When It All Goes Wrong – Update. REVENGE! Or: When Life Gives You Lemons, throw them at someone who needs lemons.

I will not be defeated by a Hake fillet, this is not a world I want to live in.  So, in a follow-on to the Weekend Fish Disaster (When It All Goes Wrong), I rolled up my sleeves, opened the fridge and rested my steely gaze on the massive lump of Hake (still in it’s wrapping – So. Unbelievably. Arrogant.) that was the only remnant of my lunch-preparation folly.

That lump of fish was an insouciant bastard, staring at me with the condescending quality of a twelve year-old that’s just got an iPod and thinks that entitles him to respond every single question with “Who gives a fuck what you think, old man? I have The Zutons on repeat.”

And so I decided right there that I was going to make sure I cooked the damn thing, and not only that – I was determined to enjoy every last bite of whatever I ended up making, even if it killed me.

This was personal.

It seemed that what the moment called for was simplicity – and so Fish & Chips it was going to be, because not even I can fuck that up.

Well…. I mean I can, but I was determined not to.

I made a home-made tomato relish, well...because I'm wanky that way.
I made a home-made tomato relish, well...because I'm wanky that way.

Ingredients

For the Batter:

Milk

Flour

1 egg

salt

pepper

juice of one lemon

a splash of white wine

What to do

Firstly, sprinkle some salt and pepper on both sides of the fish and set it aside. Then, in a bowl combine the egg, half a cup of flour, half a cup of milk, seasoned with salt and a few twists of black pepper and whisk it into a smooth batter. If it’s a little thick or of course a little too liquid, just adjust it by adding a bit more flour or milk as necessary. Squeeze in the lemon juice and the splash of wine, whisk it in and then you’re ready to go.

Add some oil to a pan, get it hot, and using a fork, dip the fish in the batter until it’s good and coated, then add to the pan – frying on both sides until golden brown. Serve with chips, tomato sauce and nasty white vinegar and RELISH IN YOUR REVENGE ON THE FISH THAT TRIED TO RUIN YOUR LIFE.

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When it all goes horribly wrong…

Don't be fooled...evil lurks on that plate.
Don't be fooled...evil lurks on that plate.

I’m more afraid to skydive than I am to purposefully implant spider-larvae in my face.  Seriously. The prospect of throwing myself out of a plane at 30 000ft seems to rank up there with the great human follies like the Bedazzler, SABC International and sending Lance Bass to the Moon (actually scratch that, Lance Bass is probably more useful on the moon than he is here…). And there’s a very simple reason for this fear: I don’t trust human beings. We’re monumentally crap at a lot of things, and even the stuff we are sort of good at gets a little iffy from time to time, and so there’s no freakin’ way I’m going to put my life in the hands of a parachute that was packed by a guy who may or may not have been simultaneously watching a very exciting Currie Cup final and not really paying attention to how many times the rabbit goes round the tree before disappearing down the hole.

And so, it’s no surprise that despite the enormous amount of time I spend cooking, thinking about cooking and practicing the things that are needed to become a decent cook, I fuck things up in the kitchen all the time. And usually in front of a large audience of people who’ve come to dinner hoping to be fed rather than have hazardous biowaste lobbed at them on a plate. And this weekend was one of those occasions. What was meant to be a lovely fish poached in a tomato broth with roasted butternut and new potatoes, ended up being something that probably wouldn’t have been chosen by 9 out of 10 cats.  The thing is that at the time, it was almost impossible to tell where things started to go wrong. But then obviously when I was sobbing amongst the wreckage of what should have been lunch, it all became glaringly obvious.

1)    The fish wasn’t right: huge hunks of Hake that were a lot more frozen than I originally thought. I wanted some lovely fresh-cut fish fillets, but took a shortcut because I didn’t want to drive to a proper fishmonger.

2)   The basting sauce for the butternut was horrifically overpowering rather than distinctive and sharp (always too much with the cinnamon – it’s like I’ve got some genetic disorder that makes me sprinkle the stuff like I’m Santa distributing toys to all the kids on the Nice list).

3)   The poaching liquid looked fucking fantastic, which means I ended up not tasting or seasoning it properly – which is always the biggest fuckup ever. Because if I had, I would have realized that it tasted like something that had been marinating in my shoe for a day or two instead of something I actually wanted to serve to real live people that I’d like to keep in the ‘breathing’ column.

4)   I used the excess basting liquid from the butternut to coat the roast potatoes, which meant that everything just ended up tasting the same flavour of ‘not nice’.

I got suckered by all the bubbling and the simmering and whatnot...
I got suckered by all the bubbling and the simmering and whatnot...

The problem with these sorts of things is that a lot of the time nothing really looks wrong: it all seems to be getting along just fine. And that’s usually where all the problems start. It might seem like a horrifically obvious thing to say, but a lot of the time, we (by this I mean ‘I’) don’t taste things enough while they’re being cooked (I make this mistake all the fucking time). The more you taste as it’s going along, the more you can adjust the flavours before it’s too late. It’s all very well to say that you’re doing it by ‘feel’ and whatever, but then taste it and then you’ll know for sure if what you’re doing is actually nice. I’ve always said that a really good sign is when whoever’s cooking can’t actually eat anything of what he or she has made once it’s served, because they’ve stuffed themselves tasting while they were cooking. The other thing is taking shortcuts. A shortcut will always taste like a shortcut. And that comes down to things like making sure that meat has been properly defrosted before you use it (rather than “Oh the last bit will thaw out in the pan” – and then it’s a complete mystery as to why the chicken has more bounce than a badly-supported boob and the mince tastes of grey). Also, don’t rush. Cook it for as long as it supposed to be cooked: cut a slice of that potato, squash or whatever vegetable you’re serving – if it’s glassy, put it back in the oven. Trust me people would rather wait a few extra minutes for something that’s actually edible than eat now and lose the will to live.

I’m not one for Morals At The End Of The Story (unless it’s ‘always accept the free marijuana’), but I guess this may call for something that vaguely feels like one, and so here it is: Kitchen fuck-ups are inevitable, so accept them when they happen. Just try and make sure that the same one never happens twice.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ll be at the top of the tallest mountain dispensing iffy homilies to Greek mythological figures.

Faking It.

Date and Bacon pretend tagine.

A leaning tower of coucous.
A leaning tower of coucous.

I love tagines. A lot. Which is why I find the disappointment I experience from eating bad ones (I don’t do this on purpose, it just happens) so crushingly painful.  It’s kinda like being kicked in the nuts by a slutty Finnish gothic pixie right after she’s told you that the sex you’re about to have with her is going to require half a pound of melted chocolate, a splash pool, special lubricant made from the skin of alpine rabbits and a seven day recovery period:  the promise of pleasures to come is enough to moisten your pants-region right then and there, and then comes the severe pain, the inability to have children and the general air of regret that will last for at least the rest of the weekend.

The problem with getting a really good tagine is that you have to go to Morocco to get it. And Morocco is far. Unless of course you live in Morocco. In which case you probably hate stewed lamb and are just desperate for a decent cheeseburger.

So, the other night I had some leftover couscous that I wanted to use up and so started fooling around with a couple of things and this is what came out. Now, before you start jumping up and down with your hand up saying ‘me sir, me sir’, this is nothing close to a real tagine which is a rich, beautiful stew slowly cooked in clay pots buried in ashes, usually filled to the brim with lamb and preserved lemons and shaven bits of infidels – but there was just something in the spirit of these flavours that made me make the comparison.

Ingredients (serves 4)

1 pack of streaky bacon

a handful of dates – depitted.

A bunch of fresh coriander

2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

1 medium white onion, also peeled and chopped

5 tomatoes

1 tbsp brown sugar

a handful of baby marrows

1 tbsp tomato paste

1 dried chilli

a handful of sliced raw almonds

grated parmesan

half a glass of dry white wine

olive oil

salt

black pepper

...for some reason I want to sing "Strangers in the Night" when I see this.
...for some reason I want to sing "Strangers in the Night" when I see this.

What to do

Wrap each rasher of bacon around a date, and then using a toothpick (I break them in half so they aren’t so long and I don’t have to use quite so many) fix it in place. Chop up a smallish bunch of the fresh coriander leaves and stalks, and have it ready along with the garlic and onions.

Heat some olive oil in a pan, add the onions and garlic and sweat them for about 2 to 3 minutes. Just when they’ve started to crisp at the edges, add the bacon-wrapped dates and the chopped coriander, turn up the heat and fry until the bacon is golden, then set aside. Once it’s cooled a bit, don’t forget to remove the toothpicks – the bacon-rolled dates should hold their shape very well once cooked.

Boil some water with a generous pinch of salt in a pot, then add the tomatoes. After about 3 minutes or so of boiling, the skin should start to split, which is the signal to get them out of there. After they’ve cooled, use your fingers to remove the skin (it’ll come off really easily), then chop them up roughly, sprinkle with salt, fresh ground black pepper and the tablespoon of sugar and set aside.

Heat up a pot, add the almonds and toast them, shaking them about to make sure they’re evenly done, then set aside.

In the meantime chop up the baby marrows (however you like to do them – I just slice them into thickish coins), de-seed and finely chop the dried chilli, soak the tablespoon of tomato paste in about 400 mls of just-boiled water and pre-heat your oven to about 160°C. Chop up the rest of the coriander.

Then, in a fairly spacious casserole dish, empty the bacon-dates, onion and garlic from the pan onto the bottom. Cover with the chopped tomatoes and baby marrow, sprinkle over the toasted almonds, most of the rest of chopped coriander (keep some to finish) and the chopped chilli. Then pour in the tomato juice made from the soaked paste and the white wine. Season with salt and pepper, put on the lid and the bake in the oven for about 40 minutes. Then take it out, sprinkle generously with parmesan and bake for another 5 or so minutes without the lid.

Serve with couscous.

Is it possible to forget the horrors of yesterday? No, not unless you cut off the front bit of your brain. Okay – I’ll just drink this coffee instead.

Yeah, brown on brown on other brown isn't exactly the most attractive colour-scheme.
Yeah, brown on brown on other brown isn't exactly the most attractive colour-scheme.

I have a big expensive coffee-making machine. I didn’t buy it – my mother brought it for me as a wedding present from Sweden, where the national pastime is having a sense of humour that no-one understands (I mean how funny can a joke about austere-yet-functional interior design actually be?), eating bags and bags of really cheep sweets shaped like earrings and trying to figure out if there’s a way to fit even more brushed steel and retro dials that don’t really do anything onto a coffee machine.

For the last two years it’s mainly just sat on my kitchen counter where it was used as a thing to hold down hysterical letters from Woolworths asking if I want a Special Credit Card (in exchange for which they won’t come to my house and murder me with hammers). My excuse for not using it was that I didn’t have a two-prong adaptor or an extension chord long enough to actually plug it in, obviously the idea of going and buying one was far too great a mental leap. Until of course I just moved it across the room, closer to the two-prong plug in the wall that was kindly provided by the people who built my flat in the early 60s. Thus far I’ve mostly just been making mediocre cappuccinos with the wrong kind of milk (which seems to be what happens no matter how big or expensive or Swedish your home coffee maker might be), until this morning – when a combination of an apocalyptically bad meeting the previous day and massive consumption of red wine as a result of that bad meeting combined in a chaotic mess of ‘please could everything stop hurting me’.

I suddenly really needed some iced coffee, and raiding my cupboards and a bit of improv turned out this little gem of a recipe which works like a morning-rescuing charm.

Iced Coffee

Ingredients (for 2)

2 shots of Espresso

8 ice cubes

1 tbsp Condensed Milk

What to do

While the espresso is gurgling and dripping out the machine, into a blender or plastic jug – empty the 8 blocks of ice and the tablespoon of condensed milk. When the espresso is done, add it to the ice and milk, and then blend until it’s smooth and creamy.

Pour it into a glass.

Yeah, not exactly a jus of reduced Lark’s beaks in a creme Rapponaiseblondepriment, but still…

Needless to say I’m not the hugest fan of the ridiculous Freezofrappelattesmoothaccino trend that seems to be the sole fault of Lindsay Lohan (I seriously hope there was a vast wad of back-end endorsement cash attached to the fact that every. single. photograph. she was ever in for a while had her clutching some sort of ice-blended coffee drink – wtf?), but as a summer morning-beverage, this is definitely a winner.

Just in case you didn't know what a half-drink glass of iced coffee looks like.
Just in case you didn't know what a half-drunk glass of iced coffee looks like.

The Best Lunches are the ones you don’t come back from.

The fact that nothing on the plate was moving made it easier to stab.
The fact that nothing on the plate was moving made it easier to stab.

Sunday Lunch

Three days is a long time for a headache to last. Especially when it was drinking red wine that wasn’t considered good enough for Argentinian Racheros that created it in the first place (who knew Tassies is mostly wholesale dumped wine from South America? Okay, I knew it – I’d just like to retain some sense of moral indignation over here…).  My cat has this thing about sitting on my chest just before I wake up.  She’s like a Trafalgar Square pigeon waiting for one of those unsuspecting six year-olds to get too close so they can drag them screaming back to their lair (although I do understand they’ve somehow gotten rid of those pigeons, something to do with falcons and the threat of nuclear reprisals). It’s like some strange morning game where the rules are uncertain but somehow I always seem to lose. I’m assuming catbumintheface is a loss, and also an unfortunate Native American name.

This Monday morning she was lucky to not get thrown-up on, which probably would have put the scoreboard something like this: Jono’s Cat: 321 – Jono: 1 (but overall victory for style).

This was all because of what has now become known as The Long Boozy Sunday Lunch (a.k.a. Lets Solve Saturday Night’s Hangover By Drinking More On Sunday While Pretending To Eat Something).  I guess it’s rather blasphemous to suggest, but I really do fancy the idea of a day that’s dedicated to The Long Lunch (you know…as opposed to Baby Jesus), and the kindness of the inventors of the Western Calendar to invent Sunday purely so that we can have a full 8 hours or so dedicated to eating, is something I’ll appreciate for as long as I get to carry on stuffing my face.

It is however one of the casualties of growing up and moving away from parents and stuff – because it’s only ever moms who have the patience, and well lets face it, motivation to spend the required time in the kitchen to make enough food for lots of hungover people. Maybe it’s one of those things, but as I get older (and apparently more boring because people have stopped inviting me to the cool parties that I know they’re hiding from me), I’m trying more and more to channel my Inner Mom and get this whole Sunday Lunch going again.

In my secret fantasies, this is what flying saucers look like.
In my secret fantasies, this is what flying saucers look like.

Sweet and Sticky Chicken with Walnuts and Raisins (This is a recipe I’ve adapted from the marvelous Tessa Kiros)

Ingredients (I’m going use the amounts I used for 10 people)

12 chicken pieces

2 cups of red wine

1 large red onion

1 small bunch of sage leaves

1 tbsp black peppercorns

2 large cloves of garlic (don’t be shy)

3 Bay Leaves

Olive oil

2 tbsp of flour

salt

500 ml of chicken stock

1/3 of a cup of white spirit vinegar (I’’ve been of the opinion that the cheaper and nastier it is , the better…)

2 tbsp of brown sugar

1/3 cup of raisins

1/3 cup of walnuts

parsley

What to do:

The key thing with this is time, so give yourself a good run-up if you’re going to have this for lunch – I’d suggest starting at about 10am or so.

Finely chop the onion, the garlic, the sage and add them to a pot along with the bay leaves, whole peppercorns and the two cups of red wine. Heat it to a point where it’s about to boil, but then remove it just before it actually starts to bubble.

Put the chicken pieces in a bowl large to contain them all, season with some salt, pour over the wine marinade, cover it with some clingfilm and then put in the fridge to soak for about 1 and a half hours.

Once it’s had a nice long soak, remove the chicken pieces. Heat a couple of tablespoons worth of olive oil in a large pot (don’t be afraid to let the pot get quite hot) and dump in the chicken to brown (do this is batches if your pot isn’t big enough to give all the chicken the space it needs). Once all the chicken has browned, add the two tablespoons of flour and stir it in letting it coat the chicken, then add the red wine marinade to the mix. Let about half of this boil off, then reduce the heat by about two thirds, add the warm chicken stock. At this point cover with a lid and let it simmer for another hour and a half stirring ever now and again just to make sure that it’s not sticking and burning at the bottom.

Just before it’s ready, chop and toast the walnuts in a dry non-stick pan, then add the vinegar and sugar, stir in the raisins and let it melt and bubble for about two minutes. Add this to the pot of chicken (which should now have a thick and sticky sauce) stir it in and serve topped with a healthy sprinkle of chopped parsley.

This particular lunch, I served this with herb rolls, a melanzane and roasted new potatoes.

Then there was drinking. Oh, the drinking…

Food montages are the new black.
Food montages are the new black.