My immediate response would usually be Jamie Oliver. Mostly, I think, because when I first started to get excited about cooking, it was his cooking. But time has passed and my cookbook collection has expanded (modestly), and I've made room in my heart for a few others...
The River Café. Sophia Loren. Giorgio Locatelli. (Hm, I'm sensing a bit of a theme here...) Julia Child. Skye Gyngell. What's more, the way a cookbook is written has begun to appeal to me more than the pretty pictures.
Sometimes I just sit and look at the spines, wondering if I'll ever get around to cooking even a quarter of the dishes between those covers.
I also have a scrap book packed with recipes printed out from various blogs and websites over the years. (You too? I think we print-out kleptos should form a support group.) I've begun to refer to it affectionately as the 'recipe graveyard'. Most of the pages are loose, jammed in there haphazardly with the thought (more of a prayer, really) that one day I will actually sit down, order them and stick their asses down.
But yesterday was not that day.
In fact, I'm wretchedly grateful I hadn't got round to sorting that hellish mess of paper print-outs, because then I probably wouldn't have discovered this recipe for another five or ten... okay, fine: probably never.
I was reaching for another book entirely when the recipe graveyard went tumbling to the floor. Miraculously, only one piece of paper escaped, and on it was the recipe you see below.
Anchovy and walnut sauce. Let's just think about that... Anchovy. And Walnut. Sauce. I'm not particlarly religious, but in that moment I felt I was being called upon by a higher power to create something divine.
And now I'm going to spread the word.
Anchovy and walnut sauce by Skye Gyngell
Makes enough for 6
This sauce is best made on the day it is to be eaten.
2 good-quality anchovies
1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsley
A handful of shelled walnuts, finely chopped
100ml/31/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
Pound all the ingredients except the oil in a pestle and mortar until smooth, then pour in the oil and stir well to combine. Spoon over any lightly cooked green vegetable, such as broccoli, spinach or chard.
[I spooned the sauce over lightly steamed broccoli and zucchini, but I can’t wait to try it on fish, crusty bread and even chicken.]
Pssst, by the way, I've created a recipe index, which you may have noticed, on the right, beneath my prattle about myself. I hope it'll make our lives easier.
Sometimes you need to break your own rules in order to remind yourself why you have them in the first place...
There are a few that I will never, ever breach. For example, rule no. 7: Don't squash simmering whole cherry tomatoes with the back of a spoon — unless you enjoy a visit to your local ICU. But, sometimes, in my enthusiasm, I just forget.
And so recently I found myself trying out a recipe for a dinner party that — what you are about to hear is a true story ladies and gentlemen — I had never tried before. It's just one of those rules I have, because it simply N.E.V.E.R fails to end in disaster.
On this particular occasion, friends had invited me and the Guinea Pig over for dinner. Takeout pizza, in fact, at their place, because they are new parents and were just too worn out to bother with the cooking and cleaning that goes with a dinner party.
But I wouldn't hear of it. No, no, I absolutely insisted on coming over and cooking dinner for them — and if they raised so much as one word of protest, I would consider it a personal affront.
So that was that. Now... what was I going to cook? Then it hit me: of course. I'll make a dish I've only ever looked at in recipes books and thought, 'That seems easy enough...'.
When I arrived at said friends' house and began to extrude the ingredients for grilled sole with leeks and potato gratin from the shopping bags, I got an inkling that I hadn't quite thought this through. For starters, I don't know how their oven works — I'm used to my oven, treacherous, schizophrenic time bomb that it is — and my tools and my pots and pans.
It was a disaster. The potato slices did not cook through, even though I added an hour to the cooking time (during which the top charred to the appealing consistency of tar), and the sole and leeks melted into watery, tasteless mush
My friends, of course, were unfailingly polite, which made the whole ordeal much, much worse.
'Under-cooked?' one of them said, pushing a piece of glassy, too-solid potato around her plate. 'Not at all! This is the way we normally eat, uh... What did you say this was called?'
'Look, I'm sorry,' I said, 'this really isn't one of my best meals... Pizza would've been a much better idea!'
'Nonsense!' they cooed. 'We love it!'
But, of course, at the end of the evening, a plate of cold food that's only been nibbled at never lies.
'Who could possibly screw up a gratin?' you might be thinking — I know, I know, it's up there with botching 2-minute noodles.
That is why we all have our little rules (which need to be broken now and then, so we are reminded why we have them in the first place).
The following is a dish I should have made that evening. It's quick, fool-proof and just delicious, winter or summer. God bless Jamie. I added two chopped celery stalks because I like the crunch...
Jamie Oliver's summer chickpea salad
1 small red onion, peeled
1–2 fresh red chillies, deseeded
2 handfuls of ripe red or yellow tomatoes
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 x 410g jar or tin of chickpeas, drained, or around 4 large handfuls of soaked and cooked chickpeas
a handful of fresh mint, chopped
a handful of fresh green or purple basil, finely ripped
200g feta cheese
First of all, finely slice your red onion. Once that's done, finely slice your chillies then roughly chop your tomatoes, mixing them in with the onion and chillies. Scrape all of this, and the juice, into a bowl and dress with the juice of 1½ lemons and about 3 times as much good extra virgin olive oil. Season to taste. Heat the chickpeas in a pan, then add 90 per cent of them to the bowl. Mush up the remaining chickpeas and add these as well – they will give a nice creamy consistency. Allow to marinate for a little while and serve at room temperature.
Just as you're ready to serve, give the salad a final dress with the fresh mint and basil. Taste one last time for seasoning – you may want to add the juice from your remaining lemon half at this point. Place on a nice serving dish and crumble over the feta cheese.
This blog post is eventually going to end with some copy relevant to porcini risotto and a simple little radicchio salad, but first let's take our clothes off and streak naked across the inner fields of our youth...
(In our heads. Please don’t really take your clothes off.
Oh alright, if you must.)
This morning, as I drove to work, I found myself clicking into that unconscious revery that only happens when you’re doing something you’ve done a hundred times before; something that requires only cursory attention (perhaps it’s a South African thing that might account for our high road accident rate — or perhaps my high road accident rate).
A train of thought (now forgotten) led me back to a small litchi farm just outside Nelspruit, circa 1985. I must have been 4 or 5. I remembered the grand old farm house we lived in around that time, girdled by the kind of extravagant viranda you hardly ever see outside of decor magazines these days. I remembered the many delights (a ready supply of ripe litchis, endless hiding places, highveld thunderstorms), terrors (snakes, spiders, BOP TV) and comforts (crickets at dusk...), but my memories of that time centre not so much on any of these, as on Mavis, who used to help my mom out with household chores.
And when I say help out, I mean inflict rampant destruction.
Once, she washed the toaster in the sink. With dishwashing liquid. Another time, she tried to defrost the fridge freezer with a chizel and hammer (resulting in a burst pipe)... I only learnt of these (among many) incidents later, when I was older, but I didn’t find it hard to believe that my mother couldn’t bring herself to send Mavis packing because she was just so, well, likable. (Plus, I think she actually lived on the farm, and was married to the gardener, so that might have had something to do with it.)
This fabulously large and jolly woman always (and I mean without exception) had a never-ending supply of Cadburies toffees in her pockets — you know, the ones with the chocolate centre — which she dispenced to my brother and I with flagrant disregard for our dental health. She taught us how to suck the nectar from honeysuckle blossoms, and which wild berries we could eat straight off the trees...
Later, in my early to late teens, I was exposed to various colourful (green noodles) and adventurous (black pudding) dishes through my parents’ passing infatuations with various cuisines, and I’m so grateful I was. Whenever I went to stay at a friend’s house, I was kind of perplexed by the bland, overcooked or plastic food they ate: tinned peas (ack!), Smash (people actually choose to eat this after they’ve left boarding school?), overcooked steaks (read: old boot), soggy cabbage (disturbingly redolent of men’s lavatory).
I guess I was one of the lucky ones.
What early food memories stand out for you?
On a completely unrelated matter, I feel I must share with you this rather fabulous one-man show I went to see two evenings ago. If you’re in Cape Town over the next week or two, do yourself a favour and check out Rumpsteak — especially if you love food, French food in particular (and let’s be serious — who doesn’t?). Actor Gaetan Schmid plays all the characters in an imaginary upmarket French restaurant: the slutty waitress; the snobbish maître d’; the camp pastry chef; the savage butcher; the ecstatic sauce-master; and a few others. The sound effects are brilliant, and the Gaetan himself is hilarious.
AA Gill has this to say about French food: ‘At its best, it’s like being massaged by a troupe of can-can dancers smeared in duck fat.’ While this observation might not quite prepare you for Gaetan’s particular brand of physical comedy, it certainly sets the mood.
Rumpsteak is on at the Intimate Theatre until 29 May (click here for details). (Plus you get a 15% discount on your meal at Society Bistro across the road if you present your ticket, so that’s nice.)
Just for fun I asked Gaetan to answer a few questions for our edification:
1. What is your earliest food memory?
Gaetan: A summer holiday with my mum, my dad and my brother when I was about 6 or 7.
We had chargrilled mielie on the beach … in St Tropez. Just thinking about it, I smile of contentment.
Probably that’s why I love going to the restaurant with my son Matteo.
And to look at his face when he tries something new... He gives me the thumbs up while chewing and his eyes not leaving his plate.
2. What is your favourite dish to cook and eat?
Gaetan: To eat: Steak Tartare. Or like we call it in Belgium: Américain Préparé. 'Prepared American'. Don’t ask me why. Whenever I go back to Belgium to see my parents, there is a lot of raw minced beef waiting for me in the fridge. For the first three days I eat it morning, midday and evening and my wife Lara winces.
To cook: Pollastra Catalan. Catalan Chicken. Lots of stuff to chop, fry and let simmer for a long time in a big round earthenware pot. And let magic happen. From when I was a penniless theatre student in Paris.
Whenever my Catalan buddy made a bit of money, he spent it in the food market to cook Pollastra Catalan with his Belgian buddy: me. Another smile on my face.
3. What inspired Rumpsteak?
Gaetan: During the Edinburgh theatre festival we had hectolitres of red wine late at night in an Italian restaurant. I sat next to the open plan kitchen. It was a high testosterone experience. Much more stimulating and inspiring than all the theatre I saw during the day.
4. Have you tried any traditionally South African food? What did you think of it?
Gaetan: I had a 'Smiley' (sheep's head) late at night in Langa [township]. Lots of heads to choose from in a big barrel full of boiling water... A bit like a witches brew. The 'chef' had a big laugh when he saw the two 'whiteys' arriving at his 'restaurant'. Mandla, my friend and host, offered us the best part: the eyes. A real delicacy. Tasted like bone marrow.
Luckily we had a lot of brandy before in the shebeen next door. When I couldn’t sink the balls anymore, Mandla said I was ready for a 'smiley'. He was smiling too, the bastard.
5. Sweet or savoury?
Gaetan: Savoury, definitely. I fell in the sweet cauldron when I was a child. Like Obelix.
6. Which food/s do you absolutely detest?
Gaetan: Raw green peppers. Meringue. And badly prepared 'andouillette'. I’ll let you Google that one to understand (and vomit).
7. Have you been to any good restaurants in Cape Town? Which was your favourite?
Gaetan: Societe Bistro for the great atmosphere and the only place in South Africa where I had a sexy black pudding canapé.
Den Anker (a Belgian restaurant at the V&A Waterfront) when I miss home, where I eat Duvel and Toast Cannibale (Américain Préparé on toast. Don’t ask). Willoughby for the oyster shooter — it beats a Bloody Mary when you have a hangover.
And now we come to the copy relevant to porcini risotto and a simple little radicchio salad. (Do I need more continuity in my bog posts? I’m beginning to wonder...)
Last night was a typical winter’s evening in the Mother City: thrashing wind and sheets of rain... And once I fixated on the idea of risotto, I was not going to settle for anything else. I know porcini risotto is about as original as a Hallmark card (yes, your first impression was correct: that doesn’t really make sense), but hear me out: I’ve had a rather fraught relationship with risotto.
The first one I made was a lemon risotto, on my own at home getting sloshed while watching Sideways for the third time (don’t delay, watch it today, one of my all-time top 10) — it was an epiphany. But since then it’s always gone a little awry: too stodgy; not properly cooked; chalky; bland... I’m not going to give you a recipe for porcini risotto (there are, like, a billion on the Net), but I will point you in the direction of an article in the Guardian that helped clarify a few things. For instance, I had not heard of carnaroli rice — it’s 100 times better than arborio in my books. Cooks quicker and more evenly. Also, beating the crap out of the risotto at the end when you add the butter and Parmesan helps to give it that lovely glossy texture.
I served it with a radicchio salad (dressed in crumbled Cremazola, red wine vinegar, olive oil and a little wholegrain mustard) and bruschetta – it was a perfect, perfect vegetarian meal.
There's something about the light in autumn... It's less harsh than high summer light, which has a seering, bleaching quality. Autmun light is softer, more illuminating. It makes everything somehow sad and beautiful.
(I'm a poet trapped inside a writer's body — I don't care what my first-year lecturer said.)
And so it was that on the glorious autumn afternoon of this Saturday past, I decided to make these cauliflower fritters. I'd just received my copy of Taste in the post and came apon Bill Granger's recipe therein.
There's something so essentially autumnal about this dish — I'm not sure if it's the colour, or the comforting, mildly spicy taste, but it's just so appropriate for this time of year. Served with garlicky yoghurt, thin slivers of crunchy red onion, a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt and a squeeze of lime juice... Gosh, I'm salivating as I type. Do try it — it's easy as pie and, if you're a veggie lover like me, dangerously addictive.
1 couliflower (about 600g), cut into florets
3 free range eggs, separated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup cornflower
1/2 cup water
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
olive oil, for frying
red onion, finely sliced, for serving
For the garlic-yoghurt sauce, combine:
1/2 cup thick plain yoghurt
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Blanch the cauliflower florets in salted boiling water for 3 minutes, or until tender. Refresh under cold water, then roughly chop. Whisk the egg yolks and season to taste.
2. Add the cornflower, a little at a time, alternating with a little water, and whisk continually until the cornflower and water have been incorporated. Stir through the onion, cauliflower, spices and coriander, and set aside.
3. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold the egg whites through the batter mixture, in two batches, using a metal spoon.
4. Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Drop 2 tbsp of batter at a time into the pan, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and crisp. Remove and drain on paper towel.
5. To serve: Arrange the fritters on a platter. Drizzle with garlicky yoghurt, season to taste and serve with red onion slices.