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 Adriàs 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
1 can chickpeas, drained
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.