Thursday, August 20, 2015

Caponata with dark chocolate + this and that

Caponata with dark chocolate
I am a big fan of Felicity Cloake’s ‘How to cook the perfect…’ series in the Guardian, in which she takes a classic recipe, makes several versions by respected chefs, and then formulates one uber-recipe at the end that amalgamates the best of each, leaving out what doesn’t work. It’s just a fun, interesting exercise, and her wit makes it a real treat.

She recently tackled the classic Sicilian aubergine dish caponata, which I’d read about but never been tempted to make because it usually contains raisins, to which I have a violent aversion. Also, I could just never quite grasp how a dish of fried aubergine with vinegar and raisins and olives (and sometimes anchovies) was supposed to taste good. It just didn’t compute.

That all changed when I dined at Pesce Azzuro in Woodstock a few months back, a fabulous little Italian restaurant run by two rather tasty Italian men (one's the chef and the other's more front-of-house). I ordered the caponata antipasti, working on the theory that if I was ever going to understand why it’s one of the world’s most iconic dishes, this was a good place to start.

Well slap me sideways with a salami. It was just about one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. Salty olives, sweet raisins and tart vinegar all collide in an unctuous mess of silky fried aubergine… And the result is, improbably, sexy as all get out.

So when I saw Felicity had tackled caponata in her column, I was game. She pits some heavyweight cooks against each other: Anna del Conte, Giorgio Locatelli, Ruth Rogers & Rose Gray, Yotam Ottolenghi, and Jacob Kennedy (actually, full disclosure, I'd never heard of this last guy). She cooks her way through each of their caponata recipes  mulling over the River Cafe's excessive use of celery, whether to shallow or deep-fry the aubergine, the merits of red pepper and fennel — and I thought there'd been a typo when I read: 'Two unusual twists to note: Kenedy adds a little orange juice, Del Conte grated dark chocolate.'

Huh? I'd only been convinced to attempt this dish myself because I'd eaten the real deal  but dark chocolate? That's a bit on the wild side, surely?

I think if the suggestion had come from anyone other than Anna del Conte (or possibly Marcella Hazen), I would have balked  but since she's practically the fairy godmother of Italian cooking, I decided to trust her. And I am glad I did.

You only add a smidgen of good quality, bitter dark chocolate, so it doesn't dominate, but rather sort of hums in the background, which, in Felicity's words, 'adds yet another layer of delicious complexity'. A scattering of fresh mint lifts and brightens the dish, while toasted almond flakes add a rich, nutty crunch.

Anyways, if you love caponata, this recipe is a winner. And if you’re on the fence, like I was, really, do yourself a favour and just take the plunge  it’s so much more than the sum of its parts. (And by all means leave out the chocolate if that freaks you out, it's not essential.) I served it with good sourdough rye bread and a selection of cheeses, but you could also have it as a side dish to meat or fish. At Pesce Azzuro, it was presented on its own, with a fork, and that was just dandy.

This is an app that turns photos into watercolour paintings. The images in my previous blog post? That's a photo of me, in the bath  I used Waterlogue to turn it into 'art'. It seems somehow unjust that it is now so easy to turn photos into astonishingly authentic-looking watercolours, when real life artists might labour for years to reach that level of skill... But I'm addicted. Whatcha gonna do? Can't stop progress.

Nastasya Tay
I am haunted by this woman's prose... She writes a food column for BusinessDay's Wanted magazine called 'Sharp Tongue', but you can also read it online (here). A sample:

Returning is a peculiar thing. It lacks the profundity of epiphany, yet buries itself in your skin, your hair; woodsmoke the week after a fire.
There is fleeting familiarity on every London corner; uneasiness, gentle self-judgement.
There I am: terrifyingly young and blithely confident; on the Tube reading Alexander McCall-Smith.  There is the scent of stale Saturday nights, the imprint of crushed grass-blades on my belly. Purring bicycle chains, slow breaths of posh gardens wilting in the heat; twinges of annoyance at the tourists who never stand on the escalator-right.

The Consolations of a Bath
I don't think I'll ever experience bathing in quite the same way after reading Alain de Botton's ode to one of the most basic human pleasures.

Georgia by Tiggs da Author
I can't get this song out of my head.

A Poem a Day
I've only recently begun to feel drawn to poetry, and this tumblr suits me perfectly, since I have no idea where to begin to find poems that appeal to me... Every day, a lovely new poem. Like this one:

by Carl Sandburg

Here is dust remembers it was a rose
one time and lay in a woman’s hair.
Here is dust remembers it was a woman
one time and in her hair lay a rose.
Oh things one time dust, what else now is it
you dream and remember of old days?


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wax on, wax off: adventures in hair removal

It took me 34 years to make it to my first salon wax. Which is remarkable only in that most women either (quite sensibly) never feel the urge to wax at all, or commence the monthly ritual in their late teens/early 20s. My avoidance, though, till now, was mainly a result of PTSD resulting from self-inflicted trauma, starting in my teens. 

Let us travel back in time...

‘Twas the summer of ’95. I was 14, and I knew all the words to everything by Green Day, Oasis, Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos. School had broken for the summer holidays, and I had high hopes of making lots of sexy, furtive, heart-pounding eye contact with boys at the local public pool.

An expansive horizon of spare time and access to a teetering pile of outdated women’s magazines (pilfered from my school’s recycling programme) saw me embark on a grooming ritual that would have made Cleopatra blush: plucking, face-masking, blackhead-squeezing, bubble-bathing, shaving, shampooing, conditioning, flat-ironing, nail-painting, moisturising, SPFing, excessive hours of mirror-staring... When it came to ‘grooming’ the ‘bikini area’, I’d keenly deduced, thanks to hours of vigilant Verimark commercial-watching, that wax was the way to go; i.e. a whole lot sexier and more grown up than shaving with a Bic razor.

To this end, I’d managed to procure a Veet home wax kit from Clicks.

I was giddy with excitement, perceiving myself to be at the brink of womanhood, about to immerse myself more deeply into the mysterious, hallowed practices reserved for adult ladies.

I locked the door to my bedroom and removed the little white strips from their packaging, laying them out neatly in front of me. I read the instructions twice. It seemed easy enough: remove the protective paper from the adhesive wax strip, apply firmly to the area from which you wish to remove hair, leave for a few seconds and then pull off with a swift, firm stroke.

It’s a testament to my commitment that I went through with it even though I was not entirely convinced I wouldn’t rip out a large chunk of flesh along with the hair.

Naked from the waist down, sitting on the floor, I smoothed a wax strip along the crevice where thigh meets abdomen, running my finger over it to make sure it was firmly stuck on. Then again just to be sure. Then again because I hadn’t quite psyched myself up enough yet.

Eventually, after some deep breathing and a pep talk, I grabbed the edge of the strip and yanked with all my might.

Cue a flock of birds errupting into flight. Church bells ringing. Babies spontaneously bursting into tears. A dog barking furiously, agitated by a sound not meant for human ears...

I.e. my silent scream.

When I returned to consciousness, having temporarily evacuated my body, and the pain having subsided to dull throb, I looked down — sure in the knowledge that there was no way on God’s green earth I was going to repeat the experience, but curious to see the results, nonetheless.

What I saw left me agog with horror: a geometrically precise 12 x 5cm rectangle of purple-black flesh, and within, an untouched garden of public hair.

Not only had the exercise failed to removed more than a handful of hairs, it had left me with a disfiguring bruise that would require me to wear either shorts or a sarong around my waist for the duration of the summer.

Waxing, I decided, was not for me.

Years later, I flirted briefly with a practice known as ‘threading’. When I worked at Fairlady magazine, once a month a torturess would come to our offices and we could pay R60 for the privillege of having her rip the hairs out of our faces — mysteriously, and with surgical accuracy — using only two strands of thread twisted together between her fingers.

When I was still a newbie, I’d never heard of threading. I was intrigued, especially considering the clamour and excitement this woman’s arrival elicited in the office, so I asked a colleague if it hurt. ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘I hardly feel it any more.’

The words ‘any more’ should have told me all I needed to know, but I naively paid the money and entered the small store room where the threader had set up shop. I passed the previous customer on the way out, and wanted to ask if she was okay, because she looked like she’d been crying quite violently.

I sat down, and the frankly rather grumpy threader asked me what I’d like done. ‘Just the eyebrows,’ I said, thinking I’d ease my way in, play it safe. She asked me to pull the skin around my eyes taught, which I did nervously, and then she commenced with the treatment.

Dear reader, I don’t know what it feels like to have acid thrown on one’s face, then dowsed, perhaps, with a handful of flesh-eating ants, but I am pretty sure it can’t be far-removed from my experience of threading, that first time. And the second, and the third time.

Yes, I went back for more.

Because although it was excruciatingly painful that first time (I only managed to get through it by gripping the arms of the chair as hard as I could and swearing, colourfully and loudly, for the duration), once she’d applied a soothing balm and sent me on my way, I had a look in the mirror. My eyebrows looked like they’d been shaped by Leonardo da Vinci. My entire face looked different. I felt like a new person; a more groomed, grown-up, gorgeous person. And with that, the pain of the ordeal was promptly forgotten (or, if not altogether forgotten, chained up in the basement of my consciousness because shut up I look amazing).

After about five or six rounds of eyebrow threading, I decided, what the hey, why not get my lip done as well, while I’m at it? Why not my whole face? The tiny, downy blonde hairs on my upper lip were getting courser and longer by the day, it seemed, and a thick, alien black hair had sprouted out of my cheek (even more alarming: my husband had taken to trying to pluck it out when he thought I’d fallen asleep at night).

I gave the instruction to the by-now quite chummy threader. She did my eyebrows first, and before my resolve could falter, I told her, ‘Do it! Quickly! Get it over with!’

And so I came as close as I ever have to punching a woman in the face. The threading of my lip was not only excoriatingly, obliteratingly painful — she might as well have flayed the skin right off my face — it was an affront. How could a person, in good conscience, inflict such agony on another human being? She must be a demon, a masochist, a sicko, an aberration of nature.

She moved in for the second stroke, at which point my hand shot out, of its own disembodied volition, and gripped her wrist. We stayed frozen like that for a few heartbeats, staring at each other — me in defiance, she in irritation — before I stood and left the room. She started saying something but I wasn’t listening. I never went back.

Not for eyebrow threading. Not for nobody.

Despite all this, I found myself, in my thirty-fourth year (a few weeks ago), sitting on a narrow cot, naked from the waist down, legs splayed like a dead frog floating in a pond, while a perfect stranger applied hot wax to my nether regions.

How did I get here? Not only just getting a bikini wax for the first time — but the full monty?

How indeed.

I’m afraid there’s nothing more to my rationale than temporary memory loss and curiosity, combined, perhaps, with the unwholesome, subconscious influence of advertising and pornography. I did it on a whim. If you’ve read my previous blog post, you’ll know I have been trying new things, and that extends to body image and matters erotic.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a fine pelt of pubic hair (Rob Delaney makes and excellent case for it here, at 4:30 minutes), or finger combing your ‘wookie’, as Caitlyn Moran calls it, but in the interests of experimentation, and curiosity, and new experiences, I decided to give ‘baldness’ a whirl, and booked an appointment at a salon recommended by a friend.

I arrived early, and waited nervously in the seating area. It was early evening, in winter, so it was nearly dark out, bloody chilly, and there was no else about except one other client and the owner of the salon, who were mutually engaged in one of the echoey rooms down the hall.

Finally it was my turn. Shelley, the therapist, was bright, friendly and chatty, which went some way towards easing my nerves. She asked me to undress from the waist down and wait for her to return. I sat, on that small cot, feeling deeply uncomfortable — my legs looked pale and anaemic in the too-bright light, and I felt exposed.

When she returned, though, my concerns were soon forgotten. Shelley chatted away as though we were long lost friends standing in a queue at a nightclub after several tequilas. We talked about our pets, about the ups and downs of owning a business, about our favourite TV shows — all while I lay there, one leg unceremoniously flung out at a right angle.

The pain wasn’t too bad — look, it WAS painful, but somehow bearable. Perhaps because I was expecting it. Shelley was brusque and businesslike, smearing delightfully hot wax over my pink bits with a dainty pallet, then yanking it off before I had a chance to think.

But, of course, because this is me, the course of hairlessness was never going to run smooth.

About 20 minutes in, the lights went out, and everything went black. Pitch black.

Thank you Eskom.

‘Uh,’ said she.

‘Um,’ said I, stricken.

‘Wait, just stay like that, I’ll be right back,’ said Shelley, after apologising for not checking the load-shedding schedule.

A minute later she returned bearing one of those blue LED light Consol jars, and handed it to me.

‘We’re nearly done. Okay, can you just hold this here...’

I obliged, and she proceeded as though it were the most natural thing in the world to hold illuminated glassware over one’s naked crotch while a stranger wearing reading glasses attempts to remove every last shred of pubic hair.

And I mean: Every. Shred.

All credit to Shelley, she handled my nerves with kid gloves, and my labia with nimble, professional care. I felt pathetically grateful to her.

The results?

Well, they were pretty much what you’d expect. I am rather smitten. I have an appointment to return next week. During daylight hours. And who knows? Perhaps I’ll try a lip wax too, just for kicks. (Do you think she might be alarmed if I ask her to handcuff me to the chair?)

Monday, August 3, 2015

a rare day

It’s a beautiful Sunday: a rare day this time of year. The air feels freshly scrubbed. It’s sunny, but not like summer, with its bleaching, hammering blaze; rather, there's a soft, crystalline light that beautifies everything it touches, as though god’s finger slipped on the saturation dial. 

I have nothing to do, nowhere to be, so I just lie on the couch, looking out at the mountain, the garden, my toes... Letting my thoughts drift and meander, occasionally turning my attention back to my book. But mostly just staring. 

Then it happens, unbidden — a silent, soaring burst of inner joy; an eruption of euphoric freedom that begins in my chest and expands, carrying me skyward on a current of wild, vertiginous rapture. 

I stay still, choosing not to hang on to it, but just be in it… It passes.

This is how I know I’ve changed. 

These moments, these gifts (‘joy bombs’, as I like to think of them) are completely unpredictable, and as elusive as quicksilver. 

Before, I would feel compelled to act. I thought the feeling was a resource to be plundered, something I was meant to harness and put to work. I’d ruffle through all the projects banging around in my head — should I write? Cook? Blog? Make a dress? Paint the mirror in the bathroom? Sketch?

While I’m in it, anything seems possible.

But then anything would begin to feel like too much, feel overwhelming. No sooner had the feeling registered than I’d feel cement walls rise up and surround me, as though set off by some invisible hair trigger. The message was clear: There is no point. It's too hard. Too much. You can't. You're not one of those people.

Joy would turn to frustrated impotence in the space of minutes.

But not today.

Today, I simply lie there and marvel that such a feeling exists, that millions of years of evolution can culminate in this arrangement of molecules, experiencing this exquisite moment… Why look further than that? 

The bomb mushrooms and then evaporates, but instead of despair, this time I’m left with a little afterglow. Then I carry on reading my book.

This is how I know I’ve changed. 

There are other signs, too.

Life feels quieter, less frenetic.

Most of the time, I am able to identify the beginning stages of neurosis, when my thoughts begin to spiral, dancing to the tune of unidentified, unconscious fears, and I can corral them in a different direction before I turn into a gibbering wreck.

I am writing with a greater sense of purpose, too. Drinking less compulsively. Exercising more. Spending less money. Staying home. Trying new things. 

One of those new things, which I think has contributed immeasurably to the profound, tectonic shift that’s occurred in my life recently, is answering an invitation from a former colleague on Facebook to form a group to work through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

I’d previously been skeptical about the book, which seemed, to my cynical mind, to have about it an air of touchy-feely woo and feeble-mindedness. But, in the spirit of trying new things, at the last minute I decided to join.

The experience has been life-changing — on all levels, not just creatively. Being able to discuss our lives and our creative challenges (which bear a remarkable resemblense to garden variety life challenges) in an intimate group of like-minded individuals helped keep me motivated to stay the course, which was invaluable. But two practices have been completely revelatory*: morning pages, and the ‘artist’s date’. (*Yes, I know I hardly have the monopoly on this front.)

You can read about the morning pages here if you like, but briefly, it’s the practice of handwriting three foolscap pages first thing in the morning. Every morning. You can write about anything under the sun, stream of consciousness, fiction or your shopping list, just fill three pages. (Turns out, as Oliver Burkman puts it, it’s really hard to write about nothing for three pages — eventually you start writing about something.)

The practice isn’t always easy, in fact it can be bloody difficult, but once I committed (and one really does have to commit), I started to wake up: to my inner world, to destructive behaviours, to the excuses I make for not doing better, being kinder to myself, doing things that nourish me... The morning pages allow me to nail down all those half-thoughts that flit around my head, evading proper examination, because I’m too lazy, or distracted, or afraid to look closer. When you’ve got to fill those pages, catching a thread of half-thought, and yanking on it, tends to fray a lot of the illusions we’re so comfortable with, but which may be stunting us.

Then there are the artist’s dates. The title is cheesy, but I think there isn’t a single person alive who wouldn’t benefit from incorporating the basic principal into their lives: once a week, set aside time to do something (on your own) for no reason other than that it will delight you. Preferably something you don’t do regularly, or, even better, have never done at all; preferably something whimsical; preferably something that has no point beyond an experience; preferably something that has nothing to do with 'work'.

We deny ourselves so much pleasure in the name of practicality: 'Where’s it going to get me? What's it for?' But step outside this idea, and there’s a whole other world out there: a world of child-like wonder and playful learning and creativity. For its own sake and nothing more. 

Some of my artist’s dates — and they may not sound novel to you, but they were to me — have included making time to go online and find new and interesting music; buying a cheap jigsaw puzzle at a Chinese store, and spending an afternoon completing it (okay, I got halfway); getting a Hollywood wax (that’s a blog post for another time); surfing; knitting; learning to appreciate whisky; making outlandish collages out of old magazines (move over Pinterest, ha!); doodling in a sketchpad, blindfolded, while listening to Jeff Bridges’ sleep tapes; guided meditations... Future ones I’d like to try are singing lessons, pole dancing, ice skating — just for kicks.

Today, for my artist’s date, I made a wreath out of lavender from my garden, which gave me inordinate satisfaction — it was something I’d done as a kid and completely forgotten about.

Last week, I made chocolate chip cookies.

I know, right? How on earth is making cookies supposed to expand your mind? Well, I’d never made any before — of any description. I’m not much of a baker, see. But suddenly I seized upon the idea of making cookies (chocolate chip, no less) because there was just something so wholesome and guileless about it... It was almost certainly something I would have dismissed out of hand a year ago for not being sophisticated or interesting enough.

Chocolate chip cookies? Booooring.

So not.

I did my research, and I finally settled on this recipe from Orangette, and it did not disappoint. I ate about eight in one sitting, with a glass of milk, once they’d cooled, and they were everything I’d hoped they’d be — nutty, crunchy, studded with dark chocolate and as big as my palm. I felt preposterously chuffed with myself.

Here I share the recipe — but if you’re a dab hand at making cookies, I hope you’ll try something else instead (although these are delicious cookies). Something ‘silly’, ‘pointless’, and a touch eccentric.

Wholewheat chocolate chip cookies
Makes about 20 cookies

3 cups whole wheat flour (see note above)
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
About 220g unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes 
1 cup lightly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
About 230g bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped into ¼- and ½-inch pieces, or bittersweet chips

1. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat to 180°C. Line two baking sheets with baking paper. (If you have no baking paper, you can butter the sheets.)
2. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl, and whisk to blend.
3. Put the butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, mix just until the butter and sugars are blended, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Add the flour mixture to the bowl, and blend on low speed until the flour is just incorporated. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the chocolate, and mix on low speed until evenly combined. (If you have no stand mixer, you can do all of this with handheld electric beaters and/or a large, sturdy spoon.) Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, and then use your hands to turn and gently massage the dough, making sure all the flour is absorbed.
4. Scoop mounds of dough about 3 tablespoons in size onto the baking sheets, leaving about 3 inches between each cookie. (I was able to fit about 8 cookies on each sheet, staggering them in three rows.)
5. Bake the cookies for 16 to 20 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through, until the cookies are evenly browned. Transfer the cookies, still on parchment, to a rack to cool. Repeat with remaining dough.