Frogs after the rain.

 

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The thing about working from home is that the office lunches are pretty good.

There are a couple of things that are quite difficult in life, like making a beanie out of milk.

Another is trying to pick something up again that you haven’t done in the longest time. Your brain will tell you that you’re still as good at whatever it is as you ever were, but time and negligence make fools of anyone who sincerely believes the little voice whispering all those brave encouragements.

For over a year I have had a kitchen basically in name only. Sure, there was a room in my flat that had a couple of pots and a fridge in it. But to extend the idea of that making it a ‘kitchen’ – aka a room dedicated to the storage and preparation of meals – would be a stretch. For the first few months in this ‘kitchen’, I was using cutlery I had foraged from a picnic basket that had been left at my previous flat by accident and then packed to go to my new place by negligence. I was also drinking tea out of a tin cup left by the builders who had been in the building prior to me moving in. But without these things I would have basically been eating off paper plates for months, mostly because all the cutlery was packed in sealed boxes and to go hunting through all of them to find a spoon for me to use was a prospect that filled me with about as much enthusiasm as wet underpants on a cold day.

Yes. I am also spectacularly lazy, but tell me something I don’t know.

So for a year I kinda fell back on a sort default position of ‘making do’, which is essentially a combination of eating out, occasionally bringing home goodish takeaways and filling the gaps with the sort of cooking that literally requires nothing more complicated than a medium pot and a knife just sharp enough to make a dent in a questionable tomato.
It also meant long evenings lovingly caressing the spines of my cookbooks and staring at pictures of sauces and roasts and inventive variations on Spanish prawn dishes like I was a love-torn psychopath in an 80s music video, and then trying to remember if I could still make a béarnaise.

But finally this has changed. Walls were ripped out, cupboards rebuilt from scratch, junky pieces of equipment thrown out and a place that was not only intended for this magical thing called ‘cooking’, but properly fitted to actually do it, emerged.
You know those clips of newborn foals, all trembly and wobbly but walking – usually within a couple of seconds after being plopped out of their mom? That’s basically what I felt like. I knew I could do this thing, but it felt like it’d been so long since I’d actually cooked with any form of intent or purpose that all my confidence had just vanished.
But a remarkable thing happens when suddenly you have an enthusiasm for the room in which something is traditionally meant to happen: you rediscover your enthusiasm for the thing you were always meant to be doing in that room, and that kinda blows all the trepidation out the water – because even if you suck, then at least you’re spending time in a place that makes you genuinely happy – so none of that shit matters any more.
It sounds like a such a stupidly obvious thing to say – but I’ve felt it in such a potent way in the last week or so, that it felt like it bore saying. Just having a kitchen that I loved being in was enough to push me to start dipping my toes back in the cooking water.

It’s starting small – a little lemon and Parmesan chicken lunch here, a spicy tempura prawn and coleslaw there, but the wheels have started turning, and I’m grateful that they’re doing so. It’s like I’m one of those frogs that bury themselves in mud for years and years, only to emerge when the rain comes.
And I just felt the first few drops of water coming down.

Confessions of a Rank Amateur 

Hello. 

I have recently come to realize that I am what I’ve recently come to call “A Rank Food Amateur”. 

The work ‘rank’ is actually quite an interesting one. Almost as though one’s state of ineptitude can, in fact, be categorized.

 “Oh him? He’s totally an 8th level amateur. Can’t you tell by his scraggly beard and strange look of quiet , unwashed desperation? Also, he’s wearing a wizard’s hat, and seriously…who does that these days?”
Right now, at this very second, sitting across from me in the fancy-ish chain restaurant I happen to be sitting in, there is a girl who can’t be more than 8 or 9 years old – heartily tucking into a massive plate of steak tartar. With a similar expression I reserve for spectacular feats of cricketing prowess or the winner of a prize I was kinda not-so-secretly hoping to get, I’m watching this girl crack the raw egg into her raw steak and go to town like a crocodile goes to town on anything with a beating heart and a stupidly underdeveloped sense of mortality. 
This girl scares the shit out of me, because at her age I thought olives were specifically shat out from the anus of the devil, that feta was its unholy bride, and that anything that wasn’t made by the King Pie corporation was to be viewed with a good deal of suspicion and mistrust. And here she is happily wolfing down a meal that even to this day requires me to have a certain level of tequila-fueled plucky bravado to order. This girl probably shovels down oysters by the unholy bucket-load at casual family gatherings and loudly prefers her pizzas Bianco because that’s how they have them in Rome and what does Debonairs know anyway the fucking savages.

This girl is not an amateur. She will no doubt eat at at least 4 of the world’s top 5 restaurants before her 25th birthday, whereas the closest I’ve ever gotten is eating a barbecue pork roll on the side of the road in a 10 km radius of the French Laundry. I once ate a packet of tomato flavored chips bought from a petrol garage, shoved in-between two slices of white bread with a can of creme soda, for breakfast. 

And yet, I love to cook. I also love the reward of beautiful food, prepared by people who seriously know what the fuck they’re doing, and the resultant sensation of living that those sorts of experiences impart. 

Which is how I’ve recently come to seriously mistrust myself as any kind of food authority – because ultimately one has to ask oneself – what on earth do I actually know? Sure I can fry some onions without setting myself on fire, I can generally cut a piece of meat without stabbing myself to death – but ultimately I feel like a wide-eyed moron in a world increasingly populated by 8 year-olds who would eat me up and shit me out on any given episode of Australian Masterchef.
It’s a weird thing to realize that being an enthusiast does not necessarily entitle one to be an authority. And a recent trip to San Francisco, and a special dinner I had there put together by the people at what started as a pop-up restaurant called Lazy Bear, pretty much definitively proved that I am generally pretty massively out of my depth when it comes to real food.

I can’t possibly remember the intimate details of that dinner, even though I can still pick out rubbishy little details like the pork dish was served with a brine of wild mushrooms that made me want to go sing tribal songs in the deep forest, that the scallop was like the most delicate blob of vaguely briny, creamy butter. There was butternut ice-cream and sego pudding and duck delicately wrapped in translucent cabbage, all punctuated by sauces that seemed inhuman in their delicateness and yet somehow simultaneously full of a frothy richness that could only have been generated by black magic.

   
           
In the face of cooking like that it’s kinda hard to see how anyone could really be interested in my recipe for “extra special tacos”.

I do however totally suggest you go find that 8 year old’s blog – because I’m sure it’s brilliant.

Viva la Quinoa

…which is a joke that only really works if you know how to pronounce Quinoa. Which sounds like such a super wanky thing to say, but…

Oh. Nope. It’s totally super wanky. But I stand by it. 

  


Curried Quinoa with pickle-soaked chicken.

serves 4
Ingredients list

1 cup of quinoa

Half a cup of olives, sliced

I small onion, finely chopped.

Small handful of fresh coriander, roughly choppped – stalks and all.

3 or 4 pepperdews, roughly chopped (optional)
1 tbsp ground coriander

1 tbsp ground cumin

1 tbsp turmeric

1 tbsp smoked paprika 

1 tbsp chipotle chilli powder (optional)

1 large onion, roughly chopped

1 large stick of celery (or two small ones), roughly chopped

1 large carrot (again, or two small ones), roughly chopped

1 small cauliflower, broken up into florets

2 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into cubes

2 tins of whole tomatoes

500ml of vegetable stock

2 cloves of garlic, pressed with salt into a paste

1 (or 2, depending on your taste) red chillies, finely chopped
4 skinned chicken breasts, soaked in pickle juice for 24 hours.

Salt and pepper

Shaved parmesan and chopped chives to finish

  
What to do

So, this should be done the day before, because it imparts such a rich, zippy flavour to the chicken that its utterly, utterly worth it. Essentially, you need about a cup of pickle juice, either from pickled onions (my preferred option) or gerkins, then poured over the chicken in a shallowish sealable tub and the put in the fridge to marinate for 24 hours.

The next day, it’s time to get going. This is an optional step, but I really find that it adds an extra layer of nutty flavour to the quinoa which makes it incredibly rich and satisfying.

In a heated dry pan, toast the quinoa grain until just starting to turn slightly golden brown. It’ll be crackling and hopping a bit in the pan, so make sure to keep shaking or stirring so that it doesn’t catch or burn.

Tip the toasted quinoa into a pot (or just start here), cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Once boiling, adjust the heat down to a simmer and leave until the quinoa has absorbed all the water and fluffed itself. Loosen and stir it up with a fork, cover with a lid to carry on steaming and set aside.

Take the chopped olives, onion (and peppadews if using) and toss them with some olive oil into a pan on high heat (you can obviously use the same pan you used to toast the quinoa) and fry until the onion is just starting to turn crispy golden on the edges. Remove from the heat, and stir through the chopped coriander. 
Mix together the ground coriander, cumin, paprika, turmeric and chipotle powder (if using) and set aside.

In a large skillet heat a good shake of olive oil, then toss in the cubed sweet potato. Cook on a medium heat until just starting to go crispy and golden. Then add the celery, onion, carrots, chilli and garlic. Stir and fry this all up until they start to soften and release all their aromas. You want to keep the skillet on a medium-ish heat, just so that it all cooks more gently than aggressively and to keep the sweet potato from over-cooking. Add the cauliflower and the mixed spices and keep stirring and cooking for about 7-10 minutes.

Then add the two tins of tomato, crushing them with the back of a wooden spoon and mixing in well, add a bit of vegetable stock so that you have a rich sauce, turn the heat down to a gentle simmer and leave this to bubble away for about 20 minutes to half an hour – essentially until its thickened up nicely.

Stir the warm olives and onions into the quinoa and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Heat a griddle pan (if you have one, it’s not essential) splash in a bit of olive oil and add the chicken once up to temperature. Fry on one side until you’ve got those nice sexy lines marking the chicken, then flip them and do the same for the other side. Turn the temperature down to a medium heat and keep cooking for about 15-20 minutes until they’re cooked through.
Mix enough of the curried tomato sauce with quinoa so that its sticky and reddish, then serve with the chicken, cut into slices. Shave over some parmesan cheese and sprinkle with chopped chives.

  

  

Separating the wheat from the chaf. And also, everything else.

In which Jono (unsurprisingly) rambles for a couple of hundred words before getting to the point – and then figures out he doesn’t quite know what his point is and that even if he did, he’s probably not qualified to actually make it.

So… I dunno, maybe just skip to the end where there’s a nice recipe for sweet potato flatbreads.

I recently had a fairly odd exchange with a close friend of mine. Luckily, most people who know me, are used to ‘odd’ being the default setting for any exchanges I’m ever involved in, so at least it didn’t take anyone by surprise.

So, Gil and I had met for an after-work beer/bourbon (beer for him, bourbon for me). This had quickly turned into a few more after-work beers, and then a fairly rousing discussion about how being single was having an adverse effect on his sex-life, which is clearly a topic that benefits greatly from the number of beers that accompany it being ‘a lot’. Without even noticing, we had quickly gotten to that point where it’s time to balance out the pints with something that comes on a skewer or in-between two bits of bun.

And so, in a stunning display of common sense and pragmatism, he suggested that we go and eat somewhere, which is an entirely normal thing to suggest. I went slightly red in the face, and (in a tone of voice reminiscent of someone having to admit that they’ve just had a lavatory accident on your carpet) slightly sheepishly replied that I’d quite been looking forward to eating by myself, and was it okay if I did that rather?

Which is slightly less normal.

I’m pretty sure that the very first thing I wrote on this blog was about eating by yourself, and in the four years or so that I’ve been parking random bits of belly-button fluff on this corner of the Internet, my love for eating alone hasn’t changed. Nor has my puzzlement as to why it’s something that very few people ever do, and the equal puzzlement of people for whom this isn’t an everyday thing.

By the way, Gil, being an emotionally sensitive and socially developed person was completely unfazed by my plan, so high-fives all round.

For me, eating by myself in public is like a reset button – it’s a chance to breathe the air of the World At Large (albeit a World At Large that’s specifically oriented around selling me a mussel pot or something) – without it being coloured or filtered though the expectations of the person sitting across from me. Where else can you slip anonymously into a crowded room of people, and purely by the safety afforded you by a table in the corner, soak in their stories, habits, conversations and lifestyles without being ‘that weird guy at the party that no one else knew and everyone was fairly confused as to how he got invited’?

Which is how I got to the steamy and crowded Greek place, Parea, that I squeezed into in an attempt do some of that ‘breathing the air of the world at large’ stuff I was talking about. And also to write about something which is completely not what I’m currently writing about.

This just goes to show, that a horse led to his ipad via a plate of squid heads won’t necessarily drink the ouzo.

Oh dear. This is all going stupidly and weirdly wrong…

Urg, this is what generally happens when I have to ask the Internet to look at a thing I did and am quite proud of, I get all procrastinaty and obscure. So let me rather stop beating around the bush and just say “Hey, so I don’t know if any of you guys noticed, but I was in the Sunday Times a week or so back, and it was very nice of them indeed to do a big fancy feature on me and five of my recipes”.

Phew. Okay that’s out of the way now.

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Anyone who knows my history with the Sunday Times, will probably understand how much of a nice thing this is for me, and will hopefully also indulge my wanting to show it off just a bit. So, thanks for that.

Interestingly, the reason they did it was because of an eating choice I made towards the end of last year that I’ve been doing for about 10 months now and have thus far not mentioned on this blog – which considering this is my blog about me and food, is either oddly negligent or protectively cynical on my part.

The ‘eating choice’ I’m talking about is going gluten-free, and the reasons I haven’t really talked about it here? Myriad and fairly complex. And mostly to do with the fact that I get eye-rollingly exhausted whenever I come across someone earnestly trying to tell me about ‘why they don’t eat shellfish or food that’s harvested in September’ – EVEN THOUGH I’M NOW ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE.

I’m seriously conflicted about this – trust me.

Let me try a quick experiment. I’m interested to see if there’s a sort of gut, reflex negative reaction to the following words or phrases: vegan, locavore, dairy-free, vegetarian, pescatarian, paleo diet, ethical eater, ‘no carbs after 5pm’. I’d be surprised if, when confronted by someone who claims to be one or more of these things (or some variant I’ve forgotten), that the majority of us don’t have to suppress some sort of visible sigh, because, you know – “Jeez, can’t you just eat normally like the rest of us? None of us need these stupid self-involved diets and we’re all awesome.”

Right. The problem is that I’m simultaneously confused by that weird reaction we all have (and I totally have it as well) to people who’s dietary choices don’t reflect either ours or what we consider to be ‘normal’ – and I am also confused by the self-righteous douchiness displayed by people who’ve chosen to have a slightly different way of going about eating stuff, and the apparent superiority they feel entitled to as a result.

Yoh. You guys? You make it so hard for everyone. We all get so defensive about this stuff, and it really puts roadblocks in the way of being common-sense about it all.

So, having said all that, I’m incredibly aware of the extent to which sub-editors all around the world have, over the last couple of months, been trotting out GLUTEN-FREE, FAD OR FACT? type headlines. Partly I think this is because sub-editors as a class don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow – as the highest profile gluten-free acolyte around these days, and her rather annoying habit of calling her kids odd names and arriving at movie premiers looking fucking gorgeous.

Any new dietary approach generally gets labelled a ‘fad’ before its even had a chance to get out the gate, and in so doing, main-stream commentators have quite neatly branded anyone silly enough to give it a go the equivalent of hopeless novelty-chasers, like everyone who wore buffaloes in the late 90s. But it’s a genuine question and should be answered pragmatically. And it was my attempt to do so in the article in the Sunday Times that sort of got me into trouble.

Here is the Q&A that went with the recipes, and the important bit for the purposes of this conversation is the last question.

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So, it was that question and the answer that I gave, which prompted a lady called Dr Helen Wright (which is terrifying in and of itself, being called out by a doctor) to post the following letter on this blog.

I followed the Gluten Free tag having read your piece in the Sunday paper entitled “Feeling Good is the New Normal”. I also note that you mention in the blog Simpler Times that you have problems with “that stuff”. I am disturbed by your answer to the question posed in the Sunday paper article “Has gluten intolerance become a fad?” in that you failed to take a wonderful opportunity to educate the South African public that while eating gluten free may indeed be a fad for some people, or a preferred diet, (as for yourself it appears), it is in fact imperative that others follow a gluten free diet or they will become seriously ill. I have Coeliac Disease, proven by intestinal biopsy, which is a genetic disorder and I must follow a gluten free diet or I will become ill for several months. It is not a fad or a result of post WW2 eating habits as you suggest in the article.

This is a lot to do with why I, thus far, haven’t really gone into the gluten-free thing on this blog – for fear of being mistaken for some sort of expert or advocate for it as a medical necessity or lifestyle choice. Because really at the end of the day I’m just a guy who discovered, mostly by accident, that I generally felt a lot better if I didn’t eat things with gluten in them.

In the interests of balance, this was my response:

Hello!

I’m so glad you brought this up, because it was a facet to the privilege of being included in the Sunday Times piece that I was struggling to figure out how to address.

My original answer to that question was, as I’d written it, actually quit a lot longer than that which ended up being printed (to be fair, all of my answers were a lot longer – I’m a hopeless windbag) – and, inasmuch as I could, addressed the concerns and totally valid points you raise. Having said that, and also having a background in journalism, I do however understand the necessity for the newspaper to edit copy for column space and brevity, and so I can’t be too grumpy about the fact that my slightly more nuanced answer to what (as you so rightly point out) is a question that deserves a far more comprehensive answer to the one that was printed, for no other reason than that’s how newspapers work.

So much so, that in the two weeks since that have passed since the article was printed, I have been prepping a rather more lengthy blog post to specifically address my background with gluten-fee eating, and a more detailed perspective on why it deserves more weight and attention than ‘just a fad’. I am fully aware of the difficulties suffered by those with coeliac disease (several lifelong friends of mine suffer from it), as well as a lot of the science and biology behind the various degrees of sensitivity and symptoms that most humans have in reaction to gluten, and in a perfect world I would have had the space to fully lay those out in the Sunday Times.

But then again, this is why I have a blog, so that I can write those things down and park them somewhere for those who are interested to read. It perhaps hasn’t been posted as quick as I’d like, because I’m not the most talented or natural writer on the planet and getting all the full-stops, capitals and commas in the right place alas takes me longer than most.

Interestingly I’m trying to gauge how much of an audience there currently is for more dedicated gluten-free food discussion and recipes, and subsequently whether or not this dusty little corner of the Internet could actually become that space, and so I totally welcome and appreciate conversations like this, and hope to have many more in the future.

Thank you so much for your post.

But, now that we’re all here (and if you’ve read this far, then you’re definitely intent on going on this journey with me, and for that I can only say, “I’m sorry – I’ll get back to lame pop culture jokes soon, I promise”) let’s get into it shall we?.

The thing I return to most often, is the feeling that so much of what we experience physiologically, we sort of just accept as being ‘that’s the way it is.’ I did this for about a decade. Feeling low? Feeling listless? Digestion a constant plague of rumbling and farting? My general response to feeling all of those things was along the lines of: Well, I’m a fairly healthy person who doesn’t eat too much crap and so this must just be normal, something our bodies are designed to do after a certain point in life. You know, the same way a Land Rover Defender is designed to just leak oil all the time and break down for the rest of it. However, what we might be experiencing or think of as being ‘normal’ is sometimes actually a largely cumulative sequence of feelings and physiological symptoms caused by eating things that we all kinda know we shouldn’t be eating in quite as much volume as we do: mainly bread, sugar and dairy. Because, our bodies aren’t land rovers. They’ve evolved over millennia to be incredibly effective machines that perform superbly if you treat them right, and alas it appears (I say that very deliberately because I'm clearly not a medical expert, but my armchair research and self-experimentation has indicated that I'm possibly not wildly off) that excessive amounts of the Tricky Trio (bread, milk and sugar) isn't really that great for us. But what makes this all so fucked up is those three are just about the basis of everything we eat these days. And so, because this is widely considered (in the western world) to be ‘normal’, it’s almost unfathomable that the way we feel as a result could be ‘abnormal’. It’s like being told that you’re allergic to air or Downton Abbey. It seems fundamentally incorrect that something that’s so inherently part of everything we do as westernised humans from a food perspective, could be ‘bad’.

This, for me, is an example of how tricky this stuff gets – and also a prime example of why I haven’t brought it up on this blog before. Because, as much as I’m aware of and sensitive to the seriousness of coeliac disease, I also know that’s not really what most people experience. Yes, gluten causes major problems for coeliacs like Dr Wright, but the majority of people are more likely to be a bit more like me (not that way, god forbid) in that gluten causes them (if they’re even affected at all) varying degrees of mild discomfort (bloating, gas, mental fuzziness, weight gain, a general tetchiness and gloominess) which usually gets passed off as ‘getting older’ or as the effects of ‘the pace of modern life’ – all of which are certainly real things and have real effects, but which often aren’t really at the heart of what’s going on.

It’s also not helped by (and one of the things that Dr Wright took issue with) my reference to the post World War II industrialization of food production. What I was trying to get at (and what makes this water so muddy) is that often people feel like they might have a gluten sensitivity, but what they’re maybe actually experiencing is their bodies reacting to the chemical-heavy, unfathomably-processed and refined, sugar-packed quality of most food we eat these days, and here’s the key, especially bread. Most people who feel like they’re gluten intolerant or sensitive, won’t have any adverse reaction to a properly-made sourdough bread, baked with flour that hasn’t been chemically treated or processed. So, you can see why it maybe gets extra confusing if sometimes we can’t tell if we’re having a reaction to the gluten, or the chemicals that are generally found in foods that also happen to have gluten in them.

Oh dear. Again. All this wheat and chaff to sort out…

I think, if there’s one main take-out I’d like from this super-indulgent and rambling post, is that – for me – the benefits of going gluten-free have been undeniable. I’ve lost weight, my digestive system seems to be working normally these days as opposed to behaving like the crazed leader of a fundamentalist religious cult, and most importantly my energy is back, not just my physical energy, but my drive, my excitement and desire to do things. Oh, I also stopped snoring – which let me tell you, is fucking fantastic. But that is no way meant to be a zealous haranguing for any of you reading this to do the same. Do what you want to do, all I can say is that at the very least do it with a sense of curiosity.

Yes, it’s a pretty inconvenient way to live (unless of course you’re in South America, India, Sri Lanka, most of Asia and large parts of Africa – where wheat doesn’t feature so prominently), and the gluten-free substitutes for things like bread and biscuits and pasta are depressingly expensive. But as I increasingly stumble and totter down this path, the truth is that I honestly can’t see myself changing this way of living anytime soon. And I can only predict that those substitutes or alternatives will become cheaper and more readily available as more people discover the benefits.

So, if any of this stuff has been at all useful or appealing, let me know – and maybe I can start writing recipes specifically for this niche. I’d be happy to.

In the mean-time, here is the first of the recipes that were published in the Sunday Times, the rest of which I’ll post over the next couple of weeks.

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The rice flour used int this is one of those ingredients that used to turn me off recipes like this, it just seemed like a schlep to find, but these days just about every single supermarket stocks it and it’s not nearly as much of a mission as I used to think.

Ingredients – makes 6-8 flatbreads

350g sweet potatoes, peeled
250g of rice flour, with another 50g for dusting
2 tsp brown sugar
A cup of the sweet potato cooking liquid
A pinch of salt
1 tbsp olive oil

What to do

Boil the sweet potatoes in a pot until lovely and soft. Keep a cup’s worth of the cooking liquid to one side, and drain away the rest, letting the potato cool. Sprinkle in the sugar and a somewhat generous pinch of salt. In the pot, use a stick blender to blitz the potato into a soft mash, then start adding the flour – about 75g at a time, splashing a little bit of the cooking liquid as necessary to keep it from getting too dry. Once the potato has soak up all the flour, scrape out all the dough onto a surface dusted with the extra rice flour, and kneed for a a good ten minutes or so until you’ve got a silky ball of dough. Cover in cling-film and set aside for 30 minutes.

Brush a non-stick pan with the olive oil, so that it’s very lightly coated and get it onto a high heat. Break off a palm-size piece of the dough, press it into a rough circle shape, then roll out into a disc about half a centimeter thick, pop this into the pan for about 5 minutes each side so that it’s cooked through, and crispy and golden for the most part, slightly charred and blackened in others.

Serve with a poached egg, fresh coriander leaves and a tomato sauce made with plenty of cumin and a touch of green chilli.

Putting the food where my mouth is.

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I always used to think that the saying “Those who can’t do, teach” was quite unfair on teachers. I’ve had some pretty amazing teachers in my life, including one that practically became my substitute parent, taught me about The Lord of the Rings, showed me my first horror movie, and gave me my bad habit of saying fuck in front of sensitive people with small impressionable children.

Then I went to university and studied to be a journalist, quickly realising that the whole ‘can’t-do-teach’ thing was actually quite unfair on “those who can’t do”, because being a university journalism lecturer has marginally less utility, dignity or purpose than a conceptual video artist during an attack of the living dead. Although, I suppose there is still time to popularize the phrase “Throw the video artists to the zombies and let’s get the fuck out of here!”

Then I followed this up with film-school and realised that people should probably just stop saying things altogether, because at the bottom of the deepest, darkest tunnel of humanity’s ineptitude and folly is a film-school lecturer blinking up at you asking for five individual motivations for why you want to put the camera over there.

I guess it’s all a question of putting your money where your mouth is, and I suppose sometimes it’s more comfortable to just not do that. Now, I don’t have any money, but I do have a giant mouth – and most of the time it enjoys having delicious things shoved in it. And so, it’s all very well writing guff about risotto balls and taking pretty pictures of salad next to a gingham napkin, but that’s generally a low-stakes exercise. For all you know, most of the food on any given food blog tastes like a badger that hasn’t wiped its bum in a while, or the recipe was nicked from whatever new book Jamie’s just released that’s essentially just a license for him to print money. Or maybe in my case, I’m just taking pictures of things my mom made and passing it off as my own. Although, if this was actually what was going on I’d probably have a lot more pictures of happy mushrooms frolicking in the wild while somewhere in the distance a merry, cherubic Swedish infant plays Crosby, Stills and Nash back-catalogue on a trombone.

God, it seems like I’m being totally rude about everyone today. I’m really not trying to be a dick, promise.

Because, don’t get me wrong – I love food bloggers, they-slash-we are passionate and excitable about things like shrimp paste, and the world totally needs more people to be passionate about shrimp paste (no sarcasm!). And even though there’s possibly a touch too many pictures of poached eggs on asparagus floating around the internet, the spirit of the food blogger is one that I get a huge kick out of, which is of course why I am one for fuck’s sake.

Well, ‘became one by accident’ I suppose is slightly more accurate.

What I really started was an online diary of things I was making, because I found that I was forgetting the recipes to a lot of my experiments, and the Internet seemed as good a place as any to put them. It was always intended to be an isolated little corner of the web where I stashed some cooking ideas and maybe occasionally made a joke about French cars or people who don’t know how to eat hotdogs in public. That’s why there’ve never been any links to or from this page, why it resolutely continues to have the dumbest, most unwieldy name for a website ever, and there are no ads. If you find it, you find it – and if you don’t, that’s okay too.

I guess what’s happened over the years that I’ve started to think about food a bit more and write about it a bit more, is that I’ve realised why this food blog has become so important to me, even if it has been a slightly stuttering enterprise with some occasionally very long gaps in the timeline: and that’s because it’s kind of a way of forcing myself to try and be better at this stuff. To make a sort of public space where other people who are not my friends or family can look at what I’m doing and decide if they like it. Because, as soon as you start doing something in public, you’ve inevitably got to concentrate a bit harder. But I suppose even the relatively public forum of this blog has started to feel a little too safe, and the desire to test and expand the boundaries of what I’m capable of has been strong for quite a while now. Which is where the whole Foodhall thing started a long time ago, with a few irregular and stumbling steps at first, later on turning into a regular stride (which means I’m totally going to trip and fall on my face any moment now, stick around and you might be able to Instagram it). There’s nothing quite like the high wire act of cooking for strangers who have paid money to eat your food to focus the mind. And considering that I’m not quite ready to chuck my day-job to run a restaurant (because I quite like my day-job), this is as good a way to do it as any.

So, that is probably as good an explanation as any as to why this blog has been a bit quiet of late, I’ve been trying my hand at doing – and it’s been crazy and exhausting and simply, quite wonderfully – amazing.

I’ve met such great people and had strangers eat my cooking and (at the very least do an excellent job of pretending to) quite enjoy it – which is a feeling quite unlike any other. And far from diminishing my passion for food, it has just stoked it to a white-hot blaze. I want to get more adventurous, share with more people, find out what others are doing and ultimately, but not disdainfully – be a little more than ‘just a guy with a food blog’.

I want to say thank you to the amazing response and sold-out nights we have had thus far, to my incredible partners Hayleigh, Orly and Shoki at the PopArt Theater, to the people who have come and laughed and enjoyed, both friends and strangers-who-became-friends (some who came purely on the basis that they read this blog), and to those who have written nice things about us in the press: you are as much a part of this as we are.

Thank you, keep coming here to read my dumb jokes and silly recipes, and I hope to see you around my table soon.

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Also, you can find a video from our first night here.

Simpler times.

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It’s been a dark couple of weeks for South Africa, what with one thing and another.

In fact, adding last year’s Marikana tragedy into the mix and continual crises in education and our frustrating inability to uplift the poorest and most disadvantaged of our country, it clearly brings into focus the size and range of massive and fundamental moral, social, emotional and existential questions we’re confronting on a daily basis at the moment.

I’m not arguing that we’re the only ones to be facing these questions, in fact most of the Middle East in particular has been doing so in a pressure-cooker of religion and civil war for decades, but South Africans of every colour and socio-economic background, have recently been forced to look at some very nasty sides of life and ourselves. And it’s shaken us, I think – it’s almost as though a dark tar or taint has soaked itself into even the most everyday and mundane of the thousands of little things we do to create this big thing we call “our lives”.

It’s hard not to feel adrift, cut loose from the things you felt you were certain about, or thought were reliable – and conversations become inevitably defined by the prefix of “Did you hear…” – as nuggets, scraps and sound-bite trophies are traded for an odd kind of internal group supremacy. But all we’re really doing is rebounding our own echoes back on ourselves – the same details and pieces, some made-up or invented – who knows? – but because the innumerable social-media platforms we have available to us constantly throw them back at us over and over and over again – we can’t help but be drawn into repeating them.

I think the reality at the moment is the extent to which life can suddenly insert chaos into the bits of yourself that you thought were safe, impenetrable – throwing them uncomfortably wide open. And I in particular don’t deal very well with this feeling of being adrift, of being at the mercy of tides bigger and more sinister than you thought would ever become a part of your day-to-day. I don’t know anyone who does, really…

It’s in these moments that the familiar and simple become the most important possible things that one can hold on to. And for me, those simple things are best found in the kitchen and around the table, with conversations about the stuff that make us smile and laugh. It’s a candle against the darkness.

So this week, get some mates around, make something you really like that’s rich and comforting. Get some wine on the table, and let the rest take its course.

I’ve often talked on this blog about the extent to which I’ve always appreciated the Italian approach to cooking (and life really, except maybe for all that mafia and Mussolini stuff…), which focuses of fewer ingredients, of as good a quality as can possibly be sourced, and letting those flavours just simmer and enrich themselves without to much fuss or faff.

One of my favourite comfort meals in this regard is a wet, cheesy polenta, with spicy salami, sautéed with San Marzano tomatoes and a dash of balsamic. Do your best to get imported ingredients from an Italian deli, it really will make all the difference. Also this dish is wheat and gluten free which means it’s great for a lot of people who have problems with that stuff. Like me.

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Polenta with tomatoes

Ingredients

1 good cup of good quality Italian polenta.
a handful of freshly-grated Parmesan cheese.
salt and pepper

A handful of thinly-sliced spicy salami, preferably handmade Italian.
A 400g tin of San Marzano tomatoes.
1 medium red onion, finely chopped.
1 large clove of garlic, crushed with the flat of a butter knife with some salt and combined to make a paste.
Half a dried red chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped.
1 tbsp of good quality balsamic vinegar.
A handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped.
A slick of truffle-infused oil (if you can)

What to do

In a wide, flat-bottomed saucepan add a slick of olive oil and bring to a medium-high heat. Toss in the chopped onions, the garlic salt paste and the chopped chilli, stirring until the onions have softened and started to become translucent. Turn up the heat a notch, and add the chopped salami and keep stirring as it sizzles and pops. Just as the salami has started to crisp and release its fat, throw in the tin of tomatoes, crush them with the back of your stirring spoon, add the tablespoon of vinegar, a dash of salt and pepper to taste, turn the heat down, and let this rich, wonderful sauce blip away for about 20 minutes or so. Add a little bit of truffle oil, five minutes before taking off the heat.

Just as the sauce is ready, bring two and a half cups of salted water to the boil, in a pot on the stove-top. Get the polenta and the Parmesan close at hand, and as the water is boiling – start to froth it with a whisk. Add the polenta in a steady stream, carrying on whisking as you go. Immediately get the pot off the heat, keep whisking the polenta as it thickens, and add the Parmesan, stirring it in.

Spoon the lovely thick polenta into a bowl, add a ladle of sauce and also a sprinkle of chopped basil leaves.

Horse: friend or feast.

Anyone who lived through what I like to call the “Julia Roberts married Lyle Lovett!?!” era of the early 90s – will know, quite viscerally, the extent to which the world is a very, very peculiar place sometimes.

Now, I have nothing against Lyle Lovett – as far as fringe alt-country crooners go, he’s great. Okay, so his hair is pretty stupid and he sometimes looks like a crocodile trying to get something out of his teeth, but his real problem is that he’s part of a group of men who I firmly believe should, for the good of society, be banned from ever actually being involved with any women, purely to spare us all from ever accidentally having a mental image of them having sex.

David Copperfield is the President-For-Life of this club, just in case you were wondering…

I want this to be clear, this is less a comment on the sexual desirability of Lyle Lovett or the appalling taste of Julia Roberts, and more a comment on the general peculiarity of life. I mean let’s not forget, this ‘life’ thing has given us drop-crotch pants for guys, dubstep and aspic (for anyone who doesn’t know what aspic is, go ask your granny; it’s essentially a salad preserved in jelly that for some inexplicable reason is usually moulded into the shape of a fish).

You’d think that by now we’d be used to oddities, general weirdness and the tenacious existence of ‘mom jeans’.

And yet we’re not. In fact it’s almost as though we’re comforted by our ability to be discomforted. The unexpectedness of, say, seeing Nicki Minaj becoming an Olympic lawn bowls gold medallist feeds the hardwired sense of righteous indignation we have that encourages us to throw our hands up in the air and go, “See!? Just like I’ve always said – lawn bowls/the Olympics/gold medals have never been the same since that Minaj woman got involved.” We’re deeply suspicious of the universe, and will go to great lengths to preserve our right to that suspicion.

I think this is why everyone is so gripped by the fact that apparently half of Europe has had a higher-than-expected quotient of pony in their cheeseburgers than they were previously led to believe (i.e. none). Outrage, disgust, disbelief and varying degrees of horror have gripped Britain for starters, and is slowly spreading as more and more countries realise that they too could have been dining on a bit of Daisy rather than the moo-cow that was advertised on the packet. Vast quantities of horse are turning up in lasagnes, burgers, bangers and pies – so much of it in fact, that I can’t help but be struck by one simple thought.

Until the labs got involved, how come no one noticed?

Seriously. It’s not like anyone, upon getting their Whopper at Burger King, took one bite and said, “Ooh, that tastes a bit horsey, don’t think I’ll have any more of those!” Nope, these horse-filled meals have apparently been selling just fine – which is why whoever made them carried on nefariously stuffing them full of pony. This surely means means one of two things; either that most ready-made meals and fast food is so terrible, that your burger could be made of parrot, monkey or sea-louse – and you probably wouldn’t be able to tell. Or, that horse is actually quite nice to eat.

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I know this is a horrific thought for some (or indeed most) people. Anecdotally, it seems to be the major theme of the distaste around the practice: “But we ride them, they’re more friends than animals.”

But I do wonder if what we really mean is, “They’re not ugly like cows, sheep or pigs,” which is alas the unfortunate trait that makes it easier for us to eat cows, sheep and pigs. I myself was taught to ride horses by my aunt, and have spent enough time around them to not just view them purely as great big things that sometimes try and kick you to death. Anyone who’s ever ridden, owned, had a poster of horse on their wall as a kid, or been a fan of My Little Pony (original or remake), will no doubt think I’m worse than a Nazi or someone who swindles people out of pensions for suggesting that horse-meat might actually have some culinary value, but I’m serious. How come no-one raised the alarm based on taste? (I also just want to say that I understand that this scandal is equal part ‘ew horsey’ and equal part ‘jeez how unregulated is our food industry that we don’t know what what’s going into it half the time?’: this episode happened to be pony, next time it’s radioactive waste)

I was at a party about a week ago, where the hostess had magnificent, angry bruising over most of her upper arm. It turns out one of her horses had tried to bite her, which is where she got the bruise. This, to me, made total sense, considering that it turns out we’ve been taking bites out of them for so long, that it’s only fair that the horses take whatever chances they get to return the favour.

Of course there are cultures who eat horse-meat all the time. The Japanese, Chinese, Russians, the Mexicans and to a lesser extent Italians, have no problems with it. And although we like to scoff at most of those cultures (especially the Chinese) for enjoying a good bit of poached cat or a yummy beetle on a stick (which we eagerly jump onto as a sign of cultural inferiority), they in turn look at things like the western mania for cow-milk as being just as disgusting. In Japan you are considered to smell like a horrid baby with your ‘milk breath’ and it greatly lowers their general estimation of you if that happens to be the case.

Now, what I want to know is what happens when all the new guaranteed ‘pony-free’ Whoppers start being served up to a chastened-but-hesitantly-returning public, and everyone who likes their Whoppers has this nagging and uncomfortable thought after the second or third bite; “hang on, this isn’t as delicious as it used to be.”

We should all be prepared to face the prospect that the horse was maybe the best bit. Like any of the times we discovered that the secret ingredient to those delicious minty peas we love so much was actually toothpaste (this happened on a scientific trip to the Antarctic an academic friend of my father once took), or that those artisanal rolls from the market you wolf down every weekend are actually kneaded in the armpit of the baker. It seems to me that generally we’re none the wiser to the less-than-savoury aspects of some of the food we consume, often in-between lip-smacking declarations of how good it is. Which suggests to me that most of us are comically insensitive to the food we eat. We can’t tell if the expired raw chicken has been taken off the shelves, given a chlorine bath and then re-packaged (as happened in SA two years ago), we can’t tell if the shepherd’s pie is not made of shepherd but in fact weasel, and apparently in a triumphant metaphoric vindication for the writers of Sweeney Todd, we didn’t detect a disturbance in the force when our eating was more equine than bovine, porcine or sheepine.

The answer? Easy. Stop buying cheap ready-meals from supermarkets and going to fast-food chains, ya dummies.