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 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
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.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Holy guacamole


I know. Guacamole — right? It's not exactly up there with beef bourguignon and lobster bisque… but it is pretty darned tasty if you're in the mood (and I get into the mood, oh, twice a week at least, especially if I’m hungover), and if it's made right.

Until a few years ago, I always thought of guacamole as something to be put up with at house-warmings and Mexican-themed birthday parties — it was either too watery (blegh), too chunky (no one will like you if you force them to bite down on a large chuck of raw onion), or brown (I'm sorry, it had to be said). I think it’s important to make sure you have really good corn chips (the handmade, unsalted kind) and really creamy avocados.

When the balance of garlic, onion, coriander, tomato and lemon juice is right, well it’s just gosh-darned delicious. I can’t think of anything better to share with friends over a few bottles of chilled rosé on a casual, lazy Sunday afternoon.

2 medium avocados, mashed
1 small red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large handful coriander, finely chopped
1 medium red chilli, seeds removed and finely chopped (optional)
2 ripe plum tomatoes, finely chopped (I leave the seeds in
— it’s up to you)
Juice of 1 lemon

It’s pretty standard stuff: throw it all in a bowl and mix until pleasingly homogenised. Season to taste with plenty of Maldon sea salt, and serve with golden, crunchy corn chips. And rosé. Don't forget the rosé.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ricotta gnocchi with lemon and thyme butter (and a lentil frittata)

I started making this ricotta gnocchi at about 8.30pm on Tuesday night, and we ate at around 10pm... The late start was due to too much wine and 'mucking about' (as my gran likes to say), and the late eating time was due to, well, more wine. I'm not entirely sure you needed to know that, but there it is.

I had recently become obsessed with the idea of making ricotta gnocchi after I saw it in an old issue of Donna Hay (I know, I know, I need to see other magazines). You see, I've never really understood the hype around gnocchi — the potato kind, that is. Whether this has to do with the cataclysmic temper tantrum I threw last time I tried to make potato gnocchi (the Guinea Pig is forbidden to ever speak of it),
or that I've just never tasted really good gnocchi, I don't know. But this ricotta version appealed to me, mainly because I love anything to do with ricotta, and secondly, the recipe just seemed too easy to be true. But it was true. (The pool of gorgeous melted butter didn't hurt its case.)

Then on Thursday, I made Molly Wizenberg's French-Style Warm Lentil Salad (I know, I know, I need to see other blogs). It was my new favourite dish before the gnocchi, and I've made it about three times over the last few weeks (I strongly urge you to try it just the way she presents it: with some gorgeous salami, gherkins, and crusty bread). The problem is, I always make way too much. Oh, of course I could just follow the exact quantity measurements, but what would be the fun in that?

So I had a few cups (about two) of this lentil salad in the fridge, and decided to make a frittata. I've never seen lentils in a frittata before, and I'm not sure why this is because they work really well. I cracked six beaten eggs into a bowl, grated in about half a cup (okay, maybe a whole cup) of Parmesan, a handful of chopped parsley and the lentils. Poured this into a pan and topped with bits of salami. It was ... delicious. If you ever have spare cooked lentils just lying around, not earning their keep, make this dish. We had it with a  green salad and some crusty (buttered) bread.

Ricotta gnocchi with lemon and thyme butter
250g ricotta cheese
½ cup finely grated Parmesan
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ cup plain (all-purpose flour)
¼ cup flatleaf parsley leaves, chopped
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
Finely grated Parmesan, extra to serve

Lemon and thyme butter
80g butter
2 tsp thyme leaves
2 tsp finely grated lemon rind
2 tsp lemon juice

1. To make the lemon and thyme butter, place the butter, lemon rind, thyme and juice in a small saucepan over low heat, and stir until the butter is melted. Set aside and keep warm.
2. Place the ricotta, Parmesan, egg, flour, parsley, salt and pepper in a bowl and mix well to combine.
3. Turn out the mixture onto a lightly floured surface and roll into a 15cm long ‘rope’. Cut into 2cm lengths and press lightly with the back of a fork. Cook the gnocchi in batches in a large pot of salted boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes or until cooked through. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in serving bowls. Spoon over the lemon butter and top with the extra Parmesan to serve. Serves 4.