Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Walnut, blue cheese and pear salad

The Guinea Pig and I were lying in a log cabin in the Tsitsikamma National Park a few days ago, listening to the waves crash not five metres away. It was 2:04am on Day 6 of our East Coast camping trip (well, we weren’t technically camping any more because it started pouring with rain the previous morning) and we were having a bit of a crisis. We’d just discovered we don’t like camping. We never knew that about ourselves.

In the dark, our thoughts turned to our lives at large, and ourselves at close: Who are we? We don’t own property, we don’t have kids, or a pet, or even a small sedimentary rock collection. Are we figments of someone else’s imagination? Do we actually exist? What have we got to show for our lives!?

The logical cure for this particular type of existential hysteria, as you well know, is a box of Zoo Biscuits. Remember those? I saw them at a roadside store and couldn’t resist — they spoke too earnestly of my childhood, of a time when any conceivable affliction could be immediately alleviated (nay, vanquished!) through the process of deciding which colour, or animal, to eat first.

Our conversation that night turned to the holidays of our childhoods, and the typically South African treats we used to get. Liquorice Allsorts: my parents would dispense these to my brother and I on long road trips — and we would always fight over the ones that offered the highest icing-to-liquorice ratio.

Melrose cheese wedges were also (and still are) obligatory middle class road food — 5% cheese, 95% processed ingredients with mysterious names like ‘milk solids’. Biltong is another classic — something I only ever eat when I’m on holiday for some reason.

We did, on our East Coast odyssey, eat at two gorgeous restaurants. If you’re ever in Knysna, make an effort to lunch at Isle de Pain on Thesen Island, where I had the most exquisite fig and blue cheese tart: leeks and ripe mission figs roasted on a feather-light bed of pastry, dotted with creamy Gorgonzola and blueberries, and finally drizzled with a balsamic dressing. Oh, and their sourdough ciabatta is devastating.

In Plettenberg Bay, we ate at The Grand Café & Rooms. This is the predecessor to the Camps Bay and Granger Bay restaurants of the same name, and I think it has an old-world charm the others lack — probably because it’s favoured by Plett’s ‘mink and manure’ set. If you do go, book a table on the terrace, which offers a sweeping view over the bay, and I can highly recommend the lamb curry.

I wonder if Julia Child ever made a lamb curry? (Ha — how do you like that for a subtle segue?) Yesterday I received my long-awaited copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Yes *sigh* I only heard about Julia Child for the first time when the movie came out. This fact, I think, foists me firmly into the ‘amateur (perhaps even fraudulent) cook’ category.

So far I’ve enjoyed reading it, but I found the idea of actually cooking one of the recipes rather daunting — you see, they are rather elaborate, aren’t they? I find her insistence on absolute precision a little intimidating. Perhaps that’s why I’ve naturally gravitated towards Italian cooking, rather than French: there’s a lot more room for invention, for instinctive guestimation and personal taste when it comes to Italian food. Not so with la cuisine Francaise — at least, that is my impression.

Of course, each and every recipe in MAFC calls for enough butter to kill  a small donkey, of which I wholly approve (the generous use of butter, not the killing of donkeys).

In the end
I settled on trying her soufflé au fromage (cheese soufflé) — except I also really wanted to try the soufflé aux epinards (spinach soufflé), so I decided to combine the two. My first ever soufflé was not a failure — in fact, I was rather proud of it — but it was a little on the heavy side, which I put down to my lack of experience in the folding department.

Also, my oven’s thermostat has bipolar disorder.

On the whole, however, the result was quite delicious. I served it with one of my all-time favourite salads of radicchio, walnuts, blue cheese and pear, some crusty bread (slathered in butter, naturally) and a few gallons of Pierre Jourdan Tranquille Blush. You could do a hell of a lot worse for lunch.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what transpired from our 2am life audit last week, let’s just say that we’ve decided to take a few large steps in a new direction. A word of advice: don’t ever consult the Zoo Biscuits unless you want answers to Life’s Big Questions.

Walnut, blue cheese and pear salad
Serves 4

For the dressing:
1 tsp sherry vinegar
2 tsp Dijon mustard
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
50ml extra virgin olive oil

For the salad:
250g radicchio (feel free to include curly endive, wild rocket or romaine), torn into bite-sized pieces
2 sweet, firm pears
60g walnuts, lightly toasted
90g Cremazola (or Roquefort or Gorgonzola)

1. In a large bowl, whisk the dressing ingredients together until well combined. Adjust seasoning.
2. Slice the pears (it’s best to do this just before you dress them, as this prevents them from discoloring due to oxidation), then add them, along with the salad leaves and walnuts, to the dressing. Toss until every leaf and slice of pear is well coated.
3. Divide the salad between plates, crumble the Cremazola over the leaves and serve.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Roasted salmon with anchovy and caper butter (plus other stuff too)

Have you ever read John Crace's Digested Reads on the Guardian website? If not, do yourself a favour. He takes classic(ish) books and then produces a satyrical shorter version — they're often hilarious. I'd like to share a few choice paragraphs from his take on Nigella Christmas. It begins...

'I'll be honest. I never thought I'd write a Christmas book. But then my publisher called to gossip about the credit crunch. "What's that got to do with me?" I yawned, stretching out on my chaise longue.
"Nothing, sweetie," she said. "It's us here at Chatto I'm worried about. We're desperate for a Christmas bestseller to help us make budget and we wondered if you could help us out."
"OK, darling, you've twisted my arm," I cooed. "But there are a few ground rules. My Christmas isn't some kind of austerity family hold-back affair. I want to be able to forget the sad, grey little faces of all my neighbours who have lost their jobs at Lehman Brothers and luxuriate in guilt-free greed and over-indulgence."'

... and then, a little later...

'You might be wondering what the "welcome table" is. It's a term I made up for the table in the hall that's laden with whole pigs and cold swans for all those guests who arrive feeling a little peckish and aren't sure if they can make it to the dining-room without dying of starvation. Anything can go here, provided it's got enough kick to give you a heart attack.'

... and finally...

'For the main event you need to get your staff cooking several days in advance to prepare the stuffings and marinades for the turkey. All cooking instructions are based on the assumption you have a double oven. If you don't, be prepared to have a shitty meal at 10pm! Be generous with quantities; allow at least 27 chipolatas per child.'


But on to more serious matters. I had rather a lot of salmon in my fridge this week (long story short, a dinner party that never happened), and came up with two quite stunning little dishes. The first is a salad that's simply superb as a light lunch. I'm not quite sure what prompted the inspiration for adding smoked paprika to the yoghurt dressing (I think it was just sitting right there next to the yoghurt or something, shouting, 'Look at me! I'm over here! Oh won't someone please notice me?! You with the lid, get my publicist on the phone!').

Something along those lines.

The second is roasted salmon with anchovy and caper butter — and it tastes even better than it sounds. I found the recipe on Epicurious, and it went beeyoootifully with creamy tomato spaghetti, but be warned: it's super-rich, so perhaps a side salad is a good idea. The original recipe called for a tablespoon each of cognac and chopped parsley, which I think would have been an excellent idea, but I didn't have any and it still turned out well. Better than well. (It wasn't very photogenic, though, but PLEASE don't let that put you off.)

Salmon salad with smoked paprika yoghurt dressing
Serves 2

1 salmon fillet, roasted and flaked
1 small head butter lettuce
1 can chickpeas, drained
1 large handful wild rocket

For the dressing:
150g yoghurt
1 tsp smoked paprika
Juice of one lemon
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Pretty standard: mix all the salad ingredients together in a big bowl, then mix all the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl. Add the small bowl to the big bowl, shake it all about, and Bob's your uncle.

Roasted salmon with anchovy & caper butter
Serves 6

4 garlic cloves
5 anchovy fillets
3 tablespoons drained capers
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup butter, room temperature
6 salmon portions

1. Blend first 5 ingredients in food processor. Add butter and process until well blended. Season to taste with salt.
2. Lay sheet of plastic wrap on work surface. Transfer butter mixture to plastic wrap and roll to form a log. Freeze until firm, about 1 hour. (Caper-anchovy butter can be prepared 1 week ahead. Keep frozen. Let butter soften slightly before using.)
3. Place salmon fillets on a baking tray and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill until just cooked through, about 8 minutes.
4. Place salmon on plates on a bed of creamy tomato spaghetti (see recipe below). Cut caper-anchovy butter into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Top each salmon fillet with 2 slices butter. Serve salmon fillets hot.

Creamy tomato spaghetti
Serves 6

500g spaghetti
6 ripe rosa tomatoes, halved
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp mascarpone

1. Spread the tomato halves out in a single layer on a baking try, and grill on a low heat (about 150C) for about 2 hours, or until they've shrivelled a bit and gone all gooey and gorgeous.
2. Transfer the tomatoes to a mixing bowl and add the mascarpone. Using a hand-held blender, blend until you have a smooth sauce. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
3. Cook the spaghetti until al dente in plenty of salted boiling water. Drain and return to the pot. Mix in the sauce until the spaghetti is well-coated, and serve.

But wait, there's more...

I just have to share this with you. The Guinea Pig and I went to The River Cafe (no relation to the London institution) in Constantia Uitzig for lunch on Monday and had the most fantastic meal. I started with a naughty little onion tart with balsamic reduction (highly recommended), and then grilled asparagus with bacon, a poached agg (agg?? You know I mean 'egg' of course... Just between us, I sometimes accidentally type 'reslut' instead of 'result', and giggle to myself. Don't tell anyone) and Parmesan shavings. Just scrummy. See?

Then we pottered down the road to La Colombe, and the afternoon light was just too gorgeous. See?

And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A tale of two warm salads (and an old friend comes for dinner)

One would imagine that when two self-styled foodistas (don't you hate that word?) get together for an evening of nosh and natter in the kitchen, that their combined knowledge, talent and enthusiasm would result in an extraordinary meal, one imminently worth blogging about. And so, when my oldest friend Sasha...

(INTERMISSION: Let us pause here for a moment to picture two girls in school uniforms, each just shy of their 10th birthday. One is fed up with her current gaggle of catty friends and in need of succor, and so ventures up to the other girl one break [little break], and says simply, 'Can I be your friend?' The other girl says, 'Okay,' and that, to quote Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Fast forward 19 years or so, and one of those girls is the editor of foodie mag Avocado, and the other has taken to publishing rants and recipes on her blog called 'Koek!' It is a mystery how these two — with their love of food — are still able to fit into size 34 jeans. END INTERMISSION)

... and I were trawling the food isles at Woolies, unable to agree on what to cook, it came as somewhat of a surprise that, when I tentatively suggested, 'Mashed potato?', she replied, 'Yes! Thank God! That's just what I feel like.' So that's what we did. In-between catching up on gossip and bad-mouthing women we deemed more attractive than us, we made and ate mashed potato and some sort of ready-crumbed fish. Oh and some broccoli — steamed, plain. We watched a dreadful movie called 500 Days of Summer, and went to bed, completely satisfied that we'd had hoot of an evening.

So go figure.

But I do not come to this blog post empty-handed. I have two scrumptious offerings that are guaranteed crowd pleasers. Enjoy...

Lentil, salami and feta salad
Serves 4

4 tbsp olive oil
4 chorizo sausages, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large handful fresh thyme,
leaves picked
2 cups green lentils, washed
11/2 litres chicken stock
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
100ml red wine vinegar
100g baby spinach leaves
120g feta, sliced

1. Heat the oil in a large, deep frying pan over medium heat. Add the chorizo and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, or until browned.
2. Add the garlic and thyme, and cook for a further minute (be careful not to let the garlic brown).
3. Add the lentils and stock, and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Set aside to cool slightly for 10 minutes.
4. Combine the Dijon mustard and vinegar, and stir through the lentils. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
5. Add the spinach to the lentils and divide the salad between four plates.
6. Top with feta slices and serve with crusty bread.

Chicken salad with bocconcini and croutons
Serves 4

300g cherry tomatoes
Olive oil, to taste
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 loaf ciabatta, broken into chunks
1 roasted chicken, sliced
250g bocconcini, torn
30g basil leaves, torn

1. Preheat the oven to 200˚C. Place the tomatoes in a baking tray and drizzle with a little oil and the vinegar. Roast for about 15 minutes, or until the skin begins to wrinkle.
2.Add the bread chunks to the tray and drizzle with a little more olive oil. Roast for 5 or 6 minutes, or until golden and crunchy.
3. Remove from the oven and arrange the chicken slices so that they nestle between the croutons and tomatoes.
4. Top with the bocconcini, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, scatter with basil leaves
and serve.

These photos were taken by Deryck van Steenderen for Psychologies magazine.