‘The Vanilla Question’…answered!

Cheesecake, a windowsill and a ray of sunshine. So very 1950s...
Cheesecake, a windowsill and a ray of sunshine. So very 1950s...

So – I heard the calls for creme brule, I considered long and hard the option of Tiramisu. And I ignored them all.

Because what I wanted was a cheesecake. A vanilla cheesecake.

So, 2 vanilla pods down,  about another 10 to go. This is going to make me fat…

Sometimes it doesn’t have to be a ‘Recipe’, it can just be dinner…

Italian Sausage with sliced roast potato and mielie and a fresh pepperdew and olive salad.

I have yet to find a way to make sausages look classy
I have yet to find a way to make sausages look classy

I was trying out some sausage (hello double-entendre – pleased to meet you, I’m Jono) I’d gotten from a stall at the Bryanston market and needed something to go with it. It ended up being this, something I’m filing under “plain but pleasing”.

Just a word about pepperdews, for those who haven’t encountered these South African sweet peppers. They’re available pretty much everywhere, usually pickled in a fragrant vinegar, much like you’d expect from a jar of gherkins or pickled onions – and they’re completely delicious. However, their strong sweet/sour flavour does tend to dominate just about anything they’re paired with and so I’ve used fresh ones for this salad. Fresh pepperdews have a much subtler (but still quite zingy) taste that’s way more eager to let other flavours into the party, rather than just hogging the limelight for themselves. If you can find them, I suggest snatching them up without any hesitation. If you can’t get pepperdews, normal red bell peppers are fine (unfortunately just a bit blander), but try the smaller varieties as they tend to be sweeter and make sure you slice them quite thinly.


Fresh Sausage (whatever you fancy, whether it be Boerie, Pork Sausage, Lamb…whatever really)
3 or 4 Potatoes
2 Mielies (corn on the cob – the internet being a ‘global village’ and all…)
1 handful of fresh pepperdews (de-seeded and chopped into ribbons)
1 handful of black olives (de-pitted and roughly chopped)
2 tbsp of the juice from the olive jar
1 smallish brown onion (sliced into rings)
Butter lettuce
Soy Sauce
Sage (I used it because I had some lying around, but you can use whatever herbs you have in your cupboard, I’m not a herb fascist…)
Salt & Pepper

What to do

So, this is my method for when I want to do roast potatoes and I just don’t have the patience to wait around:

Prick your potatoes once or twice with a sharpish knife and slap them straight in the microwave for about 10 minutes or so (I have an ancient microwave so you might want to do it for a little less time) until they’re about 90% cooked.

While you’re doing that, boil your mielies in a pot of salted water for about the same amount of time, then drain.

Carefully (they’ll be hot like a fireman’s pants) cut the potatoes and the mielies into inch-thick slices, place onto a baking tray and sprinkle with salt, pepper and the chopped sage. Add about two thumb-sized slices of butter (or olive oil if you’re healthier than me) and toss it all together until everything is coated nicely. Turn your oven grill up to about 200°C (I don’t know what it is in Farenheit but I’m sure you can work it out, or just go with the idea of “three-quarters as hot as your oven can go) and let it all crisp up.

Combine the chopped pepperdews, olives, onion and olive juice in a bowl, mix it up and set aside. Get a non-stick pan nice and hot, and toss in the mix (you don’t need any oil, the olive-juice will do it all) and, stirring energetically, literally just soften everything up in the pan. Remove from the heat and toss it all with the lettuce. Mix together a tablespoon of honey and a splash of soy sauce for a dressing and you’re smiling.

Obviously I’ve used a ridged pan for my version of the sausage, but you can honestly just use the same pan you used for the salad. Just give it a wipe with a paper towel before getting it nice and hot again, and without adding any extra fat, brown up your sausages before adding them to the roasted potato and mielies and serve with the salad.

So, nothing fancy… but I guess one of those dinners that might be called “hearty” if you’re in one of those adverts where there’s a roaring fire somewhere and a guy with blow-dried hair and a polo-neck jersey lurking to one side.

The Vanilla Question…

'Vanilla pods tied up with string', a discarded lyric from "My Favourite Things"
'Vanilla pods tied up with string', a discarded lyric from "My Favourite Things"

So last night I happened to be at a friend’s aunt’s house dropping off some anonymous packages from Cuba (one of those situations which sounds a lot more exciting than it actually is). After a glass of wine the subject wandered towards food, mostly because I steered it there by trying to hint that ‘yes I really would like to stay for dinner thanks’, but apparently my hinting is totally crap. As it turns out, this Aunt had just gotten back from a trip to Madagascar (amidst coups and changes of presidency and everything) and had brought back a couple of very neat little bags of fresh vanilla pods, one of which she very kindly gave to me (it seems I have the kind of face people just want to give Vanilla to).  There’s no real point to this little story other than to say I have fresh Madagascan vanilla and you don’t.

A quick side-note to this, the vanilla pods present me with a sort-of problem. I say ‘sort of’, because there are of course real problems out there in the world (you know… AIG, Darfur, tensions in the Middle-East, people still wearing Crocs), in comparison to which this less of a problem, and more a solo exhibition of artwork created entirely from things I found left behind in public toilets. The thing is, when someone gives you an ‘exotic’ or unusual ingredient, there’s immediately a scramble to find a recipe worthy of it. You see, as much as I’d like to say otherwise… I don’t automatically know what to do with okra, or strange Japanese bulb thingies, or seven pounds of dried Mexican shrimp-heads. I’m not saying that Vanilla is even vaguely in this category, it’s just that now I feel compelled to honour this gift with a suitably complicated or authentic something to do it justice. Which means hunting for a recipe, an opportunity to cook it and people to eat it. Which sounds easy, but isn’t, as I recently found out with half a kilogram of chestnuts a friend had kindly bought for me while on a visit to Johannesburg’s Chinatown market. You see, the time it took me to find the right recipe (A Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall soup from his excellent A River Cottage Year), some people who were eager to be experimented on (apparently my friends have no ceiling for Food That Could Go Either Way…) and an evening where everyone was free, turned out to be exactly the same amount of time it took for those chestnuts to go bad. Which, if I’d been less in awe of them wouldn’t have happened because I’d have just cooked the damn things.

I guess I’ll just go home and stick those vanilla pods in a jar of caster sugar and be done with it.

Pan-fried ostrich with thyme, mashed potato and curried spinach

This was one of those evenings where I played the “lets see if I can use up all the strange little odds and ends I have in my kitchen” game. Look, I know it’s not the new scrabble, but it’s a decent way to spend an evening if you’ve got a good bottle of red hanging around. A quick word about ostrich – it’s totally my absolute favourite meat: ridiculously full of flavour (I mean seriously…) and it just gives and gives and gives. You hardly have to put any work into it at all – it’s almost like the cow at the Restaurant at the end of Universe that’s designed to be enthusiastic about being eaten – ostrich is just desperate to be awesome, which is why in this recipe I’ve done hardly anything to it except cook it.

Please excuse the wanky balsamic decoration - I have no idea what came over me...
Please excuse the wanky balsamic decoration - I have no idea what came over me...


For the curried spinach:

1 small red onion (finely chopped)
1 5cm piece of fresh ginger (finely chopped)
1 clove of garlic (finely chopped)
3 tsp of turmeric
2 tsp of cumin (finely ground in a pestle & mortar)
2 tsp of chili powder (if you prefer less heat, don’t change the amount – just use a slightly less intense chili)
1 tsp of garam masala
1 tsp of brown sugar
The juice of half a lemon
Two handfuls of roughly-chopped spinach
Salt and pepper

For the ostrich:

1 or 2 Ostrich fillets (depending on how hungry you are)
4 tbsp of fresh thyme
Salt and pepper

For the Mash

3 or 4 fist-sized potatoes (peeled)
Olive oil
1 egg
1 tspn Hot English Mustard

In some olive oil, fry the onions, ginger and garlic in a largish pot until softened and really fragrant. Before they start to lose too much moisture, remove from the heat, and either using a hand-held blending stick or a conventional blender, whiz it up into a smooth paste. Add the turmeric, cumin, chili, garam masala, sugar and lemon juice and combine thoroughly. Now, spoon two to three tablespoons of this mix over the spinach and mix it in. It’s important to cover the spinach lightly – you don’t need to go overboard here, a little of this paste really goes a long way. Any remaining curry paste can be put in a tupperware and stored in the fridge where it’ll keep very nicely for a week, or of course frozen indefinitely.  Set the spinach aside.

Rub the ostrich fillet with the fresh thyme so that it’s good and worked into the fiber of the flesh, season with salt and pepper and then set aside.

Boil the potatoes in salted water for about 45 minutes or until soft. Drain all the water out, replace the lid of the pot and let the potatoes steam for about 10 to fifteen minutes.

Put a ridged pan on a high heat and get it good and hot, then fry the steaks (1 and a half minutes a side for rare, longer for medium to well-done).

In a separate pan melt a largish knob of butter, and just when it’s starting to bubble, add the spinach. Now this is the trick, you need to cook it for just long enough for the spinach to soften and start to absorb those lovely rich curried flavours, but not so long that it wilts and becomes a mush. You want the spinach to retain a bit of its freshness and crunch. About two to three minutes on a high heat should do the trick.

To the potatoes add the olive oil, salt, pepper, a splash of milk, the egg and the teaspoon of English mustard and the mash it all up until creamy.


The Lonely Lunch Commemorative (and delicious) Coconut Prego Roll


1 tbsp Yellow Mustard Seeds
1 tbsp Smoked Paprika
1 tspn Whole Coriander Seeds
1 tspn Whole Black Peppercorns
1 Dried Chili (finely chopped)
2 tspn Sea Salt

1 Prego steak (fresh as possible and as thin as a used dishcloth)
1 fresh Portuguese roll
1 tin of coconut cream
A handful of cherry tomatoes
A smallish handful of fresh coriander leaves (finely chopped)

The tomatoes were very happy with their choice of real estate.

Combine all the spices into a pestle and mortar and grind into a powder that’s still got a bit of texture to it. Rub the steak vigorously with your mix and set it aside (leave the steak in the spices for a good half an hour or so – more if you have the patience).

Chop the cherry tomatoes into quarters, sprinkle with some salt and set aside.

Cut the roll in half and toast in the oven (I’ve also used nice thick slices of Portuguese loaf before, in fact – in the accompanying pictures that’s what I used).

Heat a non-stick ridged pan until smoking hot, add the steak and fry for about a minute on either side. Then add about half your chopped fresh coriander and half the tin of coconut cream (don’t forget to shake the tin before opening to get it all combined, otherwise you’ll get half a tin of juice), and let the steak bubble in it for a bit. Any leftover bits of spice that didn’t get used up in the steak should definitely be tossed in at this point. Once the steak is nicely coated in the coconut cream (which should have gone a rich and ruddy brown colour) remove from the heat and place on the toasted roll.

Pour whatever remaining cream mixture you’ve got left in the pan (there should be quite a bit) over the steak and roll, top with the chopped tomatoes and the rest of your coriander.

The Art of The Lonely Lunch

There is no good enough that adding Tintin won't make it better.
There is no meal good enough that adding Tintin won't make it better.

Bear with me here, because I’m going to try and make an analogy between the practice of eating alone and a fireman’s pole. You see, in theory they might both sound pretty glamorous and titillating – you know, in the case of the fireman’s pole it’s a stiff erect thingie that you slide up and down. But then in reality, it’s just a metal pole and the firemen doing the sliding are all like your fat uncle who always makes inappropriate jokes about the lady reading the news on TV.  Similarly, eating alone sounds like it could be alluring, you know… flirt with the waitress, fall into conversation with some enthralling stranger, catch up on your reading of French philosophy over a glass of wine, but more often than not it’s 45 minutes of listening to the sound of your own chewing.

Plus its incredibly difficult not to look like you’ve just been stood up.

Having said that, I do honestly believe there are perks to the lonely lunch, and that its deeply unsexy tag isn’t quite as justified as people might think. Because, lets face it, there are going to be moments in your life when you’re going to have about 45 minutes to kill round about lunch time, and if you’re going to dine solo anyway – you might as well do it properly.

1)    Reclaiming your inner ‘messy eater’.

Maybe this is a guy thing (but I suspect it isn’t), but every now and again it’s fucking great to be able to hoof social niceties and just get down to the business of eating with energy and gusto, and bollocks to how many rules of politeness you drop barbecue sauce on along the way. You know: slurpy, sucky noises, eating with your fingers, licking sauce off the back of your hands, not worrying about whether pasta-bits end up in your hair – call me agricultural, but short of taking a bath in mashed potato, there’s no better way to spend a lunch-hour.

2)    Ordering the triple-stack burger with chips, onion rings and a pint of Amstel – all while not giving a shit.

Every menu always has something on it, something so outrageous, something so artery-clogging that it practically gives you a heart attack just reading the ingredients list. But deep down you know that it’s what you want more than a blowjob under the table from the saucy travel agent who just told you that the return tickets to Zurich you wanted were way out of your budget range. Of course you never end up ordering it, because that’d be wrong and everyone would judge you. Or so you tell yourself. And so you stare wistfully at the deep-fried brie with cranberry starter and order the salad instead. You glance over the nachos with bacon and extra cheese and plump for the grilled chicken breasts with yoghurt, to the gentle applause of the rest of table. But this is no way to live. And so: Eat alone? Eat whatever the hell you want.

3)    Not feeling guilty or inadequate for having nothing to say.

Next time you’re in a restaurant, take a look around: I guarantee that somewhere in your immediate vicinity there’s going to be that couple. You know – possibly wearing an outfit that just shaves the wrong side of being considered in-style, perhaps a little too much make-up and a very fancy cell phone that’s displayed just too prominently on the table for it to be accidental. And… they’re not talking. And not ‘not talking’ in that comfortable “I just need to stare in to your eyes for all the conversation I need” kinda way. No, it’s that silent, desperate inability to find anything to say to the person sitting opposite you. Not one thing.  And so they just sit there and eat their food, feeling increasingly uncomfortable about the situation and wishing that there was some way to just end it all.

And don’t think that just because you wear fashionable shoes, that makes you immune to The Silent Meal. It happens to everyone… Because you know, sometimes you just couldn’t be bothered to make the effort coming up with new things to say that make for someone else’s good time. You’re fed up with talking about Zuma, there’s nothing left to complain about your job, talking about other people’s poxy dreams makes you want to suffocate yourself on a crème brulee on purpose, talking about your non-existent love-life (and why it’s your fault its non-existent) will probably make you cry, and then all that’s left is “why cats are better than dogs” and “why TV was better in the 80s” and you had those conversations yesterday. Seriously. Just everyone shut up and read the newspaper.

4)    It’s a lot easier to hear other people’s conversations.

Okay, so carrying on from the previous thought, it’s amazing how much of other people’s conversations you’re suddenly privy to when you’re not having any of your own. You see, other people are fucked up – and they love nothing more to talk about how fucked up they are in public. There’s this ridiculous thing that happens when people walk into a restaurant in that they forget that everyone can actually hear what they’re saying when they’re busy telling their best friend how “I love my vibrator more than my husband”. Over pasta and a glass of wine, I’ve heard the intimate details of people’s business lives, sex-lives, holidays, disasters, affairs, insider-trading, ideas for novels, movies and TV shows (mostly terrible), where to shop for the best underwear, and what they think about their parents, boyfriends, children, bosses and co-workers. It’s brilliant. And also slightly depressing if you spend too much time thinking about it, so enjoy it in the moment and just remember to keep your voice down next time you’re at the Spur.

5)    Flirting with the waitress/waiter.

Everyone knows that flirting with the staff is never going to go anywhere. Because to her: you are not unique, you are not special, everyone flirts with her all the time, you just happen to be sitting in her area and no she is not impressed. Yes she is pretending so that she’ll get a bigger tip. But, you know what? Fuck it – think of it as practice. Kind of like a flight-simulator for when you one day have to do the real thing. Besides, flirting is sort of the gyroscopic motion that keeps those perpetual watches going without batteries, it keeps you going when things are barren, and reminds you that just because you might have three kids and an unmanageable mortgage, and least perfect strangers still (pretend to) find you attractive.

Of course, these 5 rules also work for Lonely Breakfasts, Late-night Dinners, Brunches, Evening Coffee and packets of crisps bought from the 24-hour garage.