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.