Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Grilled greens with halloumi (and, at no extra cost, a moreish mint salad)

There are many kinds of food lovers out there. Perhaps all can agree that we love to eat good food, but our relationship with its preparation can vary wildly. For example, I cannot conceive of working in a restaurant kitchen, preparing the same meals every day for strangers. It’s just not something I could derive any joy from — I can’t imagine there is any inspired alchemy going on, just predictable recipes with predictable results. And yet there are people who love it.

Then there are the Heston Blumenthals and Ferran Adri├ás of the world — the deconstructionists. Now really, I challenge anyone to relish the idea of getting home in time to enjoy a nice plate of freeze-dried octopus with banana jus and cream of caper berry (okay, I made that up, but don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean!). It’s what AA Gill calls ‘Jabberwocky’ food.

There are those who like their food to look like a work of art (chefs, mostly). You know, the painfully arranged drops of various brightly hued sauces around the plate, the flourish of curled celery or whatnot, and my personal least-favorite: stacks. Why build a tower of food on a plate? It always puts me in mind of Richard Dreyfuss sculpting a mountain out of his mashed potato in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I just want my food to look, well, appetising.

Mariana Esterhuizen, proprietor of my favorite restaurant of all time (Marianas in Stanford, Western Cape), describes herself as a cook, not a chef, and I can appreciate the distinction. There seems to be a certain amount of showmanship involved in being a chef, whereas a cook will focus on how the food is going to be experienced once it’s actually inside your mouth. Or perhaps I’m just playing silly-bugger semantics.

I like to be alone, in my own little world, with the dish I’m creating — first fantasising about what to prepare, mentally swapping ingredients until my imagination tells me I have the right combination. Usually it works out okay, sometimes it doesn’t, and other times it exceeds my wildest expectations. But, almost always, it is the spontaneous nature of the whole experience — the element of surprise, of anticipation — that I’m hooked on.

This happened last night. I just wanted greens (eating too much meat lately). But for some reason my default setting when it comes to veggies is: boiled, served with butter and salt. And while this is usually adequate, I wanted something a little different, a little more filling, and the dish pictured (top) is the result. Halloumi is a rather odd cheese — it can be rubbery, though this is a quality I strangely enjoy — but its savoury saltiness works so well with these greens, tempered by the earthy flavour of chickpeas. I ate it with some crusty, buttered ciabatta… As far as I’m concerned, this is heaven on a plate, and I’m quite confident any veggie fan will agree.

The second recipe is from my dear friend Gaelyn. She served it at dinner with a sort-of lamb fillet on Saturday, and I insisted we take a picture. No one could get enough of it (there was a lot of just-this-side-of-polite elbowing for seconds and thirds). The mint made it a brilliant accompaniment to the tender lamb, and the crunchy celery and salty olives cut by the clean flavour of tomatoes and balsamic… It’s just a gorgeous salad. I encourage you to make it the next time you have friends round for a braai (make a lot). 

Grilled greens with halloumi
Zucchini, sliced
Petit pois
1 can chickpeas, drained
Olive oil
Dried chilly flakes
Grated halloumi cheese
Freshly squeezed lemon juice

I haven’t provided quantities because you can add as much as you like of whatever you fancy (broccoli would also work well). In a baking tray, simply coat the green vegetables in a little oil (just enough to coat — you don’t want too much as the halloumi releases quite a lot of oil when heated), scatter with some chilly flakes if you like, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Grill for 5 to 10 minutes, until almost done. Then remove the tray, add the chickpeas and scatter with grated halloumi, and grill for a further 3 or 4 minutes, until the cheese is melted. Remove from the oven, squeeze a little lemon juice (some lemon zest might be nice, too) over the veggies and serve with crusty bread.

Minty tomato salad with balsamic dressing
12 bella tomatoes, quartered
12 baby rosa tomatoes, quartered
1 red onion, finely chopped
4 sticks celery, sliced
24 baby kalamata olives, pitted
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp chopped fresh mint

Combine the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then bang the rest of the ingredients in a large serving bowl, pour over the dressing and toss to combine.

Oh, and here's a pretty picture I took of a flower pot near my front door yesterday. Just because.


  1. Mmmm...I used to be a "stacker" (inevitable part of chef training at a place like Prue Leith's). Now that I just cook for sustenance/amusement rather than as a job, I'm into simplicity and taste, with an emphasis on overall colour appeal rather than "food art".

    Love the pairing of asparagus, chickpeas, halloumi and chilli flakes - seems like a winner!

  2. Both salads look awesome, but the halloumi one has definitely won me over! What a superb combo - I especially like the chilli flakes too.

  3. The greens and the mint salad look terrific! I love halloumi cheese and I bet this is great!

  4. lovely recipe and charming pictures! your blog inspiers me and i lke a lot to visit it :)
    wish you a lovely day,

  5. I am totally intrigued. I LOVE haloumi which is very unfamiliar to people living in the States. I had it for the first time in London and buy it whenever I find it here. I have never tried grating it! I've always grilled it. There are some of my very favorite things in this dish so I'm going to give it a try. And I think of myself as a cook and home baker. Noting too fancy looking on my plates.

  6. This is definitely one worth trying. Your photos make everything all the more appetizing.

  7. Robyn, this is such a good post: so thoughtful and interesting. I second everything you say about pretentious food.

  8. that salad looks fantastic and very refreshing... love the blossoms!

  9. I do think the Heston Blumenthals of this world have a place - I love having my tastebuds teased and intrugued. But it's not a style of cooking I would personally attempt (far to precise for me!). There are also some days when only comfort food will do... I LOVE Halloumi - made some for a starter for our anti-Valentine's lunch ;-)

  10. Hallo Robyn. I just found your blog via Cooksister, and how happy I am that I did. Great writing and recipes, thanks very much. Looking forward to seeing more.

  11. LOL at Jabberwocky food! I love that term! :D

  12. Wow, what a great salad. Asparagus season has now finished here in NZ, but everything else is in season right now. I'm sure I could substitute the some broccoli or maybe even chunks of fennel for the asparagus - I am going to make it this weekend!

  13. Great recipes and I love the pictures.

  14. (Just left you a comment but think I lost it. Please discard a dupe if it shows up.)

    The deconstructionists are too clinically remote for my taste. I don't see elitism there, unless you define it as for those with rarified deep pockets (I hear El Bulli is closing for good; in the red too long). I like attractive food, but it must have a generous spirit and comfort factor.

    Your halloumi dish looks great. I tried it once, but found it too salty - perhaps a soak first?

  15. What a grand salad recipe & I so love Haloumi!!

    You can see that on my blog, I even made a vegetarian Haloumi burger!!

    MMMMMMMMMM,....lovely food!

  16. Why have you stopped writing? I miss your food stuff. STUFF.

  17. I'll never look at a mash-up of a Richard Dreyfuss sculpture in quite the same way again. :) Cool blog, Ms Mac! x