy croutons
Makes 10

Anchovy croutons
6 white anchovy fillets
3 tbsp olive oil (or the oil from the tin/bottle)
2 handfuls stale ciabatta, cut into 1cm cubes

Avo topping
1 large avocado
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 handful basil, chopped
Juice of half a lemon

10 large Portobello mushrooms, roasted

For the anchovy croutons: Add the anchovies and the oil to a frying pan over a medium heat and cook until the anchovies melt. Add the bread and stir so each piece is well coated. You can either turn up the heat a little and fry the bread until it’s golden and crispy, or grill in the oven (which I prefer – it seems to produce more crunch).

For the avo topping: mash the avo in a bowl, add the garlic, basil and lemon juice and stir to a lovely mushy consistency. Season to taste.

To serve: Dollop a little of the avo mixture onto each mushroom and top with the glorious golden croutons. Try to have just one, I dare you.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Cauliflower power

I'm not the biggest cauliflower fan in the world – I've always found it slightly inscrutable. Usually the things you add to cauliflower are things that would make anything taste better, and would probably taste much better with some other type of vegetable. Then I saw Jamie Oliver's recipe for cauliflower risotto (risotto ai cavolfiori – see Jamie's Italy, or click here). It wasn't the cruciferous part that got me excited, it was the anchovy crumbs sprinkled on top. I'd made risotto a few nights previously, so I decided to translate his recipe using fresh homemade pasta – and oh my, the humble cauliflower did not disappoint. (Except – egads! – I forgot to add the parsley. And a dollop of creme fraiche probably would have pushed it into the realm of the godly.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Nice nibble

I'd never tried to cook polenta before this, as I suspected it'd turn out like cornmealish-tasting peanut butter (yuk), or pap, which I loathe. I can't remember if I saw a recipe for this or if I made it up, but it's a simple (if you have made the polenta beforehand), yummy pre-dinner snack.

I make a huge batch of polenta, then leave it to set in a baking tray so that it can be cut into squares. I slice the squares in half lengthwise too so they're thinner (you get more crunch that way). Then just fry them in some olive oil, sprinkling Parmesan over them as they cook. They take quite a long time to get crispy. Once done just serve them on some paper towel, sprinkled with salt, black pepper and more Parmesan. They're crunchy on the outside, warm and creamy on the inside.

You can make a whole lot and keep it in the freezer for ages, then when you want to make some you just place the squares directly into a pan and fry (they don't need to defrost).

Pasta e imperfetto...

This was my first attempt at making pasta with my new pasta machine at the beginning of the year. It was too thin, and I cooked it for too long so it was mushy. But with a few pine nuts and some homemade pesto, it looked fantastic!