Thursday, January 28, 2010

To the tea

When the going gets tough, the tough get going, or so the old Billie Ocean song goes. I'm not exactly sure what he means, but at the same time I think that's what I've been doing for the last two weeks. If someone had told me this time last year that I'd be blogging, writing features and styling food shoots on top of my day job, plus training for a half-marathon, I would have looked at them as if they'd grown an extra nose.

But that's life I guess. One minute you're moping about, thinking nothing fabulous is ever going to happen to you, and then the universe overhears and throws more good stuff your way than you know what to do with (and whispers to itself, 'That should shut her up!').
Today I'd like to share a food shoot I did for Psychologies magazine SA (February/March 2010) a few months ago. Good friend and photographer Deryck van Steenderen took the images.

One of the quirks of high tea is that it does not (necessarily) have anything to do with tea – sophisticated eats are the stars of the show. Delicate chicken sandwiches, sumptuous strawberry mousse, elegant goat’s cheese quiches and, of course, irresistibly decorated cupcakes all beg to be savoured. Invite a few girlfriends over, put the kettle on (or open a bottle of wine) and indulge in an afternoon of pure hedonism.

I've entered these recipes in the Fun & Food Café's Valentine's Day / Superbowl competition. Wish me luck.

White chocolate cupcakes
Makes 12

180g butter, plus 140g for the icing
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
500g white chocolate, chopped
1 cup cream

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Combine the butter, sugar and vanilla in a bowl. Add the eggs and beat well.
Add the flour and baking powder and combine.
Line 12 muffin tins with cupcake cases, and divide the mixture between the cases. Bake for 35 minutes or until cooked, and allow to cool.
For the icing: In a saucepan, heat the chocolate, cream and remaining butter on a low heat, and stir until mixture is melted and smooth. Allow to cool completely.
Beat the icing until thick and fluffy, and decorate cupcakes as desired.

Smoked chicken sandwiches
Serves 6

3/4 cup mayonnaise, plus extra for brushing
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
500g smoked chicken breast, finely shredded
24 slices white bread
70g baby salad leaves
1/2 cup sesame seeds, toasted

Combine the mayonnaise, mustard and chicken. Spread the mixture over half the bread slices.
Top with the salad leaves and remaining bread slices.
Remove the crusts and cut each sandwich diagonally in half.
Spread a little mayonnaise on one edge of each sandwich and dip into the sesame seeds. Arrange on
a platter and serve.

Strawberry mousse
Makes 8

300g fresh, ripe strawberries, halved
1 cup sugar
3 tbsp water
1 tsp gelatin
2 cups thick cream, whipped

Place the strawberries in a medium saucepan, add the sugar and water, and cook over a medium-low heat, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved.
Simmer until the strawberries are soft, then liquidise the mixture with the gelatin until smooth. Allow to cool. Fold the syrup into the cream and pour into eight 125ml serving glasses. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until set. Decorate with strawberry slices and serve.
Tip: Any fresh, ripe berries can be used in place of strawberries.

Chevin and chive quiches
Makes 12

3 sheets shortcrust pastry
150g chevin, crumbled
40g chives, chopped
4 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups cream
1 tsp lemon zest

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. On a baking tray covered with baking paper, line 12 greased egg rings with pastry (gently push the pastry into the rings so that the edges rise slightly).
Trim any excess, and place the chevin and chives in the cases.
Whisk the egg yolks, cream and zest together, and season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Pour the egg mixture into the cases, bake for 20 minutes or until golden, and serve.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sophia Loren's Parmigiana

I don't know about you, but when I fixate on a dish, nothing – and I mean nothing (not even a fridge packed with perfectly fresh but irrelevant ingredients) – is going to stop me from making it. I may have everything I need to make a very nice spaghetti/stir-fry/veggie bake for supper, but if I start fantasising about, say, Parmigiana, I will go to the supermarket, buy the ingredients, and by God I'll make my Parmigiana. Sure I feel guilty, but I appease the the Thrift Gods by promising to make some holy mess of a dish with everything else in the fridge the next day. I might even throw in the three-year-old cocktail gherkins that have been taunting me from the bottom shelf for the last six months (but that's a blog post for another time).

What got my Parmigiana craving going was a recipe in a book my mother bought at a second-hand store, and passed on to me when I left home. The book's author is Sophia Loren. It is titled 'Eat with Me' and was published in 1971. Here's a picture of the Italian version – the sleeve of my English one was lost many moons ago (it probably fell behind the fridge, a place I refer to as the cook-book-sleeve-cemetery. RIP).

There is a section titled ‘Eggs and Vegetables’, in which I found the Parmigiana recipe. In the forward, she says: ‘There are some vegetable dishes, ways of doing aubergines, pimientos, and so on, that sometimes fill me with an enthusiasm that I am unable to work up over the main course.’ I couldn't agree more.

She doesn't give very clear ingredient quantities (e.g. 'a spoonful' – does this mean tablespoon, ladle or teaspoon?), but I love the way her writing makes me feel as though she's giving me the recipe over the phone. And the photos are too gorgeous. Don't ask about the salad servers – it was the seventies, after all!

I have another book, even older, that doesn’t inspire obsession over a particular dish so much as an obsession with how extraordinary it would be to jump back to Kenya, circa 1930. You see, the Guinea Pig’s mother gave me a copy of ‘The Kenya Settler’s Cookery Book and Household Guide’, written by the Church of Scotland Women’s Guild. Need I say more? The pages are faded brown and have that aged, dusty smell of old books; it’s falling apart at the seems – and I love it. Not for the recipes, but for the power it has to evoke a time and place that is so strange to me. It’s filled with ads: ‘After every meal, smoke Pall Mall’; ‘You cannot do better than to obtain your ingredients for the delectable dishes contained in this book from Foster & Blowers’; ‘For perfection and Ivanhoe stoves, use Laurel Kerosene’. It's a hoot.

And then, the forward: ‘The first edition of this book, published in 1928, was compiled in the hope that it might prove of great assistance to newcomers to the Colony, to young housekeepers, and to the bachelor settlers of Kenya, who through lack of knowledge of housekeeping, are often obliged to put up with incompetency on the part of untrained and undisciplined native cooks and houseboys.’ Yikes.

There’s a section titled ‘Invalid Cookery’, the introduction helpfully pointing out that, when it comes to sick people, ‘every effort should be made to see that meals are tempting’ and that food should be ‘nourishing’ and ‘easy of digestion’. The first recipe thereafter is for a ghastly concoction called ‘albumen water’, which is basically raw egg whites ‘cut all ways for a minute’ with two knives, then added to a little water and a little salt OR lemon juice. Disgusting. They should have added ‘Make sure to keep an empty bucket within arm’s reach.’ Though it might have been effective – I imagine many a speedy recovery occurred once the dreaded albumen water was discovered to be a 'perk' of convalescence.

But let's get back to Sophia, in her own words...


This is a truly magnificent dish, and at the same time an unfathomable mystery to me. Why Parmigiana if this is a dish that is not only as Neapolitan as San Gennaro, but one of the proudest monuments of Naples cuisine? Historical injustice? Involuntary error? Or a conspiracy? In any case here is what it is made of:
    Clean and slice some large aubergines, say 2 pounds for 6 people. Each slice should be a little less than a quarter inch thick. Place slices on a large plate, cover with course salt, then cover with another plate and weigh it down with something heavy, so that the slices extrude their bitter juices. After a couple of hours, wash and dry the slices and squeeze them a little, very gently, to get them as dry as possible. Then fry them in plenty of hot olive oil.
    Make a sauce with tomatoes (say, under 2 pounds, or slightly less than the weight of the aubergine), peel chop and sieve them; put them in the pan with a pinch of salt and a few basil leaves, but without oil; you only have to wait for a little of the tomato juice to reduce before the sauce starts to thicken. At this point, you put a few spoonfuls of the sauce into an oiled baking dish, then a layer of fried aubergine, then sprinkle with grated Parmesan, then put down a layer of thinly sliced Mozzarella with a few leaves of basil, and a spoonful of beaten egg. Begin all over again with the sauce, the aubergine, the Parmesan, mozzarella,  egg, and back to home base, so that you end up with at least three layers of everything. Bake uncovered in a hot oven (425F) for 40 to 50 minutes.
    Variations on this dish, which is revered throughout the length and breadth of Italy, included one with the aubergine dipped in egg and flour before frying, so that the taste is more delicate. It can also be made with half aubergine and half courgette, which is more delicate still.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Panzanella (and the Marquis de Sade)

‘Should not the supreme aim of gastronomy be to untangle the confusion of ideas that confront mankind, and to provide this unfortunate biped with some guidance as to how he should conduct himself and his appetites?’ This is Mark Crick – the ‘literary ventriloquist’ – paraphrasing the Marquis de Sade in his book Kafka’s Soup. A very amusing read if you love to, uh, read, and love to cook.

He offers a list of classic recipes, but presents each one in the style of an iconic writer: Jane Austen’s Tarragon Eggs (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that eggs, kept for too long, go off’); Raymond Chandler’s Lamb with Dill Sauce (‘In this town the grease always rises to the top, so I strained the juice and skimmed off the fat’); Franz Kafka’s Miso Soup (‘The sound of the kettle boiling brought K’s attention back to the food, and at the same time he noticed a jar of fermented miso and a block of silken tofu, perhaps left by his landlady’); and Irvine Welsh’s chocolate cake (‘Ah drop a packet of butter intae the pan and light the flame beneath it. As it melts, ah pour on the sugar – the grains dissolve cleanly, it’s good fuckin shite’), to name a few.

Yesterday, I kind of understood what he (Mark Crick, via the Marquis de Sade) was trying to say. It was one of those occasions when the ideal circumstances converge in one afternoon to create a kind of nirvana: simple, sumptuous food; gorgeous wine (just enough for a warm glow, not too much); old friends; laughter and conversation that rolls around the table endlessly; and dappled sunlight that doesn’t so much play as fornicate on the white table cloth... Everything is harmonious, right with the world, in its proper place (cue violins).  I’m sure you know what I mean. Events like these are too rare, but I guess that’s part of their nature – they’re spontaneous, and can’t be planned. But when they do happen, boy, they certainly help to ‘untangle the confusion of ideas that confront mankind’. At least, they do for me.

On this particular occasion I tried my hand at panzanella. The Guinea Pig gave me a copy of The River Café Cook Book for my birthday, and this was the recipe I chose to make first. It was a beautiful, tasty summer salad, but in retrospect I would have broken the bread up into smaller pieces, as I believe is done in other recipes. I also made Molly Wizenberg’s Chickpea Salad with Lemon and Parmesan, only I added slivers of courgette as well, just because I think they’re pretty.

I served a platter of sliced spicy salami and prosciutto di Parma, but the salads were the stars.

I’ve copied the River Café recipe almost verbatim below, but I must note that Ruth and Rose (the authors) both insist you use salted capers and salted, filleted anchovies, neither of which I could find at my usual delis. I used tinned anchovies and capers in brine, and thought they were perfectly adequate (I imagine, though, that the salted versions are preferable if you can get hold of them).

Before I go, let’s hear some more from Mr Crick, via Raymond Chandler (humour me): ‘I sipped on my whiskey sour, ground my cigarette on the chopping board and watched a bug trying to crawl out of the basin. I needed a table at Maxim’s, a hundred bucks and a gorgeous blonde; what I had was a leg of lamb and no clues.’ Teehee.


Panzanella is a traditional Tuscan salad. At its most simple, it’s just strong white bread, green peppery olive oil and delicious ripe summer tomatoes. The addition of peppers, anchovies, olives and capers make it more delicious and interesting.

Serves 6 to 8

3 stale ciabatta loaves
1 kg fresh plum tomatoes
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed to a paste with a little sea salt
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Tuscan extra virgin olive
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 red peppers
3 yellow peppers
2 fresh chillies (optional)
100g capers, rinsed
100g anchovies
150g black olives
1 large bunch basil

1. Cut the bread into rough, thick slices, and place in a bowl.
2. Skin, halve and seed the tomatoes into a sieve over a bowl to retain the tomato juice. Season the juice with the garlic and some black pepper, then add 250ml olive oil and 2 to 3 tablespoons of the red wine vinegar. Pour the seasoned tomato juices over the bread and toss until the bread has absorbed all the liquid. Depending on the staleness of the bread, more liquid may be required, in which case add more olive oil.
4. Grill the peppers whole until blackened all over, then skin, seed and cut into eighths lengthways. If using, grill the chillies until blackened, then skin, seed and chop finely.
Rinse the salt from the capers (if using salted) and soak in the remaining red wine vinegar.
5. In a large dish, make a layer of some of the soaked bread, and top with some of the other ingredients, then cover with another layer of bread, and continue until all the bread and other ingredients have been used up. The final layer should have peppers, tomatoes, capers, anchovies and olives all visible. Leave for an hour at room temperature before serving with a little more extra virgin olive oil.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Potato, Gorgonzola and dill pizza

I think all cooks dream of having an orderly kitchen, where every tool and ingredient is within reach, or at least easy to find.

Do you think such a thing exists?

Cleaning out my kitchen cupboard is an annual affair – one that doesn’t happen more often because the conditions need to be just right. Firstly, I need to feel like it – I must have that yen to sort, order, take stock and be ruthless when it comes to throwing things out (something I’m hopeless at for 360 days of the year). Secondly, I must have the time – at least three hours – because although the sorting and ordering alone does not take all that long, I need to allow time to examine each item. Overlooked or forgotten ingredients usually make me nostalgic and fuel my imagination.

These two conditions came together yesterday. With the first workday of the year (today) impending, and no immediate plans to fill my Sunday (the Guinea Pig was out among the heaving masses watching the cricket), I felt it was my last chance to put my house (well, just my kitchen really) in order.
This year was a particularly bad one for  forgotten comestibles. I discovered no less than five bags of basmati rice, each containing only a teaspoon or two of actual rice (hmm); a bottle of putrefied truffle oil (what a waste!); a bag of two-year-old quinoa (quinoa? what was I thinking?); a forgotten experiment involving white balsamic vinegar and tarragon (don’t ask); two ancient bottles of apricot jam (gifts); a jar of my dad’s preserved lemons (which I am delighted to have found – I recently discovered a recipe using preserved lemons that actually seems worth trying); and 12 salt and pepper shakers of varying shapes and sizes (helloooo charity shop). I also discovered an expensive-looking but dusty bottle of authentic balsamic vinegar (from Modena), though neither the guinea pig or I have the faintest idea where it came from. I wasn’t sure what to do with it as I hardly ever use balsamic vinegar (I prefer red wine vinegar or lemon juice in salad dressings).

I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about making pizza since I bought the latest Donna Hay (that’s the Oct/Nov 09 issue here in the ol’ RS of A) – that woman takes food porn to a whole new level. So, after I finally purged the cucina, I decided to try two of the recipes in the pizza feature: potato, Gorgonzola & dill; and salami & courgette. I scattered a few drops of the balsamic over the latter just after it came out of the oven. And oh boy, was it good. The sweet-sour vinegar worked beautifully with the salty salami.

With or without balsamic vinegar, do give these recipes a try (courtesy of Donna dearest) – they really are something special. Here’s a fantastic tip I discovered for those of us who don’t have brick ovens or granite slabs: just heat up your baking tray in a hot oven for 10 minutes before you place the pizza dough on it – it’ll start cooking the base straight away, so you land up with crispy pizza even if your oven is a little unreliable.

Potato, dill and Gorgonzola pizza
1 quantity pizza dough (see recipe, below), rolled into a base
Olive oil, for brushing
1 cup store-bought caramelised onion relish (or onion jam)
5 baby potatoes, blanched and thinly sliced
100 Gorgonzola, crumbled
1/2 cup chopped dill, to serve

Preheat oven to 220 C. Brush a heated tray with olive oil and top with the dough. Spoon over the relish, top with the potato and Gorgonzola. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until the topping is golden and the base is crispy. Sprinkle with the chopped dill to serve.

Courgette and spicy salami pizza
1 quantity pizza dough (see recipe, below), rolled into a base
Olive oil, for brushing
1/2 cup tomato purée
About 7 cherry tomatoes, halved
2 courgettes, thinly sliced
7 slices spicy salami
1/2 cup grated mozzarella

Preheat oven to 220 C. Brush a heated tray with olive oil and top with the dough. Spread the pizza bases with the tomato purée, and top with the tomato, courgettes, salami and cheese. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until the topping is golden and the base is crispy.

Basic pizza dough
1 tbsp dry yeast
1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 cup lukewarm water
2,5 cups 00 flour
1 tsp sea salt flakes
1 tbsp olive oil

1. Place the yeast, sugar and water in a bowl and mix to combine. Set aside in a warm place for 5 minutes or until bubbles appear on the surface. This means the yeast has been activated.
2. Place the flour, salt and olive oil in a bowl and make a well in the centre. Add the yeast mixture and mix together with well-floured hands to form a dough.
3. Knead dough on a lightly floured surface for 3 to 4 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Divide the dough into two balls and place on a lightly floured tray under a clean damp cloth. Set aside in a warm place for 30 minutes or until the balls have doubled in size.
4. Roll out each dough ball on a lightly floured surface (any shape you like!). These bases with make two large pizzas approximately 30cm in diameter.