Monday, January 31, 2011

Stanford: it’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s delovely

The terrace at Marianas

You know those mornings.

Your mouth tastes like it has been used in a series of illegal chemical experiments. Your face feels like a Picasso painting. You wake up with an urgent, insatiable craving for Coca-Cola. And, as you begin to move your body to assess the damage, aches and pains draw your attention to several UDIs (unidentified drinking injuries). You need a long weekend to recover from your long weekend.

Yesterday was one such morning.
I’d do it all again, though, because in the past few days I have had two of the best meals of my life.

First, Marianas. I am writing about this begrudgingly, as I really don’t want this restaurant to become any more popular. As it is, you usually have to book at least a month in advance.

We arrive at 12 and are greeted by Peter Estherhuizen, Mariana’s husband, who shows us to our seats on the sunny terrace overlooking green lawn and Mariana’s vegetable garden. Bright, slightly faded 70s-style beach umbrellas and a vine provide shade. Bread is served with homemade tapenade, and we order three starters: a light, creamy cheese tart, a refreshing watermelon, basil and goats cheese salad, and tarentaal rillette (a rustic pâté).



Melon salad

Tarentaal rillettes

For mains, plaashoender (farm chicken), slow-cooked to perfection, on a bed of creamy carrot mash and roasted onions, with a sharp cucumber salad and gravy on the side. Heaven. GP had an aubergine lasagne, which he ate in silent reverence: it was saucy but not too rich, and the incredible flavour of home-grown tomatoes made it. I honestly didn’t know they could taste that good.

What I love, love, love about Mariana’s cooking is its complete lack of pretension — they have no interest in manipulating their food (mostly sourced from their garden and local producers), so what you get is completely uncompromised flavour. No effort is made to try and rescue the dish from its own ingredients.

In other words, it’s bloody good.

We wanted to know if Mariana and Peter would adopt the Guinea Pig and I and raise us as their own, but they laughed and gave us some parsnip seeds and a hug.

Aubergine lasagne


Mariana's garden

Inside Marianas

We saw Mariana and Peter again that evening at a local pub, Oom Stein’s (great burgers, FYI), which was buzzing as everyone wanted to catch an impromptu set by Valiant Swart, where Peter introduced us to Jero Rivett, co-chef and co-owner (with his wife, Catch) of Graze: Slow Food Café. Exuberant and gifted with the gab, we soon learnt that Jero is someone who finds it impossible to keep his passions to himself. (Food passions, you naughty reader, I mean food passions.)

Now let’s see — my interest was piqued when he revealed that he grows all the produce used in his kitchen in his own award-winning garden, and that he uses a R45,000 coffee machine. But when he told me of the Jersey cow’s milk mozzarella (burrata) that he sources from Italian brothers living in the Cape, a mozzarella to rival any buffalo-milk variety, with a creamy centre that pours out when you tear it open, and that he serves this as part of insalata Caprese at Graze, I knew wild horses could not stop me from trying that cheese.

Try it I did, and oh my word, it was glorious: sliced tomatoes, pesto, basil leaves, balsamic, olive oil, and in the centre a great big ball of silky-soft, dreamy white mozzarella, which I tore open and ate with my fingers. I daresay the other diners were shifting in their seats and raising their eyebrows because of all the groans of pleasure coming from our table.

We also had an equally delicious platter of bresaola with crisp, peppery rocket, slivers of grana padano, lemon juice and olive oil. Did I mentioned the bread? No? Jero makes it with sea water: pana di mare. The rosemary and olive focaccia... Well, let’s just say that when he brought us a few slices to try before we ordered, which we dipped in olive oil, I could quite happily have had only a plate of it for lunch, it was that good. Olympia Café could learn a thing or two from this man about bread.

If you are ever in Stanford and do not go to eat at Marianas and/or Graze, I just want you to know what you’re missing. If you do go, though, try not to drink quite as many bottles of Raka Rosé as we did.

On the verandah at Graze

Inside Graze

Insalata Caprese at Graze

Bresaola platter at Graze

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Crispy, creamy Parmesan polenta squares (i.e. heaven)

I used to worry a lot about the books I read.

A great deal of my late teens and early twenties were spent reading the sort of books I thought I ought to (i.e. ones that gave myself and, I secretly hoped, others the impression that I was thoughtful, sensitive, deeply intelligent and avant-garde). So I ended up ploughing through a lot of Milan Kundera, Ayn Rand, Carlos Castaneda and Aldous Huxley. Don’t get me wrong, it was all great literature and I was certainly the better for it (because, of course, I am thoughtful, sensitive, deeply intelligent and avant-garde) — it’s just that, well, a lot of them were hard work.

Latterly, I’ve begun to realise that what really makes me happy is curling up in bed with a large packet of crisps and the latest Terry Pratchett/ Stephen King/Carl Hiaasen. There, my shameful secret is out. Though I experience little more than a twinge of guilt whenever my eye happens to settle on my unread copy of Nabokov’s Lolita, or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 — because although I made a concerted effort, I could not get past the first 20 pages.

I feel a much stronger twinge when I catch sight of my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which glares at me accusingly from my kitchen shelf (because I cannot bring myself to pack it away).

Like so many, I rushed out and bought a copy of MTAFC (exorbitantly priced, considering it was a paperback with no pictures) after seeing Julie & Julia. I made a fairly successful cheese soufflé from it about a year-and-a-half ago, and I haven’t picked it up since. You see, it’s one of those cookbooks I feel I ought to like, but really it just feels like hard work. It’s too prescriptive. Too... I don’t know. I just get the impression that I am being sized up by the ghost of Julia Child and found wanting.

Now, give me a copy of Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy, A River Café book or anything by Skye Gyngell, and I am in seventh heaven.

This dish does not appear in any of my cookery books, and in fact I have never seen a recipe for it, which is somewhat surprising because I have paged through many, many Italian cookbooks.

Of course, everyone knows about grilled polenta, but this happens to be my own particular version and I’m rather proud of it, because it is addictive. Personally I don’t like thick slices of polenta, grilled or otherwise. These thin squares are beautifully crunchy and golden on the outside, soft and creamy on the inside, and, with the Parmesan and salt, deeply savoury.

If you like, sprinkle a little chopped rosemary or crumble some crispy proscuitto (or both) over the polenta before grilling, but I quite like them plain. Their simple, earthy, mealy, salty, cheesy flavour is at once comforting and convivial.

They are, perhaps, to proper hors d’oeuvres what Steinbeck is to Proust (ahem), and that is precisely what I like about them: they have not the slightest hint of pretension. Serve with pre-dinner drinks.

Grilled Parmesan polenta squares
Serves 6

220g polenta
2 litres water
4 (or more, if you like) tbsp freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra for sprinkling
4 tbsp olive oil
Maldon or other good quality sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. In a large saucepan, bring the water to the boil and slowly whisk in the polenta. Be sure not to dump a large dollop in, or you’ll end up with lumps. A slow steady stream is best.
2. Cook on high heat for about 5 minutes until it thickens. Turn down the heat and cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the polenta has the consistency of porridge.
3. Grease a large baking tray with the olive oil, then pour the polenta on it and spread out with a knife or spatula so that you have a layer of polenta no thicker than 1cm and no thinner than 5mm (it’s not a hard-and-fast rule or anything, I just like it that way).
4. Leave to cool, and after 10 or 15 minutes the polenta will have set and be hard enough to cut into squares. Gently loosen the squares, sprinkle the Parmesan over them and season with salt and pepper. Grill for about 15 minutes, or until the edges are crispy and golden. (Just a note here: you want enough olive oil in your baking tray to gently fry the polenta, so it gets grilled on the top and fried on the bottom. If you think you need a little extra olive oil, by all means add some.)
5. Transfer the polenta squares to a serving dish lined with absorbent paper towel, and top with a nice thick layer of grated Parmesan. Prepare to be humbled.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Grilled aubergine, lentils, chilli, herbs

We were just outside Wellington, on the edge of the desert, and the beers were still cold.

We were on our way to the Tankwa Karoo National Park. About 60km back the road had curved sharply to the left, leaving behind lush vineyards and green hills, taking us into the bleached, eternal landscape of the Karoo.

The Guinea Pig and I were elated — starting, as we were, on our second ice-cold Tafel lager. This was the stuff, being out here, in the middle of nowhere, leaving it all behind: stress, the rat race, the strain of city living — and, as it turned out, cell phone reception.

As we crested another identical hill, several gleaming 4x4s came into view, parked on the side of the road down below. There were hazy figures milling about. Approaching, we saw one was lying in the road. Another was standing waving his arms in the air for us to stop.

No one was hurt, though.

A group of generously proportioned gentlemen — faces like pot scourers, heads like anvils — had decided it would be a capital idea to pull over on the side of the road and imbibe a little ... er, what looked like Coca Cola (undoubtedly kept company by one of it’s close associates, rum or brandy).

These guys did not look drunk. They looked as though they had never been sober.

Somewhere just outside Wellington.

This is how we found ourselves surrounded by about ten large, drunk characters (salt of the earth, I’m sure), leaning on the bonnet, standing in front of the car, leering in through the open window (idiot!), insisting — sort-of amiably, sort-of not — that we get out and have a drink with them.

GP and I smiled. We mumbled things along the lines of ‘Ha ha, we’d love to but we’re late and we must be getting on. Thank you so much for the offer, though. Another time. Ha ha.’

Very, very slowly, we inched forward, smiling slit-eyed, nodding, waving, until we broke free, at which point we accelerated reassuringly. Over the hill, we promptly downed another Tafel each in silence. The Scary Men were out of sight, soon to be out of mind. Or so we thought.

‘Why are you slowing down?’

 ‘I’m not,’ says GP. There is an edge in his voice.

‘What do you mean?’

‘The car is losing power — it’s slowing down all on its own. Something’s wrong.’

Car trouble. Middle of nowhere. No cell reception.

‘We have to go back,’ says GP.

Although the prospect of having a bubble bath with Julius Malema held more appeal than turning back and passing our plastered friends again, proceeding further into the middle of nowhere was simply not an option.

So we turned around and made our way back towards Wellington. By the time the men came into view, we were not travelling faster than 20km/h, because we couldn’t.

Once again, one of them lay down in the road and they waved for us to stop. GP, bless him, simple took a little detour off the road and went right around the horizontal man. Very slowly.

There is a particular arrangement of ticks and pinched muscles your face assumes when your insides have gone goopy with fear, and even though your survival instinct has run off to hide behind a rock, somehow you know it’d be a very, very bad idea to let on that you are this close to incontinence.

Although we were careful not to make eye contact, we had time to observe one of them, propped up by a car door, lose the fight against gravity. Another appeared to be pleasuring himself matter-of-factly, glass in (other) hand. It was not outside the realm of possibility that one of them would take it into their head to rugby tackle the car, or simply hop on and provide us with the opportunity to cause offense.

The car slowed to 15km/h as we hit the incline, and dropped to 10km/h as we approached the crest. I had visions of the engine cutting, of the heart-stopping moment when the car would begin to roll back down towards the Scary Men.

By the time we got over the hill, my body was so rigid it could have been used to open crates.

We even managed to crest another hill before the engine finally died. At least we were out of sight.

Four hours later — after a kind couple of geologists happened past and towed us to the nearest patch of cell reception, and we were able to call for roadside assistance — we were back in Cape Town. We had a few laughs about the whole experience, about how our long-anticipated weekend in the wilds of Tankwa had nearly turned into Deliverance in the desert.

We laughed. But I will never forget it.

That night I made this dish. And we liked it very much, because it is comforting. And when you’ve been a little traumatised, you want reassuring food.

It has all the qualities I most desire in a recipe. Although I am a certifiable cookbook addict, I very rarely cook the actual recipes in any of the ones I own, because I don’t want to have to source za’atar or enoki mushrooms or kohlrabi on my way home from work in the evenings. I want to stop at Woolies or Pick n Pay and get everything I need in one go. Of course I get a bit more adventurous, usually on weekends, but it’s dishes like the one you see above that I adore — they get me excited, because it is their simplicity that makes them so brilliant.

Well, don’t take my word for it.

Grilled aubergine with lentils, chilli, herbs
Serves 2 as a main and 4 as a side dish

2 medium aubergines
1 cup black/brown lentils (green is fine too), rinsed
1 large handful each coriander and flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 red chilly, seeds removed and finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
50g chevin (soft goats cheese)
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1. Slice the aubergines length ways into 2cm slices and spread out in a baking tray (they should not overlap). Sprinkle with salt and black pepper, drizzle with olive oil and work the mixture into the aubergine slices with your fingers so they are evenly coated.
2. Grill the aubergines until golden and cooked through (I put my oven on the highest setting and then place the aubergines at the bottom of the oven so they cook through without burning).
3. In the meantime, cook the lentils. Place the lentils in a saucepan with two cups water and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer until the lentils are tender but still firm, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool. (I usually just whack the lentils into a sieve and run cold water over them — they don’t have to be cold, they just shouldn’t be hot as the heat kills the taste of the herbs.)
4. In a bowl combine the lemon juice, zest, garlic, chilli, herbs and the olive oil, then stir into the warm lentils. Cut the aubergine slices into quarters and gently fold them into the lentils, taking care not to mash them up.
5. Transfer to a serving dish, top with crumbled goats cheese and serve. (Yes, I took these pictures before I realised I’d left out the goat cheese!)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

My go-to summer salad

I have been making this salad all summer, and my obsession with is still growing. It’s incredibly fresh-tasting, perfect for feeding a crowd, and just unusual enough to impress. I used to make it fairly often years ago, but somehow I’d forgotten about it — until I started going through the Ottolenghi cookbook (a gift from my Guinea Pig). Old Yotam is a big fan of fresh coriander, and seeing his creations jogged my memory.

Not only is this salad stupidly simple (and I’m all about that), it’s also wondrously versatile. You could add pretty much anything you like — olives, avocado, salad leaves, croutons, red onion, roasted vegetables, chunks of grilled meat or tofu — and it goes brilliantly with seared tuna steaks or roast leg of lamb. Oooh my mouth is watering.

Pearl barley salad
Serves 2 as a main or 4 as a starter

125ml pearl barley, rinsed
1 large handful each fresh coriander, basil and mint leaves, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
Juice of one lemon
About 100ml extra-virgin olive oil
½ English cucumber, chopped into small cubes (roughly 5mm)
2 medium or one large tomatoes, chopped into small cubes (roughly 5mm)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Add the barley to a saucepan filled with plenty of water and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about an hour, or until tender. Drain in a sieve, then spread the barley out on a tray to cool and dry out a little.
2. In a small bowl combine the salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice, and mix until the salt has dissolved.
3. In a large bowl, combine the barley with the cucumber, tomato, herbs, garlic and dressing, and mix well to combine.
4. Set aside for 20 minutes to an hour to give the flavours a little time to develop, then serve.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Calming down to a panic

When, dear reader, did life get so hectic?

It happens when you're not looking. When you're putting out fires, trying to calm down to a panic and just catch up with yourself.

Between moving (and renovating) house, going to an overseas wedding, insane deadlines, visiting the family for Christmas and doing the Whale Trail over New Year, it feels as though I've been running about 10 paces behind my own life recently.

And the fallout, when I finally found myself standing still, was a sense of 'What the hell just happened? Where am I? Who am I? What is the point?'

Ahem, sorry to burden you with these inner cogitations, but I am sharing them by way of explaining my absence (because I know that you have put your life on hold, waiting for my next blog post, right?).

No. I guess I'm writing this post to myself.

Life really is too short to place greater importance on what you feel you aught to do, than what you really want (need) to do. The trick is finding the courage to actually do it.

I want to write more. And cook more. And that is what I am going to do, deadlines be damned. (Please hold me to that!)

I haven't done much in the way of cooking for quite some time, as you may or may not have gathered, but I would like to share this stupendously easy pre-dinner drinks snack with you, which went with our Christmas dinner. It is stunningly simple and quite delicious, and while it may not win any haute cuisine awards, it has a certain rustic charm. It is ideal as a quick throw-together for impromptu gatherings of family and/or friends.

Okay, I know, I know. It's just posh toasted cheese. But doesn't it look good?

Anchovy toasts
Take one small tin of anchovies in olive oil and two cloves garlic, crushed, and gently fry over a medium-low heat in about 150g butter, until the anchovies have melted. In the mean time, chop up a large handful of flat-leaf parsley and lightly toast about 8 slices sourdough bread. Cut each slice in half and brush with the anchovy butter, sprinkle with the parsley, and top with a thin layer of grated cheese, such as Parmesan, Grana Padano, Pecorino or, my current favourite, Auricchio. (Heck, in a pinch, even cheddar would still give a pretty delicious result.) Grill the toasts and serve.