Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Zucca e funghi al forno

Zucca e funghi al forno from Venezia: Food & Dreams — more on that later...

Dear Diary: I feel like I’m in a scene from Withnail & I, out here in the country. I wish I had a joint. I don’t usually smoke marijuana, but in this environment it seems appropriate — obligatory, even.

I’m sitting in a bed in a cabin, wearing 10 layers of clothing, at the top of a mountain just outside Elandsbay. It’s 8:40am. The mist outside my cabin is thick as pea soup (I heard that in a movie once — can't remember which — still not convinced of its analogic merits). I can see only the faint outline of a few pine trees just outside; nothing but opaque icy greyness beyond that. It’s isolated, stark, damp and freezing — I’m expecting Uncle Monty to pop in any moment for a cup of tea and a fondle.

The day passes in a daze of sleeping, reading, aimless pottering and trying not to freeze to death ('Warm up? We may as well sit round this cigarette. This is ridiculous. We'll be found dead in here next spring').

I ended up playing Hearts on my laptop instead of writing, which was sort of the whole point of holing myself up in this cabin. Ah well.

My computer beat me 3/9.

The clouds broke just in time for a devastating sunset — and a counter-top-hot-plate dinner of puttanesca. God I love it when my fingers smell like garlic and basil... Or garlic and ginger. Or garlic and rosemary. I think the common denominator is garlic. God I love it. (That paragraph may have been inspired by a bottle-and-a-half of Laborie Cab/Sav, some mild chest-beating and proclamations of 'We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!' I'm pretty sure no one heard me.)

I was (inexplicably) rewarded the next day with no hangover and a sparkling summer's day: views from here to eternity and back. And the famous West Coast flowers are just starting to do their spring thing...

Truly, you could do a hell of a lot worse than spend a weekend at Mountain Mist.

Oh, you want a recipe as well? Very well...

I did spend a sizable portion of the weekend poring over a recent (treasured) gift from the Guinea Pig — Tessa Kiros’ tribute to Venice: Venezia: Food & Dreams. I am smitten. 'These are the things I ate in Venice,' she writes, 'Wonderful surprises let me say; things that you would never expect glancing at the menus of the many tourist-drained locali.'

I want to say it’s a feast for the eyes, but I won’t, because that’s a big fat clichĂ©. But I will say that if you’re a cookbook-oholic and Italophile like myself, this is for you.

I like the recipe below because of its simplicity. Such easy-to-find ingredients, effortlessly combined, yet the result is something quite exquisite (perhaps you have to be a veggie-lover — the kind that can happily eat a bowl of buttery greens for dinner).

I made this dish with butternut and dried porcini mushrooms rehydrated for an hour in some hot chicken stock — and it all turned out beautifully — but fresh funghi and pumpkin are first choice, naturally. You could serve it with Parmesan-ey wet polenta (as I did), or with some crusty bread, or of course as a side dish to fish, chicken or meat.

You decide. For now I’ll leave you to contemplate this pearl of wisdom from Uncle Monty: 'I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is, you'll agree, a certain je ne sais quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot.'

Yes. Yes, indeed.

Zucca e funghi al forno
Roast pumpkin & mushroom

800g pumpkin
5 tablespoons olive oil
About 400g fresh porcini or field or swiss brown mushrooms, cut into chunks
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary
About 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan

1. Preheat your oven to 180C. Peel the pumpkin, remove the seeds and cut the flesh into 5mm slices. You should have about 600g of pumpkin slices.
2. Drizzle some of the olive oil into your baking dish. Add the pumpkin slices, mushrooms, garlic and rosemary, and season with salt and black pepper, then drizzle over the rest of the olive oil. Turn well using your hands or a wooden spoon, then spread everything out more or less rustically.
3. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the pumpkin is tender and golden in places, and the mushroom is crisp and golden here and there. Scatter with Parmesan and bake for another 5 or 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Spicy potato cakes

There is a moment, just before I am about to tuck in to breakfast, when I experience something very close to enlightenment.

It’ll be the weekend. I will have taken a walk to a local deli and purchased some freshly baked bread (Cassis’ Provencal baguette — herbs, olives, tomato — is my current obsession) and perhaps a chocolate croissant. Back home I will then have put four eggs (two for me, two for the Guinea Pig) into a pot, just covered with water, and set it to boil on the stove. This is the equivalent of a stop-watch, because within this time I must carefully coordinated the toasting of bread, brewing of coffee and slicing of tomato to coincide precisely with the eggs reaching that alchemistic state of perfectly cooked (yolk runny, white firm).

In the final seconds, the plates are laden with toast soldiers, sliced tomato and expectant little egg cups; the coffee plunger is poised for action; the salt and pepper grinders are in their proper places; a magazine, newspaper or book is propped just so for ease of reading while eating; and finally, the cry which signals that the transcendental apex of Saturday morning bliss is about to be realised — ‘It’s reeeeadyyyy!’ — sees the whole production culminate in a moment, a glorious, single moment.

Me, sitting before my breakfast, teaspoon in hand, enveloped in smug contentment. I am content because I know exactly what the next hour holds for me: pure, unadulterated hedonism.

(Hedonism, to me, used to mean drugs, alcohol and late nights — now it's breakfast. How time flies.)

Know what I mean?

I once longed to be one of those people who are perfectly satisfied with a virtuous bowl of muesli and a dollop of low-fat yoghurt, but convulsive shuddering meant I could never quite get the spoon to my lips. I crave eggs, every day (I’ll let you know how that’s working out for me in 10 years time).

Now, if I were living in North India, I wouldn’t have any trouble getting used to these potato cakes for breakfast (which is how they’re served there, or so my Best Ever Indian Curry Recipes cookbook tells me). No eggs involved, but they are gorgeously savoury, stick to your ribs and still have that sort-of breakfast hash-brown thing going for them.

I had them for lunch. I was trying to replicate memorable starter I had at Masala Dosa — and I think I came fairly close (close enough!). The Bombay mix might seem an odd choice, but trust me, it works. These are ideal to make for a crowd as a starter or snack. Serve with chopped cucumber and tomato with yoghurt, and the sprinkles, and just watch people’s faces. It’s fun.

Spicy potato cakes
Makes about 16

450g potatoes, peeled, boiled, mashed and allowed to cool
1 tbsp white poppy seeds
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp chilli
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp turmeric
1 handful fresh coriander leaves, chopped, plus extra to garnish
2 cloves garlic
5 cm ginger, peeled and chopped
Sunflower or canola oil, as needed
1 tsp salt

1. Toast the spices until fragrant, then transfer to a mortar. Add the garlic, ginger and coriander and pestle the crap out of it until you have a thick, pasty mixture.
2. Combine the spices with the mashed potato and mix well. Using your hands, form into little patties, about the size of your palm.
3. Heat about a tablespoon of oil in a non-stick frying pan and fry the patties in batches until golden brown and gorgeous. Drain on paper towel.
4. Arrange on a dish, sprinkle with the salt and some coriander leaves, and serve with raita (I like a combo of chopped cucumber, red onion, tomato and yoghurt) and Bombay mix.

But before I go, I do have to tell you about the most divine little secret centre up the road from my house in Newlands — Montabello Design Centre. Well, it may not be much of a secret, but there's something about it that feels like a discovery, all tucked away just off Newlands Avenue.

It has an enchanting nursery, a forge, and various art and craft studios dotted all over the show. Best of all, there is wonderful cafĂ© — Kwalapa — which is now one of my new favourite breakfast spots.

PS: Do please take a moment to nominate me for the 2010 SA Blog Awards in the Best Food and Wine Blog category (click on the widget on the top right). You know, if you think I should win ... or if you just want to kill two minutes. I'd be much obliged.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Amazing avocado sauce

This is a natty little sauce that is super-tasty and fool-proof/ lobotomy-friendly — I know you will fall in love with it. It was created one evening as I was concocting a makeshift salsa verde-cum-gremolata to go with some pan-fried rib-eye steak. I only had parsley, capers and anchovies, though, so I was going to make do with that, but then I spied half an avo at the back of the fridge, and (insert New Year's Eve fireworks and popping Champagne corks here) a star of a sauce was born.

It has all the punchy flavour of salsa verda, but the avo gives it a creamy, saucy quality that holds everything together beautifully... It also improves the texture. The trick is to chop everything up as finely as you can (you could use a food processor, but I think good ol' elbow grease and a sharp knife get a better texture).

Apart from being ridiculously easy to make, this sauce is amazingly versatile. You can take it in any direction you like by adding one or more of the following: chilli, garlic, lemon juice/zest, basil, and/or very finely diced red onion for a salsa-type effect.

Of course, it's only as good as the ingredients you use — I'm a fan of the bottled anchovies from Woolies, but tinned are even better; watery avo won't work for this, you want the creamy variety; capers... buy the best you can afford.

The sauce is unbelievable smeared over a seared, bloody fillet (particularly with some buttered ciabatta slices and this minty tomato salad with balsamic dressing), but it's also gorgeous on bruschetta as a starter, or tossed with al dente linguini and chopped tomato.

What do you think?

Is it as good for you as it is for me? 

Amazing avocado sauce

2 large handfuls (about 60g) flatleaf parsley
6 anchovy fillets
1 cup capers, drained
1 medium/large avocado, mashed

Finely chop the flatleaf parsley, then the anchovy fillets, then the capers. Then chop everything together so it's well-combined. Add to the avocado, mix well and serve.

This makes enough to smear generously over four seared fillets, or mix in with enough pasta for four people (about 450g linguini).

PS: Do please take a moment to nominate me for the 2010 SA Blog Awards in the Best Food and Wine Blog category (click on the widget on the top right). You know, if you think I should win ... or if you've got nothing better to do. I'd be much obliged.