Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Some kind of magic trick

My loathing of mince pies is surpassed only by my aversion to Christmas cake. There's something cloying about the taste of candied or dried fruit — raisins in particular — that yanks on my epiglottis and makes my stomach lurch. Perhaps its the concentration of sickly sweet sugar with a faint undertone of rotten fruit, delivered in a mouthful of dense, leathery stodge...

Anyway, the result is that I struggle to swallow anything that contains raisins, and balk at the profusion of mince pies and Christmas cake this time of year. Bah humbug.

I am wincing as I type this, because it feels a cold-blooded betrayal of my maternal grandmother's beloved festive tradition: Christmas cake.

She'd make one every year, somewhere between September and October, and douse it, regularly and liberally, in brandy. By the time 25 December rolled around, the thing would have absorbed so much alcohol that it developed a boozy halo: the air around it would shimmer and wobble, like a heat haze.

After stuffing ourselves silly on the main course, the lights would be dimmed, the pudding would be given a final brandy shower in the kitchen, and then Dan would take a match to it* and carry it through to the table, enveloped in rippling, ghostly blue flame. We'd all clap.

(*I'd often imagine far-off Christmas carolers staring, slack-jawed, at the nuclear mushroom cloud that resulted from the pudding's first encounter with a naked flame.)

It was a beautiful tradition, marred only by the minor inconvenience of me absolutely detesting Christmas pudding. But to reject the pudding would have been to reject Dan, so there was no question that we would eat it as a show of appreciation for her care and effort. Usually, I'd get it down by smothering it in enough brandy butter and whipped cream to kill a reindeer.

Now, take my feelings for dessicated fruit and traditional Christmas confectionery, and invert them, and that's exactly how I feel about this carrot salad.

Crazy, I know!

Because no matter how you say it...

'Carrot salad.'

'Carrot salad.'

'Carrot salad.'


... it sounds as dull as ditchwater, and about as tasty.

And I'm right with you. I mean, carrots. They are just deeply unsexy. (Unless you're Uncle Monty.) No one's idea of a dream meal stars carrots as the main act. A dish dominated by 'carotyness' is a dish that is unlikely to pique my interest.

But there's magic in this salad — that's the only way to account for it. And by 'it' I mean 'deliciousness'; 'moreishness'; 'I'll have a third helping of that please-ness'.
I first had it at a housewarming. Friends Cristal and Andrew recently bought a lush, charming property in Noordhoek, complete with resident pig (her name is Rosie). They served this salad as a side to beautifully braaied yellowtail.

Well, the salad completely stole the show. Everyone had second and third helpings. It just disappeared. No one could quite believe that a carrot salad could taste so good. It was like some kind of magic trick. I've replicated it at home with complete success, so the recipe works (there wasn't some additive — like smack — Cristal and Andrew forgot to tell me about). Nope, it's just ginger, mint, cumin, lemon, garlic and craploads of carrot. I think if there's any magic trick involved at all, it's to give the salad enough downtime to let the flavours praat mekaar.

Try it.

Mint & ginger carrot salad
[Serves 6]
(Adapted from Organic Farm & Garden Magazine, Volume 1, 2nd Edition)

5 large carrots, grated or julienned
1 Tbsp fresh grated ginger

3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 small garlic clove, minced
Pinch cayenne pepper
Pinch ground cumin
1 heaped Tbsp fresh chopped mint

1. In a large bowl, combine carrots and grated ginger. Cover and refrigerate for about half an hour so the flavours can combine.
2. In a jar with a lid, mix lemon juice, olive oil, salt, garlic, cayenne, cumin and mint. Shake to combine.
3. Add dressing to carrots and mix well. If time permits, allow the salad to sit on the counter for about half an hour before serving so the flavours can combine. The salad should be served at room temperature.


Things I'm...

DRINKING: Neethlingshof Six Flowers white blend; Lammershoek LAM Pinotage.

READING: Rachel Eats (my latest food blog obsession).

WATCHING: Utopia Season 2 (an original, delightfully demented and off-beat conspiracy thriller).

LISTENING TO: After the Disco, Broken Bells (makes me feel happy and sad at the same time).

Monday, December 15, 2014

Forget everything you think you know about puff pastry

Okay, well, not everything, exactly. The bit about making it out of flour and butter is pretty important. And water. I'm talking about the bit where you have to get the little globs of butter just the right size — not too big, not too small — in order not to end up with pastry the consistency of damp cardboard.

So perhaps it would be more accurate to say 'forget 10% of what you know about puff pastry'. (It's a pretty crucial 10 percent. But then, I'm being mighty presumptuous about your familiarity with puff pastry, so let's all agree that the intro to this blog post is a bit of a disaster and move on, shall we?)

If, like me, you have a fraught relationship with puff pastry (the making thereof, not the eating), you'll want to read this post on Serious Eats.

I don't do butter-cutting. The practice reminds me of those depressingly interminable afternoons (double lessons) spent in Mrs Foulks' Home Economics classes, learning to make scones, or some such. She was humourless, ill-tempered and squint. (It was only after a few minutes of plodding castigation — directed squarely at the person to my left — that I'd realise she was talking to me.)

There was a lot of butter-cutting in Home Ec.

A lot.

So, these days, on the odd occasion that a powerful craving for quiche hits — and a memory lapse means said craving is unobstructed by recollections of many, many failed attempts at making puff pastry — to the food processor I go.

And cock it up completely.

Usually, I forget that the desired consistency — before adding the water — is crumbly, not mashed potato.

So there I stand, at 8pm on a Wednesday night, staring in horror at a bowl of floury paste. The fact that I'm hungry and tired tips this event from the 'minor inconvenience' category into the 'this is more tragic than The English Patient' category.

What to do?

Start crying, for starters.

Perplexingly, this has no effect on the pastry.

I should have just made an omelette with the egg ingredients and called it a night, but some part of me (which I refer to as 'Scarlet' because it reminds me of that scene in Gone with the Wind when she clenches her fist and says, 'As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!' all tenacious-like) was determined to make quiche, even if it meant eating at 3am. So thank fuck I found the Serious Eats post titled 'The Science of Pie Dough'. It uses science (and words) to tell us why not only is the homogenous gloop outcome not the end of the world, it might actually be preferable.

All you do is add some more flour and mash it in with a spatula.

For me, this was a revelation on par with learning how to colour my own hair, or go on Facebook at work without my colleagues noticing (i.e. profound).

Of course, this could all be about as interesting to you as the annual Anglo-American fiscal report.

Use it, don't use it.

Life's too short to be cutting butter, is all I'm saying.

Things I'm...

DRINKING: Mulderbosch Steen Op Hout Chenin Blanc

READING: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

WATCHING: Hannibal season 2. (Mads Mikkelsen can eat me any day.)

LISTENING TO: Heartbeat by Blackbird Blackbird... Dreamy and haunting and joyful.

Oh, and someone told me I need to put the word Christmas in my post a lot if I want to get loads of hits, so... Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas.

All about the hits, me.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Just what the world needs: another kale & blueberry salad

Though it pains me to say it, I am not immune to the charms of the cultural phenomenon that is kale: curer of cancer, rescuer of kittens from trees, solver of the crisis in the Middle East... At least, you'd think that was the least of its magical powers, the way people go on about it.

Now, I have been favourably disposed towards kale for quite some time. I read about cavalo nero ('black cabbage', not kale, but close enough) in the first River Cafe cookbook the Guinea Pig bought me about 10 years ago, and was completely seduced by the dark, velvety leaves: they seemed mysterious, potent, and infused with the sense of rustic romance westerners wilfully impose on all things Italian. Of course, back then, no one in SA had even heard of it, except members of the most esoteric food circles. Today, Woolies stocks kale, and it's a best-seller at farmers' markets. Yesterday, I bought several bunches of cav. nero and kale at OZCF.

Now, if you have a food blog addiction, as I do — particularly of the health-obsessed, manic-pixie-dream-girl variety, God help me — you will almost certainly have encountered more than a few kale salads. Kale and blueberry salads, more specifically.


Because super foods.

Most people (and I include myself in this) who describe themselves as 'health-conscious' — actually, let's say ... most people, in general — are sitting ducks for marketers. Man, whoever invented the term 'super food' must surely have their own hallowed shrine in the Museum of Marketing. (I suspect it was Dr Oz.)

Blueberries were the first to be ordained a 'super food' (correct me if I'm wrong?), and all us 'healthies' (cringe) ran out to buy them. And still do. Thanks to that success, a slew of other foods, mostly exotic, began to vie for the super food title, like a messy, produce version of WWE SmackDown.

Gogi berries. Cacao nibs. Black soy beans. Edamame. Chia seeds. Hemp seeds... Eventually this trend culminated in the deification of kale: a humble, tough, bitter-tasting member of the cabbage family.

The problem is, we're after that magic bullet that's going to give us perfect health and make us live forever. Our obsession with health foods is a denial of our mortality. Of course there's nothing wrong with being health conscious, but this obsession with singling out foods and venerating them above all others makes many of us blind to the bigger picture: which is that all fruit and veg are 'super foods' and you should eat a lot of all of them if you want to live a bit longer.

But this post is sidling closer to a lecture on health, so let's step back from the brink and look at the kale & blueberry salad I made.

Look, it's not bad. But it's not great, either. I can only assume I thought it would be a good idea because I'd been brainwashed by the countless hysterical blog posts I'd read on the subject.

Raw kale, even after being lovingly massaged with olive oil (a weirdly intimate practice that is supposed to mellow its slightly leathery fibrousness), still requires some committed mastication. It's chewy. The blueberries, roasted almonds, avo, croutons and goats cheese go some way towards palatability, but frankly, I would rather have made this salad with some shredded red cabbage and lettuce. And bacon. It's chief allure is that it bestows a solid sense of righteousness, the culinary equivalent of saying 200 Hail Marys.

Fuck that.

DON'T make this salad. (Kale is much better cooked, imo, especially in this soup.) Rather, DO buy Willow Creek's Blood Orange Flavoured Extra Virgin Olive Oil*. I got a bottle from work a while back, and it had been sitting in my cupboard for ages before I decided to try it, because I don't usually go in for flavoured oils. But it was a revelation. It's delicate, fresh and slightly floral, with that unmistakable citrus tang underneath. It helped me work my way through this kale salad, and almost enjoy it.

*I haven't been paid or asked to promote this product — I just genuinely like it.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

In defence of short-term obsessions

Have you ever read about the Buddhist practice of creating mandalas out of sand?

A mandala is a spiritual ritual symbol representing the microcosm of the universe — basically a stupendously complicated circular pattern. ‘In various spiritual traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing attention, as a spiritual guidance tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and trance induction.’ (So says Wikipedia.)

Now sand mandalas... Well, that's a whole new level. This is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice where monks spend up to several weeks creating an enormous, elaborate mandala using coloured sand. And get this — once it's done, once they've created this magnificent, exquisitely detailed artwork that represents all life and meaning…

… they destroy it.

Ever since I first read about it, I found this practice baffling. I mean, to spend weeks or months of your life painstakingly creating something of extraordinary beauty, only to eradicate it, as if it never existed… It just didn’t compute.

Then I had my existential crisis, started having Deep Thoughts, and began to see this odd practice through new eyes.

I broached the subject with the Guinea Pig one Sunday as we ambled through Newlands Forest.

Me: '...'
GP: 'Yes?'
Me: 'Nothing.'
GP: 'No, say it.'
Me: 'No.'
GP: 'Come on, what were you going to say?'
Me: 'It's silly.'
GP: *whinyvoice* 'Say iiiiiit.'
Me: 'Okay, well, I was just thinking I finally understand why Buddhist monks create those sand mandalas, and then destroy them afterwards. It's about trying to understand the transience of life. Of trying to accept that all things are ultimately destroyed, sooner or later. Struggle is pointless. It all ends.'
GP: ‘…’
Me: ‘…’
GP: 'Golly.'
Me: 'Yeah.'
GP: 'Maybe it's because they don't have DSTV?'

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present my husband: The Philosopher.

He is, in fact, very wise though. He has weathered many of what he calls my STO's — short-term obsessions — with the patience of, well, a wise Buddhist monk.

There was the time I became a bit of an environmental extremist, putting up posters on my car windows urging people to use more electricity-efficient light bulbs, and getting very annoyed that the Guinea Pig wasn't taking these Extremely Important Issues as seriously as I was.

Then there was the time I became a viciously judgemental vegan for two months. (The poor Guinea Pig, not terribly partial to vegan fare, would buy Woolworths meatballs and add them to whatever I made.)

More recently I became a bit LCHF mad, after interviewing Tim Noakes for an article, and the Guinea Pig patiently listened while I haughtily explained why animal fat is good and carbs are evil. (Thankfully I've recovered, and the GP graciously refrained from saying 'I told you so'.)

Whenever I get that familiar tingle that tells me 'I Have Found The Answer to EVERYTHING’, I try to take a step back and think: 'Okay, let's see where this goes, but you'll probably be over it in a month. Don't make any sudden movements, and above all don't start preaching to anyone who'll listen about your Amazing Discovery.' I try not to get too attached — which I think is very Buddhist of me.

So it is with my recent personal mission statement to Eat Less Bread (it's got all the hallmarks of a classic STO). Not because I believe gluten is evil (I don't actually know what gluten is), but because bread is so delicious and so goddam convenient that I can easily have it three meals a day, which leaves me feeling crap. (Sensitive readers, skip to the next paragraph.) We're talking bloating, cramps, indigestion, etc.

So this bread, the one you see in the picture, really is an Amazing Discovery if you're trying to eat less of the flour-based stuff, because it is so fucking delicious, and at the same time isn't really bread at all. It's mostly just seeds, oats, and those psyllium husks Banters are so fond of. Mainly though, it tastes incredible: rich, roasted, creamy, satisfying. I make a loaf each week, slice it and freeze it. A decent sourdough is never going to be off the menu for me, but this convenient substitute prevents me from ODing.

(It's not my recipe, though. It belongs to Sarah Britton of My New Roots. She dubs it ‘The Life-Changing Loaf of Bread’, which is a bit melodramatic. Life-enhancing, maybe. But she’s a hippy Earth Mother, and I love her for it. Plus her pictures are pretty.)

Sarah Britton's flourless seed bread
Makes 1 loaf

You can use any combination of nuts and seeds you like, but I think the chia seeds are pretty NB. Anyway, if you want more detail, check out Sarah's extended post.

1 cup / 135g sunflower seeds
½ cup / 90g flax seeds
½ cup / 65g hazelnuts or almonds
1 ½ cups / 145g rolled oats
2 Tbsp. chia seeds
4 Tbsp. psyllium seed husks
1 tsp. fine grain sea salt
1 Tbsp. maple syrup [I just used a Tbsp. sugar]
3 Tbsp. melted coconut oil or ghee [I used olive oil]
1 ½ cups / 350ml water

1. In a loaf pan (preferably silicon, but if using a metal one my tip would be to line it with baking paper) combine all dry ingredients, stirring well. Whisk maple syrup (or sugar), oil and water together in a measuring cup. Add this to the dry ingredients and mix very well until everything is completely soaked and dough becomes very thick (if the dough is too thick to stir, add one or two teaspoons of water until the dough is manageable). Smooth out the top with the back of a spoon. Let sit out on the counter for at least 2 hours, or all day or overnight. To ensure the dough is ready, it should retain its shape even when you pull the sides of the loaf pan away from it.
2. Preheat oven to 175°C.
3. Place loaf pan in the oven on the middle rack, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove bread from loaf pan, place it upside down directly on the rack and bake for another 30-40 minutes. Bread is done when it sounds hollow when tapped. Let cool completely before slicing (difficult, but important).
4. Store bread in a tightly sealed container for up to five days. Freezes well too — slice before freezing for quick and easy toast!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Creamy rice pudding with caramel & vanilla roasted pears

It happened as I wandered through the Paul Cluver vineyards one Saturday in autumn ... oh, about two years ago.

I had a glass of Pinot in one hand, and was trailing my fingers lightly along the foliage, soaking up the warmth of the fading sun, the earthy scent of decaying leaves and the haunting beauty of neat rows of vines in shades of plum, russet and butterscotch. It was a perfect moment. Not only because I felt grateful, content, full and light but also because I felt clear. Just as the contours and veins on a nearby leaf were illuminated in immaculate, sparkling clarity, my inner contours also felt vivid, sharp, emphatic. I sensed consciousness streaming through me as though I were no more substantial than a breeze, and at the same time infused with brilliance; bright and precise, like cut crystal. The fact of my existence needed no substantiation.

It was at once a hyper-real and dream-like encounter, as though I were experiencing myself in high-resolution for the first time. (What do Paul Cluver put in their Pinot?)

Then I looked down.

I saw my feet, sure. But, after a heartbeat, I didn't, because my subconscious, clearly waiting for this exact moment, superimposed an image of an enoromous belly my belly over my feet, treating me to a portentous vision of my heavily pregnant self.

In that second, the marrow-deep yearning that I had not dared put a name to could no longer be denied.

I wanted to be a mother.

You see, I really had tried — very hard — to deny it, because the prospect of parenthood absolutely terrified me.

For the longest time, I didn't have the slightest maternal urge, and was quite confident that I'd be happy to go through life child free, solvent, unshackled. Then I began to cry during toilet paper commercials. Or whenever I saw anything remotely related to a woman struggling with the decision to have a child, or a caring maternal gesture... Being in the vicinity of a baby made me feel squelchy and light-headed.

(As an aside, I do not subscribe to the notion that women have a 'biological clock' if that were true, we'd all be getting broody at the age of 16 or so, when our bodies are primed for childbirth not in our 30s [!], which seems to be the case more often these days. If there is a clock of any sort, I think it's a cultural construct, but that's a different conversation.)

Still, I tried to tamp down my growing curiosity. I thought about the money, for one. 'DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH CHILDREN COST?!?!' I'd shout-think at myself. 'You'll be broke. You'll never have any time to yourself. You'll be tired constantly. Your marriage will buckle under the pressure. You'll regret it, you'll be unhappy. You'll have to put all your dreams on hold...'

But the feeling kept growing. I developed a lump in my throat whenever I thought of my mother or father holding a baby. My baby. I thought of what a brilliant dad the Guinea Pig would make, and how it would take our incredible, supernatural (that's how it fees sometimes) love for each other and magnify it, grow it, plough it. I thought about all the magic moments from my own childhood, and how much I wanted to experience that all again, only this time from the other end of the equation.

The fact of my desire to be a mother came as a complete surprise, which is why it's taken two years, even after realising it, to work up the courage to make the attempt. What's helped, recently, is finally understanding that living a good life isn't about being happy. It's about embracing purpose, depth, challenge. To keep experiencing new things. Hard things. I want to live a meaningful life, and hopefully 'happiness', whatever that means, will be a side effect. But it's really not the point.

So now that the decision to move forward has been made, I find myself fantasising about what it'll be like. These daydreams frequently involve food. What will be my children's favourite foods? I think back to my most-loved dishes as a young 'un, and remember how easy to please I was (my parents will probably snort when they read this, remembering how notoriously fussy I became in my teens, but I'm referring to the earlier years). Rice pudding was up there, with its comforting starchiness. It tasted like home. It's one of many I can't wait to make it for my own children, and when I do, it will be this recipe, because it is heaven in a bowl, especially on a bitter winter's evening. It's like a hug from the inside.

You can leave out the pears and caramel if you like, it's good on its own (and a great deal simpler), but do try them all together at least once. The pears offer a slightly tart counterpoint to the creamy pudding, and the caramel... Well, I'm sure I don't need to sell you on caramel.

Creamy rice pudding with vanilla roasted pears & caramel
Serves 4
For the vanilla roasted pears: 
¼ cup sugar
½ vanilla bean
4 pears, halved though the stem and cored
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp water
2 tbsp unsalted butter

For the rice pudding:
1 cup arborio rice
1 litre milk, plus extra
½ cup caster sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
½ cup cream
For the caramel:
3 tbsp brown sugar
50g butter
1 tin condensed milk

1. For the pears: Preheat oven to 160°C. Place the sugar in a small bowl. With a thin, sharp knife, split the vanilla bean lengthwise in half and scrape out the seeds. Stir the seeds into the sugar. Arrange the pears in a large baking dish, cut-side up. Drizzle the lemon juice evenly over the fruit, then sprinkle with the sugar. Nestle the vanilla pod among the fruit. Pour the water into the dish. Dot each pear with some butter. Roast the pears for 30 minutes, brushing them occasionally with the pan juices. Turn the pears over and continue roasting, basting once or twice, until tender and caramelized, 25 to 30 minutes longer.
2. For the rice pudding: While the pears are roasting, make the pudding. Place the rice, milk, sugar, vanilla bean and seeds in a medium saucepan over high heat and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 25–30 minutes or until the rice is tender. Remove from the heat and stir through the cream. If the mixture feels too thick, loosen it with a little milk.
3. For the caramel: While the rice is simmering, make the (cheat's) caramel. Melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in the sugar and the condensed milk. Stir, over a medium heat, for anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes, until the mixture turns a deep caramel colour. (Be careful to keep stirring so the sauce doesn't burn.) Remove from heat. 
4. Spoon the hot, creamy rice pudding into bowls, top with the pears and a generous drizzle of caramel. Eat, swoon, be transported back through time and space to the cosy kitchen of your childhood.

*Credit where credit's due: The above dish is a combination/adaptation of this Donna Hay recipe and this creation from Smitten Kitchen.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Raindrops on roses

1. The Franschhoek Literary Festival: I attended for the first time with my friend Paige Dorkin. That's her in the image above, taken late last Saturday afternoon we stayed in an old house with a clementine orchard, which we wandered through at dusk, talking about husbands and writing and books and, yes, gossiping a little. It was a magical weekend, if a little overwhelming, and I am quite anxious that I have to wait an entire year for the next one. Highlights included Margie Orford and Rebecca Davis (I want to be just like them when I grow up), Tim Noakes debating heart surgeon Lionel Opie (a bit of a farce, but an entertaining farce), and Redi Tlhabi chairing a debate on racism. I've been having flashbacks all week.

2. Encountering a gorgeous new food blog always gives rise to my obsessive tendencies, but for Local Milk, a blog by writer/cook/photographer Beth Evelyn who lives in Tennessee, I've fallen hard. When I read the opening lines of this post, I felt a swelling my my chest and my heart started yammering against my ribs... She writes like a dream. She writes the way I want to write. So that was it, what I was feeling: pure envy. Along with a hefty dose of awe, and the first fervent flutterings of infatuation. I actually might have to stay away for a while because her writing makes me feel ill with longing for the Deep South. (This woman's writing also makes me ache.)

3. My Son of Burnard winged pendant arrived in the post this week. I love it.

4. I've made this crazy-simple Lamb neck stew with lemon & thyme three times now, and I just can't get enough. A handful of everyday ingredients (lamb, thyme, lemon, olive oil and stock [optional], black pepper) get naked in a pot together and make sweet, sweet love to each other, resulting in a kind of unctuous, umami-flavoured crack. Seriously, it's addictive. I recommend it with bread, as pictured, and this salad.

5. I've discovered whiskey. A committed wine drinker, I couldn't see the point of venturing into new alcoholic waters when I was so happy drinking wine, but I had to write an article about whisky recently, so in the name of research, naturally, I drank the stuff. I think that's the key the more you learn, the more interesting the subject of study becomes. Somehow, suddenly, I found myself intrigued. And then drunk. But the intrigued bit is the important part. So, yeah, me and whiskey, who knew? I have a small glass next to me, right now, of Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt Scotch Whiskey, and I'm utterly enamoured of it. (If you'd like to read about what I gleaned on the subject, grab a copy of the August issue of Fairlady magazine.)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Nothing fancy

I was recently knocked over by the flu we're talking WWE Smackdown, the RAW Total edition (not that I know about such things, ahem). This time last week, I was shivering away in a sweaty tangle of duvets, in the grip of a fever the likes of which I have not experienced since childhood this I know, because it was familiar. 'Ah,' my overheated brain informed me, 'We've been here before! But not in many moons.'

My regression was almost total. Not only was the desire to have my mother at my side pathetically strong, but I felt a deep, primal longing for the foods of my early youth. Not that I had much appetite to speak of, but the only things I would even consider eating held the promise of nostalgia and comfort perhaps it was my brain's way of compensating for my mother's absence.

Marmite toast. Macaroni cheese. Jungle Oats. Fish fingers. Eet-Sum-Mors. Escort Viennas. Rice pudding...

Bland, comforting flavours.

I hadn't lusted after fish fingers since my teens, when I first examined the greyish, gelatinous block of fish mush without its coat of crumbs. But while I was convalescing, I could have devoured an entire plate of the things, with large puddle of All Gold tomato sauce on the side for good measure. Heaven.

I didn't indulge all of my regressive food fantasies, seeing that I was too sick to go to the shops (and too fussy, impetuous and foul tempered to ask the poor, beleaguered Guinea Pig to do it), so I basically subsisted on Marmite toast and biscuits.

My stomach still lurches at the thought of red meat right now, but I'm starting to feel the effects of too much beige, starchy food. I know I am close to fully mended because yesterday I craved a salad. Something green.

This was the first proper meal I'd had in over a week. Nothing fancy. Some caramelised roast potato chunks rubbed with dhukka, laid out on a bed of watercress, and sprinkled with feta, walnuts and pomegranate seeds... I only used pomegranate because I had one left over from my trip to Calitzdorp. It could just as easily have been chopped apple or sliced pear. It was simple and satisfying and easy to digest. Nowhere near as comforting as macaroni cheese, of course, but nourishing, which is just what I needed.

Monday, April 28, 2014

You think about your aunt.

You lie awake at night, unable to sleep, and try to find a still place inside. But all you feel is an emptiness, a vacuum where something used to be, closely followed by fear: that everyone you love will slip through your fingers eventually, no matter how tightly you hold on whether taken by disease, or a car accident, or quietly in the night, like some ghastly magic trick.

You think about how your dad wept openly on the phone when you spoke on the morning following his sister's death, how it was the first time you’d ever heard him really cry, how grief can connect the living, which is at least something beautiful amidst the pain and confusion.

But mostly, you think about your aunt. The sound of her voice. The way her pretty blue eyes crinkled when she laughed. How absurd it is that these things no longer exist. You think about all the times you were together, how few there seem to have been, and of a life you were really only aware of in your peripheral vision.

You think about her diagnosis in October, about how hopeful she seemed; about her 60th birthday party in November, how happy she seemed. If you’d known it was the last time you were ever going see her, would you have said or done something differently?

You think about her sons (your cousins), her husband (your uncle), and how devastated they must be, how robbed they must feel, how utterly inadequate anything anyone says or does is in the face of that kind of grief. You want this to make you feel more appreciative of all the love in your life, of everything you still have, but mostly you just feel afraid, because you finally understand that all things end: eventually, surreally, pointlessly. You joke that you’re having an existential crisis, but it’s more like an existential malaise, a slow-burn disillusionment. But you also understand that these times are probably necessary, and like quicksand it’s best not to struggle against them.

You can’t make the memorial service the last-minute flights to Joburg cost more than you can afford but you drive up to Calitzdorp a few days later to be with your parents, to talk about your aunt, to remember her, toast her. You hug your dad and don’t want to let go, because … who knows?

You spend time in your mom’s herb garden, you go for walks at dusk, you take in the ancient beauty of the Klein Karoo. You try to snap out of it, and almost succeed. 

But in the dark, quiet hours, these thoughts still rattle around your head like dice in a cup, and you know you need to get them out, to write them down. So you put on your dressing gown, close the bedroom door quietly on your sleeping husband, pick up a pen, a writing pad, and tip-toe to the couch...

You think about your aunt, Dianne MacLarty Van Dyk.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

This & that (okay fine it's a favourites list)

Frothy chai rooibos.

I am obsessed with Woolworths' Chai Rooibos. It is the Most Amazing Beverage Discovery since ... since ... WATER. Has it been on the shelves for ages? Why wasn't I informed?
It's aromatic and dreamy and comforting. Just spices (cassia, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, black pepper, cloves) and rooibos, nothing else. I think it'll be amazing in warm coconut milk, but I haven't tried that yet. 


Earthsprout blog, by certified nutter Elenore Bendel Zahn.

I discovered this blog a little while ago and am completely addicted to it, which is odd because I'm not a vegetarian or a tree hugger... I don't even think GMOs are evil, so I'm pretty sure she would not approve of me. But I can't stop reading it, because she's completely bonkers, in the best sense. Her writing is bursting at the seems with manic, frenzied passion and positivity... I don't know what she puts in that green juice of hers, but if that's truly the source of her magical powers, I'd drink a litre of it every day. Her broken English is adorable and hilarious. Here are a few examples:
  • 'I seriously felt like I was hallucinating but then I remembered I hadn’t sprinkled hemp seeds on my breakfast that morning, phew!'
  • 'So what is it that’s so rocking about Romanesco, it’s obvious bold Lady Gaga-ness set aside?'
  • 'Well, let me start by saying that this year round I so not felt like making a raw food cake for my B-day. Nope I wanted an over the top real life baked cake (gasp!).'
I know imagine wanting an actual baked cake for your birthday? Gasp!

I don't want to rip her off, because her verve is massively inspiring, even if I'm too cynical to buy into her idealism. Mostly I like her kooky writing and beautiful pics (she lives on the edge of a wood somewhere in Sweden with her husband and baby, and she ain't exactly hard on the eyes). My brand of lifestyle porn, I guess.

But thanks to her I've started eating more veggies (example, this morning's breakfast: chopped tomatoes and grated beetroot [!] on toast, topped with poached eggs, garlicky yoghurt and dill; insanely good), and even drinking a strange concoction of fresh ginger, lemon juice and turmeric in the mornings (my take on this)... I don't know if it's doing any good, but I do feel like some of her fairy dust is rubbing off on me. Heck, if it's a placebo, I'll take it.

Chopped tomatoes and grated beetroot on toast, topped with poached eggs, garlicky yoghurt and dill.

In other news...
Vice has launched a food site called Munchies. (Oh you knew that already did you? Well bully for you.)

Interesting reads:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Kale & chickpea soup

I started writing a lot of boring, unoriginal tripe about autumn and the change of season and blah blah blah...  But really all I want to do is share this recipe, which is jolly good. It's the first thing I've made that includes kale that actually turned out well. Better than well.

It's chunky and deeply flavoursome and easy and versatile and tastes even better the next day... Everything you want in a winter soup, really. So if that doesn't grab you, just look at the bloody picture.

Look, damn you!

Kale & chickpea soup
Serves 4

Okay, a note on versatility: This is the basic recipe, but I've made a similar one using spinach instead of kale with fish stock, some Cape salmon, a few tablespoons of fish sauce and even a little kimchi (!) thrown in, and it was magnificent. For red meat lovers, using beef or lamb stock (along with browned cubes of lamb or beef) will also work really well — or even some chunks of chorizo, and maybe use red wine instead of white? Look, I know I haven't exactly reinvented the wheel, but it is a nice change from minestrone, which is my default winter soup.

Extra virgin olive oil
One onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
A few thyme springs
1/2 tsp dry chilli flakes
10 large plum tomatoes, blanched, peeled and pureed
(or 1 tin of chopped tomatoes and maybe a tbsp tomato paste?)
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1 large bunch kale, stems removed and roughly chopped (I used my food processor)
1/4 head red cabbage, shredded
1 tin chickpeas, drained

1. In a large pot, fry the onion, garlic, thyme and chilli gently in a few tablespoons olive oil until the onions are soft and glassy. Add the tomatoes, stock, wine and lemon juice and stir, then add the kale and cabbage. Bring to the boil and let it bubble away until it's reduced slightly — you want the soup to have the consistency of a stew — then lower the heat, place a lid on the pot and simmer very gently for about an hour and a half; two if you can wait that long.
2. About 10 minutes before serving, stir in the chickpeas.
3. Place in bowls, drizzle generously with peppery olive oil and serve with crusty bread on the side.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Away from it all

Our weekend away started as they usually do: a disorganised, last-minute packing frenzy, leaving about two hours later than intended, and a shouting match.

Once we were on the road, though, it was better. I listen to some music on my iPhone. The Grateful Guineapig zones out like he does when driving. And after we’ve passed the traffic light gauntlet in Somerset West and scaled the lip of Sir Lowry’s Pass, our frazzled nerves begin to untangle and that holiday feeling starts to sink in.

I’ll put a hand on his leg, a smile will tug at his lips, he'll place his hand over mine, and just like that, everything’s fine. We’re Getting Away From It All.

We had lunch booked at Madre’s Kitchen, a restaurant just outside Stanford, about a 2-hour drive from Cape Town. We always go to lunch at Mariana’s, our favourite restaurant (ever, end of), whenever we’re anywhere near Stanford, but this time thought we should try somewhere new, find out if we’re missing out. We were looking forward to it — sitting on the stoep, having that first glass of ice-cold Chenin... I could just about taste it.

Then, about 20 minutes away from our destination, the Guinea Pig says, ‘Uh-oh.’

And I know what that uh-oh means. It means something I really, really don’t want it to mean.

‘Something’s wrong. We’re losing power.’

It does not occur to either of us to make a Star Trek joke, because this is so far beyond not funny. We’re about 150km from home — breaking down is no joke, especially in a Landrover.

But break down we did. (Again.) Or, at least, the car started making a deeply disturbing high-pitched sound neither of us had ever heard before. We had to stop at a service station. Call insurance. Get towed back to Cape Town.


I can’t say I am entirely ungrateful for the ordeal though, because while we were stranded on the R43 at the Shell service station, I had one of the most incredible samosas of my life from Salandra Farm Stall next door. Enormous, packed with succulent curried beef mince, crispy around the edges and chewy in the centre... Washed down with Coke. I could have eaten 10.
The best samosa ever
The flat-bed truck driver who drove us back to Cape Town had a miniature doll in his likeness hanging from the rear view mirror, with an enormous zol hanging from its lips. The guy seemed nice enough — I imagine he got ‘the munchies’ fairly regularly, judging by his astounding girth.

We got back home at about 5pm, immediately chucked all the gear into my little Chevy Spark, and put foot. We made it to Landmeterskop, a sheep farm just outside Stanford, right before nightfall. What a fucking day.

Worth it though, we realised, when we got there. It's beautiful.


I have this tendency, whenever we go away, to put pressure on myself to relax.

I know, right? Ridiculous.

It’s because I look forward to these getaways so much. Sometimes, I feel like everyday stress is stealing my life — like, one day, I’ll wake up and find I’m 60, and I haven’t really lived, only hopped from one deadline to the next...

When I do escape the rat race, if only for a weekend, I’m so aware of time passing, so worried that I’ll blink and suddenly be heading back to work on Monday, that I get a little panicky and tense.

Enjoy yourself goddamnit! Get your money’s worth.

Thankfully, it doesn’t last. At some point I’ll get distracted from my neurosis by a bumblebee crash-landing into the little yellow flowers on the creeper outside the window. Or a butterfly dancing across the lawn. Or a pair of swallows flying in tandem... Suddenly I’m not thinking about anything. Not work on Monday, not the towing bill, not any of the relentless petty anxieties I terrorise myself with on a daily basis.

We sleep, we read, drink good wine, go for the odd wander up the hill, stare at the sheep (who stare right back)... And we cook. My God, we ate well.

Part of what caused the mad rush before we left on Saturday morning was my sudden, emphatic desire to visit the vegetable stall at the Biscuit Mill. It’s an Alladin’s cave of gorgeously fresh produce, unusual finds, and all way cheaper (and better quality) than Woolworths, Pick n Pay et al.

I really hate going to the Biscuit Mill on Saturdays — I find it a bit pretentious and contrived, not to mention a bun fight, but I would walk barefoot over hot coals to get to that veggie stall. It’s the closest thing to Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market I’ve ever seen in SA, run by the nicest lady.

Veg stall at the Biscuit Mill
I bought way too much of course... bags packed with rocket, baby spinach, an enormous, shiny-purple aubergine, courgets, a head of radiccio, red cabbage, fresh tarragon, parsley, red pepper, red onions, two mushrooms (each as big as my face), a bag of firm, bright scarlet plum tomatoes... Some creamy Gorgonzola from the cheese stand next door.

At The Little Fisherman, a fresh fish shop in the Dean Street Arcade, Newlands, I bought some Cape salmon. A block further, pork loin from Gogo's Deli...

I thought I was too tired and worn out to muster much enthusiasm for cooking on the first night, what with the day we’d had, but half a bottle of Pinot soon saw my spirits revived, pottering in the sweet but tiny little kitchen. We dined on the freshest Cape salmon, roasted on the fire, dressed only in olive oil and a generous sprinkling of Woolies’ seafood rub. It’s so good, and honestly the only thing I ever do to fish. Alongside, we had a salad of rocket, baby spinach, chopped apples, walnuts and creamy crumbled feta, with a dressing of red wine vinegar and olive oil.

Sunday’s lazy lunch: leftover fish with a simple tomato salad on a bed of rocket, strewn with tarragon, more feta, simply dressed with olive oil.

Tomato, tarragon & feta salad
In the early evening of the second day, after a nap and a stroll and a shower, I sat outside with a glass of wine and a plate of creamy gorgonzola to pick at, staring out a the lazing sheep, the lengthening shadows and fading lemon-yellow sunlight, and realised I was content. Deeply, delightfully content. It happened without me trying, and there’s a lesson in that. Of course there is. I have resolved to learn it. There’s no TRYING to relax. You just have to let go of expectation.

(Is THAT what the Buddhists have been banging on about all these centuries? Lawks. They might be on to something.)

Of course, it could also just have been the wine.

That night's dinner... Oh my hat. I am still dreaming about it. It was, I am proud to announce, the first time I’ve managed to get pork crackling JUST RIGHT. And I ate it ALL. The Guinea Pig is a bit grossed out by animal fat, so I tell you without a trace of embarrassment that I gobbled up every last scrap like a rabid beast, grease running down my chin. Grease everywhere, actually: on my forehead, in my hair, staining my T-shirt... And it was EPIC, to use the parlance of our times.

Pork loin with garlic, sage & lemon zest
Perfect crackling

Did I mention the eggs? You can collect fresh eggs, right out from under a chicken's bum, every morning, if you like. And we liked. We collected them in a little basket provided, lined with a red checkered cloth, and I felt a little like Red Riding Hood. Nearly broke out the skipping, I did. Nearly.

Everything’s better when you’re relaxed. Sex is better. Food’s better. Conversation’s better. Inspiration strikes. You feel generous, grateful, humbled.

In that spirit, I've decided to share with you a few of my favourite weekend getaways, all within two hours' drive of Cape Town, all self-catering, all reasonably priced, all gorgeous.

Stanford: Landmeterskop
See above.  

Tulbagh: Welbedacht Nature Reserve
Each of these private cottages has it's own little plunge pool. I recommend the Eagle cottage, which is a bit extra, but the others are nice too.

Stanford/Caledon: Glen Oakes
Legend has it this pig farm is where Richard Bosman sources pork for his gorgeous charcuterie... And I must say they were rather happy looking pigs.

Stanford: Klein Rivier Cheese Farm
The accommodation is pretty basic, but the house looks over a rolling green lawn and a lovely river... And it's five minutes from Stanford. 

Hemel & Aarde Valley: Spookfontein
This is a gorgeous cottage, lovely white linen, views, chandeliers... And you're in wineland heaven.

Monday, March 3, 2014

On turning 30 + Skye Gyngell’s baked aubergines with tomatoes, tarragon and crème fraîche

Brooding weather in Newlands today, just like my mood.

In theory, you know you’re going to get old one day. You know you’re going to go grey, your boobs’ll cash in that one-way ticket south, and crows’ feet will come home to roost.

Thing is, for the first third or so of your life, you can safely attach the word ‘eventually’ to the end of that sentence. This allows you to neatly side-step the whole issue. 

Until, of course, 'eventually' becomes 'today'.

I imagined, somehow, that when I did start ‘getting old’*, I’d be prepared, that it’d feel right and natural. But it came as a complete surprise. I thought I still had so much time… Ah, let me not get maudlin.

When I turned 30, three years ago, certain changes started to manifest that I never anticipated. They’ve been completely unexpected, unsettling and kind of wonderful.

My body, for one. (Saw that coming, did you?)

The shape of it began to change. I’ve always been slim, and it’s not that I suddenly put on weight, but rather, my arms gained some padding, my stomach grew more rounded... Not added weight, exactly, but different proportions.

It was disturbing at first, but in some ways I like it better — it feels more womanly. More me, somehow. One of wonderful side effects of time passing is that I’ve learnt to pry a few fingers off the stick that so many women use to beat themselves: equating our looks with our value as human beings.
Funny… When I was in my frenetic, anxiety-riddled 20s, I always imagined my 30s in a sort of halcyon glow; an island I was travelling towards that would finally offer me the security and affirmation I’d been craving. ‘My thirties,’ I used to think to myself. 'I can’t wait to describe myself as being "in my thirties".' The word ‘thirty’ felt sober and solid, weighted with the promise of belonging, of finally returning home to myself. 

And so it proved to be, which is a huge surprise to me because my life has not exactly made a habit of aligning itself with my expectations.

Of course, now that I am on the island, the life I lead is so dear to me that I often fret it’s all too good to be true. No one is just happy — something bad is bound to happen when you least expect it! I want so much to hold on to what I have: my home, my husband, my family, my work… This feeling of being loved by the right person, in the right place, at the right time. So, paradoxically, I am more joyful but also more fraught with irrational worry (though it’s a price I pay gladly).

What else? Ah. The God thing. I finally let that go.


I was a devoted Christian in my childhood and teens. Lots of praying. The came my Neale Donald Walsch phase (you don’t need religion to know God), my Buddhism phase (detach or be damned!), my Eckhart Tolle phase (negative thoughts are making you unhappy, man), my Ayn Rand phase (I can’t talk about that, it was too traumatic)… And I sort of aimlessly drifted along in a fog of New Age ‘wisdom’ and Oprah-sanctioned ideology. Placebos, really.

By the time I hit 3-0, my notion of God had been so smoothed over, like a sandblasted piece of glass, I had only a vague belief in a sort of loving, benign force out there that was somehow inextricably involved in my life but also totally indifferent. Certain questions bothered me, of course, but I never looked at it too closely.

Then came Richard Dawkins. And science.

I once perceived science as a kind of cold, uncaring philosophy, as I’m sure many do. Now I know it’s not that at all, but a brilliant system of questioning, of discerning truth. I began to pry my mind open, like a crusty clam lying at the bottom of the sea. And it hurt. A lot.

I still miss God — or, rather, the notion of God. It was like having all the best qualities of a friend and parent living with you in your head, all the time. It was so comforting, and I miss it. But I can’t go back — once you know something, you can’t unknow it. I’ve seen how the rabbit got into the hat, there’s no changing that.

Here’s the upside though — I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is no omnipotent being ‘out there’ pulling the strings, which means my life is up to me entirely. Not God. Not anyone else. And with that realisation came a profound sense of responsibility that is both terrifying and galvanizing. No one’s going to make my dreams come true for me. I have to do it myself. 

Gosh, this is an unusually meditative blog post for me. Must be the weather. 

Allow me to conclude with the words of Hannah Horvath’s gynaecologist: 'You could not pay me enough to be 24 again.' (To which Hanna replies: ‘Well, they're not paying me at all.’)

Skye Gyngell’s baked aubergines with tomatoes, tarragon and crème fraîche
Serves 4-6

I have nothing to say about this recipe except that it’s lovely. Skye Gyngell’s take on Parmigiana di melanzane, and I think I prefer it to the more traditional dish.

1 1/2 kg aubergines
1/3 cup olive oil
50g unsalted butter
1kg ripe tomato, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
400ml crème fraîche
2 tablespoons tarragon leaves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1/2 tablespoon lemon thyme leaves, finely chopped
50g parmesan cheese, freshly grated

1. Slice aubergine into 1cm rounds, lay in colander and sprinkle with salt, leave for 30 minutes then pat dry with kitchen towel.
2. Heat oil in a large fry pan (should be about a 1cm depth so add more oil if needed). Over medium-high heat, fry aubergine slices until golden on both sides. You’ll have to work in batches. Drain on kitchen paper.
3. Melt butter in another saucepan and add the chopped tomatoes and garlic and season well with salt and pepper. Cook for 15 minutes until soft.
4. Put the crème fraîche in a small pan and bring to boil over a med heat. Allow to bubble until reduced by a third, take off heat and add all the herbs and half of the Parmesan, taste for seasoning.
5. Preheat oven to 180°C. Line the bottom of a large oven proof baking dish with aubergines, follow with thin coating of tomato sauce and a sprinkling of Parmesan, continue layering in this way, finishing with tomato sauce. Pour over the crème fraîche and sprinkle with remaining Parmesan.
6. Let the dish sit for a few minutes to allow the flavours to get acquainted!
7. Place in oven and bake for 20-25 minutes till golden brown.
8. Allow to stand for 5 minutes then drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil.
9. Do not serve this dish too hot.

*I'm well aware that 33 is hardly 'old', but it's not quite 'young' either.