Poor Potato…shame, no-one loves you anymore (whateverrrr).

No-one puts Baked Potato in the corner.
No-one puts Baked Potato in the corner.

Martyrs are like new releases from Fischer-Price or Audi – we’re always very excited when the new models come out, but we really can’t help going on endlessly about how much better the classics from ’88 were (because, you know… those Cold War Germans knew how to make the crap out of a plastic toy for toddlers).
But, the greatest martyrs are those whose names History has forgotten: like the guy who dared to suggest that the white stuff that came out of the big swaying thingie between the back legs of a cow was not only nutritious, but surprisingly good poured over a bowl of shredded wheat. Or the woman who first suggested that you could in fact have a low-fat version of the “Triple Cheez-attack Bacon Bomb”, or the poor girl who agreed to have pizza with me the other night.  These are truly the unsung heroes of sacrifice.
The reason I bring this up is that is that the other day I got a healthy taste of what it’s like to get a (admittedly verbal) flogging for having an unsexy opinion. When approached for my take on lunch options that didn’t involved Ingredients On Bread, I immediately stuck my hand up in wholehearted support for the Baked Potato With Stuff On It as ‘ultimate lunch winner’ to immediate scorn and dis-invitation to the Dainty Fingers Christmas Party.

You see, I blame Spur, and also possibly Mike’s Kitchen. Because years and years of being wrapped in tinfoil, drowned in enough sour cream to fill a paddle-pool and being offered up to middle-aged women too afraid to just square their shoulders and say in a loud, clear voice; “Yes, I’ll have chips with that,” has done serious damage to the baked potato’s reputation. This is also because the ‘Salad Valley’ at most steakhouses is an exercise in seeing just how much fried food you can put next to a piece of lettuce and still get away with calling it a ‘salad’.  Needless to say, I think the baked potato has gotten a raw deal, or at the very least, in an age of “Hand-milled Quinoa”, “Steel-sheared Guinean Arflax” or “Couscous shaped by the magnetic power of the Great Pyramid of Giza,” lost its grip on the position of go-to starch of choice. So…humbly, and at the risk of a similar fate suffered by the Werschnitz family (inventors of the Cheddamelt Steak), here is my attempt to give the potato back a tiny bit of its pride.

The “Unpacked/Repacked” Potato

Serves 2

Ingredients

3 or 4 Potatoes
Fresh rocket
Good quality olives
Gorgonzola cheese
Salt
Pepper
Fresh butter
1 tbsp Olive Oil

What to do:

Prick all your potatoes once or twice with a sharp knife and then rub them with olive oil and lay out on a baking tray. Sprinkle with a fair bit of salt.

Bake for about an hour and 20 minutes on 200ºC. At some point you’ll have to turn them so that the skin crisps up on all sides.

Meanwhile, remove the pits from a handful of olives and chop them up very fine. Do the same for a handful of rocket and get a bit of crumbled Gorgonzola cheese ready.

Once the potatoes are done, slice them in half lengthways and scoop out the inside. Be quite gentle, because you want the potato skin to remain intact like a cup. Once emptied, put the skins back in the oven for about 10-15 minutes to crisp up.

In a bowl, mix up the scooped-out potato, rocket, chopped olives and Gorgonzola with the tablespoon of butter. Now this is the bit where you’re going to have to use some discretion – because Gorgonzola is quite a strong taste, so rather add a little bit at a time, tasting as you go until you’ve got the right balance of flavours. Season with some salt and pepper and then spoon the potato/rocket/olive/cheese mix back into the potato shells and then pop it back under the grill for about 10 minutes.

At this point you’ve just realized that I’ve given you a recipe for possibly the untrendiest food-item ever: a stuffed potato.

Go me.

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Breakfasts for Lovers: Part I – Tomato and Brie Savoury Pancakes

Yes, it says reserved. For Luuurve.
Yes, it says reserved. For Luuurve.

I honestly am a massive fan of breakfast. Well – mostly the idea of it, because as appealing as all that eggs and bacon is, I hardly actually ever eat what my Enid Blyton books always call “a hearty breakfast” (always a prelude to characters called Dick and Fanny going off and solving a mystery where inevitably some hardened smugglers are thwarted by a parrot). No, the reason I like breakfast so much is mainly because, on the incredibly rare occasion that a girl suffers a complete judgement failure and decides to spend the night, it gives me something to do to fill the inevitably awkward “morning after” vacuum (other than…you know, the obvious).

I always feel like breakfast is one of those completely neutral activities you can use to avoid those weird dissections of the night before, or lame inquiries as to what you’re going to do for the rest of the day, or nervous second guessing as to whether or not this is going to extend into the rest of said day, because it’s insanely hard to concentrate on any of those things when there’s bacon frying.  Plus, it makes you look awesome and that’s always a win. In fact, pretty much everything becomes less threatening when there are eggs being mulled in a bowl, or coffee brewing and strawberries being sliced. And so, to help uncomfortable morning-afters everywhere, here is the first of what will eventually be a three-part series on Breakfasts for Lovers. Or more accurately: Breakfasts for People Who Stayed The Night And Now You Need Something To Break The Ice The Next Morning And Maybe Impress Them Enough For Some Early Nookie At The Same Time.

Ingredients

For the pancakes:

1 cup of flour
1 egg
2 cups of milk
A couple of leaves of rocket, very finely chopped
A pinch of salt

For the filling:

2 tomatoes, cut into chunks
5 rashers of streaky bacon, finely cut
2 ice-cubes of fresh chicken stock
fresh thyme, leaves stripped from the stalks
fresh brie, sliced
butter
salt
pepper

What to do:

Before we kick off, the essence of this recipe is the use of stock and the quality of your brie. Firstly, try and get fresh, good quality cheese (you know, as opposed to crappy stuff made in the back garden), and secondly I really, really insist that you try and use fresh stock, frozen into cubes in an ice-tray – it really makes all the difference.

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In a bowl combine the flour, egg, milk, rocket and salt and beat it until it’s a smooth batter and then set aside.

In a pan, heat a tablespoon of butter, then add the tomatoes, bacon and thyme. Let everything sizzle away for a bit, and then add the two ice-cubes of stock. The stock will melt in no time and very quickly reduce into a satisfying sauce. Season with some salt and pepper. Set aside in a bowl.

Heat a good non-stick pan and lightly lightly grease it with some butter. Pour in a cup of batter and make sure the pan is coated in an even spread of the stuff. When a whole bunch of bubbles have pushed through the batter, flip it and do the other side. Usually the first one or two will be duds (they soak up any excess butter you might have used and are usually soggy and a bit horrid-looking), but then you should start turning out great-looking pancakes.

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Once you’ve got a couple going, spoon some of the tomato/bacon sauce in a streak down the middle, top with two or three slices of cheese and more fresh thyme, then roll the pancake around the mixture. Carefully transfer it back to the hot pan and use the heat there to almost ‘set’ it into shape on both sides.

Serve hot with whatever breakfast liquid you have handy (coffee if you don’t know the person you’re serving it to that well, champagne if you do), and hop back into bed to…um, enjoy.

The “Pigs Are Awesome” Risotto

I tried to make it look more appetising. I should have hired some dancing girls...
I tried to make it look more appetising. I should have hired some dancing girls...

Yeah, so they might give us a weird form of flu that kills us, they can’t look up and quite a significant percentage of the world’s population won’t touch them for religious reasons, but I happen to think pigs are just great. Mostly because they taste so good I dearly hope that the afterlife comes stocked with a lot of bacon.

In celebration of swine-amazingness, here’s a recipe I’m very, very proud of.

Before we kick off, just a quick word about risotto. Despite its recent rise in popularity as a menu-item in restaurants (I mean seriously – it’s like we only found out about it like…yesterday and now its this new ‘wonder-food’), there’s still a general skepticism about cooking it at home. Mostly I guess because of its perceived “difficulty” to make. Well, stop getting all knotted up – because it’s actually one of the easiest things in the world, it just requires a bit of stirring, that’s all.

Okay, a lot of stirring, but you know…that happens. I usually just make sure I’ve got a very full glass of wine at my elbow and my computer propped up where I can see it (playing an episode of something or other) before I get going, and the whole process doesn’t take long at all.

Another thing, don’t be put off by the fact that for the first 20 minutes or so, your risotto is going to look like a weird gloopy soup with bits in it. It’s meant to. An amazing, almost miraculous thing will happen in the last ten minutes of cooking time, when suddenly the rice softens and swells, the last of your stock boils off and you’re left with the ridiculous deliciousness of your finished risotto.

Okay – enough of that.

Ingredients

1 cup of risotto (Arborio) rice

My cat Ella is very good at stalking stationary objects.
My cat Ella is very good at stalking stationary objects.

1 small brown onion
1 clove of garlic
1 small handful of rosa tomatoes
smoked bacon (or good quality streaky bacon)
dried apricots
1 cup of white wine
1 handful of parmesan cheese (finely grated)
fresh basil
about 1 liter of fresh stock (chicken or beef)
1 knob of butter
1 tbsp of olive oil
salt
pepper

What to do

Oh, one cup of risotto rice does enough for about 4 people.

So, first things first, soak your dried apricots in some freshly boiled water. You can put them aside, they need about twenty minutes to plump and soften up.

Peel and finely chop the onion and the clove of garlic, slice the rosa tomatoes into halves and chop a large handful of bacon into smallish chunks.

Okay – this is the only bit that’s going to take a bit of judgment on your part: the sweet apricot flavour is what makes this dish, but too much of it and it quickly becomes overbearing. I usually add just less than one part of finely chopped apricots (that’s the key – no big pieces) to two parts bacon to get the right balance. I hope that makes sense. Ultimately the trick is to get a predominant flavour of smoky bacon, just underpinned with the sweet apricot.

In a pan, heat the butter and the olive oil, then add the onions, garlic, tomatoes, bacon and apricots and let them sweat in the heat for about 3 minutes or so. Then add the cup of rice and stir it all up, coating the rice with the juices from everything that’s in the pan. Once it’s all been getting to know each other for about 2 minutes or so. Add the cup of wine and then stir as the alcohol burns off and the rice starts to absorb the liquid.

Then add a ladle of stock, keep stirring until its absorbed, and then add another.

Now it’s just a question of stir, add stock, stir, add stock, stir…drink wine, stir, add stock, watch Gossip Girl, stir.

It should take about 20 minutes to half an hour (depending on the quality of your rice) for it to cook through. But if you’re not sure, just taste some – if its still a bit crunchy – keep going.

And then, just as your last bit of liquid has been nicely absorbed, add a handful of parmesan cheese and some chopped fresh basil, and stir a bit more. I usually don’t bother to put it into a different dish to serve, but just put the pan on the table and let people help themselves, topped with the leftover basil and parmesan.

Wine Bastards

So, I guess the lesson of this weekend is that I’m not nearly as clever as I think I am. Well, I guess that’s the lesson of just about every day, but you know…this weekend was just the freshest example of it.

The reason? I got totally suckered by a restaurant that sneakily managed to sell me a R270 bottle of wine that I could’ve bought at Spar for R80. Needless to say I was gutted, mostly because it was my own stupidity that landed me with a bill that was almost R300 heftier than I thought it was going to be.

Just so that we're clear, I'm not angry at Diemersfontein, I *love* their wine. It's the ratty restaurant sommeliers who peddle it that make me all hulkified.
Just so that we're clear, I'm not angry at Diemersfontein, I *love* their wine. It's the ratty restaurant sommeliers who peddle it that make me all hulkified.

The wine in question was the 2007 Diemersfontein Pinotage, a bottle of red that’s been causing a ridiculous fuss ever since it landed in the top three of just about every “Top Wine List” you can get your hands on. And due to the fact that, for such a celebrated wine, it was reasonably priced (as well as freakin delicious) it was about as madly popular as an IPL cheerleader at a naked foam party. I’d ordered it at this particular restaurant before and even then they charged a hefty R160 for the pleasure of drinking it within their four walls, but you know, I get it. Restaurants need to make money too, and they sure as hell don’t make it from shifting pizzas. So, we were in the mood to celebrate (and my dad had offered to pick up the tab – score) and so I decided to splash out and ordered it without looking at the wine list.

Dammit. Dammit dammit dammit.

Two hours later I almost swallowed my own face when the bill came up and discovered that (in the space of two months) they’d hiked the already fat price by over R100.

Bollocks. Bollocks bollocks bollocks.

So, needless to say I shelled up the cash (I couldn’t bring myself to foist the tab on my poor dad), all the while cursing my idiocy for not checking the crapping price. But, in my own defense – who the fuck raises the charge of a bottle of wine by R100 between March and June? Well, these guys apparently.

And this isn’t the first time it’s happened either. At another establishment the previous year, the sommelier tried to sell us a R350 bottle of wine as a replacement for the R80 bottle we’d been drinking earlier, which they’d run out of. It was only because I was with someone far smarter than me (not difficult) who asked how much it was before blithely giving the thumbs up.

A bullet dodged on that occasion. But the point is that I understand you need to make money from alcohol, but please rip me off to my face, not by slipping retardedly overpriced wine onto my bill. I’ll pay it, because I’m spineless, but I’m not going to be happy about it. And next time I’ll bloody bring my own bottle that I bought at Spar for a third of the price.

Comfort Food

Okay so it’s winter. Well, let’s just say that it’s the mildly cooler version of “hot” that we experience in South Africa which, for lack of a better description, we call Winter (unless you live in Cape Town and then it’s just wet all the time).  And suddenly it seems that all anyone can talk about when it comes to the colder months is “comfort food” – because apparently having to wear a jersey is traumatic enough that we require comforting. You see, I’ve never really understood why, when confronted with the idea of “comfort food” the default reaction is to hand over a stew with beans in it (see The Totally Fake Cassoulet) or some kind of dessert with enough hot fudge to constitute a CIA interrogation technique. Or a bowl of soup. Because, personally I’m way more comforted by a packet of niknaks and a massage from a small Thai woman, but you know…that’s neither here nor there.

Ultimately, I’ve always really thought that ‘comfort food’ needs only two qualities to qualify: a) that it be hot, and b) there needs to be lots of it.
And so, with that rather difficult set of criteria to meet, here’s my ultimate top 5 comfort-food list: 1) Ribs 2) Ribs) 3) Mashed Potato 4) Ribs 5) Chutney niknaks and dip and a small Thai woman.

And so, because no-one at the niknaks place will tell me how they make those bad-boys, here’s my (not really) Super Secret Ultimate Rib Marinade.

Before the ribs could jump, I totally ate them.
Before the ribs could jump, I totally ate them.


Sticky Ribs and Herbed Potatoes.

1 or 2 racks of Beef Ribs
4 or 5 Baking Potatoes
1 good handful of Rosa tomatoes
a healthy pinch of thyme leaves (fresh or dried)
a splash of balsamic vinegar
salt
pepper
olive oil

For the marinade

3 quarters of a cup of tomato sauce
1 quarter of a cup of honey
1 quarter of a cup of Jack Daniels (you CANNOT substitute this with a Scotch or Irish whiskey, use another Bourbon if you must)
2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard
1 large clove of garlic (finely chopped)

What to do:

Whisk together the tomato sauce, honey, whiskey, mustard and garlic. Rub the ribs thoroughly and let them baste for as long as you have patience for. I’d say a minimum of an hour though.

In the meantime boil the potatoes in salted water (of if you’re in a hurry – microwave them for about ten minutes).

Slice the Rosa tomatoes into halves, and in a bowl add a pinch of salt and pepper and splash with the balsamic, set aside.

Once done, slice the potatoes lengthways into fat chips, and in a baking-tray, combine with the thyme, a splash of olive oil, salt, pepper and the soaked tomatoes and grill on about 200ºC until turning golden brown. Now this is the best bit, arrange you marinated ribs on top of the potatoes and put it back under the grill, the juices will drip down and coat your potato/tomato mix coating them in a delicious meaty/marinated liquid. Keep basting and turning until the ribs are sticky/slightly charred, serve – and then encourage everyone to lick their fingers, a lot.